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BOOK REVIEW: Muslim contribution to medieval thought and philosophy

28th Apr 2017
BOOK REVIEW: Muslim contribution to medieval thought and philosophy

Philosophy in the Islamic World: A History of Philosophy without any Gaps. By Peter Adamson. Oxford University Press. Pp511. HB. 2016. £25.00

The author of this book studied at the University of Notre Dame and started his academic career at Kings College London before moving to Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen where he currently serves as a Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy. He is a prolific writer and has published widely on aspects of ancient and medieval philosophy including The Arabic Plotinus (London, 2002), Al-Kindi (New York, 2007), Studies in Early Arabic Philosophy (Aldershot, 2015) and A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy in the Islamic World (Oxford, 2015).

The book under review is not only an expanded version of the aforementioned title but it also forms a part of a series of books titled ‘A History of Philosophy without any Gaps’ with the previous two instalments being Classical Philosophy (2014) and Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (2015). According to the publisher, this third volume in the series presents the ‘first full history of philosophy in the Islamic world for a broad readership’. However, I beg to differ as that credit must go to none other than Majid Fakhry whose A History of Islamic Philosophy was first published in 1970 by Columbia University Press.

Having said that, Adamson’s book is much more comprehensive and readable compared to Fakhry’s work, not least because his coverage of the development of Jewish thought and philosophy in Islamic Spain coupled with his overview of Islamic philosophical thought in the Indo-Pak subcontinent is not only pertinent but also refreshing. In that sense, Adamson does live up to the subtitle of his book, namely to present ‘A History of Philosophy without any Gaps’.

In spite of the title of this book, it is actually aimed at the general readers and therefore it does not assume prior familiarity with subject at all other than an interest in the history and development of philosophy in the Islamic world. According to the author, ‘As ever, my approach is chronological, though certain themes act as leitmotifs for the story as a whole… Some of the themes are predictable: reactions to the Greek philosophical tradition; and the use of philosophy to defend and interpret Islam; proofs of God’s existence; and the nature and fate of the human soul. Some, I think, may be less expected. Among recurrent philosophical themes, one of the most prominent is the critique of taqlid, or blind acceptance of traditional teaching. I was so struck by the frequency with which this issue arose that, while revising the book, I decided to add further material on taqlid in the Ottoman empire…’ (p.xi)

Divided into three parts and more than sixty short chapters, the author traces the origins of Islamic philosophical thought from the earliest period (seventh century) up to al-Ghazali (early twelfth century). His overview of philosophy in the Muslim world during this remarkable period in Islamic intellectual history is readable but equally simplistic. Thus the ideas and thoughts of the Mu’tazilites, al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Farabi, al-Ash’ari, Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali are briefly surveyed in this part of the book.

By contrast, the second part of the book is titled Andalusia where the development and dissemination of philosophical thought during the European so-called ‘Dark Ages’ represented nothing short of a monument – not only in Islamic intellectual history but also in the development of Western thought and culture in general. Yet, in his renowned work, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), Sir Bertrand Russell covers Muslim contribution to philosophy in barely nine pages in a book of more than 800 pages. But to his credit, Adamson does not overlook this period by surveying the ideas and thoughts of some of medieval Europe’s foremost Muslim and Jewish philosophers and thinkers of Spain.

In addition to Ibn Hazm, Avempace (Ibn Bajjah), Abubacer (Ibn Tufayl) and the extraordinary Averroes (Ibn Rushd), this part of the book also covers the contribution of leading Jewish thinkers like Ibn Gabirol, Judah Hallevi, Maimonides, Gersonides and Hasdai Crescas, among others. The last part of the book is devoted to the ‘Later Traditions’ in Muslim philosophy where the author briefly surveys the ideas and thoughts of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Suhrawardi, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Ibn Taymiyya, Mulla Sadra, Katib Celebi, Sha Waliullah, Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Iqbal, and many others.

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. This is a well-written and interesting work, even if the author’s interpretation of aspects of Muslim philosophical thought is at times questionable, if not inaccurate. Even so, the author deserves credit for engaging with such a complex subject and making it accessible to the public.

Muhammad Khan. M Khan is the author of Great Muslims of the West: The Makers of Western Islam (Kube Publishing, Sept 2017).

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