If Aquinas is a philosopher then so are the Islamic theologians

Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think people today mostly acknowledge the importance and originality of philosophy in the Islamic world. Would any scholar now say in print, as Bertrand Russell notoriously did in his History of Western Philosophy (written in 1945), that ‘Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators’? I certainly hope not. But even if we now see more clearly, we still have blindspots. The thinkers taken seriously as ‘philosophers’ are typically the authors Russell dismissed as mere commentators, men such as al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, Avicenna, and Averroes. Though they were far from unoriginal, they were indeed enthusiasts for Aristotle and other Greek authors. Yet these were not the only intellectuals and rationalists of their time, nor did rationalism and philosophical reflection die with Averroes at the end of the 12th century, as is still often believed. Throughout Islamic history, many of the figures of interest and relevance to the historian of philosophy were not Aristotelians, but practitioners of kalām, which is usually translated as ‘theology’.

The word kalām literally means ‘word’, and here abbreviates the Arabic expression ʿilm al-kalām: ‘science of the word’. It is often contrasted to the term falsafa, which as you can probably guess was imported into Arabic as a loan-word from the Greek philosophia. When modern-day scholars draw this contrast, when they assume that kalām was non-philosophical or even anti-philosophical, they are taking their lead from the medieval tradition itself. In particular, from two self-styled ‘philosophers (falāsifa)’, al-Fārābī and Averroes. In their eyes, the ‘theologians (mutakallimūn)’ engaged in mere dialectical argumentation; whereas philosophy offers demonstrative proofs. The theologian does not ground arguments in first principles, but just defends his own favourite interpretation of scripture against rival interpretations. Averroes was scornful of the results, complaining that it can lead to violent schism. For him, only a philosopher can offer a really reliable reading of the Quran, since the philosopher knows what is true on independent grounds – that is, on the grounds of Aristotelian science.

But should we accept this sharp opposition? These Aristotelians talk as if kalām makes insufficient use of reason. But most contemporaries would have seen it as controversial precisely because it was so rationalist. Theologians often departed from the surface meaning of the Quran on rational grounds: Revelation might seem to speak of God as if He had a body, but we can rule this out by giving arguments against His corporeality. The mutakallimūn also engaged in detailed disputes over such central philosophical issues as free will, atomism and the sources of moral responsibility, and debated such technicalities as the inherence of properties in substances, or the status of non-existing objects. If history had gone differently and there had been no hard-line Aristotelians writing in Arabic, I have no doubt that historians of philosophy would consider the output of the mutakallimūn to be the ‘philosophical’ tradition of the Islamic world.

That would have made our approach to Islamic intellectual history more like our treatment of Christian medieval thought. After all, medieval philosophy classes are mostly devoted to figures who considered themselves to be ‘theologians’, such as Anselm, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t like medieval philosophy either, precisely because of its religious context. But my view is that philosophy is where you find it, and that it is narrow-minded to ignore philosophical argumentation put forward by thinkers simply because they have a religious agenda, whether that agenda grows out of Christianity (as with Aquinas), Judaism (as with Maimonides), Hinduism (as with Nyāya epistemology or Vedānta philosophy of mind), or Islam.

The refusal to appreciate the philosophical interest of kalām is especially pernicious when it comes to the period after the pivotal figure of philosophy in the Islamic world, Avicenna (he died in 1037). His impact was enormous and pervasive. So we find ‘theologians’ such as al-Ghazālī (died 1111) and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (died 1210) engaging in minute analysis of Avicenna’s arguments, accepting some aspects of the Avicennian system while finding fault with others. Al-Ghazālī is notorious for his critique of Avicenna’s metaphysics in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, but he also heaped ridicule on anyone who denied the utility of the philosophers’ logic. As for al-Rāzī, his enormous theological compendia are comparable to those written by men such as Aquinas and Scotus in Latin Christendom, filled with scholastic argumentation and even structured in terms of philosophical elements like the Aristotelian categories. The myth that philosophy somehow died out in the Islamic world around the time of Averroes (died 1198) is in part the result of assuming that such texts fall outside the remit of the history of philosophy, despite being chock-full of intricate philosophical argumentation.

All of which is not to deny that some other kalām texts would be of limited interest to the philosophically minded reader, or that the mutakallimūn did typically proceed on the basis of scriptural exegesis instead of (or in addition to) pure rational argument. Nor is this the only reason that kalām texts can frequently be frustrating to the philosopher. Al-Fārābī and Averroes were right that there was a ‘dialectical’ tendency in their theological contemporaries. Premises might go unexamined because an envisaged opponent is bound to accept them, and there is a tendency – in early kalām especially – to answer questions with verbal formulae that all parties might accept, rather than delving deeper to find a really satisfying answer. But that tendency is reduced to some extent in later kalām literature. In fact, my impression – which I offer tentatively, given the vast amount of later kalām literature that is as yet unedited, and unstudied – is that kalām becomes significantly more ‘philosophical’ as the tradition developed. In the post-Avicennan period, the situation was increasingly like what we find in late 13th-century France: the most interesting and sophisticated philosophers were the theologians.

It might seem greedy of me to ask that a wide readership come to appreciate kalām, when most self-described ‘philosophers’ in the Islamic world are still rarely studied by non-specialists. It’s not as if undergraduate students are already routinely asked to read Avicenna and Averroes, never mind their ‘theological’ contemporaries and heirs. But even if the relevant texts remain largely unstudied, it is worth spreading the news that rationalism in Islam did not die with Averroes, and that the famous partisans of philosophy in the Islamic world, like al-Fārābī, Averroes and Avicenna, had no monopoly on philosophical thinking there.

Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016) by Peter Adamson is out now through Oxford University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Adamson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Categories: Islam, Philosophy, Thomas Aquinas

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10 replies

  1. Have you guys read Asadullah’s latest post on FB? So sad to hear:
    Asalaamualaykum my brothers and sisters,

    This is not going to be an easy status for me to write. For quite some time I’ve been thinking about my impact on this ummah and what the future holds for me. If any of you have noticed, I’ve made a number of posts over the past couple of months lamenting my place in the Muslim world, the negativity I face on a daily basis from Islamophobes, and the general apathy of Muslims towards my work.

    As of today I have come to resolve the conflict that has been in my heart and mind for several years now.

    Since converting, I always dreamed of being a scholar — someone who could put their knowledge to practical use for Muslims around the world. I strove to gain as much knowledge as I could for the sake of bettering myself and everyone else around me. But I had many flaws (and still do). And there were times where the knowledge I acquired, whether through books or experience, burned my soul, torturing my old self into oblivion. It was as though I was experiencing the existential angst of Hell itself. In other words, it took years to beat the many of my nafs out of me — kicking and screaming did they stubbornly exit from my being, leaving scars in their wake.

    Over time, I grew weary and began to forsake my aspirations of being a scholar. I was not suited for the task; I wasn’t pure enough according to many Muslims. I was often reminded that my past would dictate my future forever. Regardless of their wrong-mindedness, I decided to settle for a different path — that of an academic and a daee. So this is what I have struggled for ever since. But as the years went by, I grew weary of this as well.

    So many times I would be approached by Muslims asking for my advice, my assistance, and my arguments — they wanted me to give every inch of my time to their needs. And so many times I was approached by some of the most renown dais on the planet, complimenting my intellectual prowess and telling me “you have the potential to do so much”. And I felt uplifted by all of these things. I felt like Allah was finally using me for something — that my life was finally worthy enough to be used for the greater good of my community. And to this day I am still visited by Muslims in my inbox and email asking me for help. To this day, many famous dais knock on my Whatsapp or my Facebook messenger, asking me how I am and what I’m doing.

    And then I get to work. I spend hours, days, months preparing videos, articles, lectures, etc. I fine tune everything to the utmost of my abilities and whatever time permits me with my busy school and work schedule. And then I wait for Allah to make me useful.

    But there is largely silence. The same people message me again and again and again. Then I spend more time making videos, writing articles, preparing lectures, etc. I fine tune everything to perfection, stress myself on every atom’s weight of detail. And then I wait for Allah to make me useful.

    The silence continues. The same messages come again and again and again, and the process repeats itself. The influence I was hoping to achieve through my talents is largely absent.The only thing that increases is the amount of energy and emotions I spend, and the amount of people who express to me hatred.

    But I continue, because daees of old endured. The Prophets endured. So I continue. But then I realize, I’m nothing like the daees and Prophets of old. Everyday I grow spiritually and emotionally weaker. I grow more exhausted. I’ve start to detest my fellow Muslims. I’ve started to detest the world around me. I’ve come to detest myself. I am nothing but bitterness now.

    “We want to use your brain,” they tell me. “We want you to be part of this initiative,” they say. “You are needed!” they proclaim. But everyday I feel less and less needed, and my apathy and bitterness grows.

    And now, I don’t care anymore.

    However, I will still fulfill my obligations. I still have some videos to produce and many articles to write, all which will culminate into a book. This is my end goal and my final duty to this ummah by Allah’s permission. I intend for the next year to finish all of my thoughts, as per my obligations to my supporters and others around me. But once I’m done, I will be done for good. In other words, I will close down the Andalusian Project, remove myself from all organizations and affiliates, go dark on social media, and distance myself from dawah completely. I will live a normal life, nestled in my quiet Librarian career like a selfish hermit. I’ll let my book do the work for me while I busy myself with making money, raising a family, traveling, and playing video games.

    That’s all I really want.

    But I’m not done, so I will continue till next year till the completion of my book, insh’Allah. This is my intention. However, as a Muslim I cannot dismiss qadr. Obviously, things may go very differently from everything I’m saying right now. Maybe Allah will have different plans for me and my heart will change. But I am not confident in that and I wanted to express my intent to you all so that when or if it happens, you won’t be surprised.

    This will undoubtedly be seen as a victory for those who despise me, but they should dismiss that thought immediately. They have not won anything over me. It was not the Islamophobe — the irrelevant, intellectually impotent online troll — who chased me away. No matter where I am or where I go, I will always be king to these vacuous keyboard warriors. No, those who were victorious over me were much closer and of far greater nobility: they were the Muslims themselves. They were the those who refused to stand by me; those who chose others as their flag bearers.

    But I don’t blame them. I blame only myself. I failed. For Allah did not wish this for me and saw me as inadequate. And that is something I need to accept. And I finally have. I am content with my defeat and I am content to finally rest.

    Thank you all for your duas and support over the years — and for your continues duas and support till the end of my dawah ‘career’. I apologize to everyone I’ve offended or harmed throughout this time and I only ask for your forgiveness for being too weak to continue. I wished to be a lion for this ummah, but a desire to sleep has overcome me and I can no longer carry myself forward in this thankless and meaningless desert of false hope and false promises.

    Until next year, Jazak’Allah Khair.

    • “I’m nothing like the daees …” Daees lol. Truly great scholarship.

      • @ Agnostic
        Daees aren’t scholars. Like seriously why comment what was the benefit?

      • Stew there are no “daees”. The plural is Duʿāt. You egotistic amateurs cant even get the basics right. “Scholars” “Banner bearers” lol.

      • Muslims use ‘englishsized’ words of Arabic all the time. I highly doubt he didn’t know that as someone who has worked in his field for years.

    • @ Atlas

      I don’t understand what happened? he can still become a scholar or whatever else he wants to do. I don’t understand what the Fitna is.

      • It became to much for him which is something I can’t blaim him of. The world today is so unbelievebly toxic towards Islam/Muslims while Muslims have become apathetic.

    • Atlas,
      I’m not sure what he meant or what the background is of his post. All what I know that his works are very important, informative, and beneficial. I know that we are human beings, and the circumstances around us could be frustrating, yet this is really not an excuse to stop your works, especially if we want the reward from Allah sw not from people. Any muslim should check his intention(Neyyiah) and his heart periodically. If we do what we do just to gain fame and praising from people, our works do value zero. This is one of the conditions for our works to be accepted from Allah sw. As we say in Arabic ( do the good deed and throw it in the sea). In other words, don’t think the successful of your works by the eyes of the people, but through the eye of Allah sw. As long as that you seek Allah sw by your works, then it doesn’t matter even if you throw it in the Sea. Nothing will be lost with Allah sw. “….That is because they are not afflicted by thirst or fatigue or hunger in the cause of Allah, nor do they tread on any ground that enrages the disbelievers, nor do they inflict upon an enemy any infliction but that is registered for them as a righteous deed. Indeed, Allah does not allow to be lost the reward of the doers of good. Nor do they spend an expenditure, small or large, or cross a valley but that it is registered for them that Allah may reward them for the best of what they were doing.” However, the matter of hearts is for Allah sw not us.
      As muslims, we should put our trust on Allah sw. Our hope is from Allah sw not from people.

      Also, It’s really disappointing that I feel sometimes that muslims don’t really appreciate the Sirah of the prophet pbuh. It’s historical and real. It’s a miracle by itself! When the tribes of disbelievers blocked and surrounded Madinah, the prophet pbuh kept giving glad tidings that this situation would end, and not only that, but he pbuh told his companions that the would open Iraq and Shamm,and they would defeat the most powerful empires in the world. The hypocrites mocked that. They might have thought this’s kind of hallucination! However, the believers said “And when the believers saw the companies, they said, “This is what Allah and His Messenger had promised us, and Allah and His Messenger spoke the truth.” And it increased them only in faith and acceptance.Among the believers are men true to what they promised Allah . Among them is he who has fulfilled his vow [to the death], and among them is he who awaits [his chance]. And they did not alter [the terms of their commitment] by any alteration ” QT.

      Noah pbuh kept inviting his people for 950 years, yet the Qur’an says “..But none had believed with him, except a few.” QT. Do you think Noah wasted his time? No! He met a great rewards, and the Jannah is awaiting for him.

      //they were the Muslims themselves. They were the those who refused to stand by me; those who chose others as their flag bearers.//
      It seems the same problem Paul Williams had, yet he has overcome it, and I like his statement “This is why I am Muslim – the scenery changes, and the fellow-passengers can be rowdy, but Islam is the last bus home, and that is all that matters.”
      And of course I like more How Qur’an treats this problem “O you who have believed, upon you is [responsibility for] yourselves. Those who have gone astray will not harm you when you have been guided. To Allah is your return all together; then He will inform you of what you used to do.” QT
      Let’s suppose the all muslims went astray and became non muslims, what should one do? In other words, Allah sw is saying it’s not an excuse to go astray just because all people around you disappointed you.
      In the battle of Uhud, the news came that the prophet pbuh died, so some companions stopped fighting because they felt with frustration!
      Qur’an comments “Muhammad is not but a messenger. [Other] messengers have passed on before him. So if he was to die or be killed, would you turn back on your heels [to unbelief]? And he who turns back on his heels will never harm Allah at all; but Allah will reward the grateful.” QT.

      Finally, I affirm again that I’m not sure what background is of his post, yet I hope he’ll return with more energetic mood. I leave you with this story of dr Jonathan Brown. Please pay attention how the Qur’an cured his soul.

  2. @ Atlas

    Of course, it’s grinding comes with the territory. I myself want to be a scholar I could care less what other people think. If he wants websites to start studying I can send them to him. Screw those people at the end of the day it’s for Allah.

    I think the brother needs a vacation, he appears stressed and I think he just needs to remove himself from the grind.

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