By Jalal Heirannia

Islamic philosophers are key to the growth that happens in Western thought: Kevin Richards

August 13, 2018 - 11:2

TEHRAN - Professor Kevin Richards, chair of Liberal Arts Department at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, tells the Tehran Times that “Islamic philosophers are key to the growth that happens in Western thought during the late Middle Ages.”

He also adds that “A figure like Ibn Sina is integral to the preservation and elaboration on the body of knowledge from Antiquity that would have been lost to the West otherwise.”

Following is the text of interview:

Q: How much western scholars know Islamic philosophy and philosophers? If answer is little, why?

A: This is a complicated question given the history of the study of Islamic philosophy within Western institutions, as well as the way that Western values have been privileged within these institutions historically.  It also raises questions around how Western scholars are trained, where Islamic philosophy is housed, and the need to think about how this is intimately tied to larger ideological questions embedded in historical relations between the West and Middle East.  These are questions that mark not only the contemporary moment and the modern era, but also the world of the Golden Age of Islamic philosophy.  This is to say nothing about the gap in knowledge between Western scholars and the average American.

A lot of these issues can be traced to the development of Orientalism in the nineteenth-century.  The late Palestinian scholar Edward Said pioneered the questioning of Orientalism in his work, helping to set the foundation for analyzing the history of this period and its lingering effects on late twentieth-century academia.  During the nineteenth-century, against the historical backdrop of unprecedented technological change, there is a dramatic shift of emphasis in Western representations of the Middle East and the values constructed around Middle Eastern culture.  The Orientalist image presented the Middle Eastern Other as an exotic being, living in a sensuous and sensual world of languid pleasure, mixed with barbaric violence, all entwined within a civilization that was depicted as stagnant to change and backwards technologically.

The Orientalist image constructed by Western thinkers, writers, and artists in the nineteenth century, consciously or not, presents the world of the Middle East and North Africa as passive and static versus active and changing.  The values of active change are deeply coupled with the Western ideal of progress that marked the emergence of modernity in the nineteenth-century and its culture of mass entertainment, consumption, and living.  The world of modernity, where both the means of production and consumption get inscribed by industry and mechanical processes, is fueled by the growth of mass urban capitalism in Europe and America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  All of this is also happening against the political background of Europe’s engagement with the Ottoman Empire, something that marks the construction of the Middle East during this era of Orientalism within European culture.  One sees this in literature and art where novels, short stories, poems, and paintings focus on a chaotic, decadent, and barbaric world in the Middle East that must be saved by the West, its people, and its values. It is one of the few subjects both Romantic artists and Academic artists could agree on depicting, even if they, for instance Delacroix and Ingres, depicted Orientalist subject matter in different styles.

In Said’s argument, the development of Orientalist studies during this time, despite its efforts to respect and study Islamic culture, in many cases, ended up serving the larger ideological goals of Western Imperialism, preserving a sense of the Middle Eastern world as not being as advanced in comparison to the West.  As happens with so many cultures that the West encroaches upon for geo-political and economic reasons, Islamic philosophy and culture as a whole gets historicized, put in a framework that presents it as an artifact, as opposed to something that continues to exist and engage the present.

After Said’s challenge to the field of Orientalist Studies, we see a shift in where Islamic philosophy is housed in academic fields and this leads to different challenges in trying to integrate the study of Islamic philosophers into the larger terrain of academic pursuit.  Part of this is simply the way that Western academia is hyper-specialized, something that is also a byproduct of modernity and its culture of specialization.  One may take courses that fulfill one’s general studies requirements, but a large majority of one’s course work is within a particular department of study, often defined by particular areas of emphasis.

In relation to Islamic philosophy, one encounters the study of this material today in three different departments.  First, and foremost, is the area of Islamic Studies, though again, the work of philosophy will be contextualized within other areas of focus in Islamic studies.  Second, there are departments of Religious Studies and many of these programs may have a strong emphasis on Islamic thought, as well as having comparative religious studies specializations.  At the same time, some departments of Religious Studies, especially in America, may be more exclusively focused on the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Lastly, one finds the study of Islamic thinkers in History Departments focusing on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Again, in these programs, the presentation of Islamic thinkers and philosophy may be against the backdrop of a larger historical framework and cross cultural studies.  At the same time, it is also one of the areas that one sees, in particular, a specified focus on philosophy of the Islamic Golden Age.  

Q: Are there any institutes in the west and especially in the U.S. that focus on Islamic philosophy?

A: A number of American universities have strong programs in Islamic Studies.  In particular, it is worth noting Georgetown University, Columbia University, University of California- Los Angeles, University of California- Berkeley, and Claremont Graduate University.  There are also a number of other strong programs in Canada, England and Europe.  In Canada, for instance, there are strong Islamic Studies programs at McGill in Montreal and the University of Toronto.  In Europe, there are strong programs at the Free University of Berlin, the Goethe University in Frankfurt, and the Islamic University of Rotterdam.  Lastly, in England, there are strong programs in Islamic Studies at the University of London and the University of Birmingham.  And that is just listing a few of the strongest programs, so there is no shortage of programs for specialized study.

Q: Which fields of Islamic philosophy teach in the U.S.?

A: Islamic philosophy is usually framed in one of three ways.  Each of these ways contours the fashion in which Islamic philosophy is presented.  It may be framed through a larger study of Islamic culture, politics, and other areas of concern to scholars working within the field of Islamic Studies.  For a scholar in a religious department, the study of Islamic philosophy may be framed in relation to theological questions or issues pursued by the field of comparative religious studies.  Within a history department, the study of Islamic philosophy may be framed within a historical context, as a form of historical enquiry within the larger historical framework of the West’s periodization of the late Middle Ages.  Each of these fields marks Islamic philosophy, potentially, in a space marginal to the central focus of the field’s area of study. In this fashion, Islamic philosophy is subject to larger departmental questions and values tied to the field of study in question that come to delineate the areas of Islamic philosophy that receive focus.

Q: What was the impact of Islamic philosopher on western philosophy especially in the middle age?

A: Islamic philosophers are key to the growth that happens in Western thought during the late Middle Ages.  A figure like Ibn Sina is integral to the preservation and elaboration on the body of knowledge from Antiquity that would have been lost to the West otherwise.  And this is independent of his polymathic contributions to knowledge.  You don’t get the Renaissance without the contributions of Islamic scholars.  For instance, the development of linear perspective in Western art is tied to the contributions of Islamic mathematicians.  The contributions of Ibn al-Haytham are also essential to the study of optics and art, while also providing the camera obscura that is critical to the development of post-Renaissance optics and art, especially in the Northern European Baroque.  So there is historical fact and these facts point to the key contributions of Islamic philosophers and scholars, but the framing of these facts is where the West can do a better job, especially when it comes to intellectual developments in the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance.

While studying this area brings up the complicated and disturbing history of the Crusades, it also allows looking to how the spread of Islamic philosophy happened not just through conflict, but through centers of learning, such as Alhambra and Cordoba, and figures like Ibn Rushd and Ibn Hazm.  These cultural centers and individuals show what was possible in history, as well as pointing to ways of thinking about potentialities today.

Q: What is your suggestion for introducing the better of the Islamic philosophy in the west?

A: In comparison to the past, there can be a greater emphasis placed on the role of Islamic philosophy on the development of Western culture.  A larger question, however, is how to juxtapose the different value systems in meaningful and productive ways beyond the simple binary oppositions that the West has historically used to frame these investigations.  This is not a matter of simply finding common ground that requires little effort to agree upon, though that common ground matters.  It is a question of where the difference resides and how that difference is housed.  Historically, since the nineteenth-century, this has been within a framework that has allowed for the growth of Western capitalism and the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, whether it takes the form of the black frock coated gentleman in Paris during the Second Empire or the business suited American dreamer of the late twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, our perspective has to become more global and, while steps have been made in this direction, work still has to be done in thinking through the implications of the global and this need for careful thinking has to be done at a time when many in power would like to retreat towards facile appeals to thoughtless forms of nationalism.  

Leave a Comment