Philosophy, Theology and Mysticism in Medieval Islam: Texts and Studies on the Development and History of Kalam, vol. I. By Richard M. Frank


Variorum Collected Studies Series CS833 Aldershot, Hampshire : Ashgate , 2005 , $155.00 .

The first part of a three-volume collection of essays, this book offers a varied selection of papers on the philosophical trends amongst early Islamic thinkers, stretching from early Aristotelians and neo-Platonists as far as al-Ghazālī (†ad 1111). Space is given to various explorations of the development of terminology in theological debate (IV: ‘The Origin of the Arabic Philosophical Term ‘annīya’, 1956; XIII: ‘Lam yazal as a Formal Term in Muslim Theological Discourse’, 1995), amongst grammarians (XII: ‘Meanings are Spoken of in Many Ways: the Earlier Arab Grammarians’, 1981), and to the edition and translation of couple of short dogmatic works by Abū l-Qāsim al-Qushayrī (XIV & XV, 1982–83) which are illuminating in their absolute denial that any morality can be arrived at through reason.

Yet the bulk of the volume traces the differing responses to Greek philosophical influences, often felt through the medium of Syriac. Thus there is an exploration of John of Scythopolis's use of the Enneads (V, 1987); a reconstruction of the philosophical views of the early Arab neo-Platonist, Jahm ibn Safwān on the basis of surviving citations and accusations in the works of his opponents: his concern to preserve the unity of God (even from traditional attributes such as ‘power’) led him and his followers to deny the uncreated nature of the Qur'ān (IX: ‘The Neoplatonism of Jahm ibn Safwān’, 1965).

Two lucid expositions of one of the central orthodox teachers of Islam, al-Ghazālī, provide the high point of the volume. An excellent discussion of his debt to Avicenna, something too often simplified as either wholesale refutation or wholly successful absorption (XI: ‘Al-Ghazālī's use of Avicenna's philosophy’, 1987). And a clear exposition of al-Ghazālī's notion of the importance of belief, particularly that based on deference and loyalty (to a master, to a school of thought) that militates against true knowledge and the attainment of philosophical certainty – here it is Avicennan (and therefore Aristotelian) mental faculties that explain the process: ideas cannot be separated from the general disposition we have to those who present them; this function of the aestimatio is operative in scholars and teachers just as much as normal folk, and so no-one can receive ideas with equanimity, but is instinctively led to reject those from other schools or traditions and accept those from one's own, no matter their intrinsic validity (X: ‘Al-Ghazālī on taqlīd. Scholars, Theologians and Philosophers’, 1991). Al-Ghazālī's relationship to Muslim religious thinkers is traced in VIII: ‘Currents and Countercurrents’, taking in the Mu'tazila and Ash'arites (1997). The early reception of Aristotelian thought is examined in two essays (II: ‘Some Fragments of Ishāq's Translation of the De anima’, 1958; III: ‘Some Textual Notes on the Oriental Versions of Themistus' Paraphrase of Book Λ of the Metaphysics’, 1958); and the complete divergence between philosophical Aristotelian writers, the falsafa, and the kalām, who depended upon the revelation of the Qur'ān for their principles; the latter claimed all causality merely illusory, the one true source of all events and decisions being Allah's constant intervention, in part, it would seem, to avoid the heresy of postulating the eternity of the world (VI: ‘Remarks on the Early Development of the kalām’, 1967; VII: ‘Reason and Revealed Law: a Sample of Parallels and Divergences in kalām and falsafa’, 1978). An at-times thrilling volume, then, for which the editor, Dmitri Gutras, also deserves heartfelt thanks.