The article under review is written by Oliver Leaman, a profound Professor of Philosophy at the Liverpool John Moores University with a scholarship on medieval Islamic philosophy.
The article begins with the contextual setting of Muslim empire at the time of rapid expansion of Muslim Civilisation in the Middle East after the death of Prophet Mohammad. As the Muslims settled in various parts of Middle East, they came into contact with various people possessing profound knowledge on various themes such as theology, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. Leaman discusses various motives that encouraged Muslim Empire to learn this knowledge.
The early Muslim Empire had to decide whether to just ignore this knowledge as they were based on other religions or try to adopt within their own perspective. As they embraced the knowledge, resulting in the scientific and philosophical richness, Leaman explains the two main motives behind this adoption. The first one was the need to defend the new religion and debate with Non-Muslims for conversion. Second was the enthusiasm of learning this knowledge to attain the sophistication they saw in terms of literacy, health and education in that community. This resulted in the translation of scientific and philosophical knowledge through the foundation of academies.
Another noteworthy point which Leaman highlights regarding the interest in the other culture was to access the philosophical corpus they possessed. The Greek philosophical tradition which, through Alexander, came to Persia had made strong arguments and the classification in describing the nature, metaphysics and even the poetry helped Muslims to convince their own ideas against any opponent. This was largely taken by the Muslim world in order to develop this convincing ability through the various rhetorical ideas not only to debate with the other communities but also within the Muslims.
He further explains the need of convincing amongst Muslims of different communities but does not go into the historical details of various communities that were established after the death of Holy prophet and the unrest which was created because of too many interpretations. The need to develop a comprehensive theology was indeed very important to have a clearer understanding of the Quran. However, the article does not discuss this in detail.
Based on the philosophical inquiries mentioned above, not only the geniuses like Al-Farabi, Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd were developed but also a lot of thinkers like Abu Sulayman Sijistani whose philosophical work was not that popular but his work regarding the sayings of popular philosophers, the aphorism and adages was more widely read as they were more practical and related to common man, compared to the heavy commentaries of Plato and Aristotle which was alien to the common man.
The article gives enough arguments regarding the popularity of philosophical literature and scientific expansion in the first few centuries of Islam first in the Middle East and later in Andalusia in Spain. However, there is no mention of Egypt (Fatimid) civilization and its glory. Leaman says that the Islamic Spain had the reputation of the best learning place for science, mathematics, philosophy and technical knowledge. Leaman here also gives a very important point to reflect upon. He says that the concentration should not only be made on the great scientist or mathematicians but we should also acknowledge those discoveries which were of more importance to the lives of common people such as the work of engineers who were involved in the town planning and developing machinery to help the banal and give their contribution the due credit which usually gets ignored.
Although there was definitely a deliberate effort to take the best of ancient sciences and philosophies but this was not as smooth a process as it may appear today. There was defiance against this movement as people believed that knowledge which Muslim philosophers are so anxious in adopting is actually coming from the pagans such as Aristotle and Plato. They considered Quran and other religious work to be adequate to address any issues arising in the minds of people and hence there should be no need to refer to the pagans to find out about the world.
The debate was not between people who supported reason and those who did not since both the parties were rational and wanted their method to be accepted. The argument was whose reason should be accepted. The Muslim philosophers and scientists argued that just because Plato and Aristotle were pagans does not mean that their thoughts did not contain any wisdom and knowledge. Contrary to that some Muslim thinkers suggested that the thought of Plato and Aristotle had no wisdom in comparison to the Islamic Sciences.
An element which Leaman does not discusses during this argument is that some of the Muslim thinkers like Al-Kindi tried to make a balance between philosophy and Islamic teachings but that too came under a lot of criticism later on by Muslim thinkers like Al Ghazali.
However the argument and the struggle which went for many years poses a very important question which Oliver refers to as to how much is acceptable for one to borrow from a culture which is not one’s own. Responding to this, he gives some very thought provoking points. The Philosophers argued that it’s not about how much knowledge is being adopted from other cultures since ordinary Muslims have not much idea about science or philosophy nevertheless so they don’t know where the thought is coming from. But at the same time the common man also accesses the same truth but in a different way as compared to scientists and philosophers.
Now, the big argument against the philosophers would be that, they claim themselves as ones who possess the intellect to go into these debates on Ex-Nihilo and the concept of (KUN) whereas ordinary man is only required to do the daily rituals, leaving it to the philosophers to go into the profundity. But Leaman mentions that philosophers in that period were not that pompous, but, it maybe from their style, the reflection seems to be more of exhibiting themselves as Elite.
Leaman explains very diligently the quality of religion by taking the example of the Holy Prophet. He says that the job of religion is to bring all people together so that truth can be accessible to everyone. Just like Prophet who not only had the theoretical knowledge of the philosophers and scientists but also had the brilliance to communicate this message in such a manner that even the most ordinary person would be able to understand it and that is why Islam achieved so much success in such a short span of time.
Since God has created people with different intelligence level, it is quite natural that He should create a mechanism through which everyone would be able to attain salvation. Mohammad knew how to cater to the complexities of the religion based on the level and understanding of different people. Islam propagates message that can be understood at different levels by people having varied intellectual capacities. Hence, the knowledge from other cultures could be adopted if it was useful in any sense.
Finally, Leaman shifts his gear into the current era and highlights some important areas inviting lot of thinking. He says that Peripatetic philosophy which flourished in the Muslim world till the 11th Century until its revival in the 19th century but this time the revival happened more so in the western world through scientific development. Now Leaman points towards two questions. The first is how much the Muslims can borrow this science and philosophy and incorporate in their own culture and make it Islamic. Second is that, thousand years ago, it was possible to create a civilisation which was a combination of Islam, science, philosophy and literature but is it possible to recreate that today in an Islamic way?
Another important point that Leaman mentions here is that whether the culture that was developed was Islamic or was it just that the dominant Muslims were able to adopt and learn from various cultures and develop the languages and sciences which are now termed as Islamic Sciences. On the contrary, Leaman also says that the way early Muslim Civilisation articulated the spirituality by using the imagery from Quran & Hadith is Islamic in its true sense. This comment can also be argued in a sense that the teachings of Quran & Hadith is evolutionary in nature, therefore, it should not be termed as Islamic as it freezes the essence and symbolic nature of Quran and Hadith.
Leaman at the end of the article gives some recommendations regarding his above mentioned queries. He emphasises on the need to reconnect and reinvent the spiritual aspect of philosophy which was present centuries back. The very basis of the intellectual tradition of first four centuries was the acceptance of early religions like Judaism and Christianity but what Islam did is to complete them and define the best understanding of God. The Muslim philosopher used to bring this out clearly that to teach the truth there are many ways and none can be negated only because of the difference in religion. This acceptance and lesser defensive attitude is perhaps what are required to bring the real change in today’s Islam.
Leaman has used an argumentative style of writing this article, making it very interesting and easy to understand. However, there are few pre-reqs to comprehend this article. These include historical knowledge of first four centuries of Islam, basic knowledge of Greek and peripatetic philosophy and the context and process of Muslim Intellectual tradition. There seemed to be no gaps in the article except few places where referencing were required especially when the author talks about various types of philosophies circulating in Persia and Andalusia. Though a simple language has been used but since this article was presented in a seminar to the academicians at the University of Cambridge along with talks from other prominent scholars, it has an academic flavour.
From the Book
Intellectual Tradition in Islam
Edited by Farhad Daftary