Writing in 2006, in a book bearing the title “Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy,” the eminent Iranian-American philosopher and historian of science Seyyed Hossein Nasr remarked that “what is needed for Islamic philosophy is something like the Loeb Library for Greek and Latin texts where the text in the original appears on one side of the page and the English translation on the opposite page. Fortunately during the last few years Brigham Young University has embarked upon such a series.”
BYU’s Islamic Translation Series was launched under the auspices of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (known as FARMS), which ultimately became the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship in 2006. Its first publication was “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” written by the great philosophical theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. A.D. 1111), who is generally ranked among the foremost thinkers in the Islamic tradition.
Al-Ghazali had suffered a personal spiritual and intellectual crisis that eventually impelled him to undertake more than a decade of travel and ascetic contemplation, searching for the certain faith that he had once enjoyed. Emerging from that pivotal period of his life, he wrote “The Incoherence of the Philosophers.” In that lengthy treatise, he argues that, while such earlier Muslim philosophers as Avicenna (or Ibn Sina) had boasted of their absolutely rock-solid arguments on issues in theology and metaphysics, they were actually incapable of delivering on their claims. A person seeking religious certainty, in other words, would turn to them in vain and would only find disappointment. Moreover, al-Ghazali contended, many of their assertions were heretical and constituted unbelief.
The illustrious 12th-century judge, philosopher and Aristotle commentator Averroes (or Ibn Rushd) wrote a massive response to al-Ghazali’s work under the title “The Incoherence of the Incoherence,” but “The Incoherence of the Philosophers” remains widely read and deservedly influential in the Islamic world still today. It was, accordingly, a very auspicious book with which to begin a new translation series.
Edited and rendered into English by professor Michael E. Marmura of the University of Toronto, BYU’s publication of al-Ghazali’s classic work appeared in a dual-language edition, with the original Arabic text and Marmura’s English version facing each other on opposite pages. And it set the pattern for subsequent BYU publications.
During its 20 years of existence at BYU, the Islamic Translation Series published 13 books. During that time, moreover, the original series branched out into a broader effort called the Middle Eastern Texts Initiativethat ultimately published a total of 35 volumes in four different series. Beyond the original Islamic Translation Series itself, these included books falling into the categories of Eastern Christian Texts (devoted to the significant but neglected literature of the large communities of Middle Eastern Christians, written in Arabic, Syriac, Armenian and other languages), the Library of Judeo-Arabic Literature, and the Medical Works of Moses Maimonides (focused on the illustrious medieval rabbi and philosopher, who wrote in Arabic while earning his daily bread as a physician).
In June 2012, new leadership launched the Maxwell Institute upon a dramatically different “new course” that, while concentrating first on changing the Institute’s approach to scholarship about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eventually affected the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative as well. And, in November 2017, the editorial and production oversight of the initiative was transferred by the Maxwell Institute from BYU to the venerable academic publisher E.J. Brill, which is located in the Netherlands and which had long sought to acquire BYU’s translation project. Two final volumes will be published by Brigham Young University and, like all previous Middle Eastern Texts Initiative publications, will be distributed by the University of Chicago Press. Thereafter, all future books will bear the Brill imprint.Comment on this story
The volumes conceived and produced under BYU’s leadership not only made a significant contribution to several important areas of international scholarship but, in their modest way, contributed to enhanced relations between the Middle East and the West and, in quite tangible ways, between Muslims, eastern Christians, Jews and Latter-day Saints. Fortunately, we can hope that they will continue to contribute into the future. The books published by BYU will still be available online and through retail outlets, under the old distribution agreement made with the University of Chicago Press. Moreover, being translations of classics, they won’t soon go out of date. They will endure for at least a century, and perhaps much longer than that.