Unlike his Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity — which I reviewed with pleasure and admiration for Dawn — Akbar S. Ahmed’s new book, The Flying Man: Aristotle, and the Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam — Their Relevance Today, is slim, yet very suggestive.

In it, Ahmed gifts readers with his encyclopaedic knowledge via analyses of philosophers from Islam’s Golden Age. These are primarily the Persian- and Arabic-language writers Avicenna (Ibn Sina), al Ghazali, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Ibn Arabi, but also Rabbi Moses Maimonides and St Thomas Aquinas.

Ahmed chose only those leading logicians among the many who burst on to the philosophy scene between Harun al Rashid’s reign in the 9th century, and the Mongols’ ransacking of Baghdad in the mid-13th century. With erudition, he examines the region that stretched from Cordoba in the west to Bukhara in the east.

Rather than clutter the book with the era’s many great names, he selects a few prominent thinkers to explore with a tight focus. Among these are well-known Muslims, but also Jews and Christians such as Maimonides and Aquinas. This is in keeping with the convivencia of his chosen period. It also chimes with the pressing need for tolerance, dialogue and bridge-building in our own age.

At its heart, The Flying Man has Avicenna’s eponymous thought experiment, which imagines a man suspended in the air, blindfolded and unable to touch anything. Although this man would lose awareness of his body, as Ahmed writes, “he would still be aware of the existence of his ‘self’ or ‘soul’.” According to Avicenna, therefore, the soul is at once different from, and more than, the body. From his vantage point of the Samanid Empire of more than a millennium ago, Avicenna was considering the mind-body dilemma with wondrous absorption.

In an email interview, I asked Ahmed what it was about this experiment that has proved so durable and has sparked the imagination of scholars, including himself, around the world. In response, Ahmed noted that Avicenna’s important image of the flying man has fascinated scholars because it touches on a central, speculative compulsion among philosophers, irrespective of their religion or background.

Avicenna is, after all, talking about the relationship between the soul and the body — the spiritual and the material — and that has been the subject of intense debate and controversy throughout the ages.

This philosophical emblem, therefore, casts light on the biggest questions about the nature of existence, the definition of God and the afterlife. On some of these issues, Muslim philosophers quoted the ancient Greeks — especially Aristotle, but also Plato — to support their arguments. And in many cases, the views of Muslim philosophers were in consonance with those of the other Abrahamic faiths such as Maimonides. In the history of philosophy, then, the flying man is a worthy successor to Plato’s allegory of the cave and precursor of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the Übermensch, or ‘Superman’.

Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington DC, and yet Ibn Khaldun is not evaluated. Ahmed told me he‘s an admirer of Ibn Khaldun’s work, viewing him as a titan of global scholarship. He described him as “one of the founding fathers of history, anthropology, cultural studies and political theory.” But, he falls outside the timeframe carved out for the book.

In the book’s introduction, Ahmed writes affectingly about his experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic in Washington. I was interested in what made him turn to the Golden Age of Islam at this difficult moment in human history and also what lessons he thought Avicenna and his contemporaries could impart to Millennials and Zoomers.

Ahmed reminded me that his book was written in late 2020 and early 2021, when the news was dominated by stories of illness and mortality because of the pandemic. Covid-19’s daily death toll in the United States at one point reached 4,000. During the coronavirus-induced shutdown of society, politics in America became even more vitriolic and violent than it had of late. There were random shootings, rising rates of suicide, Islamophobia was widespread and instances of overt racism were frequent.

Ahmed found himself in a state of despair following the killing of George Floyd. This murder, for which ex-police officer Derek Chauvin has just been sentenced, spurred the revitalisation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The infamous climax came when a mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, leaving five people dead. Scenes of enraged Americans smashing windows and searching for political victims made Ahmed “wince at the cruel irony.” It was a vision of America as a vibrant, open-minded democracy that had attracted him to go there in the first place.

Like so many, Ahmed sought ways of passing time during lockdown. Some baked, others went jogging and some drank or took drugs. For Ahmed, nothing was more pleasant than escaping to the past — to a time in which philosophers and scholars explored issues that mattered to our common humanity, issues of life and death and how to live in inclusive societies.

So he met these inspiring figures. He imagined sitting with Ibn Rushd, Maimonides and Ibn Arabi in the square in Cordoba and cogitating philosophical matters with Avicenna in Bukhara. Ahmed was fascinated to read al Ghazali’s magnum opus. Islamic scholars have written that if all the Islamic books were lost and only the Ihya remained, Islam would be safe. These scholars speak across the ages, providing a sense of balance and sanity.

The lessons from history and from this learned book are clear. In the midst of political violence and human folly, we still have the capacity to learn and pursue knowledge, to create harmony and find spiritual solace within ourselves. Some of the examples Ahmed gives from the medieval period — which also saw much unrest and violence — are from Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s and Ibn Arabi’s beautiful poems of love and compassion. Wisdom, education and research were the profound lessons from the past.

However, perhaps the most important aspect is to cultivate our ability to understand and embrace the other. In our divided and sabre-rattling world, this is a teaching worth holding on to. And it is one imparted pithily by Ahmed in The Flying Man.

The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 4th, 2021

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