120 - The Straight Path: Philosophy in the Islamic World

Posted on 17 March 2013

The rise of Islam creates a new context for philosophy not only among Muslims, but also Jews and Christians.

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Further Reading

• P. Adamson and R.C. Taylor (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (Cambridge: 2005).

• M. Campanini, An Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (Edinburgh: 2008).

• M. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy (New York: 1983).

• S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds), History of Islamic philosophy (London: 1995)

Comments

Aida A 17 March 2013

Hi. I just want to say that this is interesting. I don't know about other episodes (means that i listened just this one). Or maybe this is too interesting. In a positive way of course. :) Thank you Peter and your helpers, for researching the gap and trying to fill it.

Peter Adamson 17 March 2013

Just in case people are wondering this new musical clip is by the Ensemble Maraghi, whose website is here. It is the beginning of the first track off their album "Anwar." My thanks to Giovanni de Zorzi for allowing me to use this wonderful bit of music.

Giuliano Pietoso 18 March 2013

Awsome episode Peter. I was really looking forward to this part of the history of philosophy ever since I started listening to the pod cast some time ago!

Medieval philosophy, specially this part of it (arabic) is not well covered, or even talked about in most courses here in Brazil and beeing your speciality I belive the quality of the contents will be even better (if possbile) than the other already great podcasts.

Thank you for giving this back to the community.

Cheers from the south.

Peter Adamson 18 March 2013

In reply to by Giuliano Pietoso

Believe me, no one is more glad to have gotten here than I am! (The church fathers were fascinating for me but a lot of work, it's good to be back to material I know really well.) I'm glad that you are interested in the topic, I always hoped to use this podcast to bring the story of philosophy in the Islamic world to a wider audience so I hope that people will find these episodes interesting.

Bobbb 19 March 2013

I'm curious where the boundary exists between theology and philosophy when it comes to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish thinkers.

Also, I wanted to say that I'm excited to hear about Islamic thinking, which is something I know very little about, and I'm hoping we can learn a little bit about how philisophy in the Islamic world led to advances in science and mathematics. I believe there was a proto-scientific method that was developed, which I presume means they develiped empricism.

Hi there,

these are both issues I will be addressing a lot, especially the first one about theology (starting with the next episode about early islamic theology). Science will also come up, there will for instance be episodes on music and optics.

 

cheerio,

Peter

Pete Bataleck 20 March 2013

Peter,

A general question: are there any bilingual (Arabic/English) collections of the major Arabic philosophers you will be covering ?

I guess I'm looking for an Arabic Loeb or just a collection similar to the ones you list under primary sources. Nothing has turned up in my searches.

Thanks,

Pete

Pete,

Brigham Young University Press, through their Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, has published some English-Arabic editions of these philosophers, including works by Ibn Sina, Ghazali, Suhrawardi, Ibn Rushd, and Mulla Sadra. There is even a translation of the Mu'tazilite 'Abd al-Jabbar's critique of Christian origins, though it is not very useful for understanding Mu'tazilite theology.

Some important Ash'arite works have been translated (Juwayni, Ash'ari himself), mostly in the 50s and 60s by McCarthy (through not in English-Arabic editions). Other very important Ash'arite thinkers in the generation between Ash'ari and Juwayni, such as Baqillani and Ibn Furak, are available only in Arabic. You will be hard pressed to find any Mu'tazilite works in translation, in a parallel edition or otherwise.

Hope this helps. Cheers,
Tony

Oh right, sorry -- that comment slipped by me. I would also recommend the BYU series for a facing-page series like the Loebs. The best source for early kalam is van Ess, Theologie und Gesellschaft, but you need to be able to read German! And have a few hundred Euros to spare.

Peter

Pete Bataleck 27 March 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Tony & Peter,

Thanks for the info. I wasn't aware of the BYU series and shall certainly take a look.

Pete

Jason Stewart 22 March 2013

I just wanted to stop in and say thanks to you for doing this podcast. It's is extremely impressive in scope (all of philosophy) and I feel like I've gotten quite a good education in philosophy by listening to so many episodes. It's like free school.

Thanks again!

Aida A 22 March 2013

In reply to by Jason Stewart

Hi all,
I am also thankful, and i hope that more people will share some more free knowledge, any kind of useful knowledge.

Peter Adamson 22 March 2013

In reply to by Aida A

Thanks to both of you! I'm glad you find the podcasts interesting.

Peter

Peter Adamson 24 March 2013

Just to help people with a few unfamiliar terms that come up in this episode, here is how they are written:

• hijra: “emigration” and the basis for the Latin phrase anno hegirae, that is, the year of the hijra, used to designate the Muslim calendar (abbreviated AH)

• Qurʾān: literally “recitation,” this is how one would properly transliterate “Koran”.

• tawḥīd: the “oneness” of God

ʿilm al-kalām or kalām: literally “the science of the word” or just “word,” refers to rational Islamic theology. Theologians are hence called mutakallimūn, practicioners of kalām.

Ron 24 March 2013

Hi Peter,

I wonder if you intend to say anything about the pre-Islamic rational tradition in the Middle East. As you well know, the area was heavily Hellenized. And I am not just referring to the regions under the Byzantines but also under the Persians. I know that you will have a series of podcasts on the Byzantine state. But pre-Islamic texts (including those in Pahlavi) show that philosophy was widely taught under the Seleucids, Parthians, and Sasanians. In fact, as Dimitri Gutas and others have shown, the entire translation movement under the 'Abbasids was a continuation of the translation movements in pre-Islamic Iran. I hope in your search for being as inclusive as possible, you're somehow not glossing over these by any chance. Any thoughts on these would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

Ron

Hi Ron,

Thanks, that's a good question. I guess the answer is yes and no: I am going to talk about the pre-Islamic tradition, but in Syriac, not in Pahlavi. Maybe I have a bit of a blind spot here actually because I'm not a Persianist and the Persian background is less studied even than Syriac texts. But if we are talking about the transmission of Greek thought into Arabic I do think the really key thing is the Syriac tradition, not Pahlavi, and of course even this is something that usually gets skipped over. So that's what I wanted to focus on. This will be covered in episode 122 on the translation movement. (Actually now that you ask this I am wishing I'd added a couple of sentences at least on Persian texts, just for the sake of completeness. That episode is rather packed to the brim though. Plus I already recorded it!)

Peter

It just occurred to me I could perhaps return to this down the line, e.g. when I get to Avicenna I could talk about the philosophical heritage in central Asia, though I would want to be careful not to suggest I agree with the rhetoric about Avicenna being some kind of distinctively "persian" or "eastern" thinker.

Thanks Peter.

While I see your point about Avicenna, I think too often the rational and speculative tradition in the Middle East is reduced to a miniature that has connections primarily or only to Islam, the Arab polity (i.e., the caliphate), or the Arabic language. That philosophy existed in the Middle East before Islam and after the caliphate, that it was written in many languages including Hebrew, Middle/New Persian, and Turkish, and that it is still a living tradition that continues to produce interesting thoughts get generally overlooked. Too often I have heard and read that al-Ghazzali put an end to philosophy and rational thought in the Middle East. And too often I have heard and read that the philosophical tradition under the 'Abbasids was extremely unique and unprecedented possible only under an Arab political order and an Islamic intellectual setting. As with many historians, I think things are far more complicated than these views tend to admit. Too often I have also seen that this tradition is reduced to "Arabic philosophy" (as your Cambridge Companion to "Arabic" Philosophy tends perhaps to problematize this) and then further reduced by Arab nationalists as "Arab philosophy." I hope you would at least address some of these in your podcasts. I know you have already begun doing this in your first episode, but I hope to see further podcasts that show the complexity of this tradition.

Great work overall. I thoroughly enjoy your recordings and have learned a great deal.

Ron

Hi again,

Right, as you know from this episode I'm in full agreement with you on those points. I think the tricker issue is the one you make about pre-Islamic Persian thought, and to what extent this needs to be discussed in the context of history of philosophy. What sorts of texts and authors did you have in mind, something like the Denkard? There is also for instance van Bladel's work on Hermes in Persian which is very interesting but I think somewhat marginal in the overall history of philosophy.

Thanks,

Peter

Hi Peter,

Denkard and van Bladel's work on Hermes in Persian are good. But there is also a Syriac translation of a Pahlavi work by a Sasanian philosopher called Paul the Persian who flourished during the reign of Khusraw I Anushiravan. He reportedly dedicated some of his logical works to his royal master.

Agathias also describes in great detail how Khusraw I Anushiravan (Xusro I Anosarvan, reigned 531-79) was himself a philosopher king familiar with Western literature and philosophy. He writes and quote:

"After saying a few words about Xusro, I shall immediately return to my previous topic. For he is praised and admired excessively not only by the Persians but also by some Romans as a lover of literature and an expert on our philosophy because someone supposedly translated the Greek authors into Persian for him. It is even claimed that he devoured the whole Aristotle more thoroughly than Demosthenes devoured Thucydides and that he was full of the doctrines of Plato, the son of Ariston, that neither the Timaeus (although it bursts with scholarly theory and presents innumerous scientific speculations) was too demanding for him, nor the Phaedo or the Gorgian, nor any other subtle and complex dialogue, such as, for example, the Parmenides."

Agathias and others have noted that Khusraw I also welcomed Greek philosophers to Iran after Justinian closed down the Academy in Athens in 529. One of these philosophers, Priscainus Lydus (Priscianus?) also wrote a treatise entitled "Answers by the philosopher Priscianus to the questions posed by the Persian king Xusro" addressing a number of philosophical queries by his Persian royal master. Another report says that the same Greek philosopher wrote the treatise in response to the questions posed by Paul the Persian. In any case, this book was about Aristotelian physics, theory of the soul, meteorology, and biology.

Khusraw himself wrote a book that described his intellectual journey. The book has survived in the works of the Persian author Ibn Miskawayh who died in 1043. He wrote and I quote:

"When we had finished studying the lives of our ancestors ... we turned to the lives of the Romans and the people from India, and we took from these what was laudable, using our intellect to select and choosing according to our discrimination. And we picked out from all of it that which embellishes our rulers turning it into a guide for exemplary behavior and custom. Our souls were not at variance with us about what our passions favor.

We told them ["them" I think refers to the Byzantines] about it and informed them of it and wrote to them of what we disliked of their behavior and declared these things forbidden suggesting alternatives. We have not disliked anyone because they belonged to a different religion or a different religious community. We have not been selfish with (the knowledge) we received, yet we have also not disdained to learn what (knowledge) they possess. For acknowledging the learning of truth and knowledge and pursuing it are the most significant embellishments for a king, while their scorning of learning and hiding from the search for knowledge causes them the greatest harm. For whoever does not learn has no insight. When I had examined what these two peoples possessed of governmental and political cleverness and when I had combined the noble deeds of my ancestors with what I gathered through my own reasoning, what I had myself found out, and what I received from the kings who do not belong to us, I established the work from which follow success and goodness." (Ibn Miskawayh, Tagharib al-umam)

There are also "The Book of Nativities" (Kitab al-Mawalid in its Arabic translation) attributed to Zoroaster himself but which was most likely written under the Sasanians, and "The Book of Nahmutan on the Nativities" by Abu Sahl ibn Nawbakht who flourished under the Abbasids.

These references show that there was already an intellectual, scientific, and philosophical movement in the Sasanian period that translated works from Greek and Sanskrit into Pahlavi. Modern research has corroborated many of these claims. We know that books of astrology, agriculture, and philosophy were indeed translated during this period.

All this suggests that (a) there was a culture of translation prior to Islam and (b) there was seemingly a great deal of interest in philosophy in the Sasanian period if not earlier.

Here are some more references worth following up on. I don't have time at the moment to dig further but I hope this helps.

-- Joel Thomas Walker, The Limits of Late Antiquity: Philosophy between Rome and Iran.” Ancient World 33 (2002): 45-69.

-- D. Gutas, "Paul the Persian on the classification of the parts of Aristotle's philosophy: a milestone between Alexandria and Baghdad," Der Islam 60 (1983), 231-67

-- J. F. Duneau, "Quelques aspects de la penetration de l'hellenisme dans l'empire perse sassanide (IVe-VIIe siecles)," in P. Gallais and Y.-J. Riou, eds., Melanges offerts a Rene Crozet, Poitiers, Societe d'Etudes Medievales, 1966, vol. 1, pp. 13-22.

All the best,

Ron

Hi Ron,

Ah yes, Paul the Persian! I know about him, of course. Maybe I could mention him when I get to Farabi (whose potted and wildly inaccurate version of the history of philosophy is compared by Gutas to Paul the Persian's, if I remember rightly) or to Miskawayh who would himself be an illustration of philosophy in Persia, albeit not in the Persian language. Paul is worth mentioning just for his name... like the Arabic-Latin translator, the even more wonderfully named Hermann the German.

Cheerio,

Peter

Just to report back on this issue, in part thanks to Ron's points I am devoting the start of episode 125 to the impact of Persian culture on philosophy in the formative period, both in terms of the pre-existing translation movement and the Persian origins of a range of 10-11th century figures like Miskawayh.

Oops, sorry - yes, number 135. At the moment the episode is way too long, unfortunately! Need to find some cuts before recording it... or just have a really long episode.

I am hoping to do research on the intellectual traditions in the Zoroastrian faith, focusing a lot on Sassanian (Pahlavi) texts like the Bundahishn and the Denkard. You have given me new texts to look at: The Limits of Late Antiquity and Paul the Persian. Mostly I have spent time trying to hunt down Gignoux's work on the subject of medicine in the Sassanian world (and the relation to the Greek and Syriac works on the subject). But his texts are hard to come across, but the two books up there! I can find those! Thank you. I had not heard of Paul the Persian, which I feel quite ashamed of-- thank you Ron!

Ali 13 April 2013

Hello Professor,

Excellent series and I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to them.
I was just wondering if you will dedicate a podcast or two to Mulla Sadra, who is perhaps one of the most influential philosophers of the Islamic tradition and whose works are extensively studied today in countries like Iran.

Many thanks

Hi -- Thanks very much! Yes, I will have two episodes on Sadra, one scripted plus an interview with Sajjad Rizvi (in fact this is already recorded). I will also have one where I talk more generally about philosophy in the Safavid period.

Cheerio,

Peter

Ali 13 April 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Brilliant, I cannot wait to hear it. It is great that you have got an interview with Sajjad Rizvi who is an expert on Mulla Sadra.

Thanks for replying and best of luck with the series.

Heath 13 November 2013

These podcasts are great. The quality continuously keeps me captivated. The "Further Readings" posts on each podcast, concerning this time period, makes these entries even more superb! The Islamic World holds a place in my heart. Thank you so much for putting in the time to do this!

Ronan 6 July 2017

Hi Peter,

So I have been thinking about your podcast quite a lot. I am an addicted listener. I have learned a great deal over the course of this journey. And I am very grateful to you and your often quite fascinating guests. However, I can't but think that the project in its totality has done a great deal of disservice to "the Middle East." The episodes about philosophy in the region are not nearly as exhaustive as the episodes on medieval Europe, India, or ancient Greece and Rome are. It is as if the Middle East is implicitly shown to be what most people suspect it to be: a region with not much of an intellectual backbone -- especially when compared to other parts of the world such as "the West" or India (or China when the episodes on China are out).... I can't but wonder why the history of political thought, religion, medicine, technology, ethics, and secular learning in the Middle East in the pre-Islamic period was not tackled in your podcast. Surely the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Persians had some thing to contribute to these endeavors that have more or less remained important to your podcast. And surely, you could have said far more about the history of philosophy in medieval Islam, leaving the period after 1500 to the future and a more comprehensive survey.

So after listening to hundreds of episodes of your podcast, I remain hopeful and skeptcial at once. I wish you would have relied more on your own expertise about the history of the Middle East to team up with scholars who specialize on the pre-Islamic period and those who work on medieval Islam to do more -- to do justice in fact to the history of this region which is often highly misunderstood.

Funny you should mention that. As you might have seen, after the series on India next year we'll be tackling Africana philosophy (with co-author Chike Jeffers) and that will include a look at ancient Egypt. And for context there will be an episode on cuneiform culture (i.e. Babylonian and Assyrian), which in fact I already wrote! So stay tuned for that. Spoiler alert: it isn't entirely obvious that there were "philosophical" texts at all in that culture, so the discussion is more of material that seems philosophically interesting, if that isn't too fine a distinction for you.

As for medieval Islam, I did do 50 episodes on it (#120-170), which is more than 1/6 of the total episodes so far (not counting the India episodes). In fact it was much more detailed relative to the quantity of "stuff" than the India episodes have been - we could certainly have spend 100 episodes on ancient India, not just the 50 or so we will manage. You're right of course that medieval Latin culture has gotten even more attention, but that is because it is so much better studied than the Islamic world. Bear in mind I am usually relating to you the fruits of the state of research, not doing original research for the scripts - except where my own research was relevant, which actually happened most of all in the Islamic world episodes.

Still your basic point remains valid: one could easily devote more attention to pretty much all of what I have covered, and your skepticism is therefore justified. Glad you like the series nonetheless!

Yosef Grossman 10 January 2018

Good Morning:

I just discovered this website today.  I have recently become interested in the relationship between the scholars of Judaism (my tradition) and those of Islam and Christianity.  Thank you for providing this material in a clear, concise manner for the non-specialist.    I look forward to listening to all the podcasts and to reading your book.

Yosef Grossman

Al-Maʿarri 10 July 2019

Are there transcrips for these podcasts online? Im really bad in this sense of whenever i watch things i always look at subtitles which might be bad for my brain or something. This is why things like podcast and things i dont learn/receive very well. im so stupid.  i mean that its in part due to habit that my ability to listen to audio rather than writing is bad. Which is very sad.  im not deaf and i suppose i hear "fine" but my brain is crap at audio stuff.

Peter Adamson 11 July 2019

In reply to by Al-Maʿarri

This is actually covered under one of the questions in the FAQ (see link at the bottom of the page). Thanks also for your suggeszion about al-Ma'arri, as I also say in the FAQ I wouldn't go back and cover something I should have covered before but you are right that I probably should have gotten him in when I was doing the Islamic world!

Amir Zareei 2 April 2021

Hi Peter. 

Thank you so much for the podcast. I recently stumbled upon your podcast and it's amazing

I just wanted to mention that there is a big difference between being a Muslim and a person who lives under the brutality of an Islamic dictatorship who can be stoned to death for blasphemy especially in those days. The philosophers that you mentioned were Iranian Philosophers not Islamic philosophers. You give too much credit to a cult(only people who don't know Islam might consider it a religion) with no tolerance for any ideologies

Keep up the great work

Regards,

Amir

Thanks, hope you will enjoy the series! Among the things you'll notice as you go through this part of the podcast are: (1) persecution for blasphemy turns out to be, though not wholly unknown, pretty rare in medieval Islam and actually it played little or no role in the history of philosophy. Institutional suppression of thought seems to have been more effective in Christian Europe, though I argue that there too its impact is overestimated. (2) A lot of the philosophers I cover are Iranian but many are not - in fact many are not even Muslims, which is why (3) I actually usually speak of "Philosophy in the Islamic World" and not "Islamic Philosophy."

The merits of talking about "Iranian Philosophy" have been discussed pretty extensively in comments back and forth here on the site, you can have a look for instance at the comment thread in the Suhrawardi episode where there is a long, recent discussion about it. Basically the upshot is that in my opinion, it does make sense to talk about Iranian philosophers or Iranian philosophy, but the series is about more than that. Also I don't think that when discussing, say, Ibn Sina, it necessarily makes sense to lay great emphasis on his having been "Persian" or "Iranian" (of course he was not from modern day Iran anyway), since I don't know that Persian culture shaped his thought deeply, the way it did with, say, the figures we encounter in the episodes on philosophy in the Safavid period. Still Persian culture is one of the contexts we look at a lot in the series, along with the contexts of Syria, Andalus, etc.

Ammar Qaseem 4 May 2021

As a Muslim, I want to thank you for covering the philosophy in Islamic world. The relationship between Greek thought and modern western philosophy seems well expounded but I believe its influence on Islamic thought still remains a mystery - specially for ordinary Muslims. You have my deepest gratitude and admiration for taking a road not many take. I have been with this podcast from episode one. It took me a few months to reach this episode but I wanted to be thorough. Really looking forward to the episodes ahead!!

Mohamed 14 June 2022

Hello Peter,

 

Thanks for making this series! It has been a great source for me to learn more about philosophy.

I also wanted to point out that I think you are missing an important philosopher within the Islamic world: Omar Khayyam. 

Khayyam has a quite different perspective to the life and world than the mainstream philosophy in the Muslim world.

I would appreciate it if you can devote a session to Omar Khayyam.

 

Thanks,

Mohamed

Yes, true! I should have covered him, especially because (and this is something I only learned over the past few years) he also wrote works on technical issues in Avicenna's philosophy, especially the essene/existence distinction. So I regret that omission. In general I don't go "backwards" to fill in things I missed, though I have occasionally toyed with the idea of a special episode touching on things I unwittingly skipped.

Mohamed 20 June 2022

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thanks for your reply Peter!

In addition to being a philosopher, he was also an influential mathematician, astronomer and poet.

A special episode on Omar Khayyam would be awesome.

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