Introducing Medieval Arabic Philosophy (07_2022)

Introducing Medieval Arabic Philosophy in a Portuguese High School, with an Interview with Elisabete Silva Santos

by Sarah Virgi

How much do high school students in Portugal know about Medieval Arabic Philosophy? This question is especially pertinent given that what is today Portugal was once under the political rule and cultural influence of Islamic dynasties. Together with Spain, it constituted the most western region of the Muslim dominion and one of the most important intellectual centers in the Middle Ages: al-Andalus. Thus, one would expect that there would be a greater awareness of the medieval Arabic philosophical tradition in this context than in other parts of the European continent. However, this is not quite the case. In fact, this intellectual heritage is often neglected outside the academic milieu.

In Portugal, the high school program of History tends to lay more emphasis on the formation and development of the Portuguese kingdom in the 12th century than on the history of the different Muslim caliphates, which for centuries were the predominant political power in the Iberian Peninsula. Likewise, the official high school program of Philosophy does not mention a single author pertaining to the philosophical tradition of the Medieval Islamic world. This contrasts directly with Spain, which, having a similar historical background, includes Arabic and Jewish philosophy in the program of the subject of History of Philosophy, which is at least proposed to the students that follow the path of Humanities (in the 2nd year of the Bachillerato, equivalent to the Portuguese 12th and last year of high school).

On the one hand, this discrepancy has to do with the nature of the Philosophy high school program in Portugal, which focuses mainly on general topics of philosophy and on contemporary philosophy rather than the history of philosophy. On the other hand, it may also reflect the non-observance of the Arabic tradition as part of the history of philosophy and the country’s cultural and intellectual heritage. In fact, the program does include references to works by Medieval Christian authors, such as Anselm and Augustin, under the section dedicated to Philosophy of Religion, but it excludes other equally relevant Muslim and Jewish philosophers. As Elisabete Santos, Philosophy teacher at the High School of Portela (Lisbon), remarked during our interview, both the prevalent influence of the Catholic Church and the recent discourse about Islamic extremism contributed to the disregard of Muslim and Arabic culture in Portugal. Consequently, this left deep marks on public education and the general approach to this philosophical tradition in this context.

Another determining factor that, in my view, plays an enormous part in the overall oblivion of Arabic philosophy is the minimal amount of modern Portuguese translations of Medieval Arabic philosophical works. Prof. Catarina Belo has, in recent years, translated Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) Decisive Treatise (Discurso Decisivo sobre a Harmonia entre a Religião e a Filosofia, Imprensa Nacional Casa da Moeda, 2006) and al-Fārābī’s The Principles of the Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City (A Cidade Virtuosa, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 2018) into Portuguese, but these have not yet been included into the national curriculum. Apart from these, there are translations into Brasilian Portuguese, which are not taken into account either, some academic translations of works by Ibn Rushd, which, are often based on the Latin versions, and a few other older translations of writings by Ibn Bājja (Avempace) by the historian António Borges Coelho (in Portugal na Espanha Árabe, vol. II, Seara Nova, 1972), which remain outdated.

 As a consequence, young students, and even their teachers, are largely unaware of the importance and contributions of the philosophers in the Medieval Islamic world, including those of al-Andalus, whose fame went far beyond the Islamic world.

However, this is not to say that the interest and effort to introduce this topic in public high schools are non-existent. Teachers feel the need to bring this subject to the classroom and are willing to promote initiatives to familiarize the students with it.

Recently, two teachers at the High School of Portela in Lisbon – Elisabete Santos, whom I have already mentioned, and Shabnam Gulamhusen, English teacher – invited me to give a talk on Medieval Arabic Thought in one of their classes in English. The exercise had a double objective: to introduce the students to a philosophical question from the perspective of a non-Western tradition and to practice their English comprehension. This posed a significant challenge to the students, namely that of being able to engage with an unknown philosophical and cultural subject in a foreign language. In order to facilitate the understanding and render the subject relatable to them, I chose a philosophical topic with which they were familiar and which was part of the program, namely ethics. In addition, I asked the English teacher to introduce them to the Platonic tripartite division of the soul (reason, desire, and irascibility) beforehand. Since this was a recurring theme in ethical discussions in the Islamic world and one of the key principles of their ethics of moral character, it was important to me that the students were at least familiar with this psychological paradigm before they got to know the interpretation of philosophers in the Islamic world.

Based on the students’ feedback and the teachers’ evaluation, the experience was highly successful. When asked whether the topic was interesting to them, in the questionnaire that they filled after the session, the majority of the students replied affirmatively. Moreover, most of them also stated that it contributed to their understanding of the subject. Likewise, my own impression was that the students were attentive, able to follow the contents and the argumentation and actively engaged in the discussion. They raised critical questions about the extent to which rationality is at the basis of moral action and moral character and whether reason is objective or depends on subjectivity. This means they could understand the main questions in the presentation and reflect upon their implications.

On the other hand, it is noteworthy that one of the first questions that one of the students posed during the discussion was why I decided to study the philosophical tradition of the Islamic world “instead of our philosophy”. Again, this seems to reflect the typical distinction between what is commonly identified with the Western philosophical tradition and the “other philosophical traditions”. Even after I had explained that many philosophers writing in Arabic in the Medieval period were active in the Iberian Peninsula and that Islamic philosophy was a major influence for the Latin-speaking Christian world, the students had difficulties grasping this proximity. Thus, they continued to account for it as foreign. Moreover, this also appears to be symptomatic of a generally negative approach to non-Western philosophical traditions.

Yet, this suspicion may also serve as a starting point. During our conversation, Elisabete Santos told me that the students continued to discuss and ask questions regarding our session on Medieval Arabic philosophy during the following classes and that they might have done some research themselves on the subject afterward. After all, this experience triggered their curiosity. Initiatives like this one may not be a definitive solution to the deficit in the contents of the high school program of Philosophy, nor to the lack of awareness about the contribution of Muslim authors to the history of philosophy. But they are certainly a first step in that direction and an alternative way of introducing young students to a more encompassing approach to the history of philosophy and their own philosophical and cultural heritage.

About Elisabete Silva Santos

Elisabete Silva Santos has a degree in Philosophy and a post-graduation in eLearning Pedagogy. She started teaching in high school in 1995 and is currently teaching at the High School of Portela (Lisbon) and at the Red Cross Professional School (Escola Profissional da Cruz Vermelha). She is the pedagogical director of the Space2Learn tutoring center in Alvalade. She has published five books to support the study of Philosophy and Psychology.

Interview with Elisabete Silva Santos

This interview took place on the 16th of May 2022.

S: How is it to teach Philosophy in high school in Portugal? What are the major challenges and positive aspects of teaching this subject in that context?

E: It is very difficult to teach in Portugal, whatever subject. It would be good if it would be only Philosophy – at least the other [school subjects] would be better than us. The life of a teacher is not easy at all: we have a lot of bureaucratic work, very charged schedules, and there is no research culture. If I tell a colleague that I spent an afternoon reading a philosophy book and working for my pupils, he will laugh, and he would perhaps consider that I am not working. However, I am working; I am researching and trying to learn more to transmit that knowledge to my pupils.

Philosophy is not considered to be a subject of major importance. There is much more investment in the “specific subjects” (disciplinas específicas), such as Physics and Chemistry, Biology, and History, according to the areas of study. Philosophy is seen as a secondary subject. This is either because not all students need to pass the Philosophy exam or because people do not take it seriously. They think that you can learn some things and invent something for the test, and that’s it. This is the effect of a certain mentality, which comes from different sources: from the pupils themselves, from home, and even from our colleagues (i.e. the philosophy teachers). This makes the teaching of Philosophy very difficult in Portugal.

Our hourly load is increasingly reduced, so we have less time to teach the program. Of course, the contents have also been reduced. However, this also represents a difficulty for us because sometimes we have to stop in order to tackle a specific matter, to focus on a text, or on a discussion in class. Still, we cannot do it due to the pressure of teaching the program. On the other hand, other optional subjects have seven or eight hourly loads per week. Perhaps it would be better if the pupils would learn how to think and we would have them more prepared and attentive in the university instead of perpetuating this situation.

This is a very negative picture. It is challenging to prepare seven classes, each with about thirty pupils. If I ask them to write a philosophical essay, I will have to correct it, and it is incredibly difficult to conciliate that with the time that I have available.

But of course, there are good aspects too. The good aspects are the pupils themselves, those classes where, even though we had everything prepared, they happen differently because the subject takes us in another direction. We go home, continuing to think about it. The questions they pose are adolescents’ doubts – questions that I have myself asked in the past, during my adolescence as well. It makes me see how they see things today. This joy compensates for everything else!


S: What objectives did you and the English teacher (Shabnam Gulamussen) have in mind when you decided to plan a session on Medieval Arabic Philosophy with the students?

E: My colleague issued this challenge, and I immediately embraced it enthusiastically. There is a strong collaboration between subjects in our schools. In this case, we combined two things: the pupils were listening to a Philosophy lecture in English. I myself did not know much about the subject, so I found it fantastic. We were, so to speak, in the same boat. The pupils were very interested. I suspect that some even researched some things afterward.

It was a unique opportunity. The pupils themselves have a very charged workload. It’s not only us. It leaves them little time to explore other topics. So this allowed them to learn some philosophy while also practicing their English. I think it was fabulous!

S: Speaking about the results of this session: what impact do you think that it had on the pupils? Do you think it aroused some curiosity in them about the topics and authors tackled during the session?

E: Yes, definitely. As I said before, I am sure that some pupils researched a little more about the subject. The seed remained. So, in the future, I think that it may bring new fruits. First of all, they are very honest. If they wouldn’t have appreciated it, they would have expressed it. It was not the case. They left the class with enthusiasm. We were speaking about this matter in the next class as well. This shows that it was not a waste of time; on the contrary, it was extremely interesting. The seed remains there.

S: My next question concerns the role of Medieval Arabic Philosophy in Portugal: do you think that the students are aware of the importance of this topic and of the fact that it is part of our cultural heritage? I see already that the answer will be somewhat negative…

E: No, not at all… Perhaps if the session would have been made with a Humanities class, it would have been different because History is one of their main subjects. But even in that case, the evidence is that this awareness does not exist. The catholic society in Portugal might have also contributed to this situation because it suppressed the Arabic culture, without any doubt. Then, we had 9-11, which led to the idea that everything related to Arabic is bad. And these ideologies pass from society directly to the students. If I had asked them whether they knew something about Arabic Philosophy, they would have replied to me with perplexity, as if for them it would not be possible that there is Arabic Philosophy. But this is not the case only with Arabic Philosophy. (…). This to say that the pupils are not at all aware of the importance of the Arabic culture in Portugal. (…) People tend to mix culture with politics. However, we are here, and it is also the role of Philosophy to break with this mentality and try to change things. On the other hand, as teachers of Philosophy, we ourselves do not have knowledge about it and do not have time to research in order to transmit it to the pupils.

S: To pick up on this, I would like to ask you whether you think this type of initiative, like the session about Medieval Arabic Philosophy that we organized and other activities, can contribute to developing this awareness?

E: Of course. This is perhaps the only positive aspect of the pandemic. We are now used to having events and courses online. And this is what allowed this session to happen. In other circumstances, it would have been much more difficult to have you give this lecture in our classroom. This is excellent, and we are becoming more and more open to this type of initiatives. We are no longer only connected to Lisbon but to the whole world.

Perhaps not all the students would be ready to participate. If the lecture that you gave had been in Portuguese, all the groups that I have would have been able to follow. But in English, only that class was able to adhere. I think that Philosophy “can open heads”, not literally but figuratively. If I had not thought like this, I would not be here, and I would not have continued to teach every day “against the tide”.