Book Review: Muslim contribution to the development of philosophy

25th Aug 2017
Book Review: Muslim contribution to the development of philosophy

The Biographical Encyclopedia of Islamic Philosophy. Edited by Oliver Leaman. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Pp507. PB. 2015. £39.59

The author of this book is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky, United States of America. He is a prolific writer and has published widely on aspects of ancient and medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy including An Introduction to Medieval Islamic Philosophy (Cambridge, 1985), Averroes and his Philosophy (London, 1997), Introduction to Classical Islamic Philosophy (Cambridge, 2001) and Lost in Translation: Essays in Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (Sarajevo, 2004).

The book under review is one of his latest contributions and arguably one of his most valuable books. With nearly 40 contributors, covering the lives and works of more than 300 scholars, thinkers and philosophers from Islamic history, and skillfully edited by Oliver Leaman, this book is an important addition to the literature on Islamic thought and philosophy in English.

According to the Editor, ‘It is the aim of this volume to include entries on Islamic philosophers and to constitute a comprehensive list of all those who could be given that description. Philosophy flourished in the Islamic world for many centuries and continues to be a significant feature of cultural life today. The compilation of biographical dictionaries has long been a tradition within Islamic culture, and it would be helpful to have a modern version of such dictionaries. We are only including thinkers who are no longer alive.’ (p.ix)

The Editor rightly points out that there is no single universally accepted definition of Islamic philosophy because it has always been a contested concept. That is equally true of philosophy in general and, indeed, all systems of philosophy and thoughts that are associated with any particular faith or religion. Sometimes referred to as falsafa or hikma, the study of philosophy in the Muslim world has always incorporated logic, aspects of science, theology and even law and legal theory. That is why most medieval Muslim philosophers were also physicians, scientists, jurists and theologians at the same time.

Unsurprisingly, in this volume, the Editor has adopted a broad definition of philosophy by including all forms of intellectual inquiry as being philosophy providing they relate to philosophical issues, one way or another. In his own words, ‘So we shall include some of the major thinkers within the Islamic sciences, those who wrote on grammar, theology, law, and the Traditions of the Prophet since these areas of work clearly came to form part of the context of the philosophical curriculum of the time.’ (p.ix) Critics of philosophy have also been included especially those who advanced their arguments logically or philosophically.

In addition to Ibn Hazm, Avempace (Ibn Bajjah), Abubacer (Ibn Tufayl) and the extraordinary Averroes (Ibn Rushd), there are entries on Qadi Abd al-Jabbar, al-Farabi, al-Ghazali, Ibn al-Rawandi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Taymiyyah, Rumi, Imam al-Juwayni, al-Ash’ari, al-Kindi, al-Ma’ari, al-Maturidi, Abu Bakr al-Razi, Tahawi, Tawhidi, al-Tusi and Sirhindi, among countless others. Modern Muslim thinkers like Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Iqbal, Taha Husayn, Rashid Rida, Musa Jarullah and Gaspirali are also included, thus adding to the richness of the work. If you think that Islamic history is bereft of brilliant thinkers and philosophers, or that the Muslim world has not contributed much to the development of human thought and philosophy, then I strongly recommend this book to you. Yes, it will force you to think again!

Being a biographical dictionary, this volume, of course, only provides a very brief summary of the lives and works of some of the leading thinkers and philosophers from the Muslim world, in addition to highlighting the key concepts and ideas that were discussed and debated throughout the history of Islam. However, each entry does include a useful bibliography to enable students and researchers to undertake further studies, if they so desire.

For those who do not have the time or patience to read voluminous works like M M Sharif’s (ed.) A History of Muslim Philosophy (1966) or S H Nasr’s (ed.) History of Islamic Philosophy (2001), I would recommend this book as a substitute. Readers can dip into this volume as and when they wish without being stretched physically or intellectually as each entry consists of around 400 words and the book is highly readable, unlike most academic works. The Editor deserves credit for engaging with such a complex subject and making it accessible to the public.

Muhammad Khan

Author of Great Muslims of the West: Makers of Western Islam (Kube Publishing, Sept 2017).

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