Essay / Philosophy

Jews and Arabs in Search of Wisdom: Two Book Reviews

Scholars and students who have worked their way through Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s and Oliver Leaman’s masterfully edited work, A History of Islamic Philosophy (Routledge, 2001) will, if they had bother to read the two introductions by Nasr and Leaman respectively, come away with an appreciation for how difficult it was to define the parameters of “Islamic philosophy.” If that was difficult, now we must tackle the issue of what constitutes “Arabic” and “Jewish” philosophy. Two works, Adamson and Taylor’s Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), and Frank and Leaman’s Cambridge Companion to Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), attempt to do just that.

Adamson and Taylor’s volume focuses on the “formative, classical period of philosophy in Arabic,” between the 9th and 11th centuries A.D. (p. 1) The earliest period in which Islamic scholars took interest in Greek philosophy was one of transmission and translation, these sources being translated into Arabic from Greek and Syriac. These formative periods saw a great increase in interaction with Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian texts by scholars in the caliphate of Damascus’ court. The authors caution us, however, of thinking about this period as one of simple transmission of Greek texts into Arabic, since “most important for the later Islamic tradition was the towering achievement of Avicenna,” who “was one of the many thinkers with the ideas put forward by the tradition of theology in Islam (‘ilm al-kalam).” (pp. 1-2) The central focus of this volume, then, is the interaction between philosophy and Islamic theology, and the central player would inevitably become Avicenna ((Ibn Sinna).The reason for this centrality of the Avicennan tradition is because all later philosophical work in Arabic is primarily a response to him (p. 6). But there are chapters that clearly spend a good amount of time covering the earlier period of the encyclopedic tradition, whereby Islamic scholars compiled and commented on Greek philosophical texts. This is Christina D’Ancona’s main contribution in chapter 2 (Greek into Arabic: Neoplatonism in Translation). Central to this period of reception and translation are the figures of Plotinus and Porphyry. Plotinus “represented a turning point in the history of philosophical ideas which was to play a decisive role in the creation of falsafa and to influence indirectly philosophy in the Middle Ages, in both Latin and Arabic.” (p. 10) Readers of this journal will read with interest the role of the Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn, in the work of translation of the Platonic and Aristotelian corpus during the Abbasid Caliphate. In chapter 3 (Al-Kindi and the Reception of Greek Philosophy), Peter Adamson recounts the central figure of Al-Kindi, who is credited with setting “the agenda for falsafa in the generations to come “through “his treatment of intellect and theory and theory of creation” which “resonates throughout Arabic philosophy.” (p. 48) In the realm of intellect, he is somewhat indebted to the Alexandrian Christian philosopher John Philoponus, though he would not agree with him on every point. (p. 40)

All of these provide a good background to Robert Wisnovsky’s chapter on Avicenna (“Avicenna and the Avicennian Tradition”). This by far is the longest chapter, since, in Professor Wisnovsky’s own words, he “was the central figure in the history of Arab-Islamic philosophy.” (p. 92) He goes on to highlight his significance: “Before Avicenna, falsafa (Arabic Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy) and Kalam (Islamic doctrinal theology) were distinct strands of thought, even though a good deal of cross-fertilization took place between them. After Avicenna, by contrast, the two strnds fused together and post-Avicennian kalam emerged as a truly Islamic philosophy, a synthesis of Avicenna’s metaphysics and Muslim doctrine.” (p. 92) In many ways, then, Avicenna laid the groundwork for what would emerge as a truly Islamic philosophy, influencing the metaphysics of Averroes, and defining the terms by which such an Islamic philosophy could take shape. (pp. 131-133) The next chapter on al-Ghazali by Michael Marmura (chapter 7) poses al-Ghazali in opposition to some of the metaphysics of Avicenna (especially in his classic On the Incoherence of the Philosophers), but nonetheless also “adopting Avivennian philosophical ideas.” (p. 137) Though Richard Taylor’s chapter on Averroes does not quite bring this out, Averroes develops much of his metaphysic in conversation (and at times in opposition to) Avicenna. The last chapters deal with Jewish philosophy and the Latin tradition. Islamic philosophy’s ability to influence the two latter traditions speaks a great deal of Avicenna’s influence.

What is Jewish philosophy? This is the question Oliver Leaman-co-editor with Seyyed Hossein Nasr of History of Islamic Philosophy and co-editor of the present volume-attempts to answer in the introductory chapter titled “Introduction to the study of medieval Jewish philosophy.”” What makes such figures that run the historical gamut, from Philo to Levinas, “Jewish philosophers?” Would Spinoza count as a “Jewish philosopher? Leaman provides some guidelines, beginning with a basic starting point: defining the philosophical work of Jewish philosophers within the context of “the nature of the issues they considered, issues that are both philosophical and that treat seriously the view of the world that can be extracted from the Jewish texts.” (p. 4) And yet this has two limitations: the problem of whether or not there are principles in Judaism that lend themselves to philosophical inquiry, and the more fundamental problem of “combining the universality of philosophy with the particularity of a religious faith.” (p.4) The latter, for Leaman, is the more difficult problem, since it would seem to impose a “straightjacket” Leaman’s word) on the philosophical enterprise that would force the philosopher “to reconcile what might seem to be inconsistencies between (religious and philosophical) commitment.” (ibid)

The operative word here is, of course, seems. It may seem an imposition to make religious tenets come to bear on certain truths in philosophy, but at the same time, the truths of faith are pregnant with philosophical intuitions waiting to be explored. That would be the position that such Jewish philosophers in the kalam school would take. Sarah Stroumsa’s article on “Saadya and Jewish kalam” (chapter 4) takes this assumption as a starting point: “Common to all kalam schools is the formulation of a system based on the dual basis of rationality and Scripture, and on the assumption that the two complement, rather than contradict, each other. (p. 71) She demonstrates the close, organic connections between the development of a Jewish systematic theology and the kalam as developed by Muslims. Thus, to speak of a proper Jewish philosophy, one must take into account its formation under Islamic auspices, since so much of it was written in Arabic. She notes that other than Philo, “no systematic rationalistic theology was developed by Jews.” (p.73) The work of Saadya, who was not the first Jewish kalamist, nonetheless represents a more mature and sophisticated Jewish kalam. (p. 77)

After an important study on the Neoplatonic doctrine of divine emanation in Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Isaac Israeli (Sarah Pessin), an important article on Judah Halevi by Barry Kogan emphasizes the philosophical construct by which the Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet attempted to answer the question how to answer non-Jewish philosophers, on the one hand, and Christian and Muslim objections to Judaism, on the other. The central text, of course, is The Kuzari, “crafted” by Halevi “to address a broad array of religious, philosophical, and cultural issues that concerned him and his contemporaries in the wake of the bloody conflicts generated by the Reconquista and the First Crusade.” (p. 111) The setting of the dialogue is in the court of the king of the Khazars, who, along with his nobles, converted to Judaism in the late 9th or early 10th centuries. The Kuzari thus serves a polemical purpose, setting philosophical arguments about divine simplicity and the “Active Intellect,” and after a more complete but unsatisfactory performance on the part of the Christian and Muslim interlocutors, the king turns to “the sage,” who expounds on the Law of Moses, pointing to its divine origin. This Jewish sage “swears that (the Law) teaches nothing that repudiates sense experience or demonstrative proof, or countenances anything impossible or absurd.” (p. 132) The Law also “ennobles (its adherents)” to a “divine way of life,” completing what is lacking in the philosopher’s “Active Intellect” with a God who enters into a personal encounter with humanity as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (pp. 131ff) In the end, “the sage now maintains that what the philosophers have genuinely demonstrated is confined mainly to mathematics and logic.” (p. 133) In this, Halevi follows al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers, as he argues that the principles of philosophy lose much ground in the areas of physics and metaphysics, given their denial of creation ex nihilo and the incoherence of their doctrines of causation (p. 133) Thus, while Halevi credits philosophy for its achievements, in the end, it has little to offer, and instead encourages “a whole-hearted turn toward the ancestral tradition,” through a “wholehearted return to the ancestral land.” (p. 133)

But that tradition, as Maimonides noted, is pregnant with philosophical concepts, and for him, those concepts were best analyzed through the method of Aristotle. The following two chapters on Maimonides-Daniel Frank’s “Maimonides and Medieval Jewish Aristotelianism” (chapter 7), and Tzvi Langermann’s “Maimonides and the Sciences” (chapter 8)-deal with the importance of the Aristotelian method in his construction of a workable basis for scientific and theological inquiry. As Daniel Frank notes, what is said of St. Thomas (Sine Aristotele, Thomas non esset-Without Aristotle, Thomas would not exist), can be said equally of Moshe ben Maimon. (p. 153)

Both books, then, give us a good picture of the common world in which the philosophical enterprise took place. Indeed, Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages was so bound up with developments in the Islamic world that in many ways, it was shaped and molded by its questions. At the same time, someone like Maimonides could and did have a considerable impact on the development of a uniquely Christian philosophy, for while St. Thomas Aquinas was certainly influenced by, and responded to, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), nonetheless Maimonides had his stamp on the Angelic Doctor as well. Maimonides, no less than Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sinna, would also become for both Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas an important link to the Aristotelian tradition.

Both books contain ample bibliographies for further research. Arabic Philosophy contains a useful chronology of major Arabic philosophers, from the Christian Sergius of Resh’ayna (6th century) to Sabziwari (19th century), with both Islamic and western Christian calendar reckonings. Medieval Jewish Philosophy also contains a chronology of major events and persons interacting with key Jewish philosophers, including major Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. This is something the editors of Arabic Philosophy might have wanted to consider, especially as a way to help non-Arabic specialists and students to find points of convergence, as well as divergence, between Christian and Islamic philosophical approaches.

Nonetheless, these two books, considered together, form an interesting and valuable whole, giving both the specialist and the non-specialist valuable insights into the common universe in which Jewish and Islamic (and even Christian) philosophy was undertaken. Given the intersection of these worlds today, and the volatility that so marks them, it is good to see two works that show a time, no less volatile than our own, when the philosophical enterprise was a shared experience between them. Can this happen again? Perhaps. We can only say with Solomon, in the midst of the chaos, “Numquid non sapientia clamitat?” (Proverbs 8:1)

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