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The Rise of Falsafah: The Philosophical Tradition

The Rise of Falsafah: The Philosophical Tradition



The Heritage of Pre-Islamic Philosophy and Science . During the two and a half centuries between 750 and 1000, nearly all the Greek works that were available in the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East were translated into Arabic. The only Greek works that were not translated into Arabic were literary and historical works and books of Christian theology. Muslim theologians avoided books of Christian theology for religious and political reasons, just as Christian theologians avoided books of Islamic theology. Modern scholars do not know why Muslims did not translate Greek literary and historical works. Perhaps they avoided these works because they referred to pagan gods. However, Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics, the two best-known sources of Greek literary theory, had been translated into Arabic by the tenth century. Traces of Aristotle’s teachings on these subjects can be found in a variety of Muslim texts, ranging from books of law to the biographies of saints. The issue of Greek influence on Muslim historical writing and literature remains to be investigated. Although Aristotle was the “Greatest Sage” of both Greek and Islamic philosophy, his name seldom appears in Arabic works on literary stylistics. Nor do the historians of classical antiquity appear in medieval Arabic discussions of pre-Islamic history. Instead, Muslim authors preferred to rely on sources from the Arab and Persian cultural traditions. One Muslim theologian, ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (died 1037), even went so far as to claim that the Greeks stole their knowledge from ancient Arab sages.

The Translation Movement . Like the Kalam tradition of theology, the translation movement from Greek into Arabic is historically associated with the Abbasid khilafah. The foundation of the Abbasid capital of Baghdad in Iraq united as never before the cultural worlds of Greece and Persia and served as a bridge for communication with India and China. In addition, the development of paper, which reached the Muslim world from China as early as 751, greatly reduced the price of books and allowed the transmission of knowledge on an unprecedented scale. Paradoxically, the popularity of Persian culture at the Abbasid court also helped to stimulate the process of translating Greek works. The Abbasid khalifah al-Mansur (ruled 754-775), the founder of Baghdad, started the translation movement. He surrounded himself with Persian court officials and saw the Abbasids as continuing the Persian tradition of combining religion and state under an imperial ideology. The Sasanid kings, who ruled Iran from 226 until 642, believed that Greek philosophy and science developed from knowledge that Alexander the Great took from the Persians. Ardashir I (ruled 226-241), the founder of the Sasanid dynasty, ordered all available works of Greek philosophy and science to be translated into Persian, so that Persia could reclaim the intellectual heritage it had supposedly lost. By similarly ordering the translation of Greek works into Arabic, al-Mansur continued the process started by Ardashir five centuries earlier.

Islam and Late Antiquity . In many ways the Umayyad and Abbasid khilafahs shared more in common with the Byzantine and Persian empires of late antiquity than they did with the newly developing kingdoms of western Europe. Like the Byzantine and Persian empires, but unlike the kingdoms of Europe, the Islamic khilafah was a highly centralized state that made use of the contributions from a variety of cultures. The Umayyads relied heavily on Greek-speaking functionaries in their administration, while the Abbasids made use of Persians. Both regimes sought the services of the Arab Christians who lived in Syria and Iraq and Aramaic-speaking Christians and Jews who inhabited Iraq and western Iran. The first group of scholars and court officials translated books from Greek or Syriac into Arabic while the second translated Persian into Aramaic or Aramaic into Arabic. Indian works on astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and medicine passed into Arabic through the mediation of Persian translations.

Alexandria . In the sixth century, just before the coming of Islam, the Egyptian city of Alexandria was the foremost center for the study of Greek philosophy. For centuries, it

had played host to a variety of religions, theologies, and philosophies, including Platonism, Neoplatonism, Aristo-telianism, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Christianity. After the fall of Alexandria to the Muslims in 642, the philosophical traditions of the city spread eastward to Iraq and Central Asia. Particularly important were the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic traditions, which were introduced to Islam through the influence of works that were studied in Alexandria. The Isagoge (Introduction) by the Neoplatonist Porphyry of Tyre (circa 234 - circa 305) to Aristotle’s Categories was the most important handbook of logic. First translated into Arabic during the reign of al-Mansur, it became the standard introductory work for Muslim philosophers. Another important Neoplatonic work was Elements of Theology by Proclus (circa 410? - 485), an introduction to metaphysics, the study of the nature of God and immaterial entities such as mind and spirit. Drawing on the works of Plotinus (205-270), the great Egyptian teacher of Neoplatonic philosophy, as well as earlier varieties of Greek mystical philosophy, Proclus sought to propagate the “true though hidden meaning of Plato” through a discussion of metaphysical concepts such as the One, the Universal Intellect, and the Soul. These concepts later had an important influence on Islamic philosophy and mysticism. Another work that included the teachings of Plotinus and Proclus was a work known as Theology of Aristotle —which was, in fact, not written by Aristotle. It was actually the last three books of Plotinus’s Enneads (Nine Books) and parts of Proclus’s Elements of Theology. First translated into Arabic for use by the Muslim philosopher al-Kindi (circa 801 -866), it discusses Neoplatonic concepts such as the Universal Intellect and effusion, the “out-flowing” of being from the One. Works such as the Theology of Aristotle were as much mystical as philosophical and helped to foster the belief in an ancient wisdom tradition that prefigured the teachings of Islam. It was common for Muslim philosophers to think of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and other great figures of Greek philosophy as monotheists who would have become Muslims if they had been exposed to the Qur’anic revelation. According to al-Kindi, the true purpose of Aristotle’s metaphysics was to clarify the Islamic concept of divine unity (taivhid} and to elucidate the meanings of the ninety-nine “Beautiful Names of God” mentioned in the Qur’an.

Other Centers of Greek Learning . Besides Alexandria, other centers of Greek learning included Antioch, Harran, Edessa, and Qinnasrin in northern Syria, and Nisibis and Gondeshapur in Iraq. Greek works on logic were translated into Syriac and Arabic at Christian monasteries throughout the Middle East. The monastery of Qinnasrin in Syria, which was founded in the mid sixth century, produced several noted scholars, including Jacob of Edessa (died 708), who wrote a treatise on philosophical terms and translated Aristotle’s Categories into Syriac. Another Qinnasrin scholar, George, Bishop of the Arabs (died 724), produced translations of and commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories, On Interpretation, and Prior Analytics. The scholars of Harran preserved the mystical traditions and astronomical knowledge of Greece and Babylonia. Passing themselves off as Sabians, a sect that is associated with Christianity in the Qur’an, pagan Harranians served the Abbasid court as astrologers and provided an important link between Islam and the mystical traditions of late antiquity, such as Gnosticism and Hermetism. The best-known scholar of Harran was Thabit ibn Qurrah (died 901). Along with his son and grandsons, he made major contributions to the fields of mathematics and astronomy.

Gondeshapur . Named after the Sasanid king Shapur I (ruled 241-271), the city of Gondeshapur in Iraq was the site of an academy, founded by the Sasanids in 555, that served as a center for the revival of “Persian” knowledge appropriated by the Greeks. The directors of this academy were Nestorian Christians who had fled persecution by the Orthodox Christian Church of the Byzantine Empire and sought refuge among the Sasanids. After the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (ruled 527-565) closed down the academy of Athens in 529, the Persians also welcomed pagan Greek scholars. The Greek philosopher Damascius, a student of Proclus, lived in Gondeshapur until his death in 553. By the time the Abbasids founded Baghdad in 762, the city of Gondeshapur had become a major center of science and philosophy that included a medical school, a philosophical academy, and an observatory. The Nestorian Christian family of Bakhtishu, from Gondeshapur, served the Abbasids for more than two centuries as court physicians. Another Nestorian from Gondeshapur, Yuhannah ibn Masawayh (died 857) was director of the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) at the khalifah’s palace in Baghdad. His student, the Arab Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq (died 873), was the greatest translator of Greek works into Arabic. Hunayn’s translations include Plato’s Parmenides, The Sophist, Timaeus, The Republic, and The Laws. His son Ishaq ibn Hunayn (died 911) made important translations of nearly all the works of Aristotle.

The Bayt al-Hikmah . Several Arabic sources, starting with the tenth-century Fihrist (Index) by Ibn al-Nadim, claim that in the year 830 the Abbasid khalifah al-Ma’mun created a palace archive known as the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom). Modern Western scholars took these accounts as evidence that al-Ma’mun had created an official institute and library for translation and research that formed the basis for subsequent translations of Greek scientific and philosophical works. In order to stock the library, al-Ma’mun reportedly sent emissaries to Byzantium to purchase books of ancient learning. He then ordered these books to be translated by a panel of scholars, who were mostly Nestorian Christians from Gondeshapur. In 1998, however, Dimitri Gutas challenged the legend of the Bayt al-Hikmah, arguing that it appears to be inaccurate in two major respects. First, he produced evidence suggesting that it was not a major center for research and translation. Western scholars seem to have projected the modern image of a research institute onto ninth-century Baghdad and given what was actually a private palace library more importance than it was due. Gutas points out that Bayt al-Hikmah was the term used by the Sasanids to denote any library. Before Islam, Persian “houses of wisdom” were archives of Sasanid royal tradition, which contained Zoroastrian religious works and accounts of the sayings and deeds of Persian kings. Whatever wisdom they contained was confined to Persia alone. The most detailed accounts in medieval Arabic sources about the Abbasid Bayt al-Hikmah indicate that it too preserved the royal traditions of Persia. If any translation was done in this library, it was from Persian into Arabic, not from Greek into Arabic. Later Muslim scholars, who looked back at al-Ma’mun’s khilafah as a time of scientific and philosophical progress, ascribed the translation of nearly every rare or ancient book to this collection. These legendary accounts were then passed on by Western scholars, who sought in the intellectual rationalism of al-Ma’mun’s era a precursor to the modern scientific age.

Aristotle and Plato Meet the Qur’an . Gutas’s research also suggests a second problem: though there was a translation movement during the reign of al-Ma’mun, the legend gives him too much credit for it. The systematic translation of Greek, Persian, and Indian works into Arabic began with al-Mansur (ruled 745-775) and dates at least as far back as the founding of Baghdad. Yet, even this correction is insufficient because it gives all of the credit for the translation movement to kings. In reality, the translation of the works of classical and late antiquity was part of a widespread cultural movement that affected all the educated classes of Abbasid society. Abbasid khalifahs and princes— even some princesses—ordered many translations of Greek scientific and philosophical works, but most patrons of such translations were not from the Abbasid ruling family. They included courtiers such as Ahmad al-Sarakhsi (died 899), who studied philosophy and was a tutor to princes, and al-Fath ibn Khaqan, the commander of the Abbasid royal guard, who was a personal friend of the khalifah al-Mutawakkil (ruled 847-861). Another general who sponsored scientific translations was “Tahir of the Two Oaths” (died 823). Tahir’s grandson Mansur, who was the Abbasid governor of the eastern provinces at the end of the ninth century, was an authority on philosophy, music, astronomy, and mathematics. Musa ibn Shakir, a friend of the khalifah al-Ma’mun, was a former highwayman. His descendants, the Banu Musa, reportedly spent 500 gold dinars per month for full-time translation services by the best scholars and linguists of the age.

Religious Ramifications . As a product of the elite culture of Abbasid society, the translation movement eventually influenced the rest of the educated classes. In this way, Greek, Persian, and Indian works came to play a decisive role in the formation of Arabic literary culture. Besides stimulating the development of science in the Muslim world, foreign methods of inquiry and argumentation also influenced the way in which the religion of Islam was expressed. The Kalam tradition of systematic theology could not have developed without the influence of Greek logic. Throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, it was widely understood in the Muslim world that the truth was not the exclusive property of any single nation or belief system. The philosopher al-Kindi said, “We ought not to be afraid of appreciating the truth and acquiring it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from nations that are distant from us and races that are different from us. The status of no one is diminished by the truth. Instead, the truth ennobles us all.” This open-minded attitude toward the knowledge transmitted by non-Muslim peoples extended even to traditionalist scholars such as Ibn Qutaybah (died 889), who had little interest in philosophy. In his book ‘Uyun al-Akhbar (The Sources of Knowledge), he observed that “the ways to God are many and the doors of the good are wide.” He also commented:

Knowledge is the stray camel of the believer; it benefits him regardless from where he takes it. It will not lessen the truth if you hear it from pagans, nor can those who harbor hatred derive any advice from it. Shabby clothes do no injustice to a beautiful woman, nor do shells to pearls, nor does gold’s origin from dust. Whoever neglects to take the good from the place where it is found misses an opportunity, and opportunities are as fleeting as the clouds.… Ibn ‘Abbas (the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad) said: “Take wisdom from whomever you hear it, for the fool may utter a wise saying and a target may be hit by a beginner.”

Not every traditionalist scholar was as open to foreign knowledge as Ibn Qutaybah. Islamic philosophy, like the Kalam tradition that developed at the same time, continually suffered from problems of authenticity. Although Muslim philosophers were fond of viewing Plato and Aristotle as near Muslims, other Muslim scholars were aware that many of the teachings of Greek philosophy contradicted the Qur’an and the Sunnah. After the khalifah al-Ma’mun tried to impose Mu’tazilite theology as state orthodoxy in 832, much of the skepticism displayed toward the philosophical portion of the translated sciences turned into hostility. One extreme reaction came from the Maliki jurist Ibn Abi Zayd (died 998). A resident of the city of Qayrawan in Tunisia, Ibn Abi Zayd was both politically and ideologically opposed to the Abbasids. Seeing the translation movement as part of a Persian plot to undermine the Arab origins of Islam, he concocted an imaginative story that laid the blame for the influence of Greek philosophy at the feet of the Byzantine emperor. According to this story, the ruler of Byzantium was afraid that if his people studied Greek philosophy, they would abandon Christianity in favor of paganism, so he collected all of the Greek philosophical works in his empire and locked them up in a secret building. When the Persian wazir of the Abbasid khalifah heard about these books, he asked the Byzantine emperor if he could have them. The emperor was delighted to comply with this request. He informed the Orthodox bishops that the works of Greek philosophy, which were a danger to Christianity, could be sent to Baghdad, where they would instead undermine the beliefs of the Muslims. Ibn Abi Zayd ended his story with a warning: “Very few of the people who applied themselves to the study of these books avoided falling into heresy.”

Falsafah and Hikmah . Fahafahthe Greek-inspired philosophical tradition in Islam, is a complex field of knowledge. To the premodern Muslim, the Arabic term Falsafah did not mean “philosophy” in the sense that modern people understand the term. The common modern definition of philosophy as a body of knowledge that governs a person’s way of life, was expressed instead by the Arabic term hikmah (wisdom). In premodern Islam hikmah comprised several forms of knowledge, including those that now would be considered “philosophical,” “scientific,” or even “religious.” In his Kitab ihsa’ al-’ulum (The Enumeration of the Sciences), the philosopher al-Farabi (circa 870 -950) divided formal knowledge into six fields of inquiry: (1) science of language (linguistics, semantics, stylistics, reading, writing, and poetry); (2) logic (formal logic, rhetoric, and poetics); (3) mathematical science (arithmetic and geometry, optics, astronomy, music, and engineering); (4) physical science (properties of bodies, minerals, plants, and animals); (5) metaphysics or “divine science” (beings and their attributes, theoretical proofs, and incorporeal beings); and (6) civic science (ethics, political theory, law, religious practices, and religious dogma). Hikmah could be found in all of these fields, but to be true hikmah, a field of inquiry had to have ancient roots: its authenticity was proven by its validity throughout the ages. Just as Islam was seen as the continuation and culmination of a religious truth that went back to Adam, other forms of knowledge also had to have roots that could be traced back to antiquity. No ancient philosophical system was more widely revered than that of Aristotle. Muslim philosophers and theologians alike called Aristotle “The Sage” (al-Hakim) or “The First Teacher” (al-Muallim al-Aw’waf). Because Aristotle’s treatment of logic set standards that were accepted by almost everybody, his “wisdom” extended beyond Falsafah alone. But the typ- ic&lfay/asuf, the Muslim philosopher, did not enjoy Aristotle’s wide acceptance. To many Muslim theologians and jurists, the faylasuf was primarily loyal to the traditions of ancient Greece and only secondarily loyal to Islam. Hence, the knowledge he taught was not considered authentic and was not accepted by the majority of Muslims.

Criticism of Falsafah . The Ash’arite theologian al-Ghazali, who was one of the most important critics of Islamic philosophy, defined the faylasuf as a “practitioner of formal logic and rational demonstration.” The employment of logic and reason, in itself, was not a problem. Most theologians of the Kalam, including al-Ghazali, did the same thing. The main methodological problem for Sunni theologians was that the faylasuf believed that the most accurate knowledge was demonstrative reason and that everything, including miracles and prophecy, could be explained by logic and rational demonstration. Furthermore, the faylasuf’s uncritical belief in the traditions of ancient Greece led him to advocate doctrines that either contradicted the Qur’an and Sunnah or led to unwarranted interpretations of scripture. In Tahafut al-Falasifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers), his well-known critique of the Falsafah tradition, al-Ghazali mentions no fewer than twenty philosophical doctrines that were major sources of heresy. They included: a metaphysics that defined the existence and nature of God in Aristotelian or Neoplatonic rather than Qur’anic terms; a belief in the everlasting nature of the world, time, and motion; and an Aristotelian model of the soul that denied miracles and denied prophecy as an example of a divine miracle. These “heresies” applied to some of the best-known Islamic philosophers.

Al-Kindi . Known as “The Philosopher of the Arabs,” Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Kindi (circa 801-866) was the first Muslim philosopher to gain a lasting reputation. He was also one of the few who came from a purely Arab background. A descendant of South Arabian kings and the son of a governor of Kufah, al-Kindi was part of the Abbasid elite from birth. Al-Kindi was the upholder of an ecumenical tradition by which Greeks and Arabs were considered people of the same origin who were separated by different languages. He was a major patron and promoter of the Abbasid-era translation movement and fought against the attempt by more-conservative Muslims to limit the adoption of foreign methods and concepts in Islamic thought. After studying Arabic grammar and logic in Basrah, al-Kindi moved to Baghdad, where he enjoyed the patronage of the pro-Mu’tazila khalifahs al-Ma’mun (ruled 813-833), al-Mutasim (ruled 833-842), and al-Wathiq (ruled 842-847). As a member of the Abbasid court, he sponsored and supervised the translation of many of the most important Greek philosophical works. During the Sunni revival under al-Mutawakkil (ruled 847-861), he suffered a reversal of fortune that included the confiscation of his personal library. His fortunes were partially restored in his final years, following the death of al-Mutawakkil.

Al-Kindi’s Writings . Al-Kindi was one of the most prolific writers and most comprehensive thinkers in all Islamic history. The 260 works attributed to him by the bibliographer Ibn al-Nadim include writings on logic, metaphysics, arithmetic, music, astronomy, geometry, medicine, astrology, theology, psychology, politics, meteorology, topography, prophecy, and alchemy. Fewer than 10 percent of these works have survived. The variety of al-Kindi’s writings was so great that some Muslim historians who were familiar only with his scientific works classified him as a scientist or a mathematician, while others who were familiar mainly with his philosophical writings considered him a faylasuf. Although some of his critics accused him of trying to combine heresy and Islam, al-Kindi was the only major figure of the Falsafah tradition to attempt to make philosophy conform in both letter and spirit to the teachings of Islam. His rationalism and use of Qur’anic proof texts have led some historians to label him a Mu’tazilite. Unlike the philosophers criticized by al-Ghazali, he defended the Islamic doctrines of the creation of the world, the resurrection of the body, prophetic revelation, and the eventual destruction of the world by God. However, his metaphysics depended heavily on the teachings of Aristotle, and he saw Greek philosophy as part of a wisdom tradition that led from ancient times to its final culmination in the religion of Islam.

Al-Kindi’s Definition of God . For al-Kindi, God is deeply rooted in the Qur’an, but al-Kindi described Him in terms borrowed from Aristotle: Allah is Creator and Completer of all things, and an active Doer; yet, He is also First Cause and Unmoved. While the first three of these attributes resemble the Qur’anic conception of God, the final two evoke Aristotle’s definition of God as the “Unmoved First Mover.” Al-Kindi was perhaps closest to the Qur’an when he affirmed God’s absolute unity: “The True One [ Wahid Haqq] is pure and simple unity, nothing other than unity, while every other one is multiple.” God is absolute unity. Apart from God, every other apparent unity is divisible into parts. There is nothing in the world that cannot be divided into smaller components. Thus, the “unity” of worldly phenomena is an accidental unity, not an essential unity.

Accident and Essence . Accident and essence were two of the most important concepts inherited by Islamic philosophy from the Greeks. Accident is a property that belongs to a subject in a particular context. It can be defined only in relation to its subject and may exist in one or more of the following modes: quality, quantity, relation, time, place, position, condition, action, or reaction. For example, speed is an “accidental” property of a runner. It is accidental because it describes the runner only in certain, identifiable contexts: in relation to the other runners in a race, the place where the race is held, the time of the race, the movements of the runner’s body, the condition of the track, or the position of the runner on the track. Essence is a property that belongs to a subject in and of itself. It does not depend on the context in which the subject is found, and the subject cannot be conceived without it. For al-Kindi, unity and simplicity are essential attributes of God because The True One cannot be conceived without them: “He is not many but One, without multiplicity. He does not resemble His creation, for multiplicity exists in all creation but absolutely not in Him. He is the Creator and they are the created.” Al-Kindi also stressed the essential nature of divine simplicity by defining God negatively: “God is no element, no genus, no species, no individual, no part, no attribute, no accident.”

God and Creation . Unlike most other Muslim philosophers, al-Kindi did not believe in the eternity of the world. Instead, he was a firm believer in the Islamic doctrine of creation out of nothing. In Fi Hudud al-ashya’ a rusumiha (The Treatise on Definitions) al-Kindi stated, “creation means making something appear from nothing (lays).” The Arabic term lays, which al-Kindi used to mean “nothing,” is an example of a neologism, a new Arabic term created to express a Greek philosophical concept. Lays comes from the Arabic laysa, which means “not.” Al-Kindi used it in the sense of “non-being” or “not-ness.” This concept is contrasted with another Kindian neologism, ays, which can be translated as “being” or “is-ness.” When describing God’s ability to create the world out of nothing, al-Kindi said that God produces “being” (ays) from “non-being” (lays). His tendency to create neologisms makes al-Kindi’s works difficult to read for those who are not masters of the Arabic language.

Al-Kindi versus Aristotle . Despite his belief that the essential teachings of Aristotle agreed with the doctrines of Islam, al-Kindi’s conception of God was different from that of his Greek predecessor. Aristotle’s Unmoved First Mover is an eternal, motionless, and unchanging principle. This Necessary Pure Being is the source of all form and movement but is not concerned with the details of His creation. His only real activity is the contemplation of Himself. Aristotle’s God “loves” and motivates the world because the world is good, but He does not create the world. The most significant action of Aristotle’s God is to give form to matter. According to al-Kindi’s metaphysics, God, “The True One,” is similarly an eternal, necessary, and uncaused being, neither genus nor species, unchanging, indestructible, and perfect. God cannot be characterized as a body because bodies are divisible, and divisibility contradicts the Islamic concept of divine unity. Yet, unlike Aristotle’s Unmoved First Mover, al-Kindi’s God is an active Generator and Creator, who creates the world out of nothing and in time. According to al-Kindi, humankind knows that the world is created because everything in the world is characterized by accidents: if the world were eternal, it would have to be essential and thus could not contain accidents. Accidents, by definition, are not essential, so a world full of accidents cannot be eternal.


As he tried to resolve the contradictions between religion and philosophy, and Eastern and Western thought, Ibn Sina was widely criticized by his fellow Muslims. His poetry includes responses to his critics and attempts to work through religious issues:

I. Reply to His Critics

It is not an easy thing to call me a heretic.

No belief in religion is firmer than my own.

I am unique in this world, so if I am a heretic,

There is not a Muslim to be found anywhere!

II. Commentary on the Qur’anic “Verse of Light” (24: 35)

Accustom the soul to knowledge so that it may progress,

And leave aside all else, for the soul is everything’s abode.

The soul is like glass, and knowledge

A lamp, and God’s wisdom is the oil.

When you are illuminated you are alive,

But when you are in darkness you live no more.

III. On the Descent of the Soul

Why, then, was she cast down from her high peak

Into this degraded depth? It was God who brought her low,

For a wise purpose that is concealed

Even from the keenest mind and the liveliest wit.

If the tangled net impeded her,

And the narrow cage prevented her wings from soaring

Freely in heaven’s high ranges, she was yet A flash of lightning that brightly glowed

Momentarily over the tents, and then was concealed,

As if its gleam had never been seen below.


“Commentary on the Qur’anic ‘Verse of Light’,* translated from the Arabic by Vincent J. Cornell, from An Introduction to Islamic Cosmoloeical Doctrines, by Seyyea Hossein Nasr (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 202, n. 16.

“On the Descent of the Soul,” translation revised by Cornell, from Nasr, pp. 259-260.

“Reply to His Critics,” translated from the Persian by Cornell, from Nasr, p. 183, n. 12.

Astrology . Like other masters of Falsafah, al-Kindi believed in the law of cause and effect and denied the atomistic and occasionalistic model of the universe shared by the Ash’arites and most Mu’tazilites, but he betrays his distance from modern conceptions of causality by his belief in astrology. Astrology was widely accepted in premodern Islam. Rulers employed astrologers, and philosophers, theologians, and jurists believed that the stars and planets influenced affairs on earth. The cities of Baghdad and Cairo were founded and laid out on the basis of astrological prognostications. Al-Kindi’s belief in astrology stemmed from his acceptance of Ptolemaic astronomy and his interest in the astrological traditions of Harran. Both Harranian astrology and Ptolemaic astronomy described the stars and planets as “intelligences” that resided in spheres beyond the moon. These celestial spheres were interconnected, and the movement of the higher spheres influenced the spheres below them. For al-Kindi, it was clear from empirical observation that the movement of the spheres of the sun and the moon affected life on earth; for example, the passage of the sun in the sky gives rise to the seasons, and the motion of the moon affects the tides. He also believed that the motion of the spheres caused historical changes. These changes produced variations in the character and mores of nations and resulted in the rise and fall of political regimes. Interpreting literally the Qur’anic statement that “the stars and the trees” prostrate themselves before God (55: 6), al-Kindi concluded that “superior entities” such as the planets and the stars must possess life and intelligence. Furthermore, because the planets and the stars reside in the highest spheres, he believed that they are more perfect and intelligent than beings on earth. Not composed of the four terrestrial elements (air, earth, fire, and water) and having no opposites, they exist in an everlasting state of life and motion. According to Ibn al-Nadim, al-Kindi’s official position at the court of the Abbasid khalifahs in Baghdad was that of astrologer, not philosopher.

The Doctrine of the Soul . For al-Kindi, the soul (nafs) is affiliated with the heavenly spheres because it is not a body but an incorporeal substance. In the human being, the union of soul and body is not essential but accidental. The soul is the source of life; it governs the body for a time and then gives it up, leaving an empty husk. Because it is an incorporeal substance and hence superior to matter, the soul defines the body it inhabits: it constitutes the body’s identity or personality (shakhs). In relation to the body the soul is like form, which gives identity to formless matter. “The soul is a simple entity,” wrote al-Kindi, “whose substance is analogous to the Creator’s own substance, just as the light of the sun is analogous to the sun.” Al-Kindi’s model of the soul was typical of the Falsafah tradition, and it aroused the suspicion of conservative Muslims, who felt that it implied an identity between the soul and God. This model was influenced by Aristotle, who taught that the soul illuminated the body, and by Plato, who believed that the body imprisons the soul on earth, drawing it away from its celestial origin. When a person dies, the human or “partial” soul (al-nafs al-juziyah] leaves the body and returns to its true home, the abode of “intelligibles” (maqulat), which lies beyond the spheres. In this abode, the human soul joins with the Universal Soul (al-nafs al-kulliyah\ where it is illuminated by God and shares in all forms of knowledge. Al-Kindi did not specify whether human souls actually “link up” with the Universal Soul, a concept that later philosophers called ittisal. He did, however, make it clear that the Universal Soul is not God, for the True One is beyond both soul and intellect.

Reason and Belief . According to al-Kindi, not every human soul joins the Universal Soul in the abode of the intelligibles. Some souls need to be cleansed by residing successively in each of the heavenly spheres until they are purified. These are the souls of people who have fallen victim to the senses. Al-Kindi likened people who are overcome by the appetites to pigs, those who are overcome by the passions to dogs, and those who are ruled by reason to kings. Reason and religious belief come together in the imaginative or representational faculty of the human mind (al-musawwirati) .This faculty, which is natural to all human beings, creates images of things that are not seen on earth. Under the wrong conditions, the imaginative faculty may create monsters, but when it is not distracted by the senses, it can create representations of sublime things, such as those described in the Qur’an and other holy scriptures. Prophecy and revelation are the means by which God communicates ideas to the human imagination. By acting on this natural human faculty, God shows the way to salvation and ultimate happiness. For al-Kindi, true happiness lies in the pursuit of philosophical knowledge and the vision of God. The goal of the philosophical path is to come as near to the Creator as possible in the intellect. In general terms, this goal is the same as that of religion: “To know things in their reality is to know divinity, oneness, virtue, the knowledge of all that is useful, and the way to accomplish it. God’s messengers have similarly taught us how to recognize the divinity of the One God, to follow the virtues, and to abandon the vices that are opposed to the virtues.”

Al-Farabi . Known in the Latin West as Alfarabius or Abunaser, Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (circa 870 -950) was the second great Islamic philosopher after al-Kindi, master of logic in the Falsafah tradition and the father of Muslim political philosophy. Because of his originality and importance to Islamic philosophy, he was called the “Second Teacher” (al-Muallim al-Thani\ surpassed only by Aristotle. Born near the city of Farab, in Turkmenistan, al-Farabi was the son of a military officer, and his grandfather, who also held a military post, was a Turkish convert to Islam. According to some biographical sources, al-Farabi “knew every language,” which meant that apart from Arabic, he knew Persian and several dialects of Turkish, and perhaps could read Syriac and Greek. To further his education, al-Farabi moved to Bukhara in Uzbekistan, where he studied Persian and music. His Kitab al-Musiqa al-kabir (Great Book of Music) was the most influential treatise on music in the Islamic world. His temporary service as a judge led to an interest in logic and the techniques of debate and dialectical reasoning. Unlike al-Kindi, who took his philosophical knowledge mainly from books, al-Farabi represented the living tradition of the school of Alexandria, which he traced from teacher to teacher back to the masters of late antiquity. Surviving fragments of al-Farabi’s autobiography reveal that he was first exposed to Alexandrian philosophy in Marv, in Turkmenistan. His teacher was the Nestorian monk Yuhannah ibn Haylan (died 910), who lived at the monastery of Masergasan near Marv. Al-Farabi was devoted to Ibn Haylan as his teacher and his personal mentor and followed him to Baghdad, Harran, and possibly Constantinople. On returning to Baghdad, al-Farabi studied under the Nestorian philosopher Matta ibn Yunus (died 940), who was one of the foremost translators of Aristotle. While in Baghdad, al-Farabi gave many lectures on Aristotle’s Physics and On the Soul. In 942 al-Farabi left Baghdad for Damascus, where he wrote some of his most important works, including his masterpiece of political philosophy, Mabadi ara ahl al-madinah al-fadila (Principles of the Beliefs of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City). He died in Damascus at the end of the year 950 and is buried in the cemetery outside of the southern gate of that Syrian capital.

“Farabian” Theology . When compared with al-Kindi’s, al-Farabi’s conception of God is less dependent on the Qur’an and more dependent on Aristotle and Plato. In fact, his philosophy is such an original synthesis of Plato, Aristotle, and the Qur’an that some modern scholars have refused to characterize it as Platonic, Aristotelian, or Islamic but instead have called it uniquely “Farabian.” Al-Farabi did not neglect to use Qur’anic terminology or cite Qur’anic verses. He began his works with the traditional formula “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” and praised God as “Lord of the Worlds” and “God of the east and the west.” But he also described God as “Necessarily Existent,” “Cause of Causes,” and “Eternal, Unchanging.” In a religious work titled Al-Dua al-’Azim (The Magnificent Invocation), al-Farabi asked God to bestow on him “an emanation from the Active Intellect” and to purify his soul from the “filth of matter” and the “murkiness of nature.” After asking to be guided by the “brightness of the Intellect,” he ended the invocation with a Qur’anic verse: “God is the Protector of the believers; He brings them forth from darkness into light” (11: 258). To Muslim traditionalists, such interpretations of Qur’anic verses in Greek philosophical terms exemplified the heretical nature of the Fal-safah tradition.

Platonic Interpretations . When al-Farabi read the Qur’an, he did so through Platonic glasses. In a work comparing the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, he argued that Aristotle’s ideas are compatible with those of religion and hence compatible with the ideas of Plato. In other words, it is not the Qur’an, but Plato, that defines religion. In al-Farabi’s works Platonic and Qur’anic terms and concepts are shuffled together, producing a synthesis that owes more to Neoplatonism than it does to the Prophet Muhammad. God is the First Being and the First Cause. He is without beginning, eternal, and necessarily existent. His absolute unity is a function of His essence: “His being by which He is distinguished from other beings cannot be other than that by which He Himself in essence exists.” God has no partner and no opposite. He is total simplicity: indivisible in His substance, He is indescribable, immaterial, and without form. Reproducing Aristotle’s definition of God as “thought thinking itself” (Latin: intellectus intel-ligent intellectum), al-Farabi said that God is “a thinking Intellect that thinks up its own essence.”

Essence and Existence . One of al-Farabi’s most important contributions to the field of metaphysics was his explanation of the difference between essence and existence. His views on essence and existence were later adopted by Ibn Sina (980-1037), who in turn influenced the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Al-Farabi claimed that the essence of a thing is both different from and independent of its existence. Thus, whenever a thing “exists,” it owes its existence to something outside itself. In other words, existence is an “accident” of essence. Essence and existence are discussed in several of al-Farabi’s works, including Mabadi’ ara ahl al-madinah al-fadila and Kitab al-Huruf The Book of Letters). At times, these concepts appear under different Arabic names. The most common Arabic term for essence is dhat but al-Farabi also used the neologism mahiyyah (what-is-it-ness) to denote essence as a subject. Existence is most often expressed by vuujud, but at times al-Farabi uses the neologism huwiyyah (he-ness). Hu’wiyyah comes from the Arabic pronoun huwwa (he). The Arabic word for “pronoun” is damir, meaning a term that stands in place of something whose identity is hidden from view. Thus, according to Arabic grammar, another subject at which al-Farabi excelled, existence is a predicate of essence because it describes an essence that remains beyond definition. God, however, is not a predicate. God is the Originator of existence directly from His essence. He bestows existence on all things, but in Himself, both essence and existence are inseparable parts of His nature. By making God an exception to the normal essence-existence distinction, al-Farabi harmonized the teachings of Greek philosophy and the Qur’an. Although “The Existent” (al-Wujud) is not a name of God in the Qur’an, a related term, al-Wajid, is one of the ninety-nine names of God. For al-Farabi, al-Wajid meant “He Who Brings Things into Existence.” This meaning is identical with God the Originator (al-Badi’),a concept that appears both in the Qur’an and in the metaphysical writings of Aristotle.

The Doctrine of Emanation . Bringing things into existence is not necessarily the same as creating them. The Qur’anic Creator (al-Khaliq) is a self-determined, purposeful deity who both wills things into being and actively brings them into existence. In Qur’anic terminology, “When [God] decrees a thing, He merely says unto it, ‘Be!’ and it is” (2:117). Al-Farabi’s God does not really create the world. Instead, God allows the world to come forth from Him as an emanation (sudur). This outflowing of being from God is involuntary; it is neither willed nor chosen by God and cannot be prevented. Since the world emanates from God as part of the divine nature, it is not completely separate from God. Thus, it must have existed as long as God has existed. For this reason, it is impossible to claim that the world was created in time. This view is the doctrine of the eternity of the world to which Al-Ghazali and other Muslim theologians objected so strenuously. It is difficult to see how al-Farabi could reconcile the doctrines of Greek philosophy and Islam on this important point. Either God wills and creates the world or He does not. Only by saying that the concepts of “willing” and “creating” are metaphors can one claim that the Farabian doctrine of emanation agrees with the Islamic doctrine of creation.

The Stages of Emanation . Al-Farabi tried to overcome this problem by combining a multistage model of emanation taken from the Neoplatonists with a model of the soul taken from Aristotle. Creation is a function of what al-Farabi calls the “Active” or “Agent” Intellect (al-Aqlal-Fa’al) This Intellect gives form to matter and actualizes the human intellect, which mirrors the Active Intellect in its rational faculties. However, the Active Intellect is not God. Instead, it corresponds to the “Holy Spirit” or “Trustworthy Spirit” mentioned in the Qur’an (26: 193). But in the Qur’an, the “Holy Spirit” and the “Trustworthy Spirit” are agents of revelation, not of creation. Thus, the Active Intellect, in the guise of the Holy Spirit, does not really create the world. Rather, it “illuminates” or reveals the universal forms of things in the world, bringing them out of potentiality into actuality. For al-Farabi, God is The First (al-Awwal) —a motionless, perfect being, beyond both form and substance. Substance, form, soul, and matter all emanate from God in an automatic, ten-step process that proceeds downward, like the rungs of a ladder. The closest thing to an initial “Creator” in this process is the First Intellect, which al-Farabi, following Plotinus, calls “The Second.” The form and substance of the First Heaven, where the universal forms of things are established, emanate from the First Intellect. The Second Intellect is another emanation of the First Intellect, and shares with the First Heaven the highest rung of the ladder of existence. The Second Intellect is the source of the Third Intellect, which provides the “soul” of the Sphere of the Fixed Stars. This process of emanation then continues down the rungs of the ladder through the spheres of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, and Mercury, each sphere paired with a particular intellect, until the ladder of existence reaches the lowest rung, the Tenth Intellect, which corresponds to the sphere of the moon. This Tenth Intellect is the Active Intellect, which, besides being known as the Holy Spirit and the Trustworthy Spirit, is also the angel Jibril.

The Active Intellect . In addition to giving form to matter, the Active Intellect fills the world with mind and spirit. Following the ancient adage that “only like can know like,” al-Farabi assumed that the Active Intellect and the human intellect are related organically. He called the Active Intellect “a separate form of human being” or the “True Human Being” (al-Insan ‘ala al-Haqiqati). Humanity attains its full potential when it realizes within itself the intellectual nature of the True Human Being; that is, when the human intellect begins to take on the qualities of the Active Intellect. According to al-Farabi, every human being has a “Potential Intellect,” which exists in the person as an inborn capacity to know objects, concepts, and ideas. The forms of these “intelligibles” lie dormant in the human mind until the Active Intellect illuminates them. Once illuminated, they “come to life” and become the concepts and ideas that enable one to live in the world. When reason and logic come to govern the mind, the Potential Intellect becomes the “Actual Intellect.” The hallmark of the Actual Intellect is the ability to engage in abstract thinking and theoretical reasoning. When a person’s theoretical knowledge allows the mind to transcend the senses and perceive the universal forms of things abstracted from matter, the Actual Intellect becomes the “Acquired Intellect.” This highest form of the human intellect is called the “Acquired” Intellect because it takes on, to a limited extent, the creative capacity of the Active Intellect. In a few rare cases, the Acquired Intellect absorbs so much illumination from the Active Intellect that continuity (ittisal) occurs between the two intellects. Al-Farabi calls the person in whom this continuity is established the Prophet, the Imam, or the “Perfect Philosopher.”

Religion and Philosophy . The revelation of a holy scripture such as the Qur’an comes about when the Active Intellect communicates knowledge of the intelligibles to the Acquired Intellect of the Prophet. On receiving this knowledge, the Acquired Intellect becomes the “Prophetic Intellect.” The Prophetic Intellect translates the knowledge imparted by the Active Intellect into human language, which the Prophet communicates to the general public. The public, however, is not able to discern the true nature of the Prophet’s revelation. Instead of seeing how knowledge is passed from the Active Intellect to the Prophetic Intellect through emanation, they conceive of this emanation as a “miraculous” revelation of scripture. Instead of seeing the Active Intellect as the true agent of revelation, they imagine the angel Jibril in bodily form. For al-Farabi, a revealed religion such as Islam is necessary for the guidance of humanity. But as a source of knowledge it is limited, because its message is abridged for “general audiences.” Religion teaches the same truths as philosophy, but it teaches these truths through a persuasive method that works on the imagination. As such, it can impart only beliefs. Philosophy, however, teaches through a superior method of rational demonstration that works on the mind. Thus, its teachings go beyond mere beliefs and impart rational certainty to the human intellect.

Political Terminology . Nearly all of al-Farabi’s discussions of religion are to be found in his works of political philosophy. Consequently, he tends to define religion in political terms. The term he chooses for “religion” is millah, which denotes a religious community, not a set of beliefs. For al-Farabi, “Millah and ‘religion’ (din) are nearly synonymous, as are law’ (shan ah) and ‘tradition’ (Sunnati)” Theology is limited to dogma, and thus is not an intellectual science: “Religion is beliefs and actions, determined and restricted by regulations and prescribed for a community by their First Ruler [the Prophet].” This view of religion deals only with its outward form, not with its inner, spiritual dimension. For al-Farabi, a religion is a community of believers who believe and act according to what has been determined for them by the Prophet, who is also their political leader. The required forms of religious practice and the limits of belief are restricted by laws set down by the Prophet and are guided by his personal example. Although al-Farabi acknowledged that theology is the theoretical aspect of religion, its function is mainly descriptive. It provides a “likeness of the truth” rather than the truth itself. Both religion and philosophy have theoretical and practical aspects, but the “universals,” or inner meaning, of the laws and customs of religion are to be found only in philosophy. Thus, for al-Farabi, religion was an inferior version of philosophy.

Ibn Sina . Known in the Latin West as Avicenna, Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn Ibn Sina (circa 980-1037) was one of the best-known Islamic philosophers among European scholars. Although he is also well known in the Islamic world, his influence on Islamic thought is more limited and has been confined mainly to Shnsm. His ideas were largely discredited in Sunni Islam, mostly because of attacks leveled against him by the Sunni theologian al-Ghazali and the philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198). Ibn Sina’s works on medicine and the natural sciences were more universally accepted than his philosophical writings. They were frequently copied and disseminated in both the Muslim world and in medieval Europe. In Shi’ism, Ibn Sina is best known for the system of thought he called “Oriental Philosophy” or “Eastern Wisdom” (al-Hikmah al-Mashriqiyati) .

Exposure to Islamic Sects . Ibn Sina was born in the region of Bukhara, Uzbekistan. His father was a district official who followed the Ismaili sect of Shnsm. Although Ibn Sina was exposed to Ismaili doctrines from an early age, he did not consider himself an Ismaili. Instead, he preferred to maintain his independence from any sect, and his teachers included both Sunnis and Shntes. In religion, as well as in philosophy, he adopted what suited him and left the rest. Ibn Sina was a prodigy as a child and a genius as an adult. He had memorized the Qur’an by the age of ten and Aristotle’s Metaphysics by the age of eighteen. As a teenager, he mastered the disciplines of logic, Islamic law, astronomy, and medicine. At the age of seventeen, he cured the ruler of Bukhara of a major illness. Often, he solved difficult philosophical problems in his sleep. By the age of twenty-one he had written important works on mathematics, the natural sciences, and ethics. During a turbulent career in which his fortunes rose and fell several times, Ibn Sina traveled throughout Iran and Central Asia. He served a variety of rulers as both physician and government official and met several Sufi masters. Many of his best-known works were written during a fifteen-year sojourn in the Iranian city of Isfahan. He died in the Iranian city of Hamadan, where he sought refuge after an Afghan army attacked Isfahan.

Philosophy and “Oriental Wisdom.” Ibn Sina’s al-Qanun fil-tibb (Canon of Medicine) was translated into Latin and was the most important book on medicine in Western Europe until the seventeenth century. It is still the authoritative text on traditional Muslim medicine in countries such as Pakistan, where premodern techniques of healing are practiced alongside modern medicine. Ibn Sina’s other masterwork was the Kitab al-Shifa (Book of Healing). Although its title suggests that its subject is medicine, it is a work of philosophy that covers logic, physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. The Kitab al-Shifa ’\s a masterpiece of Aristotelian and Platonic thought and shares much in common with the works of al-Farabi. Toward the end of his life, Ibn Sina began to compose works on “Oriental Wisdom.” These works—Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Living Son of Awake), Risalat wa al-Tair (Epistle of the Bird), Salaman ‘was Absal (Salaman and Absal), and Mantiq al-Mashriqiyin (The Logic of the Easterners)—mark an important departure from his earlier philosophical writings. Written in symbolic and allegorical form, they describe visionary experiences that demonstrate how the soul may achieve continuity with God. These mystical works, more than his writings on rational philosophy, became influential in the Shi’ite tradition of esoteric theology.

A Perennial Tradition . Like al-Farabi, Ibn Sina tried to reconcile the conflicting claims of religion and philosophy, and like al-Farabi as well, he was often accused of heresy. He resisted these charges and proclaimed himself a sincere Muslim. His ideal was a system of thought that combined the wisdom of the Greeks and the Hebrew prophets, a tradition that was completed with the coming of Islam. This ideal of a philosophical religion hinted at the existence of a perennial wisdom, a universal form of knowledge that was common to Greek philosophy and Islam alike. Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (circa 1155-1191), the founder of the Illuminationist (ishraqf) school of Islamic mysticism, reacted favorably to this “oriental” aspect of Ibn Sina’s thought. In his Qissat al-Ghurbal Gharbiyyah (Story of the Western Exile), al-Suhrawardi refered to Hayy ibn Yaqzan and claimed that Ibn Sina’s Oriental Philosophy was the inspiration for his own philosophy of illumination. Observing that the Arabic words for “illumination” (ishraq) and “eastern” (mashriqi) come from the same root, al-Suhrawardi argued for a perennial philosophy that was the inner truth of all religions. Some modern scholars have suggested that Ibn Sina’s poetic compositions were also attempts to draw inspiration from this tradition of perennial wisdom.

Being and Existence . Ibn Sina’s rational philosophy is similar to al-Farabi’s. In fact, most of Ibn Sina’s philosophical works may be seen as commentaries on al-Farabi’s. The Turkish bibliographer Hajji Khalifah (died 1657) claimed that Ibn Sina’s Kitab al-Shifa was based on an earlier, lost work by al-Farabi titled Al-Talim al-thani (The Second Teaching). Both al-Farabi and Ibn Sina placed great importance on the difference between essence and existence, and both made use of a hierarchical model of existence that has ten levels of manifestation. Whereas al-Farabi stressed the concept of essence as the key to his philosophy, however, Ibn Sina focused on existence and argued for a clearly articulated theory that unites essence and existence as twin aspects of a wider, universal category of Being. For Ibn Sina, God was First Being, a sort of Existence-before-existence that makes all other existence necessary: Wajib al-Wujud. This Arabic term is usually translated as “Necessary Being,” but its literal meaning is “Necessarily Existent.” In this wider category of Being, essence and existence are unified, as in the well-known Chinese symbol of yin and yang. For Ibn Sina as well as al-Farabi, the existence of all things other than God is accidental, and their apparent unity is an illusion. God is the only Necessary Being. Other beings are either necessary in a limited sense, such as the Intelligences

or angelic substances that maintain the universe, or they are accidental bodies that come into existence and pass away. God alone is pure Truth and Goodness. The world emanates from God as an object of His Love, and out of love for Him all things return to God. The universe is nothing but the manifestation and effusion of divine Being. The products of the human imagination are true and good according to how much they correspond to Necessary Being and are evil and false according to their rejection of Necessary Being. All things find true happiness in union with Necessary Being, on which they completely depend and without which they would not exist.

Knowledge and Revelation . Ibn Sina also shared with al-Farabi a belief in intellectual revelation. For al-Farabi, a prophet is a man endowed with inborn wisdom who progresses to the knowledge of the universals by developing his rational faculties and by achieving continuity with the Active Intellect. Although the prophet does not need a teacher to guide him, he still must progress through the stages of intellectual development like any other person. For Ibn Sina, however, divine knowledge does not come to the prophet through the development of his rational faculties. Instead, the soul of the prophet is ignited by the sudden effusion of wisdom from the Active Intellect. Like a bolt of lightning, knowledge of the universals comes to the prophet independently of any rational training or development. The philosopher experiences a similar “ignition” of the soul when he acquires knowledge of the universals. But, unlike the prophet, the philosopher must follow the route laid out for him by al-Farabi: the “lightning” of divine knowledge can strike the philosopher only when his mind has progressed through the normal stages of intellectual development. By making the illumination of the prophet an exception to this rule, Ibn Sina preserved the Islamic sense of miracle and the revelatory nature of divine communication that al-Farabi risked losing with his more rationalistic model of intellectual illumination.

Philosophy and Medicine . Although Ibn Sina was one of the most important Islamic philosophers to combine philosophy and medicine, he was not alone. Philosophy was an important part of medical training. In premodern Islam, the study of nature complemented the study of religion. Unlike today, there was no conception of randomness in nature, and everything that existed was thought to have meaning. Both reason and the senses had important roles to play in understanding God’s plan. The world of nature was where the wisdom of God was made manifest. By observing nature, the philosopher could learn God’s plan for the world. As a form of traditional wisdom, the study of nature was associated in the Qur’an with the prophet Solomon, who studied the “language of the birds” (27: 16), and with the prophet Luqman “The Sage,” who learned hikmah so that he would “be thankful to God” (31: 12).

Motion and Inclination . For Islamic philosophers, the world of nature was a world of motion. God moved all things according to a natural purpose. But motion did not just consist of moving a thing from place to place. For Aristotle, motion meant going from potentiality to actuality. For Ibn Sina, motion was a process of becoming. Motion may be accidental, as when cookies in a cookie jar are moved when the jar is shaken. Motion may be “impulsive,” as when an outside force acts on an object and causes it to move. Motion may be natural, as when an object possesses something within itself that impels it toward movement. Ibn Sina also believed that motion could be quantitative: that is, it comprised the processes of growth, shrinkage, expansion, and contraction. Physical motion, such as throwing a ball, was thought to occur in two stages. First, an impulsive (qasri) force puts the ball in motion; next an inclination (may!) sees the act through to its completion. Ibn Sina identified three kinds of inclination: psychic or spiritual inclination (may! nafsi), impulsive inclination (may! qasri), and natural inclination (mayI tabi’i). The desire of a person to throw the ball is an example of “psychic inclination” (mayI nafti). The force of the arm that throws the ball constitutes “impulsive inclination” (may! qasri). The inner desire of the ball to reach its target is “natural inclination” (mayl tabi’i). Ibn Sina equated inclination with love (‘ishq) which, he believed, pervaded the entire universe. In modern physics, gravity causes an object to drop from a tower to earth. For Ibn Sina, the attraction, or “mutual love” of the object and the earth causes the object to fall. By equating inclination with love, Ibn Sina revived the ancient vision of a living cosmos where all change is caused by the love of things for each other and the love of the universe for God.

Equilibrium . In Ibn Sina’s philosophy all things naturally incline toward a state of goodness and perfection. Nature always tries to restore a sense of balance, to establish or re-establish equilibrium. In medieval medicine, illness was often thought to be caused by an excess of some “humor” (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, or black bile) or “quality” (hot, cold, dry, or wet). One of the ways to cure illness was to restore the original balance of humors—usually by applying the opposite humor to that which originally seemed to have caused the disease. Death was not considered evil because it restored an equilibrium that had been upset at a higher level. Evil was not caused by nature but by matter, which was the only thing in the universe that was truly “dead.”

Form and Matter . Following the Neoplatonists, Ibn Sina believed that matter had no independent reality of its own. It could exist only when combined with form. Ibn Sina defined form as “the quality of the essence by which a body is what it is.” Matter was “that which supports the quality or form.” Matter could exist only through the form imparted to it by the Active Intellect, which he also called the “Giver of Form.” Without form, matter would have no reality: “Matter is created for form and its purpose is to have form imposed on it, but form is not created for matter.” Body, which is made up of form and matter, is that which possesses the possibility of being divided. A body is a substance that contains within itself both potentiality and actuality; its potentiality is matter, and its actuality is form. Matter is nothing on its own, but “receives” the form that is imposed on it. As such, it is the furthest thing from Being, which is the source of life and form. Thus, insofar as there is evil in the world, evil can always be traced to “dead” matter.

Time and Space . Composed of form and matter, bodies exist in the world through the mediation of time and space. For Ibn Sina, time and space were not independent realities but were accidental conditions that depended on the existence of bodies. The modern notion of “empty space” had no meaning for him. The space or “place” (makan) of a body was the boundary that surrounded it. For example, with regard to the “elements” of fire and air, the “place” of fire is in the heavens and the “place” of air is in fire. Ibn Sina defined the orientation of objects in the universe according to six primary directions: up and down, right and left, and front and back. The length of a body was defined as the plane between the two poles, with south as the up direction and north as the down direction; the width of a body was the plane between right and left; the thickness of a body was the depth between front and back. The model Ibn Sina used to determine the orientation of space was the human body: “If a person lies down, facing the heavens with his right hand toward the east, his head will be toward the south.” Because the head, or “up” direction of the human body was associated with the south, premodern Islamic maps appear upside down in comparison with modern maps, in which the “up” direction is north.

Time . For Ibn Sina, time, like space, was also relative. Time depended entirely on change: “If there is no change and no motion there is no time.” According to Ibn Sina, time was a continuous quantity that could be divided indefinitely without ever reaching an end point, or “atom of time.” Because time is continuous, it must accept division. This division is the “moment.” Because time has no end point, however, Ibn Sina’s “moments” are not measurable moments but purely theoretical divisions. Because space also extends indefinitely, the point in space is similarly a theoretical entity. Thus, for Ibn Sina, the passing of time in the universe was like the passing of plasma through space: it could only be observed through its motion, or “flow.”

A Living Universe . The universe of the Greek and Islamic philosophers was vastly different from the universe a modern person imagines. Their universe was made up of living beings: planets and stars possessed intelligence; the motion of the heavenly spheres affected the lives of humans on earth; and the all-pervading presence of the Active Intellect ensured that the natural order possessed meaning and purpose. God’s will and plan could be found everywhere. By contrast, the modern idea of a universe of inanimate matter and energy would have appeared dead to these philosophers. A cosmology of galactic clusters, black holes, dark matter, red giants, white dwarfs, and subatomic particles such as protons, electrons, and quarks—all governed by the impersonal forces of relativity, chaos, and uncertainty— would have seemed sinister and demonic to philosophers whose universe was motivated by a “love” that sought goodness and perfection in order and equilibrium. It is important to remember that the universe of the Greek and Islamic philosophers was not only based on mistakes of empirical observation. Empirical science existed in the pre-modern world, just as it exists today. Yet, for the Greek and Islamic philosophers, a world without an underlying meaning was a world without God. A science or philosophy that constructed a world without God was atheistic and therefore evil. For Plato and Aristotle, as much as for Ibn Sina, such a world was inconceivable.

Ibn Rushd . Known in the Latin West as Averroes, Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd (1126-1198) was the greatest Aristotelian philosopher in the Islamic world. Like Ibn Sina’s, however, his writings were more widely accepted in the West than among his own people. He was born in Cordoba, the former capital of Islamic Spain, and was named after his grandfather, who had been a renowned jurist of the Maliki school of Islamic law. When Ibn Rushd was in his twenties, North Africa and Islamic Spain fell under the control of the Almohads (Arabic: al-Muivahhi-duny “Unitarians”). These religious reformers from the mountains of Morocco and western Algeria sought to harmonize the differences among the schools of Islamic law by creating a new, synthetic legal system that combined the best of all methods. In both law and theology, the Almohads based their doctrines on the apparent meaning of the Qur’an and selected hadith accounts whose authenticity could be clearly verified. While ordinary believers were prohibited from speculating about ambiguous passages in the Qur’an, the scholars of Almohad doctrine (talabah) and the non-Almohad “urban scholars” (talabat al-hadar) who specialized in the rational sciences were allowed to use dialectical and demonstrative reasoning to examine theological issues. Falsafah was taught at the court of the second Almohad ruler, Abu Yaqub Yusuf I (ruled 1163-1184). Ibn Rushd’s attempt to harmonize Falsafah and the Shari’ah was greatly influenced by the Almohad approach to law and theology.

Physician-Philosopher . Like his predecessor Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd combined the theoretical study of philosophy with the practical study of medicine. Like Ibn Sina, he wrote a celebrated work on medicine, which he titled Al-Kulliyyatfi al-Tibb (The General Book of Medicine). In 1169, shortly after the completion of this work, Abu Ya’qub Yusuf invited Ibn Rushd to Marrakesh, the capital of the Almohad empire, and commissioned him to compose commentaries on the works of Aristotle, a project on which Ibn Rushd spent the next ten years. He also wrote important critiques of the works of Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali. During Ibn Rushd’s lifetime his commentaries on Aristotle were translated into Hebrew and were highly regarded by the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). In the thirteenth century, translations of Ibn Rushd’s works from either Hebrew or Arabic influenced such important European philosophers as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Siger of Brabant (circa 1240 -circa 1284).

Philosopher-Jurist . Unlike other Islamic philosophers, Ibn Rushd spent a considerable part of his career as a practicing jurist. He wrote two treatises on legal interpretation. His best-known legal work, Bidayat al-mujtahid wa-nihayat al-muqtasid (The Jurist’s Beginning and the Layman’s End), uses Aristotelian logic to resolve differences among the schools of Islamic law. By resolving these differences, he hoped to create a universal approach to Islamic jurisprudence that would fulfill the spirit of Almohad reform. Despite his acceptance of Almohadism, however, the Almohad religious establishment never accepted Ibn Rushd. After his royal patron died, his philosophical beliefs came under increasing attack. In 1194 he was accused of heresy and brought before the current Almohad ruler, Ya’qub al-Mansur. Al-Mansur ordered Ibn Rushd’s books to be burned and kept the philosopher and his followers under house arrest in the town of Lucena, near Cordoba. According to Ibn Rushd, the saddest moment of his life came during this period, when he was thrown out of a masjid by the other worshipers because they thought he was not a Muslim.

Making the Case for Falsafah . Apart from his commentaries on Aristotle, most of Ibn Rushd’s philosophical writings

fall under the category of apologetics. These works were composed as critiques of specific philosophical theories or to refute the accusation that Falsafah was a heretical system of thought. Ibn Rushd’s best-known apologetic works are Fasl al-maqalfi ma bayna al-shari’ah wa-al hikmah mm al-ittisal (The Decisive Discourse and Affirmation of the Connection between Shari’ah and Philosophy), a discussion of the relationship between Falsafah and Shari’ah (or more properly, between philosophical knowledge and knowledge derived from revelation), and Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the “Incoherence”), his answer to al-Ghazali’s critique of the Falsafah tradition.

The Decisive Discourse . Ibn Rushd wrote The Decisive Discourse at the end of the period in which he completed his commentaries on Aristotle. Although he lived this portion of his life in safety under the patronage of a powerful monarch, the intellectual climate of the day was antiphilo-sophical. The literalists (Hashvjiyyah) among Maliki jurists and partisans of the doctrines of Ahmad ibn Hanbal resisted any speculation about the nature of God or the divine attributes. The Ash’arite theologians, who were favored by the Almohads, held theories of natural philosophy, such as atomism and occasionalism, that were opposed to the Falsafah tradition. As a judge Ibn Rushd found himself in a particularly difficult position because he was expected to maintain an unimpeachable belief in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, while at the same time holding philosophical beliefs that were unpopular. His commentaries on Aristotle aroused the suspicion of fellow jurists, who accused him of using his position to advocate heretical ideas. The legalistic style in which The Decisive Discourse is written indicates that Ibn Rushd had such people in mind when he wrote this important work.

Defending Philosophy . Ibn Rushd poses the central problem of The Decisive Discourse in legal terms: Can one determine, “from the standpoint of the study of the Shari’ah, whether the study of philosophy and logic is permitted by the Shari’ah, or prohibited, or commanded, or recommended, or obligatory?” The answer that he gives to this question is based on the sources of Islamic jurisprudence as outlined by Shafi’i: the evidence of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, plus the conclusions of syllogistic reasoning (qiyas) and scholarly consensus (ijma). Because of the way its arguments are formulated, The Decisive Discourse should not be regarded as a work of philosophy but rather as a legal work about philosophy. Ibn Rushd wrote as a legal scholar who shared the philosophers’ beliefs. Unlike the legal scholars who were his opponents, he did not view philosophy as a speculative science that is opposed to the certainty of revelation. Instead, he portrayed philosophy as a demonstrative science that leads to true conclusions because its methodology is based on sound premises. According to Ibn Rushd, the Qur’anic statement that human beings should observe the natural world and reflect on the signs of God (59: 2) is proof that God intends scholars to combine natural philosophy and metaphysics so that the data of empirical science and the theories of demonstrative philosophy support one another. His opponents saw a fallacy in this position that Ibn Rushd overlooked: no science can be both empirical and demonstrative at the same time. The observation of the natural world can provide evidence that helps generate theories, but this evidence can never be sufficient to prove universal concepts. This fallacy is a major reason why what used to be called “natural philosophy” is now called “science” and is a separate discipline from philosophy.

Religion and Philosophy . Ibn Rushd encountered a similar problem when he claimed that religion and philosophy must always agree on every point. His successors in the Christian West avoided having to redefine religion and philosophy by separating knowledge into two domains. Revealed truths were true in the “religious realm,” whereas facts about the world were true in the “philosophic realm.” In this scheme there was no inherent contradiction between religion and philosophy because each dealt with a separate conceptual world. Ibn Rushd, however, committed a logical fallacy that still causes problems for Muslim intellectuals. He equated the theological concept of tawhid, the unity of God, with a totalizing concept of unity that implied the unification of all forms of knowledge. In such a unitary system, religion and philosophy are forced to make the same claims. The Qur’an is expected to express truths about science and history, while philosophy is expected to express truths about God and the universe. Reason and revelation are thus potentially in conflict, and if either can be proved to have made false assertions, the entire edifice of logic that supports them can come tumbling down. The inability of demonstrative reason to deal with all religious matters led to the refutation of both Falsafah and Kalam in premodern Islam. Today, the inability of scripture to deal with all knowledge outside the physical sciences is a major weakness of Islamic fundamentalism, which shares a similar totalizing vision of knowledge.

Agreement through Allegory . Ibn Rushd tried to resolve this contradiction between religion and philosophy through the use of allegory. He claimed that apparent contradictions between the teachings of the Qur’an and the theories of the philosophers could be resolved through “the extension of the meaning of an expression from real to metaphorical significance, without forsaking the standard metaphorical practices of the Arabic language.” Some form of allegorical reasoning is allowed in all schools of Islamic law, where it is part of the process of deriving a ruling from an ambiguous case or an unclear passage of scripture. According to Ibn Rushd, the resolution of ambiguity through allegory is part of God’s plan for humanity; scripture has both apparent and allegorical meanings in accordance with the different intellectual capacities of human beings. In addition, scripture includes passages that are apparently contradictory in order to provide religious scholars with thought experiments to sharpen their intellects. Since it is clear that unanimity can never been achieved in theoretical matters, it is God’s will that the Qur’an may be interpreted in different ways by jurists, Kalam theologians, or philosophers.

An Apparent Contradiction . As an example of a contradiction that is more apparent than real, Ibn Rushd cited al-Ghazali’s claim that the philosophers went against the Qur’an by denying the creation of the world. He replied that if creation means that something is brought into existence by something other than itself that precedes it in time, there is no disagreement between the theologians and the philosophers. Both groups agree that entities such as water, air, earth, animals, and plants originated in time. Both agree as well that God is unoriginated and pre-eternal. That is, God is not made from or by anything else and is not preceded in time. The only real disagreement is over the one entity that, according to the philosophers, is not made from anything else and is not preceded in time, but is still brought into existence by an agent: the cosmos. In the view of Falsafah, the cosmos is neither originated nor pre-eternal. According to Ibn Rushd, this view of the cosmos corresponds more closely to the Qur’anic view than does that of the theologians who advocate creation out of nothing. The Qur’an states: “He it is who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and His throne was on the water” (13: 78); “He turned His attention toward the sky, and it was smoke” (13: 11-12); “on the day when the earth shall be changed into other than earth, and the heavens as well” (14: 48). For Ibn Rushd, these verses provide conclusive proof that matter (that is, water and smoke) came before the origination of objects in the universe, thus refuting the doctrine of creation out of nothing. In addition, these verses demonstrate that at the end of time the earth will be changed into a different entity rather than being dissolved into nothingness. Finally, argued Ibn Rushd, nowhere in the Qur’an does it say that God ever existed with absolutely nothing else around Him. Thus, he said, it is the theologians’ assertion of creation out of nothing— not the philosophers’ theory of the origination of the universe—that is truly heretical, for creation out of nothing cannot be supported by the statements of the Qur’an.

The Limits of Interpretation . Not everyone should engage in allegorical interpretation. According to Ibn Rushd, the rise of Islamic sectarianism and the abuses that it created were owed to allegory being employed by people who were not intellectually prepared for it. There are three classes of people with regard to interpretation: the rhetorical class, who are not suited for interpretation at all; this group comprises the majority of believers; the dialectical class, who are suited only for the give-and-take of dialectical argument; this group comprises the jurists and the Kalam theologians; and the demonstrative class, who, by their nature and training, are exclusively suited for philosophy. Since the primary purpose of revelation is to provide for the needs of the majority, the majority of the verses of the Qur’an should not be subjected to allegorical interpretation, and only the demonstrative class should attempt to interpret verses that are suited to allegorical readings.

When allegorical interpretations are taught to those who are not suited to understand them, the result is unbelief, because allegorical interpretation entails rejecting the apparent meaning of a verse in favor of its allegorical meaning. Only the demonstrative class of philosophers has the intellectual tools to engage in this sort of interpretation, and, thus, the philosophers should be the foremost of those who are empowered to interpret Islam. “Philosophy is the milk-sister of religion,” wrote Ibn Rushd at the end of The Decisive Discourse. Unfortunately, he said, the Kalam theologians, who claim an affinity with philosophy but do not understand its methods and principles, have lost sight of this relationship. Their misunderstanding of the true relationship between philosophy and religion led to the “evil fancies and perverted beliefs that have infiltrated this religion” and caused philosophy to be rejected, thus subverting God’s plan for the world and impoverishing Islam intellectually.


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