Ideas in Motion in Baghdad and Beyond: Philosophical and Theological Exchanges Between Christians and Muslims in the Third/Ninth and Fourth/Tenth Centuries

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 Ideas In Motion In Baghdad And Beyond
  • Book Author:
Damien Janos
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This volume contains a collection of articles on Syriac and Arabic theology and philosophy. The studies focus on the scholarly exchanges and interactions between Christians and Muslims, mostly during the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries, but also during the later period, with an emphasis on the works of the Arabic Christian philosophers of Baghdad and their role in the circles of learning that flourished in the Abbasid capital.

The articles cover top-ics as varied as the transmission and translation of Greek and Syriac works into Arabic, the relation between philosophy and religion, the place of commentar-ies (notably on Aristotle) in Arabic philosophical education, book culture in the Christian monasteries of the time, and specific philosophical concepts that were discussed and debated by Christian and Muslim scholars alike.

The individual studies are united by the theme of the shared philosophical culture that characterized Islamic and Christian learning during this period of history. The aim of the volume is to highlight the role that Arabic Christian philosophers played in the elaboration of the vibrant and cosmopolitan intellectual culture that flourished in medieval Baghdad.

The history of Christian and Muslim interactions in the central Islamic lands represents a fascinating and complex aspect of Islamic civilization, and a rich field of study for modern historians. One interesting feature of this inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue consisted in the practice of falsafa (here defined as “philosophy” in the Peripatetic and/or Neoplatonic traditions, conducted primarily in the Arabic language).

 Falsafa bridged these two faiths, above and beyond the various denominations they comprised, and repre-sented a privileged means of discussion on a wide variety of issues, political, theological, logical, and educational. In the large metropolises of the Islamic world, and especially in Baghdad, Christians and Muslims contributed to a common philosophical culture: they studied and debated together, read the same texts translated from Greek and Syriac, reflected on a set of shared philo-sophical questions largely inherited from late antiquity, and sometimes faced identical challenges emerging from the interface between religion and philos-ophy.

 Their approach and method to the study of philosophy, not to mention the actual theories they articulated, display numerous parallels and grew out of a common participation in the reception and transformation of the philo-sophical legacy of antiquity.

Hence, philosophy represented a common ground of understanding and deliberation and a rallying point for thinkers of various linguistic and reli-gious backgrounds, who shared a common interest in rational pursuits.

These thinkers labored to create a universal language based on logic that could tran-scend cultural and religious divides and differences. Three major figures of this period, Mattā ibn Yūnus, al-Fārābī, and Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī, were involved in this project, which later developed during the fifth/eleventh century into what one might call (after Joel Kraemer and others), a form of humanism, espe-cially when these philosophical ideals merged with literary pursuits.

 In this regard, David Twetten’s article evidences the continuity of certain philosophi-cal ideas and problems across time and religious divides. It also provides a fas-cinating overview of the popularity and endurance of Aristotelian cosmology as a framework to reconcile theological tenets with the physical study of the universe. Paralleling this exchange of ideas and doctrines, an intense traffic of books and a rich and prolific scribal culture developed, which was also instru-mental in spreading philosophical thought throughout the Islamic lands. As Ute Pietruschka’s article shows, Christian monasteries of various denomina-tions contributed substantially to this phenomenon.

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This is not to say, however, that a polemical character did not at times char-acterize these philosophical circles and their works. In fact, the study of phi-losophy and logic in particular were often expressly used as a polemical tool for inter-faith debates and as a means of strengthening specific theological and doctrinal positions or, conversely, of undermining an opponent’s discourse.

As the pieces by Gerhard Endress, Philippe Vallat, Olga Lizzini, and Orsolya Varsányi show, philosophical culture was at the center of Christian and Muslim disputations concerning some of the core tenets of these faiths, although it also at times involved thinkers lying at the fringes of the monotheistic religions or who rejected them altogether, as is shown by Philippe Vallat’s article on Abū Bakr al-Rāzī. In all of these cases, the assumption was a simple one:

the more solid and compelling the logical reasoning underpinning an argument, the higher the chances of dismantling an enemy position or belief.

Religious polemics and identity therefore also shaped philosophical thought and practice and influenced the general orientation of philosophy during this period. This is apparent for instance with regard to the metaphysical discussions on unity and multiplicity, and how these notions relate to God. While often highly philosophical in content and form and relying more or less heavily on the Greek sources, these treatises were written with a clear apologetic aim stemming from religious fervor and were designed to prove that a particular interpretation of God’s oneness or nature was the correct one.

These works should be contextualized with regard to the theological polemics that erupted between Christians and Muslims concerning the Christian doctrine of Trinity and the Muslim tenet of divine oneness (tawḥīd).

Hence, the relation between religion and philosophy was complex and dynamic, both a vector of philosophical growth, exchange, and communica-tion, and a factor of entrenchment behind particular dogmas and denomina-tions; at any rate, it assumed a multitude of forms, only a few of which are explored in this book. In view of this, it is not an exaggeration to say that the history of Arabic philosophy during the early period of Islam is to a large extent the history of philosophical interactions, both peaceful and polemi-cal, between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and pagan scholars, all of whom were recipient of the classical heritage and adapted and transformed it according to their own needs.

The existence of pagan inclinations among some of these thinkers and the production of paganizing works of an astrological, alchemi-cal, and philosophical genre, as discussed in Philippe Vallat’s article, shows how variegated the social and philosophical landscape of Baghdad was in the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries

. The continuity of these ancient and late-antique practices and beliefs in the Islamic context was regarded as essential to some philosophers’ identity, as can be seen in the way Abū Bakr al-Rāzī or Thābit ibn Qurra perceived their philosophical project and how they were depicted by others.

With regard to the Syriac community, it has long been acknowledged that its philosophical activity deserves to be studied in detail, not only because it was instrumental in transmitting texts and ideas of Greek science and philosophy to the Arabic speaking centers of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, but also because the works of Syriac authors themselves contain interesting philosophical material.

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John Watt’s article provides a useful overview of Syriac phil-osophical culture in Baghdad and proposes a novel approach to interpreting the Syriac to Arabic translation movement. Alexander Treiger focuses on the potential Maronite and Melkite origins of Theology of Aristotle and also pro-vides valuable insight into the place of Origenism in Syriac and Greek learned circles. Mattā ibn Yūnus, a key figure who bridged the Greek, Syriac, and Arabic philosophical traditions by virtue of his three-fold activity as translator, com-mentator, and philosopher, is the focus of Janos’s article, while Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī’s works, which represent a more polished stage of this philosophical develop-ment, are examined by Gerhard Endress, Olga Lizzini, and Carmela Baffioni.

These three articles shed light on different aspects of Yaḥyā’s philosophical activity, but they jointly testify to his intensive interactions with the Muslim thinkers and his innovative approach to specific physical, metaphysical, and theological issues. Robert Wisnovsky and David Bennet, for their part, make accessible a poorly-known and highly interesting treatise by Yahyā (on atomism) through an edition and translation of this text; when read in conjunction with the other articles on Yaḥyā, their study reveals the extent to which this thinker engaged in minute physical speculation, often—however—with a theological end in mind.

Although various Christian thinkers are discussed throughout the volume, emphasis is placed on the works of Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī, due to his impor-tance for the teaching and practice of philosophy in Baghdad.

In spite of the central place Arabic Christian scholars of Baghdad occupy during this period and their close and fruitful interactions with their Muslim counterparts, the general tendency in the modern scholarship has been to treat medieval Christian and Muslim philosophers writing in Arabic as two sepa-rate entities, whose output and interests only incidentally overlapped.

Classic surveys of “Arabic” or “Islamic” thought, for instance, typically include few, if any, Christian thinkers writing in Arabic.1 This fact to some extent mirrors the departmental divide traditionally existing in universities: the “Christian phi-losophers” have until recently been studied almost exclusively by scholars in Religious Studies or specialists of Oriental Christianity and Christian Studies, while the works of the “Muslim philosophers” have for their part been analyzed chiefly by Islamicists. The problem with this traditional approach is not only that it devalues the climate of intellectual conviviality that prevailed during this time and the role of philosophy as a medium of communication and inter-faith debate in the life of these communities.

More egregiously, it distorts our modern perception of the social and philosophical landscape that prevailed during this period by providing a monolithic, lop-sided, and teleological narra-tive about the development of philosophy in Islam.

Perhaps as an attempt to compensate for this, there is at present a scholarly effort to increasingly regard Islamic or Arabic thought as the product of a multi-faceted and complex social phenomenon in which various groups (Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Zoroastrians; free-thinkers and pagans) participated, even though they operated under an Islamic or Islamicate political superstructure.

 Paying close attention to the sheer diversity and richness of this philosophi-cal milieu discourages any monolithic approaches and also undermines the widespread trend of limiting surveys of Arabic or Islamic thought to scholars stemming solely from a Muslim background.

 In contrast, surveys that take into account these various religious and cultural aspects and that give equal impor-tance to all of them will undoubtedly paint a richer and historically more accu-rate picture of the development of philosophical culture in Abbasid Baghdad.

Following some recent efforts in this direction, such as (among others)  A common rationality: Muʿtazilism in Islam and Judaism, edited by Adang, C., Schmidtke, S. and Sklare, D. (Würzburg 2007), the volume on the Baghdad School edited by Peter Adamson, In the age of al-Fārābī: Arabic philosophy in the fourth/tenth century (London 2008), Hans Daiber’s Islamic thought in the dialogue of cultures (Leiden 2012) and the recent volume of Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie on philosophy in the Islamic world (Philosophie in der islamischen Welt, Band 1: 8.–10.

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Jahrhundert, Rudolph, U. (ed.), unter Mitarbeit von R. Würsch, begründet von Friedrich Ueberweg, Basel 2012), the present book treats Arabic Christian philosophy as an integral and vital part of the broader development of Arabic philosophy by focusing on the contribu-tions of individual Christian thinkers and their relation to the works of their Muslim counterparts.

Finally, a word should be said about the terminology opted for in this book. Here, “Arabic philosophy” refers to the practice of teaching, writing, and debat-ing philosophical doctrines in the Arabic language; while the more specific expression “Arabic Christian philosophy” refers to the works of authors from a Coptic, Jacobite, Melkite, or Nestorian background who were actively engaged in philosophical pursuits (especially in Baghdad), and who used Arabic as their main language of philosophical expression. This is not to say, of course, that other languages did not play a significant role in shaping Christian philosophy in Islam. In fact—as some of the articles in this volume make clear—the philo-sophical activity carried out by these thinkers often occurred in the medium of Greek or Syriac, not to mention Geʾez and other languages once the center of gravity is shifted away from Baghdad.

However, the dominating idiom of philosophical expression and education in Baghdad during the Abbasid period was Arabic. This was true, not only of thinkers stemming from a Muslim back-ground (although in this case Persian played a crucial role as well), but also of the most important circles of learning in which Christians were involved (such as the group that coalesced around Mattā ibn Yūnus and later Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī).

Following the series’ stylistic conventions, all dates are given first in Hijri and then in Gregorian format, except for pre-Islamic and Renaissance dates, which all refer to Common Era (CE). I find it particularly appropriate, and am honored, that the present volume is being published in the Brill series Islamic History and Civilization, which also includes studies devoted to Christian and Islamic cultural and historical contacts. In this regard, I am particularly indebted to the editors, Wadad Kadi, Sebastian Günther, and Hinrich Biesterfeldt, for hav-ing accepted the book in their series. The idea for this volume originated dur-ing my postdoctoral research appointment at the German Excellence Initiative funded project EDRIS at Georg-August Universität in Göttingen.

There I was able to convene a workshop on the topic of Arabic Christian philosophy and to benefit from the help of several people. I wish to thank in particular Sebastian Günther, Jens Scheiner, and Monika Wienet, as well as the principal investiga-tors and members of EDRIS. My gratitude also goes to Jürgen Renn and Sonja Brentjes at the MPIWG in Berlin, whose workshop on “Aristotelisms in Syriac and Arabic” organized in August 2013 provided another opportunity to explore issues related to Arabic Christian philosophy. Finally, my gratitude goes to Kathy van Vliet and Teddi Dols at Brill and Dinah Rapliza at Asiatype for their patience and professional help….

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