Readers with a general education eager for a pleasant, readable account of who contributed to Arabic and Islamic philosophy, yet have limited awareness of it, may find this book useful. It addresses those who eschew wrestling with primary sources and prefer learning to be comfortable, as well as those unaware of the subjects raised in philosophical treatises and thus unable to follow the arguments put forth by different authors. Adamson provides interesting vignettes of major and minor figures, traditions, groups, and schools contributing to philosophy in the world of Islam from its beginning to the late twentieth century. He does so with rare aplomb, and his comprehensive overview is most appealing. Indeed, the notes and bibliography testify amply to the depth and breadth of his admirable scholarship. But his approach is not without blemishes. Scant attention is paid to the intricacies of the arguments proffered by the different authors, and their quarrels with one another receive little to no analysis. As a consequence, this history without gaps provides all too summary an account of philosophical discourse and its dialectical development. And, the title notwithstanding, there are numerous gaps in Adamson’s account, especially with respect to modern and contemporary authors. Adamson writes clearly and with an appealing flair. Moreover, he organizes his book so that one chapter clearly leads to and meshes with the next. He has an admirable grasp of the major figures in this large story and has toiled to learn about those whom he knows less well. Ironically, his discussion of the latter is more focused and instructive than that of those with whom he is more familiar—as appears readily in his chapter on al-Kindī. Indeed, in that chapter, Adamson’s tendency to speak in terms of popular culture and recourse to breezy throw-away lines leads him astray. What, after all, is achieved by comparing al-Kindī to Buster Keaton? Is the reader’s or viewer’s attention span so short that the reference needs to be brought up more than once in such a short chapter? Would a better, more easily comprehended example of al-Kindī’s acumen not be his short treatise on tricks for repelling sorrow, in which he illustrates why theory should guide practice and the painful consequences of action driven by passion? If Adamson’s recourse to anecdotes or parallels drawn from popular culture stems from the book being a transcript used in a television presentation, one must ask why the original broadcast did not suffice—that is, what the book adds to the record. One must also wonder about Adamson’s intended audience, for he sometimes veers away from facile attempts to entertain and assumes more of the readers than the jests permit. In discussing technical terms used in logic, for example, he simply lists the five predicates as though their meaning and technical role were self-evident. Alas, they are not. Similarly, he seems to presume that his readers or viewers are Christian, even British Christian, for he couches his explanations in terms and premises they might readily grasp. But a general history of the thought arising within distinct Muslim and Jewish traditions must surely attract readers with similar backgrounds who will have already heard more than enough about Christian thinkers. Explanation of the interplay between these traditions must, then, not use one as a comparative backdrop for the others, no matter how familiar it may be. The Christian bias also prompts Adamson to speak as though religion and philosophy are compatible. While the Church Fathers, especially the redoubtable Thomas, share that presupposition, few within either the Muslim or Jewish tradition do. Indeed, the clash between the adherents of religion and the proponents of philosophy is fundamental in the thought whose history is presented here. Insofar as Adamson does not appear to do so intentionally, he inadvertently raises here the all-important question of where one might stand to probe the relation between reason and revelation and whether a platform not tied to a single confession can be found. Adepts of philosophy may be the best suited to address that issue, and they would urge that reason must prevail—albeit that species of reason centred in this period and milieu, the one that strives to make room for beliefs derived from revealed texts and pays serious attention to their claims, not the one that peremptorily dismisses such concerns. More the pity that these questions are ignored in this volume due to Adamson’s overwhelming interest in questions related to metaphysics and nonchalance about those focused on personal well-being—that is, ethical and political questions. At issue is how to read philosophy—philosophy itself and its history. Important as are issues centred on the soul and the one, there are others of no less significance, namely, how to live so as to be fully human and identifying the paths that foster human well-being for oneself as well as others. The latter, discussed no less frequently than the former, affect human beings equally as much as the others. For that reason, if for no other, an alert reader may justifiably expect that a history of philosophy claiming to be seamless would address these as well as the other kinds of questions. Now, although theologians are content to be linked with philosophers, the favour is not returned. Nor is dialectical theology identical with philosophy, however similar they may appear. Commitment to reason alone by the practitioners of the latter distinguishes them from those of the former. This explains the devastating critiques of dialectical theology found in both al-Fārābī and Maimonides, one to which Adamson accords scant attention. An adequate account of the history of philosophy, like an accurate map of a particular area, will note the highs and the lows—the gradations, as it were. There is a good reason for that: not all thinkers are equal. So a competent history must make distinctions and explain the reasons for them, much as philosophers do when speaking of one another. Given the broad scope of Adamson’s history, one would have liked to find something of the sort in it. Even more important is the inaccurateness of his claim to have presented here a history without gaps. There are gaps, significant ones. And there are questionable inclusions. Interested readers will look in vain for a reference to, much less a discussion of, the writings of Farah Antun, Ali Abd al-Raziq, Abd al-Rahman Badawi, Albert Memmi, Muhsin Mahdi, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Edward Said, Abdullah al-Arawi (or Laroui), and Hasan Hanafi, all of whom far surpass in acumen and scholarly output the contemporary authors whom Adamson refers to summarily at the end of his story. Now much as friends and colleagues of Fatima Mernissi admire her critiques of current society, she was a sociologist, not a philosopher. Much like Ali Shariati, of whom not a word is said, Mernissi was an engaged and ever so engaging intellectual critic. But social criticism is not the same as philosophic inquiry. Among the many thoughtful women scholars writing now or in the very recent past who deserve serious attention—the Moroccan Nadia Yassine, for example—none qualifies as a philosopher. That is a simple fact not to be gainsaid. Still, these observations should deter no one, not the specialist and certainly not the generally educated reader, from looking closely at this impressive volume. Peter Adamson has acquitted himself well of an enormous task, one few specialists would dare to attempt. He provides a rich and enticing account of an important, nearly labyrinthine subject. That is most commendable. The shortcomings noted above point, then, to queries and objections about some paths followed in the exposition and others that were not, nothing more. © The Author (2016/2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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