My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Just as one must protect unskilled swimmers from perilous shores, people must be shielded from reading philosophical books.
For a long time, I’ve been bothered by the tremendous gap in my philosophical reading. Most of the medieval period is simply a blank for me, an intermission that stretches from Boethius (480 – 524) to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). Part of the problem is that, for a variety of reasons, in most of Europe not much notable philosophy was being written in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire; the major Christian philosophical project, scholasticism, didn’t get on its feet until St. Anselm (1093 – 1109) started writing. But another problem is that, owing to Western provincialism, most of the good philosophy written during these years isn’t read nowadays, because it was written by Muslims.
This collection was expressly put together to rectify this situation, and it does the job admirably. Now, instead of an enormous gap, I can move comfortably from Boethius to Al-Farabi (872 – 950), to Ibn-Sina, or Avicenna (980 – 1037), to Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111), to Ibn Tufail (1105 – 1185), and finally to Ibn Rushd, or Averroes (1126 – 1198). This progression completes not only the temporal picture, but has the geographic advantage of leading from Baghdad to the Iberian Peninsula. We thus see the trajectory through which the works of Aristotle, preserved in Arabic translation, as well as copious commentary on Aristotle’s works, entered Europe, where they later gained ascendency.
The editor and translator of this volume, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, put it together for non-specialists. He made his selection with the hopes of showing the relevance of these thinkers to contemporary philosophical questions; but he also hoped to show something of the cultural significance of these philosophers. None of the selections is very long, and none is very difficult. It is a mere tasting, not a feast. For me, it was perfect, since I have only a layman’s interest in the subject.
My interest was ignited in medieval Islamic culture through my visits to Andalusia, where I was continually astounded by the beauty of Moorish architecture. If a culture was vibrant enough to build the Great Mosque in Cordoba, I figured, then they must have had some excellent thinkers too—which they certainly did.
In what follows are my brief summaries and reactions to each of the pieces in this collection. But before that, I want to add my reflections on the whole. What most struck me during my reading was how familiar were the styles and ideas. Truly, medieval Islamic philosophy does not represent some alien tradition, or a mere curiosity, nor were these philosophers mere preservers of the Greeks; rather, they should be regarded as an integral part of western philosophical history.
The fact that we still read Aquinas but seldom Maimonides and rarely Averroes has little to do with merit, and more to do with religious allegiance. All three of these traditions were engaged in similar philosophical projects—namely, the harmonization of faith with reason, relying heavily on Aristotle. Incidentally, I can’t help thinking that the persistent Islamophobia (and Anti-Semitism) in the West would be less virulent if history were not taught in such a fashion that the contributions of Jews and Muslims to European culture were not so deemphasized. But I suppose that’s another matter.
Al-Farabi. Like nearly everyone in this collection, Al-Farabi was a polymath, writing not only on philosophy, but on music, math, science, and cosmology. But he is perhaps most important for being one of the first and most prominent Muslim philosophers to elevate Aristotle as the epitome of reason. His work in this collection is taken from The Book of Letters. It puts forward a schematic philosophy of history, during which he lays out what he considers the essential stages of historical development. Most striking is Al-Farabi’s elevation of philosophy. According to him, nearly every other discipline, practical or theoretical, stems from philosophy. Even religion takes second place. In Al-Farabi’s opinion, prophets do not access supernatural knowledge, but merely transform the insights of philosophers into metaphorical garb, so that common people can understand them. Indeed, for Al-Farabi almost all religion is just popularized, allegorized, simplified philosophy—Aristotelianism for the people, you might say.
Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, is the Thomas Aquinas of Islamic philosophy, except perhaps greater. An astounding polymath, he not only wrote encyclopedias of science and philosophy, but an encyclopedia of medicine that was still being used in Renaissance Italy. Like Aquinas, and like Aristotle himself, Avicenna was a great systematizer. He had a prosaic, orderly, and remarkably capacious mind, allowing him to compose encyclopedic works in many disparate subjects. In this collection is the short work, On the Soul, which is an investigation into the capacities of the human mind, with a special emphasis on epistemology. Unlike Al-Farabi, Avicenna didn’t consider prophets to be popularizers, but a kind of super-philosopher whose intellects intuit things faster than other people’s.
Al-Ghazali probably wouldn’t like being called a philosopher. He was, rather, a mystic who wrote against philosophy. Included in this collection is his Rescuer from Errors, which is a sort of intellectual autobiography. In it, he describes a crisis of faith he experienced when he realized that his religion was mere conformity. After doubting everything, he proceeded to study theology, which he found inadequate, and then philosophy, which he found slightly better, and eventually settled on being a mystic. This was by far my favorite work in this collection. Al-Ghazali is an excellent writer, and his procedure of radical doubt can’t help but remind one of Descartes. Indeed, if you’re inclined to doubt the existence of the world, becoming a mystic might be a more rational solution than the one Descartes settled upon.
Ibn Tufail (sometimes called Abubekar) was born in Moorish Spain, near Granada. In addition to being a philosopher, he was a novelist, physician, and court official during his lifetime. (Reading the biographies of these guys makes you really mourn the rise of specialization.) He contributes the longest section to this book, in the form of Hayy bin Yaqzan. Not exactly a work of philosophy, it is rather the description of a man born and raised in social isolation on a deserted island. The titular character, using nothing but his cleverness, manages to deduce the entirety of Aristotelian thought, and eventually becomes a mystic. I suppose this story was meant to demonstrate that revealed religion wasn’t necessary to reach the truth, but that a monotheistic mysticism could be deduced from experience. I found it quite unconvincing.
Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, was born in Córdoba (the same city where Seneca and Maimonides were born), and was perhaps the greatest Muslim philosopher after Avicenna. Interestingly, Averroes’s influence was bigger in Christian Europe than in Islam, because many of his key positions were seen as heretical. After his death came the trend known as Averroism, which held, among other things, that the individual soul is not eternal, only the universal soul which every individual shares. In this collection we find his The Incoherence of the Incoherence, a work written in refutation of Al-Ghazali’s work The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali attempted to demonstrate that belief in causes and natural laws was heretical; there are no laws, Al-Ghazali held, and no causes except the direct intervention of God. Averroes quotes Al-Ghazali in extenso, and then argues against him point by point. The final effect is of a real debate, since Al-Ghazali anticipated many of the rejections that Averroes brought against him.
Well, that’s it for my review. I hope I’ve at least convinced you that there is a lot of historical and philosophical value in these pages, and in Islamic philosophy generally.
(Cover photo by Timor Espallargas; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)