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  • The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: The Quest for Self-Knowledge in the Teachings of Afdal al-Din Kashani
  • Kiki Kennedy-Day
The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: The Quest for Self-Knowledge in the Teachings of Afdal al-Din Kashani. By William C. Chittick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. 360. Hardcover.

Are you tired of feeling that the scientifically quantifiable world is not all there is, but that most books about philosophy are airy-fairy or pie-in-the-sky? Then The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: The Quest for Self-Knowledge in the Teachings of Afdal al-Din Kashani by William C. Chittick has something to say to you. Chittick succinctly analyzes the limitations of scientism in his preview of the ends of Islamic philosophy (especially pp. 34-37). One could not make a better argument for exploring the Real beyond appearances than Chittick does.

As we look around ourselves in the wreckage of the world-abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, "ghost" prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, tens of thousands of refugees at Darfur-we may feel that the world could use more philosophy. Since traveling in our current direction is leading to spiritual bankruptcy in our souls, perhaps a solid spiritual understanding of the universe would help?

The author's stated goals are to introduce the major themes of Islamic philosophy and to introduce the Persian philosopher Afdal al-Din Kashani in English translation. The book consists of two parts: part 1 an overview of Islamic philosophy and part 2 the writings of Baba Afdal. In part 1 Chittick moves from the particular to the general, here from Afdal al-Din Muhammad ibn Hasan Kashani (d. A.H. 610 / A.D. 1213-1214) to the perspective of Islamic philosophy and the perspectives of philosophy in general. Chittick sketches al-Kashani's life, moving from his tomb in Maraq, Iran, to recalling highlights of the philosopher's life. When one considers the near-contemporaries of al-Kashani they are so illustrious as to make one's head spin: Ibn Rushd, Ibn al-'Arabi, and Nasir al-Din Tusi. More than any other details, these scholars place al-Kashani in the intellectual major leagues. Chittick also mentions that al-Kashani believes in philosophy as a praxis, a way of life to be implemented as well as an exercise of reasoning. He sees philosophy as training the soul with the knowledge of the mind.

Chapter 2 forms an excellent introduction to Islamic philosophy for the curious reader. He begins by nailing some of the current problems in studying Islamic thought. He mentions everything from considering the dogmas of religion beneath [End Page 180] study to the refusal to accept what philosophers say at face value. Basically it is our own prejudices and views that prevent us from being able to understand their perspectives. The specific issues of Islamic philosophers that Chittick discusses are understanding God, the meaning of prophecy, and the "Origin and Return"-how the world came to be and our return to God after death.

Chittick also provides a much-needed antidote to the tendency of many modern scholars to over-Hellenize Islamic philosophy, while at the same time, failing to refer to either the Qur'an or Islamic civil society. He locates the problem with modern thought in an inability to grasp any notion that refers to quality rather than quantity. (This can be seen even more vividly in recent attempts by American economists to give a dollar value to happiness on the success chart.) While quantification is necessary in analytic science, it stifles thought in symbolic, metaphorical, or religious discovery.

In part 2, the Writings section actually begins with relevant background texts, including Aristotle, pseudo-Aristotle (The Treatise on the Apple), Hermes, and Ghazali (The Alchemy of Felicity). Then we move on to the Baba Afdal's own writings, including quatrains, essays, letters, and others. These writings show the range of Afdal al-Din Kashani's interests: moving from the practical (chapter 5) to the theoretical (chapter 6). Among the writings in chapter 5 we find his letter to Majd al-Din. It shows al-Kashani's clear-sighted understanding of human nature when he says...


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