Review: Classical Arabic Philosophy

I bought this book as a resource. My latest novel has, as its principle character, a professor of philosophy at a prestigious Egyptian university. I wanted to be able to refer to actual teachings of classical Arabic philosophy in his interactions with students and to use some of the philosophical discussions to help make some of the conclusions in the novel. In these two respects, the book was an excellent resource. I could have the professor discuss the teachings of a particular ancient philosopher with a student, quoting the philosopher by name, dates of birth and death, place of origin, philosophical interests, and exactly what he had written. I could also use what a philosopher had written to establish a point I wanted to make in the novel.


The book has a useful index of key words, both in English and Arabic. The text, however is largely in English. It also has, for the serious reader, clarifying footnotes, and an extensive bibliography. The preface will acquaint the reader with the methodology used by the authors in the selection and translation of the material. The introduction gives the background of the classical Arabic philosophy, which is – to a large extent – derived from Greek, particularly Aristolean, philosophy. What I found of particular interest was that the first prominent Arabic philosophers appeared barely two hundred years after the founding of Islam in 622 AD – well before their Western counterparts. While Greek philosophy provided a foundation, there were philosophical debates within Islam which also provided grist for the mill.

The book includes translations of selected, verbatum writings of a dozen philosophers who lived between the 9th and 13th centuries AD. Subjects of discussion for the Arabic philosophers included physics (motion, force, change, etc.); metaphysics (being, knowing, identity, time and space); theology (God, the soul, eternity). The language used by the Arabic philosophers can be quite turgid and difficult to follow. I suspect this was more the convention of the era than a fault in the translation. Also, the use of logical conventions, which appeared in the West later, were not available at the time to structure a clear proof of a theory.

This is not a book that one would want to read for pleasure unless one were a practicing philosopher. It could serve as a text book in the teaching of philosophy. And it is an excellent reference work.

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