'Islamic philosophy greatly affected medieval western philosophy'

Professor Charles Taliaferro  9/5/2011
'Islamic philosophy greatly affected medieval western philosophy'
Professor Charles Taliaferro says “Islamic philosophy had a massive impact on medieval western philosophy, challenging (especially) the greatest western, medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas."




“The west was also heavily influenced by the Islamic preservation of Greek classics which became available after the fall of Constantinople,” Taliaferro, a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, told the Mehr News Agency.


Following is the text of the interview:


Q: What is the status of religion in our times?


A: Religion has proved much more resilient than many sociologists predicted. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was widely predicted that religion would become less relevant in terms of belief and practice with the growth of modern education and science. While there has been a substantial drawing down of church attendance (at least of state sponsored churches) in western Europe, there has been a global growth of religions, especially Islam. While world-wide growth is occurring world wide for Islam, Christianity (the next religion in terms of growth) is expanding mostly in Asia and Africa. And much of the west is having to adjust to religious pluralism and tolerance. Philosophically, religious belief and practice was under heavy attack in various western academies immediately after the Second World War in the name of a scientifically oriented philosophy known as positivism. Positivism collapsed by the mid-1970s, however, when many philosophers concluded that the deep questions about value, purpose and meaning required more than science. We also need a philosophy of science, a philosophy of values, philosophy of religion and the like. Today in the English-speaking world, philosophy of religion is a growing area of focused work, with more journals, conferences, and the like than ever before.


Q: Do you think that we are entering a world without religious values? If so why?


A: I think that there is a perceived need today in the west to not impose one set of religious values over others or over secular values. This is because we are increasingly a diverse, pluralistic society. My neighbors in the city where I live in the northern part of the mid-west in the United States are Muslims. Across the hall is a Jew, and there is a Hindu upstairs, four Christians, and one atheist. In the classes I teach I also have Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and so on. And we all need to get along. That means that when making decisions in my neighborhood or classroom, we have to not impose our specific religious values on others. But it can also be said that many of the great world religions do share a common core of values, and so there are ways in which different religious citizens can come together. All the world religions condemn greed and promote the Golden Rule of 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you'; all of them promote care for the vulnerable. These are values that secular citizens can and do appreciate as crucial to a non-dogmatic, tolerant, pluralistic society.


And we all need to get along!


Q: Are you familiar with the ideas of Iranian philosophers such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Farabi?


A: I just finished teaching an advanced course on Middle Eastern philosophy at the special request of my students, and we studied many Iranian philosophers, including Ibn Sina and Al Farabi! Ibn Sina is probably the most important Iranian philosophers for the west historically. He was studied deeply in the west and some of the giants of medieval philosophy like Thomas Aquinas cannot be fully understood without knowing the work of Ibn Sina. I believe that his metaphysics is of enduring importance today. A very popular Persian thinker with my students is As-Suhrawardi, who was (as he is often known as) the eminent scholar of illumination. I am currently writing a paper defending his illuminationist philosophy. There is a wonderful online site for Islamic philosophy in English: In terms of philosophy today, probably my closest contact is Yasser Pouresmail, Department of Philosophy at the Islamic Sciences and Culture Academy in Quom. He directed a conference this spring that brought together many Muslim philosophers as well as some highly prominent Christian philosophers from the west (Lynne Baker and Edward Wierenga). I was to be part of the conference but a serious illness in my family prevented my attending. Some of my Iranian philosopher friends are particularly interested in the work of Mulla Sadra, probably one of the most influential Muslim philosophers since the 17th century. In a way, he developed a form of existentialism that pre-dated the existentialism that only developed in Europe after the Second World War.


Q: What is the status of these philosophers in the history of philosophy?


A: As I said, some of these thinkers such as Ibn Sina are monumental in importance but, sadly, many western histories of philosophy seem to underestimate his and others’ importance. That situation is changing.

I believe that the west has much to learn from “the Golden Age” of Islamic philosophy, especially in terms of Iranian philosophy then and today. We are now coming into possession of some excellent translations of Persian thought; see, for example: This is allowing for a wonderful opportunity for engagement and growth of understanding between the west and Iran. I should add that Iranian philosophy has great diversity, for even when philosophers are united by their common Muslim identity, there is also a great variety of views in their philosophy of space and time, the nature and scope of knowledge, human nature, ethics, and so on. Iran has a (and rightly so) proud philosophical tradition of outstanding importance and resources.


Q: What is the main characteristic of Islamic philosophy?


A: This is a very difficult question, but if I had to come up with a single, main characteristic of Islamic philosophy it would be that there has been an on-going concern for finding what may be called the Archimedian point, a position from which one can get an objective view of the world and also take seriously our subjective experience. The idea of an Archimedian point stems from the Ancient Greek thinker Archimedes who is supposed to have said that if he found a place to stand, he could move the earth. Well, in philosophy we are often trying to find the best point of view to use in trying to think about the world and values: should we rely on reason alone? Or use reason and experience? When can we appeal to religious illumination or sacred revelation? Philosophy in the context of Islam has, I believe, approached such a set of questions with more deliberate, intelligent concentration than one finds elsewhere in the history of ideas. So, from the outset, some early Islamic philosophers thought we should rely on reason alone, others sought to combine reason, experience, religious illumination, and the like. In Islamic philosophy you can find highly sophisticated debates (for example, between Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd) on the powers and limits of reason and the power of revelation and illumination. Much of this can be seen in terms of philosophers looking for that Archimedian point, that ideal from which to evaluate our lives and the cosmos.


Q: Is it possible to compare Islamic philosophy with western philosophy?


A: Yes. I believe this is especially useful and apparent today. In the west, there is a great debate over when to appeal to subjective, first-person experience and when to rely on an abstract scientific, third-person point of view. There are some philosophers who begin their thinking with contemporary, natural science, and then they ask the question of where can we find a place in the material world for subjectivity and experience. Others – such as myself —take as our starting point, the first-person point of view, beginning with the fact that we are experiencing, subjective, conscious subjects and only then seek to articulate our interaction with one another, the practice of science and the like. We are all, in a sense, looking for the Archimedian point of view. And those of us who are both philosophers as well as persons of religious faith (such as myself) debate the extent that faith can be taken as a basic axiom or starting point for our philosophical reflection or must we begin philosophy without religious belief and then introduce matters of faith only when the evidence calls for such an introduction. Such conversations in the west very much intersect with long standing, fruitful reflection in the world of Islamic philosophy.


Q: What are the main differences between the western and Islamic philosophies?


A: It might be worth first noting the similarities. Both Islamic and western philosophies have been very much influenced by the work of Plato and Aristotle. Both have been carried out in the context of balancing the insights of philosophy and the insights of revelation and thus both traditions have wrestled with what you might call the tension between reason and faith. Both have had strong wisdom traditions; that is, traditions of offering practical advise on how to live well and wisely. In the west, this is sometimes referred to as the sapiential (from the Latin term for wisdom: sapientia) tradition. I would say that the sapiential tradition was stronger in the Islamic world than the west; philosophy was often considered important in providing a kind of medicine or cure of the soul. Islamic philosophers seemed even more aware of the practical role that philosophy can have in the ordering of one's desires and pursuit of fulfillment.


In terms of further differences, I suggest Islamic philosophies were earlier than their western counterparts in their rationalism, philosophy of mathematics and logic, and they have been more deeply reflective about mysticism and the process of illumination. Islamic thinkers were --ever since Al-Kindi, who is often considered the first Islamic philosophers, were more bold in their speculative reflections on the origin and nature of the world and in the philosophy of the soul. After Ibn-Rushd, there was a decline of philosophy in the Islamic world, but philosophy re-emerged in the 19th century and is going strong today!


Q: What are the impacts of Islamic philosophy on the western philosophy (if there are any)?


A: Islamic philosophy had a massive impact on medieval western philosophy, challenging (especially) the greatest western, medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas. The west was also heavily influenced by the Islamic preservation of Greek classics which became available after the fall of Constantinople. Some of the influence is hard to document, but I would be very surprised if Al-Ghazali's work on causation in the 12 century did not influence the 18th century French philosopher Malebranche or the magnificent work of Ibn Tufayl in the 12 century did not influence Descartes in the 18th century. Ibn Tufayl actually wrote the first philosophical novel that we know about: Hayy ibn Yaqzan ("Alive Son of Awake"). This is a great story of a newborn child who finds himself on a desert island in the Indian Ocean. This is a profound philosophical story about how a human being grows intellectually over time, coming to know himself, animals, the world, and ultimately coming to seek Allah. This anticipates and may have influenced the most famous deserted island story we have in the modern west, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Ibn Tufayl also definitely anticipates and may also have influenced the French philosopher Jean Jacque Rousseau in the 18th century. I actually very much prefer Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan to Rousseau's famous Emile.


Q: What is the role of Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi in history of philosophy?


A: He is a very important Iranian philosopher who is known as the "master of illumination." He made contributions to the philosophy of logic, physics, metaphysics, politics, and ethics, but he is most widely known for his cultivation of a mystical philosophy of illumination whereby the soul comes to be purged of vice and, ultimately, to experience a kind of union with Allah. For someone who only lived for 37 years, he produced an awesome amount of work.


Q: Has he influenced western philosophers?


A: Surawardi's work was not translated into Latin, and so while his work was studied in the Islamic East, it has not been until the mid to late 20th century that the west has engaged his important work. There are three new excellent translations of his work. This last spring, I worked with students through three of Surawardi's works: the Philosophy of Illumination, The Shape of Light, and The Mystical and Visionary Treatises of Surawardi. Sudents found The Shape of Light especially compelling. Surawardi's use of combination of logic with allegory, metaphor, and poetry make him of great interest not only to the analytic philosopher, but to those philosophers who appreciate literary achievements that go beyond conceptual analysis. Here are links to some outstanding work now available in English. Their appearance promises to bring greater attention in the west to this important Iranian thinker.


Charles Taliaferro, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, is the author of Consciousness and the Mind of God Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, Evidence and Faith; Philosophy and Religion Since the Seventeenth Century, Dialogues About God, Philosophy of Religion, and The Golden Cord; A Short Book on Eternity. He has given lectures at Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, the University of Chicago, Princeton, New York University, and elsewhere.




Source: MEHR News Agency





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