Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Golden Age of Islamic Philosophy

For those of us who remember how things were when we were graduate students, getting strange confused looks when we defined our research as Islamic philosophy or Islamic intellectual history, there can be little doubt that in fact we are now living in a golden age for the subject. Almost everyone in the study of Islam seems to define what they do as intellectual history, and philosophy has come to the heart of Islamic studies, both in terms of the areas defined in job searches but also in the conception of the field as can be evinced from Shahab Ahmed's What is Islam? for example. 

[Btw check out this really interesting review of the book by Mairaj Syed on the approach to law, as well as this forum on the book].

There are a number of reasons why this is a golden age. First, there are simply far more specialists in various periods and areas from the study of logic and dialectics to metaphysics, physics and eschatology (even if for some of the older more analytically inclined the latter does not really constitute an object of philosophical inquiry), and many more graduate students. Those of us who specialise have done well to encourage others and it is through the development of capacity in the field that we progress. 

Second, we are spoiled for choice and access to texts. Manuscripts are increasingly available online in libraries in the Middle East as well as North America. Many libraries in Europe have shifted to a policy of allowing researchers to photograph freely whatever they desire from codices. And then there are the critical editions. For some years, those interested in philosophy coming out of Iran have been well served by critical editions produced by Tehran University Press, the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies, the Mīrās-e maktūb [incidentally follow their Telegram account for latest news as well as pdfs of their journals], Anjuman-e āsār u mafākhir-e farhangī, Dāʾirat al-maʿārif-e buzurg-e islāmī, and others similar institutions. We also have people blogging on research that produces these editions and on codicology such as the collective. The study of Ottoman philosophy is also well served now. Texts from the Sulemaniye collection are being produced in facsimile editions - such as the library of Ahmed III - as well as critical editions with Turkish translations often based on autograph codices though the Turkiye Yazma Eserler Kurumu Baskanligi. Most recently following a conference on the 16th century polymath Taşköprülüzade (d. 968/1561), his works have been published in critical editions. The hive of activity at Turkish universities is great to see. The unfortunate thing is that while in Turkey and Iran there is government support for such research and publication, the same cannot be said for India (or even South Asia); for those of us interested in the South Asia maʿqūlāt traditions from the 16th century onwards, the hard slog is still the only way with many obstacles in place. 

Third, specialists and more 'general' readers alike have much better access to translations and surveys as well as more specialised studies in European languages. The Islamic Translations Series at Brigham Young University Press began the process of making dual text editions available. Others doing the same with philosophical material include the Institute of Ismaili Studies' Ismaili Texts and Translations and their Epistles of the Brethren of Purity Series, the Biblioteca Iranica Series at Mazda Publishers, the Library of Arabic Literature at NYU Press, and the Shiʿah Institute's Classical Shiʿah Library at Brill. The Ueberweg Philosophie in der Islamischen Welt will become a major reference - and probably even more influential in its English translation the first volume of which is forthcoming with Brill

Most recently another work - apart from the relevant volume of Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy without Any Gaps - that will become a main reference work is the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy

This takes the interesting step of constitutes chapters that do not tackle themes but focus on one author and usually one text in chronological order. Especially important is that approach to philosophy in the world of Islam as a series of processes overlapping, intersecting with other traditions and continuing to this day. It's great to see chapters on Iqbāl, Ṭabāṭābāʾī (I confess that I had something to do with that one), and Zaki Najib Mahmud (that force us to ask the question of what does the 'Islamic' in Islamic philosophy mean?). Taken together we could consider this to be a sort of new canon of great texts - there are all pretty much here (especially if one considers greatness to be associated with the commentary cultures of the base texts): the so-called Theology of Aristotle in many ways the foundational text, the Shifāʾ of Avicenna, the Tahāfut al-falāsifa of Ghazālī (the most famous philosophical critique of metaphysics), the Sharḥ al-ishārāt of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, the Tajrīd cycle of philosophical theology, logic texts such as the mainstays of the madrasa like the Shamsīya of al-Kātibī (d. 1277) and Sullam al-ʿulūm of Bihārī (d. 1707), and even the school texts of the later seminary such as the Indian natural philosophy text al-Hadīya al-Saʿīdīya of Faḍl-e Ḥaqq Khayrābadī (d. 1861) and the Iranian metaphysical summa Sharḥ Ghurar al-farāʾid of Sabzawārī (d. 1873). The chapters on Dawānī and Ījī were particularly illuminating; they demonstrate that often the summa of philosophical theology were the vehicle for the dissemination of philosophical ideas and for the philosophical engagement with what might seem to be non-philosophical disciplines such as law and (scriptural) theology. In all it's an excellent collection which will no doubt become the main reference text in many classrooms. Of course, the work is not without its mistakes, some of which are rather odd - for example, the wrong death dates given in the title of a chapter but the correct one  within (see the chapters on Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Aḥsāʾī and Hādī Sabzawārī). 

Such a golden age means that we really have no excuse to start to fill out the contours and lines of inquiry of Islamic intellectual history and engage in the current and future debates on what constitutes philosophy and what role culture plays in that. We are in the age of cross-cultural philosophy and 'provincialising' Eurocentrism and thinking through the global categories of inquiry within metropolitan academia; it would be proper for the study of the traditions and continuities of Islamic philosophy in its different guises (Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, discursive, intuitive, logical, mystical and so forth) to play a role in the formation of a liberal philosophical education that we need today. 

No comments: