Having been invited to give a paper at a forthcoming conference in memory of the late Muhsin Mahdi at the American University in Cairo late in November, it’s only proper to consider the importance of Mahdi and, of course, his mentor the (in)famous Leo Strauss (d. 1973). Mahdi died last September – here is an obituary. He in turn trained a generation of specialists of Islamic (political) philosophy such as (foremost in the list) Charles Butterworth, Miriam Galston, Joshua Parens, as well as others who are more lukewarm towards Straussian method such as John Walbridge, Steven Harvey, James Morris and Hossein Ziai.
In an article published almost 30 years ago, Oliver Leaman first drew attention to the potential ‘mistake’ in Straussian approaches to the study of philosophy in Islam. More recently, Dimitri Gutas went on the attack criticising Straussian and other esotericising approaches. Others such as the increasingly Islamophobic Rémi Brague has criticised Strauss’ reading of the ancients, on which the late political philosopher prided himself, as excessively and negatively influenced by his reading of Islamic thinkers such as Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (d. 950).
Anyway here is not the place to indulge in a detailed critique of Strauss’ and Mahdi’s method. The real question is how best to study Islamic philosophical texts within the rubrics of the history of philosophy, comparative philosophy and the question of the study of philosophical texts in the past that animates the debates between Quentin Skinner (recently moved from Cambridge to Queen Mary's in London), Mark Bevir, John Pocock and others including the late, pre-eminent phenomenologist Henry Corbin (d. 1978). Later on I will post some more details and arguments.