Philosophy in the Islamic World

A Very Short Introduction

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Peter Adamson
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2015.
     144 pages.
     $11.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780199683673.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Peter Adamson’s Philosophy in the Islamic World: A Very Short Introduction represents a notable addition to Adamson’s overall project of making the philosophy generated by Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Islamic world accessible to a wider audience. Along with Adamson’s podcast (“History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”) and his series of books on philosophy in the Classical, Hellenic and Roman, and Islamic world that mirror the podcast, his contribution to the Very Short Introductions series allows readers of varying degrees of expertise to access a wide breadth of ideas and thinkers of the Islamic world with relative ease. The ideas, while complex, are conveyed in language that is simple and clear, as has been characteristic of other aspects of Adamson’s project of public engagement. While a reader who is familiar with Islamic philosophy will find the handbook to be a handy refresher on the contributions of a range of thinkers on various themes and, potentially, a useful teaching resource, one who is entirely new to the field will appreciate Adamson’s lucid, though admittedly dense, overview of the foundational figures and topics.

As has become the welcome trend in recent scholarship on Islamic philosophy, Adamson notes that to concentrate solely on the medieval period or on figures of the falsafa movement (the classical movement of Islamic philosophy) is to miss out on a great deal of complex and philosophical thought that was generated in the Islamic world. Instead, he explicitly engages thinkers of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian theology (kalām) and mysticism as well as philosophy proper, and extends the period of study from the medieval to the modern period. Adamson rightly critiques the trend of past scholarship to locate the terminus of the falsafa movement with Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in the 12th century, as this represents the end of the influence of Islamic philosophy on the Latin world but by no means the conclusion of philosophical thought generated in the Islamic world.

While this intervention is certainly welcome, it admittedly makes what would be an already difficult task of conveying the history of “philosophy in the Islamic world” all the more challenging as Adamson seeks to grant the reader an overview of thinkers of different religions associated with various intellectual, theological, and mystical schools of thought ranging from the medieval to the modern period in the Islamic world (extending from Morocco to India). Additionally, Adamson discusses Greek and Hellenic philosophy when relevant as it represents the foundational impetus of Islamic philosophy. While a reader who is already well-versed in the subject will easily navigate Adamson’s “very short introduction,” others will likely find themselves swimming in a sea of figures that are potentially entirely new to them, the periodization of which they may have forgotten after the first mention of death dates that is subsequently omitted. 

Adamson chooses to organize the work not by figures but instead by themes, with chapters devoted to Reason and Revelation; God and Being; Eternity; Knowledge; and Ethics and Politics. The decision to organize by themes is wise, given his qualification of philosophy as extending beyond the classical Islamic philosophers. Yet although Adamson includes a handy chronology at the end of the book, a novice will no doubt be frustrated by the constant shift between figures to whom they have only just been introduced in the dense first chapter, honestly entitled “A Historical Whirlwind Tour.” Given the range of thinkers treated and Adamson’s choice to organize the book by theme rather than author, it is further unlikely that the reader will be able to recall the differences between each philosopher’s system of thought. Yet after finishing the book, and despite any frustration at its density, a reader who is new to the field will still emerge with an appreciation for the kinds of discussions and the range of responses posited by medieval and modern thinkers of various religious, cultural, and intellectual associations in the Islamic world. 

The density that results from the near impossible task of introducing the philosophy of a vast period and region must be forgiven. Adamson’s introduction is written with his characteristic clarity and the book’s shifting from topic to topic is deceivingly simple. In less than one hundred and twenty pages, Adamson presents the roots of philosophy in the Islamic world, its foundational figures, as well as its flourishing as it is absorbed and transformed in Islamic theology and mysticism from the 9th to the 20th century—a remarkable accomplishment indeed. Any reader, from the novice to the expert, will glean knowledge from the work if it is approached with proper expectations given its nature as a veryshort introduction to a truly expansive and complex topic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nora Jacobsen Ben Hammed recently recieved her doctorate in Islamic Studies from The Univeristy of Chicago Divinity School.  She is currently Lecturer in the Phllosophy Department at Purchase College, SUNY.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Adamson is Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. In 2014, he was awarded the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Award for Translation, with Peter E. Pormann for The Philosophical Works of al-KindI (OUP, 2012). He has published widely in ancient and medieval philosophy as well as hosting the popular History of Philosophy podcast, whose episodes are appearing as a series of books with OUP, entitled A History of Philosophy without any Gaps.

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