Peter Adamson recommends the best books on

Philosophy in the Islamic World

Arabic philosophy was hugely influential during the Islamic Golden Age; at one point, the Persian polymath Avicenna’s influence outstripped that of Aristotle. But a strong tradition has continued in the centuries since, explains Professor Peter Adamson, as he selects five of the best books on the subject.

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    Greek Thought, Arabic Culture
    by Dimitri Gutas

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    Great Medieval Thinkers: Avicenna
    by Jon McGinnis

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    Avicenna's 'De Anima' in the Latin West
    by Dag Nikolaus Hasse

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    Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker
    by Sarah Stroumsa

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    The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī
    by Ayman Shihadeh

Peter Adamson

Peter Adamson is professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. His primary areas of interest are late ancient philosophy and Arabic philosophy, and is the author of books including The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy and Philosophy in the Islamic World. He is also the host of the weekly podcast 'History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps'

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Peter Adamson

Peter Adamson is professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. His primary areas of interest are late ancient philosophy and Arabic philosophy, and is the author of books including The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy and Philosophy in the Islamic World. He is also the host of the weekly podcast 'History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps'

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What do you mean by ‘the Islamic world’?

There’s been a debate about how to refer to the field. An obvious choice would be ‘Islamic philosophy.’ Some people have preferred to say ‘Arabic philosophy’. I even co-edited a Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy before I changed my mind about the right way to describe it. But both of these phrases have problems. The problem with ‘Islamic philosophy’ is that some of the philosophers that we’re interested in weren’t Muslims. It would be strange to call a Christian philosopher like ibn ʿAdī, or a Jewish philosopher like Maimonides, an ‘Islamic’ philosopher. What we’re really studying here is this shared culture of philosophical work in the Islamic world.

Some people also feel that calling it ‘Islamic philosophy’ presupposes that the main issues are all going to be about Islamic religion, which is possibly true for some figures in the tradition, but not for all of them. The description ‘Arabic philosophy’ is meant to highlight the fact that this is a philosophical tradition that gets going through the Arabic translations from Greek philosophy. But this is also problematic in various ways. If you think about really late thinkers like Mulla Ṣadrā who was active much, much later in Safavid Iran—almost a millennium after the Greek translation movement—it seems a bit strange to say that we’re still thinking about the translation movements.

Also, some works in the philosophical tradition are not in Arabic: there’s quite a bit in Persian later on, there are Hebrew works too. So ‘Arabic philosophy’ is not really satisfactory as a name. There’s also a common confusion that people have: they are always saying, ‘how can you call it Arabic philosophy when most of these thinkers were not Arabs?’ That, to me, is a spurious objection because there’s a difference between Arabic and Arab: to my ear Arabic is a language and Arab is an ethnicity. This causes confusion and people are always complaining about that and, even though they’re wrong to complain about it, it’s still worth avoiding this misconception.

What I like about ‘philosophy in the Islamic world’ is that, in a way, it’s a neutral designation. It just says we’re going to be looking at philosophical texts that were produced in a certain geographical and historical framework. So, really, all I mean by ‘the Islamic world’ is regions of the earth under the political domination of Islam. That means that it could be written by Christians and Jews—it often was—because they lived in the Islamic world, and, for the most part, it was easier for them to engage in intellectual endeavour than it would have been, for example, for Jews working in Christian medieval Europe. Especially in certain times and places in the Islamic world, you actually had very fruitful interchange and cooperation between people of different religions.

“In certain times and places in the Islamic world, there was fruitful interchange and cooperation between people of different religions”

As soon as you have the massive expansion of the Islamic caliphate in the generations following the death of Mohammed, you have this enormous empire that stretches from Spain in Europe all the way to central Asia. The borders fluctuate: they lose Spain after a while, and it’s not even mostly under one single ruler. Much later, in the period that is the same timeframe as early modern Europe, you have a fracturing into three large empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Iran, and the Mughal Empire in India.

But, to me, that’s all the Islamic world. Roughly speaking, if the local authorities are Muslim, then it’s the Islamic World. This defines a very clear context for philosophy and it turns out that that is, more or less, a good way of thinking about a certain philosophical culture.

There is actually a word, ‘Islamicate,’ which was invented to refer to the same idea. So, the Islamic world would be the Islamicate. Some people have even suggested saying ‘Islamicate philosophy’, but I resist that because I don’t think that ‘Islamicate’ is a word that most people know. Still, when I say ‘Islamic world’ what I mean is what all these other scholars mean by ‘Islamicate’.

It seems to me that this is a huge and important tradition in philosophy, with many different philosophers involved, yet it’s almost completely neglected in courses that are described as ‘philosophy’. They are really just courses in Western philosophy.

Yes. And in fact, in that respect, it shares the fate of Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, African philosophy, and Latin American philosophy. There has, of course, been a lot of complaining about this recently. Actually, something that I’ve discovered now that I’m doing the podcast [History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps] on Indian philosophy as well, is that Islamic philosophy actually gets more attention than these other traditions because Islamic philosophy has one advantage the other traditions don’t, which is that it’s very closely connected to the history of European philosophy. It grows out of the translation movement from Greek.

Because it drew from Greek philosophy, and then contributed to Latin and medieval philosophy, people say that we know where this fits—it fits a gap; whereas Indian and Chinese philosophy aren’t really on the map at all for Western Philosophy.

“Islamic philosophy is very closely connected to the history of European philosophy”

One complaint I do have is that, although philosophy in the Islamic world is covered sometimes, it is usually only in passing. In the context of courses on medieval philosophy, you might cover Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Avicenna, Averroes, Aquinas, and Scotus. This is the typical itinerary for a medieval philosophy course. Although that is not entirely wrong—because Avicenna and Averroes were very influential on people like Aquinas, something is really wrong about that as well, because it implies that philosophy in the Islamic world really was contemporary with medieval philosophy and then stopped at the end of the medieval period. That’s just not true. The tradition carried on.

How did you get involved in this area of philosophy? What inspired you to begin studying this?

I didn’t really have that good a reason. I knew I wanted to do history of philosophy. It wasn’t that I had a personal interest in Islam or anything like that. It was more that I wanted to work in a period of the history of philosophy where there was still research to be done. I really love Plato and Aristotle—I teach them all the time, I love reading them—and I spend as much time reading Plato and Aristotle as I do any other thinkers.

But, on the other hand, when I was 19, deciding what to do in grad school, I was like, ‘gosh am I really going to be able to say anything new about Plato?’ That sounded really hard. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is hard. So I thought, I’ll get into medieval philosophy because there’s probably a lot more for me to do there. I don’t think I had very much information at my disposal when I made these decisions, but I guessed right. It’s true that in medieval philosophy, even in Latin, there is a lot to do. There was even more to do when I was in grad school.

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Getting into Arabic philosophy was the same idea. I thought there really aren’t very many people working on this. I knew that there are books that you can go and read, but I had to learn Arabic for that.  So I learnt Arabic. Of course, once you’ve invested the time and effort to learn Arabic, the die is cast because you’re not going to learn Arabic and then just stop working on it. So it was really about trying to find an area in the history of philosophy that needed work. That was my main motivation.

Let’s go to your first book. This is Gutas’s Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Society (1998).

Yes. In fact, I should say that he has published two very important books that I was tempted to choose. But I thought if I can only choose five books, I shouldn’t choose two by one person. He also published one of the most important books on Avicenna, who we will be getting onto soon.

You’ve already mentioned that there is a flow from the translation of Greek philosophy into philosophy in the Islamic world. Tell us about this book and the movement it describes.

This book is from 1998, so it’s almost 20 years old now, which is hard to believe. It wasn’t the first study of the Translation Movement. This book represents the culmination of Gutas’s own work on this area. He and some other scholars had already been working quite a bit on the Greek-Arabic translations. And there had been work done even earlier by people like Rosenthal, who was Gutas’s teacher. In a way, this is Gutas stepping back and saying, let’s think about this whole movement: Why did it happen? What were they doing? What was the social context?

Can you tell us a bit about the phenomenon he is exploring? What is the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement?

We’re talking about an enormous movement when Greek works of science and philosophy were translated into Arabic. It was the high point of the ninth century, though it started towards the end of the eighth century and kept going into the tenth century.

Here it might help to have in your head that the Islamic empire was huge, but came up against the borders of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines were what was stopping the Islamic empire from spreading West, into the European heartlands. The Byzantine Empire was Greek-speaking; the eastern Roman Empire in general had always been Greek-speaking. For example, in Syria there was a culture of speaking Greek and also in Egypt.

When the Muslims conquered these areas, they didn’t completely destroy the Greek-speaking intellectual culture. In particular, there were a lot of Christians who preserved the thought of Aristotle and other philosophers in Greek. And, around the beginning of the late eighth century and peaking in the ninth century, you had an enormous investment by the Muslim elite in translating these works into Arabic.

“Around the eighth century and ninth centuries, you had an enormous investment by the Muslim elite in translating these works into Arabic”

Sometimes they translated first from Greek into Syriac, and then from Syriac into Arabic. That shows how important these Syriac Christians were in the process. What Gutas tried to do was to explain how and why they did this. He actually has some calculations about how much it cost and how much they had to pay translators to do the work. It was fabulously expensive to have these books translated. He also has a lot of information about who the patrons were: who did it and why. It was ordered from the very highest levels: the Caliph’s family was involved in having this done.

Being someone who has an interest in the practical concerns of the Translation Movement, he wanted to know not just how they did it and what they translated—he does talk about that—but he wanted to know what the political motivation was.

And is there a simple answer?

He gives a complicated answer. You can accept part of his story without accepting all of it, because he gives several independent reasons why they may have wanted to do it.  One that I think is very compelling is that they were basically engaging in cultural competition with the Byzantines. The Byzantines were their main military and political rivals in this period. There was actually quite a bit of warfare between Byzantium and the Islamic world in the ninth century. To oversimplify, it’s a case of the elites of the Islamic world saying: ‘you guys are Greeks and we understand Greek philosophy better than you do. And the reason we understand it better is that you’re Christians—and Christians are anti-intellectuals.’ There’s all this polemic about Christians refusing to study all of Aristotle: ‘As soon as Christianity came along, they stopped doing proper philosophy and science. And now, we, the Muslims, will recapture this original Greek wisdom and do it in a way that the Byzantines are failing to do.’ So there’s a kind of oneupmanship there.

Gutas also talks about how they traced some of this wisdom back to pre-Greek sources, which were originally from the Middle East, and were, in a way, saying ‘this is originally our wisdom which was taken by the Greeks and now we’re taking it back.’ That’s another kind of polemic.

Something else he argues—which I think is more controversial—is that because the Abbasids, the ruling caliphate, were coming into a situation where there was a very powerful Persian-Iranian culture that involved translations, they turned to Greek philosophy as way of showing that they were the political heirs to that culture. This is a very interesting idea, which I personally am persuaded by, though it is admittedly harder to prove.

“They wanted to have the same kind of logical weaponry that the Christians had access to”

Then, in addition to that, he points out a lot of the practical benefits that you would have got from the Translation Movement. One thing he mentions, for example, is that both Greek and Indian texts gave them access to astrology. Astrology could legitimate the rule of certain political rulers. Just as an in the Roman Empire you had figures like Augustus turning to astrology to legitimate themselves; the Caliphs did the same thing.

Another point that Gutas mentions is that there were inter-religious disputes between Christians and Muslims, for example, and Aristotle’s logical works gave them the tools for arguing well against each other. Actually, some of these Christians knew Aristotle very well. So they wanted to have the same kind of logical weaponry that the Christians had access to. He mentions, for example, that one of earliest works to be translated was on dialectical argumentation, for exactly that reason.

That does sound really fascinating. Was a side effect of this translation movement the preservation of texts that got lost in the Greek world?

There are some works of ancient philosophy that are only extant in Arabic, but they’re not by the most famous figures. There are no works by Aristotle or Plato, for example, that are extant in Arabic but otherwise lost. Sometimes people say that the Latin medievals got access to certain texts through Arabic. Although that’s true, they then later on got access to the same texts through Greek. For example, they would take an Arabic commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and perhaps the first time they could ever read Aristotle’s Metaphysics was in a Latin translation of this commentary, because the commentary included the original text. So they had a Latin translation of an Arabic translation of what was perhaps a Syriac translation of the Greek. But then, once they got more interested in Aristotle, they made a concerted effort to start doing translations based on Greek manuscripts.

On the other hand, there are  fairly significant figures like Galen—the most important ancient doctor, along with Hippocrates—and Alexander of Aphrodisias—a famous commentator on Aristotle—whose works are only extant in Arabic.

“If you lived in tenth century Iraq, you could pretty much read all of the Aristotle we can read”

Consider someone like Aristotle, who was translated very extensively into Arabic. If you lived in tenth century Iraq, you could pretty much read all of the Aristotle we can read. That doesn’t mean that everybody read all of it, but it was an incredibly successful undertaking. In a way, the most powerful thing that comes out of Gutas’s book is an appreciation of the sheer enormity and success of the Translation Movement, in addition to all these issues about why it was done.

At the time, was there just a single copy of each translation or were they making them to circulate?

A translator would make a translation, and then you would hire scribes to copy that. In fact, there is a book called The List—in Arabic, the Fihrist—by a tenth century bookseller who worked in Baghdad. It’s incredibly useful because he lists all of the books that he knows about that are available. He goes through the translations, telling you who translated what.

You can read through that and get a vivid sense that some of the philosophers also made a living by copying the texts that they were working on. They would charge you a certain amount of money per page, and then it was disseminated.

One other interesting thing to mention here is that this sort of dissemination of texts was, in part, possible because these were the first generations that had access to paper rather than parchment. This was a much cheaper and better technology that they got from China. They were able to produce enormous amounts of literature very quickly, in part just because they had this material that they could write on that was a lot cheaper to produce than parchment was.

So, presumably it was out of this intellectual movement that Avicenna emerged as a very significant philosopher in his own right?

Yes, that’s right. This is why I picked my second book, which is Jon McGinnis’s Avicenna (2010)—a straightforward title. There are lots of good books on Avicenna. The reason that I’ve picked this one is because I think it is the best introduction to all aspects of his thought. It’s a very readable, solid, reliable introduction that is also very interesting. It gets into some areas that some introductions don’t, where McGinnis is particularly strong. He has worked extensively on natural philosophy, so he covers that quite well. I really had to have a book on Avicenna because he’s the most important figure in the philosophy of the Islamic world.

Why was he so important?

In general, philosophical traditions develop incrementally. You have commentaries or other types of books, and then people respond to them; there’s a back and forth debate. Then, occasionally, someone comes along and he or she doesn’t necessarily say ‘forget all this,’ but responds to what’s been going on in such an original, decisive, and pioneering way that, after that, it’s almost as if everything restarts.

If you think, for example, of what Plato and Aristotle did—they effectively rendered the pre-Socratics irrelevant by co-opting their ideas, to the point where their texts are now almost entirely lost.

“The Stoics died out, the Epicureans died out, the Sceptics died out, and the only thing left was Platonism”

Or if you think about Plotinus in Late Antiquity, he came up with such a powerful new way of understanding Platonism that it swept away all of the other rival schools: the Stoics died out, the Epicureans died out, the Sceptics died out, and the only thing left was Platonism. For centuries, all the figures after him were Platonists.

Or maybe a more familiar example would be Kant. You have modern philosophy developing—you have empiricism and rationalism, and so on. And then—bam!—enter Kant. I think many analytic philosophers would see the history of philosophy, insofar as it is relevant to them, as beginning with Kant, because everything that came before him was rendered superfluous by the fact that his concepts and agenda set the stage for what came after.

What about Avicenna? It’s difficult to encapsulate a philosopher’s ideas in a few sentences, but could you give a flavour of his ideas?

Avicenna was the person who intervened in the whole tradition and said: ‘here’s how we’re going to do this from now on.’ He had his own distinctive vocabulary and arguments which set the agenda for the whole remaining Islamic tradition, but were also very influential in Jewish and Christian medieval thought. For me, he’s the most important medieval thinker of any religious persuasion. He would probably have seen himself as an Aristotelian and his critics saw him that way. They called him and his followers ‘peripatetics’ to make that point.

He responded to Aristotle in a very intricate way, engaging with all his works. He even structured his books in imitation of Aristotle’s. But, at the same time, he was very self-consciously original.  Effectively, what he did was take Aristotle’s questions and give them new answers. He made lots of very important changes. For example, he made big leaps forward in logic.

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Probably the easiest way to understand why he is so important is that he rethought metaphysics in a way that really centres everything on the idea of existence. He updated metaphysics to make it more suitable for a culture which believed in monotheism and creationism. His idea was: ‘well, what is God really? God is the source of existence. So we need to start from existence in thinking about how metaphysics works.’

That’s not really something you see in Aristotle, because Aristotle didn’t consider it possible for something to be brought to existence from nothing. For him, metaphysics was the study of substances that came to be through the changing of other substances—like blood being brought together to form a foetus, which becomes a human. In contrast, for Avicenna, metaphysics needs to handle the idea of God giving existence to everything else. He then made a distinction between God as the necessary existent—i.e. something that has to exist by its very nature or essence—and other things which are not necessary, but only contingent. What that means is that by their nature or essence, they might exist or they might not exist.

“This is a very powerful way of rethinking what God is and how God relates to everything else”

For example, take me: if you analyse my essence—I’m a human and you analyse what it means to be human—you’ll see that there’s nothing about being human that guarantees existing. I could exist, I could not exist, I used to not exist, there could be no humans at all. But there are humans, and this calls out for an explanation. For Avicenna, this explanation leads to a primary cause of existence which exists by its very nature and that’s God. This is a very powerful way of rethinking what God is and how God relates to everything else. It is a central example of the kind of thing he does which then totally determines later philosophy because, especially the Islamic world but also people like Aquinas, they then respond to this idea and think this is a really good way of thinking about God.

That leads to the next book, which is Avicenna’s De anima in the Latin West: The Formation of a Peripatetic Philosophy of the Soul, 1160

1300 (2000). This is a book about Avicenna’s influence.

Absolutely. One of the reasons I picked it, though, is that it’s not about metaphysics. People who are familiar with Avicenna might think that that is his main legacy, but actually he has legacies in many areas of philosophy. He was incredibly original and pioneering in pretty much every area other than ethics and political philosophy (on which he didn’t have that much to say).

One thing that’s interesting about the transmission of Arabic philosophy into Latin is that very early on they translated Avicenna’s work on the soul—De anima means ‘On the Soul’—and we call Aristotle’s work on the soul De anima as well. But actually there were several generations in the Latin world where they were reading Avicenna and thinking about Avicenna more than they were thinking about Aristotle, or where they were thinking about Aristotle through Avicenna. His conception of the soul became a kind of touchstone for scholastic medieval philosophy, even to the point that it was more important than Aristotle’s own psychology in the early thirteenth century. This is very surprising, but true. This was before we get to more famous figures like Aquinas.

In this book, Dag Nikolaus Hasse talks about the translations: who did them, and how they were done. This is already very interesting: it’s another example of the collaboration between people of different religions. We’re talking about another translation movement—into Latin. This was done in Spain and it involved Muslims, Jews, and Christians—especially Jews and Christians—working together. So you’d have maybe a Jewish Arabic speaker and a Christian Latin speaker and they would collaborate to produce a translation.

“There were generations in the Latin world where they were reading Avicenna and thinking about Avicenna more than they were thinking about Aristotle”

Hasse talks about how Avicenna’s work, On The Soul, was translated in the first place into Latin, and he goes through issues that arise in Avicenna’s On The Soul and talks about them one after another, topic by topic. One of them, which is really cool and that you and I have discussed before for a Philosophy Bites podcast, is Avicenna’s famous Flying Man Argument.

The idea is that God creates, in mid-air, a human being that has never existed previously. It is a mature, healthy, full-grown human being, not a baby (if you don’t like the God part, you don’t need God to be involved, you could just say a human being appears in mid-air).

We’ll just say ‘he’ because Avicenna seems to think of it as a man. He is either falling or floating or flying, that’s why it’s usually called the Flying Man Argument. He’s in mid-air and his arms and legs are stretched out, and his fingers are splayed, so that he’s not in contact with his own body. Avicenna says that his eyesight is veiled, but if you want you could just say he’s in the dark. So there’s nothing for him to see and there’s no noise whistling by, there’s nothing to smell, and he can’t taste anything. In a way, what Avicenna is describing here, is a situation of sensory deprivation.

Even then—here comes the clever part—Avicenna says this person would be aware of his own existence. What that shows is that you have a way of being aware of yourself or your soul which doesn’t involve the body. Then he says that proves that the soul is immaterial.

“Arabic philosophy was hugely informative and influential in the Latin medieval world”

There has been a lot of debate about this argument. Hasse has a really interesting discussion, not only of how the argument was received in the Latin world, but also of how he thinks the argument is supposed to work. He does something that I have some sympathy with, which is to point out that Avicenna doesn’t label it as a proof: he labels it as a hint or indication.

The point of that, Hasse thinks, is that it’s not really supposed to be a demonstration that your soul is immaterial, so much as an indication that you could imagine someone being aware of their own soul without being aware of their body and that can help you see that the two things are not necessarily the same. So, in a way, Hasse is one of the interpreters who tries to lower the bar on what Avicenna is doing, to make the argument more successful.

His analysis of the argument is well worth reading: it’s one of the most lucid and philosophically impressive discussions of the Flying Man Argument that you get in the secondary literature. In addition to that, he then tells you what all the Latin philosophers thought about it and how they thought the example worked.

In general, he makes the point that Arabic philosophy was hugely informative and influential in the Latin medieval world. As I’ve said, in some cases, Avicenna’s influence even outstripped that of Aristotle.

That is amazing because Aristotle was so revered he was sometimes just known as ‘the philosopher.’

Exactly. It wasn’t a permanent state of affairs: eventually they started reading Aristotle over Avicenna; but Avicenna really never stopped being important. Scotus and Ockham, who were later scholastics, both explicitly referred to Avicenna when they were arguing in support of some of their most central ideas.

For example, in the debate about universals and whether universals are real, Scotus was a realist and Ockham a nominalist. They both claimed to be agreeing with Avicenna. One thing that’s interesting about that is that a lot of the same debates happened in the Islamic world and developed in parallel to Latin scholastic philosophy, but this is mostly unknown in scholarship because people don’t usually read later Islamic philosophy.

Was there nothing risky in this period about Christian philosophers paying homage to Islamic philosophers? Was there nothing sacrilegious, nothing blasphemous in doing that?

No, or at least they don’t seem to have felt that it was worse than using Aristotle. They knew that Aristotle wasn’t a Christian, and they also knew that he taught some problematic things–for example that the world was eternal. Interestingly, even though Aquinas had some very rude things to say about the prophet Mohammed, neither he nor other medieval philosophers in the Christian tradition seem to found it particularly problematic to use ideas from Muslims or Jews. If there was a problem, the problem was using ideas from non-Christians generally or even just using ideas that weren’t in the Bible. That definitely was a source of contention and debate.

Still, even as concerns the general question, ‘Can we use pagan or non-Christian philosophers?’ it’s clear that there was a powerful agreement across the whole scholastic world that this was a good thing to do. The only real problem was what you were supposed to do if one of these people like Aristotle or Averroes or Avicenna taught something unacceptable. They would distinguish very carefully between teachings of these figures that weren’t okay and the rest.

“Avicenna said that, in theory, humans could be spontaneously generated like flies and worms”

One nice example that Hasse mentions is that Avicenna said that, in theory, humans could be spontaneously generated like flies and worms. He’s not saying it necessarily happened, but he says that, in theory, it could happen. Everyone said ‘no no this is a terrible thing to say!’ They didn’t like the idea that natural processes could give rise to humans, the way flies did (they thought that flies spontaneously generated from rotting meat).

Avicenna says, ‘if you include flies and worms, then in principle why not humans?’ And although the Christian philosophers were unanimous in rejecting that, as far as I know, (and Averroes too thought that it was a ridiculous idea) they didn’t then say ‘forget Avicenna.’ They took the 99% of him that was useful and said on this one point he was completely wrong. A similar thing happened in relation to Aristotle, Averroes and Maimonides.

Which leads us neatly to the next book: Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker by Sarah Stroumsa (2009).

I wanted to pick a book about a non-Muslim philosopher to make the point that philosophy in the Islamic world is not all by Muslims. The obvious person was Maimonides, because he was probably the most important Jewish philosopher ever. Stroumsa’s book is written for someone who is not necessarily an expert on Maimonides. It’s definitely something that experts should read but it’s something that you could read as an introduction to Maimonides as well. It’s not introductory in quite the same sense as McGinnis’s book on Avicenna, but it’s a well-rounded portrait of Maimonides as a thinker in his culture. Another thing that’s important about it is that it looks at both his work as a Jewish legal theorist and his work as a philosopher, so it gives you both sides of his output.

The title describes him as a ‘Mediterranean’ thinker, which is a slightly unusual way of putting it.

Yes. I totally agree with her way of setting up the book though, because what she says is that we need to think about Maimonides from several different points of view—not just as a Jewish legal scholar, but also as someone who was responding to the culture of Islamic Spain where he was born, and who moved to Egypt because his family was chased out by anti-Jewish Muslim forces called the Almohads. She talks about how he responds to Almohad culture, despite having been chased out of Spain by them, and how he moves within an Islamic culture and responds to it, even as he was doing these pioneering works both in philosophy and in Jewish law. It’s a very well-rounded, rich picture of his thought.

Which century are we talking about?

He was, like Averroes, born in the 12th century and lived until the 13th century. He died in 1204.

Did he write in Arabic?

Both Hebrew and Arabic.

So the Arabic ties him immediately into the tradition that we’ve been discussing.

Absolutely. It’s interesting to think that he was Averroes’s contemporary. Stroumsa even argues, in the book, that he was aware of Averroes and that some of Averroes’s distinctive views about reason and religion are echoed in the work of Maimonides. One thing to realise about Maimonides and also Averroes is that, since they were from Islamic Spain, they came from a region which was marginal within the Islamic world. This was way out west, far away from the centres of power. To some extent, it seems that a distinctive and separate philosophical culture emerged in Spain and that culture was expressed by both Averroes and Maimonides, as well as by several other figures. Many Jewish figures worked in Spain. Stroumsa’s book is interesting and worth reading. There are a lot of good books about Maimonides, just as there are about Avicenna, but I thought it was worth singling this one out because the author really nails this point about Maimonides as a representative of a multi-religious Mediterranean cultur—hence the title of the book.

You’ve talked about how Avicenna’s work stretched across a number of areas, such as the nature of the mind and metaphysics. What was Maimonides’s main focus?

He had different focuses in different works, but his most important philosophical work was called The Guide for the Perplexed. He said explicitly that the book was written for a Jewish reader—in fact, he even had a specific student in mind — but it was aimed at anyone who was in the predicament of this student, who is perplexed because he sees that there are tensions, or apparent tensions, between the Hebrew Bible and philosophy.

You have to imagine someone who is a growing intellectual, maybe a young man. (I guess it would have been a man—Stroumsa mentions in the book that Maimonides said some really awful things about women. Sadly, there were no major female philosophers in the Islamic world until very recently.) A young man is learning the Torah, learning the Jewish Law, and then he gets exposed to Avicenna and Aristotelian philosophy. He thinks: ‘These don’t say the same thing at all. For instance, the Bible is telling me that the world is created and Aristotle is telling me that the world is eternal. What should I do?’

“A distinctive and separate philosophical culture emerged in Spain and that culture was expressed by both Averroes and Maimonides”

Maimonides goes through the main points of tension and tries to resolve them for the reader. For example, he says that the Bible has very concrete descriptions of God as if He had a body, for one thing. He argues that no Jew should believe that God has a body because the argument against him having a body are too powerful. This, by the way, was very controversial.

There was a later Kabbalistic thinker who said many good Jews have believed that God had a body, including better ones than Maimonides. The reason he says that is that Kabbalah often depicts God as if God had a body and describes the dimensions of his limbs. Maimonides also gets into the question of whether the universe was created or eternal. He has a famous argument—a sort of anti-argument argument—where he goes through the proofs for and against eternity, and he says that none of the proofs work one way or the other, so you can’t tell—except the Bible says that the world is not eternal, so you should believe that. He tries to eliminate philosophy’s ability to judge on that question.

That’s interesting, because it’s using philosophy to come down on the side of truth by authority.

Yes, that’s right. But notice the implication that if there were a decisive argument from philosophy then you should believe that. So he’s not saying ‘forget philosophy, just believe the Bible.’ He’s saying: ‘philosophical arguments are indecisive here.’ There are other cases where he does think they are decisive. For example, like I said, he thinks you can prove that God doesn’t have a body, and so you are not allowed to interpret the Bible as if it says that God does have a body. You have to read those passages in a figurative or allegorical way. So, in fact, he’s being very rationalist because reason has the first go. It’s only if reason can’t figure it out that you then appeal to the Bible to settle the issue.

Another issue that Stroumsa talks about is whether the body is resurrected after death, because this was a standard Jewish belief, and it’s very clear—and Stroumsa argues that it’s very clear—that Maimonides did not believe this. He got a lot of criticism for that and wrote a work defending himself and his teaching on the resurrection. So this is another case where it looks like you have a contrast between philosophy and religion. In this case, he goes with philosophy again. But, of course, he would say—just like Averroes—that the true understanding of religion is never in conflict with philosophy because philosophy demonstrates what’s true and, since religion is true, the two can’t come into conflict. If they’re in apparent conflict, you have to figure out where the philosophy leads, and then interpret the Bible accordingly.

Let’s go to the final choice. It’s a book that I definitely wouldn’t have picked up. The title is obscure to me. This is The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (2006).

For one thing, it’s about a philosopher that almost no one has ever heard of; and ‘teleological ethics’ is not exactly a household phrase. Of the five books, this is probably the one that would be most challenging for the average reader.

The reason I picked it is that it is the best book about this figure, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, who died in 1210. He is a good example of the kind of figure who, if you’re just following the tradition of philosophy in the Islamic world, would seem to be incredibly important. He was extremely influential; he provoked lots of responses in the following generations—people were always attacking him, quoting him, using him to understand Avicenna and so on.

“You’ll see this idea that philosophy in the Islamic world dies after Averroes. This is complete nonsense”

You have to remember that the Arabic-Latin Translation Movement happened around 1200, and he lived all the way out in Central Asia and Persia. So, he lived too late for his works to be translated into Latin. This contributes to the illusion and myth that philosophy in the Islamic world ended with Averroes, because he was the last figure whose works were translated into Latin. But really what happened is that, especially in the eastern part of the Islamic Empire, there was a continuing production of philosophical and philosophically-informed theological works which went on century after century, all the way up to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century.

Even in otherwise very good introductions to the history of philosophy, you’ll see this idea that philosophy in the Islamic world dies after Averroes, that it all becomes mysticism or whatever. This is complete nonsense. Just in terms of the number of texts, there were many more philosophical works after that period than before. But they’re very badly studied—and the main reason is that they had no influence on European culture. Specialists in the field have only started looking at them recently.

Are you saying that Rāzī’s ethics should be studied?

Absolutely. The book shows Rāzī adopting an astonishingly prescient and original ethical theory which looks very similar to versions of utilitarianism that we have in contemporary philosophy. The whole story is a bit complicated but, basically, Rāzī is a theologian and he wrote voluminously. We have huge numbers of texts and a lot of the texts are very long. One of the good things about this book is that Shihadeh figures out when they were all written and talks about his biography and helps you navigate your way through this enormous corpus—almost none of which, by the way, is translated.

He then concentrates on this one area of ethics and shows that Rāzī’s views on ethics changed across the course of his career, but gravitated more and more to the idea that what’s good and bad for us is really just a matter of what’s pleasurable and painful for us. He sounds very like a utilitarian. Then, he says this requires us to reject a longstanding theological idea which is that God’s commands determine what’s good or bad for us.

Wasn’t that a radical point of view?

Yes, especially for him because he is a follower of the Ashʿarite school of theology, and the Ashʿarites were famous for thinking that all ethics is founded in God’s commands. Rāzī managed to reconcile the two ideas by saying that good and bad is pleasure and pain, but God’s commands are still crucial because we will survive our death and then we will either go to hell or not. Complying with God’s commands is a good idea on the utilitarian grounds that you don’t want to go to hell.

So you avoid eternal suffering and maximise your pleasures.

Exactly. It’s like a religious version of utilitarianism. He’s so clever and sophisticated. For instance, Rāzī asked why is it that we sometimes do things where we sacrifice our own pleasure—or undergo pain—for the sake of someone else, for the sake of a child, for example. Why would you risk death or agony to save someone else? And he says, ‘well it’s because you’re following a general rule which tells you to help other people because that maximises pleasure.’ So he even sounds like what nowadays we would call a rule utilitarian: you don’t just evaluate things on a one-off basis, you follow general policies that are designed to maximise utility. He doesn’t put it that way, but in Shihadeh’s presentation that’s basically what it boils down to.

One thing that’s quite characteristic of Rāzī, though, is it’s often hard to tell whether he’s telling you what he really thinks or whether he’s just imagining a position that someone would or could occupy. He likes to give you both sides of every argument and then just sort of move on.

That might be a pragmatic solution to problems of persecution, I’d have thought.

I don’t think so. In general, there was very little intellectual persecution in the Islamic world. Rāzī had lots of enemies because he made people angry by defeating them in public debate. In fact, there’s a story that, when he was dying, he had to leave instructions to be buried in a secret place so that people wouldn’t dig him up and desecrate his body. He was very contentious.

“He had to leave instructions to be buried in a secret place so that people wouldn’t dig him up and desecrate his body”

But there was a lot more openness and freedom for intellectual debate in the Islamic world than in the Latin medieval world because there was no Church. There was no one who had authority to come along and say, ‘you can’t say that.’ Although there are some exceptions to this rule, generally speaking, it doesn’t really make much sense to think that the way that books were written in the Islamic world had to do with avoiding persecution, because there was so little persecution to be avoided.

When you say there was no Church, weren’t there religious leaders fulfilling that role?

There were religious scholars but they were independent of political institutions. They were the people you would consult if you wanted to know the answer to a question and they were involved in the law. But they couldn’t necessarily have ordered soldiers to come down and arrest you and execute you.

I’m completely naïve about this. If you’re talking about a caliphate, you have a religious leader and religiously-created rules that govern society. Where that occurs now, you often have repressive societies. It’s easy to imagine that that would have been the case in the Islamic world in the medieval period too.

It really varied from time to time and place to place. For one thing, not all of the rulers claimed to rule with religious authority, especially after the fracturing of the Abbasid caliphate. Some of them were just warlords.

The Abbasids did claim religious authority and, in fact, they tried to enforce a theological doctrine that the Qur’an was created and not eternal—which is a complicated story. But they made an effort to enforce a theological dogma in the 9th century and this effort was defied and they failed to get their will recognised. In the end they said, ‘Okay forget it. We won’t enforce this anymore.’ And maybe, because that policy was a failure, you didn’t see Abbasid Caliphs after that trying to require obedience to any particular theological dogma.

“The Abbasids tried to enforce a theological doctrine that the Qu’ran was created and not eternal”

You did have people like al-Ghazālī, a theologian who lived into the early 12th century. He said that there are certain things that you can’t teach or say or think, because they’re heretical, and if someone says them then they should be put to death. But he was just saying this should happen in theory; there was no political apparatus that made it happen; there was no Inquisition; there was nothing that could be compared to the way that scholastic philosophers and theologians could be hauled before a trial and put on charges on heresy by the church.

We’ve talked about philosophers in the early medieval period. There was this amazing flourishing of ideas in the Islamic world. Was that something that got closed off, or is it a continuing tradition?

It’s a continuing tradition. That’s why I wanted to mention the Rāzī because he, in a way, stands at the beginning of that later tradition, as a conduit through which people respond to earlier figures like Avicenna. Avicenna really became the main figure for subsequent generations. If you move ahead to philosophy in the Safavid period, there was a really important figure called Mulla Ṣadrā—if I had had a sixth book to choose, I would have picked something on him. He was contemporary with early modern thinkers, dying in 1640. He commented on the Qur’an, he wrote huge theological treatises on every area of philosophy fundamentally within an Avicennan framework. I’m really oversimplifying here of course—imagine someone trying to describe what happened in European philosophy between 1300 and 1900 in a few sentences. It’s the same sort of problem.

From our conversation so far it is clear there was a rich history of Islamic philosophy in the medieval period. Is there the equivalent now? The Islamic world is a big place still. Is this a continuing tradition that’s alive today?

That’s a good question. First of all, I should say that I’m not an expert on 20th century Islamic thought, but it’s still worth getting into a little bit. As far as I can tell, the real change happens in the period of colonialisation. It’s not just because the empires were smashed and split up, although that was a factor. It also had an intellectual effect in that figures in the Islamic world start responding to and engaging with ideas from Europe again. So they responded to Marxism, or Heidegger, or existentialism, or even materialism. There was a period in the late 19th century where many figures in the late Ottoman Empire became materialist atheists because they were influenced by ideas from France. You’ve had this story of the Greek transmission into Arabic, and then Arabic into Latin, and then, in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, there was a lot of influence from European ideas on the Islamic world again.

“Imagine someone trying to describe what happened in European philosophy between 1300 and 1900 in a few sentences”

But it didn’t happen the other way because European intellectuals didn’t learn Arabic and Persian so they couldn’t read what the Islamic intellectuals were doing. But the Islamic intellectuals did learn to read English, French and German. There are certainly very significant philosophers in the early twentieth century, people like Mohammed Iqbal who died in 1938. He was an Indian Muslim who, again, responded to ideas from Europeans, like Nietzsche, for example.

Ideas from the classical Islamic tradition have continued to be important. Think about the Iranian revolution: the teachers of the Iranian revolutionaries were reading some of these Avicennan philosophers like Mulla Ṣadrā. So my take on the Islamic tradition is that it’s continuous.

It’s ironic because people often think that there was this break or collapse of Islamic philosophy. In a way, the contrast with Europe is not so much that it collapsed but that it didn’t. You didn’t have an Enlightenment where they made a big show of setting aside everything that came from the scholastic traditions, and starting from scratch (not that they really did this in Europe either, but they pretended to).

In the Islamic tradition they kept working on what were often very technical areas of Avicennan philosophy, trying to negotiate between Avicennan philosophy and Islam. They were innovative; they made progress in logic, metaphysics, psychology, and so on. But they didn’t have a real restart as happened in modern Europe. The result of that is that when the colonialist period happened, you had a confrontation between a very longstanding intellectual culture—that came from the period we’ve been talking about—and a new wave of ideas from Europe. They clashed and then more intellectual developments grew out of that, like, for example, radical Islam and Salafism which have been inspired, in part, by European philosophy. Whether they would admit that or not is another matter.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

May 30, 2017

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