The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy. Edited by Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor


Pp. xviii, 448 , Cambridge University Press , 2005 , $35.00 .

This is a rich and up-to-date assessment of the varied philosophy written in Arabic – including Christian and Jewish as well as Muslim thinkers – from the reception of the Alexandrian Neoplatonic versions of Aristotle in Baghdad through the translations by Syrian Christians in the ninth century, through the ‘big four’ of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, but with illuminating accounts of lesser figures and movements providing the context necessary to make comprehensible the big four; the most prominent are the Isma'ilis, Kalam, al-Gazalhi, Suhrawardi and the Illuminationist school of the Shi'ite reconciliation of philosophy and religion on a nominalist mystical basis, which is still dominant in Iran today. After a chronology of the major thinkers and a ten-page introduction by the editors come ten chapters on the various figures and movements, followed by chapters on logic, ethical and political philosophy, natural philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. The final three chapters treat Islamic and Jewish philosophy, the translations into Latin of Arabic works (including Aristotle and Neoplatonic as well as Islamic philosophy), and later trends in Arabic and Persian philosophy to the 17th century and beyond. To the second-last chapter Charles Burnett has appended a 9-page table of texts and translations down to 1600; a 16-page select bibliography concludes the volume. The authors are world-renowned experts, and the reader comes away feeling he has been given the most thorough and articulate overview of philosophy in Arabic possible within the compass of a single book.

Still the thematic compartmentalization means that some strands are not drawn together but rather left tantalizingly and provocatively available. These are chiefly (as will later be the case in the West) the difficult assimilation of Aristotle with his naturalistic account of the soul, a questionable basis for personal immortality, and an ‘unmoved mover’ who is appropriately closed in upon itself, with a religion based on ‘revelation’ from a deity who appears to have created the world in time, have knowledge and providential care for individuals, and who will raise up their bodies in an eschatological judgment that will involve rewards and punishments. The problem is exacerbated by an ethnic split between Persian and Arab. The Persians had a sophisticated urban civilization and independent identity involving a sense of cultural superiority before their reception of Islam; the Arabs were more in the line of ‘wandering Arameans’ before the revelation bequeathed to Mohammed. They tend to insist upon a literal interpretation of the Qu'ran and view with suspicion Persian intellectuals who experiment with allegorical interpretations and a subtle parsing or subordination of religious truths to philosophical exegesis which at times seems to explain the former away. Of the ‘big four’, only the first, al-Kindi, was ethnically an Arab; all the rest emerged from the Isma'ili or Sufi traditions of the Shi'ites. The tension was all the greater because both Neoplatonic philosophy and the Qur'ran insist that God is ‘One’, thus transcendent and ineffable; political authority comes to the person who is able to achieve union with the agent intellect. For a Sunni this will be the ‘prophet’, for the Sh'ite an identical description is developed for the ‘philosopher’, who attains a kind of ‘rational mysticism’ that is tailored to each age – and which incidentally also justifies their shadow line of ‘Imams’ in contrast and opposition to the Caliphs.

The Isma'ites were a branch of the Shi'a who, although initially protesting the intellectual pretensions of the foreign Neoplatonism over religion, quickly assimilated and harmonized it with their own faith. The father and brother of Avicenna were Isma'ites; his own philosophy led to a denial of personal immortality, of God's knowledge of particulars, of resurrection of the body, and of the world's creation in time. His novel distinction of essence and existence, and his description of God as ‘the necessary of existence in itself’, seemed to orthodox authorities to go too far in resolving Aristotle's notorious inability to provide an efficient cause for the universe; the world now appeared a necessary emanation, rather than a free creation, of God. The Sunni al-Ghazali was commissioned by the Abbasid caliph in Baghad to write works opposing the (Shi'ite) Fatimid doctrine emanating from Egypt.

The Sunnis had a difficulty because, unlike the Mu'tazilis, they were committed to the traditional notion that the Qur'an, conceived as God's attribute of speech, was not created, and hence was eternal; this seemed to infringe upon the equally traditional notion that God was the sole possessor of eternality, and further his defining Oneness. Avicenna's distinction appeared to open the way towards a resolution, but without a strong doctrine of the will it was clearly dangerous. This pushed al-Ghazali to the opposing extreme, an occasionalist Ash'arite position. For the Ash'arites the divine attributes are co-eternal with the divine essence but not identical with it; this opens space for freedom, but al-Ghazali ironically falls into the same difficulty from the other side. God is now the sole agent; everything is radically contingent and continually dependent on his inscrutable will. Everything that happens, happens by God's direct command and action. A concern to safeguard God's knowledge of particulars and providence thus surges forward towards a determinism (and fatalism) that undermines human freedom and moral responsibility (pp. 143, 153). Averroes wrote an Incoherence of the Incoherence to refute al-Ghazali's Incoherence of the Philosophers, but swung to the old extreme to hold that not only is there a single universal ‘agent intellect’, there is also a single ‘material intellect’ as well – in other words, no personal immortality at all.

Neither al-Ghazali nor Averroes were that influential for later Arabic philosophy, but the ecstatic nominalism of the Iranian Suhrawardi, invoking Sufi and pre-Islamic Persian wisdom for his ‘Illuminationism’, was; it also led to the charge of subversive Isma'lism, which was all the excuse Saladin needed during the tense period of the Crusades to have him executed at Aleppo in 1191.

Apart from a brief honeymoon at the beginning with al-Farabi, therefore, the marriage between philosophy and religion under Islam was unstable, each viewing the other suspiciously and provoking the other to an unnecessary extreme – thereby providing the other with all the material necessary to ground his suspicions. Further, for understandable reasons this literalist/subordinationist split mapped closely onto the ethnic and political bifurcation between Sunni and Shi'ite.