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


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