In Search of the Lost Heart: Explorations in Islamic Thought
by William C. Chittick (State University of New York
Press, SUNY) In Search of the Lost Heart brings
together twenty-six essays by William C. Chittick, renowned
scholar of Sufism and Islamic philosophy. Written between
1975 and 2011, most of these essays are not readily
available in Chittick's own books. Although this is a
collection, its editors have crafted it to be a book
"sufficient unto itself, which, when taken as a whole, can
be said to explore the underlying worldview of Islam."
Chittick draws upon the writings of towering figures such as Ibn al-`Arabi, Rumi, and Mulla Sadra, as well as other important, but lesser-known thinkers, as he engages with a wide variety of topics, such as the nature of being and knowledge, the relationship between love and scriptural hermeneutics, the practical and theoretical dimensions of Islamic mysticism, the phenomenon of religious diversity, and the ecological crisis.
William C. Chittick was born in Milford, Connecticut in 1943. As an undergraduate student majoring in history at the College of Wooster (Ohio), Chittick spent the 1964-1965 academic year abroad, studying Islamic history at the American University of Beirut. It was here that he first came into contact with Sufism, as he decided to write his junior year independent study on the topic. Having become familiar with the standard accounts of Sufism, Chittick attended a public lecture on the topic by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who was the University's Agha Khan Visiting Professor that year. Nasr's lecture deepened Chittick's interest in Sufism to the point that he eventually resolved to pursue graduate studies in Tehran.
Chittick began his graduate work in the foreign students program at the University of Tehran's Faculty of Letters in 1966. Ill 1974, he obtained a doctoral degree in Persian language and literature under Nasr's supervision. Chittick then began teaching comparative religion at Aryamehr Technical University (now Sharif University of Technology) and, in 1978, joined the faculty of the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy (now the Iranian Institute of Philosophy). Shortly before the revolution in 1979, he returned with his wife, Sachiko Murata, to the United States. In the early 1980s, Chittick served as an associate editor for Encyclopaedia Iranica. In 1983, he and Murata took up posts at the State University of New York (Stony Brook), where they are currently full professors in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.
During his long stay in Tehran, Chittick studied under and/ or collaborated with some of the most distinguished scholars of Islamic thought: Jalal al-Din Ashtiyani, Henry Corbin, Toshihiko Izutsu, Badr al-Zamdn Furazanfar, Jaldl al-Din Hurna'i, Mehdi Mohaghegh, and `Allarna Sayyid Mulhammad Husayn Tabataba'i. Suffice it to say that Chittick's prolonged contact with these and other scholars has provided him with a unique appreciation and grasp of clas-sical Arabic and Persian on the one hand, and a variety of medieval Islamic philosophical, theological, and mystical texts on the other.
In addition to his academic training, Chittick is a highly skilled translator who possesses a rigorous analytical mind and a rare ability to explain some of the most difficult ideas in a remarkably lucid manner. This helps explain why his works have had such wide appeal among students of Islamic civilization, comparative philosophy, and religious studies, and have been translated into Albanian, Arabic, Bosnian, Chinese, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japa-nese, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu.
Beyond North American and European academia, Chittick's books have also been well-received by Muslim communities in the West.' In the East, his works are taught and discussed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and, of course, Iran, where his Me & Rumi (2004) was awarded the World Prize for the Book of the Year in 2005, and was named the best work in the field of Iranian Studies. More recently, a Tehran-based cultural society paid tribute to Chittick's scholarly achievements by holding a ceremony and publishing a festschrift in his honor.
It would be an understatement to say that Chittick's scholarship has brought the ideas of a number of Islam's most significant intellectual and spiritual figures out of relative obscurity. In The Heart of Islamic Philosophy (2001), he highlights the central concerns of the Islamic philosophical tradition through his study of the writings of Afdal al-Din Kashanï (commonly known as Baba Afdal). The book also goes a long way toward demonstrating how Baba Afdal molded the Persian language in order to convey the practical concerns of philosophy to those who did not have specialized training in the discipline. Chittick's The Sufi Path of Love (1983) and award-winning The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi (1974; 2005) are arguably the best expositions of Rumi's worldview to date. They also stand as correctives to the widespread misinformation about the teachings and even "religion" of this spiritual giant of Islam.
It may come as a surprise to many that, along with Sachiko Murata and Tu Weiming, Chittick has recently published a book on Chinese Sufism entitled The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi (2009). This important work investigates the cross-pollination that took place between Neo-Confucian thought and Sufism in the figure of Liu Zhi (or Liu Chih), one of the two important Chinese Muslim thinkers introduced by Murata in an earlier study.
Chittick's works on Ibn al-'Arabi, such as The Sufi Path of Knowledge (1989) and The Self-Disclosure of God (1998), have shed a great deal of light on some of the fundamental metaphysical and practical teachings that have influenced over seven hundred years of Islamic thought from North Africa to Malaysia. Indeed, Ibn al-`Arabi's writings are just as if not more relevant today, which is why a number of prominent thinkers have drawn on his ideas in developing responses to a variety of pressing contemporary issues, such as the question of the religious "other."
Students of Islamic thought are, in one way or another, indebted to Chittick's writings. Needless to say, the editors of this volume are no exception. His works have greatly assisted us in navigating our way about the often bumpy terrain of Islamic thought. Over the years we have found that, apart from Chittick's books, many of his most helpful studies can only be found in journals, festschrifts, collective volumes, encyclopedias, and the like. Unlike his books, many of these works are not easily accessible to scholars and students, let alone the wider public.
The present volume, therefore, brings together a diverse selection of Profes-sor Chittick's seminal studies (published between 1975 and 2011) on key themes and figures in Islamic thought. For the most part, materials readily available in Chittick's books or on the Internet have not been included.
After having selected material for this volume, we divided the essays into four categories, updated the notes where necessary, and thoroughly edited the essays such that each piece naturally flows into the other without any awkward breaks or repetitions. Thus, although this work is a collection of essays, it is also meant to be a book sufficient unto itself, which, when taken as a whole, can be said to explore the underlying worldview of Islam.
The volume's first category is entitled "Sufism and the Islamic Tradition." The essays in this section investigate the general theoretical and practical dimensions of Sufism, highlighting its relationship to Islamic law and theology, scriptural hermeneutics, and religious pluralism.
Since the details of Ibn al-'Arabi's impact on later Islamic thought are only known to a handful of specialists, the second part of this book, "Ibn al-'Arabi. and His Influence," mainly seeks to demonstrate the extent of his legacy. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the section's last three pieces, which introduce the ideas of several key eleventh/ seventeenth-century Indian representatives of the school of Ibn al-'Arabi.
The third section, "Islamic Philosophy," offers readers a glimpse into the worldview of the Islamic philosophical tradition by covering some of its main themes, such as ontology, psychology, cosmology, and eschatology. Several of the essays in this section bring the concerns of Islamic philosophy and theoreti-cal Sufism into perspective, demonstrating how these two traditions agree on a number of crucial points.
The essays under the fourth heading, which we have
on Contemporary Issues," present a coherent picture of the
least-known aspect of
Chittick's writings. Here are to be found his appraisals
of such issues as the ecological crisis, religious exclusivism, and the universal
concern for global peace.
If the first three sections of In Search of the Lost Heart give readers a good idea of the worldview of premodern Islamic thought, the fourth will demonstrate for them how the Islamic intellectual tradition can address our concerns today.
Whether it is the treatment of issues in politics or theology, many contemporary Muslim thinkers fail to take Islam's rich intellectual resources—theoretical Sufism and Islamic philosophy in particular—into account in their formulations.
They more often than not opt for paradigms outside of the tradition, or superficially attempt to integrate these paradigms into the tradition. Like these scholars, Chittick also has a lot to Say about the current human "situation," but from
the perspective of a civilization whose worldview is not constrained by the categories in vogue today. Because Chittick's worldview is, first and foremost, shaped by the traditions of Sufism and Islamic philosophy, when he attempts to offer a solution to a contemporary problem, he does so from the perspective of classical Islamic thought.
Following the essays are three appendices. The first appendix is a chronological table of the historical figures cited in the volume, the second a list of the sources for the essays presented, and the third a catalogue of Chittick's published books to the end of 2011.
Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (SUNY Series in Islam: State University of New York Press) offers a comprehensive overview of Islamic philosophy from the ninth century to the present day. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr attests, within this tradition, philosophizing is done in a world in which prophecy is the central reality of life—a reality related not only to the realms of action and ethics but also to the realm of knowledge. Comparisons with Jewish and Christian philosophies highlight the relation between reason and revelation, that is, philosophy and religion.
Nasr is a prolific author and prestigious witness to the
contemporary relevance of Islamic philosophy in its traditional form, especially
as fashioned within the Shia tradition. Nasr is also a masterful propagandist,
attempting to reinvigorate the traditional point of view, not only in Islamic
studies, but also in religious studies generally. This volume pays tribute
to the change in religious studies orientation over the last 20 years, showing
how into Islamic studies, the traditional point of view, which was definitely
marginal and suspect 30 years ago, has now moved more towards the center of
normative religious studies. In many ways Nasr and his colleagues have
been the patient architects of this movement.
Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present attempts to open up what the West considers Islamic philosophy. It moves beyond the usual capstone of Islamic influence on the west being the Averroes’ Aristotelian translations which made their way into Latin through Spain and set the theological stage for the High Middle Ages and the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. As Nasr well demonstrates Averroes’ rationalism was not the end of Islamic philosophy but actually a sidestream that did not centrally impact the consideration of Kalam, nor the spread and elaboration of Ibn Sina’s epistemology as it impacted the central motive of Islamic thought which is to elaborate the presence of revelation and prophecy through the Qu’ran and the community of prayer. Nasr manages a good survey of the scope of Islamic philosophy available in English translation today, and he presents a rationale for his continued encouragement of the traditional viewpoint as valid today as ever.
Nasr presents Islamic philosophy in relation to the Islamic tradition as a whole, but always treats this philosophy as philosophy, not simply as intellectual history. In addition to chapters dealing with the general historical development of Islamic philosophy, several chapters are devoted to later and mostly unknown philosophers. The work also pays particular attention to the Persian tradition.
Nasr stresses that the Islamic tradition is a living tradition with significance for the contemporary Islamic world and its relationship with the West. In providing this seminal introduction to a tradition little-understood in the West, Nasr also shows readers that Islamic philosophy has much to offer the contemporary world as a whole.
"One of the author’s great gifts is to set down the significance of what is fundamentally at issue in philosophical thinking and to show the relevance of that thinking to the human situation across the board. No one else in the field of Islamic philosophy has such a sweeping vision of what that philosophy has been and is all about, nor is there anyone else who can suggest as clearly why this and kindred traditions are utterly central to us as human beings today." — William C. Chittick, author of The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-Arabi’s Cosmology
Nasr, a reviver of the Islamic intellectual tradition and
expositor of those traditional doctrines associated with the Sophia Perennis, or
al-Hikmah al-Khalidah as it is known in Islamic intellectual discourse, has
provided for those pursuing the illumination of the Spirit through the way of
the Intellect with a seemingly constant flow of treatises touching on nearly
every aspect of what is known as the Din al-Islam. This particular work seems to
be Nasr's final word on the subject of Islamic philosophy; conclusions arrived
at after many decades of study, teaching and contemplation. The chief aim of the
work can be seen in the following quote from the second chapter:
"This philosophy [Islamic philosophy] remains of the greatest pertinence to the contemporary world because of the harmony it has achieved between logic and spiritual vision and also because of the profound metaphysical and cosmological doctrines it contains within the pages of its long and extended historical unfolding. Furthermore, because of the present encounter of Islam with an alien philosophy and science--this time from the West--Islamic philosophy must be called upon once again to play the role it fulfilled in early Islamic history, namely, to provide the necessary intellectual instruments and the requisite intellectual background with the aid of which Muslims can face alien philosophies and sciences from a position of discernment and intellectual rigor. Otherwise the encounter with the West can only result in calamity for the future of Islamic intellectual life and threaten even more than what happened in the colonial period the continuation of the life of falsafah itself. Only in remaining true to its own genius, to its own roots, and to the role it has always played in Islamic history in a land dominated by the reality of prophecy can falsafah (and hikmah) fulfill its vital function of providing the Muslims themselves with the necessary intellectual background to confront the modern and now postmodern West and to remind the world at large about the long-forgotten but urgently needed truths that Islamic philosophy has been able to preserve within its treasury over the centuries and that it is able to present in a contemporary language to the world today." (pg. 47)
Nasr's genius is in his amazing ability to provide a birds-eye perspective and illuminating commentary on the history and development of both Islamic spirituality and Islamic philosophy. Unlike modern scholars and historians of Islamic philosophy, and their Muslim imitators, or Muslim scholars who wish to compare this or that Islamic philosopher with some modern philosopher or another--a boring preoccupation on the part of certain Muslims educated in Islamic philosophy who seek approval from the dominant philosophical currents of Western modernity--Nasr constantly reminds us that philosophy, when pursued within the framework of the Islamic tradition, or within the "land of prophecy", is not an inquiry into the phenomenal world with phenomenal ends in view, nor the endless, labyrinthine analysis of those possessed with an obsessive mental passion, but an inquiry into the very nature of things in view of reinstating the intelligence back to its original sanctity.
When Nasr maintains that Islamic philosophy "remains of the greatest pertinence to the contemporary world because of the harmony it has achieved between logic and spiritual vision", he is referring, in my mind, to the culmination of the Islamic philosophical project in the grand synthesis found in the Eastern lands of Islam. While there exist several "schools" which deal superbly with systematic metaphysics and the sciences of realizing the end--one of the most popular and direct being Advaita Vedanta--they don't enter too deeply into the domain of discursive philosophy and natural science. In the West--which serves as the model for the rest of the world now--these two traditions of inquiry became more and more separated from each other until discursive philosophy eclipsed metaphysics altogether; sending the West into its current spiritual, philosophical and civilizational bankruptcy. However, the synthesis established by later Islamic philosophy between peripatetic (mashsha'i) philosophy and the metaphysical/theosophical (al-hikmah al-ilahiyyah) discourse of the Sufi sages harmonized discursive philosophy with what Suhrawardi called "Divine Philosophy". Islamic philosophy, if properly taken account of, offers the West many important insights which, if considered seriously, could help in placing a derailed Western philosophical tradition, its civilization, and its religious tradition back on its tracks.
Words, Texts And Concepts Cruising The Mediterranean Sea: Studies On The Sources, Contents And Influences Of Islamic Civilization And Arabic Philosophy and Science Dedicated to Gerhard Endress on his Sixty-fifth Birthday edited by R. Arnzen, J. Thielmann (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta: Peeters) Excerpt: The present volume of the series Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta contains studies and editions in honor of Gerhard Endress, Professor of Oriental Philology and Islamic Studies at the Ruhr University Bochum since 1975. They are dedicated to a scholar who well deserves the credit for having revolutionized the study of medieval Arabic philosophy and science by combining painstaking investigations into its contents and historical development with meticulous systematic studies in its language and terminology based, in turn, on a careful philological examination of its Greek and Syriac sources and the ways and modes of translation and transmission into Arabic. Gerhard Endress's fundamental studies in these fields have set landmarks for any future research through their masterful and well-balanced synthesis of profound doctrinal investigations, inimitable bibliographical richness and accuracy, and complex and demanding historical contextualization. Based on an exhaustive variety of methodologically reflected research instruments they form in their entirety what might be called a systematic archaeology of medieval Arabic philosophy and science. Apart from this immense service to our knowledge about Arabic philosophy and science it is due to Endress's research work that Graeco-Arabic Studies finally have emerged from their exotic and shadowy existence within the discipline of Classical Arabic Philology. Practised by a growing circle of scholars they are today a recognized epistemological instrument and prerequisite for any diachronic study in medieval Islamic intellectual history whose fruits and results fertilize not only other branches of Near Eastern Studies such as Arabic lexicography but also various allied fields of research such as studies in the history of philosophy and science or Classical Studies.
Despite his numerous and most influential works in these fields, Endress never lost sight of and scholarly interest in the whole range of historical, intellectual and cultural phenomena of Islamic civilizations, from their very beginning up to present-day developments. His minute and precise monograph on the history of Islam, translated into English and Italian and at present in its third revised German edition, has become a standard introduction to Islam providing a huge bibliography for research and academic teaching. As former students we know from our own (fortunate) experience that he taught, and still teaches, his students 20th century Arabic literature no less competently (and exactingly) than Classical Arabic or Syriac languages and grammars or medieval Persian poetry, the core curricula of Islamic theology and jurisprudence no less eruditely than the political and social history of 14th century Maghreb or colonial Egypt, not forgetting his famous slide-show supported lectures on Islamic arts and architecture.
It is the aim of this volume to mirror this immense versatility in a compilation of studies contributed by friends, colleagues, and former assistants of Professor Endress at the Bochum Department of Oriental Studies. It was the uniquely disciplined and serious manner, with which G. E. familiarized himself with nearly all facets and epoches of Islamic history including those far beyond his special fields of research, which guided us in our decision to leave the subjects of these contributions totally to their authors' choice. Being heterogeneous with respect to their topics and the modes of scientific approach, these contributions, nevertheless, form an overall unity by exploring the preconditions, lines of development and border-crossing effects of more than one thousand years of intellectual, social and political Islamic history. While some articles are intended to shed light on specific segments, problems or manifestations of this history that have been hitherto neglected, others emphasize the importance such historical developments may have for our present-day approaches to and concepts of Islam, while yet others contribute to our knowledge of this intellectual history by providing careful critical editions, translations or hermeneutic clues.
While there can be no doubt that the days of the classical `old Europe' polymaths of Oriental philology is over, this Festschrift is also intended to underline that extreme specialization narrowed by historical, cultural, methodological or language blinkers cannot be a reasonable alternative either. As is hopefully shown by the numerous points of contact, inter-section, and — in some cases thoroughly controversial — dialogue of the following 35 contributions, studies in Near Eastern languages, Arabic intellectual history and Islamic civilizations are still, if not even more so today, in need of the learned vol d'oiseau, in order to see the numerous important specific objects of research in their appropriate context, as well as of a methodical corrective only a holistic approach such as the one pre-dominant in Endress's studies can provide. The arrangement of the contributions we have chosen here is, as a consequence, only one of various possible approaches. Others certainly would reveal other points of contact and intersection, and readers are invited to create (supported, as we hope, by the indices attached) their own appropriate re-arrangements.
The Making of the Avicennan Tradition: The Transmission, Contents, and Structures of Ibn Sina's Al-Mubahatat (The Discussions) by David C. Reisman (Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science, 49: Brill Academic) provides an extensive exploration of the condition of the manuscripts Ibn Sina's Al-Mubahatat (The Discussions), his principal later philosophical work. (The text is available as edited by A. Badawi in Arabic for pdf download). Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037) is one of the foremost philosophers of the golden age of Islamic tradition that also includes al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd. His philosophical works were one of the main targets of al-Ghazali’s attack on philosophical influences in Islam. After reviewing the state of previous scholarship, Reisman’s the initial concern is with the paleographical and codicological relationships between manuscripts, allowing for the identity of an early recession of the Mubahatat. After listing all known manuscripts, the author proposes a theory a concerning the development of the discrete textual parts and their authenticity. The compositional context of the correspondence now known as the Mubahatat and the structure and arrangement of the individual texts and their date of composition are explored from the manuscript traditions. Biographical portraits of the three people who engaged in the correspondence with Ibn Sina, that is, Abu l’Qasim al-Kirmani, Bahmanyar, and Ibn Zaylaan are made to characterize their respective roles in the intellectual contributions to this philosophical correspondence. Next a synopsis of each part of the text is given, based upon the pervious examination of known manuscripts. The general character of various parts of the text are assessed regarding the correct place they occupy in the sequence of the correspondence and their possible dates of composition. These characterizations are based on the theory that the structures of the earlier recessions more likely represent the original compositional structure of the text. In many ways this is the intellectual heart of this study: The work being basically prologue to a thoroughgoing critical edition of the text.
Reisman’s conclusions are worth
Mubahatat is preeminently
a private correspondence that is undoubtedly the source of the complexities of
its transmission. These letters
represent a private activity of a number of scholars engaged in philosophical
investigation at the time of their composition. No single authorial intention
was exercised upon their construction and no goal of widespread distribution of
them was considered. This means that
various parts of the correspondence would be haphazard but also that the
editorial approach of later ages often misconstrued the various levels of
The story of this transmission is a fascinating look into the nature of
medieval Arabic Islamic philosophy, which gives hints of the social and
political context in which such philosophical learning occurred.
purpose in this study is to construct, given the nature of current evidence, the
best criteria for a critical edition of the text.
It is hoped that this work will be followed, in due time, with a critical
edition and translation of the Mubahatat itself
and perhaps a commentary on it's its historical and philosophical vicissitudes.
Given the general neglect of Ibn Sina’s philosophy,
The Making of the Avicennan Tradition can be
considered a major step forward and is a necessary purchase for any academic
David C. Reisman's dissertation, The Making of the Avicennan Tradition: The Transmission, Contents, and Structure of Ibn Sina's al-Mubahathat (The Discussions) has been awarded the William J. Horwitz Prize by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at
Alfarabi "Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle" by Alfarabi; translated by Muhsin Mahdi, introduction by Muhsin Mahdi (Cornell University Press). This long-awaited reissue of the 1969 Cornell edition of Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle contains Muhsin Mahdi's substantial original introduction and a new foreword by Charles E. Butterworth and Thomas L. Pangle. The three parts of the book, "Attainment of Happiness," "Philosophy of Plato," and "Philosophy of Aristotle," provide a philosophical foundation for Alfarabi's political works. [Review pending]Muhsin Mahdi is James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic, Emeritus, in the Harvard University Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization. Charles E. Butterworth is Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Thomas L. Pangle is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: The Quest for Self-Knowledge in the
Teachings of Afdal Al-Din Kashani
by William C. Chittick (Oxford University Press) introduces the work of an important medieval Islamic philosopher who is little known outside the Persian world. Afdal al‑Din Kdshani was a contemporary of a number of important Muslim thinkers, including Averroes and Ibn al‑'Arabi. Among philosophers who wrote in Persian, he is set apart by the remarkable beauty and clarity of his prose. Kashani made a considered choice to write in Persian at a time when Arabic was the language of choice for philosophy. Avoiding Arabic technical terms, he did not, in fact, write for advanced students of philosophy but rather for beginners who might not have a good grasp of Arabic.
Kashani's writings offer especially clear and insightful expositions of various philosophical positions. This makes him an invaluable resource for those who would like to learn the basic principles and arguments of this philosophical tradition but do not have a strong background in philosophy and Islamic studies. As William Chittick notes, Kishdni held the position that philosophy awakens people from forgetfulness and incites them to reach for the perfection of existence. Because ignorance of self is the cause of the soul's misery in the next life, he sought to make philosophy as accessible as possible to everyone.
This is the first book in English to present the main themes of the Islamic philosophical tradition in the words of a Muslim philosopher. Written in an accessible style, this volume will interest students and scholars of Islamic Philosophy.
Author's summary: .... One of my goals was to illustrate how key philosophical themes could be traced by following the use of basic terms. In the Arabic texts themselves, it is easy to see how the same key words are at issue from the Theology down to Mulls Sadra But the available English translations offer little help toward this goal, because various translators have followed a great diversity of paths in rendering technical terms. The goals, methods, and skills of the translators are so diverse that it is often difficult to see in any more than a general way how specific issues recur and how the philosophers dealt with the same issues from various perspectives.
Lacking an appropriate anthology of philosophical texts, it would have been useful to have an introduction to Islamic philosophical thinking‑rather than to the history of that thinking. Such an introduction would deal with central ideas in detail, present teachings in a way that would be faithful to the goals of the philosophers themselves, maintain consistency in choice of technical terminology, and be accessible both to those trained in Western philosophy and those versed in Islamic studies. But, to my knowledge, there is no such book.
While teaching the course, I assumed, as the students assumed, that Muslim philosophers were dealing with issues that are still very much alive, even though philosophical language and points of view may have changed radically over the centuries. I found that the students with philosophical training could immediately see that the texts were covering ground with which they were more or less familiar. But I had to spend an inordinate amount of time filling in background to illustrate how the particular approaches were deeply conditioned by presuppositions of the Islamic worldview. On the other side, students unacquainted with the Aristotelian terminology that is so central to both Western and Islamic philosophy had difficulty seeing how the issues were expressions of Islamic notions with which they were already familiar.
I finished the course thinking that I should find time to write one or two of the books that I had wished had been available. For several reasons that do not need to be detailed here, I ended up working on one and then another of the treatises of Afdal al‑Din Kashani. The more I read and studied these, the more I realized that an introduction to his thought could at the same time function as a primer in Islamic philosophy. Hence The Heart of Islamic Philosophy. The anthology of philosophical texts will have to wait for another occasion.
This book is not intended to cover the same ground as the
several introductions to and general studies of Islamic philosophy that are now
available, because all of these focus on the history and development of ideas.
typically with a view toward Greek and Western philosophy, and none of them
allows the philosophers to engage in sustained arguments.' There are many
specialist monographs, but these are difficult for anyone not already conversant
with the history of Western philosophy, or familiar with the abstruse debates
that went on in Islamic philosophy and theology, or acquainted with the Islamic
intellectual tradition in general. No matter how useful the monographs may be
for scholars and advanced students, they cannot be recommended to beginners.
There are also a good number of translated texts, but again, few of them are
accessible to those without thorough training in the history of philosophy.
The Heart of Islamic Philosophy presents Islamic philosophy as series of basic questions that can be grasped by relative beginners, including undergraduates. Moreover, it seems important to me, in this day and age, to present the philosophical texts in a way that allows us to see how they might be relevant not only to the other great wisdom traditions, but also to contemporary intellectual issues. In two of the introductory chapters, I have tried to extend the basic issues of Islamic philosophy in ways that will help students see how this tradition speaks to diverse issues of continuing importance, not to mention the perennial quest for wisdom.
In brief, I wrote this book for those who want to know something about Islamic philosophy on its own terms, not simply as a chapter in the history of Western philosophy, nor as a curious bit of the past that is now concluded. I would like to suggest why this philosophy has always made sense to its practitioners and how they have seen it as a coherent worldview that explains not only the nature of things, but also the manner in which people should live their lives. I will make little reference to the history of ideas, but will rather be looking at Islamic philosophy as a living tradition in something of the way in which it has been perceived by its practitioners in later times, especially in Persia, where it has survived down to the present. In other words, I will be considering Islamic philosophy in terms of the "love of wisdom" that animates it, rather than simply its historical role. Without doubt, many historical studies of the Muslim philosophers are begging to be carried out, but greater attention also needs to be paid to the objectives of the philosophers and to the arguments and practices that were intended to achieve these objectives. Otherwise, Islamic philosophy remains a dead fish, rather than a tradition that continues to swim against the current.
In writing the book, I have tried to let Afdal al‑Din explain his teachings in his own terms. The earlier chapters prepare the ground for the presentation of the translated texts in the later chapters. Chapter 1 uggests something of Kashani's significance in the Islamic philosophical tradition and provides what little details are known about his life, plus a list of his known writings. Chapter 2situates Islamic philosophy within Islamic thought, moves on to the philosophical worldview in general, and then addresses some of the broad philosophical issues, drawing both from Kashani and a few of his predecessors. Recognizing that some readers will not be familiar with the usage of basic terminology, I devote chapter 3 to explaining some of the more important terms and illustrating how they are employed in the texts.
The translations are arranged in the next part of the book. I have ordered them roughly in terms of difficulty, beginning with the easiest and most direct of the works, with some allowance made for historical context.
Chapter 4 illustrates something of the philosophical and religious background as it appeared to Kashani by providing examples of his translations from the Greek philosophers and the full text of his abridgment of a work by Ghazali. All these texts are especially simple and direct.
The texts in Chapter 5 focus more on praxis than on theory and are easier to understand, by and large, than the more rigorously argued works on theory. They include several of Baba Afdal's essays, two lists of maxims, some of his poetry, and all of his letters.
Chapter 6, "Writings on Theory," is the longest section of the book. It offers a few of Baba Afdal's essays, four fulllength treatises, and selections from two other treatises that offer theoretical summaries of his principle ideas.…
Baba Afdal's letters and many remarks scattered throughout his works indicate that he was writing for a group of highly motivated people, some of whom held important official positions. With some exceptions, his students did not have a good knowledge of Arabic. They had not gone through all the formal training ordinarily needed to study philosophy, but they had the intelligence, the desire, and enough learning to follow even relatively technical arguments when these were set down in clear Persian. Thus Baba Afdal was not writing for experts or advanced students, but rather for beginners. He wrote with the conscious effort to make his writings as clear as possible.
One can guess, on the basis of a comment that Baba Afdal makes at the end of his book on logic, that he felt that the majority of those already trained in the sciences were not worth addressing, because of the bad habits of mind that they would have picked up. His remark alludes to the fact that for him, as for many other philosophers, the quest for wisdom was primarily a spiritual discipline: "Suffering to efface the bad forms from such souls is much more difficult than guiding those who have not acquired anything at all".
I became especially sensitized to the issues that arise when philosophical terms are translated from one language into another during the many years that I spent on a recently completed project, The Self‑Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al‑ Arabi's Cosmology. As I explain in the introduction to that book, I struggled to overcome the barriers to understanding Ibn al‑`Arabi's teachings that have been erected because of the excessive use of abstraction in learned discussions in English. One of Ibn al‑`Arabi's major philosophical methods is to recapture the etymological sense of Koranic terminology. His intentions have largely been obscured by the attempts of Western scholars to render his ideas into English. Where Ibn al‑'Arabi is trying to bring the reader back to the original, concrete sense of the Arabic language, the translators and interpreters (myself included) most often have tried to find the right abstract terms from the Western philosophical and theological traditions. Given the choice between concrete English words of Anglo‑Saxon derivation and abstract terms from Greek or Latin, scholars typically opt for the latter. Nonetheless, Ibn al‑`Arabi constantly calls his readers back to the original sense of the words, and the original sense is invariably concrete and imagistic, not abstract and rationalizing. In other words, simple, straightforward English does a better job of capturing the sense than the jargon of scholarship. One might say that Ibn al‑`Arabi wants to bring mythos back to the center and to overcome the excessive stress of philosophers and theologians on logos. His insistence that imagination (khayal) is the centerpiece and crux of all human understanding points in the same direction.
Scholars of Islamic philosophy have traveled a similar route, which is to say that they have usually chosen the abstract over the concrete, the Latin and Greek over the everyday English. There are many good reasons for doing this, not least the fact that Greek philosophy is the common denominator between Western and Islamic medieval translators who first made Islamic philosophy known in the West and who chose certain words (Latin, of course) to translate Arabic technical terms.
However laudable the scholarly efforts to translate and explain Islamic philosophy in European languages, they sometimes seem a bit misguided. Those who have studied Islamic philosophy in the original languages often find that the use of heavy duty Latin and Greek tends to obscure points that seem abundantly clear in the original. I have frequently noticed that the only way to understand even well‑translated texts is to look back at the Arabic, at which point the discussion usually makes sense, sometimes because the Arabic is not written in high‑sounding abstractions, but rather in straightforward, concrete assertions.
Like Ibn al‑`Arabi, though perhaps for different reasons, Baba Afdal is especially concerned to bring out the concrete meaning of words. Ibn al‑'Arabi had no choice but to write everything he wrote in Arabic, but Baba Afdal had the advantage of working simultaneously with two very different languages, one Semitic and the other Indo‑European. He was also completely aware of what happens when technical terms from one language are used in another.
As we all know, one of the first difficulties beginning students of philosophy face is the terminology that must be learned and understood, especially when the words have little resonance in the everyday language. The philosophical vocabulary that Persian speakers need to acquire is drawn largely from Arabic. Although many of the words are used in the colloquial language and in fields of learning other than philosophy, they tend to have a pedantic sound to them, somewhat like words of Latin and Greek derivation in English, and they are more abstract than words derived from Persian roots. Even though they may be more precise for purposes of scientific inquiry, their abstraction and precision removes them from the real world of concrete experience, where boundaries are always fuzzy. If a philosopher is striving to express reality itself, abstract precision may not be the best route.
One of the ways in which Baba Afdal overcomes the problem of technical terms is to provide equivalents or paraphrases in Persian. The advantage of Persian over Arabic is that readers will have a better sense of the concreteness of the idea and not be drawn into abstractions. They will, as it were, feel the meaning of the words in the gut, rather than having to stop and reflect about what the words mean and thereby being drawn away from the concrete, present meaning that is found at the depth of their embodied souls.The abstractness of Arabic words used in Persian often has much to do with the fact that the derivation of the term is unclear. To give an example from English, we need to be told that "procrastination" means "to put something off," unless we happen to know Latin, in which case we see immediately that it means procrastinate, literally, "to keep for tomorrow." "Procrastination" is an abstraction, but "keeping something for tomorrow" is a concrete way of saying the same thing. So also, Persian speakers need to be told that the Arabic word taswif means "procrastination." But those conversant with classical Arabic will recognize that what it really means is "to say, 'I will, I will."' The original sense of the word is a concrete image or a specific exemplar of an idea, but gradually the image is lost and the idea becomes generalized in a way that often has little or nothing to do orginal meaning and intension.
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