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Peter Adamson

Peter Adamson is Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy at the LMU in Munich, and a Philosophy Now columnist too. Amirali Maleki talks with him about Islamic philosophy.

Was your main goal in explaining Islamic philosophy in simple language in Philosophy in the Islamic World [A history of philosophy without any gaps, Vol 3] to popularise it? Or do you want to reach academics, too?

The book was largely written for the general public, though I think the comprehensive approach I take means it should also be informative for specialists. In particular I would like other academics to take on board some aspects of what I do in the book, like for instance integrating the study of Jewish philosophy into the conception of philosophy in the Islamic world, and paying more attention to ‘post-classical’ thought – basically, everything that happened after the twelfth century CE.

Peter Adamson

Why do you think Islamic philosophy has been neglected throughout recent history?

Of course it has not been neglected everywhere: in Muslim countries there has always been interest in the earlier philosophical tradition. But in Europe there was a tendency to value only the figures who were translated into Latin in the medieval period, such as Ibn S ī n ā [Avicenna] and Ibn Rushd [Averroes], because of their impact on European philosophy. Important philosophers who came later, like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī or Mullā Ṣadrā , were not translated into a European language, so they remained more or less invisible to scholars working in those languages.

Do you think that the philosophies of many cultures have not been integrated into the history of philosophy in the West? Or is Islamic philosophy introduced here as ‘philosophy of the world’ along with Chinese, Buddhist, and Indian thought, etc?

Yes, that’s right, there’s still a tendency in Europe and North America to lump together all non-European traditions into one thing, called ‘non-Western philosophy’, ‘global philosophy’, or ‘world philosophy’. In a sense I have no objection to that, because it seems like a useful first step in getting people to pay attention to these other traditions. But learning about Indian philosophy is not really relevant for learning about African or Latin American philosophy. What we really need is scholarship dedicated to each tradition in its own right, and that’s increasingly being done. The situation of Islamic philosophy in particular is unusual, because it is often considered to fall under the heading of ‘non-Western philosophy’, even though its tradition does very much respond to European philosophy, and especially to Aristotle – unlike what we find in India, China, Africa, or the precolonial Americas.

Is the term ‘Western philosophy’ really meaningful? Or do you think the term is rather reminiscent of a colonial mentality?

The problem with this phrase is that it is so unclear what ‘Western philosophy’ should include. If you think of it as a geographic designation, so as meaning whatever philosophy happened in Europe – and later in North America and other ‘Western’ nations – then it should really include a lot of Islamic philosophy, simply because the Muslims held Spain for such a long time, and a number of important Muslim and Jewish thinkers wrote there, in Arabic. Yet that’s usually not considered part of ‘Western’ thought. Then on the other hand, if you think of ‘Western’ philosophy as meaning everything that goes back to the Greeks, you should really include figures such as Ibn S ī n ā , who in fact lived in central Asia – an area then heavily influenced by Hellenic culture.

Do you believe Ernest Renan’s view concerning the ‘humiliation’ of science in Islamic philosophy – even though the Prophet of Islam said, “Learning is seventy times higher than worshipping”, and “Scholars are the closest group to the divine prophets”?

The idea that philosophy or science is supported by the Islamic Revelation actually goes back to the medieval period. It’s something you can find in Ibn Rushd, for example. And in general there is no doubt that in the classical and medieval periods, many Muslim scholars thought that rational investigation of the world was encouraged by Islam. But I would be careful here not to assume that there was ever only one attitude within Islam. For example, there were also religious scholars who discouraged the use of foreign scientific sources, or said that all the knowledge we need is to be found in Qur’anic revelation and the prophetic tradition. So it is a complex picture.

How did Islamic philosophers justify the study of Plato and Aristotle? You cite al-Kindī’s response to religious critics who objected to the use of Greek philosophical texts. Al-Kindī argued that we should respect the truth wherever we find it. However, since the philosophers did not doubt the prophetic revelation, they still had to explain why the study of Greek philosophy was not superfluous, even if its teachings were correct. In other words, why is it not enough to study the Qur’an or the Bible? This is a vital issue for understanding the interaction of the Islamic world with Greek philosophy.

Right. As I said, some religious scholars at the time did reject the study of Greek philosophy. We don’t know exactly who al-Kind ī was responding to when he defended the use of Greek wisdom, but another example comes a bit later with the dispute over the value of logic. Here, a grammarian named al-Sīrāfī denied the necessity of studying Greek logical works.

I think there are actually two forms that this opposition to Greek philosophy could take: complaining that it was actually inconsistent with Islam – for instance, by asserting the eternity of the world rather than the world being created – and saying, as you put it, that Greek philosophy is superfluous because anything true in it would also be found in Islamic revelation. The philosophers responded to both accusations, of course – for example by giving philosophical arguments against the eternity of the world, or by denying that the Qur’an is committed to a non-eternal world. As far as the charge of superfluousness goes, their usual response was to argue that philosophy is actually a useful tool for understanding and interpreting the Qur’an, and maybe even that philosophers are in the best position to interpret it. This is what we later find Ibn Rushd doing, for example. Al-Kindī wrote a couple of treatises where philosophy is used to do Qur’anic exegesis.

Do you consider Yaḥyā Ibn ‘Adī a bridge between Islamic philosophy and its heirs in Christian philosophy?

Not so much that, as that he shows that philosophy in the formative, late medieval period, was a multi-religious enterprise: Christians and Jews collaborated with Muslims in translating and interpreting Greek philosophy. It is also interesting to see how philosophy was used in debates between the different religions, as with Ibn ‘Adī’s refutation of al-Kindī’s criticism of the Trinity.

Do you think that Hegel’s view of history as progressive self-consciousness is historically defensible? Specifically, can philosophy be divided into two periods, ancient philosophy and modern Christian philosophy, leading to German idealism?

No, I do not accept this sort of ‘teleological’ [purpose-oriented] approach to the history of philosophy. I don’t think that philosophy progresses along any pre-determined, or even predictable, path, towards some final resolution.

Actually, it’s not only Hegel who thinks philosophy is heading towards a resolution. In a way you can also find this idea in those modern analytic philosophers who assume that their approach makes all earlier philosophy obsolete, perhaps because analytic philosophy is informed by modern science. But I don’t accept that either. Rather, I think that every period and culture in the history of philosophy has its own story and needs to be evaluated in its own terms – if only because different traditions pose different questions, rather than always trying to answer the same questions.

What is your view on the Dehri or the atheists in Islamic philosophy? Do you think for instance that Abū Bakr al-Rāzī really opposed the prophecy?

I have an unusual reading of al-Rāzī’s position, which is that he was not really attacking prophecy in general. Rather, he wanted to attack specific trends within Islam, which seem to have included Ismaili Shi’ism. He thought that this approach was too dependent on the authority of the Imāms. So on my reading, what was actually a fair dispute within Islam was distorted by his Ismāʿīlī opponents, who described him as having attacked all revelation and all prophecy.

In the book’s contemporary section, you left out some of the most important contemporary philosophical scholars of Islam, such as Ahmad Fardid, Morteza Motahhari, Seyyed Javad Tabatabai, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Tabatabai. Why didn’t you deal with modern Islamic philosophy? Too political?

Actually I did talk a little about Tabatabai and Nasr; but you’re right that I passed over the twentieth century very quickly and didn’t talk about the twenty-first century at all. This was for two reasons: one is lack of expertise, and the other is that it’s just such a huge topic. I thought it would really be a whole additional book if I did that properly. So instead I just tried to pick up on a few recent thinkers who have been inspired by the earlier historical tradition I covered in the rest of the book, such as Arkoun, Abduh, and Nasr.

What’s your next goal? Do you want to continue in this way?

This was only the third book in what will eventually be a series of many volumes. Already now five have appeared, including one on classical Indian philosophy, written together with Jonardon Ganeri. Future volumes will cover African, and Chinese, philosophy, as well as later developments in Europe.

In your opinion, what are the current conditions of Islamic philosophy?

Well, again, I am not an expert about this, but my impression is that it varies a lot from one country to another. Iran still has an important tradition of engaging with earlier thought, especially in the Sadrian school, and figures like Suhrawardī and Ibn Sīnā continue to be influential there. But you also have Iranian scholars doing analytic philosophy or studying Kant and Heidegger – sometimes in combination with looking at Ṣadrā . And that’s just Iran!

In general, I think that philosophy in the Islamic world is just as dynamic and complex as in Europe or North America. One thing I would like to see is more conversation and interchange between the two spheres, so that both academic communities can learn from one another. So I am very happy to have been invited to speak to you, for exactly this reason!

Amirali Maleki is a law student living in Karaj, Iran. He has written for many famous Iranian journals, such as Siyasnameh, and specialises in the philosophy of politics and law.

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