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Sabine Schmidtke

Philosophy in Persia

On Seyyed Hossein Nasr & Mehdi Aminrazavi (eds.):
An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia

What is Arabic-Islamic philosophy?

Seyyed Hossein Nasr / Mehdi Aminrazavi (eds.):
An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia. New York – Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Volume 1: 1999.
464 pages
ISBN 0-19-512699-8

Volume 2: 2001.
416 pages
ISBN 0-19-512700-5

Oxford University Press:
external linkWebsite
1 The scientific study of philosophical thinking in the Arabic-Islamic world is a relatively young science. European observers considered Arabic-Islamic philosophy only as a station in the transmission of the ancient Hellenistic heritage, accrediting it no originality of its own. This Euro-centric view is now seen as unfounded. While there are still many desiderata, e.g. the scientific handling of many, not yet critically edited texts, the research in this field can already look back on an impressive output. Hans Daiber provides a nearly complete overview of the current situation of research in the field of Arabic-Islamic philosophy in his extensive Bibliography of Islamic Philosophy. Quite a significant number of summary overviews also exist, including the two-volume History of Islamic Philosophy, which was published by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman and contains contributions of several authors of varying quality. 1
2 What exactly is referred to when talking about Arabic-Islamic philosophy? Does it include only philosophy of Hellenistic heritage (falsafa) in the stricter sense of the word, or does it also embrace dogmatic and mysticism? There is no agreement on this. The question of which fields are to be included under the label of »philosophy« in the Arabic-Islamic region was and is dealt with in different ways within the Muslim tradition itself as well as in modern research. On the one hand, there is a strict separation between philosophy on the one side and dogmatic as well as mysticism on the other side. On the other hand, however, the intellectual history of development of the post-classical period, that is, the period of Avicenna (d. 428/1037), was marked by an increasing synthesis between gnostic mysticism, philosophy and theology, especially in the Islamic East. In modern research there is also the tendency to use the extensive definition of philosophy – as is done in the already mentioned anthology of Nasr and Leaman.
3 More questions arise still: Do we talk about »Islamic« philosophy, excluding philosophers of Jewish faith that wrote in Arabic and had eminent significance for the development of philosophy in the Islamic region, such as Abû l-Barakât al-Baghdâdî (d. after 1164-65) or Ibn Kammûna (d. 1284-85)? Moreover, the term »Islamic philosophy« postulates an inherent link of philosophy to the inner aporia of Islamic belief, which makes the connection to the Hellenistic heritage take a backseat. On the other hand, the term »Arabic philosophy« soon proves to be limited, as it immediately excludes all those philosophers of the Islamic region that wrote in other languages, such as Persian.

An extensive definition of philosophy in Persia

»We have used philosophy not only in its rationalistic sense but also in in a wider sense to include certain aspects of theological debate, philosophical sufism, philosophical narratives, and even philosophical hermeneutics (ta'wîl).«

Seyyed Hossein Nasr / Mehdi Aminrazavi
4 The publishers of the Anthology of Philosophy in Persia – to appear in four volumes, two of which have been published so far – opted for a more extensive definition of philosophy: »We have used philosophy not only in its rationalistic sense but also in in a wider sense to include certain aspects of theological debate, philosophical sufism, philosophical narratives, and even philosophical hermeneutics (ta'wîl).« (1/vii). The limitation announced in the title of the collection - the philosophy of Persia - also has been given a broad definition. Not only texts written in the Persian were included, but also writings from all those philosophers that, in one way or another, had a connection to the Persian or Persian-influenced region. On the other hand, thinkers that produced texts in Persian but clearly in the tradition of other philosophical streams (such as Indian philosophy) were, however, excluded, e.g. the Dehli philosopher Philosoph Shâh Walî Allâh (d. 1176/1762).
5 By striving to trace the philosophical tradition of Persia from Zarathustra to the 20th century via a presentation of translated and annotated original texts, the publishers follow Henry Corbin's tradition and his personal view of Persian philosophy. Incidentally Corbin had planned to prepare, together with Saiyid Jalâl al-Dîn Ashtiyânî, an anthology of the philosophes iraniens in the middle of the sixties. The project, however, was never completed and by the time of Corbin's death in 1978 only the first four volumes of the anthology had been published. A selection of Henry Corbin's texts in French translation appeared in 1981. 2 Also in the tradition of Corbin is the »esoteric dimension of Shi'ism that therefore links it at its very roots with Islamic esoterism as such, of which it is a manifestation along with Sufism, which is the central expression of that esoterism« (2/4), which postulated by the publishers.

Pre-Islamic and early Islamic philosophy

Philosophers presented in Volume 1, Part 2:

Abû l-'Abbâs Muhammad Îrânshahrî
(3./9. century)

Nâsir-i Khusraws
(d. 481/1088-89)

Abû Nasr Fârâbî
(d. 339/950)

Abû l-Hasan al-'Âmirî
(d. 381/992)

Abû Sulaimân al-Sijistânî
(d. 390/1000)

Avicenna (Ibn Sînâ)
(d. 428/1037)

Abû 'Alî ibn Miskawaih
(d. 421/1030)

Bahmanyâr ibn Marzubân
(d. 458/1066)

Muhammad Zakariyyâ' Râzî
(d. 320/932)

Abû Raihân al-Bîrûnî
(d. 442/1051)

'Umar Khaiyâm
(d. 517/1122)
6 Given a definition of »Philosophy in Persia« that was broad as regards both content and time and the anthology's limitation to four volumes, the choice of text materials was necessarily selective. The first part of the first volume contains texts from the pre-Islamic period (3-87: Selected Readings from Zoroastrian Philosophy) as well as from the Islamic period between the 3rd/9th and 6th/12th century. The latter period is roughly divided into sections of the peripathetic philosophers on the one hand and »independent« philosophers following no specific scholarly tradition on the other hand. Within these sections philosophers are strictly arranged in chronological order. Avicenna (Ibn Sînâ) (d. 428/1037) is therefore not followed by his most important student and deliverer of his philosophy, Bahmanyâr ibn Marzubân (d. 458/1066), but first by Abû 'Alî ibn Miskawaih (d. 421/1030). Each chapter is preceded by an introduction, in which one of the publishers tries to historically and conceptually place the philosopher written about in the particular section. A bibliography is then included after the scripts.
7 The chapters of the second part – devoted to Islamic philosophy – contains texts of the following thinkers: Abû l-'Abbâs Muhammad Îrânsharî (3rd/9th century), a contemporary of al-Kindîs, whose philosophical ideas are known through the texts of later authors and here are also presented in a short section of Zâd al-musâfirîn by Nâsir-I Khusraw (died 481/1088-89); further Abû Nasr Fârâbî (d. 339/950), Abû l-Hasan al-'Âmirî (d. 381/992), Abû Sulaimân al-Sijistânî (d. 390/1000), Avicenna, Abû 'Alî ibn Miskawaih, Bahmanyâr ibn Marzubân, Muhammad Zakariyyâ' Râzî (d. 320/932), Abû Raihân al-Bîrûnî (d. 442/1051), and 'Umar Khaiyâm (d. 517/1122). The translations, of which some are reproductions while others were specifically prepared for the anthology, were in majority written by experts of the particular thinkers and are generally of a high quality.
8 Up to now, however, the introduction to and the selection of text materials only allow a limited view of the present-day situation of the research. This, for instance, undoubtedly is the case with most important thinker of the first volume, Avicenna. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the author of the introduction (195-198) and the translator of Avicenna's preface to his Mantiq al-mashriqiyyin (The Logic of Orientals) (268-270) is a vehement defender of the idea that Avicenna's text, which was possibly titled al-Hikma al-mashriqiyya (»Eastern« or »Oriental« Philosophy) and which, with the exceptions of some fragments, was lost, represented a philosophy that deviated fundamentally from his other writing. (The text translated in the anthology was among the fragments that survived.) This different philosophy was a preliminary stage to the illumination doctrine (Hikmat al-ishrâq), which was later formulated by Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (executed in 587/1191). The standard and thoroughly established view of Avicenna's philosophy – described e.g. by Dimitri Gutras 3 – is, apart from a brief bibliographic note, not detailed in the anthology. In the chapter on Bîrûnî, which also contains Nasr's paraphrased translation of letters between Bîrûnî and Avicenna, a reference to the decisive works and partial translations of Gotthard Strohmaier on these texts would have been appropriate. 4

The philosophy of Ismâ'îliyya

Philosophers presented in Volume 2:

(Umm al-kitâb)
(2./9. century)

Jâbir ibn Hayyân
(d. between 187/803 and 199/815)

Abû Ya'qûb al-Sijistânî
(d. between 361/971 and 393/1002)

Abû Hâtim Râzî
(d. 322/934)

Hamîd al-Dîn al-Kirmânî
(d. after 411/1021)

Mu'aiyad fî l-Dîn al-Shîrâzî
(d. 470/1077)

Nâsir-i Khusraw
(d. 481/1088-89)

Nasîr al-Dîn Tûsî
(d. 672/1274)
9 The second volume of the anthology is dedicated to the Ismâ'îliyya, a branch of the Imâmiyya that developed after the death of the imâm Ja'far al-Sâdiq in the year 148/765 and whose religious thinking was lastingly stamped by new-platonic cosmology. In addition to excerpts from the Persian-written Umm al-kitâb (whose author is unknown and whose roots probably go back as far as the 2nd/9th century) and the texts of the enigmatic Jâbir ibn Hayyân, the volume contains extensive excerpts from the scripts of Abû Ya'qûb al-Sijistânî (d. between 361/971 and 393/1002), Abû Hâtim Râzî (d. 322/934), Hamîd al-Dîn al-Kirmânî (d. after 411/1021), the historically popular encyclopedia of the epistles of the Ikhwan al-Safa' (Brethren of Purity), whose age and authorship is debated still today, Mu'aiyad fî al-Shîrâzî (d. 470/1077), Nâsir-i Khusraw (d. 481/1088-89) as well as Nasîr al-Dîn Tûsî (d. 672/1274).
10 Just like with the first volume, some of the translated texts are reproductions, while others were specially prepared and include some real jewels such as Hermann Landolt's translation of Sijistânî's Kashf al-mahjûb. The format of the second volume also remained the same, with every chapter containing an introduction by one of the editors as well as short bibliography at the end – the bibliography for Hamîd al-Dîn al-Kirmânî should, however, be completed with the relevant works of Paul E. Walker and Daniel de Smet. 5 The selection criteria for the rather inadequate bibliography for Nasîr al-Dîn Tûsô are not obvious (377-378). Both volumes are concluded with a general bibliography and an index.
11 All things considered, the anthology makes a very varied and rich collection of materials, which provides an overview of the variety of philosophic thinking in the Islamic-Persian area even for people that have no knowledge of Arabic or Persian by giving them access to important primary texts.
Translation from the German by Marlies Gabriele Prinzl.

polylog. Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/4/rscs-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Sabine Schmidtke, Berlin (Germany)
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.


Hans Daiber (1999): Bibliography of Islamic Philosophy. Leiden – Boston: Brill (Handbuch der Orientalistik. Erste Abteilung, der Nahe und Mittlere Osten 43).
Seyyed Hossein Nasr / Oliver Leaman (eds.) (1996): History of Islamic Philosophy. London – New York: Routledge. go back
Henry Corbin (1981): La philosophie iranienne islamique aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Paris: Buchet-Chastel. go back
Most recently: Dimitri Gutas (2000): "Avicenna's Eastern ('Oriental') Philosophy: Nature, Contents, Transmission". In: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 10.2, 159-180. go back
Al-Bîrûnî (1988): In den Gärten der Wissenschaft. Ausgewählte Texte aus den Werken des muslimischen Universalgelehrten. Übers. u. erl. von Gotthard Strohmaier. Leipzig: Reclam.
Gotthard Strohmaier (1999): Avicenna. München: C.H. Beck. go back
Paul E. Walker (1999): Hamîd al-Dîn al-Kirmânî. Ismaili Thought in the Age of al-Hâkim. London – New York: I.B. Tauris / Institute of Ismaili Studies.
Daniel de Smet (1995): La quiétude de l'intellect: Néoplatonisme et gnose ismálienne dans l'oeuvre de Hamîd ad-Dîn al-Kirmânî. Louvain: Peeters Press / Department Oriental Studies. go back
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