171 - Golden Ages: The Later Eastern Traditions

An introduction to later developments in philosophical theology, sufism, and Illuminationism, focusing on the reception and critique of Avicenna.

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Further Reading: 

• W.C. Chittick, The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: the Quest for Self-Knowledge in the Teachings of Afal al-Dīn Kāshānī (Oxford: 2001).

• G. Endress, “Reading Avicenna in the Madrasa: Intellectual Genealogies and Chains of Transmission of Philosophy and the Sciences in the Islamic East,” in J.E. Montgomery (ed.), Arabic Theology, Arabic Philosophy: From the Many to the One (Leuven: 2006), 371-422.

• D. Gutas, “The Heritage of Avicenna: the Golden Age of Arabic Philosophy, 900-ca.1350,” in J. Janssens and D. De Smet (eds), Avicenna and his Heritage (Leuven: 2002).

• W. Madelung and T. Mayer (trans.), Struggling with the Philosopher: a Refutation of Avicenna’s Metaphysics (London: 2001).

• G. Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: 1981).

Thomas's picture

Science in Islam

Hi Professsor Adamson, I was intrigued by your comments refuting Richard Dawkins. I have to confess I believed the same falicy, namely that Islamic science fell into decline after about the 1300s. Now, I think I know that science in the Islamic world is doing poorly currently. When would you say that the decline of science occured; perhaps the colonial period? I'd love to learn more. Thanks.

Peter Adamson's picture

Science in Islam

I think probably the answer to this is not anything particular about Islam, it's more about the fact that something unique and unprecedented happened in Europe, namely the "scientific revolution" (to use a term that I will no doubt wind up saying is far too simplistic later on). We don't see that happening in the Islamic world, China, etc. So I think the explanation is not so much "what went wrong elsewhere?" as "what went right in Europe?" In the Islamic world we see a remarkable degree of continuity from the "classical period" down to very recent times - as we'll be seeing, they keep working within the framework of Avicennan philosophy right up until the 19th century. (This is one reason it is so odd to compliment Islamic achievements of the middle ages and imply there was a massive decline after: if anything, we see a high degree of continuity, as would have happened in Europe if scholasticism hadn't been supplanted by the developments in early modern Europe.)

Of course if we go forward to the 19th and 20th centuries yes, we also have to factor in colonialism as well. But there you probably need a historian of modern politics rather than a historian of philosophy to really explain what has happened in the last 200 years.

Thomas's picture

Science in Islam

Thanks. One of the topics I really enjoy in your podcasts are when you delve into the development of science and math.

Bear's picture

Influence of Sufism

Hi Peter,

thank you for this - I have been lectured at by people from the Western intellectual tradition that Islamic Science and Philosophy went into steep decline after an specified high point. However, these are often people who push the myth of the "Dark Ages" - again a loosely specified period that ended in the 11th Century or the 17th Century, depending on who you ask. They also have not heard of Johanes Scottus Erigunia or if they have, they are hazy on his intellectual formation.

One of the interesting artefacts from this period is a letter written in 1290 by Arghun Khan to Pope Nicholas IV which refers to a discussion of the validity of Christian baptism among Nestorian Christian Mongol communities. (The Khan did not show his characteristic wisdom in trying to deal with Philip IV of France.)

This letter shows that there is a Philosophical sophistication among nomadic people. To be facetious, they must have a had a good grasp of Political Philosophy to keep an empire running for many years - that it was Ivan I who finally freed Russia from Mongol suzerainty in 1480.

As far as the influence of Sufism goes - it runs very deep, more than being fashionable in California in the 1990s. One thing that is interesting is that the Sufi Brotherhoods provided a point of focus for dissidents in the Caucasuses and Central Asia during the Soviet period. There is a bit of discussion of this in: Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive II, Allen Lane, 2005.

I can't imagine the Sufi tradition placing Neo-Platonism in epoxy or glass, preserving it in a fixed state.

Bear's picture

Centre of Talmudic Studies

Hi Peter,

one thing that I did forget was that from an early point, there was a Talmudic school based in Bagdad, surrounded by a vibrant Jewish community until political events of the 20th took over and deprived Bagdad of this ancient community.

Until the 20th Century this was the place for Talmudic studies, which was generally done in Aramaic.

The presence of this centre of scholarship is one of the most telling features to indicate that the Islamic world did not go into a steep decline.

Also in Bagdad and Mossul there was an active Christian community - generally referred to as Chaldean Christians, who were active in Philosophical pursuits.

Daniel Beben's picture


Hi Peter,

I'm just catching up on some of your recent podcasts here. I'm curious, what do you make of the argument by some that al-Shahrastani may have been an Ismaili? I noticed that in this episode you only mention his 'Ashari connections. Thanks for your input. I've really enjoyed your work.

Peter Adamson's picture

Shahrastani an Ismaili?

There's a useful discussion of this in the Madelung/Mayer translation of "Struggling with the Philosopher" on page 2 and following; to summarize, there are several works by him that may show Ismaili leanings but none of his contemporaries call him an Ismaili.They conclude that "in spite of his basic espousal of traditional Ismaili teaching he was not prepared to join them in their seclusion." But it sounds like he was at the very least shiite in his inclinations.