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Legenhausen on Islamic Philosophy

Legenhausen on Islamic Philosophy

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Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen
 In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Published online: 20 June 2007
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007
The place of philosophy in Iranian society isprominent. Philosophy is discussed in popular media aswell as specialized journals, and in seminaries, researchcenters, and universities. Philosophy in Iran is oftendivided into Western and Islamic. Sometimes these aretaken to be rivals. The methods of instruction differ tosome extent, as well as the languages needed for advancedstudy. The question of the nature of Islamic philosophy isitself a controversial topic in Iran, and positions on thisissue are often driven by ideological trends. The study of philosophy in the Islamic seminaries has its own history.Today Islamic philosophy may be considered a philo-sophical tradition that is being carried on with increasinginteraction with the study of Western philosophy in Iran.
Iranian philosophy
Islamic philosophy
Islamic Peripateticism
Mulla Sadra
Transcendent wisdom
1 Philosophy in Iran
Philosophy is a subject of great interest among Iranianintellectuals, much more so than among American andEuropean intellectuals today, who, if not working in thefield, mostly ignore philosophy. Western philosophy hasbecome specialized, and as a result, many intellectualsthink of it as being rather arcane. Philosophy in Iran, on theother hand, is regularly woven into political and religiousdiscussions. Religious mavericks in Iran often look toWestern philosophy and Christian theology for ways tochallenge the establishment. During the 80s the intellectualscene was abuzz with debates between those who drewinspiration from Karl Popper and advocated a more opensociety, and those who inclined toward the mystical ten-dencies in Heidegger in their defense of tradition. Duringthe 90s there was a surge in interest in Western philosophyof religion that continues today. Translations were made of works by John Hick and Alvin Plantinga, among others, sothat when Plantinga visited Iran in 2002, he was shocked tofind that he enjoyed celebrity status there and was oftenasked by students for his autograph. Likewise, when Ju¨rgenHabermas returned from a visit to Tehran in the same year,he commented in an interview: ‘‘When you travel from theWest to the East with light intellectual baggage, youencounter the usual asymmetry of underlying perceptionsthat maintain our role as the barbarians. They know moreabout us than we do about them.’’
Philosophical discussions take place in a wide variety of forums. In addition to an ever-increasing number of scholarly journals, one can easily find philosophy on tele-vision, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Philosophy takesplace in Iran on a scale from specialized to popular, inuniversities, conferences, coffee shops, and taxicabs. Thosewell known for the philosophical positions they advanceare not always professional philosophers. Philosophicaldiscussions are often mixed with literary and religiousallusions. If one person talks about Pascal’s wager, you canbe sure that another will point out that there is a narrationattributed to the sixth Shi’ite Imam that seems to make thepoint that religious belief is one’s best bet. Classical
H. M. Legenhausen (
)The Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute, AminBlvd., Jumhuri Islami St, Qom, I.R. Irane-mail: legenhausen@yahoo.com
The interview was conducted by Christiane Hoffmann. Jun. 18,2002,
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
2002. (This translation madeavailable through an email list on June 20, 2002).
Topoi (2007) 26:167–175DOI 10.1007/s11245-007-9021-0
Persian poetry, e.g., Hafez, Rumi, Baba Taher, is oftenquoted to underline a philosophical point. Most of the clas-sical Persian poetry was written by Sufis or poets with Sufiinclinations.Sufitheoreticians,suchasIbn‘Arabi,Qawnawi,Qaysari, Ibn Turkah, Jami, and others have laced their workswithallusions toIslamicphilosophy,andinresponse Muslimphilosophers have taken into account the views of the mys-tics, modifying them, refuting them, or incorporating them.There is also a constant debate about this religious and lit-erary legacy, whether it is an obstacle to philosophicaladvancement or a foundation on which to build.Philosophy is taught in two main venues: the universityand the seminary, but there is also a great amount of philosophical research, lecturing, and discussions con-ducted at the many research centers in Iran. Many of thesecenters, universities, and seminaries have their own per-spective on the field.
In the seminaries, professors of philosophy are often revered religious authorities. Philos-ophy is taught as a spiritual discipline as much as an aca-demic field of study. Such professors often do not writearticles in the modern academic style, but compose com-mentaries, essays, and books. Often their lectures aretranscribed and published as books. Such figures rarelydebate one another publicly, although there is much privatediscussion, and there is debate among their students. In theuniversities, one can find professors opposed to religiousphilosophy and those who favor it. Numerous academic journals are published by the university presses in whichphilosophical articles can be found, only some of whichspecialize in philosophy. Philosophical monographs, text-books, and translations are published on a wide variety of topics. Iranians have taken to the internet with zeal, andIran has a high blogger per capita ratio; and, as one shouldexpect, there are a number of Iranian blogs and user groupsdedicated to philosophical discussion. National and inter-national conferences are held on philosophical topics asdiverse as logic and human rights, and on philosophers asdiverse as Sohravardi and Kant. Special mention should bemade of the large international conferences held in Tehranand organized by the Sadra Islamic Philosophy ResearchInstitute (SIPRIn)
in 1999 and 2004.Women are underrepresented, especially in Islamicphilosophy. However, a number of women have beenawarded doctorates in philosophy in recent years, and sowe should expect their contributions to Islamic philosophyto begin to emerge as they take positions at universities andresearch centers and begin publishing.One of the most important research centers for philo-sophical studies and teaching is the former Iranian IslamicAcademy of Philosophy and Wisdom, whose official nameis now the Iranian Islamic Institute for the Study of Phi-losophy and Wisdom. In 1973, the Pahlavi queen appointedSeyyed Hossein Nasr to establish a center for the study andpropagation of philosophy under her patronage. Nasr be-came the founder and president of what was then called theImperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy. It became animportant center for the editing of manuscripts and pub-lishing in Islamic philosophy. A journal,
Sophia Perennis
,was published with articles in both Farsi and English. Agood library of books in philosophy and religions wascollected there, and it attracted a number of notablescholars from Iran and abroad, including Henry Corbin andToshihiko Izutsu. Because of the philosophical dispositionsof Nasr and the scholars he gathered, there was a strongfocus on the element of mysticism in Islamic philosophy.After the Islamic Revolution in 1978, the name of theAcademy was changed with its administration, but thegeneral orientation remained much the same, althoughscholars working at the Academy were by no meansexclusively Traditionalists, and included those who spe-cialized in Western philosophy, among whom are expertsin the philosophy of science, logic, and ancient philosophy,and even those who have been openly critical of thedominant religious ideas.
The Academy has had an impact on the study of Islamicphilosophy both in Iran and abroad, especially through theworks of Nasr, Corbin and Izutsu. In Europe, Islamicphilosophy had been studied primarily as an aid to under-standing Medieval European philosophy: e.g., the influenceof Avicenna on Aquinas and the source of the controversyover Latin Averroism. With Corbin in France and Nasr inthe U.S., the Western study of Islamic philosophy enters a
new age
, so to speak, in which it is appreciated as a trea-sury for perennial gnostic truths.
Iranians are very proudof their intellectual heritage,
and are sensitive to the way itis received outside Iran. So, the interpretation of Islamicphilosophy by writers like Nasr and Corbin has also givenrise to considerable and constructive controversy withinIranian philosophical circles about whether Islamic phi-losophy embodies a
perennial philosophy
, whether therelation between mysticism and Islamic philosophy has notbeen over-emphasized, and about the relation betweenIslamic philosophy and modern Western philosophy.
2 Islamic philosophy and Western philosophy in Iran
In Iran, philosophy is often divided into Western andIslamic. Most comparative philosophy done in Iran
See Akbari (1384/ 2005).
See www.mullasadra.org.
See Soroush (2000).
See Rudolf (2004), 8–9.
See Razavi (1996).168 H. M. Legenhausen
compares Muslim with Western thinkers.
In many uni-versities, Western philosophy is treated as a separate sub- ject from Islamic philosophy. At the University of Tehran,Western and Islamic philosophy are taught on differentcampuses: Western on the main campus and Islamic at thebuilding that houses the theology faculty. As a result, manywho hold doctorates in Western philosophy have littleknowledge of Islamic philosophy and vice versa. Thosetrained in Western philosophy learn English or German,while those trained in Islamic philosophy learn Arabic andare often members of the Islamic clergy.There is, however, overlap; and the overlap is growing.While most classes in Islamic philosophy at the Universityof Tehran are taught by the theology faculty, there aresome professors at the literature faculty who specialize inIslamic philosophy. Likewise, while most of the philoso-phy taught in the Islamic seminaries is Islamic philosophy,a growing number of Muslim clerics teach courses onWestern philosophy in the seminaries.Not all Muslim clerics are comfortable with Islamicphilosophy. Some see it as usurping the proper role of theology. It takes the ancient pagan Greeks as authoritiesinstead of the Qur’an and hadiths, they argue. ImamKhomeini, however, favored philosophy, as did a numberof other important clerics who played important roles in theIslamic revolution. Shahid Mutahhari was a philosopherand one of the main authors of the constitution of theIslamic Republic of Iran. Shahid Beheshti was a philoso-pher who had a keen interest in Hegel in addition to Islamicphilosophy, and he was a founder of the Islamic Republi-can Party. Before the Islamic revolution, he used to cometo Qom once a week to teach Hegel to seminarians. Phi-losophy was seen as an interest of clerics who were morepolitically savvy, more concerned with contemporary so-cial problems, more widely read and more widely educatedthan their more conservative colleagues.The methods of philosophical instruction used forWestern and Islamic philosophy in Iran differ. Westernphilosophy is usually taught through classes on specificfigures, schools, and subfields. For example, there areclasses on Plato, Spinoza, Kant, and Heidegger; also onefinds classes on existentialism, analytic philosophy, andhermeneutics. There is a greater tendency today to offerclasses in such areas as the philosophy of religion, ethics,epistemology, and the philosophy of mind. Classes areusually taught on a semester basis, with fifteen or sixteensessions of one and a half hours per week for a two unitcourse. Two unit courses are the norm even at the graduatelevel. Islamic philosophy, on the other hand, like the otherareas of traditional Islamic seminary studies, is focused ontexts. Even the introductory texts are often rather opaquefor those not well versed in the tradition, and classes oftenconsist of detailed elaborations and explanations of a pageor two, or even of a single sentence. In the seminaries, oralexams used to be most prevalent, but today written examsare the rule. Often the student is presented with a passagefrom the Arabic text and asked to translate it and explainthe position of the author in Farsi. Traditionally, studentsmight take years to read through a multi-volume text with aprofessor from the Islamic clergy. Today it is more com-mon to find students studying selected portions of a text ona semester basis; but the focus remains on the text.
3 Metaphilosophy: what is Islamic philosophy?
One of the major debates in philosophical circles is aboutthe nature of Islamic philosophy itself. Western treatmentsof the subject
often use the term
Arabic philosophy
Islamic philosophy
on the grounds that the discussions of the philosophical issues associated with such key figures asFarabi, Ibn Sina, and Ghazali were carried out by Chris-tians and Jews and not only Muslims, all of whom wrote inArabic. However, important works by Ibn Sina, Sohra-vardi, Mulla Sadra, and others in this tradition were writtenin Persian, and much contemporary Islamic philosophy iswritten in Persian. Neither religious nor linguistic affilia-tion serves to pick out the desired philosophical tradition.Leftist and secularist Iranian intellectuals have arguedthat there can be no Islamic philosophy because philosophyimplies a freedom of thought that is incompatible withreligious commitment. Another secularist argument against‘‘Islamic Philosophy’’ is that philosophy is a science towhich no religious beliefs are relevant. One might be acommitted Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever, butwhen one does philosophy one’s religious beliefs are nomore relevant than the religious beliefs of a physician or achemist. According to this line of thought, most of what iscalled ‘‘Islamic Philosophy’’ or ‘‘Arabic Philosophy’isreally theology. Against this view, Muslim philosophersargue that philosophy is the love of wisdom and a quest forultimate truth and as such is at one with religious aims.Philosophy aims at a comprehensive understanding of being, knowledge, and values, and no such understandingcan be complete if it excludes religion. Defenders of thephilosophical credentials of Islamic philosophy typicallyargue that Muslim philosophers have not made use of re-vealed truths as premises in their arguments, but, likesecular philosophers, appeal to pure reason.
For a noteworthy exception, see the article by Sayyed MuhammadKhamenei, ‘‘Islamic philosophy and Chinese Culture,’’ http://www.mullasadra.org/new_site/english/Paper%20Bank/His-tory%20of%20Philosophy/chaina.htm.
E.g., Adamson and Richard (2004).Introduction 169

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