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Animals in the Philosophy of the Islamic World

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - IslamAnimals (Animals in the Philosophy of the Islamic World)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-09-30

Are animals conscious? Can they think or feel emotions? What makes them different from humans on the one hand and plants on the other? And how should we treat them?

This five year project (2018-2023) funded by the European Research Council will bring to light a rich body of texts written in the Islamic world, which address just such questions about the value and nature of animals. Contrary to common assumptions, such questions were taken seriously in pre-modern thought. Scholars have explored ancient Greek and Indian discussions of animals, but little attention has been paid to the contribution of Islamic culture, which produced for instance philosophical and scientific works on animals, moralizing fables featuring animal characters, and treatises on veterinary medicine and on the types and uses of animals.

The project will uncover the changing conceptions of animals revealed in such works, taking an innovative approach which explores the interaction between descriptive and normative accounts of animals. We seek to understand, for instance, how developments in ideas about animal souls impacted ideas about the ethical treatment of animals. We will also investigate the historical genesis of this corpus of texts on animals, by exploring the influence of three literary traditions: Aristotelian zoology, medicine, and the founding religious texts of Islam.

Research projects being carried out under the aegis of the project include overarching inquiries into animal cognition and on the ethical status of animals. Other topics for research include the zoological treatises of philosophers like Avicenna, as well as other authors of the zoological tradition like Ibn Abi Ashʾath; the Book of Animals by the theologian and litterateur al-Jahiz; post-Avicennan theology and its reaction to Avicenna's views of animals; and the emergence of a new idea of "animals" in the early Islamic world as a result of the Greek-Arabic translation movement.
Historically there are three main areas under investigation in our project: the impact of Aristotelian zoology, the understanding of animals in the medical tradition, and treatments of animals in Islam and Islamic theology.

With regard to zoology, our postdoc Jens-Ole Schmitt has written a series of studies on the zoologist Ibn Abi Ashath and another author who wrote in Syriac, looking at changes to Aristotle as concerns such details as the power of touch, the functions of sleep and dream in animals, and the relation between horses and humans. Another postdoc, Bethany Somma, is working on a monograph on treatment of animals in the Islamic world, and has devoted one chapter to conceptual changes introduced in the Arabic version of Aristotle’s zoological treatises. Finally our new PhD Nicolas Payen (just joined in autumn 2020) has already made significant discoveries about the very word “animal (hayawan)” in Arabic, which seems to have derived (with this use) from Greek-Arabic translations.

Zoology has also played a significant role in the work of Tommaso Alpina, who has looked at the three-way interplay between psychology, medicine, and zoology in Avicenna. Alpina has made important discoveries about the use of medical knowledge in philosophy and zoology, especially as concerns scientific method, but also in terms of the details of Avicenna’s biology, e.g. the role of bodily mixture in plants and animals.

In Islamic theology, a PhD thesis by Sarah Virgi is almost completed: it deals with the reception of the conception of pneuma (in Arabic ruh) has shown how this idea came into the theological tradition thanks to Avicenna and displaced an notion of soul found in earlier theological authors. Since autumn 2020 we also have as a postdoc Michael Payne, who is doing work on the theologian and literary author Jahiz: this has focused especially on the question of the moral treatment of animals.

This brings us to our two thematic focuses, namely animal ethics and animal psychology.

Dustin Crummett, a postdoc who works on the intersection of animal ethics and philosophy of religion, has written prolifically during his time with the project and explored from a contemporary philosophical point of view the way that religious presuppositions impact animal ethics (for instance, what are the effects on theodicy of supposing that animals live on after death, as medieval Muslims also believed? What attitude should we take towards the suffering of wild animals?). The PI Peter Adamson has written two books with chapters that are relevant to this issue: a monograph on al-Razi, who has a remarkable defense of benevolence towards animals, and a paper on authority in medieval culture, which closes with a chapter on the question of why the possession of reason makes humans better than animals, according to the Islamic medieval philosophical tradition.

On animal cognition, Rotraud Hansberger has examined capacities common to animals and humans, showing how these faculties relate to the brain and asking whether their function differs in humans and non-human animals. The PI Peter Adamson has written on the idea of the whole cosmos as an animal, as well as papers on the difference between organic (i.e. plant and animal) forms and other kinds of forms in Avicenna, and on the history of proof from rationality for the metaphysical difference between incorporeal human souls and corporeal animal souls.

Our publications so far are available at the LMU website:

Under "publications" at the bottom. These are password protected because they are still all under the 12 month embargo before becoming fully open access.
Everything described above goes beyond the state of the art: e.g. Avicenna’s treatise on zoology had been explored very little prior to our project, so Alpina’s work on this has been pioneering. All the findings about the Arabic reception of Greek animal treatises are new, and have been further enhanced by Schmitt’s discussions of the Syriac reception in Bar Hebraeus which goes beyond what we expected to look at in the project. Our project has also produced an unexpected bounty of work on contemporary animal ethics thanks to the prolific output of our postdoc Dustin Crummett.

We will be producing two PhD dissertations, by Virgi and Payen. Payen’s is only just started but already well underway, and has made important discoveries already: it will also be showing the way that certain animal species were taken as totemic for a whole type of animal (e.g. sheep as the central example of a pastoral creature, or wolf for predators). This thesis will reveal much about the changing ideas of animal classification in early Islam. Virgi’s thesis is, as stated above, nearly complete and just needs a final chapter to be added on Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. Adamson is also working on this author, currently looking at a text with proofs for animal intelligence. Our postdoc Payne has only just started with the project and will be delivering much more on the fascinating figure of Jahiz. We will also be delivering a monograph by Somma on animal ethics in Islam, with a consideration of different reasons given for treating animals benevolently; and examination of the “faculty psychology” that underlay the Aristotelian account of animals and how they differ from humans. This approach to psychology was radically challenged in post-Avicennan philosophy, a topic several of us (Adamson, Hansberger, Virgi) are working on.