International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy

by Oliver Leaman

Introductory Essay by Syed Nomanul Haq

This book has the virtue of casting the robust Hellenized enterprise – variously and equivalently referred to by scholars as “Islamic Philosophy”, “Arabic Philosophy”, and “Muslim Philosophy” – in a framework that throws into sharp perspective what the author considers its uniquely Islamic characteristics. It is not only an intellectual exercise, we learn, but has often had openings and sometimes even a need for mystical dimensionsI, It is not unrelated to the Qur’ān or, more generally, to the overwhelming phenomenon of revelation and prophecy. Nor does this philosophical tradition, it is emphasized, operate in isolation from Islamic disciplines called “religious sciences,” in particular ‘Ilm al-fiqh (science of understanding [of legal rulings of Sharī‘a jurisprudence]) and ‘Ilm al-Kalām (science of discourse [often somewhat misleadingly translated as “theology”]). This feature of the book is indeed a virtue since it is likely to serve as a corrective to the naive (and often ideologically-loaded) notions of “secular” enterprises in classical worlds.

Again, very few introductory texts on Islamic/Arabic/Muslim philosophy have traditionally addressed in an explicit manner the issues of science and religion in Islam: this book does, and raises some important questions even though a good deal of rigorous and non-apologetic work is yet to be done in this field. The author has written a chapter, Knowledge, in which he discusses Muslim philosophers’ approaches to questions concerning knowledge and rationality, and concerning the nature and aims of knowledge. And here too he has added sections on what was called by Muslim mystics or sufis ‘Ilm Hudürī (knowledge by presence), a process of acquiring cognition without the mediation of the inferential rules of formal logic. Here is something that is a far cry from standard Aristotelianism, showing that Islamic philosophy’s commitment to Aristotle was highly complex.

In the history of more recent philosophy, it is a sorry situation that great philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper, remained innocent of the Islamic speculative tradition. If they were more familiar with it, they would have been provoked by the flowering in latter-day Iranian speculative developments of the seeds sown by Muslim thinkers Avicenna (d. 1037) and Suhrawardī (d. 1191), and the Spanish sufi Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240). These developments are epitomized by the work of Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) who obliterates the distinction between the knower and the known, between the subject and the object. Though he does so summarily, Oliver Leaman has made this development explicit, and thereby he has pointed to a peculiarly Islamic ontological-epistemological doctrine that is of great philosophical interest, especially for discussions on the cognitive contents of science and religion.

By and large, Leaman operates in an exclusively philosophical, as compared to a historical, context. This can give rise to problems. To say, for example, that Muslims cultivated Greek philosophy because it was “so powerful” [2] is historically awkward. Sometimes the prose of the book is not lucid. And, finally, the author sometimes presupposes some knowledge of Greek philosophy on the part of the reader; readers are particularly well-advised to supplement their reading with an introductory text on Neoplatonism.