Monday, May 14, 2012

A Platonic History of Philosophy in Islam

You cannot judge a book by its cover – or even its title. Or rather, now and then, a work comes along that forces us to take notice of what the author means by giving his work a particular title. Certainly, those who pick up The Story of Islamic Philosophy might expect a conventional history of the philosophical endeavour in the world of Islam starting with the translation movement and the appropriation of Aristotelianism and ending with the ‘eclipse’ of ‘rational discourse’ in medieval mysticism and obscurantism. However, what Salman Bashier presents is Platonic mysticism with a strong interest in narrative. The study of philosophy in Islam is rather polarised: the traditional academic field of ‘Arabic philosophy’ starts with the Graeco-Arabica and is very much in the mould of understanding what the Arabs owed to the Greeks and then what the Latins owed the Arabs. It is a story of Aristotle arabus and then latinus, and hence it is not surprising that the story culminates with the ultimate Aristotelian, Averroes. Many an Arab intellectual, such as the late Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī, has been sympathetic to such a reading and wishes to revive a sort of Averroist Aristotelianism in the name of reason and enlightenment, in particular to save the Arab-Islamic heritage from its ‘perversion’ by the Persians starting with Avicenna and Ghazālī who initiated the shift from reason and discourse to mystagogy and ‘unreason’. The models for this tradition of philosophy are the Metaphysics and the Organon of Aristotle. However, the Greek heritage was always much more than Aristotle – Plato and the thoroughly neoplatonised Aristotle were critical. If anything, a serious historical engagement with the course of philosophy in late antiquity on the cusp of the emergence of Islam demonstrates that philosophy was much more than abstract reasoning, discourse and a linearity of proof. Philosophy was a way of life that involved spiritual exercises, made famous in modern scholarship by the late Pierre Hadot, and especially the practice of theurgy (conjuring up the gods in religious ritual as a means to achievement understanding) – the goal was theosis, to become god-like as Plato had announced centuries before. Those with more sympathy for ‘Islamic philosophy’ would stress the relationship between religion and philosophy and indeed mysticism, which was central to the philosophical enterprise at least since the twelfth century (which in many ways was pivotal for the intellectual disciplines in the world of Islam). For this approach to philosophy, Plato’s much debated Seventh Epistle is of critical importance. This counter-narrative makes our conception of philosophy more elastic and sits uncomfortably with those trained in the analytic tradition.

Bashier tries to argue that philosophy in Islam is not a simple dichotomy between ratiocination and poesis – but he wishes to stress the poetry, the narrative and the desire to consider what is ‘Islamic’ in this philosophy. He presents a counter history in which the course of philosophy is an ishrāqī – an illuminationist – account beginning with what the late Henry Corbin famously called the visionary recitals in Avicenna and culminating with the Andalusian Sufi Ibn ʿArabī. Anyone familiar with philosophy from the late Timurid and Mughal period will understand the incorporation of Sufism into the study of philosophy, which in this late period was no longer the Greek/Aristotle inspired falsafa but a more holistic philosophy/gnosis/wisdom of ḥikma. This account is concerned with a more holistic approach to what is means to be human – and philosophy is precisely such an anthropology. Humans are not simply rational and deliberate agents who construct and respond to discursive argumentation. Rather, sometimes they reason, sometimes they respond and act through emotion, and sometimes they are inspired and moved by narrative – and indeed narrative as a number of modern philosophers such as the late Paul Ricoeur have argued is central to the process of our becoming our selves. The ten chapters of the book focus on Ḥayy bin Yaqẓān, the famous tale re-written by Ibn Ṭufayl based on the original work of Avicenna in which a young man is born and grows up on a desert island and deprived of company begins to understand his role in the cosmos and his relationship with God. Bashier considers Ibn Ṭufayl to be the ultimate liminal and illuminationist philosopher because he successfully blends together philosophical and naturalistic approaches to the question of what is the human with traditionalist and religious ones. This idea of liminality follows from Bashier’s earlier book on the concept of the limit (or the barzakh) in the thought of the Sufi Ibn ʿArabī. The course of philosophy in Islam is therefore not about the conflict between reason and revelation seen as epitomised in the persecutions of Galileo and Bruno in medieval Europe but one at the heart of which lies the attempt to make philosophical sense of what it means to be a believer, a person of faith and a creature of God. Along the journey, the author is the first, to my mind, to engage with the work of Georges Tarabishi, the famous critic of al-Jabiri’s deconstruction of ‘Arab reason’ in an academic work written in English. That Bashier concludes his account with Ibn ʿArabī and the famous Theologia Aristotelis makes his neoplatonic taste in the history of philosophy clearer. The story begins with mysticising rationalism in Ibn Ṭufayl and culminates with rationalising mysticism in Ibn ʿArabī. 

The first chapter introduces Ḥayy bin Yaqẓān and demonstrates how the narrative is a rational argument for mysticism, drawing upon Avicenna. In doing so, Bashier critiques Gutas and others who insist not only on making a sharp distinction between philosophy and mysticism but also deny any role for mysticism in Avicenna. Similarly, here he inserts Ṭarābīshī as a foil for al-Jābirī’s attack on mysticism as the perverting force in Arab reason in the medieval period. The second chapter turns to Sufism in the text and draws upon Ghazālī’s categorisation of knowledge and the privileging of illumination through experience of tasting reality. The next chapter switches back to Ḥayy’s origins within the chain of being and links it to Ibn ʿArabī’s concept of the barzakh. The next two chapters examine how Ḥayy understands social interaction and reflects upon the primordial question of the origins of the cosmos and its eternity. Chapter six steps back to al-Fārābī and his discussion of the origins of language and logic in Kitāb al-Ḥurūf and links it to Ḥayy’s acquaintance with language. The next chapter considers another foil for the argument: Ibn Bājja. Chapters eight and nine are concerned with the quest: Ibn Ṭufayl links Ḥayy to the Sleepers of the Cave and to Moses, from where Bashier draws upon the parable of the sage and the seeker exemplified in the Qurʾanic story of al-Khaḍir, naturally leading onto one of the foundational narratives of the Near East: the epic of Gilgamesh. The final chapter culminates in Ibn ʿArabī and Bashier recognises parallels and echoes of the Theologia Aristotelis in al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīya. 

However, while a more neoplatonic approach to the course of philosophy in Islam is now rather well established, it would seem churlish to criticise the author for excessively caricaturising the purely Aristotelian sense of philosophy in the falsafa tradition. It does need to be pointed out that Bashier seems to have a slightly shaky grasp of the literature on the Aristotelian/Avicennan tradition and hence often cites inferior editions of texts. Many of the chapters are rather too short and while one detects the stream of thinking linking them, at times the connection seems somewhat tenuous and insufficiently substantiated. In a sense, Bashier is engaged in much more than Islamic intellectual history (or rather a stream of consciousness reflection on what philosophy might mean through such a Platonic lens); he is caught within a contemporary Arab debate about the very nature of turāth or the heritage of the modern Arab world. That, rather inevitably, leads to generalising and simplifying the position of ones’ opponent. Once one recognises this, The Story of Islamic Philosophy will prove to be a fruitful read. 


Anonymous said...

how long do you think muslim thinkers will keep writings these narratives and counter-narattives about the history of philosophy in Islam, or what philosophy really means, or about the relation between mysticism and philosphy, and etc and etc? iow, when will they actually start doing philosophy?

i mean, of what relevance is it whether or not mysticism and etc was practiced or included in the life of the islamic philosophers? in what substantial way does any of that affect whether or they actuall spoke the truth about fundemental matters, whether or not they go things right?

Mulla Sadra said...

There are plenty of possible responses - but problematising the categories that we use through a thorough historical approach is essential to understanding the discipline in which we are engaged. And no one argues that leading academics who engage in historical questions are not philosophers. So the simple response is to refer to Alasdair MacIntyre's approach to the study of ethics.

Anonymous said...

essential to what discipline though? the of (islamic) philosophy? sure, i don't deny that. but what i'm submit is that that approach is accidental to doing philosophy proper. here's a concrete example: take Wysnowsky's article on Avicenna in the Cambridge companion to Arabic philosophy.

he there gives a seemingly good historical account of some of Avicenna's key doctrines, plotting both the sources that influenced him and his influence on the later tradition of thinkers, etc. all that is good scholarship, fine. but how is that helpful in anyway in judging the truth of these Avicennian doctrines which he historisizes? for that, one would have to go to the actual texts and analyze the actual arguments there for why e.g., essence and existence are distinct, the soul is immortal, and etc. tracing the historical sources and influences which lead Avicenna to develop these doctrines can in no way answer this, in my view, more important question. and answering it (and the like questions) is what philosophy, not its history, consists in.

Anonymous said...

to snonymous
you wonder when muslim thinkers will stop writing narratives and start doing philosophy. I am afraid you need to give it a seconf thought. You assume that some philosophers perhaps some western philosophers have actually started what you wish muslim thinkers have not. I am afraid that if you read between the lines of the author's book as I do you might have justified reasons why to really hate his book, because he seems to think that no one has really started doing philsophy in western thought to compare muslim thinkers with him or her. And the author seems after all to be one of those who have failed to do that. But at least he has the courage to say it and by the way also Socrates and not many others had this courage. The only difference and it may be after all a big one is that he does not have capacities that a plato or aristotle or a plotinus or several others for that matter had....that is all but the courage is there no doubt