On Islamic philosophy, intellectual freedom in the medieval Muslim world, the continuing philosophical tradition in the Muslim world and why there was no need for an 'enlightenment' in Islamic world:
(Extracts from an interview with Professor Peter Adamson, who is a professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. His primary areas of interest are late ancient philosophy and Arabic philosophy, and is the author of books including The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy and Philosophy in the Islamic World. He is also the host of the weekly podcast 'History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps'.)
"In general, there was very little intellectual persecution in the Islamic world.
There was a lot more openness and freedom for intellectual debate in the Islamic world than in the Latin medieval world because there was no Church. There was no one who had authority to come along and say, ‘you can’t say that.’ Although there are some exceptions to this rule, generally speaking, it doesn’t really make much sense to think that the way that books were written in the Islamic world had to do with avoiding persecution, because there was so little persecution to be avoided.
When you say there was no Church, weren’t there religious leaders fulfilling that role?
There were religious scholars but they were independent of political institutions. They were the people you would consult if you wanted to know the answer to a question and they were involved in the law. But they couldn’t necessarily have ordered soldiers to come down and arrest you and execute you.
We’ve talked about philosophers in the early medieval period. There was this amazing flourishing of ideas in the Islamic world. Was that something that got closed off, or is it a continuing tradition?
It’s a continuing tradition. That’s why I wanted to mention the Rāzī because he, in a way, stands at the beginning of that later tradition, as a conduit through which people respond to earlier figures like Avicenna. Avicenna really became the main figure for subsequent generations. If you move ahead to philosophy in the Safavid period, there was a really important figure called Mulla Ṣadrā. He was contemporary with early modern thinkers, dying in 1640.
You have to remember that the Arabic to Latin Translation Movement happened around 1200, and Fakhruddin Al-Razi lived all the way out in Central Asia and Persia. So, he lived too late for his works to be translated into Latin. This contributes to the illusion and myth that philosophy in the Islamic world ended with Averroes, because he was the last figure whose works were translated into Latin. But really what happened is that, especially in the eastern part of the Islamic Empire, there was a continuing production of philosophical and philosophically-informed theological works which went on century after century, all the way up to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century.
Even in otherwise very good introductions to the history of philosophy, you’ll see this idea that philosophy in the Islamic world dies after Averroes, that it all becomes mysticism or whatever. This is complete nonsense. Just in terms of the number of texts, there were many more philosophical works after that period than before. But they’re very badly studied—and the main reason is that they had no influence on European culture. Specialists in the field have only started looking at them recently.
(Answering Why the Islamic world didn’t have an 'Enlightenment'?):
People often think that there was this break or collapse of Islamic philosophy. In a way, the contrast with Europe is not so much that it collapsed but that it didn’t. You didn’t have an Enlightenment where they made a big show of setting aside everything that came from the scholastic traditions, and starting from scratch (not that they really did this in Europe either, but they pretended to).
In the Islamic tradition they kept working on what were often very technical areas of Avicennan philosophy, trying to negotiate between Avicennan philosophy and Islam. They were innovative; they made progress in logic, metaphysics, psychology, and so on. But they didn’t have a real restart as happened in modern Europe. The result of that is that when the colonialist period happened, you had a confrontation between a very longstanding intellectual culture—that came from the period we’ve been talking about—and a new wave of ideas from Europe. They clashed and then more intellectual developments grew out of that, like, for example, radical Islam and Salafism which have been inspired, in part, by European philosophy. Whether they would admit that or not is another matter.