History of Islam (paradoxe du bouquiniste)

On Helen de Witt’s wonderful blog I found this

Urvoy points out an oddity which he calls the paradoxe du bouquiniste. Anyone who spends a lot of time at secondhand bookstalls finds an image of the history of French thought in the 18th century quite different from what he was taught. In his studies they would have talked only of thinkers who were opposed to established religion, above all to religious orthodoxy; but in the bookstalls one finds a vast army of defenders of the faith, names one has never heard of, or heard of only as someone who criticised Rousseau… Since the Renaissance, he suggests, we have placed emphasis on originality, on individualism, so our intellectual history devalues whatever was typical of its time, rates highly whatever was at least self-proclaimed as original. Books offer us chapters on great individuals, with perhaps a dutiful chapter on background which the reader feels free to ignore.

In the history of Arab thought, on the other hand, the opposite is true. It has been written not by philosophers but by historians, and they privilege “representative” authors. The Arab philosophers who drew on the Greek philosophical tradition have just about managed to get taken seriously because of their immense influence on Scholasticism – but many Islamic scholars regard them askance as marginal thinkers. Attention was concentrated on the religious apologists, who were seen as expressing the essence of Arabic-Islamic thought. [I am writing this awkward English because paraphrasing DU, something I do very badly.]

Urvoy comments: the enterprise of setting out a collective structure of thought, with occasional detailed studies of individuals, is entirely legitimate. But isn’t there something odd about this radical antithesis between the study of Western and of Arab thought? Can it really be right for the Arabist to concentrate solely on writers whose equivalents he would despise if he were a specialist of the 18th-century in France?

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