Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings

By Eichner, Heidrun | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings


Eichner, Heidrun, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings. Edited MUHAMMAD ALI KHALID. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2005. Pp. xlviii + 186.

This volume contains a collection of translations of selected texts from works of famous philosophers writing in Arabic: al-Farabi's The Book of Letters (kitab al-Huruf), Ibn Sina's On the Soul (from Kitab al-Najat), al-Ghazali's The Rescuer from Error (al-Munquidh min al-Dalal). Ibn Tufayl's Hayy b. Yaqzan, and Ibn Rushd's Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahaful al-Tahafut). As the introduction states, "the anthology attempts to provide a representative sample of the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition in a manner that is accessible to beginning students of philosophy, as well as to more seasoned philosophers with little or no exposure to this tradition." So the volume explicitly addresses "philosophers," primarily, and presents itself as a contribution to overcoming an outdated view of the role of medieval Islamic philosophy in the history of philosophy, a view according to which Arabic philosophers are "either considered curiosities ... or preservers of and commentators on the Greek philosophical heritage without a sufficiently original contribution of their own." Accordingly, Khalidi's anthology aims "to select texts that will be of particular interest to a contemporary audience." As "medieval Islamic philosophy is not generally regarded as part of the philosophical canon of the English speaking world" (p. xi), the anthology is designed to contribute to a process of "mainstreaming" Islamic philosophy by providing texts in which the emphasis is decidedly on "theoretical questions" (p. xii). Thus the selection of translated texts focuses on metaphysics and epistemology.

In fact, Khalidi's anthology is the first textbook to assemble a comparable range of translations from Arabic philosophical works, and his decision to focus on texts which connect this area of study with contemporary philosophical interests will be highly welcomed by any scholar familiar with more recent trends in the textual and historical study of Arabic philosophy. The linguistic quality of the translations is excellent, which is the more remarkable as it lies in the nature of the metaphysical and epistemological texts that Khalidi has chosen for this anthology to be at a highly technical level. Accordingly, a good translation requires a high degree of linguistic and philosophical skill. The translations are preceded by a series of brief introductions and are accompanied by annotations.

The format of a series of textbooks certainly sets restrictions on the level of exactitude in the annotations and in the introduction, and Khalidi rightly refers to the problem posed by "trying to strike a balance between textual exegesis and critical commentary," especially as the brevity of the introductions permits only the inclusion of "minimal historical background on the authors of these texts" (p. xiii). However, we turn here to one major problem which might restrict the usefulness of this volume for its readers: the book contains absolutely no references to secondary literature which focuses more precisely on the problems dealt with in the texts. Many notes refer to philological problems (and, again, demonstrate a high level of linguistic competence), but even where problems of interpretation are addressed or explications are given, we cannot find the sources for this information which might permit us to verify its correctness or to explore its background. (Only on pp. 59, 94, and 158 can we find references to the Encyclopaedia of Islam; on p. 28, a passage from Fazlur Rahman's Avicenna's Psychology is referred to; and on p. …

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