Friday, February 14, 2014

What is Islamic Philosophy?

One of the greatest philosophers is the German Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant is, of course, a ‘Western’ philosopher and not an Islamic philosopher, although I might add that it is quite possible to be ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ at the same time, but it is a curious fact that there exists a copy of Kant’s doctoral thesis certificate (see picture), dated 1755, which has inscribed at the top of the title page the Arabic words bismillah al-rahman al-rahim (most common translation: ‘in the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate’). This short and poetic phrase is regarded as containing the true essence of the Quran (the Islamic holy scripture) and, it is frequently cited at daily prayers and other contexts by Muslims. Why this Arabic phrase should appear at the top of Kant’s doctoral thesis is a puzzling one, and we will likely never know the answer. It is unlikely Kant placed it there himself, for he makes little mention of Islam in his writings, but I remark upon the existence of this thesis here because, in many ways, it raises the question of the relationship between the firmly-established Western philosophical tradition - with such giants as Kant - and the perhaps more fragile existence of Islamic philosophy. Is it really possible to propose that there is congruence between such philosophical system-builders as Kant and what Islamic philosophers have to say in their great volumes or, for that matter, what can be found in the Quran? Or does this bismillah merely poke fun at the very idea that Islam could offer anything of value to philosophical discourse when compared to such earth-shattering contributors to modern thought that Kant, amongst others, represents? This is why I say that Islamic philosophy seems more ‘fragile’ in this respect, for the ground upon which it rests seems more slippery. But why is this the case, and does it really make any sense at all to even speak of an ‘Islamic philosophy’?

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