Islamic world had extraordinary effect on medieval philosophers: Charles Taliaferro

March 17, 2016

TEHRAN —“Muslim world had made such extraordinary headway in mathematics, algebra, medicine, and the sciences in general, it was inevitable that its philosophical contribution needed to be taken seriously by medieval philosophers,” Charles Taliaferro tells the Tehran Times.


Taliaferro, who teaches philosophy at St. Olaf College, says, “It was the translation of so many philosophical texts from Greco-Roman antiquity into Syriac, Persian and Arabic that was pivotal in the continuation of philosophical work after the fall of the Roman Empire.”

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: What was the impact of Islamic philosophy on western philosophy in the medieval age?

A: Islamic philosophy was highly significant in terms of offering positive, constructive views of time and space, the philosophy of causation with a developed theory of natural and divine causation, the understanding of God as necessarily existing, different accounts of the human soul, the active intellect, accounts of reason, virtue, happiness, and more. Arabic and Persian Muslim philosophers also provided an important challenge to Christian and Jewish philosophers in the medieval era as it provided the western world with a sophisticated, rich alternative to Christian and Jewish theism. As it became clear that the Muslim world had made such extraordinary headway in mathematics, algebra, medicine, and the sciences in general, it was inevitable that its philosophical contribution needed to be taken seriously by medieval philosophers.

Q: What was the impact of translation movement in the Islamic world on transforming the classical texts in the modern world?

A: It was the translation of so many philosophical texts from Greco-Roman antiquity into Syriac, Persian and Arabic that was pivotal in the continuation of philosophical work after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was through multiple sites, Sicily, Toledo in Spain, Antioch, and more, that the classical texts gradually reached western sites in which Islamic work entered the western intellectual world through Latin translations. Some textbooks today report that it was the conquest of Constantinople that was an important catalyst in bringing about the infusion of ancient Greek texts from Islamic sources into Europe and it was that event that fueled the Renaissance, but the texts, translations, and scholarship reached the west earlier and through non-violent exchanges. The impact of the translation movement of Arabic to Latin was major and was almost as powerful as the massive translation of Greek to Latin texts in the medieval era.

Q: In which branches of humanities was the impact of Islamic thought more impressive on western thought?

A: I would say philosophy, because work in metaphysics or theories of being, epistemology or theories of knowledge, and ethics all bear the marks of influence by Islamic philosophy, though this is rarely acknowledged. For example, most philosophy majors in the west are probably not aware that some of the arguments that they find in Aquinas, Descartes, Malebranche, David Hume, and others, all are represented in earlier Islamic sources, even if not each of these thinkers was directly aware of such precedence. But if you will allow me to go back to your first question about the impact of Islamic philosophy on the west, I would like to say not enough. An Islamic, Persian or Iranian philosopher-scientist-historian whom I believe to be someone who deserves to be taught throughout the world as one of the greatest and most admirable scholars is Al-Biruni, who flourished in the 11th century. He was an early explorer of the many philosophical and religious cultures in India who displayed the most extraordinary fairness in his research. I know of no other single historical figure who remained deeply faithful to his own religious tradition and practice and yet who was more fair, open-minded, and sympathetic, if that is the right word, to those non-Islamic sources he engaged. It is my hope that his extraordinary example might inspire all of us, in all branches of the humanities and sciences, to model his combination of acumen, careful argumentation, and intellectual generosity.

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[Highlight]

“It was through multiple sites, Sicily, Toledo in Spain, Antioch, and more, that the classical texts gradually reached western sites in which Islamic work entered the western intellectual world through Latin translations.”