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Religion and Society

Medieval Flashes of Light of Islamic Philosophy

Farabi, Avicenna, Averroè. These are some of the great names of the speculative thought that flourished in the Muslim world of Muslim for three centuries: And then? What happened to the relationship between Islam and the ancient discipline that was createdby he Greeks and was the very foundationof the whole of Western culture? Why was this dialogue interrupted and what might take place if these two worlds once again engaged in encounter?

One can clearly state, and this has become a banality, that Islam faces modernity with the task of renewing itself, of becoming up-dated. The temptation is to make a comparison with the way in which the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council carried out its own 'up-dating' (the word has passed from Italian into all the European languages). It did this by giving to some of its articles of faith a new formulation and this still continues today through a critical examination of its past.

 

In the same way one sometimes hears it said that Islam should 'reform itself'. This project is conceived on the model of the Reformation of the sixteenth century which led to the schism of the Catholic Church and Protestantism. The writers on the subject are always ready to define this or that author the 'Luther of Islam'.

 

Such parallels seem to me to be false for many reasons. First of all, it is necessary to provide a false image of the nature and the functioning of Islam, on the one hand, and the Catholic Church on the other, following a false image of what the Reformation wanted and what it achieved. In this paper I do not have the space available to me to dismantle these legends.

 

The problem, therefore, is to know if the very much hoped for renewal of Islam could take place by drawing upon external sources or upon internal sources. In this second case one would be dealing with revitalising past cultural tendencies that are said to have been suffocated or forgotten. Can we find here parallels in the past history of Islam? Can philosophy be one of these parallels?

 

This raises first of all a problem of method. Looking for elements that foreshadowed such possibilities for a pre-established task acts to prove that this task is possible. Indeed, at a logical level, if everything that is possible does not take place, what is real is also necessarily possible. But logic and history are two different things. It remains to us, and the point is clear, to know if what was possible in the past was also possible subsequently, and if what was done can be transposed, adapted, however one expresses the point, to the current situation.

 

The example of philosophy is alluring. Indeed, we are dealing here with a discipline that has its origins outside of philosophy. Philosophy was born in Greece, more than a thousand years before hegira. It experienced a brilliant journey in the pagan Roman world. The Fathers of the Christian Church integrated many elements that came from philosophy and they themselves advanced philosophical inquiry at many points one need only think here of St. Augustine.

 

As is well known, Islam generated many philosophers of the first rank. Their works, like the works of famous Jews such as Maimonides, and this is becoming increasingly recognised, were a challenge and a source of inspiration for the thought of the philosophers of the Middle Ages in the West: St. Thomas Aquinas (who died in 1274), read Averroè (who died in 1198), and Duns Scoto (who died in1308) considered himself in the field of philosophy a disciple of Avicenna (who died in 1037). So can one hope that their will be a revival of the dialogue between Islam and philosophy? And during the Middle Ages did this really take place?

 

 

To see things more clearly it would be necessary first of all to agree on what is meant by the term 'philosophy' (1). On the answer given to this question depends the way in which we outline the chronological boundaries. The classic histories of Islamic philosophy have it begin in most cases with al-Kindi or al-Farabi. The first is said to have died during the period when the first was born, that is to say roundabout the year 870. The primary difficulty is the dating of the end of this philosophy. Traditional historians date it to the death of Averroè in the year 1198.

 

Towards the middle of the twentieth century the French philosopher and Middle East expert Henry Corbin, an expert on Iranian thought, proposed another chronological model: it was certainly the case that Islamic philosophy found completion in that specific form of philosophy of which Averroè was the crowning achievement. To compensate, another tradition, the tradition generated by Avicenna, is said to have spread within Shiite Islam, in the world of Persian culture. It is thought that this mixed with the local traditions of pre-Islamic Persia. The synthesis that was thought to have resulted is held to have been active at least until the end of the eighteenth century.

 

The problem is to know whether this synthesis, veiled in mysticism, can still be defined with the name 'philosophy'. Whatever the case, this was not the name that the followers of this synthesis gave to it. Indeed, the name falsafa does not have an Arabic ring. It was nothing else but a transliteration of the Greek term philosophia which remained more or less the same in Western languages as well. For that matter, the Greek origin of this knowledge was not a matter only for the holders of fine conversation. It implied a development that was outside Islam.

 

The disciples of these schools of thought thus preferred the more authentically Semitic term hikma (wisdom) on which they conferred the epithet ilhiyya (divine). Corbin himself did not readily employ the term 'philosophy' to define it. He had created a receptacle for the Arabic phrase in the French word théosophie, which is more exact but which has the disadvantage of usually referring to a very recent current of Western thought that is contaminated by occultism.

 

In my view it seems to me to more prudent not to baptise, so to speak, people against their wishes, and thus advisable to confine the name of 'philosophy' to what its own representatives meant by this name.

 

 

It is then necessary to ask oneself what is meant precisely by 'Islamic'. This question is not a purely lexical one. It concerns the core of our problem, namely to know if a renewal of Islam can take place from within or from without and whether the reception of philosophy could provide a model. We need, therefore, to know whether philosophy was born inside or outside Islam.

 

With regard to its origins, the answer is clear. Philosophy is an 'external science'. It is distinguished from the 'Islamic sciences', which are centred around the study of the Book, on what is needed to understand it (grammar, rhetoric, knowledge of the language of the early poets, etc.), and on what is needed to be known in order to apply the legal provisions contained in it and in the accounts of Mohammed (Hadith, fiqh, etc.). The distinction between these two categories of disciplines and the assigning of philosophy to the first group is known about and is a classic approach amongst Muslim scholars. These last have always known that philosophy came from the Greeks (2). The first to concern himself with philosophy, the rich merchant al-Kind, was already expounding the noble maxim which holds that it is necessary to accept every truth whatever it origins (3).

 

 

If philosophy 'came', without any shade of doubt, from outside Islam, we still have to discover whether it was able to 'enter' into the interiority of Islam. One could venture a paradoxical answer. On the one hand, philosophy was not able to graft itself in a deep and lasting way onto the tree of Islamic culture. On the other, and this is something that may appear contradictory, it was in a certain sense overly assimilated by that culture.

 

The principal factor that impeded philosophy from penetrating deeply into the Islamic world is that it remained an elite phenomenon. It is certainly the case that the great Islamic philosophers were to the full at the same level of sophistication, refinement and intellectual depth as their European counterparts. This is also true of the Jews. Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides and Avicenna were all perfectly equivalent geniuses. But an army is not made up only of generals. In Islamic lands and the Jewish communities nobody engaged in the profession of teaching or learning philosophy. Certainly nobody prevented an imm or a rabbi from addressing philosophy and demonstrating great capacities in this field. But all this remained at an amateur level. One may take as an example of this al-Ghazali (who died in 1111). His profession was that of a jurist and he taught at the legal school shafi'ita which was favourably seen by the Selgiuchid sultans. He dedicated himself to a very penetrating criticism of the philosophers that he knew, first of all Avicenna. He narrates, not without implicit boasting, that he had studied the works of those that he criticised without a teacher and in the little free time that was left to him by the very demanding teaching that he provided at the Madrasa Nizamiyya in Baghdad (4).

 

It was not only the adversaries of philosophy who were amateurs. The philosophers themselves, Jews or Muslims, were all amateurs. They had to have a means of support to dedicate themselves to philosophy during the free time that their employment, which was often burdensome, left to them. Farabi was a virtuoso musician and Avicenna was a physician and minister. His biography tells us that he studied philosophy after a day's work, at night, surrounded by his disciples, without at times disdaining the help of a glass of wine (5). Averroè was a jurist, the great qadi of Cordoba. Amongst the Jews Maimonides was at one and the same time a court physician and a rabbi of his community. One letter of his gives us a rather disquieting account of his use of his time (6).

 

 

This situation had as a consequence two ways of reacting to philosophy that were very different. In the Islamic lands it was never institutionalised. In the Latin West the teaching of philosophy was the basis of higher studies. Many years of philosophy were necessary before a person could specialise in medicine, law or theology. The fourth Lateran Council (1215) laid down that a course of philosophy was obligatory in the training of theologians. None of this ever existed outside Christendom, indeed it never existed outside the Latin Christian world.

 

As a consequence, a physician, a jurist, a theologian of the Latin West was first of all a philosopher. In different fashion, a fully competent man of religion in Islam, as for that matter in Judaism, had no need to study philosophy.

 

This situation had consequences for the historical trajectory of this discipline. In Europe philosophy never ceased to be practiced and has continued to be practiced to this day. It has been practiced at the highest level. We may think here of Cardinal Niccolò Cusano and of to the last of our Popes who began his career as a lecturer in philosophy. In Islam the trajectory of philosophy was rather short from the middle of the ninth century until the beginning of the thirteenth century. After that date, philosophy, practiced by figures such as Farabi or Averroè, disappeared 'with the exception of some line that could still be found in a narrow number of isolated people subject to the control of the Sunna'. Such was how Ibn Khaldun, in the fourteenth century, described it (7).

 

The rediscovery of the thought of Medieval philosophers took place through the West. The (overly) famous Decisive Tract of Averroè was printed for the first time in Munich in 1862. It was this text that was taken up again by the Arab world in a series of pirate editions starting at the end of the nineteenth century. The Arab world, since that time, has generated a large number of scholars who have dealt with Medieval philosophy and have published the great texts of this thought, following the rules of European philology. One may mention the American of Iranian origins, Muhsin S. Mahdi (born in 1926), who, among other things, rediscovered many capital texts of Farabi, or a Moroccan, the much lamented Jamal el-Dine Alaoui, the publisher of Averroè, who died prematurely in 1922.

 

 

I promised a second answer as a counterpoint to the first. Philosophy was, I observed, in a certain sense too deeply assimilated into Islamic culture.

 

I mean by this that it was seen by Islamic culture in the same way as other fields of knowledge, as law and the sciences were seen. Elsewhere I have characterised the Islamic style of appropriating knowledge as a form of 'digestion', distinguishing it from the European approach, which I defined as 'inclusion' (8).

 

This concept can be exemplified in the person of Avicenna (who died in 1037). He represented a watershed in the history of Islamic thought. He carried on the work of Farabi whose determining influence he acknowledged (9). But he did not carry it on in the same way as the Andalusian thinkers. They either did not know Avicenna, as was the case with Ibn Bjja (who died in 1138), or criticised him, as was the case with Averroè. The Andalusians, inspired by Farabi, strove to maintain an absolute loyalty to Aristotle. If necessary they attributed subsequent discoveries to him or tried to correct Ptolemy's astronomy so that in was in agreement with Aristotelian physics. And above all else, as was the case with Averroè, they provided commentaries on Aristotle.

 

Avicenna tried, in contrary fashion, to integrate the whole of Aristotelian knowledge into an original synthesis. He was the first not to write commentaries on the works of Aristotle, with the exception of some notes on some works of the Greek philosopher, which for that matter do not seem to have been intended for publication. The successive drafts of his philosophical system well contain everything that is in Aristotle. But they do not amount to citations from the Master.

 

In addition, Avicenna was the first philosopher of Islam to establish bridges between philosophy and the other dimensions of Islamic thought. At the very centre of his doctrine of being he integrates elements that seem to derive from the apologetics of Kalm. This was the case of his fundamental distinction between essence and existence. For that matter he was the first thinker who in texts that probably had an esoteric intention wanted to attribute a philosophical value to the experiences of the Sufi mystics. In doing this, he laid the bases for a conception of philosophy that was certainly greater but at the same time less rigorous.

 

With Avicenna philosophy in Arabic no longer coincided with Aristotelianism but specifically became Avicennism, with the exception of the Andalusian school which lasted for only a short while, no longer provided commentaries on Aristotle, and began to provide commentaries on Avicenna himself. Subsequent thinkers elaborated syntheses that were not present, if not only virtually, in Avicenna. The late Kalm integrated major parts of the philosophy of Avicenna. Sufism drew upon vulgarised neo-Platonism to provide itself with a metaphysical base, and Avicenna himself had also drawn on this in his own philosophy.

 

Could the Muslim world as it is today once again listen to philosophy? This means: pay attention both to its own Medieval philosophical tradition and to the philosophy that was developed in the West starting with the end of the Middle Ages? Examples of such an interest are not inexistent, but they are rare. In Europe students whose mother tongue is an Arabic dialect are interested in Medieval philosophical texts written in classical Arabic. They are the people who, for example, make up the majority of my students at the Sorbonne. In the universities of the Arab world philosophy is taught most of the time in departments where mysticism is also taught (in particular Sufism) and apologetics (the Kalm). In this, philosophy is placed near disciplines that in the past of Islam were its rivals, indeed even its most aggressive enemies.

 

The typology of relationship with knowledge, which is at the base of Islamic philosophy, is equally difficult to reconcile with modern philosophy. Indeed, Islamic philosophers considered philosophy to be a subject susceptible to being taught because it contained objective truths that had already been discovered. A work by Farabi, which was rediscovered in the 1960s, contains a passage that seems incredible to us after Aristotle there is no need to inquire! Thus one can learn and teach philosophy (10). The moderns, without necessarily forgoing the idea of objective truth, have instead emphasised philosophy as inquiry, as a method of investigation, possibly as a Socratic question. 'Man kann keine Philosophie lernen; denn, wo ist sie, wer hat sie im Besitz, und woran lt sie sich erkennen? Man kann nur philosophieren lernen' (11). For us philosophy is not a set of results but rather an attitude of the spirit. For that matter one could say the same thing about the sciences, whether they relate to physical nature or the historical past.

 

Islam encounters difficulty in entering this kind of incomplete inquiry. A mentality of this kind is to be found only at the margins, in the minds of some free thinkers such as Razi, in the discussion with his compatriot and Ishmaelite propagandist of the same name (12). The model of knowledge ('ilm) that is proposed by the Muslim religion is an invitation to base oneself on knowledge that is already present. Islam, in fact, does not see Revelation in the same way as Christianity does, that is to say as the history of a people that culminated in the history of an individual. Islam sees it more as the final communication of a divine and thus immutable message. The Koran has God saying that with Islam He 'completed religion' (V, 4). Ghazali argued that the teaching of Muhammad is perfect and that he is the impeccable Imm that the Shiites declared they possessed. (13) Farabi and Ghazali did not identify infallible guidance with the same person: for the philosopher this was Aristotle, for the jurist it was the Prophet. But they agree, indeed they are strange bedfellows, in how they generally portray what knowledge is.

 

 

The challenge that Islam confronts in modernity is not therefore so much that of appropriating specific contents of knowledge, which could be the result of the research of philosophers, but any other knowledge. It is, if one can square the formula, that of appropriating a certain modality of appropriating, a modality that, hitherto, has belonged to Europe, and to Europe alone.

 

 

(1) For greater details see my 'Sens et valeur de la philosophie dans les trois cultures médiévales', Miscellanea Medievalia, vol. 26; Was ist Philosophie im Mittelalter?, Berlin et al., 1998, pp. 229-244.

 

 

(2) See for example Farabi, Kitâb al-Hurûf, II, 156, Mahdi, Beirut, 1969, p. 159.

 

 

(3) Al-Kindî, 'Sur la philosophie première', 1; in Rasâ'il al-Kindî al-falsafiyya, M. A. Abu Rida, Cairo, 1950, vol.1, p.103.

 

 

(4) Ghazali, al-Munqid min ad-dalâl, 2, Arabic-French, F. Jabre, Beirut, 1969, pp. 18/71.

 

 

(5) W. E. Gohlman, The life of Ibn Sina. A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation, Albania, 1974, pp. 54-57.

 

 

(6) Maïmonide, 'Lettre à Samuel ibn Tibbon', in Iggerot ha-RMBM, I. Shaylat, Gerusalemme, 1988, vol. 2, pp. 550-551.

 

 

(7) Ibn Khaldun, Livre des exemples, Muqaddima, VI, 18: 'Sur les sciences rationnelles', Quatremère, Paris, 1858, vol. 3, p. 92; French translation A. Cheddadi, Paris, 2002, p. 946.

 

 

(8) See my 'Inclusion et digestion. Deux modèles d'appropriation culturelle', in P. Capelle, G. Hébert, M.-D. Popelard (eds.), Le Souci du passage. Hommage à Jean Greisch, Cerf Paris, 2003, pp. 77-96. This essay contains my Il futuro dell'Occidente. Nel modello romano la salvezza dell'Europa, translated by A. Soldati, Milan, 2005 (II ed.).

 

 

(9) Cf. Avicenna, 'Lettre à Kiyâ', in Mubâhathât, M. Bidarfar, Qum, 1993, 1162, pp. 375 ss.

 

 

(10) Farabi, op. cit., II, 143, pp. 151 ss.

 

 

(11) 'Once cannot learn philosophy. Indeed, where is it? Who possesses it and how can it be recognised? One can only learn to philosophise', Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Methodologie der reinen Vernunft, A 838/B 866.

 

 

(12) See Razi, Opera Philosophica, P. Kraus, Cairo, 1942, pp. 302-303.

 

 

(13) The Koran, V, 4; Ghazali, op. cit., 3, pp. 29/88.

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