Anthony Shaker is doing philosophy in the way it should be. That may explain why, after a stint as a Visiting Scholar at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies in 1996, he does not seem to have held an academic post. For his latest book, Modernity, Civilization, and the Return to History (2017, Vernon Press), makes it evident that he has been thinking more deeply and holistically than today’s academic environment typically allows. After producing translations of three books from al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, he published Thinking in the Language of Reality (2012, Xlibris), an exposition of the systematic philosophy of Ṣadr al-Dīn Qūnawī (1207–74). There, he demonstrated Qūnawī’s pivotal role in the development of the under-studied and under-appreciated later period of Islamic philosophy, as well as the philosophical link between that period and the development of early modern Western philosophy. Specifically, Shaker concentrated on Qūnawī’s approach to the problem, how it is possible for the knowing subject to grasp the essential reality of an object. In Modernity, Civilization, and the Return to History, Shaker deploys his expertise on Qūnawī and the broader ḥikma tradition of later Islamic (or in Shaker’s terms ‘Islamicate’) philosophy, as well as Heidegger, and a wide range of other figures and ideas in philosophy and social theory, for a philosophical project of global scope, and contemporary relevance. It is not easy to summarize what the project is, however, for this book does many things at once. On one hand, it is a philosophical critique, and diagnosis of the ontologically emaciated condition of modern thought and culture. Secondly, it is a critique of the myopic Western-centred historical narrative of modernity, shared both by the triumphalist Euro-centrists who view history as a tale of progress to modernity in which the ‘West’ is the sole agent, and the reactionaries who view the history of modernity as a tale of destruction in which the ‘West’ again, is the sole villain. Against this, Shaker argues that modernity, with all its good and ill, was in the making long before anyone had conceived the ‘West’ or ‘Europe’ as we know it today. Islamicate civilization was already flourishing as a globalized, universal cultural milieu in which the tradition of ḥikma reached its maturity. Shaker’s argument is not about a historical transmission of ideas. At least it seems his main concern is to show a philosophical convergence between the problems, innovations, and departures from Aristotle made by later Islamic philosophy (and exemplified by Qūnawī), and those leading to the emergence of modernity in the West. Heidegger associated the malaise of modernity with the turning away from Being, and toward beings as the focus of inquiry. This led ultimately to a self-enclosed subjectivity, and eventually to the reduction of truth/reality to a system of representations. That is the deeper philosophical root of our recently inaugurated ‘post-truth’ era. Shaker sees in Qūnawī specifically, and the ḥikma tradition generally (from Ibn Sīnā to Suhrawardī, Mullā Ṣadrā, etc.), the development of a mature philosophical discourse much akin to Heidegger’s, and which provided the ontological moorings of late Islamic civilization—a truly global civilization preceding what we now call the ‘modern West’. The malaise of modernity did not come to the Islamicate world from the ‘modern West’. For the seeds of a similar ontological catastrophe had been planted in the Islamicate world long before Napoleon set foot in Egypt. The culprit, according to Shaker, was Ibn Taymiyya, under whose malignant influence the modern Muslim world wallows in a fundamentalist, sectarian darkness. Shaker is clearly no fan of the man. In addition to derogating him several times in passing throughout the book, he dedicates an entire chapter near the end to targeting him. This, I take it, is relevant to Shaker’s aim, of opposing the current notion that modernity is a ‘Western’ or ‘European’ creation and import, and to show (rightly) that modern Muslim reformists are just as much its producers, as well as its products. But while his critique is reasonable and philosophical, I wonder if perhaps Shaker was not overstating Ibn Taymiyya's influence on Islamic culture prior to the nineteenth century. For example, in part of his discussion on Ibn Khaldūn, Shaker describes his social conditions in the west as plagued with fundamentalism and mentions that such ideas were weaker in the east. Then he launches a long paragraph explaining the epistemological root of Ibn Taymiyya’s bad influence, before mentioning again that the fundamentalist scourge that Ibn Khaldūn had to deal with was on a grander scale. In light of that, one would think Shaker would concentrate more on the details and causes of the collapse in the west, then on a critique of Ibn Taymiyya; but there is nothing. Shaker successfully argues that literalist, empiricist, ‘ontic-oriented’ fundamentalist notions of truth and cultural identity in the Muslim world and elsewhere are philosophically convergent with the ‘modernity’ that is incorrectly understood as a Western European thing. In that case, however, the most compelling evidence to show ‘modernity in the making’ in the Muslim world before Western colonialism would be the widespread condition of society in Ibn Khaldūn’s west, rather than the ideas of a single, marginal scholar in the east, no matter how influential he is today. Absent that, Shaker’s informative chapter on the later influence of Ibn Taymiyya at the hands of Muhammad ʿAbduh and the Wahhabis only strengthens the impression that, on the contrary, the seeds of modernist fundamentalism were imported by European imperialists. This is important in light of one of Shaker’s primary objectives, which is to lay the ground for a new conception of history and modernity (and by extension a new, sustainable human universalism for the future). This requires maintaining a philosophical stance that avoids deteriorating into the kind of ideological polemic and positions of sectarian and cultural identity to which our current modernity tends. This seems to be the reason Shaker takes care to avoid use of the terms ‘Islamic’ to qualify philosophy, culture, civilization, etc. He wants to criticize modernity philosophically, but with a view to the future rather than some habitually recalled, imaginary non-Western golden age. Thus, he emphasizes the global, universal dimensions of Islamicate civilization in the later period as a rich source of philosophical insights, convergent with those of Heidegger, that can help make it possible to envision a different future than what the supposed ‘end of history’ has left us. Shaker makes a compelling argument, and his grasp of philosophy, history, and the social sciences is both deep and broad. Furthermore, he has convinced this reader that he is doing something important here, that gets to the heart of the current human condition. For that very reason, however, I wish the book were more clearly organized, with fewer real or apparent digressions, and that the crucial ideas of Qūnawī, in particular, were made more accessible. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 16, 2017
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