Work/Life Balance APA Member Interview: Mariam al-Attar

APA Member Interview: Mariam al-Attar

Mariam Al-Attar teaches philosophy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Her main interests include Arabo-Islamic philosophy and Moral Philosophy.  She is the author of Islamic Ethics: Divine Command Theory in Arabo-Islamic Thought. She studied physics and philosophy in Amman – Jordan and obtained her PhD in philosophy from the University of Leeds. She  previously served as head of department of Ethics, Philosophy and Religion at King’s Academy – Jordan.

What excites you about philosophy?

The most exciting thing about philosophy is that it is an overarching discipline that asks profound questions related to various fields of enquiry whether in the sciences or humanities. Anyone seeking a deep understanding of an issue will find themselves asking and trying to respond to questions that are philosophical in nature. It asks deep questions that trigger thinking and force us to revise our ideas and beliefs, thereby proving a very efficient tool in fighting the prejudice that plagues our societies.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?

My favorite thing that I have written is in the last two chapters of my book Islamic Ethics: Divine Command Theory in Arabo-Islamic Thought. In those pages, I investigate the ethical theory of ‘Abd al-Jabbar al-Asadabadi, a scholar from the tenth – eleventh century whose critique of Divine Command Theory remains relevant today. I offer an interpretation of his ethical theory based on his voluminous work al-Mughni, which I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with intellectually.

What are you working on right now? 

Right now I am working on a book on ethics in the Arabo-Islamic tradition that seeks to investigate various issues related to moral philosophy such as the meaning of ethical judgments, the idea of good and evil, and some theories of morality as postulated by different schools of thought.  In this book I seek to answer questions related to the contemporary relevance and significance of the scholars who flourished in the classical era. I investigate the works of modern and contemporary Arab scholars to probe how they understand and interpret classical Islamic theories of value and moral judgment. Also I seek to find out how contemporary Arab thinkers draw on ethical theories, values and concepts developed by medieval Muslim scholars in dealing with contemporary moral dilemmas.

This is something that I have been working on for several years. It will cover the most important traditions and schools, ranging from the Mu’tazilites to the Ash’arites and from the philosophers to Sufis or mystics, focusing on the works that best represent the moral thought in each tradition.  In addition to that, I am currently working on two papers on the topic of moral philosophy, which I’ll present in two conferences in Morocco and Seville this summer.

What common philosophical dilemma do you think has a clear answer? 

Well, I like to think that the dilemma posed by Plato in Euthyphro’s Dialogue has a clear answer. The question Socrates asked to Euthyphro was whether holy deeds are approved by the gods because they are holy or whether they are holy because they are approved by the gods. Now, to give an answer that defines piety, holiness or goodness to be whatever is approved in their scripture, risks serving an exclusionary purpose and contributes to a process of “Other-ing” and prejudice against people from other cultures and religions. If there is a God who loves piety and goodness for what they are, then it is our job to formulate a framework that helps us judge goodness and badness based on universal principles, and one which takes into consideration various circumstances and consequences. If a clear and non-exclusionary answer to this philosophical dilemma is accepted by all, I believe it could profoundly contribute to the well-being of our societies and the elimination of various kinds of prejudice and irrationality.

Who is your favorite philosopher and why?

My favorite philosophers are my teachers who had a profound influence on their students and Arabic readers, and from whom I learned a lot.  They are Professor Adel Daher and the late Professor Sahban Khalifat. I would say Adel Daher because of the depth of his philosophical investigations, especially in his book Ethics and Reason, in which he critiques some contemporary trends in the Western tradition. This is in addition to his other books which focus on the critique of contemporary trends in political Islam from a philosophical perspective. I must also name the late Professor Sahban Khalifat, who wrote a three-volume book called The Logical and Linguistic Analysis Methodology in Arab Islamic Thought. It contains an in-depth analysis of some important philosophical currents in Arabo-Islamic thought. His work is very rigorous, he edited various manuscripts written by Arab and Muslim scholars. Being under the mentorship of the late Professor Khalifat guided my approach towards philosophy, he was the one to illuminate the rich history of philosophers and thinkers – in the classical era and beyond – who were worthy of study and whose philosophical works demanded to be engaged with.

Find out more about Mariam al-Attar here!


This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better. We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it. We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.

Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


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