Chronoi Talks: "Betwixt and Between: The Historiography of Medieval Arabic Philosophy"

October 27, 2022

3 - 4 pm (CET)

Prof. Dr. Ahmed Al-Rahim

How is the history of medieval Arabic philosophy ordered and by whom? What categories of periodization shape the historiography and demarcate the history of this philosophical tradition from that of the Greek and Latin? How has philosophy—a discipline spanning time and epochs of civilizations—been defined and framed generally, and what are the reflexive categories of historical and civilizational time within which the (premodern) Arabic philosophical tradition has been located? This project concerns these questions of time, space, historical epistemology, with a a particular focus on two historiographical traditions of Arabic philosophy.

The first is that of Western Europe. Beginning in the Renaissance and most notably through the nineteenth century (AD), this tradition broadly suppressed the philosophical and intellectual significance of medieval Arabic philosophy, particularly after the eleventh century and its transmission into Latin translations until the early thirteenth century. In the evolutionary development of Western thought, Arabic philosophy represents, according to this historiography, an intermediary stage within a linear timeline leading to Latin Renaissance Humanism and culminating in modern Western philosophy and science—a timeline wherein Arabic serves as a translational repository of the Greek and Hellenistic tradition. This periodization of Arabic philosophy, and of Islamic intellectual history more broadly, is one consisting of a “golden” age followed by a “dark” age. According to this narrative, philosophical “originality” ceased to exist in Islamic civilization after the eleventh century, leading to its ultimate demise—and this story is linked inextricably to the historiography of philosophy’s progress as fundamental to Western civilization itself.

The second historiographical tradition is that of medieval Arabic philosophy, particularly as epitomized in Arabic and Persian doxographies and prosopographies, which have yet to be fully explored as historiographical sources for the history of philosophy, from its Greek origins into Middle Persian into Syriac into Arabic. In terms of philosophy’s longue durée, whence and wherein the Arabic philosophical tradition came to be elaborated, it may be characterized politically as extending from Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 BC), whose Near Eastern conquests marked the start of the Hellenistic period (into late antiquity), to Muḥammad (r. 622–632), whose prophetic aegis galvanized the Arab to conquer the Near East and beyond, until (Napoléon I) Bonaparte, whose Egyptian invasion of 1798 inaugurated (Western) modernity into the Near East, ending Arabic philosophy (and theology) in what may be described as the long Middle Ages. In examining the philosophical historiography of the Western and the Arabic tradition, this project will, inter alia, show how conceptions of historical time and civilizational periodization inform the historical historiography with which medieval Arabic philosophy came into being and passed away.