Thursday, December 27, 2007

Philosophy in the World of Islam

For those of use engaged in teaching Islamic philosophy, a key problem has been the lack of sources available in translation. To an extent, this situation is improving with the publication of a Classical Arabic Philosophy reader produced by David Reisman and Jon McGinnis for Hackett and with this new volume edited and translated by Khalidi and published by Cambridge University Press of a selection of mediaeval texts.

Orientalists have often assumed that philosophy played a rather marginal role in Islamic civilisation. They regarded the ‘free inquiry’ of the philosophical enterprise in Islam as antithetical to the dogmas of the faith and as mere Hellenism in an Arabic garb. However, for some time now interest in Islamic philosophical traditions has been growing prompted no doubt by a realisation that philosophical discourses impinge upon a variety of intellectual, artistic and cultural endeavours in the world of Islam. I would suggest three small reasons for stressing the significance of philosophy in classical Islam (I leave it to the readers to gauge what its significance may be in the present troubled world in which we live). First, the value ascribed to the impetus to philosophical inquiry is clear in the many stories recorded concerning the value ascribed both to translators of Greek philosophical texts and the actual translations in ʿAbbasid Baghdad. Would patrons and scholars pay so much for those precious volumes if they considered their contents to be worthless or inimical to their culture? Second, the development of the madrasa sciences in particular the ‘master-science’ of jurisprudence is almost unthinkable without the influence of philosophy, especially the logic of the syllogistic. Third, whilst many are familiar with al-Ghazali’s condemnation of key heretical doctrines espoused by philosophers, one cannot fail to notice the profound influence of philosophical doctrines and modes of argumentation upon him. Avicenna’s previous ‘discovery’ of a truly Islamic philosophy, a system of metaphysics, epistemology and psychology that naturalised neoplatonising Aristotelianism without the framework of the worldview of Islam had a decisive and lasting influence that could not be negated by al-Ghazali. Philosophy dominated intellectual inquiry. So far so good. However, the real intellectual tragedy of the Muslim world in the modern period has been precisely the forgoing of their intellectual traditions, especially philosophy, and the forsaking of a critical engagement with modes of thinking from within their traditions. The work under review is not going to signal a revival of philosophical inquiry in the wider Muslim world. But it is an important contribution within an academic wave of interest in Arabo-Islamic philosophy. Cambridge University Press seems to have recognised this with its publication of a pioneering and cutting-edge Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy and with this volume translated and arranged by Muhammad Ali Khalidi, a philosophy don at the American University of Beirut.

A welcome aspect of the renewed interest in Islamic philosophy is that researchers have taken the subject away from Islamic studies specialists (who were often suspicious of its significance and rather incapable of understanding its discourses) and have located the study of Islamic philosophy within philosophy. Philology is only a tool in the study of key texts and traditions, and Khalidi is keen to stress that his choice of these medieval texts is with a contextualising eye upon contemporary philosophical concerns. That is one of the ways in which he understands the difference between the history of philosophy and intellectual history. The latter for him is more of an inquiry that seeks to contextualise and locate ideas within their intellectual and cultural milieux. History of philosophy on the other hand is a philosophical inquiry that seeks to understand where we are and how we got there intellectually. The Cambridge series on the History of Philosophy has the laudable aim to ‘expand the range variety and quality of texts in the history of philosophy’. It seeks to provide full texts for students that have applications beyond philosophy in theology and the history of ideas as well. The question that arises is whether this present volume really fulfils that aim in its choice and vision. From a more ambitious perspective, it is disappointing to see CUP allocating a mere volume to Islamic philosophy, and at that limiting it to medieval texts. Even within the remit of medieval philosophy, CUP has a multi-volume publication on medieval philosophy divided into the sub-disciplines of logic, ontology, epistemology and so forth. Other texts that deal with philosophical theology from the early modern and enlightenment periods abound as well. Given the fecundity of the Islamic traditions, it is thus a bit of a shame that more volumes have not been considered to take their place alongside these publications. Khalidi’s selection also reveals a particular vision of ‘Western’ philosophy that considers some key Islamic thinkers to be part of their canon through their translations into Latin that influenced scholastic thinkers. Thus the familiar retinue of al-Farabi to Averroes are brought out once again. However, Khalidi could have extended this scope by including other thinkers who are not part of the whiggish story of Western philosophy and who were never translated into Latin. To take one key example, Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1191), the founder of the illuminationist philosophy tradition was never translated into Latin but is undoubtedly one of the great figures of an Islamic canon.

Khalidi has selected excerpts from five texts of which four already enjoy English translations (and in fact the fifth has translations in other European languages). He focuses on metaphysics and epistemology (bizarrely commenting that Muslim thinkers did not recognise such a branch of philosophy) and not the ‘practical’ disciplines of ethics and political philosophy. The neglect of the latter two may be due to the existence of studies and translations in particular by Muhsin Mahdi and his ‘school’. His choice is an attempt at engaging with these medieval Islamic thinkers and eschewing a condescending tendency to approach them as ‘historical oddities’. His introduction thus proceeds with brief propaedeutics and contextualisations of the texts. The first text is the Book of Letters (Kitab al-huruf) of al-Farabi and Khalidi selects the famous passages on the advent and nature of language, the relationship between religion and philosophy, and the means by which we translate philosophical concepts across different cultures. He does not mention the crucial relationship of the text with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, nor does he include two important monographs (among others) in his guide to further reading that deal precisely with these themes: Joep Lameer’s quite excellent Al-Farabi and Aristotelian Syllogistics, and Shukri Abed, Aristotelian Logic and the Arabic Language in Alfarabi. The second text is the pivotal De Anima of Avicenna, selecting famous passages on the nature of the soul and its intellection. Avicenna’s doctrine of the soul as an individual and immortal substance that can enjoy personal salvation is a critical example of his ‘Islamic philosophy’. Khalidi claims that the need for his translation of this work is due to the ‘dated’ nature of Rahman’s language in his translation (and edition) from the 1950s. The third text is arguably one of the best known of medieval Islamic texts, the famous ‘apology’ of al-Ghazali al-Munqidh min al-dalal. Khalidi selects the section of the four paths to truth. Once again this text enjoys a number of good translations already including the classic one by Montgomery Watt. Furthermore, in recent years the main debate about al-Ghazali has been his relationship with philosophy; so why not select works that deal with his use of philosophy and which are unavailable to Anglophone students? The fourth text, the philosophical allegory of Hayy ibn Yaqzan of Ibn Tufayl as an example of the famous thought experiment of how a rational agent nurtured in an isolated location comes to knowledge and mystical insight. Once again there are numerous good translations of the text. The final selection is from another famous medieval Islamic philosophical text, the Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes’ refutation of al-Ghazali’s condemnation of philosophy. Here Khalidi focuses on the famous arguments about the possibility of secondary causality. His attempt cannot possibly supplant the excellent translation and annotation of Simon van den Bergh. Compared with other volumes in this CUP series, there are very few footnotes, usually not of a discursive nature and the introduction is rather deficient in providing the wider context and the important questions about the reception and legacy of these works and upon the ideas that Khalidi focuses. What happened to these works and to the philosophical enterprise?

While Khalidi’s volume will find its way onto reading lists as an affordable paperback that collates key readings, it is a missed opportunity. It is rather old-fashioned in its approach and selection. Contrary to the aims of the series, it does not make hitherto unavailable texts known, nor does it expand one’s grasp of the history of philosophy, nor indeed does it improve the quality of existing texts. Khalidi should have opted for a fresh selection, one that would have been consistent with contemporary research and attuned to contemporary philosophical concerns. The introduction and guide to further reading should have been more substantial and the annotation to the translations more appropriate. But in his defence at least he has produced something that can be used. It is now up to the rest of us who love the philosophical traditions of Islam to produce usable translations that will expand the philosophical canon of metropolitan academia and seek to quench the intellectual thirst of students, Muslim or non-Muslim.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Islam as such had no philosophy up to 200 years after the death of Mohd.
why you people clinch to this notion? "islamic-philo".
can anyone name one or two persons of eminance in the field which were originally from Saudi Arabia?