Most books written on the history of philosophy tend to remain confined to a consideration of the more prominent and iconic philosophers, looking upon them as isolated islands that loom out in a vast sea that itself remains unexplored. In a history of Islamic philosophy, the familiar big names are the Mutazalites, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Khaldun, to name just a few. It is here that Peter Adamson’s book stands out as it is able to fill out the vast oceanic gaps between these figures by informing us of the lesser known, yet crucially vital philosophers who contributed to the continuing course of Islamic philosophy. A vital role was played by many Jewish thinkers and while many informed readers may have heard of a Jewish thinker like Moses Maimonides, there are others that this book brings up for our consideration such as Saadia Gaon, Judah Hallevi, Ibn Paquda, Ibn Kammuna et. al.
The chapters on all these philosophers and what they wrote is deftly woven with a discussion of the historical and political context in which all this writing, thinking, philosophizing, debating, commenting and arguing was happening. This surrounding of the philosopher with the much talked about context in which the thinking happened is able to dispel many assumptions that people make about Islamic philosophy, such as the idea that there has been an interminable decline after the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 AD or that at some time in the past, the much vaunted gates of ijtihad (analogical reasoning) were closed and locked. Adamson is able to show how, contrary to the widely held view of the Mongol hordes leaving behind a desolate barren wasteland wherever they went, their subsequent more settled rule when they accepted Islam, actually fostered much intellectual activity. Thus, the philosopher, Nasiruddin al-Tusi, while quite opportunistically overseeing the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols, went on to head the famed observatory of Maragha under their auspices.