A Glance toward the Religion of Islam and Its History

A Glance toward the Religion of Islam and Its History


The interest of Western scholars in the development of Islamic philosophical thought has been comparatively small. There appear to be two reasons for this neglect: the nature of the subject matter and the character of Western scholarship itself. The main body of Islamic thought, in so far as it has any relevance outside the scope of Islam, belongs to a remote past. In fact, as this book will show, Islamic philosophy is and continues to be, even in the twentieth century, fundamentally medieval in spirit and outlook. Consequently, from the time of Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon until now, interest in this thought has been cultivated in the West only in so far as it could be shown to have a direct or indirect bearing on the development of European philosophy or Christian theology. More recently, attempts have been made by Western scholars to break away from this pattern and to approach Islamic philosophy as an intellectual concern in its own right, but the fruits of these efforts remain meager compared to the work of scholars in such cognate fields as the political, economic, and social development of the Muslim peoples.

Second, we note the radically modern direction that philosophy has taken in the West, from the seventeenth century on. Fresh attempts are continually being made to formulate a coherent world view for modern man, in which the role of ancient (Greek) and medieval (both Arabic and Latin) thought is progressively ignored or minimized. In this way Islamic philosophy suffers the same fate as European medieval philosophy. Furthermore, the role that Arabic philosophy played in preserving and transmitting Greek thought between A.D. 800 and 1200 has become much less significant for Western scholarship since the recovery of the original Greek texts.

It can hardly be denied that the system of ideas by which the Muslim peoples have interpreted and continue to interpret the world is relevant to the student of culture. Nor is the more abstract, formulation of this system, in theology or metaphysics, devoid of, intrinsic value. For it should be recalled that Greek philosophy, in which modern Western thought has its origins, has played a crucial role in the formulation of Islamic philosophy, whereas it has made almost no impact on other cultures, such as the Indian or Chinese. This consideration alone should be sufficient to reveal the close affinities between Islamic and Western thought.

The first important modern study in the general field of Arabic philosophy is Amable Jourdain's Recherches critiques sur l'ge et l'origine des traductions d'Aristote et sur Ies documents grecs ou arabes employs par Ies docteurs scholastiques, which appeared in 1819. This book helped to underscore the influence of Arabic philosophy on Western, particularly Latin, scholastic thought. It was followed in 1852 by Ernest Rnan's classic study, Averros et I'averrosme, which has since been reprinted several times. In 1859 appeared Solomon Munk's Mlanges de philosophie juive et arabe, a general survey of Jewish-Arabic philosophy which is still of definite value. Early in the twentieth century appeared T. J. de Boer's Geschichte der Philosophie in Islam (1901), which was translated into English in 1903 and continues to be the best comprehensive account of Islamic philosophy in German and English. A more popular but still useful survey, Arabic Thought and Its Place in History by de Lacy O'Leary, appeared in 1922. The many surveys by Carra de Vaux, G. Quadri, and L. Gauthier are listed in the Bibliography.

We must mention, however, three historical narratives which appeared in very recent years. M. Cruz Hernandez, Filosofia hispano-musulmana (1957), though primarily concerned with Spanish-Muslim philosophy, contains extensive and valuable accounts of the major "Eastern" philosophers and schools. W. Montgomery Watt's Islamic Philosophy and Theology (1962), which is part of a series entitled "Islamic Surveys," is weighted in favor of theology and therefore does not add much to our knowledge of Islamic philosophy. Henry Corbin's Histoire de la philosophie islamique (1964), though very valuable, does not recognize the organic character of Islamic thought and tends to overemphasize the Shi'ite and particularly Isma'ili element in the history of this thought. M. M. Sharif's History of Muslim Philosophy is a symposium by a score of writers and lacks for this reason the unity of conception and plan that should characterize a genuine historical survey.

In the field of Greco-Arab scholarship, Islamic philosophy owes much to the studies of Richard Walzer, now available in the one-volume Greek into Arabic (1962), and to the critical editions of texts prepared by M. Bouyges, S.J. (d. 1951) and Abdu'l-Rahman Badawi. Bouyges made available to scholars, in the Bibliotheca Arabica Scholasticorum, a series of fundamental works in unsurpassed critical editions. A. R. Badawi has edited, over a period of two decades, a vast amount of philosophical texts which have considerably widened the scope of Arabic philosophical studies. As for the Ishraqi tradition, Henry Corbin is a pioneer whose studies will probably acquire greater signif1cance as the post-Averroist and Shiite element in Muslim philosophy is more fully appreciated. Finally, the studies of L. Gardet, Mlle. A. M. Goichon, L. Gauthier, I. Madkour, S. van den Bergh, G. C. Anawati, S. Pines, M. Alonso. and L. Massignon are among the most important contemporary contributions to the study of Muslim thought; these books are listed in the Bibliography.

An argument against the attempt to write a general history of Islamic philosophy might be based on the fact that a great deal of the material involved must await critical editions and analysis before an attempt can be made to assess it. I believe that this objection is valid in principle. However, a fair amount of material is now available, either in good editions or manuscripts, and the collation of the two should make interpretation relatively accurate. More over, the writing of a general history that would give scholars a comprehensive view of the whole field is a prerequisite of progress in that field, since it is not possible otherwise to determine the areas in which further research must be pursued or the gaps which must be filled.

We might finally note that the writing of a history of philosophy, as distinct from a philosophical chronicle, must involve a considerable element of interpretation and evaluation, in addition to the bare narrative of events, the listing of authors, or the exposition of concepts; without such interpretation the dynamic movement of the mind, in its endeavor to comprehend the world in a coherent manner, can scarcely be understood. In taking this approach a writer might find it valuable to reexamine areas which others have studied before him. In this hazardous undertaking I have naturally tried to learn as much as possible from other scholars. However, in the exposition of philosophical concepts or problems I have relied primarily on the writings of the philosophers themselves. Sometimes the interpretation of philosophical or theological doctrines has compelled me to turn to the studies of contemporary authorities. I did not feel, however, once those doctrines had been sufficiently clarified, that it was necessary to multiply these authorities endlessly. The purpose of the Bibliography at the end of the book is to acquaint the interested reader with the work of other scholars in the field and to indicate the extent of the material used in the writing of this book.

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