Interpreting Avicenna: Critical Essays.

Author:Rizvi, Sajjad
Position:Book review
 
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Interpreting Avicenna: Critical Essays. Edited by PETER ADAMSON. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2013. Pp. xi + 300. $99, [pounds sterling]55.

There is little doubt that one of the real success stories of recent times in Islamic Studies has been the flourishing of intellectual history, especially with respect to the study of philosophy. We have a much better understanding of the course of rationalities (and perhaps even a-rationalities) in the world of Islam than ever before, from the rise in the focus on the "post-classical" period, which stretches from the systematic popularization of philosophy in a range of intellectual and seminary disciplines, to the initial encounter with colonial modernity during the eighteenth century and beyond, all the way to a deeper understanding of the "Avicennan" turn in kalam. The turn toward more serious philosophical reflection on the work of Avicenna himself has been part of this process and in many ways this book under review is the critical and essential guide to the state of Avicennan studies today. This is an opportune moment for such a work to be available, as new critical editions of texts along with highly useful translations of his works and editions of those he influenced, whether in the Latin West or the Islamicate East, have appeared. Highlights include Mujtaba Zarii's 2004 edition of al-Isharat wa-l-tanbihat and Husayn Musaviyan's edition of the different recensions of al-Taliqat (which help us understand the reception of these recensions, especially in the Safavid period), alongside editions (Saatchian and Nurani, among others) of the works of the philosophers of Shiraz in the Timurid and early Safavid periods that debunk to a large extent the notion of Iran being dominated by Illuminationist thought and demonstrate the vitality of Avicennism. Meryem Sebti and Daniel De Smet's ongoing editions and translations of the mainly non-extant al-Insaf corpus, which included Avicenna's commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda, his glosses on the Theologia Aristotelis, and his corpus of exegesis, will also be a major contribution, as will Amos Bertolacci's ERC-funded project on al-Shifa. All in all, these works allow our study of Avicenna to move away from generalizations divorced from textual evidence and ideological polemics about the "real" Avicenna, the very meaning of what we consider to be philosophy in Avicenna between the focus on "mysticism" and an askesis of life and a more hardheaded empirico-rationalism. Each of these ideological postures suffers from what contextualists would consider to be "prolepsis" and an insufficient regard for linguistic and intellectual possibilities of their time--it is our weakness that we cannot necessarily break out of our presentist concerns in discerning patterns of rationality in premodern Islam with at least one eye on the contemporary world. In his introduction Peter Adamson does not engage with these polemics; instead, rather sensibly he presents each chapter and notes how much remains to be done on Avicenna and, more critically perhaps, on his further reception. If we are to make the case for intellectual historians and historians of philosophy to bring Avicenna into a new canon, or to locate him in a curriculum that goes beyond the desire to form canons, this book is a vital offering to that cause.

The book's twelve chapters take us through Avicenna's context and his contributions on aspects of his philosophy and culminate with the Abrahamic reception of Avicenna in Jewish, Latin Christian, and Islamic thought. The whole volume is offered in memory of the wonderfully talented David Reisman, whose early demise in 2011 has affected the field so greatly. It is fitting that the first chapter is Reisman's study of Avicenna's context, drawing upon the biography of al-Juzjani and Avicenna's so-called autobiography to present his life situation within the developing Aristotelianism of his time and the culture of patronage and learning in the...

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