Shimer College

August 03, 2012

Scattered Arabic Thoughts

Among my favourite reading lists this past academic year was for the (lamentably retired) David Lukens’ survey course on Medieval philosophy, spanning from Athenagoras to Buridan.

The list boasted a number of interesting specimens, including Duns Scotus on individuationMarsilius of Padua on the relation between Church and StateMaimonides on faith and reason, and Ockham on perception.  Particularly impressive to me, however, were our readings from such Islamic luminaries as Avicennaal-Ghazali, and Averroës.

These men are relatively foreign to our contemporary academic world, and will go unread by most philosophy undergrads, which is a shame, since the best of them tend to be a.) brilliant, b.) influential in the development of Western thought (we owe much of our knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to Arabic translators and commentators, for example), and c.) utterly fascinating.  To take but one especially colorful example, Avicenna (A.D. 980-1037) would sneak candles under his blankets to read Aristotle as a child, purportedly re-read the Metaphysics over forty times, composed what became the definitive medical textbook until the sixteenth century, and died at the young age of fifty-six because he ignored his doctor’s repeated admonitions against excessive… “self-extertion” at parties. That, and his philosophy is among the most lucid, wide-ranging, and intellectually stimulating I have ever encountered.

I and a handful of classmates, therefore, were understandably thrilled to learn that Jon McGinnis, a respected Islamic Medievalist, would be delivering a lecture on the development of science in the Muslim Middle Ages at IIT during the semester. The lecture was, as anticipated, captivating (I won’t attempt and fail to do it justice here), and after a question and answer session Dr. McGinnis kindly gave me some advice on studying Arabic philosophy.  

I was particularly interested by the language question: how difficult it would be to actually learn Arabic, and what suggestions he could offer on studying it.  While he warned me that the language is unusually challenging for Indo-European speakers, he also assured me that it was possible to learn and gave me some helpful pointers.  Thus it is that, five months later, I find myself enrolled in an intensive Arabic course this summer at the University of Chicago.

Herewith a few Arabic tidbits I’ve learned over the course of this summer, and which readers might find interesting:

  1. While it might seem odd that a course in modern Arabic would help much in reading eleventh-century philosophical texts, proper Arabic (or “fuṣḥā”) has actually remained much the same since at least the eighth or ninth century.  (Compare that with the difference between modern English and the Old English in Beowulf.)  The reason lies in the Qur’an: as the holy text of Islam, it is the perennial reference for Arabic vocabulary and grammar, ensuring otherwise unlikely stability in the tongue.
  2. Even independent of such religious influence, Arabic appears “older” than it really is: it boasted at the time of the Qur’an’s composition (and thus still boasts today) grammatical features, such a declensions, that contemporary languages in the region had long since discarded.
  3. Arabs have a remarkable apparatus for generating new vocabulary.  Instead of having a mass of distinct verbs and nouns to represent different concepts, Arabic has a range of “roots” with basic meanings, each root consisting of three ordered consonants; k t b, for example, is associated with writing.  There are then several “patterns” of consonants and vowels, with associated changes in meaning, into which the roots are inserted to generate new words.  The pattern maa-, for example, corresponds to “The place for —”, and thus maktab is “office”, or the place where writing is done.  Elegant, no?

I’ll conclude this rather ungainly train of Arabic thoughts with some Shimerian advice: read!  There are worlds of thought to be discovered, summer projects to be planned, and possible careers to be considered, if you take the time to research areas you wouldn’t encounter otherwise.  

Had you asked me about Medieval Islamic philosophy in high school, I would have shrugged my shoulders and guessed it was the province of a handful of boring experts; now I’m seriously considering trying to make a career in the field.  The poets, philosophers, and scientists of bygone ages are all available for our examination, and they offer avenues of study a life would not be long enough to tread.

- Leo Carton Mollica