With the release of a third volume, and with several more soon to follow, the continuity of the Islamic Translation Series is assured. The latest volume is an English translation of a newly prepared critical text of The Philosophy of Illumination, by Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi. Like the other books in the series, it belongs to a rich tradition of medieval Islamic philosophy and mysticism that has, until now, remained obscure in the Western world and largely unavailable in English translation.
At its height, the Roman Empire enjoyed the finest learning and scholarship of its age, acquired from Greece, Egypt, and other subject nations. But in time the separation of the eastern and western empires, the latter's subsequent fall, and the loss of a great portion of that learning through neglect led Europe into a long period of comparative intellectual indifference: the so-called Dark Ages. But to the south and east, the rising faith known as Islam created a climate in which those intellectual treasures could continue to flourish. Prompted by a religion that valued knowledge in all aspects of life, Muslim scholars preserved, studied, translated, commented on, criticized, and built upon the works of the ancient philosophers and scientists. To a considerable extent, it was through retranslations into Latin of these Arabic and Persian writings that the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Galen, and others reemerged in the Western world to fuel the Renaissance.
The Islamic Translation Series, which recently came under the direction of the FARMS Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, is the brainchild of CPART director Daniel C. Peterson, who envisions "a series of publications that will make these intriguing works available to Westerners in reliable, competent, literary translations at a reasonable price." He adds, "I want this to be for medieval Islamic texts what the Loeb Classical Library is for Greek and Latin texts." All volumes in the series will be bilingual translations, with the annotated texts in English and the original language arranged side by side for convenient reference.
Suhrawardi was born around 1154, probably in northwestern Iran, at a time when Islamic philosophical thought had been heavily influenced by the ideas of Ibn Sina, known to Western scholars as Avicenna. But Suhrawardi, as the result of a dream in which Aristotle appeared to him, rejected Avicennan thought in favor of the earlier philosophical tradition of the ancients, including the Platonic notion of government by philosopher-kings.
Suhrawardi's personal brand of philosophy blended mystical exercises and logical proofs and was, he felt, confirmed by experiences of the ancients that mirrored his own. It favored flashes of intuitive insight rather than systematic reasoning alone in the discovery of truth, in the manner advocated by the Greek sages, particularly Plato. In The Philosophy of Illumination, Suhrawardi expounds upon this "science of lights." He discusses the order of existence, beginning with the "Light of Lights," from whom all else emanates, and explains the relationship of the Light of Lights and the dominating lights to lesser forms of creation, including human beings.
Eventually the philosopher-mystic fell victim to his own political views. During the volatile time of the Third Crusade, Suhrawardi endeavored to train the young governor of Aleppo as a philosopher-king. In so doing he angered the youth's father, Saladin, sultan of Egypt, who had encountered such rulers before and had reason to dislike them. The more conservative clergy of Aleppo also considered Suhrawardi to be a disruptive influence. Rather than risk losing the crucial loyalty and stability of strategically situated Aleppo, Saladin ordered Suhrawardi's death. Reluctantly, the young governor confined his teacher to prison, where he died, perhaps of starvation, in 1191.
The first two volumes of the Islamic Translation Series are works by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali. Born in the eastern Iranian city of Tus in 1058, this pivotal figure in the Islamic world was a preeminent legal scholar and teacher in Baghdad when, overtaken by skepticism, he abandoned his position and retired to a life of Sufi mysticism in an attempt to rekindle his faith (which he did). Eventually, by request of the sultan, he resumed his teaching post during his final years. He died in Tus in 1111 at the relatively young age of 53.
Al-Ghazali's book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, published in English by CPART in 1997, reflects its author's spiritual crisis and rediscovery of faith in its relentless refutation of Avicennan thought. His treatise The Niche of Lights, published by CPART in 1998, concentrates on a single verse of the Koran, one known as the "Light Verse," and proposes that the earnest reader must look past its value as mere literary imagery to perceive the underlying reality of God's inherent presence in his creation.
Though rather technical in nature and prepared with the needs of serious students foremost in mind, the first two volumes in the series have attracted fairly widespread favorable attention, from both scholars and lay readers, to an extent that has surpassed all expectations. Both volumes have already been reprinted, and a revised second edition of The Incoherence of the Philosophers will appear in April. This augurs well for the successful debut of the third volume. See the catalog for information on ordering all three volumes.