Arabic Philosophy, Competing Universalisms, and the Egyptian Nahda

By Angela Giordani
Submitted to Session P4780 (Making Falsafa: Towards a Modern History of Arabic Philosophy, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Over the first two decades of the twentieth century, the multi-layered commentary (sharh, hashiya, etc.) was replaced as the principal medium through which philosophy was taught and written in Egypt by other textual forms, notably the historical survey and anthology. While the commentaries that had been studied at al-Azhar for centuries presented the defining questions, terminology, and authors of falsafa and hikma embedded within ongoing debates in various disciplines, the new Arabic philosophy surveys and anthologies presented a bygone heritage (turath) dominated by the philosophers of the classical era (eighth to twelfth centuries). These genres emerged in tandem with the institutionalization of philosophy as a distinct discipline in Egyptian educational and scholarly institutions. The 1908 founding of the Egyptian University with a humanities curriculum that included an “Arabic Philosophy and Ethics” course was a milestone in this process. The Egyptians recruited to teach this course over the nineteen-teens and twenties produced historical surveys that became models for scholarship on Arabic philosophy in Egypt thereafter. Meanwhile, publishing houses oriented around al-Azhar began printing anthology-like collections of treatises—by Ibn Sina, Omar Khayyam, Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Ghazali, al-Farabi, and others—that became important primary sources of for students and scholars.
The Egyptian University professors’ surveys present historical narratives of Arabic philosophy familiar to Western readers that trace its development from the eighth-century translation movements through its classical flourishing, decline, and transmission to Europe. The surveys thus stress the tradition’s historical unity as a discipline connected to ancient Greek and modern European philosophy. The anthologies, conversely, stress its range, inner-diversity, and unity with the Arabic-Islamic sciences. Organized neither temporally nor thematically, these works represent Arabic philosophy with compilations of treatises in theology, medicine, mysticism, poetry, logic, law, and music that are all labeled works of falsafa/hikma. The different representations of Arabic philosophy forwarded by these two genres, I argue, crystallize competing universalisms which emerged through the nahdawi project of reviving the Arabic-Islamic heritage. While the survey portrays Arabic philosophy as a distinct yet integral chapter in the universal history of reason’s becoming through human history, the anthology renders it as an always-already universal reason inherent in the Islamic episteme. In addition to shedding light on a formative moment in the history of “Arabic philosophy” as a modern concept and field of study in Egypt, my analysis of these long-overlooked texts reveals the variety of the neo-classical revivalisms that animated the Nahda.