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God and Humans in Islamic Thought: 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 58, Number 2, April 2008
pp. 293-296 | 10.1353/pew.2008.0020

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Reviewed by
God and Humans in Islamic Thought: 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali. By Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. 214. Hardcover. Paper.

God and Humans in Islamic Thought: 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali by Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth deals with a subject central to the philosophy of religion. Based on the author's doctoral thesis, it examines the relationship between God and human beings in the writings of three Islamic philosophers, 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Sina, and al-Ghazali. The latter two thinkers are probably better known, especially [End Page 293] Ibn Sina, whose writings on Aristotle and whose views on God's existence and essence, the nature of the soul, and intellect were to be widely influential, not only in Islam but also in Christian philosophical and theological thought, as is clear from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. In addition to its obvious value to Islamic scholarship, this book will also be extremely useful to anyone who is interested in the ways in which the relationship between God and humanity was explored and depicted in the middle ages.

The importance of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato and Aristotle, in shaping medieval thought, is once again a major factor in the theological and philosophical formation of the three Islamic scholars whose views are addressed. It is always noteworthy how the Greek influence emerges in the writings of certain medieval thinkers in the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to shape their theories of how God should be understood, particularly with regard to those essential features that are intrinsic to God's relationship with human beings. Typically, there are inquiries into what can be known and said about God's nature and attributes, how and in what ways God can be known by the human mind, the importance of the human soul and its relationship with the body, and how the spiritual destiny of human beings is to be understood. The role of the intellect in human life is perceived to be subjectively central to all of this, especially with regard to the kind of mental activity involved when the mind comes to know God insofar as that is possible and the role that sensory experience and human bodiliness play in the human contact with divinity.

All of these factors come into play in different ways in the works of 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Sina, and al-Ghazali, which makes for interesting comparisons of their views by the author of this book. The very careful and persistent efforts of the Islamic thinkers depicted in this study to analyze the nature and goodness of divinity as they understood it and the implications that arise as a result for human life and human behavior provide a valuable corrective to any assumption that the Islamic faith or religious faith generally is not amenable to rational investigation. This is the value of the faith-reason debates that occurred in the middle ages and that still hold lessons for interfaith understanding in the more secular world of today. Anyone who reads the comprehensive efforts made by these three thinkers cannot but be struck by the great seriousness with which they approached the religious teachings that formed their culture. Their findings and conclusions, problematic though some of them may have been from the faith perspective, are the result of strenuous and careful analysis, which testifies to a strong commitment to demonstrating the rational grounds of Islamic religious thought. This was also a feature of the work of their counterparts in the Christian and Jewish traditions in medieval times.

One remarkable example of this shared thinking is to be found in al-Ghazali's account of the kind of difficulties that people can experience in their efforts to acquire knowledge of God (pp. 130-131). The philosopher describes the five different veils that separate us from such truth. These are functions of our different levels of maturity and intellectual ability; our immersion in worldly interests, often combined with a general lack of concern about God and the nature of divine-human relationships; [End Page 294] the preexisting beliefs and convictions that we...