Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Philosophy in Islamic Countries

I came across a copy of John R. Burr's edited volume Handbook of World Philosophy: Contemporary developments since 1945 (Greenwood Press, 1980). The volume has chapters summarizing the state of philosophy in various countries as it was in 1980. The chapter on "Islamic Countries" was written by the eminent scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr was somewhat illuminating, but not too surprising.

The Islamic world is large. It includes many countries and many
people. The people are also as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, and the Sudan and Pakistan. What we discover reading Nasr's essay is that from WWII to 1980 there was much philosophical interest in different brands of Islamic thought - from Sufism to wahabism, there were many people engaged in philosophical pursuits that descended from medieval Islamic thought and there was a rather large interest in Islamic political thought that was often very influenced by the 60s and 70s. Thus we find much Islamic neo-Marxism and the like. We also find that there was considerable philosophical work done comparing Islam and contemporary European philosophy.

I would be rather curious to see what an article would be like if it were written today, 30 years later. Obviously countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey have westernized philosophy being done in ways that are indistinguishable from contemporary Anglo or European philosophy - beside Islamic philosophy. But I am somewhat curious about the rest of the Arab world. In the US, I assume, one can go a whole philosophy career and not hear about about philosophy in the UAE, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Dubai, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Qatar, etc. They all have universities, and certainly Islamic universities, but little makes it to English, I assume. Other Islamic countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan are mentioned in the article, but I cannot remember seeing a philosophy paper from someone in one of those countries in a while.

Iran too is said to have some serious philosophical thought, but the political situation when Nasr's article was being written in the very late 1970s was quite different from what it has become now. I suspect
that it is to the detriment of philosophy.

Much has changed in many Muslim countries and philosophy is still a luxury that many Islamic countries cannot yet afford. But given that as many as one fifth of the world's population is Muslim, one expects more. Again, I'd be curious to know what advances have been made in recent years.

Update 2-May-2010: Brian Leiter has a post about philosophy in Pakistan.


  1. Islam,one of the three prime world religions,alongside Judaism and Christianity,that proclaim monotheism, or the belief in a single God.In the Arabic language,the word Islam signifies "surrender" or "submission"— submission to the will of God.A disciple of Islam is known as a Muslim,which in Arabic signifies "one who surrenders to God."

    @Sara Stevens.