A study of philosophies in the Muslim world in the period between the 9th and 13th Centuries
I find it fascinating and apposite to equal degrees that Akbar S Ahmed’s new book, The Flying Man: Aristotle and the Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam, starts with a discussion about our collective and individual lives under the Covid-19 fears and restrictions. Shortly thereafter, it moves to a discussion of the January 6, insurrection of the US Capitol by a mob of former president Donald Trump’s supporters. I found it impossible to resist reading a book about ancient philosophy that speaks to our times and tries to make sense of the mundane in our lives.
The subject and discussion that follow in the subsequent pages and chapters in the book make two things: first, the events that often appear unusual are only happening to us for the first time; and second, the sages and philosophers have through the ages grappled with similar moral and philosophical questions that we currently need to answer.
A large part of the problem with our age is our predisposition to see everything, including the intellectual, in dichotomous terms. Since our traumatic experience of colonialism, we have been instructed to subconsciously assume that the world exists in silos – that what is one cannot be the other. It was during this experience that the poet of colonisation, Rudyard Kipling, rhymed, “Oh, West is West, and East is East, and never the twain shall meet”. The defining philosophy of our age, therefore, is to view different, often conflicting and competing, worlds within the planet that we inhabit. However, the idea that a plurality of knowledge exists in human societies where each has a claim of ownership over one is historically inaccurate, intellectually disingenuous and politically dangerous.
It is in this context that I believe that The Flying Man plays its part in trying to correct the global intellectual history. The central lesson from the book, to my mind, is that knowledge and philosophy have developed as a human, rather than a national, ethnic or civilisational, enterprise. The notion that knowledge and philosophies are divisible and exclusive runs counter to the very concept of knowledge itself.
The book primarily focuses on the study of philosophies in the Muslim world in the period between the 9th and 13th Centuries – a period also referred to as the Golden Age of Islam. Akbar contends that the study of philosophy (he refers to the Greek translation of the word as “the love of wisdom”) is inherent in the teachings of Islam. Islam as a religion emphasises thinking and reasoning which are central to the process of philosophising. In that sense, the distinguished scholar argues that Islam instructs believers to become philosophers.
For any serious student of Islam, Akbar S Ahmed’s view of the link between Islam and philosophy seems like an obvious relationship. The rich history of philosophical and scientific thought in the Muslim world is evident from the volumes and volumes that have been documented during this golden age that the book studies. However, I find this discussion topical because Islam has, unfortunately, and unjustly, been associated with fomenting a backward and anti-intellectual culture. Prof Ahmed is not mistaken when he asserts that the point that Islam is an intellectual religion has to be driven home both in the non-Muslim as well as in the Muslim societies – if anything, more so in the latter.
The book also lends considerable space to the exploration of the influence of Greek philosophers, most notably of Aristotle, on the philosophical thought in the Muslim world. Again, this is a connection that has been made in other books in the past. The most famous example, perhaps, is Dr Erwin Rosenthal’s book Political Thought in Medieval Islam. However, I state this with much reverence to the earlier publications that The Flying Man successfully achieves the rare feat of being a book about the philosophy that is accessible to readers who might not have much knowledge of the subject, without compromising on the integrity of the philosophical discussions that it contains.
Without spoiling it for the prospective reader with content-specific commentary, I would recommend the book to anyone who is interested in philosophical subjects such as the claims regarding the creation and purpose of the universe and an individual’s place in it and the relationship between the spiritual and the physical. I think the book is useful for young Muslims who are disenchanted with the religious class for what they perceive as the lack of intellectual rigor, as well as, for the youth who feel that their faith is threatened due to misunderstanding by outsiders but lack sufficient knowledge about the intellectual history of their faith to be able to defend it.
The Flying Man: Aristotle and the Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam
Author: Akbar S Ahmed
The reviewer is a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. He is a former vice-chancellor of the University of Peshawar. He is currently the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology. He can be reached at email@example.com