What have they done for us lately?

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You might have seen the storm of controversy over the recent Tweet by Richard Dawkins, stating: "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though." Though I haven't followed the uproar in great detail it seems to me that most of the anger has been directed at the first sentence. So I wanted to say something about the second sentence, because it connects to a point I want to make in the podcast in future episodes. Dawkins is here following a widespread tendency to say that anything of intellectual value created by Muslims, or in the Muslim world, dates to the "classical" period which would probably end in about the 12th century, hence "Middle Ages." It's basically a way of being politically correct: "when I criticize Islam as a religion, I do admit that they long long ago managed to do impressive things, but what have they done for us lately?"

This attitude is intimately connected to the myth that philosophy in the Islamic world ends in the 12th century, perhaps killed off by Ghazali, with a last burst of effort from Averroes who died in 1198. The reason for this myth is that philosophy in the Islamic world has always been seen from the point of view of European Christendom: Averroes was the last Muslim philosopher who exerted real influence on Christians writing in Latin, so it seems that the tradition ends there. But this is just wrong. As we'll see in the third mini-series I am devoting to the topic, philosophy and science continue and in fact flourish in the post-medieval period, with thinkers like Tusi, the School of Shiraz, Mir Damad, Mulla Sadra, etc. The philosophical tradition goes on continuously into the 19th century, after which things get complicated because you need to take into account influence from European ideas through colonialism. So I am going to stop with philosophical developments in the three empires, Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid, though I hope to have an interview on the 20th century.

To a large extent these extensive post-medieval developments are unknown, not only to the wider public but also to experts in the field (here I include myself) because so much of the material is still in manuscript and unstudied in European languages. Still, I will do my best to kill off the myth of philosophy's death in the 12th century.

Danish Hamid on 12 August 2013

Thanks Peter. I'm falling in

Thanks Peter. I'm falling in love with the podcast series all over again. And what's coming gives me more reason to listen in. Looking forward to a great podcasting year!

Chike Jeffers on 12 August 2013

You are doing very important

You are doing very important work here. It may be one of this podcast's greatest legacies to have helped people interested in Western philosophy rethink what it is they are talking about when they refer to the flourishing of Islamic philosophy and Islamic societies more generally.

Tobias Pester on 12 August 2013

That's an interesting point.

That's an interesting point. I doubt, though, that his statement is informed by this very specialist notion that, in my perception, is confined to the discussion among scholars of philosophy in the Islamic world.

I think, the reasoning behind the popular populist notion that his statement is likely meant to implicitly reproduce is: 'we, that is white people, are the ones who have invented and done all the [supposedly] great things of the last centuries (dynamite, industrial processing, capitalism, liberal democracy etc.) and thus, all the others on this planet (especially our immediate cultural neighbors) must be inferior, which allows us to diminish their worth as human beings based on their culture and appearance.'

If his thinking and feeling about Muslims were actually based on such a factual and thus easily resolvable issue as you describe, that would be great!

In reply to by Tobias Pester

Peter Adamson on 12 August 2013

Right, I doubt he was

Right, I doubt he was thinking even implicitly of Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falasifa! My point was more that, in gesturing towards the great things that happened in Islam in the Middle Ages, he is reflecting something that is a more widespread notion. Namely that there was a glory period or golden age for Islam, which happened... well, maybe we're not sure, but a long time ago and hence in the "middle ages". And I think that is in fact an echo of the previously prevalent view of philosophy in the Islamic world I describe above: it is the form in which the European narrative in scholarship has moved out into popular culture.

The good news is that pretty much no serious specialist in the field now subscribes to the "it all ended with Averroes" story so, after a generation or two, the myth will hopefully be dispelled among a wider public. With any luck the podcast can do a little to help with that process!

randi warne on 12 August 2013

A similar logic ("what have

A similar logic ("what have they done for us lately?") was used by Cardinal Faulhaber in his Munich sermons of 1931 (1933?). His "defense" of Jews was that they had been great, moral even, once upon a time (i.e. not perennial, invidious scum), but that they had fallen away from their former greatness into the obviously debased mass they obviously were now. Faulhaber thus gets to preserve the worth of the "OT" - so essential for the existence and justification of the "NT", while still towing the contemporary Nazi line.

Good call, Peter Adamson! This is interesting and important work.

In reply to by randi warne

sahed din on 13 August 2013

("what have they done for us

("what have they done for us lately?") Probably Cardinal Faulhaber was by that time totally unaware of Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx. Can you find anything comparable in recent 700 years of islamic philosophical elaboration?

Mohammad Saket on 13 August 2013

I agree on the article but I

I agree on the article but I prefer to name the Islamic era philosophy "the Persian philosophy". The role of Persian philosophers is neglected under the word Islamic philosophy.

In reply to by Mohammad Saket

Peter Adamson on 13 August 2013

I talk a bit about the

I talk a bit about the Persian element in the formative period in this episode. However I don't agree with the tendency among some scholars (S.H. Nasr for instance) to link philosophy in the Islamic world to some kind of Persian national story, it is much more complicated than that. For one thing the borders of Persia are rather hard to define, but if as this proposal seems to assume, you have a very broad definition which includes, say, modern-day Iraq, you wind up thinking of ethnic Arabs like al-Kindi as "Persian." Also of course it would be absurd to think of philosophy in Muslim Spain and Portugal (Andalusia) as "Persian" but that, as we'll see, is going to make up about one third of the story of philosophy in the Islamic world. Hence I agree that the Persian cultural element is important, and there are many important philosophical works written in Persian; but I would definitely not equate philosophy in the Islamic world with "Persian philosophy", it just leaves out too much.

randi warne on 13 August 2013

And then there are the

And then there are the philosophers who were women. Where are they, and how might their recognition affect the history of even western philosophy?

In reply to by randi warne

Peter Adamson on 13 August 2013

Yes, quite! I've been

Yes, quite! I've been thinking about that a lot recently because I wrote a new chapter ("episode") on women in ancient philosophy for the first book based on the podcast scripts. I've been on the lookout for women thinkers in the Islamic world but haven't come across much. The main exception is Rabi'a, an important early mystic who I'll be discussing in an episode on Sufism and Ibn 'Arabi when I get to Andalusia. If anyone else has any suggestions please say!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Aqeel M. A. Imam on 14 August 2013

Hello Professor Adamson, Yes,

Hello Professor Adamson,

Yes, Rabi'a al-‘Addawiyyah / al-Basriyyah is an important early mystical thinker but there have been others too, both before and after her.

If you wish to know a bit more about women Sufi thinkers then perhaps I might be able to assist in some way since a while back I started looking into this issue given the view that traditionally in Muslim societies women were / are generally not given much opportunity to either learn or express themselves on matters of intellect. Please drop me a line and I shall try to fill you in as best as I can.

Looking at a list I had prepared a while back, I can count more than 40 female names dating from the 7th century till our times and ranging from Arabia of late antiquity to various parts of the present day Muslim world.

Best regards,

(Dr. A..M.A. Imam, PhD)

Erasmus Medical Center

PS: My alternative email is: amaimam14@hotmail.com
Please feel free to contact me on either of the two emails.

Walter on 13 August 2013

For all interested, please

For all interested, please check out this overview of the pioneering work of Dr. Robert Wisnovsky and the Post-Classical Islamic Philosophy Database Initiative:


And also the other components of the larger Rational Sciences in Islam project (accessible from the same site).

In reply to by Walter

Peter Adamson on 13 August 2013

Absolutely! In fact Prof

Absolutely! In fact Prof Wisnovsky was just visiting me in Munich and I recorded an interview for the podcast with him, about the post-classical commentary tradition. So that will be coming along in due course.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Walter on 13 August 2013

That is wonderful news, Prof

That is wonderful news, Prof Adamson, and thank you for this incredible learning tool with which you have provided us. It is just outstanding.

Stavros Hadjiyiannis on 13 August 2013

I am far from being an expert

I am far from being an expert on the subject being raised above, but obviously, even the writer himself knows precious little on the subject: "To a large extent these extensive post-medieval developments are unknown, not only to the wider public but also to experts in the field (here I include myself) because so much of the material is still in manuscript and unstudied in European languages."

This sounds like one extra attempt at being politically correct and polite towards non-westerners, rather than genuine scientific enquiry.

In reply to by Stavros Hadjiyiannis

Peter Adamson on 13 August 2013

Well, it's true my main area

Well, it's true my main area of research interest is what I've been calling in the podcast the "formative" period but I do know something about the later period already, and plan to learn a lot more as I write the episodes in the coming months. I will be devoting at least a dozen episodes to this later tradition, so rest assured that I am not just going to say this stuff exists and leave it at that! Still it remains the case that this is a woefully understudied area of the history of philosophy, and one thing I hope to do through the podcast is get other people interested in learning more about it. As usual I will also have suggestions for further reading for those who want to go into it more deeply.

Billy on 18 August 2013

Does the website provide

Does the website provide script to download? I'm not from English-speaking country,so some episodes i can't listen clearly.Thank you.

Peter Adamson on 18 August 2013

No but there will be books

No but there will be books based on the podcasts, the first will be out next summer (I'm just finishing the revisions now).

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