Rémi Brague interviewed about the lessons of the Middle Ages for our time

Historians in the News

[Rémi Brague is the author of the book, The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (University of Chicago Press, 2009).]

Question: As a historian of medieval Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thought, how do you view the relationship between the three religions of the book and philosophical activity? In particular, do you think there is a difference between theology and philosophy in Christianity, and between Kalām and falsafa in Islam?

Rémi Brague: There are many differences, but they are interconnected. On the one hand, there is a tension within each of those two religions between a theological pole and a philosophical pole. But there is also a vast gap between theology in Christianity and Kalām in Islam, and between philosophy in Christianity and in Islam, where it is called falsafa. Consequently, the tensions between those two poles are by no means produced or negotiated in the same way.

Institutionalized Philosofia and Private Falsafa
The major difference between philosophy and falsafa is perhaps social in nature; it resides in the word “institutionalization.” In Islamic lands, falsafa remains a private affair, a matter for individuals in fairly restricted numbers. The great philosophers of Islam were amateurs, and they pursued philosophy during their leisure hours: Farabi was a musician, Avicenna a physician and a vizier, Averroes a judge. Avicenna did philosophy at night, surrounded by his disciples, after a normal workday. And he did not refuse a glass of wine to invigorate him a bit and keep him on his toes. Similarly, among the Jews, Maimonides was a physician and a rabbinic judge, Gersonides was an astronomer (and astrologer), and so on. The great Jewish or Muslim philosophers attained the same summits as the great Christian Scholastics, but they were isolated and had little influence on society.

In medieval Europe, philosophy became a university course of studies and a pursuit that could provide a living. It also supported a mass of untenured, garden-variety “philosophy profs,” few of whom have left their names in the manuals, even though we can exhume their courses, which we discover to be full of surprises. But these were the men who made it possible for philosophy to make a profound impact on the minds of the jurists, physicians, and others they taught, hence for it to become a factor in society.

This had an important effect on the relationship between philosophy and theology. You can be a perfectly competent rabbi or imam without ever having studied philosophy. In contrast, a philosophical background is a necessary part of the basic equipment of the Christian theologian. It has even been obligatory since the Lateran Council of 1215. In Christianity, the tension between philosophy and theology can be said to be vertical, setting apart people who had followed the same course of studies, given that all theologians began by studying philosophy. The two disciplines spoke the same language. In Islam, the tension between Kalām and falsafa was horizontal, distinguishing between specialists in different disciplines, all of whom contested the legitimacy of the other camp’s methods.

Theology is a Christian specialty. To be sure, several religions developed stores of knowledge, at times of an extremely high degree of technicality and subtlety, concerning the adventures of the gods, regulating the cult due to them, and explaining their commandments, when such had been emitted. But “theology” as a rational exploration of the divine (according to Anselm’s program) exists only in Christianity.

The Word and the Book
In the final analysis, this is true because of what permits a theology to exist—that is, because of the logos and its status in the various religions. Here I have to correct an expression in your question. You speak of the “three religions of the book.” The expression has become current, but it is deceptive. First, because people often imagine that it translates the Arabic for “people of the book” (ahl al-kitāb), which is a technical term designating the religions that preceded Islam and whose adherents, because they possessed a holy book, had the right to a “protected” (ahl al-dhimma) juridical status that was recognized by the Muslim community. In that sense, the term excludes Islam itself. If, on the other hand, we take the term in the broader, non-technical, sense, it includes Islam.

But at that point we see that the expression conceals a second trap, symmetrical to the first: it implies that in these three religions, which do, in fact, have a book—as do other religions—the contents of revelation would be that book. As it happens, however, in Judaism that content is the history of God with his people, whom he liberates and guides by giving them his Teaching (torah); In Christianity, it is the person of Christ, who, for Christians, is a concentrate of the previous experience of Israel. The written texts record that history, or, in the case of the Talmud, gather together the discussions of the scholars regarding the interpretation and application of the divine commandments. But in no way do those books constitute the actual message of God to humankind. It is only in Islam that the revealed object is the Book. In the final analysis, the only religion of the book is Islam!

Why does this matter? Because the very way in which the god speaks, the very style of his logos, decides how that logos can be elaborated. If the divine word is a law, it has to be explicated and applied with maximum precision. But that law says nothing about its source. If that divine word is a person—and, inversely, if that person is a word stating who is its emitter—that is one step toward a certain knowledge of God....
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