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The Saga of Islamic Philosophy

Between Truth and History: The Saga of Islamic Philosophy


The present state of the notion of Islamic philosophy is surrounded by a number of lingering difficulties. First of all, there is the problem of the orthodoxy or islamicity of Islamic philosophy. The Orientalist reading of Islamic thought was based on the firm conviction that Islamic philosophy is not an 'Islamic' philosophy but Greek philosophy in the garment of Arabic language and culture. The term 'Muslim' philosophy, which gained a widespread currency especially in the Muslim India and Pakistan, was in fact a reversed version of the same assumption that Islamic philosophy is not an Islamic philosophy in the sense of being derived from the worldview and conceptual framework of Islam but simply a form of philosophy carried out by Muslims. Thus the contingent nature of Islamic philosophy ruled out the possibility of having an Islamic philosophy altogether. The presumed drift between philosophy and the Quranic Weltanschauung came to be seen as an essential tension underlying the basic parameters of philosophical activity in Islamic civilization. This tension was so much privileged in the current discussions of the subject that the so-called clash or confrontation between reason and revelation in Islam was identified as the perennial problem of Islamic philosophy. The tacit presumption was and is that 'religion' is in and of itself 'irrational', that it cannot be accommodated by reason, and that it needs to be modified and 'rationalized'. Not surprisingly, Islamic intellectual tradition including philosophy is still seen as part of the problem rather than the solution.

The second problem that faces Islamic philosophy is related to the way it is studied in various contexts both in the West and the Islamic world. With a few notable exceptions such as the works of Henry Corbin, Toshihiko Izutsu, William Chittick and S. Hossein Nasr whose two books are the subject of this essay, Islamic philosophy is studied not as philosophy as such but as part of the history of ideas. Various subjects and issues that are dealt with in Islamic philosophy are not regarded as genuine philosophical questions that may have relevance today but as part of a number of barren propositions which form the underpinnings of a linear-progressive history of ideas. The historicalization of 'philosophia' in the Pythagorean sense of the term tends to reduce the most fundamental notions of philosophy to socio-political and economic conditions and structures. Hence the types of historicism from which not only Islamic philosophy but also other intellectual traditions suffer. Seen under this light, what matters to us becomes very different from what mattered to a Farabi, Suhrawardi or Mulla Sadra.

The last and by no means least of these problems is the very definition of philosophy itself. Much has been written about different meanings of philosophy across the world civilizations as well as within a particular universe of thought. With the rise of postmodern fashions, however, we are faced with a new phenomenon, namely that we do not talk about 'plural', therefore contingent and relative, meanings of philosophy anymore but about the meaninglessness of philosophy. Philosophy loses its meaning because the postmodern mind thinks that it has exhausted all the possibilities by transcending the dichotomies of the Enlightenment. Everything comes to an end because things do not have any significance or purpose anymore. The ultimate questions of philosophy are now replaced with the contingent, the arbitrary, the historical, and the conventional. Although the severing of philosophy from moral virtues was already a big comfort, this brings an additional relief to the modern man because now he does not have to search for something beyond the world of appearance, for an ultimate ground, meaning or truth. Thus we have the alluring pleasure of 'taking it easy' as if the temporary oblivion of a problem solves the problem.

One has to resist the temptation of the immediacy of the present when the present is equated with the fashionable and the transient. Fads do not lead us to the principle of things whereas Islamic philosophy begins and ends with such a set of principles (al-umur al-'ammah and mabadi' of the philosophers). The sharp contrast between what the classical Islamic philosophers tried to achieve and where we try to locate them today necessitates a redrawing of the maps of Islamic philosophy. At this juncture, the guiding principle of any study of Islamic thought should be not what is fashionable in the market but what mattered to those thinkers.

Without venturing into a detailed discussion of these points, one can say that the works of Dr. Nasr have provided a certain framework in which these issues can properly be addressed. In his various writings, Nasr has claimed that Islamic philosophy is not simply 'Muslim' philosophy, a type of philosophy produced by people who happen to be Muslim, but a particular philosophy whose ontological, epistemological, cosmological, axiological and political premises have been derived from the womb of Islamic revelation. From Three Muslim Sages to his introduction to History of Islamic Philosophy, Nasr has put considerable effort to demonstrate the fact that the intellectual foundations of Islamic philosophy are rooted in the Quranic Weltanschauung and not in Greek thought without denying the existence of the latter along with other pre-Islamic schools of thought. Nasr goes even further and makes the bold claim that Islamic philosophy has become even more Islamic as it has developed historically. This is especially true when we consider the fact that with the demise of Peripatetic philosophy after Ibn Rushd, Islamic philosophy took another course in which it not only came closer to the Quran but also incorporated many elements of later kalam, tasawwuf, ishraq and 'irfan.

As for the meaning of philosophy today, it goes without saying that the current conceptions of philosophy, whether modern or postmodern, cannot be taken as a frame of reference to define and evaluate Islamic philosophy. Differences are blatantly obvious, and Nasr rightly says that 'one cannot use the term 'philosophy' for both Quine and Mulla Sadra in the same sense.' Philosophy devoid of ethics, confined to the interpretation of physical sciences and finally reduced to formal logic is not surely the type of philosophy a Farabi, Ikhwan al-Safa or Nasir al-Din Tusi would approve of.

At this point, one of the distinguishing features of the works of Dr. Nasr is certainly the kind of seriousness and consideration given to that which mattered to Islamic philosophers. In sharp contrast to the histories of Islamic philosophy written from an Orientalist and historicist point of view, what comes to the fore in Nasr's account of history are such fundamental principles as the quest for the truth, the possibility and necessity of a genuine philosophical understanding, the sacred, tradition, and continuity. In some ways, this can be compared to the classical way of doing 'history' despite the intriguing fact that 'history' in the ordinary sense of the term does not exist in classical Islamic thought. An Avicennean reading of Plato or a Sadrean reading of Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi is not grounded in the historical contingencies of a particular thinker and his life-world but in that aspect which relates and conforms to the truth, its cogent and coherent expression, and its spiritual realization. Since the lower cannot beget the higher as the Muslim philosophers have always insisted upon, the centrality of philosophical truth and its interiorization takes prominence over socio-historical considerations and conditions which constitute, at best, the backdrop of the truth, and not the truth per se. Seen from this angle, the historicist categories of borrowing, influence, transmission, translation, adoption, reproduction, and so on so forth claim only a secondary importance for the philosopher. What was poignantly vital for an Ibn Sina in reading Aristotle was not the historical and contingent conditions which supposedly gave rise to the way Aristotle formulated his ideas but precisely those ideas and principles which were 'substantial' enough to be able to survive the debilitating effects of time and space. In disregarding 'history' as a fundamental category of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, just like any other traditional school of philosophy, was making a deliberate choice in order not to fall into the self-contradiction of historicism which labels everything in history contingent and constructed except the grand category of 'history'.

This is not to deny the possibility of a history of philosophy or the idea of history in Islamic philosophy altogether. One has to distinguish, however, between history as such and historicism because what we deal with in Islamic philosophy is not the result of the philosopher's quest for the historical, the transient and the ephemeral, this would be absurd to say for any philosopher, but, on the contrary, the trans-historical, the perennial, and the everlasting. This is how the classical Muslim philosophers read philosophies and sciences prior to them. This is how a Mulla Sadra read the entire history of philosophy, both Islamic and pre-Islamic, in his Asfar and other writings. This is the type of history to which the truth matters. This is what Henry Corbin refers to as hierohistoire as opposed to l'historicisme. Said differently, this is the type of history for which the categories of truth (haqq) and falsity (batil), the sacred, wisdom, tradition, continuity, perennial values, moral perfection, and spiritual realization are indispensable and existentially relevant.

One should also pay close attention to the importance of oral tradition for Islamic philosophy. One finds no trace of oral tradition in modern scholarship on Islamic philosophy not simply because oral tradition is not a scholarly category, difficult to ascertain or unreliable but because orality itself has been looked down upon by the modern conception of education which privileges the written culture over the oral tradition. In the same way, almost no attention has been paid to the fact that the Qur'an, the Islamic revelation, is a sonoral revelation, that is, it has been first told to and heard by the Prophet, and then written down. Although Islamic civilization was a deeply bookish civilization, its oral tradition was a sine qua non of this written body of knowledge. It was within the framework provided by oral tradition that the written culture of Islamic philosophy was structured, interpreted and taught. This is all the more so for the works of Dr. Nasr because he himself is part of this oral tradition as he has received his first education from traditional masters of Iran and continued to take lessons with them even after he completed his doctorate. As every serious student of philosophy knows, what is written down in between the two covers of a book is only the traces the author has left on the sand. One has to go beyond the limits of the footprints on the sand to be able to grasp what the philosopher saw in the shore he had walked upon.

The reassessment of the category of history in relation to the study of Islamic philosophy points to a dire necessity of rewriting the history of Islamic philosophy on the basis of the principles of Islamic intellectual tradition. When read with such a concern in mind, the works of Dr. Nasr provide many clues for the undertaking of such a daunting task. From Three Muslim Sages to History of Islamic Philosophy which he edited with O. Leaman, one can detect an underlying concern for an authentic study and understanding of Islamic philosophy faithful to the spirit of, say, an Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi or Mulla Sadra.

Both The Islamic Intellectual History in Persia and Sadr al-Din Shirazi and his Transcendent Theosophy provide a good example of this approach to the Islamic philosophical tradition. The underlying theme of these two books of Dr. Nasr as of his other works on Islamic philosophy is the concern for the restatement of Islamic philosophy within the terms of Islamic intellectual tradition that he describes as a living tree. With its roots, trunk, branches and the fruit it bears, the full symbolism of tree helps us understand Islamic philosophy not as a mere bulk of discrete ideas and impotent formulations but as a living tradition which maintains its relevance even today for the contemporary Muslim world. As the last two centuries of the confrontation between Islamic and Western civilizations attest to, the most destructive challenge of modern-secular civilization has been not so much its military and economic power as its philosophical claims. On the other hand, the Moghul invasion which had come to the point of destroying almost the entire political fabric of the Islamic world had no intellectual challenge for Islamic civilization which was then strong and confident enough to ensure its survival and continuity. Thus, we all know too well that no attempt to revive Islamic civilization will have a chance of success without bringing out the relevance of Islamic philosophy for today.

The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia edited by Mehdi Amin Razavi, a former student of Nasr, consists of twenty-four articles by Nasr and covers the vast field of philosophical activities in Persia over the last two millennia. Although all of these articles were previously published in various journals both in Persian and English, the collection gives the reader the opportunity of having a focused look at various philosophical issues and figures from cosmology and ontology to Ibn Sina and Mulla Sadra. The first part of the book deals with the question of the continuity of Iranian culture. Since Nasr approaches the concept of continuity from the perspective of philosophia perennis or al-hikmat al-khalidah, he singles out the striking similarities between the pre-Islamic and Islamic cosmological doctrines developed in Persia not as a matter of cultural and ethnic continuity but as a result of the omnipresence of hikmah which the Prophet of Islam (saw) urges his ummah to seek for even if it were in China. It is to be noted also that Persia, for Nasr, signifies that cultural zone of Islam and 'landscape' in which the philosophical and mystical schools gain prominence over linguistic and geographic considerations. Thus the whole notion of cultural interaction takes on a different meaning which is totally absent in the so-called cultural and civilizational studies. Nasr states this as follows: 'Because it was destined to be the last religion and the seal of the prophetic cycle, Islam possesses a unique power of assimilation and synthesis. This characteristic enabled Islam to remain fully itself and yet allow the Persians not only to participate in its life and to contribute fully to its elaboration but also to enable them to contemplate in its vast firmament the shining stars of the most profound elements of their ancient religious and spiritual past, a past which far from dying out gained a new interpretation and became in a sense partly resurrected in the new spiritual universe brought into being by the Islamic revelation.' (p. 8)

The second part of the book is comprised of six articles devoted to the salient figures of early Islamic philosophy. Nasr's article on al-Farabi discusses one of the most interesting subjects of the history of Islamic philosophy, namely the reason why al-Farabi was called the second teacher (al-mu'allim al-thani) after Aristotle, the first teacher (al-mu'allim al-awwal). The following two articles on Ibn Sina attempt to look at Shayk al-Rais not as the ardent rationalist philosopher of Islam but as the doctor maximus of philosophy and sciences on the one hand, and the author of such works as Mantiq al-Mashriqiyyin and Maqamat al-'Arifin, on the other.

The third part brings together three important articles on Suhrawardi and the school of illumination, which attests to the long preoccupation of Nasr with the Shaykh al-Ishraq and his illuminationist metaphysics. As we all know, the credit for introducing Suhrawardi into the English-speaking world goes to Nasr who views the Suhrawardian metaphysics not as a remnant of the history of ideas but as a genuine and integral path leading to the realization of truth. It is, therefore, not surprising to see a whole chapter devoted to the figure of Suhrawardi. An important issue raised by this chapter is the question of the schools of Islamic philosophy and how to classify them. It is almost impossible to locate the school of Ishraq within the Islamic thought if we limit ourselves to the standard division of falsafah, kalam, and tasawwuf. This holds true also for the school of Ibn Arabi, school of Isfahan, and a considerable part of the Ottoman intellectual history. This tripartite division was made first by classical authors in an instrumental way without excluding the possibility of other schools and modes of thought. The al-hikmat al-muta'aliyah of Mulla Sadra or 'irfan and tahqiq of Ibn Arabi is a case in point here. Furthermore, this description was primarily meant to delineate the early period of Islamic thought and not the post-Avicennian Islamic philosophy where we see the flourishing of all of these schools in a new vain with the rise of such prominent figures as Ghazzali, Suhrawardi, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra. It is, therefore, important to emphasize the school of Ishraq not only from the point of view of doctrine and metaphysics but also historical periodization and classification.

The fourth part contains six essays on 'Omar Khayyam, Hakim Nizami Ganjawi, Nasir al-Din Tusi, Qutb al-Din Shirazi and Rashid al-Din Fadlallah which is misprinted as Fadallah in the table of contents. Regarding this chapter, one only wishes that Dr. Nasr would have allotted more space on 'Omar Khayyam and his philosophical work.

The fifth part of the book deals with figures of later Islamic philosophy. Nasr's three important essays on the school of Isfahan, Sadr al-Din Shirazi and Mulla Hadi Sabziwari provide a vivid account of the course of later Islamic philosophy in Persia. As the names of Haydar Amuli, Mir Damad, Mir Findiriski, Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani, Mulla Sadra, Abd al-Razzaq Lahiji, and Sabziwari become more and more important for the later development and continuity of Islamic philosophy, these essays appear as a strong statement of the continuity of philosophical activity in various parts of the Islamic world, especially in Persia. The closing essay of the book completes this theme by providing a detailed survey of Islamic philosophical activities in Persia in the 50's and 60's.

Nasr's way of reading the history of Islamic philosophy is carried on to his book on Sadr al-Din Shirazi, also known as Mulla Sadra. Before turning to this short yet important book, however, the editor of The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia, Mehdi Amin Razavi should be congratulated for his effort in bringing these essays together. Amin Razavi not only collected these essays published in various journals over the years but also translated some of them written originally in Persian. He is also to be credited for his introduction that supplies the reader with a concise analysis of Nasr's concept of philosophy as it is reflected in the essays.

Sadr al-Din Shirazi and his Transcendent Theosophy was originally published in 1978. The new edition published in Iran comes with two new chapters and a preface. Besides Fazlur Rahman's The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra published in 1975, this book is one of the first works written in English on Mulla Sadra. Although both of these books were instrumental in inciting interest in Mulla Sadra, the only other work published as a book on Mulla Sadra is James Morris' translation of al-Hikmat al-'Arshiyyah under the title The Wisdom of the Throne (Princeton, 1981) which is both a translation and commentary with a long introduction and extensive notes. Most recently, the Turkish scholar Alparslan Acikgenc brought out his doctoral dissertation on Sadra and Heidegger which he completed under the supervision of late Fazlur Rahman. Although Acikgenc's book published in Malaysia as Being and Existence in Sadra and Heidegger (ISTAC, 1993) provides a very interesting and successful comparison of the ontological and existential ideas of the two thinkers, it lacks, as a common flaw of all comparative works, in concentration.

Given the present state of the Sadrean studies, Nasr's book comes as a notable contribution to the field. This book was intended to be the first part of a two-volume work on Mulla Sadra, the first volume which is the present book in review being an introduction to the life and works of Mulla Sadra, and the second volume planned as a comprehensive analysis of the doctrines of Mulla Sadra. Unfortunately, the second volume newer saw the day of light so far, and the students of Mulla Sadra (perhaps Sadra himself in the world of spirits!) are still waiting eagerly for this volume to come out. But we know that Dr. Nasr is now working on the translation of Kitab al-Masha'ir which will include his own commentary and notes. Since K. al-Masha'ir is a summa of the Sadrean doctrines, we hope that this translation-commentary will substitute for the promised second volume on the metaphysical and philosophical teachings of Sadra.

The book begins with a delineation of the intellectual milieu in the wake of which Sadra came to stand at the crossroads of various philosophical school and ideas preceding him. This part shows that Sadra was able to create his grand synthesis on the basis of such a background made possible by the long tradition of Islamic philosophy. What is remarkable about this chapter is that it depicts the intellectual and philosophical world prior to Sadra in a very vivid and lucid language. With this background, one sees clearly how various schools of thought as well as the Shari'ah sciences were in close interaction with one another. Thus, we are able to trace the intellectual lineage of Sadra from Ibn Sina and Suhrawardi to Ibn Arabi and Mir Damad, the immediate teacher of Sadra, from whom he was later to depart his way on the most fundamental question of metaphysics, namely the priority of wujud over mahiyyah, known as asalat al-wujud.

The second chapter is devoted to the life and works of Sadra. After providing an account of the life of Sadra on the basis of traditional sources including the autobiographical sketches of Sadra himself, Nasr proceeds to the summary analysis of the 46 works of Sadra. This part is valuable for discussing the contents of these works as well as for showing the depth and breadth of the Sadrean corpus. The third chapter turns to Sadra's magnum opus al-Hikmat al-Muta'aliyah fi'l-Asfar al-Aqliyyat al-Arba'ah which is one of the most monumental works of Islamic philosophy. One may even argue that Sadra's Asfar ranks as high as the Shifa of Ibn Sina and al-Futuhat al-Makkiyyah of Ibn Arabi in its scope and originality. In this part, Nasr, after explaining the meaning of the four journeys (al-asfar al-arba'ah) on which the plan of Asfar is based, provides an excellent survey of Asfar by outlining its subjects, divisions, subdivisions and main issues discussed. This survey is of great help and interest especially to those who make their first acquaintance with the philosophical world of Sadra. The chapter ends with a list of commentators who have glossed over Asfar from Aqa Muhammad Bidabadi to Husayn Tabatabai, the most recent commentator of Sadra, thus pointing to the continuity of philosophical activity in Islamic civilization.

This is followed by a chapter on the 'sources' of Mulla Sadra's ideas. As we have stated before, Nasr's approach to history is very different from other accounts and, this chapter, in fact, exemplifies the traditional form of 'doing history'. He puts emphasis on the 'vertical' rather than the horizontal causes as far as philosophy is concerned, and draws attention to the fact that Sadra's intellectual vision cannot be reduced to the 'simple amalgamation of a certain number of previously existing ideas' (p. 69). Seen under this light, no figure of Islamic philosophy including Mulla Sadra can be reduced to the ''effect' of a number of historical causes'. With his unusual erudition, Nasr is able to show how Sadra made use of all the previous ideas, discussions, approaches and sciences without falling into the trap of shallow syncreticism and eclecticism, and dovetailed them with great profoundness and originality in his grand synthesis.

Chapter five, together with chapter six, contains the most philosophical discussion of the book and presents an analysis of the meaning of 'transcendent theosophy' which Nasr offers as the translation of al-hikmat al-ilahiyyah. Although Nasr, along with H. Corbin, was at times criticized for using the term 'theosophy' because of the distorted use of this word by some new-age occult groups, he is, I believe, right in insisting on it as being the correct translation of al-hikmat al-ilahiyyah. Accordingly, hakim-i ilahi and hakim-i muta'allih will be translated neither as philosopher nor simply sage but as 'theosopher' an appellation and title both Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi, before Sadra, have chosen for themselves.

The transcendent theosophy as a distinct mode of thinking is based on three principles: 'intellectual intuition or illumination (kashf or dhawq or ishraq); reason and rational demonstration ('aql or istidlal); and religion or revelation (shar' or wahy).' This is a type of philosophy which combines both rational thinking and intellectual illumination, a way of thinking which begins with logic (al-mantiq) and ends with ecstasy and joy (wajd wa'l-surur) as we see in the very plan of Suhrawardi's Hikmat al-Ishraq. Put differently, this is one of the supreme manifestations of the path of knowledge (ma'rifah) closely associated with philosophia perennis. Ibn Sina gives the first signs of this philosophy; Suhrawardi enlarges and deepens it in his metaphysics of light; Ibn Arabi produces the gnostic formulation of it par excellence; and Mulla Sadra provides the most systematic and succinct account of it. After discussing the meaning of al-hikmat al-muta'aliyah, Nasr turns to the similarities and differences between Mulla Sadra and the school of Ishraq upon which Sadra heavily relies in his works. He also touches upon the main differences between Sadra and Ibn Sina and Ibn Arabi both of whose presence are felt vividly in the Sadrean corpus.

The last two chapters which are the new additions to the present edition dwell upon the influence of Mulla Sadra on Islamic philosophy in Qajar period and the Quranic commentaries of Sadra, respectively. Chapter six, which was, as we were informed by Dr. Nasr, written as the first chapter of his planned second volume on Mulla Sadra, analyzes the basic teachings of Sadra's metaphysics with great clarity. It is also in this chapter that one finds the deeper structure and overtones of the transcendent theosophy for such fundamental questions of philosophy as essence and existence and the gradation of being. The last chapter of the book focuses on one of the most neglected aspects of Mulla Sadra and, in fact, of other Islamic philosophers, viz. the Qur'anic commentaries of Islamic philosophers. Since classical Islamic philosophy has usually been set against the teachings of the Qur'an and the hadith, the relationship between these two sources of Islam and the works of Muslim philosophers has either been skipped over or discarded as a subject of scholarly study. Even today, no serious study of this important subject has been undertaken by either Western scholars of Islam or by Muslim intellectuals, the only two exceptions being Louis Gardet's La Pensee religieuse d'Avicenne (Paris, 1951) and Muhsin Salih's unpublished Ph.D. thesis The Verse of the Light: A Study of Mulla Sadra's Philosophical Qur'an Exegesis (Temple University, 1993). The chapter on the Quranic commentaries of Mulla Sadra is, therefore, a very important step towards bringing out this much neglected aspect of Islamic philosophy. After discussing the four sources of Sadra's Qur'anic exegesis, namely the Sufi, the Shi'ite, the theological and the philosophical commentaries, Nasr focuses, as an example, on Sadra's commentary on ayat al-nur which has been the subject of numerous commentaries by Islamic philosophers and the Sufis.

The overall impression with which one finishes these two books is substantially different from standard histories of Islamic philosophy. In contrast to various descriptions of Islamic philosophy as a barren and outdated form of thinking, Nasr's works present a different picture of Islamic philosophy which is not only saturated with veritable principles of the Quranic revelation and metaphysics but also able to offer invaluable insights for the revival of Islamic civilization. Considering the fact that no civilization can dispense with philosophy, we hope that the new generation of Muslim scholars and even the Western students of Islam will pay enough attention to the picture of Islamic philosophy presented by the works of Dr. Nasr.


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