The fate of FalsaFa

As Hossein Ziai demonstrates in his chapter, Abbasid civilisation showed itself willing and able to embark on one of the most ambitious projects of deliberate cultural borrowing known to history. If the Qur'an represents a first moment of Islamic xenophilia, rejecting the indigenous beliefs of the Arabs in favour of the monotheistic worldview and prophetic tales of their neighbours and rivals, then the process whereby Greek texts were translated into Arabic is surely the second. (The third, which is Islam's engagement with modernity, lies outside the scope of this volume.) Oliver Leaman demonstrates that what was at stake in the contest between kalam, traditionalism and this imaginative synthesis of Islamic, Neoplatonic and Aristotelian strands was not ''reason'' against ''revelation'', but rather the strategy by which these ought to be brought into conversation and synthesis. Even the Hanbalites, as he reminds us, could not be said to be ''against reason''.

Falsafa fascinated many, far beyond the small coteries in which it was formally translated and debated. Yahya Michot has written elsewhere of an ''Avicennian pandemic'',24 a rapid spread of Avicenna's system which has no parallel in Islamic intellectual history, apart from the even more sudden diffusion of Ibn 'Arabl's thought which took place in the middle and late thirteenth century. Once believed to have been dealt a mortal blow by Ghazali, Avicenna's system is now known to have prospered mightily after him.25 That this should have succeeded is no great surprise,after all, it has been argued that Avicenna had already borrowed from the kalaam thinkers, for instance in evolving his key essence/existence distinction.26 If, as one modern historian presents matters, the ancient effort to reconcile Aristotle's various positions was the creation of a ''Lesser Symphony'', and late antiquity's attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Plato was the ''Great Symphony'',27 then it might be said that later kalaam functioned as a third symphony, whose goal was the completion of the somewhat haphazard attempt by Avicenna to integrate Semitic monotheism into his philosophy.

Even the most superficial perusal of a late kalaam work will reveal the immense influence which Avicenna exerted on the framing of Muslim orthodoxy. Although the process is still imperfectly mapped, many scholars are accepting a view which presents Avicenna, not Ghazali, as the watershed between the ''ancient'' (mutaqaddimun) and ''modern'' (muta'akhkhirun) theologians, so that ''the turn in Sunni kalam was therefore Avicennian, not Ghazalian''.28 Falsafa as a separate discipline did not die, and, as Ziai shows, it continued to flourish under the name of hikmat in Iran. Among Sunnis, Avicenna continued to be taught in tandem with the kalaam texts which took him, as well as the scriptures, as their point of departure for the study of God, who was now explicitly defined in Avicennian terms as the Necessary Existent. The Ottoman chief judge Molla Kestelli (d. 1495) was proud to have read Avicenna's Shifa' seven times,29 and Avicenna continued to be referred to extensively by some Sunnis as well as many Shi'is up to and beyond the dawn of modernity. The field has moved far from older Orientalist images, purveyed notably by Leo Strauss, of a falsafa tradition that lived in fear of an orthodox backlash.30 On the contrary, as we now acknowledge, ''there was not a single such philosopher who was ever persecuted, let alone executed, for his philosophical views''.31

The puzzle of the decline of Hellenism in Islam has thus turned out not to be a puzzle at all, for the simple reason that it did not happen. On the contrary, we now know that Hellenism became so dominant in kalam that Taftazani (d. 1389), author of perhaps the most widely used text of later Muslim theology, wrote that the kalam folk had ''incorporated most of the physics and metaphysics, and delved deeply into the mathematics, so that but for the sam'iyyat, kalam was hardly distinguishable from falsafa''.32 The historian Ibn Khaldun made a very similar observation.33 In many forms of Sufism, too, we recognise a strong falsafa component: there is an Avicennian strand in Ibn 'Arabi, for instance, and Suhrawardai's illuminationist philosophy flourished in Anatolian Sufism, particularly among commentators on Ruml. Throughout Islamic civilisation the Avicennian insistance on theology as the crown of metaphysics moved Muslim intellectuals towards metaphysical arguments for the existence and nature of God; Ayman Shihadeh, in his chapter, shows the extent to which Avicennism was a major tributary of the later kalaam, particularly in the key argument from contingency.

Nonetheless, as several authors in this collection demonstrate, falsafa as a discipline was progressively overtaken, or perhaps swallowed up, by Sunni kalam at some point after the twelfth century. Perhaps the reason for this was the same factor which had caused the translation movement to wind down two centuries earlier: the ideas had been successfully transmitted. Falsafa functioned as an intermediary school, a module provisionally and imperfectly integrated into Muslim culture which allowed Muslim thinkers to entertain Greek ideas and choose those which seemed to them persuasive and true. As a system, however, it did not possess the resources to survive indefinitely. Once Muslims found that their need for a sophisticated philosophical theology was satisfied by the kalaam, falsafa as an independent discipline naturally withered.

This process was no doubt accelerated by the ''congregational'' principle alluded to above. Although Avicenna and Averroes had both served as religious judges, their systems were hardly calculated to attract the masses. Neither were the complexities of the kalaam folk, but the latter nonetheless possessed an advantage. Falsafa had inherited certain concepts which, reproduced and elaborated by Arabic-speaking philosophers, seemed unacceptable even to eirenically minded Semitic mono-theists. The Greek conception of a hierarchy of animate heavens provides one example of an idea of ultimately pagan provenance that was destined to fade away in Islam. Ash'arism and Maturidism were likewise unhappy with the stark determinism of the Neoplatonists, who had taught that God's actions were the ineluctable consequence of his essence, thus negating both human and divine freedom. With reservations, Ash'arism, and to a lesser degree Maturidism, accepted a predetermined universe, but this was shaped by God's attribute of power, which for them was separate from his essence.34 Muslim thought wished to affirm a free and reasonable deity, and this falsafa was unable to supply.35

A separate category of falsafa tenets not only was offensive to Muslim assurances about a morally coherent and autonomous God, but seemed to violate certain fundamental scriptural assurances. As David Burrell notes in his chapter on Muslim doctrines of creation, the qur'anic deity who creates ex nihilo was an impossibility for the Greeks, who favoured a model of eternal emanation. Burrell shows how Ghazali, in his The Incoherence of the Philosophers, refutes this belief, together with two others which seemed both un-Qur'anic and metaphysically absurd. Yet the Incoherence is not a thoroughgoing manifesto against

Avicennian metaphysics; instead it inveighs against certain ancient Hellenistic principles that seemed to have acquired the status of school doctrines.36 Ghazala in fact zealously integrated Greek techniques, the modal logic most notably, into Islamic thought,37 thus opening the way for the systematic theology of Raza, and the thirteenth-century ''golden age'' of Arabic logic.38

The picture that emerges is becoming clearer, and is in fact not terribly surprising. Medieval Muslims treated Greek philosophy rather as modern theologians treat modern secular philosophy. They recoiled at some of its conclusions, and enriched their thought-worlds by constructing imaginative refutations, but they displayed an abiding fascination with its mindset and its methods. While we may, depending on our philosophical preferences, speak of an age of decline, we cannot say that the decline was one of sophistication or of a willingness to use ''reason'' or ''foreign sciences''. Muslim orthodoxy did not shed Hellenism, but steadily accumulated it, and continued to extol the core Aristotelian discipline of logic, not only in kalam, but in law.39 The kalam had come into being as an apologetic exercise to defeat error, a ''therapeutic pragmatism'' as Shihadeh puts it,40 and the absence of major new sectarian movements following its final establishment is presumably a sign that, on its own terms, it did not substantially fall prey to decadence.

0 0

Post a comment