- The Quest for Wisdom as a Spiritual Exercise
The title of the remarkable book by Christian Jambet, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie islamique? (What is Islamic philosophy?) reflects that of Pierre Hadot’s famous essay, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique? (What is ancient philosophy?), published in 1995 in the same collection (Folio Essais 280). Both works not only display a similar title but also share a fundamental conception about the character and aims of philosophy in a premodern culture. As a rational reflection on humanity and the universe, philosophy cannot be reduced to a purely scholarly or academic activity, limited to the acquisition of theoretical, “scientific” knowledge. Philosophy is also a way of life based on the ideal of virtue. As it is impossible to dissociate the theoretical and practical aspects of philosophy, “the quest for wisdom” implies a spiritual exercise. Any true philosopher is inevitably a “sage,” in the Socratic meaning of the term. Therefore ethical, religious, and mystical elements occupy an important place in such a global approach to philosophy.
Extending Hadot’s thesis to the realm of Islam, Jambet tries to explain, in over four hundred pages, “what Islamic philosophy is.” Hence, the author is taking for granted the existence of Islamic philosophy. Without entering into polemics, the book is undaunted in its defense of a position that opposes a general trend in modern scholarship. All too often philosophy in the medieval Middle East is restricted to falsafa (the so-called “Hellenistic” or “Peripatetic” philosophy), whereas the impact of the Qur͗ ān and Islamic religion on the teachings of its main representatives (such as al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, Avicenna, or Averroes) is largely underestimated, if not denied, sometimes for purely ideological reasons. Ernest Renan’s conceptions about the incompatibility of Islam and science and philosophy are thus still alive in our own twenty-first century.
In contrast, Jambet’s approach to philosophical reflection in the medieval Middle East is much broader, extending far beyond the limits of mere falsafa. He furthermore describes the cultural and intellectual background of this philosophy as mainly rooted in Islam. He shows in a quite convincing manner how the philosophical heritage from antiquity (both Neoplatonic and Aristotelian), once it was translated from Greek into Arabic, was adopted and gradually transformed in different Islamic circles, giving rise to a wide range of intellectual traditions that accepted rational [End Page 1039] speculation, despite the critics or even the overt hostility of conservative Muslims. Jambet rightly stresses the importance of the so-called Theology of Aristotle (in fact, the Arabic version of parts of Plotinus’ last three Enneads), which was read and interpreted by Muslims belonging to very different traditions. Although the history of these successive reinterpretations of Plotinus’ thought is still to be written, the attentive reader of Jambet’s book may follow the fate of the Arabic Plotinus from the first falāsifa onwards to the Nizarite Isma͑ilis of the twelfth century and the Twelver Shi͑ite philosophers of the “School of Isfahan” in the seventeenth century.
As Henry Corbin did for the first time in his Histoire de la philosophie islamique (published in 1964), Christian Jambet fully integrates Shi͑ite thought—of both the Isma͑ilis and the Twelver Shi͑ites—into the history of Islamic philosophy. This is one of the major merits of his book, as it shows how in a Shi͑ite environment an Islamized form of Neoplatonism remained alive to modern times. Furthermore, the result of such an approach is a better understanding of the way of thinking of falāsifa such as al-Fārābī and Avicenna, who, although not Shi͑ites themselves (this may not be the case with al-Fārābī, however), had certain affinities with Shi͑ism or at least were reading some Shi͑ite texts.
The theoretical and practical aspects of philosophy being inseparably linked, the Greek ideal of a philosophical life devoted to both the acquisition of knowledge and the practice of virtue...