Saturday, May 14, 2016

Introducing Philosophy in the Islamic World - brief but state of the art

Like many others, I am very much a fan of Peter Adamson's podcast the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps which is already the go to place for quick introductions to thinkers, problems and topics in philosophy including a large numbers of very useful episodes on Islamic philosophy.The two volumes on Classical and Hellenistic Philosophy have already appeared with Oxford and the volume on Islamic philosophy will appear later this year. There is little doubt that this endeavour fills in many gaps and gives us a richer, more textured and far more nuanced sense of the course of philosophy - understood in a more expansive sense - in the world of Islam. 

Peter has also recently published a Very Short Introduction to Philosophy in the Islamic World

It is good to see this influential series of introductory texts expand their titles to include more topics within the study of Islam. And for those of us animated by intellectual history, this current offering by Peter Adamson is a welcome contribution indeed. Adamson includes a short suggestion for reading and useful timeline that overlap with his podcast and these represent the state of research and the most instructive sources for a students seeking an entry into the study of philosophy in Islam. This is essential because for too long students of the history of Islamic philosophy have had to rely upon survey works that are dated and involve questionable interpretations, sometimes far removed from the text and fail to take religion seriously. At the same time, shorter more thematic introductions tend to be either too general to be useful, seriously misleading for specialists, or textually unjustifiable. 

The first question broached is exactly what do we call this field of inquiry? For some time, the question of ‘Arabic’ versus ‘Islamic’ philosophy has been caught up in polemics which Adamson does not engage directly; his earlier Cambridge Companion opted for 'Arabic' philosophy which reflected the approach of many in that volume. The proponents of 'Arabic philosophy' have tended to insist on the paradigm of Greek into Arabic and the need to stress the ‘secular’ pursuit of the hellenizing falsafa tradition. The latter tendency that prefers the appellation 'Islamic' insists upon the Qurʾanic, and sacred origins of the philosophical pursuit of wisdom, and tends to face the problem of those Christian and Jews who participated in the process. Arabic is also not terribly useful a title as there were works of the tradition written in Persian and Ottoman among other languages, and it tends to have a more narrow understanding of philosophy. This issue of how much philosophy might engage and encompass is an open question particularly nowadays when issues of inclusivity and diversity are at the forefront and we wish to 'de-center' the European analytic tradition in favour of more expansive senses of philosophy. Recently, Peter Park has raised the question - usually articulated in 'cultural studies' and not philosophy - of the racism inherent in the activity of philosophising and marginalising Africa and Asia. Mohammad Azadpur has a broadly welcoming review here.  Another positive review by Peter Fenves is here.

But returning to the debate on naming the field, Adamson, correctly to my mind, insists upon a more expansive sense of philosophy that takes religion seriously and see philosophy beyond the narrow ‘generic’ confines of falsafa. In fact, much of the philosophy in the world of Islam did not conform to the falsafa paradigm. They tended to prefer the term ḥikma, synonymous with falsafa in the early period, but even then through a translation of Nicomachus of Gerasa's Introduction to Arithmetic aware of the difference of the pursuit of the love of wisdom and sagacity itself. The latter traditions - what is commonly called post-classical now - preferred the term because it was rooted in the Qurʾan's own usage and because it suggested what was beyond the merely ratiocinative. For Adamson, even more significant – and consistent with the current trend in the field – is his desire to extend the study of the post-classical into the modern period; for too long, historians have considered philosophy in the world of Islam to be a purely marginal and historically distant phenomenon – even when most of us no longer think the endeavour came to and end in the West with Averroes, the emphasis on falsafa has tended not to take the developments further East in exegesis too seriously, partly misled to the ‘Islamic philosophy’ proponents who have at times promoted later thought as primarily mystical or arational or even illuminationist in its essence.

The main text is divided into six chapters: a historical preliminary followed by discussions on reason and revelation, God and being, eternity, knowledge, and ethics and politics. To an extent the choices emerge out of the history of the study of the field, its old transposition of the medieval problem of reason versus revelation and the assumption of the fatal nature of the attack of al-Ghazālī on three critical doctrines of the falāsifa seem to remain in the background. The historical chapter begins with the translation movement and the early theological discussions of the Muʿtazila inspired by Hellenic thought through to the centrality of Avicenna and his reception through to the middle period developments and all the way into the modern period with the re-emergence of European influence in modern thinking in the likes of Iqbāl and others. Along the way every major thinker is checked and some particular issues isolated for grey box discussion that show the relationship between philosophy and the other disciplines in Islamic culture – critical because philosophy was not as marginal as previously thought. It is thoroughly refreshing to see an account that puts philosophy back in its proper place!

The second chapter does not engage in the medieval polemics that one might think from the title of reason and revelation. Instead it is divided into three sections: the first of reason as a standard of argumentation that we call logic, the second on the supremacy of reason engages with the arguments on the superiority of philosophy over religion in the thought of al-Fārābī and Averroes, and the third on the limits of reason begins with al-Ghazālī’s internal critique followed by the expanding role of mysticism and non-propositional thought culminating in the more holistic approach to knowledge and the life of the mind in Mullā Ṣadrā. Chapter three moves onto the proofs for the existence of God beginning with theological accounts and the most successful proof for God as the necessary existence in Avicenna and then the rise of monism in the later period. As Ian Netton suggested some time ago in his Allah Transcendent, the typology of proofs for the existence of God, or the very understanding of the nature of God, in the world of Islam shifted from a creator ex nihilo whose existence can be deduced from a contemplation of the cosmos and its design (and indeed the structure of the human body as microcosm) to Avicenna's rational ontological proof through to the radically monistic singular Being of Ibn ʿArabī. 

The next chapter engages with the problem of time and eternity and includes the famous attempt by Mīr Dāmād to reconcile creation ex nihilo with an eternal instrumentalist universe in favour of a model that is strikingly similar to Suarez's middle knowledge and which engages the famous Shiʿi notion of how it appears to us that God changes his mind or his decree (this latter is not in the chapter but can be analysed elsewhere in my own work, not least in my forthcoming chapter on Mīr Dāmād in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy). 

The fifth chapter on knowledge deals with it as a state of being in the soul and includes discussions of the Avicennan account of the stages of the intellect and the internal senses and the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and by presence. A critical box within it presents the way to understand the problem of God’s knowledge of particulars, within its Aristotelian context. Later thinkers worked outside of it through reorienting knowledge towards what the ancients called the 'identity' thesis of the intellecting subject and object. The final chapter on ethics and politics begins with the reception of the tradition of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Iranian tradition of ethics and statecraft but moves onto Ibn Khaldūn’s theories on society and state and more modern reformist discourses including feminism.

The main conclusion of this brief whirlwind tour of philosophical reasoning in the world of Islam is not only to insist that philosophy played a vital role in Muslim societies and cultures but also to suggest that a more expansive sense of what is philosophy. While retaining its significance for our modern engagements with philosophy, Adamson allows us to see the course of philosophical reasoning in a variegated mode in different contexts all the way up to our own times. Critics will quibble about the lacunae and the choices of discussion but there is little doubt that the volume represents the wide contours of interests in Anglophone writings on philosophy in the Islamic world. This short introduction will be invaluable for students of the study of Islam and also those interested in contemporary trends in the study of inter-cultural philosophy and the history of philosophy. What is now needed is a collaborative effort to produce a new far more comprehensive history of philosophy in the world of Islam that adequately grapples with the complexities and the varieties and builds upon the growing picture of the intellectual history of Islam that we now possess.We need a fuller picture - warts and all - and the critical, the rational and the arational, with more careful consideration for the texts and the many 'minor' figures that animated the tradition and defined philosophy for their times even if we have forgotten who they were. 

1 comment:

mujahid7ia said...

Thanks for the review, very interesting.

Imran Ahmed