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Seyyed Hossein Nasr - Review of Allah Transcendent

Seyyed Hossein Nasr - Review of Allah Transcendent

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BOOK REVIEWS
Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of IslamicPhilosophy, Theology and Cosmology.
By
IAN RICHARD NETTON.
Routledge and Kegan Paul: London and NewYork, 1989. Pp.
393.
Price HB £45.00.This relatively voluminous work is in reality two books combined in one. It is anextensive treatment of many of the major figures of Islamic philosophy and inone chapter Sufism and gnosis, and also a commentary or 'discourse', to use aterm favoured by the author, about structuralist, post-structuralist and decon-structionist analyses of Islamic philosophy. The two parts of the work,moreover, stand separately and are hardly integrated although the modernphilosophical analysis follows the study of Islamic philosophy at the end of eachchapter. As a result, it is possible for a student of Islamic philosophy to benefitfrom the scholarly analysis of Islamic thought without having to concernhimself on every page with how the Islamic intellectual tradition is viewed bythe latest currents and fashions of European philosophy.In an introductory chapter the author deals with Graeco-Alexandrianthought which Islam was to encounter as it spread north from the ArabianPeninsula. Netton provides a scholarly account of various writings and currentsof thought which were to be of particular importance to Muslims, such as theworks of Plotinus and Proclus. In this treatment there is, however, anoveremphasis of the Byzantine element while Jundishapur which was in Persia issimply mentioned as being 'near Baghdad' (p. 7) and its influence somewhatbelittled. Perhaps for the sake of scholarly argument, the author then delineateswhat he calls the 'Qur'anic creator paradigm' that he defines as the norm vis-a-vis which the views of various Islamic philosophers are judged.Netton turns first of all to al-Kindl whose views concerning God and creationare well analyzed but always in light of the tension which the author seesbetween the Qur'anic creation paradigm and Neoplatonic emanationism whichappears as a kind of
bete-noire
throughout the book. The author points quiterightly to various strands of philosophical and theological thought, namely theQur'anic the Mu'tazihte, the Neoplatonic and the Aristotelian, reacting witheach other in al-Kindl's thought. This was bound to happen at the beginning ofthe formation of Islamic philosophy and before the syntheses of al-FarabT andIbn Slna.In the third chapter the author turns to al-Farab! whose writings concerningthe nature of God as utterly transcencent and emanation scheme of the tenintellects are carefully analyzed and thoroughly discussed. But here again theauthor sees alienation between the Qur'anic concept of God and the philo-
 
BOOK REVIEWS 151
sophical concept of God inspired by Neoplatonism. In fact, according to NettonIslamic philosophy is 'a twisting labyrinth' (p. 70) at whose gate the philosophyof al-Kind! stopped while al-Farabl plunged deep into it by creating an'alienated' view of God. One wonders why al-Farabl would spend a life-timepraying according to Qur'anic injunctions to an 'alienated' God.The treatment of al-Farab! is followed by another extensive chapter dealingthis time with Ibn Slna and his concept of necessity and contingency as well ashis emphasis upon God as love. Netton again provides a clear analysis of IbnSlna's ontology and the cosmological scheme which depends upon it and makesuse of not only the Peripatetic works of the master but also his 'Orientalphilosophy'. He also points to the originality of the Avicennan synthesis despiteIbn Slna's heavy debt to al-Farabi.One would expect from a Western scholarly treatment of Islamic philosophythat Ibn Slna would be followed by either al-Ghazzah or Ibn Rushd. But theauthor surprises the reader by devoting the fifth chapter of
his
work to 'The Godof Medieval Isma'Tlism'. He begins with early Isma'lli cosmology as describedin the writings of Abu 'Isa al-Murshid, the Fatimid
da'i,
and then turns to the'infiltration of Neoplatonism' with Abu 'Abdallah al-Nasafl, Abu Ya'qub al-Sijistanl and HamTd al-DTn al-Kirmanl with whom the early synthesis ofIsma'TlT doctrines and Neoplatonic theories reaches its peak. Strangely enough,Netton does not deal with perhaps the greatest of Isma'llT philosophers, Nasir-iKhusraw, and concludes with a section on the Yemeni author, Ibrahim al-HamTdT, whose work
Kttab kanz al-walad
he calls the 'apotheosis of theNeoplatonic myth'.Netton continues to depart from the old orientalist scheme of treating Islamicphilosophy by turning in chapter six to two figures often neglected in thetreatment of Islamic philosophy, namely SuhrawardT and Ibn 'Arabl. The latterwas not, of course, strictly speaking a philosopher
(faylasiif)
as this term isunderstood in the Islamic context, but he was certainly a master of Islamicmetaphysics, the grand expositor of Sufi gnostic doctrines
(al-ma'rtfah,
not to beconfused with gnosticism in early Christian history). The author analyzes clearlythe complicated hierarchy of lights and the meaning of the Light of lights
(Nur
al-anwar)
in Suhrawardfs
ishraqi
or illuminative doctrines and also deals withIbn 'ArabTs 'unity of being'
(wahdat al-wujud)
although somewhat lesssuccessfully. At the end of the chapter, he makes an interesting compassionbetween Ibn'Arab!and Eckhart which is a very worthwhile project to follow incontrast to trying to compare Ibn 'Arabl with a modern European deconstruc-tiomst philosopher. Yet, Netton continues by applying deconstructionist theo-ries to Ibn 'ArabT, even going so far as to say, 'In his peculiar and very individualway Ibn al-'ArabT foreshadows the advent of the deconstructionist movement!'
(p.
292).The book terminates with a short conclusion entitled 'The Vocabulary ofTranscendance: Towards a Theory of Semiotics for Islamic Theology'. In thisconclusion the author outlines four directions in which a theory of semiotics,which could apply to Islamic theology both medieval and modern, could bedeveloped, these being the way of the
'ulama',
the way of unknowing, the wayof the mystics and the way of deconstruction! (p. 325). It seems that deconstruc-

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