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  • Forward to the Past
  • Dimitri Gutas
Qu’est-ce que la philosophie islamique? (What is Islamic philosophy?). By Christian Jambet . Folio Essais 547 . Paris : Gallimard , 2011 . Pp. 472 . isbn 978-2-070-33647-0 .

“Quaint” may be just about the most charitable thing that could be said about Qu’estce que la philosophie islamique? (What is Islamic philosophy?) by Christian Jambet, an opaque and turbid book that presents itself as scholarship and purports to answer the question of its title. Put in the terms of this general question, the subject is vast and complicated, especially since it has been at the forefront of scholarly discussion for some time now, and its treatment accordingly requires maximum procedural clarity, precise depiction of historical contexts and definition of terms, and strict delimitation of objectives. But this book does nothing of the sort and, situating itself quite beyond the pale, contributes nothing to the discussion. For already from the very beginning Jambet despairs of his subject because, he claims, Islamic philosophy is an inchoate mass that cannot be identified. He says, in effect,

Islamic philosophy is a philosophy that cannot be found, and is an activity that is encountered where one does not expect it, even among those who deny or reprove it. . . . There are no stable periodizations, no definitive list of names and works, no well-defined border that is guaranteed by the universal agreement of opinions.1

Although Jambet acknowledges that to understand Islamic philosophy properly one has to conduct minute studies of the logic, physics, metaphysics, ethics, and politics of the philosophers, he abstains from such an activity and proposes instead to engage in “a preliminary reflection upon the finality of philosophical activity, finality of forms that it assumes and acts that it performs, both in understanding and in action.”2 He proposes to do this by following as leitmotif “the theological questions that are asked at the center of systematic philosophy,” and this not by summarizing the content of the philosophical sciences as they were and are in the Islamic world but by “examining the predicative connection between philosophy and Islam in the common expression ‘Islamic philosophy.’ ”3 What led him to this approach, he confesses, is his “recurring astonishment faced with a philosophy that situates itself in a religious context.”4

It is clear, then, that Jambet’s project is to analyze how philosophy in the Islamic world relates to the religion of Islam—a creditable project, to be sure, had it not posed itself as being an answer to the question “What is Islamic Philosophy?”; the question should instead have been, “How does philosophy relate to the religion of Islam in the Islamic world?” Through this legerdemain—quite beneath standards of scholarly procedure—Jambet equates philosophy with Islamic religion, as, he confesses, [End Page 1042] “une philosophie qui se situe dans un contexte religieux” (p. 20). Now this amazing statement can be understood in only two ways. (1) It is a nonsensical tautological statement: since philosophy was practiced and written in the Islamic world, it is by definition in a “religious context,” which applies to all philosophy—Greek philosophy also was practiced and written in a religious context since the Greeks also had a religion, et cetera—but I would doubt that this is what Jambet means. (2) It is thus impossible to understand this statement in any other way than that for Jambet Islamic philosophy is Islamic religion, to the exclusion of all subjects treated in it. For if we take the parts of philosophy traditionally treated in Arabic—logic, various parts of natural science (all the way from its principles, like the notions of time and motion, to meteorology, zoology, and botany), the mathematical sciences, metaphysics (in the Aristotelian sense, in which it was practiced in Arabic philosophy), and the practical sciences—it beggars reason to try and find “un contexte religieux” for them.

So what his statement above means is that he does not consider all these parts of traditional philosophy as parts of Islamic philosophy. Jambet has thus managed to write a book about “what is Islamic philosophy” by eliminating, by definition, from consideration most of its parts—indeed all the philosophical parts—and...