Philosophy

A History of Islamic Philosophy, 3d ed.

That Majid Fakhry’s A History of Islamic Philosophy, first published in 1970, has been brought out in a third revised edition can be of no surprise to the many admirers of this most robust of scholars. Fakhry’s scholarship is meticulous, and his style, even when handling the most complex ideas, remains simple and straightforward. As many of the theological questions raised by Islam’s key philosophers, particularly those pertaining to free will, justice, rights, and responsibilities, had political implications, each chapter in this book begins with a historical context. However, Fakhry only allows this context to play a subsidiary role, as a backdrop to the main narrative: the history of ideas. This approach lends itself very well to an examination of the ideas held by both individual philosophers and schools of philosophy. Importantly, Fakhry demonstrates how, during several key Islamic epochs, there was no one dominant system of thought, but rather, contending systems of thought. He takes us through these debates step by step, as in, for example, the first theological controversy on free will and predestination (qadar). It is in the presentation of these debates, more than anywhere else, that we see that while A History of Islamic Philosophy is distinguished from the work of many other grand narrative histories by not being marred by a partisan viewpoint, Fakhry’s is by no means a clinically scientific approach.

This book comprises thirteen chapters. It begins with “The Legacy of Greece, Alexandria, and the Orient,” covers the watershed periods in the growth of Islamic philosophy, and includes a chapter on “The Interaction of Philosophy and Dogma” as well as one on “The Rise and Development of Islamic Mysticism.” It concludes with an analysis of modernist and contemporary trends.

Fakhry opens with an account of the last years of the Arab conquest of the Near East and the ensuing problems of administering an empire. He begins his story of Islamic philosophy by describing how, by the end of the seventh century, Arabic came to replace Persian and Greek as the state prescribed language. This is a significant shift, for with a change of language comes a change of sensibility. His handling of the Greek material is admirable, particularly as he analyzes the different strands of Platonism and Aristotleanism that began to penetrate Islamic thinking. He is less interested in how this occurred – assuming, no doubt, that this process is familiar to most audiences – than in focusing on the ideas themselves and the intersection between these ideas and the Islamic ideas of that period.

In the second chapter, “Early Political and Religious Tensions,” the contest for the caliphate is presented less as a political battle for individual power than a contest between two opposing ideas of power. As this chapter moves on to examine the rise of kalam (theology), Fakhry presents a cogent summary of the Mu`tazilite creed. He then analyzes the position taken by the Mu`tazilah and other rationalizing groups and traditional thinkers on key theological issues regarding God’s nature, human beings’ nature, and the act of creation. He notes that the “two attributes over which the fiercest controversy raged in theological and philosophical circles were [free] will and speech” (p. 62). These questions would remain important for the following generation of thinkers, as Fakhry shows in the next chapter, which deals with the works of al-Kindi, Ibn al-Rawandi, and al-Razi.

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