The Story of Reason in Islam
Sari Nusseibeh

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Introduction

Three quick observations may prove helpful in setting out, two of which concern the title of the book, and the third its content.

First, the average Western reader might find the use of the word reason in association with Islam somewhat incongruous, especially given the horrors that various groups around the world are committing in the name of this religion today. The work at hand does not mean to dismiss the phenomenon, nor does it propose to study it. Rather, its aim is to take a historical look at the rise and use of reason in early Islam. Since the term has many different, but wholly legitimate, meanings across cultures—and within Islam itself—it is advisable to specify how it is understood here. In this context, it simply refers to a methodical and systematic approach to analyzing problems: the “philosophical” ways that ideas were entertained and discussed, regardless of the “discipline” to which they belonged (e.g., philosophy, linguistics, jurisprudence, or any of the other, traditional or science fields). Islamic history has many aspects, of course; while broaching adjacent terrain, this book focuses on the evolution of reason in the manner described.

In turn, story underscores the fact that this work is not meant as a specialized study. Indeed, it could hardly fulfill such an ambition, given the different subjects and periods it covers. Rather, it is meant as a personal interpretation or “take” on the history of ideas as they came to be expressed in classical Arabic, which first served as a medium for the rise of reason in the eighth century, and then, by the eighteenth, for its decline (if not extinction). In this sense, the book may hold interest for anyone who wishes to learn more about the history of ideas, irrespective of the form or setting in which they found expression. The theme of the story is the integral relationship between thought and language. The acts are played out in classical Arabic. Its scenes just happen to be set in Islam.

Finally, it should be observed that, inasmuch as what follows is a story, the reader familiar with Islamic intellectual history and philosophy will not find the customary signposts in chapter titles (for instance major names, disciplines, periods, or schools of thought). Rather, the story extends forward and backward in time, here and there, highlighting the themes I consider key for understanding a developmental flow of ideas and events over a long period of Islamic history, when brilliance shone in many lights. Consequently, the treatment given to some of the material does not conform to standard views. Occasionally, it may strike those who know something about it already as controversial. In the end, this story is meant both to challenge and be enjoyed by the reader. This is no easy task by any measure. On the one hand, a proper appreciation of some of the ideas discussed requires a fair amount of in-depth explication; on the other hand, a readable “story theme” that can maintain the interest of the general reader should prevail. I hope that—given the way the ideas and the historical narratives are interspersed in the text—I have managed to achieve this dual objective. That said, the general reader must be forewarned that some of the material may seem somewhat detailed and ponderous; however, inasmuch as the major themes are revisited in different forms in the various chapters, some of the arguments can be glossed over quickly by anyone wishing to avoid too much detail.

One issue, in particular, poses difficulties in a work of this kind. The sheer multitude of unfamiliar Arabic names may distract the reader from being able to follow the arguments and ideas presented. Unfortunately, this obstacle cannot be eliminated entirely, as names naturally provide points of reference throughout the chapters’ many twists and turns. That said, the figures featured on these pages certainly merit attention; familiarizing oneself with them should provide instruction, if not amusement!

Finally, where needed, I have included references in footnotes to more specialized articles or books associated with the matters discussed and the arguments made. The general reader, on the other hand, may consult a short bibliography, at the end, of further readings on the various subjects dealt with in the text. More extensive and specialized bibliographies can be found in some of these works. Some of the main primary sources in Arabic that I draw on have been translated into English; whenever possible, this information is included.

My gratitude for writing this work extends to innumerable people from whom I have learned over the years—teachers, colleagues, and students. Needless to say, none of them bears responsibility for any shortcomings the book may contain. Most immediately, I owe thanks to my son Buraq, who once asked me why I couldn’t write something “readable” on the history of ideas in Islamic thought; then to Hent De Vries, whose gentle prodding turned an idea into a project; and finally to Stanford’s editor Emily-Jane Cohen who picked up the manuscript and steered it through its various stages in the press. Along the way, I benefited from the assistance of Henry Erik Butler, whose magical editorial wand smoothed out the style, and from the learned comments and criticisms provided by readers chosen by the publisher; I have tried—perhaps not always successfully—to address the problems and issues they raised. I also relied (perhaps unfairly) on Jamil Rajeb as I was trying to make sense of what was special about Islamic astronomy from a layman’s point of view. I would like to recognize his kind and friendly guidance while making clear that any deficiencies in this area are my own.

Finally, as always, I am greatly indebted to my wife, Lucy, for ever-present moral and intellectual support. In many more ways than I can even begin to articulate, this book is authored as much by her as by the person whose name appears on the jacket.