Sunday, October 29, 2017

Peter Adamson's recommendation for 5 books on Philosophy in the Islamic World

by Salman Hameed

If you are looking for books on Islamic philosophy, then you can start with the recommendation from philosopher Peter Adamson. However, he starts with the relevant question: What do we even 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. 
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’. 
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.
You can read more about his book recommendation here

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A robot granted Saudi citizenship...

by Salman Hameed

A robot named Sophia has been granted a Saudi Arabian citizenship. I don't know if they ask the robot first or not. This would be interesting if I thought it was more than just a gimmick. And of course it becomes a bit sad when considering the fact that Saudi citizenship, up until recently, was almost impossible to get for workers from South Asia (i think there is now a 10-year path). And of course, the fact that Sophia is a female robot has generated the requisite social media reaction: Why isn't she wearing an Abaya? Where is her robot male guardian, etc? But ultimately, it is a way of getting publicity and sounding "modern" - which may be enough to divert some attention away from other Saudi issues like the atrocious war on Yemen, rights of women, boycott of Qatar, etc.

In any case, here is Sophia (she is supposed to be in the image of Audrey Hepburn...): 

Now on the other hand, it will be cool if Sophia turns out to be like the protagonist in Ex Machina

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Science and Sir Syed's "Thet Musalmaan"

by Salman Hameed

Last week was the bicentennial of Sayyid Ahmad Khan's birth (I am using a different spelling for Sir Syed). There were a number of workshops and conferences in both Pakistan and India. He is a fascinating and influential South Asian personality - and I think his legacy is only going to grow. While he is credited with education reforms and Muslim nationalism, his religious ideas have largely been ignored for being too controversial. For example, he did not believe in supernatural explanations for miracles. Either miracles had  natural explanations or were mentioned as an allegory. He also laid out in detail his principles for his commentary on the Quran - and placed an emphasis on reason and science in his interpretation.

I had an oped on his science for Express Tribune. Here it is below:

Science and Sir Syed

In 1848, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote an essay that fervently argued against the motion of the earth around the sun. However, within fifteen years he had abandoned this position and had started developing a framework of reconciling findings of modern science with Islam. On October 17, 2017, the earth had gone around the sun 200 times since the birth of Syed Ahmad Khan in Delhi — the capital of the then waning Mughal empire.

Sir Syed has a complicated legacy. We have schools and colleges named after him and stamps commemorating him as one of the pioneers of the Pakistan movement. India has also honoured him with stamps for his education efforts. And yet, one of his most ambitious set of writings — his Tafsir of the Quran — was not published in Pakistan until the 1970s. It is still relatively hard to find in print and is rarely discussed beyond a few clichéd sound bites.

The bicentennial of Sir Syed’s birth is perhaps a good opportunity to look at his views on science and religion. We are today living in a world that is shaped by modern science and its derivative technologies. Some origin questions that were traditionally in the domains of religion and philosophy now lie within mainstream science. We have good evidence to believe that our universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old, that the Sun and the Earth were formed in a gaseous nebula 4.5 billion years ago and there are billions of solar systems in our own Galaxy alone, and that all life on Earth is related to one another both in composition and through the evolutionary processes that have shaped it.

Understandably, some of the origin questions have also led to tensions and conflicts with traditional religious interpretations. Many Evangelical Christians in the United States, for example, reject much of modern astronomy because they believe in an earth that is only a few thousand years old. Similarly, some Muslims and Christians are uncomfortable with one of the central ideas of biology that deals with evolution of life on earth. Of course, none of these are monolithic group rejections and there are diverse interpretations within each religious group as well.

It is in this context that we can look at Sir Syed’s approach to science and religion. One of the foundational principles he laid out for his tafsir stated that, “nothing in the Quran contradicts the law of nature”. For him, the “Work of God” cannot contradict the “Word of God” (Sir Syed used these English words in his Urdu tafsir). Any contradiction is apparent, according to him, and he provides a detailed framework for interpreting the Quran in any such circumstances.

For example, he blamed the adoption of Greek astronomy into the commentaries of the Quran for the resulting Islamic opposition (and presumably his own earlier position) to the earth’s rotation around the sun. For our purposes, what is important is not the specific case, but the broader principle of incorporating established ideas of science.

In fact, for Sir Syed, the study of nature in itself takes on a religious duty. For him, advances in science will get us closer to reality, which in turn will get us closer to the real meaning of the Quran. To critics who thought that the studying of modern science can lead to atheism, his retort was clear: “It is an idiocy (baywaqoofi) for people to think that those who follow natural science…can lead to raising the flag of the kingdom of atheism.” There can be atheists (dahirya) and agnostics (la idriya). But “naturebeen” are the ones who believe in the laws of nature and that a Creator created those laws. For Sir Syed, these “naturebeen” are the real Muslims (“thet Musalman”) and the followers of real (“thet”) Islam.

It is not just the questions about origins that are important. Today we are facing a range of ethical issues stemming from advances in gene editing to the impact of humans on the climate of our planet. The next century is also going to see humans establish their presence on other bodies of the solar system. These possibilities are both awesome and fearsome at the same time. In order to form thoughtful responses, we need a good understanding and appreciation of the sciences.

I can imagine that for some Sir Syed’s emphasis on science in the matters of religion is not only misplaced, but also misguided. His instance on the existence of natural explanation for religious miracles was, and is, considered too controversial. For some, his unabashed admiration for the British is the problem.

However, there are others who may find his approach refreshing and a recipe for a successful engagement with some of the challenges posed by contemporary science. While Sir Syed’s educational and political legacies have been well appreciated, his principles of approaching science and religion may leave him with a longer and a more global legacy.

Happy 200th birthday, Sir Syed!

Monday, October 16, 2017

New Science Fiction from Iraq

by Salman Hameed

This is a great premise for science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you are being picky): Imagine Iraq a hundred years after the US invasion. The Atlantic has an article about a new collection of 10 short stories titled Iraq + 100. It is edited by writer and filmmaker, Hassan Blasim:
Blasim and Ra Page—the founder of Comma Press, which originally published Iraq + 100 in England—envisioned a mosaic of tales that projected Iraq’s entire present and past into an uncertain tomorrow. Page states in his afterword, “The best science fiction, they say, tells us more about the context it’s written in than the future it’s trying to predict.” Blasim has also pointed out the relative lack of technological innovation in Iraq throughout the last century as a perception he hopes to counterbalance. Baghdad is where algebra, the decimal point, and the first method to calculate the radius of the Earth were invented in ancient times—and Iraq, Blasim feels, is a rightful heir to the sci-fi tradition. 
Accordingly, the stories in Iraq + 100 ripple with speculative energy. Written by authors who range in age and style, the tales take place in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Najaf, Ramadi, and Sulaymaniyah—all are set in the year 2103, a century after the U.S. invasion. In “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili (translated by Andrew Leber), Basra has continued to be ruled by a succession of tyrannical theocrats, the latest of whom has overseen a wave of famine, human trafficking, and even cannibalism. Using history to twist the present, the dictator spouts a perverse moral relativism—all while his citizenry scratches for survival amid the ruins of lost technology.
One of the stories that seems particularly interesting is Operation Daniel by Khalid Kaki:
In the author Khalid Kaki’s vision of 2103, a Chinese city-state has arisen on Iraqi soil. It’s a classically Orwellian dystopia, where a charismatic yet brutal leader—in this case, Gao Dong, the Beloved Benefactor—has installed himself as a godlike giver and taker of good fortune. Gao Dong’s greatest weapon, like Big Brother’s in 1984, is his dominion over language. All citizens must speak Chinese, and the region’s ancient tongues—Syriac, Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen—have been banned, and a government department called the Memory Office serves to “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Rashid Bin Suleiman, or RBS89, as the government has renamed him, works alongside hovering droids as a cog in the Memory Office’s apparatus. His job is to dig up computers, compact discs, or any other means of information storage that might alert the populace to Iraq’s former sovereignty. That is, until he comes across an old folk song that radically shifts the way he sees himself and his world. 
“Operation Daniel” also yields one of Iraq + 100’s most indelible lines. There’s an underground resistance movement struggling within Gao Dong’s dictatorship, and one of their slogans is “History is a hostage, but it will bite through the gag you tie around its mouth, bite through and still be heard.” It’s just one way the story (translated by Adam Talib) is rendered poetically. During his work, RBS89 unearths “glittering discs or dull cuboids with spindles of tape inside,” as if he were a treasure hunter in some futuristic version of One Thousand and One Nights. Even Gao Dong’s favored method of execution—which he calls “archiving,” a process where language offenders are incinerated then turned into diamonds, whose crystals audibly reverberate with their memories for eternity—elevates the tale from cautionary to sublime.
I have not yet read any Iraqi science fiction. But Ahmad Saadawi's book, Frankenstein in Baghdad looks terrific. Saadawi doesn't have a contribution in Iraq + 100, but here is a bit about his book from the same Atlantic article:
A winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Frankenstein in Baghdad (translated by Wright) startles and stuns. Hadi Al-Attag is a scavenger who scours the streets of Baghdad during the U.S. occupation, subsisting on whatever he can find. His conscience compels him to undertake a ghoulish project: gathering body parts from the casualties of war, terrorism, and sectarian violence, then stitching them together into a hideous sculpture of flesh. The book’s speculative element arises when Hadi’s monster disappears, just before a rash of murders erupts throughout the city. 
Saadawi explained in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that the creature—or “the what’s-its-name,” as he calls it—can be seen as a mosaic, morbid though it is, of the Iraqi
people. “Since it is made up of parts taken from Iraqis of different races, sects and ethnicities,” he said, “the what’s-its-name represents the complete Iraqi individual. In other words, the what’s-its-name is a rare example of the melting pot of identities. Iraq has suffered from this chronic problem ever since it was established early in the 20th century.” Like the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Frankenstein in Baghdad—a patchwork of all three genres as formidable as Hadi’s own creation—stretches the fabric of logic. In that distortion, hidden truths emerge. Eventually the what’s-its-name transcends its atrocities to become worshipped by the masses, a parallel to the rampant populism that has resulted in the kinds of dictators that are by no means restricted to Iraq.
Saadawi depicts his creature’s patchwork composition as both a strength and a curse, driving home the idea that collective identity can either heighten or suppress the individual, and that those in power often wield such distinctions for their own political benefit. The astrologers begin manipulating playing cards in order to divine the whereabouts of the creature—a clash of superstition, science, and the supernatural that Saadawi uses to highlight Iraq’s internal struggle between the past, the present, and the future. The creature’s response to such arcane efforts calls to mind the brooding fatalism of Shelley’s own wretch: “The cards don’t matter. What’s important are the hands that dealt them.
Read the full article here. And these two books look fantastic!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Ismail Serageldin of Library of Alexandria needs support

by Salman Hameed

The former director of the Bibleothica Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) has been sentenced to 3.5 years in prison on the charges of negligent management of the library. Many of the accusations stemmed soon after Mubarak was ousted from power in 2011 and Ismail was considered Mubarak's stooge. I don't know the details but it is quite likely that this was a politically motivated trail, even though Morsi is also now out of power. Nevertheless, both Science and Nature and close 90 Nobel prizewinners have come out in his support. This is from a Nature editorial:
The political turmoil that followed the uprising against the regime of Egypt’s then-president, Hosni Mubarak, was a time for opportunists. Some library workers with grudges, together with those who considered Serageldin a Mubarak stooge, issued more than 100 different accusations against him, ranging from corruption to money laundering. Prosecutors investigated for more than a year. Finding no evidence, they dropped the criminal charges and instead referred three minor accusations of negligent management to an administrative court in 2012. 
One of the three charges claims that the 110 permanent library staff (the other 2,300 employees are on renewable contracts) were not given enough to do, and thus their government salaries were being wasted. Another refers to a collective life-insurance policy that had been taken out on behalf of staff, which they objected to. The charge claims that Serageldin, who cancelled the policy after three years, deceived the board of directors into agreeing to repay staff for the contributions they had made. The third charge claims that Serageldin incorrectly negotiated a favourable rent for a cafeteria to operate in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, without putting it out to public tender.  
Nothing happened for a few years while the court waited for the prosecution to submit a technical report about the case, which finally arrived this year. Serageldin says that the report led him to expect a dismissal of all charges. Instead, the court found him guilty. And rather than dishing out the usual modest fine for such cases, it issued a prison sentence, something usually reserved for cases in which negligence leads to loss of life.
The appeals court was planning on hearing his case on Sept 19th. I haven't been able to find what happened to the case. Nevertheless, you can find more about his support, including the names of the Nobel laureates, on helpforserageldin. Unfortunately, that website itself was last updated on the day of the appeal hearing.

By the way, I attended a fantastic conference at Bibleothica Alexandrina in 2009 celebrating the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. Here and here are two posts from 2009 with some pictures of the library.