Why medieval Islamic philosophy is really rather interesting...

I am just coming to the end of my third year of a doctorate wrestling with texts by the philosopher-theologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, and thanks to Ewan for allowing me to share with you briefly some of the whys and wherefores (and even whats) of the topic.

Razi was born in Rayy, south of Tehran in modern Iran, in the 12th century but spent a lot of his working life at Herat, in something of a war-zone on the border with modern Afghanistan, where he managed to secure the patronage (in turn) of two rival war-lords, who both regarded having an intellectual of Razi’s calibre at court a prize worth having.

He is interesting for many reasons, but a key one is that he represents a creative fusion of two intellectual traditions within Islam. One of these is the home-grown ‘Kalam’ philosophy-theology, which is a developed form of apologetic (with parallels in the Jewish and Christian traditions). It seeks a rational proof for the soundness of the Islamic faith in the Qu’ranic tradition, beginning by proving the existence of God and going on to show that God, being the way God is, is bound to send prophets. The other is the Islamic version of Hellenic philosophy expressly owned by Islamic intellectuals like al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (better known to Westerners than Razi) commenting on and using Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus (among many other authors). Philosophical enquiry is more open ended, is much more interested in science for its own sake, but is also used, particularly by Ibn Sina, to give a holistic account of reality that includes proofs of the existence of God – except on a rather more robust basis and with more powerful logic than that used by some of the older kalam theologians.

We find familiar tugs-of-war going on between the identity of the intellectual traditions (kalam is ‘ours’ and is based on scripture, so it’s safe – philosophy is ‘foreign’ and leads to heretical views), the intellectual soundness of the different traditions (kalam logic is deficient, the philosophers have better arguments and give a better description of the world), and the perennial problem facing all

religious intellectuals, suspicion of any reasonable arguments, whether kalam or philosophical, that lead to non-literal interpretations of scripture. (Does God ‘see’, as it says in scripture?).

Razi defends the pursuit of rational faith. He thinks it is a necessary bulwark for a faith based on traditions and spiritual insights. But he also engages powerfully and critically with both the kalam and the philosophical traditions to produce a distinctive systematic cosmology and theology which avoids some of the ‘heresy’ charges laid against the philosophers, and is refreshingly honest about the limits of rational enquiry, in a way that has a very modern feel to it.

In fact, as I have been reading the material from this era, and particularly the material processed by Razi, I’ve been struck by the pre-echoes of philosophical themes that we think of as belonging to the enlightenment and post-enlightenment traditions of the west, from Humean scepticism to Heideggerian existentialism. It is a fascinating story in which it no longer makes sense to tell the history of Western philosophy as if the Middle Ages never existed, or as if inter-cultural exchange was a modern discovery, and in it, faith and reason are only enemies in the minds of the literal-minded and dogmatic.

John Moffatt SJ


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