Friday, May 25, 2007

Islamic Philosophy

Islamic Philosophy

The Making of the Avicennan Tradition: The Transmission, Contents, and Structures of Ibn Sina's Al-Mubahatat (The Discussions) by David C. Reisman (Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science, 49: Brill Academic) provides an extensive exploration of the condition of the manuscripts Ibn Sina's Al-Mubahatat (The Discussions), his principal later philosophical work. (The text is available as edited by A. Badawi in Arabic for pdf download). Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037) is one of the foremost philosophers of the golden age of Islamic tradition that also includes al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd. His philosophical works were one of the main targets of al-Ghazali’s attack on philosophical influences in Islam. After reviewing the state of previous scholarship, Reisman’s the initial concern is with the paleographical and codicological relationships between manuscripts, allowing for the identity of an early recession of the Mubahatat. After listing all known manuscripts, the author proposes a theory a concerning the development of the discrete textual parts and their authenticity. The compositional context of the correspondence now known as the Mubahatat and the structure and arrangement of the individual texts and their date of composition are explored from the manuscript traditions. Biographical portraits of the three people who engaged in the correspondence with Ibn Sina, that is, Abu l’Qasim al-Kirmani, Bahmanyar, and Ibn Zaylaan are made to characterize their respective roles in the intellectual contributions to this philosophical correspondence. Next a synopsis of each part of the text is given, based upon the pervious examination of known manuscripts. The general character of various parts of the text are assessed regarding the correct place they occupy in the sequence of the correspondence and their possible dates of composition. These characterizations are based on the theory that the structures of the earlier recessions more likely represent the original compositional structure of the text. In many ways this is the intellectual heart of this study: The work being basically prologue to a thoroughgoing critical edition of the text.

Some of Reisman’s conclusions are worth noting. The Mubahatat is preeminently a private correspondence that is undoubtedly the source of the complexities of its transmission. These letters represent a private activity of a number of scholars engaged in philosophical investigation at the time of their composition. No single authorial intention was exercised upon their construction and no goal of widespread distribution of them was considered. This means that various parts of the correspondence would be haphazard but also that the editorial approach of later ages often misconstrued the various levels of authorial intention. The story of this transmission is a fascinating look into the nature of medieval Arabic Islamic philosophy, which gives hints of the social and political context in which such philosophical learning occurred. However Reisman’s purpose in this study is to construct, given the nature of current evidence, the best criteria for a critical edition of the text. It is hoped that this work will be followed, in due time, with a critical edition and translation of the Mubahatat itself and perhaps a commentary on it's its historical and philosophical vicissitudes. Given the general neglect of Ibn Sina’s philosophy, The Making of the Avicennan Tradition can be considered a major step forward and is a necessary purchase for any academic library.
David C. Reisman's dissertation, The Making of the Avicennan Tradition: The Transmission, Contents, and Structure of Ibn Sina's al-Mubahathat (The Discussions) has been awarded the William J. Horwitz Prize by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University . The prize is awarded "for continuous excellence in a chosen discipline in the field of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures."

Alfarabi "Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle" by Alfarabi; translated by Muhsin Mahdi, introduction by Muhsin Mahdi (Cornell University Press). This long-awaited reissue of the 1969 Cornell edition of Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle contains Muhsin Mahdi's substantial original introduction and a new foreword by Charles E. Butterworth and Thomas L. Pangle. The three parts of the book, "Attainment of Happiness," "Philosophy of Plato," and "Philosophy of Aristotle," provide a philosophical foundation for Alfarabi's political works. [Review pending]

Muhsin Mahdi is James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic, Emeritus, in the Harvard University Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization. Charles E. Butterworth is Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Thomas L. Pangle is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: The Quest for Self-Knowledge in the Teachings of Afdal Al-Din Kashani
by William C. Chittick (Oxford University Press) introduces the work of an important medieval Islamic philosopher who is little known outside the Persian world. Afdal al Din Kdshani was a contemporary of a number of important Muslim thinkers, including Averroes and Ibn al 'Arabi. Among philosophers who wrote in Persian, he is set apart by the remarkable beauty and clarity of his prose. Kashani made a considered choice to write in Persian at a time when Arabic was the language of choice for philosophy. Avoiding Arabic technical terms, he did not, in fact, write for advanced students of philosophy but rather for beginners who might not have a good grasp of Arabic.

Kashani's writings offer especially clear and insightful expositions of various philosophical positions. This makes him an invaluable resource for those who would like to learn the basic principles and arguments of this philosophical tradition but do not have a strong background in philosophy and Islamic studies. As William Chittick notes, Kishdni held the position that philosophy awakens people from forgetfulness and incites them to reach for the perfection of existence. Because ignorance of self is the cause of the soul's misery in the next life, he sought to make philosophy as accessible as possible to everyone.

This is the first book in English to present the main themes of the Islamic philosophical tradition in the words of a Muslim philosopher. Written in an accessible style, this volume will interest students and scholars of Islamic Philosophy.

Author's summary: .... One of my goals was to illustrate how key philosophical themes could be traced by following the use of basic terms. In the Arabic texts themselves, it is easy to see how the same key words are at issue from the Theology down to Mulls Sadra But the available English translations offer little help toward this goal, because various translators have followed a great diversity of paths in rendering technical terms. The goals, methods, and skills of the translators are so diverse that it is often difficult to see in any more than a general way how specific issues recur and how the philosophers dealt with the same issues from various perspectives.

Lacking an appropriate anthology of philosophical texts, it would have been useful to have an introduction to Islamic philosophical thinking rather than to the history of that thinking. Such an introduction would deal with central ideas in detail, present teachings in a way that would be faithful to the goals of the philosophers themselves, maintain consistency in choice of technical terminology, and be accessible both to those trained in Western philosophy and those versed in Islamic studies. But, to my knowledge, there is no such book.

While teaching the course, I assumed, as the students assumed, that Muslim philosophers were dealing with issues that are still very much alive, even though philosophical language and points of view may have changed radically over the centuries. I found that the students with philosophical training could immediately see that the texts were covering ground with which they were more or less familiar. But I had to spend an inordinate amount of time filling in background to illustrate how the particular approaches were deeply conditioned by presuppositions of the Islamic worldview. On the other side, students unacquainted with the Aristotelian terminology that is so central to both Western and Islamic philosophy had difficulty seeing how the issues were expressions of Islamic notions with which they were already familiar.

I finished the course thinking that I should find time to write one or two of the books that I had wished had been available. For several reasons that do not need to be detailed here, I ended up working on one and then another of the treatises of Afdal al Din Kashani. The more I read and studied these, the more I realized that an introduction to his thought could at the same time function as a primer in Islamic philosophy. Hence The Heart of Islamic Philosophy. The anthology of philosophical texts will have to wait for another occasion.

This book is not intended to cover the same ground as the several introductions to and general studies of Islamic philosophy that are now available, because all of these focus on the history and development of ideas. typically with a view toward Greek and Western philosophy, and none of them allows the philosophers to engage in sustained arguments.' There are many specialist monographs, but these are difficult for anyone not already conversant with the history of Western philosophy, or familiar with the abstruse debates that went on in Islamic philosophy and theology, or acquainted with the Islamic intellectual tradition in general. No matter how useful the monographs may be for scholars and advanced students, they cannot be recommended to beginners. There are also a good number of translated texts, but again, few of them are accessible to those without thorough training in the history of philosophy.

The Heart of Islamic Philosophy presents Islamic philosophy as series of basic questions that can be grasped by relative beginners, including undergraduates. Moreover, it seems important to me, in this day and age, to present the philosophical texts in a way that allows us to see how they might be relevant not only to the other great wisdom traditions, but also to contemporary intellectual issues. In two of the introductory chapters, I have tried to extend the basic issues of Islamic philosophy in ways that will help students see how this tradition speaks to diverse issues of continuing importance, not to mention the perennial quest for wisdom.

In brief, I wrote this book for those who want to know something about Islamic philosophy on its own terms, not simply as a chapter in the history of Western philosophy, nor as a curious bit of the past that is now concluded. I would like to suggest why this philosophy has always made sense to its practitioners and how they have seen it as a coherent worldview that explains not only the nature of things, but also the manner in which people should live their lives. I will make little reference to the history of ideas, but will rather be looking at Islamic philosophy as a living tradition in something of the way in which it has been perceived by its practitioners in later times, especially in Persia, where it has survived down to the present. In other words, I will be considering Islamic philosophy in terms of the "love of wisdom" that animates it, rather than simply its historical role. Without doubt, many historical studies of the Muslim philosophers are begging to be carried out, but greater attention also needs to be paid to the objectives of the philosophers and to the arguments and practices that were intended to achieve these objectives. Otherwise, Islamic philosophy remains a dead fish, rather than a tradition that continues to swim against the current.

In writing the book, I have tried to let Afdal al Din explain his teachings in his own terms. The earlier chapters prepare the ground for the presentation of the translated texts in the later chapters. Chapter 1 uggests something of Kashani's significance in the Islamic philosophical tradition and provides what little details are known about his life, plus a list of his known writings. Chapter 2situates Islamic philosophy within Islamic thought, moves on to the philosophical worldview in general, and then addresses some of the broad philosophical issues, drawing both from Kashani and a few of his predecessors. Recognizing that some readers will not be familiar with the usage of basic terminology, I devote chapter 3 to explaining some of the more important terms and illustrating how they are employed in the texts.

The translations are arranged in the next part of the book. I have ordered them roughly in terms of difficulty, beginning with the easiest and most direct of the works, with some allowance made for historical context.

Chapter 4 illustrates something of the philosophical and religious background as it appeared to Kashani by providing examples of his translations from the Greek philosophers and the full text of his abridgment of a work by Ghazali. All these texts are especially simple and direct.

The texts in Chapter 5 focus more on praxis than on theory and are easier to understand, by and large, than the more rigorously argued works on theory. They include several of Baba Afdal's essays, two lists of maxims, some of his poetry, and all of his letters.

Chapter 6, "Writings on Theory," is the longest section of the book. It offers a few of Baba Afdal's essays, four full­length treatises, and selections from two other treatises that offer theoretical summaries of his principle ideas.…

Baba Afdal's letters and many remarks scattered throughout his works indicate that he was writing for a group of highly motivated people, some of whom held important official positions. With some exceptions, his students did not have a good knowledge of Arabic. They had not gone through all the formal training ordinarily needed to study philosophy, but they had the intelligence, the desire, and enough learning to follow even relatively technical arguments when these were set down in clear Persian. Thus Baba Afdal was not writing for experts or advanced students, but rather for beginners. He wrote with the conscious effort to make his writings as clear as possible.

One can guess, on the basis of a comment that Baba Afdal makes at the end of his book on logic, that he felt that the majority of those already trained in the sciences were not worth addressing, because of the bad habits of mind that they would have picked up. His remark alludes to the fact that for him, as for many other philosophers, the quest for wisdom was primarily a spiritual discipline: "Suffering to efface the bad forms from such souls is much more difficult than guiding those who have not acquired anything at all".

I became especially sensitized to the issues that arise when philosophical terms are translated from one language into another during the many years that I spent on a recently completed project, The Self Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al Arabi's Cosmology. As I explain in the introduction to that book, I struggled to overcome the barriers to understanding Ibn al `Arabi's teachings that have been erected because of the excessive use of abstraction in learned discussions in English. One of Ibn al `Arabi's major philosophical methods is to recapture the etymological sense of Koranic terminology. His intentions have largely been obscured by the attempts of Western scholars to render his ideas into English. Where Ibn al 'Arabi is trying to bring the reader back to the original, concrete sense of the Arabic language, the translators and interpreters (myself included) most often have tried to find the right abstract terms from the Western philosophical and theological traditions. Given the choice between concrete English words of Anglo Saxon derivation and abstract terms from Greek or Latin, scholars typically opt for the latter. Nonetheless, Ibn al `Arabi constantly calls his readers back to the original sense of the words, and the original sense is invariably concrete and imagistic, not abstract and rationalizing. In other words, simple, straightforward English does a better job of capturing the sense than the jargon of scholarship. One might say that Ibn al `Arabi wants to bring mythos back to the center and to overcome the excessive stress of philosophers and theologians on logos. His insistence that imagination (khayal) is the centerpiece and crux of all human understanding points in the same direction.

Scholars of Islamic philosophy have traveled a similar route, which is to say that they have usually chosen the abstract over the concrete, the Latin and Greek over the everyday English. There are many good reasons for doing this, not least the fact that Greek philosophy is the common denominator between Western and Islamic medieval translators who first made Islamic philosophy known in the West and who chose certain words (Latin, of course) to translate Arabic technical terms.

However laudable the scholarly efforts to translate and explain Islamic philosophy in European languages, they sometimes seem a bit misguided. Those who have studied Islamic philosophy in the original languages often find that the use of heavy duty Latin and Greek tends to obscure points that seem abundantly clear in the original. I have frequently noticed that the only way to understand even well translated texts is to look back at the Arabic, at which point the discussion usually makes sense, sometimes because the Arabic is not written in high sounding abstractions, but rather in straightforward, concrete assertions.

Like Ibn al `Arabi, though perhaps for different reasons, Baba Afdal is especially concerned to bring out the concrete meaning of words. Ibn al 'Arabi had no choice but to write everything he wrote in Arabic, but Baba Afdal had the advantage of working simultaneously with two very different languages, one Semitic and the other Indo European. He was also completely aware of what happens when technical terms from one language are used in another.

As we all know, one of the first difficulties beginning students of philosophy face is the terminology that must be learned and understood, especially when the words have little resonance in the everyday language. The philosophical vocabulary that Persian speakers need to acquire is drawn largely from Arabic. Although many of the words are used in the colloquial language and in fields of learning other than philosophy, they tend to have a pedantic sound to them, somewhat like words of Latin and Greek derivation in English, and they are more abstract than words derived from Persian roots. Even though they may be more precise for purposes of scientific inquiry, their abstraction and precision removes them from the real world of concrete experience, where boundaries are always fuzzy. If a philosopher is striving to express reality itself, abstract precision may not be the best route.

One of the ways in which Baba Afdal overcomes the problem of technical terms is to provide equivalents or paraphrases in Persian. The advantage of Persian over Arabic is that readers will have a better sense of the concreteness of the idea and not be drawn into abstractions. They will, as it were, feel the meaning of the words in the gut, rather than having to stop and reflect about what the words mean and thereby being drawn away from the concrete, present meaning that is found at the depth of their embodied souls.

The abstractness of Arabic words used in Persian often has much to do with the fact that the derivation of the term is unclear. To give an example from English, we need to be told that "procrastination" means "to put something off," unless we happen to know Latin, in which case we see immediately that it means procrastinate, literally, "to keep for tomorrow." "Procrastination" is an abstraction, but "keeping something for tomorrow" is a concrete way of saying the same thing. So also, Persian speakers need to be told that the Arabic word taswif means "procrastination." But those conversant with classical Arabic will recognize that what it really means is "to say, 'I will, I will."' The original sense of the word is a concrete image or a specific exemplar of an idea, but gradually the image is lost and the idea becomes generalized in a way that often has little or nothing to do orginal meaning and intension.

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