John Walbridge

title.none: Nasr and Aminrazavi, eds., An Anthology of Philosphy in Persia (Walbridge)

identifier.other: baj9928.0105.015 01.05.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Walbridge, Indiana University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Nasr, Seyyed Hossein and Mehdi Aminrazavi, eds. An Anthology of Philosphy in Persia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xvii, 421. $75.00. ISBN: 0-195-12699-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.05.15

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein and Mehdi Aminrazavi, eds. An Anthology of Philosphy in Persia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xvii, 421. $75.00. ISBN: 0-195-12699-8.

Reviewed by:

John Walbridge
Indiana University

This book (1) is the first volume of an anthology of translations of representative philosophical texts, broadly defined, by philosophers who were in some way Iranian. This volume includes selections from six Zoroastrian texts and ten philosophers of the Iranian period, the last of whom died early in the 12th century. Given that the Zoroastrian texts are not philosophical in any but the loosest sense and that the rest of the authors would typically be identified as "Islamic" rather than "Persian" philosophers, the premise of this book requires a little explaining.

Easy things first. "The name Persia," writes one of the editors, "conjures up in the mind of Western readers luxuriant gardens, delicately woven carpets, refined miniatures, and a rich poetry that combines the mystical with the sensuous" (p. xxiii). "Iran" would have been a more accurate term for the geographical and cultural scope of this book, since "Persia," properly speaking, refers to the central part of the modern state of Iran and was also used by classically-educated 19th century Europeans to refer to the modern state of Iran. Many of the authors, notably Farabi and Avicenna, are in neither sense Persian. They are Iranian, part of the larger cultural world that spoke a variety of languages and dialects related to modern Persian, looked to a common Sasanian imperial past, and shared a common high culture. However, "Iran" has its own connotations nowadays, not involving gardens or combinations of the mystic and the sensuous, so the editors were perhaps wise to use "Persia" on the title page.

A more complicated question is why the editors chose to prepare a collection of Iranian rather than Islamic philosophical texts. A good English anthology of Islamic philosophical texts suitable for use by students and by philosophers who do not know Arabic would be very useful. Most of these texts are written in Arabic rather than an Iranian language. Avicenna's and Farabi's writings have much more in common with those of Averroes, excluded as a Spanish Arab, than they do with the Zoroastrian texts at the beginning of the volume. It seems artificial to separate people who spoke Iranian languages to their mothers from others of different ethnic background working in exactly the same philosophical tradition and writing in the same language. It would be rather like producing an anthology of medieval French philosophy. The explanation is that this anthology represents a reaction--or overreaction, depending on your point of view--to an unsatisfactory earlier approach to scholarship on Islamic philosophy.

The study of Islamic philosophy in the West started in the Middle Ages with translations into Latin of philosophical works in circulation in Islamic Spain, the familiar canon of Farabi, Avicenna, Ghazali, Averroes, and a few others. These were all written in Arabic, and the philosophy they contained was known to historians of medieval philosophy as "Arabian philosophy." Since these works were studied largely for the sake of the light they could shed on medieval European philosophy, there was not a lot of interest in other Islamic philosophers, particularly those who came later in the central and eastern Islamic world and were not read by Aquinas. There was, indeed, a pronounced tendency to treat the later Islamic tradition as degenerate in some sense, either because of its close connections with mysticism or because it was thought to be nothing but sterile commentaries and supercommentaries on earlier works.

In the last thirty or forty years it has become clear that this was a grave scholarly misjudgment, and the importance of two major non-Aristotelian traditions have been recognized: a Platonic tradition with a strong mystical component deriving from the 12th century Iranian philosopher Suhrawardi and a monistic tradition deriving from the Spanish Arab mystic Ibn 'Arabi. (The "sterile commentaries and supercommentaries" have not yet found their champions, probably because they are far more difficult to read, interpret, and evaluate.) With some exceptions, the major one being Ibn 'Arabi himself, the major exponents of these two traditions have belonged to the Iranian cultural domain of the Islamic world, with Iranian Shi'ites being the key figures since the 16th century. The key figure in the popularization of these philosophical traditions was the French orientalist Henry Corbin, who took the further step of arguing that these traditions represented a characteristically Iranian spiritual sensibility in which mysticism and the "creative imagination" played a central role. He thus linked Zoroastrian mythology, Islamo-Persian mysticism, and Platonic and mystical Islamic philosophy as a single coherent tradition. Corbin tended to ignore, dismiss, or reinterpret the exoteric traditions of Islam (and Zoroastrianism): religious law, the linguistic sciences, natural science and mathematics, and Aristotelianism. Since the lead editor of this volume, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, is the most prominent living exponent of Corbin's approach, it is clear why he chose to organize the collection in this way.

Nasr's interpretation of Iranian thought imposes certain overall biases on the material. The obvious one is that there are no Arabs, so Farabi's main predecessor is not Kindi, as in most accounts of Islamic philosophy, but the obscure Iranshahri. There is a general, though not total, bias towards mystical texts and away from logic, epistemology, and the drier sorts of metaphysics. There is little representing the exoteric side of Islamic thought: dogmatic theology, science, law, or linguistic thought. It is only fair to stress that the choice of material is based on a reputable and widely held view of Iranian thought, though one that I happen to disagree with. These texts are also more approachable than possible alternate choices drawn from logic and ontology. As a practical matter, though, it means that this anthology does not serve particularly well for use in a course on Islamic philosophy or for philosophers trying to get a representative view of Islamic philosophy.

The Zoroastrian texts are the most unusual feature of this volume. In its heyday, Zoroastianism was immensely influential, affecting the development of Judaism and ultimately Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrian literature contains a great deal that ought to be of interest to scholars in other fields. It was probably better known to the educated public and the general run of scholars in the mid-19th century than it is at the beginning of the 21st. The languages required are extraordinarily difficult. Avestan, the language of Zoroastrian scripture, is a difficult first cousin of Sanskrit, and most of the rest of early Zoroastrian literature is in Pahlavi, a much simpler language cursed by an impossibly ambiguous script. Ancient Iranian studies has also had a number of pieces of bad luck: decades wasted by several highly influential but quite erroneous theories, the embrace of Nazi ideologists, and a tradition of extreme academic fractiousness in the field. Today ancient Iranian languages and Zoroastrianism are scarcely ever taught.

The texts in the present volumes deal mainly with cosmogony, ethics, and eschatology. The Bundahishn and related texts tell of the creation of the universe as a place in which Ohrmazd, the god of goodness and light, can strive with Ahriman, his evil counterpart. The ethical texts are wisdom literature, much like the book of Proverbs. The eschatological texts deal with the fate of the soul after death. They are quite interesting material, and it is good to have them put forward for the attention of scholars and students. However, on the whole this section is not successful, first, because of the choice of texts and, second, because of the translations.

The problem with choice has to do with unnecessary repetition of the account of the creation of the world in the texts in the Bundahishn tradition. The Bundahishn is a fascinating and important text, but its account of the creation of the world is given four times (pp. 6-15, 16-22, 41-48, and 52-54, the second selection actually being a different modern translation of a part of the third.) It would have been much better either to give a longer selection from the Bundahishn or to give texts dealing with a wider range of topics. The selection was simply not done with enough care.

The second problem is the translations, all of which are reprinted from elsewhere. Avestan and Pahlavi pose terrible difficulties for translators. Texts are often based on one or two unreliable manuscripts copied by scribes who barely understood the language. There is no substantial dictionary of Pahlavi. There is disagreement about the meaning of innumerable words. One result is that older translations, and sometimes newer ones, border on gibberish. Moreover, the Zoroastrian translations in this volume reproduce the notes from the original editions, a number of which come from the 19th century "Sacred Books of the East" series. These are often out of date and sometimes contain manuscript references that are meaningless in this context. On the other hand, the notes do not explain the proper names or technical terms. Finally, the transliteration of proper names is inconsistent, a problem exacerbated by the fact that this volume contains texts translated from four languages: Avestan, Pahlavi, Pazand (a version of Pahlavi using the Avestan alphabet), and modern Persian. Auhrmazd on p. 6 is Ohrmazd on p. 16, Lord Mazda on p. 40, and Ahura Mazda on p. 48. It is not an easy task assembling a collection of reliable, accessible translations of Zoroastrian texts, but much more could have been done. I am afraid that most readers will find this section impossibly confusing, which is a pity; this material deserves to be better known. (Readers interested in a more accessible collection of Zoroastrian texts in English should look at Mary Boyce, Textual Materials for the Study of Zoroastrianism [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990].)

The bulk of the book is devoted to "Early Islamic Philosophy," with sections on "The Peripatetics" and "The Independent Philosophers." The Peripatetics included are Iranshahri, a 9th century philosopher known only from a few citations; Farabi; 'Amiri, a key philosopher of the 10th century, several of whose works survive; Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani, an important philosopher of the Baghdad school in the 10th century; Avicenna; Miskawayh, an ethicist; and Bahmanyar, Avicenna's best student. There are eighteen selections in this section, which constitutes about two-thirds of the book. It is nice to have texts from some of the authors who are not widely known. Some, though not all, of the texts were translated specially for this volume.

The longest sections are devoted to Farabi, Avicenna, and Miskawayh. Farabi has forty pages of texts, giving a representative sample of the work of this first truly great Islamic philosopher. There is a paraphrase of the Posterior Analytics representing his work on logic, the subject where his authority was greatest among later Islamic philosophers. A sly and very interesting text on apparent disagreements between Plato and Aristotle show his interest in Greek philosophy. Finally, a selection from The Virtuous City show his interest in Platonic political philosophy, the area of his work that has received the most attention from modern scholars.

Avicenna has 72 pages and eight selections. This section is a little more problematical. The texts mostly deal with religious issues and include several texts that are key to the argument that mysticism is central to Avicenna's philosophy. A different selection of texts would have produced a quite different Avicenna. On the other hand, these are important texts and themes, and ones accessible to students. There is also the problem that Avicenna, like most Islamic philosophers, tended to write summas, rather than shorter treatises on issues actually in question. It's possible, with a lot of work, to extract sections that are particularly signficant and original, but the student will then not have the systematic treatment of the whole field of problems that is given in the summas and assumed in everything written by later Islamic philosophers. None of this makes the job of the anthologist easy. The third long section is Miskawayh, fifty-five pages from two works. The first work, The Perennial Philosophy, is a wisdom text consisting of short aphorisms. It is included here at some length because much of the material comes from pre-Islamic Persian compilations, and it is thus thoroughly relevant to this Persian compilation. The second text is from a systematic practical text on ethics in the Greek tradition. "The Independent Philosophers" are three scientists: the physician Abu Bakr al-Razi (the medieval Rhazes) and the mathematicians Biruni and 'Umar Khayyam. Nasr, the lead editor, is among other things a historian of Islamic science and has argued that Islamic sciences must be interpreted as spiritual disciplines.

The two texts from Razi, Spiritual Physick and On the Philosophic Life, are both ethical works portraying a philosophical lifestyle for which Socrates and Plato are the chief models. Though Biruni was chiefly a mathematician and astronomer, the longer text here consists of selections on Hindu beliefs from his famous account of India. It contains some interesting comparisons with the beliefs of the Greeks.

'Umar Khayyam, though now known mostly for his quatrains, was an important scientist in his day and is represented here by two short philosophical texts, one on free will and the other on universals. The last of the authors given in this volume lived into the 12th century, so we can reasonably expect that two or three more volumes will be needed to do justice to the subject. These should pose fewer problems of definition, since there actually are distinctively Iranian schools of philosophy in the later centuries, as well as a good deal of quasi-philosophical mystical that is also distinctively Iranian. The later volumes are likely to make retroactive sense of some of the choices made for this first volume.

In any case, whatever cavils we might have, collections of medieval Islamic texts in translation are always valuable for putting texts into circulation among students and scholars.


(1) I should declare a conflict of interest here. The lead editor of this volume, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, published a book of mine (The Leaven of the Ancients: Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks, 2000) in a series edited by him for State University of New York Press.