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  • Islamic Philosophy in the Twenty-First Century:A Variety of Perspectives
  • Oliver Leaman (bio)
The Story of Reason in Islam. By Sari Nusseibeh. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017. Pp. xiii + 265. $29.95. isbn 978-1-5036-0057-7.
Philosophy in the Islamic World: A History of Philosophy without the Gaps. By Peter Adamson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xxi + 511. $39.95. isbn 978-0-19-957749-1.
The Routledge Companion to Islamic Philosophy. Edited by Richard S. Taylor and Luis Xavier López-Farjeat. New York: Routledge, 2016. Pp. xvii + 473. $214.00. isbn 978-0-415-88160-9.
The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy. Edited by Khaled El-Rouayheb and Sabine Schmidtke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii + 700. $150.00. isbn 978-0-19-991738-9.

The four books under review here are all very different, and yet they all set out to describe Islamic philosophy and they all succeed to a certain extent. Three of them are substantial texts, two by many authors, but actually the most interesting is the short book The Story of Reason in Islam by Sari Nusseibeh. It is a sustained discussion of the role of reason in Islamic culture, and actually constitutes an argument that extends from start to finish on the topic—and it is a very potent argument at that. Nusseibeh follows the familiar line that Islamic culture was in earlier times dynamic and flexible but in the last few centuries has become stultified and rigid. The book starts with some reflections on the role of the desert in shaping Islamic culture that read very nicely, but it is difficult to know what to make of such speculation. People do go to the desert to reflect, but they go to forests and rivers as well, not to mention supermarkets and highways in modern times. Then Nusseibeh identifies the poetic nature of the Qur'an as significant, yet that text of course spends a lot of time denying it is poetry. I think he is quite right, but he goes on to argue less plausibly that poetry and reason form a pair, although it is not clear how. Nusseibeh is fond of dichotomies, and the book is full of them—and why not: philosophers often respond to earlier thinkers, and principles may well contrast with each other, religion and reason being excellent examples. He really goes to town, though, on Salman and Absal, East and West, poetry and reason, philosophy and politics, and many more. [End Page 620]

Annoyingly, some of his most interesting points are buried in the notes, and not sufficiently explained. He argues, for example, that it is a mistake to think that Ibn Sina prioritized essence over existence, and that essences do not have a sort of shadowy being before they are actualized, ultimately, by God. It seems that Ibn Rushd and Ibn Taymiyyah were then wrong in their interpretation of Ibn Sina, which is of course possible. This sort of contradiction is always a problem in a short discussion; there is not the scope to enter into a detailed defense of an idea that really challenges how Ibn Sina was regarded in the past and also by most commentators today. That idea also went on to inform a great deal of ishraqi philosophy and to be opposed by Mulla Sadra, so it is hardly a technical detail. If, as Nusseibeh rightly says, Ibn Sina is the key thinker in Islamic philosophy, then how is it that everyone got this wrong, since this is an issue that almost everyone subsequently had to pronounce on to show what position they take on ontology. In a sense this is the problem with the book; each chapter is very rich and could easily be expanded into a book itself, and yet of course once the reader starts to wonder how the author is going to develop and defend the points he makes in a chapter, we get to the end and the start of the next chapter. This is the way of things with short books; of course it is a brief survey and does not pretend to be anything more, and the other books reviewed...


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pp. 620-625
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