10 January 2016

Book Review: The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi

This monograph was adapted from the doctoral thesis of the author on the field of Islamic Intellectual History. It is, according to the author, a contribution to ethical philosophy and the thought of Fakhr al Din al Razi, who is one of the most influential thinkers in Islamic scholarship particularly in the medieval period. It is ironic to note that despite his influence in Islamic scholarship (he wrote a Tafsir [commentary] of the Qur’an), he is understudied.

Quoted from the Introduction,

The study is at once, both a comprehensive analysis of one of one major facet of Al Razi’s thought and an exploration of the main trends and debates in its wider intellectual background. It shows that he sets forth a sophisticated and original ethical theory, which is both eclectic and highly consistent internally.

The present study uses the most comprehensive selection of al Razi’s work to date, several are used for the first time. This has allowed a more accurate understanding of the complex developments that took place in his thought, which are often subtle, but sometimes striking.

Divided into four distinct, yet interrelated chapters, the book discusses al Razi’s metaethics, his ethics of action, his theory of virtue alongside the ethics of character and the influence of theory of virtue on his later theory of prophecy, and finally, an analysis of his work - ‘Censure of the Pleasures of the World.’

Al Razi was initially trained in the Ash’ari school of theology and later, he became acquainted with other schools of thought particularly the Mu’tazila and the Falsafa. The book discusses how he was able to synthesize the influences he had acquired from these schools of thought and his theological foundations through the Kalam methodology which he was able to review and revise throughout his intellectual career.

His theological foundations, however, remained intact despite the aforementioned influence from Mu’tazila and Falsafa, wherein he was able to refute certain notions that these schools upheld which contradicted the orthodoxy (though at certain instances he also departed from orthodoxy).

Al Razi develops his theory of action under the influence of various sources—Falsafa, Ash’ari and Mu’tazili—but he puts forth a unique solution. Although he maintains a number of central Ash’ari doctrines, he often preserves their formulaic, almost creedal, expressions, without much of their theoretical content and details… One debate is concluded by Muhammad Abduh, who remarks, “With al Razi’s explication, the position of the Shaykh [al-Ash’ari] unites with that of the Falasifa ... and the position of the Imam [al Razi] is the position of critical investigators (muhaqqiq)”. (pp.44)

As was mentioned by Muhammad Abduh by al Razi being in a position of critical investigator, he thus, was able to develop an ethical system of thought, which was, however constantly revised, remained consistent in its pessimistic and most often deterministic tone. For example in his statements such as:

- Man is compelled under the guise of a voluntary agent.
- Man is compelled in his choosing.
- Affirming determinism is inescapable.

The book is filled with the interactions between contrasting viewpoints from respective personalities from Mu’tazili and Falsafa such as Ibn Sina and Abu’l Husayn al Basri, including Ash’ari schools: debates, refutations, affirmations and explications – alongside references to al Razi’s works that dealt on the topic at hand.

The author did a great job not only in the citation of ideas and works, on his synthesis of reactions from each respective school of thought and al Razi’s key positions and revisions of ideas, but also on including his commentaries and impressions on these ideas. For example, upon quoting from a work by al Razi, Dr. Shihadeh (the author) then follows it with his own impression on the obvious tone of the passage by mentioning whether it conveyed that al Razi was being absolutely pessimistic on his view of, for example that ‘political ambition should not be pursued by a reasonable man,’ or for his deterministic tone, that ‘man is much more motivated to avoid pain than to pursue pleasure,’ or ‘man is compelled in his willing,’ or to what extent an idea or position stated had changed from a previous one.

The book was written in a non-technical easy to understand style. However, a background in Islamic theology, history, psychology of the instincts, philosophy (particularly theodicy) is recommended for the reader who would like to read this monograph.

Because of its academic treatment of the subject, I personally recommend it to the serious student of Islamic intellectual history due to its neutral, unbiased and balanced treatment of the topic at hand.