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History of Islamic Philosophy by I.M.N. Al-Jubouri

Antony Flew notices a new book on Islamic Philosophy.

This massive volume of 514 pages is divided into two Books. Book I deals with the sources of Islamic thought and is itself divided into two Parts, the first on ‘Greek thought’ and the second on ‘Islam’. Book II deals with Islamic Philosophers. This contains eight chapters, the first seven dealing with the seven major figures and the eighth on ‘Transmission of the Heritage’. The first of these two very substantial Books is prefaced by essays on ‘The Sources of Islamic Philosophy’, ‘The Role of Islamic Philosophy in Human History’, and ‘Historians and Islamic Philosophy’. The second of these two Books is rounded off with five Genealogical Tables, a Glossary of Arabic Expressions, Notes, a Bibliography, and an Index.

The substantial philosophical interest of the present volume is to be found in the accounts of the work of Alkindi, Alfarabi, Avicenna (or Ibn Sina), Alma’arri, Algazel (or Al-Ghazzali), Averroes (or Ibn Rushd) and Ibn Khalduri. The traditionally-recorded birth dates of these seven philosophers spread between 800 and 1332. So several of them were working in the Eastern, Islamic world during periods which were for Europe periods of a Dark Age. And of course all the translations into Latin of the works of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek thinkers which later became available to Aquinas and other Scholastics were originally made by Islamic scholars.

Since I am assured, presumably by believers in the substantiality of the human soul, that confession is good for it, I should perhaps make some response to the author’s complaint that in my own “510 page book An Introduction to Western Philosophy I should dismiss the whole of Islamic philosophy in six lines”. My not very shamefaced excuse is that that book was always intended by its publishers to serve as a course textbook in the English-speaking philosophical world, and that it was originally published in 1971.

At that date and in that world the only religion of which the philosophy of religion needed to take account was Christianity. Since then a definition of the word ‘God’ originally provided by Richard Swinburne has become standard throughout the entire and very wide English-speaking philosophical world. It runs:

“A person without a body (i.e. a spirit) present everywhere, the creator and sustainer of the universe, able to do everything, (i.e. omnipotent), knowing all things, perfectly good, a source of moral obligation, immutable, eternal, a necessary being, holy and worthy of worship.”

But since Swinburne first published that definition the continuing decline in the proportion of the population of the UK who are believing and practicing Christians and the continuing increase of the population of the UK who are believing and practicing Muslims will soon bring it about that Islam becomes the majority religion if not necessarily and at the same time the religion of the majority. The majority will no doubt consist, as now, of those who are at least nominally believing but certainly not regularly practicing any religion.

But now, in view of my near total ignorance of the subject of Al-Jubouri’s book, why am I attempting to review it here? It is because, just as soon as I had seen its title, I realized that this is a work which ought to be noticed in Philosophy, the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and in Philosophy Now, to reach the wider philosophical public. So far as I know the Editor of Philosophy has failed to unearth a suitable reviewer and I myself know no such person. But it is nevertheless necessary at least to notice the book in Philosophy Now, and noticing rather than critically reviewing is what and all that I have just done.

It is of course for Muslim philosophers to produce a definition of the word ‘Allah’ suitable for Muslim philosophy of religion. But it is all too easy for a reader only of Arthur J. Arberry’s interpretation of The Koran to appreciate some of the formidable difficulties of this task. For a start every Sura (chapter) is prefaced by the words “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, words which are presumably an editorial contribution. But their authority and their appropriateness become very questionable once we bring into consideration the fact that so many of these Suras include threats of a Hell of eternal punishment. On my own count there are at least 255 such threats in Arberry’s 669 pages.

© Prof. Antony Flew 2005

Antony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Reading University.

History of Islamic Philosophy by I.M.N. Al-Jubouri, (authorsonline.co.uk 2004) Pb £17.95, ISBN 0755210115.

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