195 - Anke von Kügelgen on Contemporary Islamic Thought

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Anke von Kügelgen joins Peter to discuss developments over the last century or so, including attitudes towards past thinkers like Avicenna, Averroes and Ibn Taymiyya.



Further Reading

• A. von Kü̈gelgen, Averroes und die arabische Moderne. Ansätze zu einer Neubegründung des Rationalismus im Islam (Leiden: 1994).

• A. von Kügelgen, “A Call for Rationalism: ‘Arab Averroists’ in the Twentieth Century,” Alif (Journal of Comparative Poetics) 16 (1996), 97-132.

• A. von Kügelgen, “The poison of philosophy – Ibn Taymiyya’s struggle for and against reason,” in B. Krawietz and G. Tamer (eds), Islamic Theology, Philosophy and Law. Debating Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (Berlin: 2013), 253-328.

• R. Motika, M Kemper, A. von Kü̈gelgen (eds), Repression, Anpassung, Neuorientierung: Islamische Bildung im sowjetischen und postsowjetischen Raum (Wiesbaden: 2013).

• A. von Kügelgen (ed.), Wissenschaft, Philosophie und Religion: Religionskritische Positionen um 1900 (Berlin: 2017).

Prof von Kügelgen's webpage


This interview is based on research conducted to write a forthcoming book on Philosophy in the Islamic world in the 19th and 20th centuries, to be co-edited by Prof von Kügelgen together Professor Ulrich Rudolph, and Michael Frey as redactor. It will be the fourth volume of a German Overview of the whole history of philosophy in the Islamic world (Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie in der islamischen Welt, published by Schwabe Verlag in Basel). Prof von Kügelgen would like to recognize the contribution of her collaborators: her main partner for the philosophy in the Arab speaking countries is Sarhan Dhouib, originally from Tunesia, now at the University of Kassel. For Muslim Southasia, she is working with Jan Peter Hartung from the SOAS in London, and for Iran, Reza Hajatpour, Katajun Amirpur and Roman Seidel who are all at present at German Universities. The part on Philosophy in the Ottoman Empire is written by Sait Özervarlı from the Yildiz Teknik Universitesi in Istanbul and for Turkey by Christoph Herzog from the University of Bamberg.


Andrew March on 26 October 2014

al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī?

Hi Peter. This was a really terrific interview. Thanks to you and Anke. Were you surprised to not hear mention of al-Rāghib as one of the classical scholars retrieved by modern Islamic thinkers? In general, do you see him as part of the falsafa tradition, or more strictly within theological ethics? (I don't remember him coming up in the podcasts around 134-5.) His ethics are quite straightforwardly "Islamic" in content but Aristotelian in form (function argument, topology of the virtues, etc.). I have found his book K. al-dharī'a ilā makārim al-sharī'a used in the works of some modernist apologists seeking to argue for both the rationality and the reasonableness of the Islamic sharī'a in the face of secular alternatives.

And, in general, thank you for the podcast and this extraordinary survey of the Islamic world. Looking forward to picking up the thread from where you left off in 119.

In reply to by Andrew March

Peter Adamson on 31 October 2014


Hi Andrew - to answer your question I turned to a friend of mine, Alexander Key, who knows a lot about Raghib. I gather you and he have been in touch anyway but for the benefit of the wider audience here are his remarks.


Hello Andrew!   It's an unfortunate reflection of the state of Ragib-studies that Peter asked me, someone with whom you have already spoken, to respond to this question! 

As you know, I agree with you about the continued relevance of Ragib to modern Islamic thinkers reading and writing in Arabic, and I think the best reflection of this is both that his works continued to be edited (and more importantly those editions continue to be reprinted), and that secondary studies on his ethics continue to be published.  

For the benefit of other readers of this blog, here are some of those books in the last few decades: 


http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/729862935 (al-Sārīsī is perhaps the dominant voice in Arabic-language philological work on Ragib)









In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew March on 31 October 2014

the Raghib Revival

What better place to stage a Raghib Revival than the HoPwAG website? (Watch out Themistius!!)

I will just also note, since I brought it up, that I have found al-Raghib used by some 20th century legal theorists and apologists. For example, the Moroccan 'Allāl al-Fāsī, in his Maqāṣid al-sharīʿa wa makārimuhā (which even sounds a bit like al-Rāghib's ethical treatise Kitāb al-dharī'a ilā makārim al-sharī'a), cites al-Rāghib as the authority for the view that man's function (fi'l/ergon) is not rationality or virtuous activity of soul as such (as it remained in Miskawayh) but rather the three-fold "to civilize the earth ('imārat al-arḍ), to worship God, and to accept the vicegerency of God (khilāfat Allāh) on Earth."

I am not sure if al-Rāghib is the first one to put these three activities together using the Aristotelian "function" framework, but some modern thinkers seem to find him a congenial authority for views like this.

Chike on 1 November 2014

A touch of (sub-Saharan) African philosophy!

It was nice to hear Prof. von Kügelgen mention Leopold Sedar Senghor, a major figure in my research. I know there are not yet any plans to have a parallel podcast "History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps: African Philosophy" so, for now, I will content myself with this brief mention!

Ron Crossland on 8 December 2014

Many Thanks

As a naturalist more interested in the development of science since the Enlightenment, I have dipped my mental fingers into philosophy three different times over my life. This third, and most recent effort, is ongoing and your podcast, professor Adamson, has contributed tremendously to both informing and stoking my curiosity.

The series of podcasts on philosophy and the Islamic world was especially delightful as typical treatments of "Western philosophy" tend to start and end with Avicenna. Both understanding his impact on philosophy and the deeper and wider implications has been fulfilling.

I'm looking forward to the remainder of your series and all of its spin-offs.

Asa Henderson on 5 June 2015

Dissertation on Heidegger in the Arab World?

Hi Peter,

At about 39 minutes, Professor von Kügelgen mentions an upcoming dissertation on the reception of Heidegger in the Arab world.  Do you know whether it's out yet?  Where can I find it?


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter Adamson on 10 June 2015

Dissertation on Heidegger

Just to say that Prof von Kügelgen reports back that this dissertation is not out yet but the author Kata Moser has a page on academia.edu which you can go to:


Dylan Flint on 6 August 2016

Philosophical Sufism


Hi Peter- my question isn't really about this specific episode, rather it is a question regarding philosophical Sufism in general, which you have brought up several times in this series. Basically, I am trying to weave together various strands of thought that I have gathered from your survey of their system (if we can say such a thing) and I need some help... At one point I believe you said, I cant remember where maybe when discussing Rumi?, that for the philosophical Sufi the imagined world is more real than the "actual" word, the phenomenal sensual world if you will. I gather the idea is that This world which we take to be the real thing is veiled in maya and that a more real world lies beyond. My problem, or confusion, here lies with the use of 'imagined' because later on when discussing Sadra it sounded like 'existence' is the thing that counts whereas 'essences' are mere mental constructs. How can this be squared with the notion that the imagined world is more real than the phenomenal world? Is the problem here that I have a lockean and kantian take on imagination? Is imagination when discussed under the Sufis needed to be seen as something more than the mechanism of conceptual construction? Is the imagination supposed to be the byway that punctures the viel of maya? If so, it seems like it can't be by considering essences, like when *imaginig* your fake sister. I hope what I am trying to get at is clear. Thank you for your help in advance.





Bekhabari on 8 January 2017

The death of Hikmat? (rant)

I wonder if its time to face the fact that traditional Hikmah/Hikmat, as we know it, is either dead or slowly dying out. Literate elites in the eastern Islamic world are more likely to read Heidegger or Aristotle, anyone from the plethora of western philosophy, than say Qunawi or Suhrawardi. What remains is veneer, Muslim elites picking up Averroes, or the Mutazilites, to point out how Islam can be reconciled with enlightenment reason or liberalism, such individuals are more often than not cheap imitations of their western counterparts with little innovative theory to offer.

Everything is nothing but a poor man's engagement with modernity, which, while obviously important, is seemingly the only thing ever discussed. Everything is, "ooh, look at how this is kinda like what Nietzsche says" or "look at this random 12th century philosopher, see Islam is rational too!" Or worse "western philosophy owes us because of Averroes, if it weren't for those pesky Mongols who plunged us into a dark age".

The rot is worse in some areas than in others, legal and musical theory are pretty much dead, with no genuine advancement in these areas since Ibn Abidin kicked the bucket. Logical books and the works of Avicenna seem to be quite poorly studied in the subcontinent, with most 'rational texts' cut out off the old Dars-i-Nizami system. While the very prominent Deobandi movement typically discourage taking interest in philosophy, seeing it as less relevant and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. 

But most of all, there is a general lack of interest. With the ascendency of English language and literature in South Asia, no one is really concerned with Islamic philosophy except in so far as to how it can be related to the dominant euroccentric literary culture and give it a legitimising 'ethnic' or national veneer. Walk into a decent bookshop in London, you'll find Nietzsche, Marx, Aristotle, hell even Marcus Arulius, do the same in Delhi, Lahore or Agra, you'll be lucky if you find Al-Ghazzali. The Islamic world in general seems to be locked in a sort of intellectual impasse, a product of disinterest or disingenuous interest.

Mrpotatohead on 21 July 2017

The madrasah and philosophy

Most philosophers in the Islamic world today are nothing but worthless muqallids, they have nothing to say and a mere imitators of the once hegemonic philosophical concepts circulating in Europe. Their sole focus is to search out the 'authentic' roots of modernity within an ahistorical and imaginary period of the Salaf, where a pure and untainted Islamic essence reigned. In short to Islamise classical liberalism, Kantian morality and enlightenment humanism and locate it's roots in a mythical past that was shattered by a phase of decline or decadence. They are nothing but cheap second rate imitators with little to no substance or independent thinking. 

It is in the spaces that have sealed themselves off from western influence that von Kügelgen mentions, where the most interesting philosophical activity has the potential to take place. But for that to happen these two intellectual world's need to engage and interact with each other in healthy intellectual dialogue. Madrasah elites need to know Foucault and Charles Taylor just as much as they know their Avicenna and Ghazali. Because whether they like it or not, we all live the colonial modern project and we must somehow live with that. 

This is problematised by the current state of the Madrasah as an institution across the Muslim world, increasingly closed off and undervalued. Islamdom's vibrant 'republic of letters' shrunk rapidly in the 19th century due to the decline of Persian, the collapse of funding for madrasah education and the subsequent breakdown of scholarly networks.

The prestigious madrasahs of the Islamic world have either been shut down, destroyed, secularised or have tried to sealed themselves off. You can say that many current madrasahs, like the one at Deoband, are going through that phase of Puritanism that plagued Oxford and Cambridge in the late 1700s, but 'Oxbridge' did not have to compete with alternative intellectual tradition underpinned by institutions that are better funded and more prestigious. 

If Wilhelm Gottleib Leitner pointed out back in the 19th that the madrasah education was in many ways similar in form and structure to the classical education offered at Oxord or Cambridge university, then there is a strong potential that they once again can be prestigious and highly valued centres of learning. But the dualism between colonial era schools and madrasahs have to be overcome and madrasah educated philosophers have to critically engage with their counterparts around the world. Who knows, maybe an Arabic translation of this podcast series' scripts might go along way? Interactions between different intellectual communities produces some of the most vibrant and fascinating intellectual work in history, just look at the Greek translation movement, the Sanskrit translation movement under Akbar and the Han Kitab movement in late Ming and Qing China. Two way interaction is absolutely necessary for a healthy intellectual atmosphere, everything dies in a vaccum. 


Cai Jisen on 16 April 2018

Islamic Philosophy in a Contemporary Religious Context?

Prof. Adamson, I just had a question given the insights you and Prof. von Kügelgen had shared.

I believe in the conversation you had, Prof. von Kügelgen had noted that Ibn Sina's works are still taught in a religious context in certain parts of the Islamic World (i believe she identified Iran and Pakistan specifically, along with naming Mulla Sadra as another philosopher with some vitality left).

I'm a little confused by this, if only because whenever I see references to Ibn Sina/Avicenna in a contemporary Sunni context, theologians cast him in the role as a "heretic" of sorts, following the opinions put down by Al-Ghazali.

While its easy for me to point to the current relevance of Thomas Aquinas to the Catholic Church, or Maimonides to the various branches of Judaism, it gets a little harder (esp. as an outsider) to understand if Ibn Sina (or any Islamic Philosopher for that matter who isn't Al-Ghazali) still carries weight/has Partisans within a religious framework.

Shi'ite Islam seems a little more willing to "play in the Philosopher's pool" so to speak, but I haven't been able to find say a group of "Ibn Sina-ists" in the same manner that I could find a group of modern day Thomists.

So umm.. Just who is reading Avicenna these days in the madrasahs?


In reply to by Cai Jisen

Peter Adamson on 17 April 2018

Reading Avicenna

You're right that figures like Avicenna are sometimes viewed with some suspicion and certainly they are not canonical thinkers like Aquinas in Catholicism. But Avicenna also gets a lot of admiration, not least because of his scientific achievements. I think that Avicenna is most important in Iran, where thinkers like Sadra are still read avidly and this at least indirectly means they are dealing a lot with Avicenna.

Reza on 21 April 2018

Ali Shariati

I’m surprised Ali Shariati hasn’t received much mention. Seeing how he was the philosopher that helped spark the Iranian revolution! That fact alone makes him deserving of an episode. If you think Iqbal’s Islamic-Nietzscheanism was a bizzare plot twist. Shariati’s hodgepodge or Fanon, Satre and Shi’ite Theology is even more unexpected.

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