The Story of Reason in Islam

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Sari Nusseibeh
Cultural Memory in the Present
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sari Nusseibeh’s The Story of Reason in Islam is a very beautifully and thoughtfully written book. Reason, the author points out in the introduction, “refers to a methodical and systematic approach to analyzing problems: the philosophical ways that ideas were entertained and discussed, regardless of the discipline to which they belonged” (xi). The story follows a rather loose line that threads through twenty-four chapters. Each of these chapters crystalizes around a key topic such as “The Arabian Desert,” “Back to Human Will and Language,” or “Cosmic Lights.” These are carefully crafted pieces that show how a specific problem gains relevance in a given historical situation. The term story used in the title “underscores that this work is not meant as a specialized study. Indeed, it could hardly fulfill such an ambition, given the different subjects and periods it covers. Rather, it is meant as a personal interpretation or ‘take’ on the history of ideas as they came to be expressed in classical Arabic” (xi). 

This story of reason is not confined to philosophy in the sense of an academic tradition or the reception of Greek philosophy in the Arabic language; it is not a “history of philosophy” but rather develops a continuous narrative of how human reason operates in an Islamicate environment. The story begins on the Arabian Peninsula: “The Arabian desert had always provided a natural setting for those who sought meaning in the glory of nature and the infinitude of space. Prophets, poets, monks, hermits, pagan sects, and simple mystics roamed the vast expanse” (1). It moves then to the Qurʾan and its environment to show how the early theological debates begin to form a more and more coherent discourse. It traces how the philological disciplines evolving around the hermeneutic discipline of quranic exegesis begin to merge with the Greek philosophical tradition, and it explains how al-Fārābī’s political philosophy, building on his concept of a nation (milla) as a community bound together by one language and one (religious) legislation construes a theory of how cultures come to exist. 

In my view, this first half of the book (roughly up to chapter 15) is the stronger part of the book while those chapters that deal with “philosophy” in a more disciplinary sense suffer from the author’s decision to not fully integrate the newest results of disciplinary academic research. The story told in the first half manages to trace in a very patient way how situations and constellations evolve, their implications, and how individuals and groups interact. The overall design is very straightforward and compelling. 

Here comes my caveat, which a reader who is fascinated by this masterfully-written account should keep in mind. The particular strength of this study—its rather unconventional focus on tying the story of reason in Islam to the Arabic language—sometimes turns into a stumbling block. “The theme of the story is the integral relationship between thought and language. The acts are played out in classical Arabic. Its scenes just happen to be set in Islam,” we hear in the beginning (xi). When, in the last chapter, the author provides a more detailed interpretation of what he means by this, one begins to feel increasingly uneasy. In fact, when it comes to the interpretation of later stages in the intellectual history of Islam, the authors’ strong commitment to a decline paradigm to be associated with the advent of Ottoman rule becomes problematic: “The inspired language of the Qurʾan set the wheels of reason in motion; around the seventeenth century, when Ottoman came to replace Arabic, forward movement stopped. Henceforth—and right up to the First World War—Arabic was rendered effectively inoperative ... The substance of reason in Islam had been held within and defined by Arabic” (223). This is contrasted by the author with the situation in Christianity and the many languages through which its message was transported. The author concludes that “the medium of Islam’s story of reason ceased at one point to be the language of power; with this, the unique and glorious intellectual output it had carried for centuries came to an end” (234). He draws some hope from the renaissance of the classical Arabic language in the 19th century during the nahda-movement and also from developments in modern media and schooling systems. But one might ask: would it not be much simpler, and would it not inspire much more hope, if he were just to admit that reason in Islam—just like in Christianity and other religions—can find many languages through which to express itself?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Heidrun Eichner is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Tübingen.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sari Nusseibeh is professor of philosophy at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. His most recent book is What's a Palestinian State Worth? (2011) .


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