Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Legacy of Avicenna - Post-classical Islamic Thought

Scholars and students of Islamic thought in the medieval period will be grateful for this latest collection of studies that enhances our understanding of the intellectual history, the science, the theology and indeed the philosophy of the post-Avicennan period. The papers originated in a conference hosted at Bar-Ilan University and funded by the German Israel Foundation for Scientific Cooperation back in 2005 (and given the time it often takes for volumes to emerge from conferences this is indeed timely). After a short foreword by the editor summarising the papers and their arguments, there are seventeen chapters on a range of issues from the intellectual legacy of Avicenna through his students to the reception of Avicennan ontology in the thought of the Safavid thinker Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635). The papers have been carefully and masterfully edited and mistakes are few and far between (two obvious ones being the continuous reference in the foreword to the name of one contributor Afifi al-Akiti as al-Atiki, and Ali was the Prophet’s cousin and not his nephew).

The first chapter is Ahmed al-Rahim’s useful study of the immediate disciples of Avicenna providing us with a fuller historical contextualisation and bio-bibligraphies. An appendix to it then considers Abū-l-ʿAbbās al-Lawkarī and Shams al-Dīn (or Sharaf al-Dīn as the author cites him) al-Īlāqī (the former the subject of a couple of serious and welcome articles by Roxanne Marcotte in recent years). Al-Rahim shows how a school doctrine developed in this first generation and given the significance of Bahmanyār for the later tradition as the representation of the Avicennan school (as understood by Mullā Ṣadrā, for example, and Heidrun Eichner in her recent habilitation provides some evidence for why this is the case), the question remains to what extent these figures perpetuated a doctrine or substantially revised and presented it for posterity. There are a number of issues in metaphysics and psychology where Bahmanyār’s concerns somewhat differ or make explicit points in Avicenna such as the nature of the soul-body relationship, the exact significance of the ‘flying man’ argument and the idea that existence is a scalar adjective and a gradational reality (tashkīk al-wujūd). Al-Rahim demonstrates the importance of these individuals in perpetuating both the philosophical and medical legacies of Avicenna, although it would have been useful to consider what sort of misunderstandings and creative mistakes were involved in the development of the Avicennan school. But perhaps that would be the subject of another article or indeed major monograph.

The next four chapters concern perhaps the most significant medieval Muslim thinker Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). Frank Griffel’s study of his cosmology in Mishkāt al-anwār contributes to the debate over the real Ghazālī raised by Gairdner in his study of the same text. Griffel shows successfully, and provides further evidence to Richard Frank’s earlier arguments, that al-Ghazālī’s cosmology is broadly Avicennan and accepts the notion of second causality through the creation of a mechanism that is the first principle of the philosophers, the mutāʿ of al-Ghazālī. Interesting, the use of the term suggests the almost demiurgic creator of the Ismaili philosophers of the same period. Afifi al-Akiti’s study that emerges from his much awaited D.Phil dissertation on the Maḍnūn corpus of al-Ghazālī provides further evidence for the faylasūf. He argues that al-Ghazālī presents philosophy in three different ways in Maqāṣid, Tahāfut and the Maḍnūn – the former is plainly ‘ugly’, the middle text shows philosophy to be incorrect or bad, while the latter reserves a good opinion. Of particular relevance is Akiti’s suggestion that the Maḍnūn was critical to the adoption of Avicennan ideas by the Ashʿarī theologians of the medieval period. Binyamin Abrahamov’s article is about the reception of al-Ghazālī in the thought of perhaps the most influential Sufi metaphysician Ibn ʿArabī. He is concerned with the Sufi, and how arational arguments have an important place in understanding and encountering God and reality for both figures. Anna Akasoy’s paper is more wide-ranging and considers the critical reception of al-Ghazālī in the West, especially Andalus with the circle of Abū Bakr al-Ṭarṭūshī (d. 1126) and its influence on thinkers in the East after his emigration to Alexandria. Akasoy’s paper is a good example of how intellectual history ought to consider the migration of ideas and their market in the medieval Islamic world. It also shows the importance of the influence of ideas from Andalus on some eminent theologians in the East especially Ibn Taymiyya and the common point of attack on al-Ghazālī for mixing Sufism and philosophy and their concomitant doctrines of monism and the eternity of the cosmos.

The next two chapters shift to the significant thinker Ibn Kammūna (d. 1284), who is often described as a disciple of the doctrine of Suhrawardī (d. 1191). Heidrun Eichner studies the chapter on existence in al-Jadid fī-l-ḥikma of Ibn Kammūna to provide further evidence for the argument that the medieval Islamic approach to metaphysics was marked by a Rāzīan synthesis, and that al-Mulakhkhaṣ of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī was a pivotal text that drew upon al-Taḥṣīl of Bahmanyār and defined metaphysics and the study of ontology for generations to come well into the Safavid period. She also shows that in effect that existence centred metaphysics that one encounters in Mullā Ṣadrā already has important precedents in Ibn Kammūna. Lukas Muehlethaler considers the reception of Avicennan’s flying man argument in Ibn Kammūna and drawing upon versions found in the works of Suhrawardī concludes that the argument is not only a thought experiment but constitutes for Ibn Kammūna a valid form of syllogistic reasoning. This is another careful textual study of the Uṣūl, a commentary on al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt of Avicenna, and al-Tanqīḥāt, a commentary on al-Talwīḥāt of Suhrawardī.

The next two chapters continue the theme of the reception of Avicenna. Syamsuddin Arif’s study of Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī (d. 1233), better known as a jurist and theoretician of the Law, focuses on his philosophical oeuvre, especially al-Nūr al-bāhir which is much neglected. Arif therefore introduces us to another Avicennan who one needs to take into consideration when composing a fuller intellectual history of the Avicennan school. Nahyan Fancy’s contribution examines how the physician Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288) encountered and modified the famous philosophical parable Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān written by both Avicenna and Ibn Ṭufayl. Taking as the case study the nature of the soul, Fancy provides further evidence for what Michot has termed the ‘pandémie avicennienne’ of the medieval Islamic thought. David Burrell’s brief paper on Mullā Ṣadrā’s reception of Avicenna and Suhrawardī is based on his work in progress on the first section of al-Asfār al-arbaʿa. It engages with Mullā Ṣadrā’s critique of the position that Avicenna articulated considering existence as an accident of essence, and argues for a simple solution through a comparison with Aquinas (although it is worth pointing out that Fazlur Rahman provided two useful solutions to the problem in articles published in 1958 and 1981).

Robert Wisnovsky’s chapter on perfect and imperfect syllogisms and Sari Nusseibeh’s return to the question of God’s knowledge brings us back to Avicenna himself. The next set of chapters turns to science. Leigh Chipman considers the nature of medicine as a discipline by examining Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī’s reception of Avicenna’s Canon in his al-Tuḥfa al-Saʿdiyya. Jamil Ragep considers the Avicennan legacy in astronomy through a study of his disciple al-Juzjānī’s short work. Robert Morrison turns to a significant theme of the relationship between philosophy and science and shows that abiding relevance of philosophy for astronomers. 

The final two chapters concern the Jewish reception of Avicenna. Stephen Harvey’s chapter is a cursory survey of the influence of Avicenna’s terminology and the Maimonidean tradition. The final chapter by Paul Fenton looks more carefully at the influence on Maimonidean works by taking the example of the nature of the soul and the problem of metempsychosis. He shows how these Jewish writings bear the influence of Avicenna’s own critique of the idea that a single soul can inhabit more than one body.

Overall, Avicenna and His Legacy is a welcome contribution to our understanding of Islamic intellectual history and the course of philosophy and science in the period from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, the ‘golden age’ as Dimitri Gutas put it (and in fact his article and postulation of this age looms behind the whole volume). But one wonders where the anti-Avicennans and those whose view of metaphysics and science was radically different fit. That would be the subject of an entirely different volume but worth considering. Thinkers did not fail to exhibit the influence of Avicenna even where they disagreed vehemently with him (one thinks especially of Mullā Ṣadrā), but a fuller intellectual history of what happened in the period between 1100 and 1700 would have to examine those thinkers – and realise that one does not restrict the anti-Avicennan camp to Suhrawardī and his followers. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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