You cannot judge a book by its cover – or even its title. Now and then, a work comes along that forces us to take notice of what the author means by giving his work a particular title. Certainly, those who pick up The Story of Islamic Philosophy might expect a conventional history of the philosophical endeavour in the world of Islam, starting with the translation movement and the appropriation of Aristotelianism and ending with the ‘eclipse’ of ‘rational discourse’ in medieval mysticism and obscurantism. The study of philosophy in Islam is rather polarised: the traditional academic field of ‘Arabic philosophy’ starts with the Graeco-Arabica and is very much in the mould of understanding what the Arabs owed to the Greeks and then what the Latins owed the Arabs. This book is a story of Aristotle arabus and then latinus, and hence it is not surprising that the story culminates with the ultimate Aristotelian, Averroes. Many Arab intellectuals, such as the late Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī, have been sympathetic to such readings and wished to revive a sort of Averroist Aristotelianism in the name of reason and enlightenment. In particular, they wished to save the Arab-Islamic heritage from its ‘perversion’ by the Persians, starting with Avicenna and Ghazālī who initiated the shift from reason and discourse to mystagogy and ‘unreason.’ The models for this tradition of philosophy are the Metaphysics and the Organon of Aristotle. However, the Greek heritage was always much more than Aristotle – Plato and the thoroughly neoplatonised Aristotle were critical. If anything, a serious historical engagement with the course of philosophy in the late antiquity period, on the cusp of the emergence of Islam, demonstrates that philosophy was much more than abstract reasoning, discourse and a linearity of proof.
Philosophy was a way of life that involved spiritual exercises, made famous in modern scholarship by the late Pierre Hadot and especially the practice of theurgy (conjuring up the gods in religious ritual as a means to achievement understanding) – the goal of which was theosis, to become god-like as Plato had announced centuries before. Those with more sympathy for ‘Islamic philosophy’ would stress the relationship between religion, philosophy and mysticism, which has been central to the philosophical enterprise since the twelfth century and in many ways, pivotal for intellectual disciplines in the world of Islam. For this approach to philosophy, Plato’s much debated Seventh Epistle is of critical importance. This counter-narrative makes our conception of philosophy more elastic and sits uncomfortably with those trained in the analytic tradition.
Bashier tries to argue that philosophy in Islam is not a simple dichotomy between ratiocination and poesis, while he intends to stress that the poetry, narrative and desire are to consider what is ‘Islamic’ in this philosophy. He presents a counter-history in which the course of philosophy is an ishraqi – an illuminationist – account, beginning with what the late Henry Corbin famously called the visionary recitals in Avicenna and culminating with the Andalusian Sufi Ibn ʿArabī. Anyone familiar with philosophy from the late Timurid and Mughal periods will understand the incorporation of Sufism into the study of philosophy, which in this late period was no longer the Greek/Aristotle inspired falsafa but a more holistic philosophy/gnosis/wisdom of ḥikma. This account is concerned with a more holistic approach to what it means to be human.. Humans are not simply rational and deliberate agents who construct and respond to discursive argumentation. Rather, sometimes they reason, respond, act through emotion, and are inspired and moved by narrative. Indeed, as a number of modern philosophers such as the late Paul Ricoeur have argued, narrative is central to the process of becoming ourselves. The ten chapters of the book focus on Ḥayy bin Yaqẓān, the famous tale rewritten by Ibn Ṭufayl based on the original work of Avicenna, in which a young man who is born and grows up on a desert island deprived of company begins to understand his role in the cosmos and his relationship with God. Bashier considers Ibn Ṭufayl to be the ultimate liminal and illuminationist philosopher because he successfully blends together philosophical and naturalistic approaches to the question of what is the human with traditionalist and religious ones. This idea of liminality follows Bashier’s earlier book on the concept of the limit (or the barzakh) in the thought of Sufi Ibn ʿArabī. The course of philosophy in Islam is therefore not about the conflict between reason and revelation seen as epitomised in the persecutions of Galileo and Bruno in medieval Europe, but one at the heart of which lies the attempt to make philosophical sense of what it means to be a believer, a person of faith and a creature of God. Along the journey, the author is the first, to my mind, to engage with the work of Georges Tarabishi, the famous critic of al-Jabiri’s deconstruction of ‘Arab reason,’ in an academic work written in English. The fact that Bashier concludes his account with Ibn ʿArabī and the famous Theologia Aristotelis makes his neoplatonic taste in the history of philosophy clearer. The story begins with mythicizing rationalism in Ibn Ṭufayl and culminates with rationalising mysticism in Ibn ʿArabī.
However, while a more neoplatonic approach to the course of philosophy in Islam is now rather well established, it would seem churlish to criticise the author for excessively caricaturising the purely Aristotelian sense of philosophy in the falsafa tradition. In this sense, Bashier is engaged in much more than Islamic intellectual history; he is caught within a contemporary Arab debate about the very nature of turāth or the heritage of the modern Arab world. This, rather inevitably, leads to generalising and simplifying the position of one’s opponent. Once one recognises this, The Story of Islamic Philosophy will prove to be a fruitful read.