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Rethinking Islamic Philosophy and Theology
Jul 1, 2007

There are not many scholars interested in Islamic philosophy and theology in the West. Despite this fact, there has been an increasing interest in that area among young scholars. One of the factors behind this increase is the efforts of some people who try to introduce Islamic and Eastern thought to the West. Oliver Leaman is one of the outstanding scholars in this area who has published many books and raised many students for almost 30 years. He is a professor of philosophy and Zantker Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Kentucky. He is the co-editor of the History of Islamic Philosophy with Seyyed Hossein Nasr and edited the entries related to Arabic and Islamic Philosophy in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy and in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He has recently written books on Islamic aesthetics, and edited volumes on the Qur’an and a bibliographical encyclopedia of Islamic philosophers. The topic of this interview is Islamic thought in general.

The Fountain: There are many types of philosophies as well as many traditions in the history of philosophy. Scholars for instance distinguish “ancient philosophy” from “modern philosophy.” So how do you locate “Islamic Philosophy?”

Oliver Leaman (O. L.): Trying to define Islamic philosophy is very tendentious, but then definitions as a whole are a problematic area in philosophy. In my view, Islamic philosophy is not necessarily done by Muslims, nor does it have to deal with religious issues. It is that style of philosophy that developed in the Islamic world roughly around the time of al-Kindi which persists today in what is now the Islamic world and indeed further afield.

The Fountain: If it is a separate tradition, what are its characteristics?

O. L.: I don’t think it has any characteristics that have remained the same over time. For example, today in the Arab world there is a protracted debate by philosophers on the nature of Arab civilization, its links with Islam, and how it relates to other civilizations. That is not a debate that existed in the early centuries of Islamic philosophy at all, but reflects the relatively recent experience of colonialism, the modern concept of the state, contemporary political events and so on. Philosophy like everything else has its fashions, and Islamic philosophy rolls with the times, which is why it still survives.

The Fountain: How do you view the relationship between Islamic philosophy and Islamic theology?

O. L.: Many of the issues that have been discussed by Islamic philosophers are religious, and also relate to the theology of a particular faith, i.e. Islam. It is not always easy to know how to distinguish between philosophy and theology, since both are abstract and conceptual investigations into complex issues. Some of the early thinkers like al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd drew a sharp distinction between philosophy and theology, arguing that philosophy is demonstrative and starts from principles that are themselves provable as true, while religion merely starts with beliefs that are accepted, but need not be true. Even if they are right, though, they agreed that the argument forms followed by both are the same, so a sharp distinction between Islamic philosophy and theology is not likely to be very helpful.

The Fountain: As compared to systematic philosophers such as Aristotle, Descartes, Kant on the one hand, and non-systematic ones such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein on the other hand, how do you evaluate al-Ghazzali’s position?

O. L.: Al-Ghazali is just as systematic as any other major thinker, albeit one has to take him in relation to each stage of his life and thought, since he changed radically from one time to another. The same could be said of Kant, of course, who had a critical and a pre-critical period, and indeed some have argued a post-critical period also.

The Fountain: Did he engage in a philosophical activity in the “Inconsistencies of Philosophers?”

O. L.: I would classify the Tahafut al-falasifa as philosophical, like most of his works. It not only deals with philosophical topics but attacks them philosophically. Had he been operating theologically only he might have pointed to the beliefs of the philosophers and classified them variously as kufr and bid`a, and so condemned them on religious grounds, but in fact he does not limit himself to this at all, he mentions the theological objections to the philosophical principles and then seeks to refute the latter using the methods of those with whom he is arguing. If that is not philosophy then I don’t know what is.

N.M.: Did Islamic thought influence the Western thought?

O.L.: There is evidence of Islamic philosophy influencing Western thought in the medieval period. We know that the works of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were translated into Latin and played a significant role in France and Italy, for instance, significant enough for Ibn Rushd’s views to be banned in 1270 and 1277 by Bishop Tempier at the University of Paris. Ibn Rushd was interpreted as arguing that philosophy and religion are contrary to each other, but nonetheless are both true, and so we have to accept them both, albeit as valid for different areas of our lives. Philosophy is for us as rational thinkers, and religion for us as social and emotional beings. This hardly presents a very flattering view of the role of religion, and it did not go down well with the Church. The popularity of Ibn Rushd for many centuries gives credence to the idea that he played a significant role in fostering the development of secularism in Europe.

The Fountain: Is the tradition of Islamic thought alive today? Can we mention theologically or philosophically mature works in this area?

O. L.: I started off responding to the question of what is happening in the area today, and then had to stop since the list of books and thinkers was getting so long. In my view, the most fruitful work today takes place in Iran, where ishraqi philosophy is being combined in productive ways with analytical philosophy to produce a highly original form of thought. Persians have always been predominant in Islamic philosophy; when the subject went into a decline in the rest of the Islamic world it continued to be part of the curriculum in Iran, and there is a very long and indeed unbroken tradition in Iran of philosophical work.

The Fountain: How do you evaluate oriental studies so far? Do they represent the Western interest in Islamic thought?

O. L.: I don’t think Western philosophers are interested in Islamic philosophy, with a few exceptions. The kalam cosmological argument is important in analytical philosophy of religion, and as its name suggests, it comes from Islamic philosophy. Some of the major thinkers in the mashsha’i tradition like Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) are known by those interested in medieval philosophy, but otherwise not.

It is not clear to me that we should divide up philosophy into different regions of the world, since those regions constantly work on each other and produce a common philosophical climate. For example, the Christian and Jewish world became in the Middle Ages fascinated with Islamic philosophy, but Islamic philosophy itself earlier on enthusiastically studied and incorporated Greek philosophy.

The Fountain: Let’s talk about the interaction between the Western and Islamic thought. Can Islamic thought bring new perspectives to contemporary Western thought and in what sense can Western thought may be useful for people who try to revive Islamic thought?

O. L.: What is western thought? Ibn Rushd, Ibn Bajja, and Ibn Tufayl, some of the major Islamic philosophers, lived in Spain, which seems quite far west to me. St. Augustine lived in North Africa; does that mean he was an African philosopher? What we call Western philosophy has produced interesting work which other philosophers should study, in just the same way that those in the West should know about more than just their tradition of thought, if there is such a thing.

The Fountain: The University of Kentucky is organizing an international graduate student conference in September this year. You are the coordinator of this conference. Is this conference unique in the US? What was your motivation and target in organizing such a rare and original conference?

O. L.: We wanted to organize a graduate conference on Islamic philosophy because there are a lot of people in the world working in this area, but often they do not come into contact with each other. In the United States in particular graduate students might be working in the area in a department where they are the only person with that interest, and it would be good if people could come together, share views and maintain contact with those in the same field afterwards.

The Fountain: What is your current research about?

O. L.: My current work is on the notion of whether there is a Qur’anic logic and if there is, what is it? The Qur’an constantly calls on its hearers and readers to reflect, ponder, consider what the Book says, and the suggestion is that we are supposed to understand rationally the arguments in the text. I am interested in how those arguments are structured and how far they can be regarded as valid arguments at all.

The University of Kentucky is organizing a conference on contemporary issues in Islamic philosophy and theology. All graduate students, and those of equivalent status, are eligible to present papers at the conference. For further inquiries please visit