A Laudatio of Professor Michael E. Marmura, F.R.S.C

By Jens Hanssen
On the occasion of the Launching of the Michael E. Marmura Lecture Series in Arabic Studies
at the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations
University of Toronto, January 14th, 2021


Prof. Michael Marmura gives his lecture on the pre-Islamic poet Zuhayr
Prof. Michael Marmura gives his lecture on the pre-Islamic poet Zuhayr


Professor Michael Marmura was a giant in his field. This field was medieval Islamic philosophy. And his ground-breaking research on Ibn Sina/Avicenna and al-Ghazali stands out as his major contributions to the study of Islamic metaphysics, epistemology and many other branches of philosophy. His active scholarly career lasted from when he arrived a Palestinian refugee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1949, and extended well beyond his untimely death in 2009. His former Ph.D. student, Professor Richard Taylor published Michael’s “Avicenna and traditional Islamic Belief” in 2012, and our dear former colleagues, Sebastian Günther and Todd Lawson included his paper “Paradise in Islamic Philosophy” in a volume they published and dedicated to Michael three years ago.[1]

Michel Marmura’s legacy continues to shape the field. Here at UofT, another of his eminent former Ph.D. students has been chair of the philosophy department until recently. Prof. Deborah Black is an international expert on classical Arabic and medieval Latin philosophy. Michael’s and her English translation of the psychology section of Avicenna’s Shifā is being revised for publication.

The summae of Michael’s decades long career were published only relatively recently: A collection of 22 of his major articles, a fraction of his overall output, in Probings in Islamic Philosophies of Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali and Other Major Muslim Thinkers, came out in 2005. His annotated translation of Avicenna’s Shifāʾ, The Metaphysics of The Healing came out as a majestic bilingual edition the same year. And the first edition of his equally awe-inspiring new translation of al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers appeared back in 1997.

Michael Marmura transformed the field of medieval Islamic philosophy as soon as he came to UofT in 1959. Another leading Avicenna scholar and a colleague of today’s distinguished speaker at McGill told me this: before Marmura, interest in Avicenna’s metaphysics was largely focused on the role that the Latin translation of the Metaphysics (Ilāhiyyāt) of the Shifāʾ played in medieval European philosophy (see, e.g., the work of A-M. Goichon). Georges Anawati and his team in Cairo started publishing new editions of the Shifāʾ in the 1960s. These enabled Marmura to drill down into the Arabic texts to a level of detail and subtlety that was unprecedented in European scholarship. In fact, Marmura dedicated his translation of Avicenna’s The Metaphysics of The Healing to Father Anawati’s memory. For he was a dear friend and whenever he visited North America he spent weeks at a time at the Marmuras' in Toronto.

Michael covered not just the text of the Metaphysics, but also the Logic (Manṭiq) of the Shifāʾ, and especially the Isagoge (Madkhal) and the Discourses (Maqūlāt). In this way, Marmura was able to come up with new and compelling interpretations of Avicenna’s most famous philosophical innovations, such as his distinction between essence and existence. The impact of Marmura’s work extended beyond these important scholarly interventions, however, because his translation of the Ilāhiyyāt (the first into English) made a close reading of Avicenna’s metaphysics possible even for non-Arabists.

Robert Wisnowsky concludes that Michael Marmura helped to re-center the study of medieval Islamic philosophy: away from the Ghazālī-Averroes debate in the Tahāfuts, which had been the main focus of Orientalist scholarship up to that point, and towards the metaphysics and logic of Avicenna, which is where – historically speaking – it belongs.

Michael’s generosity was legendary, and I benefitted from it in no small measure myself, when I tried to figure out the finer points of a passage in a difficult Arabic text by Butrus al-Bustani that I was translating. Nothing encouraged me more not to despair than his impish smile and his reassurance when he returned the passage: “Jens, this Arabic is of an idiom all its own, namely its author’s.” Michael was generous because he cared; not because he was indifferent. Sometimes he could barely contain his impatience at mediocrity or injustice. But he was never judgmental.

Michael’s innumerable and much-feared book reviews were models of engaged philosophical inquiry. Two critiques of landmark books, one of F.E. Peters’ Aristotle and the Arabs from 1968 and one of D. Gutas’ Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition from 1988 may serve as examples of Michael’s scholarly temperament. The first “book fulfils only in part the expectations evoked by its title.” And the second “has its flaws, some in our estimation, serious.” Before he gets to his criticisms, Michael honours both studies with the labour of his very close readings. Neither author acknowledged the ground-breaking work in Avicenna scholarship after the spike, in 1952, of publications around the millennial commemoration of his death. They hardly mention the team of Egyptian scholars who edited from the 1950s to the early 1980s. To F.E. Peters’ assertion that the Humanities in the Renaissance Europe incorporated the entire corpus of Hellenism whereas the Muslim tradition was disinterested in Greek belles lettres, Michael muses how it could escape the author that Muslims were in “possession of literary traditions of [their] own.”[2] Always writing from the perch of greater nuance, Michael defends Ghazali against Peters’ charge that his Incoherence of the Philosophers “is dedicated to the destruction of secondary causality.” It escaped Peters, who had missed a key passage of Ghazali’s, how Ghazali “was able to convince his fellow Ash‘arites that they can endorse Aristotle’s demonstrative method and its claims for attaining scientific certainty without committing themselves to Aristotelian causal metaphysics.”

D. Gutas’s incredible erudition is duly acknowledged in Michael’s review of his instant classic Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition. On ten dense pages, Michael “probes” Gutas’ every analytical move. They share the view that Avicenna’s lost manuscript, The Easterners likely does not contain “views not found in Avicenna’s known works.” Michael also commends Gutas’ translation of The Easterners recovered Introduction, but he quibbles with a few translation decisions. Gutas makes “original and perceptive” contributions to Avicenna’s theory of intuition, “the cornerstone of this study.” But, in an elegant exploration of Avicenna’s complex Arabic lexicon on intuition, Michael “raises questions” and offers a conceptual matrix that tweaks Gutas’s Avicenna interpretation ever so slightly, but to big effect: al-fitra is the natural intelligence that prepares the soul for al-hads, or intuiting the middle term, especially regarding “the possibility of prophethood.” If this is the realm of al-‘ilm-epistemology, prophecy is also a matter of “apprehension by the senses” – al-ma‘rifa – as well as “direct experiential knowledge,” esp. of God, or the sufi concept of al-dhawq. In effect, here as elsewhere, Marmura’s Avicenna and Ghazali are much more intertwined than previous scholarship had recognized.

Marmura, the Third Teacher

Michael was popular teacher at NMC here in Toronto. Our students appreciated that he taught well past retirement. The first cohort of NMC undergraduates I taught in 2002 – his last – was so proud of having been taught by him. It meant a lot in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the pressures that the ensuing public and academic discourses put on these young Muslims and Arabs. Some of the ones I still keep in touch with (and who have meanwhile become academics themselves) told me that in his classes they got the impression that Michael knew al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ghazali personally, so captivated were they by his teaching.

Marmura’s tactful, probing readings of philosophical texts as well as the Holy Quran were a godsent for students at a time when Orientalists like Bernard Lewis were the toast of town - Lewis was actually invited at the time by the history department to give the Barbara Frum lectures and explain to us “what went wrong with Islam.” In sharp contrast to the aggressive – both hostile and defensive – rhetoric that accompanied the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq at the time, Marmura instilled a rare passion for the nuances and politics of Mu‘tazila thought as if he was an Mu’tazilite himself. One student added: I always felt Marmura thought on a different, on a vaster scale of history.

Michael also taught Arabic literature. On the spot and unprompted, he would recite long passages of pre-Islamic and Abbasid poetry from memory during his lectures and seminars. The philosopher-poet Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri was his favorite, and apparently he liked to cite the lines in which a grave is laughing at the bodies piling up in it on top of each other.


“Perhaps the self-same grave has become a grave many

a time, laughing at the crowding of opposites

And the buried upon the buried in the long run of the ages.”

(*Marmura, Ella, “Arabic Literature: A Living Heritage,” in R. M. Savory (ed.), Introduction to Islamic Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 67”)



But when Palestine came up, as it invariably did in Ibn al-Athir’s Jerusalem stories, for example, Michael’s impishness disappeared from his face. His eyes glazed over and he seemed to look at a distant point trying to make out his childhood hero Saladin. From distant memory, he then brought to life the characters in Ibn al-Athir as if he had been their neighbour, conjuring up, hakawati-style, intimate stories from Arab history during the Crusades.

Let me quote from the recollections of Michael’s most famous student:

The teachers were mostly British, although I had … Michael Marmura … son of the Anglican pastor. … Marmura, who taught mathematics, belonged to a world that was very soon to face dissolution and exile in the cataclysm of 1948. He was a gentle and acutely intelligent teacher who despite his nervousness at being a family friend of most of the students (and son of the Cathedral dean who baptized me [and married my parents]) taught us the rudiments of fractions with considerable skill. I have seen him over the years in Madison, and Princeton and later in Toronto, where he now lives; the pathos of his shattered past has never left him.[3]

This famous student was, you guessed it, Edward W. Said, a six or seven year old boy at St. George’s School in Jerusalem. Edward Said probably last saw his math teacher when UofT bestowed an honorary doctorate on him in 1999. But their lives were connected until Said’s untimely passing in 2003.

Family life in Palestine until the Nakba

Michael had many stories about his life in Jerusalem; about his stern, puritanical father Elias; about flying kites with his young nephews in the hills, and about Easter when Muslim neighbours would colour eggs, too, and join in the community celebrations. In May 2002, Michael recalled his Jerusalem:

At the age of 11, I went with a group of youngsters for the first time to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It was a sunny day; the skies were blue; and the stones seemed to glimmer in the sun. I was struck by the mystique of the place. I felt that I was part of the very stone building and grounds. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voices of the caliph Umar and of Saladin who freed Jerusalem from the Crusaders—two of Islam’s archetypal heroes. And I, the son of an Episcopal clergyman, felt that these were my heroes no less than the heroes of my Muslim classmates. I, born in Jerusalem, never felt so completely that this city was in my very bones.

His father, Reverend Elias Marmura, was the Episcopalian canon of  St. Paul’s Church in Musrara, Jerusalem. He was also a noted historian, esp. of the Samaritan community in Nablus; a classical Arabic poet; a musicologist and an anthropologist of the Palestinian peasantry.[4] He was also active in nationalist politics. He became president of the National Church Association in Palestine and Jordan in 1934. Arab Christians who had converted to Anglicanism in Ottoman times faced suspicion during the Mandate period. Since Butrus al-Bustani founded the native Protestant Church in Beirut in 1848, Arab Protestants have held missionaries at arms’ length. But under British colonial rule suspicions were reignited and with reason. The administration of Palestine was not only run by Anglicans but they also supported the Zionist movement.

Shortly before his death in May 1947, his father convinced the Palestine Broadcasting Service to produce a series of radio shows on Palestinian folk tales.[5] The plan was warmly received by the Arabic programme controller, ʿAzmi Nashashibi. But after a few episodes, the station was attacked by Zionist terrorists.[6] Soon the entire quarter of Musrara became a target. The PBS building was adjacent to the Anglican vicarage, at that time the Marmuras' home. By the time they left Jerusalem, their shutters and inner walls were riddled with bullet holes. They took only what they could put on a small truck, abandoning Elias Marmura's unpublished translations and papers, which were never recovered; the furniture, the beds and, of course, the beloved piano.[7]

Michael’s Nakba and in North America

Michael and his family – he was the youngest of six – left Palestine in the spring of 1948, along with ca. 750,000 other Palestinians. They fled to Salt, and then made it to Ramallah, where Michael taught at a Quaker school for a while. Michael’s older brother Aziz made arrangements for him to go to Madison to read history and philosophy and looked after his tuition. There was no Palestinian community there, and it is unclear why Aziz chose Wisconsin. But in 1951, the Saids visited Michael there en route to enrolling young Edward at Mount Hermon school.[8] Both of them arrived at Princeton in the Fall term of 1953, Edward to start his undergraduate degree, and Michael to start his Ph.D. Michael was supporting himself through half a dozen odd jobs, and he left after a year for financial and personal reasons. He did not like the elitism, and the prospect of working with Prof. George Hourani at the University of Michigan trumped Princeton any day in Michael’s world.

Michael wrote his dissertation on the question of the world’s pre-eternity in Ghazali and Averroës. He also translated a rough version of Avicenna’s Shifā in Madison already.[9] As his widow, Betty told me jokingly, “Avicenna was with us on our honeymoon never departed.” Michael defended his thesis in 1959 and was recruited by UofT the same year. The next year, he met his future wife following a lecture he had given on Islam. She had some questions about a book by UofT alumnus Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and they walked up University Avenue together in the pouring rain, discussing Islam in Modern History. After that, she observed, life was good.

Marmura and Palestine activism in Toronto

But what happened to Palestine never gave Michael peace – he was haunted by what Said called “ the pathos of his shattered past” until the end of his life. It was not just the loss of his country, but the fact that in the US where he studied and had many friends, and in Canada where he became a citizen and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the injustice was and is never fully acknowledged. 

In the early years, Michael’s frustration about the lack of empathy for the plight of the Palestinians and the prevailing Islamophobia in North America moved him to engage the public sphere. He wrote countless letters to the editor while in the US. But – as anyone involved in the struggle for Palestine can attest – it takes its toll.[10] It was his academic work that saved his health, and he was well aware of it. Luckily for him and the field of medieval Islamic philosophy, he had family, friends and colleagues in Toronto who stepped into the fray. He was very grateful for the work of the late and great James Graf, professor of philosophy at Victoria College here at UofT, who ran the formidable and still operational Near Eastern Cultural and Educational Foundation.

In the wake of 9/11, Michael spoke to a meeting of the Canadian Council of Churches. It is worth recalling today what he pointed out then:

What we are seeing now in the Middle East is the climax of something that started years ago when decisions for the indigenous Palestinian population were made arbitrarily by outsiders without consultation of the people themselves. Why should I, who come from an old Palestinian Christian family, lose my country, my home, because a Balfour in England makes a declaration or a Truman in the U.S. makes a decision about my ancestral homeland? The violation in all this is not simply a violation of rights, but a negation of personality—perhaps the ultimate sin one human can inflict on another.

He concluded, again, with al-Ma‘arri:

Palestinians become very pessimistic. Some find solace in the poetry of the philosophical Arab poet al-Ma‘arri, who died in 1058. A pessimist (though not without a keen sense of humour), he declared:

How have I provoked your enmity?

Christ or Muhammad, ‘tis one to me.

No rays of dawn our sight illume.

We are sunk together in ceaseless gloom.

“These lines,” Michael said, “with all their pessimism, remind us at least that much of humanity is in the same boat. Many of us remain floundering, not knowing where we are and, in this sense, negative as it is, we are brethren. But we ought to seek to be brethren more positively, hoping that justice and compassion, by the grace of God, may prevail.”

If enough pressure was brought to bear, Michael would risk his health and return to the fray. I recall how frustrated I was when Michael was reluctant to be one of the speakers at a commemorative event I co-organized in the wake of Edward Said’s passing in the fall of 2003. Michael only came to the podium (having resisted for days all my entreaties) once Yusuf Said, a cousin of Edward’s and childhood friend of his, spoke. Then he climbed up and reminisced about the Said family’s generosity, especially Aunt Melia who helped so many Palestinians in Egypt and beyond after the Nakba, before he caught himself and talked about Edward the scholar, but not Palestine. 

Michael Marmura was a great scholar, a loving husband and caring father to Tim, Stephen and Heather. We owe it to him to remember how much he has lost as a Palestinian, and yet how much he has given to us: his family, his scholarly field and this university.

[1] In Richard Taylor and Irfan Omar, The Judeo-Christian-Islamic Heritage: philosophical & theological Perspectives (Milwaukee, Wis. : Marquette University Press), 173-92; in Sebastian Günther and Todd Lawson, Roads to Paradise: Eschatology and Concepts of the Hereafter in Islam 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2017),

[2] Michael Marmura in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 8 :3 (1969), 517-20 ; and ibid., “Plotting the Course of Avicenna’s Thought,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 111:2 (1991), 333-42.

[3] Said, Edward, Out Of Place; a Memoir (New York: Vintage, 1999), 107

[4] Ilyas Marmura, al-Samiriyyun (Jerusalem: Maktabat Filastin al-ʿIlmiyya, 1934).

[5] Farah, Najwa K., A Continent Called Palestine: One Woman’s Story (London: Triangle, 1996).

[6] Stanton, Andrea, This is Jerusalem Calling: State Radio in Mandate Palestine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013), 191ff.

[7] C.p. Adam Raz, forthcoming.

[8] Walhout, M.D., Arab Intellectuals and American Power: Edward Said, Charles Malik and he US in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2021).

[9] Mohammed Rustom, “In Memoriam: Michael E. Marmura, 1929-2009,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 20 (2010), 177-84.

[10] E.g. in 1977 on Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem to the Churchman’s fawning over Begin: “Begin [played an] earlier terrorist role and his underground Irgun was responsible for the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948.”