FALSAFAH . The term falsafah is the Arabized loan word from the Greek philosophia, "love of wisdom," and hence in its general sense simply means "philosophy." It is, however, also used (as it will be in this account) in a more specific sense as an abbreviation of the expression al-falsafah al-islāmīyah, "Islamic philosophy." Similarly, the general Arabic word for "philosophers," falāsifah (sg., faylasūf), is used more specifically as an abbreviation for the expression al-falāsifah al-islāmīyūn, "the Islamic philosophers."
Because for many Muslims, past and present, falsafah remains at best doctrinally suspect, the sense in which it will be referred to here as "Islamic" requires clarification. This term, as applied to falsafah and falāsifah, will first of all be used in a broad cultural sense, for falsafah was developed within an Islamic cultural milieu by men whose culture was Islamic. This cultural use of the term Islamic is implicit in medieval Arabic usage. Thus, for example, one famous intellectual who condemned some of the falāsifah as "infidels" nonetheless referred to them as "Islamic," while another included among the Islamic philosophers the Christians of Baghdad who wrote in Arabic. This latter example calls for a narrowing of the sense in which Islamic will be used, however, for in addition to being "Islamic" in the cultural sense, the falāsifah were "Islamic" in that they regarded themselves as Muslims, claiming that their conceptions of God and the world were consistent with the Qurʾanic view. Most of them attempted to demonstrate the harmony between their respective philosophies and Islamic revelation, and whether such attempts proved convincing or not, they represent a characteristic feature of falsafah.
It should be stressed that while the falāsifah were theists, they were not theologians. For a proper understanding of falsafah, it must be distinguished from kalām, Islamic speculative theology. Both disciplines used reason in formulating their respective conceptions of God and his creation, but they differed in approach and motivation. The starting point of kalām was revelation. Reason was used in defending the revealed word and in interpreting the natural order in conformity with a Qurʾanic view of creation. With falsafah, the starting point was reason; the motivation, the quest after "the true nature of things." The falāsifah maintained that this quest led them to a demonstrative proof of the existence of a first cause of the universe, which they claimed was identical with the God of the Qurʾān—a claim contested by the Islamic theologians, particularly those who followed the school of kalām of al-Ashʿarī (d. 935). At issue between falsafah and kalām was not the question of God's existence; rather, the question was the nature of God.
Another difference between them was historical. Kalām antedated falsafah ; its beginnings are traceable to the period of the Umayyad caliphate (ah 41–132/661–750 ce) and more definitely, to the second half of the eighth century. Moreover, it arose out of religious and political conflicts within Islam. Although subject to foreign influences, particularly Greek thought, kalām 's modes of argument and perspectives remained to a great extent indigenous. Falsafah, on the other hand, was the direct result of a concerted effort to translate Greek science and philosophy into Arabic beginning early in the ninth century. The first Islamic philosopher, al-Kindī, it should be noted, died around 870.
Falsafah was thus rooted in Greek philosophy, or more accurately, Greek philosophy in its translated form. The falāsifah regarded themselves not only as guardians of the truths arrived at by the ancient Greek philosophers but also as participants in a continuous quest after truth: As al-Kindī expressed it, the attainment of truth is difficult and requires the cooperative efforts of generations past and present. Thus, the falāsifah did not simply accept ideas they received through the translations. They criticized, selected, and rejected; they made distinctions, refined and remolded concepts to formulate their own philosophies. But the conceptual building blocks, so to speak, of these philosophies remained Greek.
The Translation Movement
Although there are indications that some translations of Greek scientific works were made in the period of the Umayyad caliphate, the translation movement properly speaking took place during the caliphate of the Abbasids, who came to power in 750. Translations were undertaken sporadically just after the establishment of Abbasid rule but flourished in the ninth and tenth centuries. The ruler who gave this movement its real impetus was the caliph al-Maʾmūn, who ruled from 813 to 833, and his active sponsorship of the translation of Greek philosophy and science into Arabic was continued by his successors and by families attached to the caliphal court. The Bayt al-Ḥikmah (House of Wisdom), a center for scientific activity and translations that al-Maʾmūn built in Baghdad, symbolized this Abbasid sponsorship of the translation movement.
The motives for this concern with translations were varied. There were practical considerations, such as the need for medical and astronomical knowledge. There was also the probable motive of prestige: The Byzantines could boast of the Greek philosophical and scientific tradition, and the Abbasids likewise wanted to avail themselves of the intellectual treasures of the ancients. This was also a period of intellectual ferment and genuine interest in learning, and scholars were available to undertake the task of translation. In particular, within the Abbasid realm and close to the heart of their empire were the Syriac-speaking people, a culture within a culture who were themselves partly Hellenized. The utilization of this rich intellectual resource by the intelligent leaders of the Islamic state seemed natural.
Apart from the Syriac-speaking scholars, who were mostly Nestorian and Jacobite Christians, there were scholars in the north Syrian city of Harran who also undertook translations. The Harranians adhered to the Sabian sect, a religion that included star worship but also had a Greek philosophical base. Among the Christian scholars, there were two traditions of scholarship. One was the tradition of the medical and philosophical school of Alexandria; members of this school seem to have moved in the Umayyad period to Antioch and then in the Abbasid period to Harran and finally to Baghdad. The other tradition was that of the medical school and hospital of the Nestorians of Jundīshāpūr in Persia. Originally a camp for Roman captives built in the third century ce by the Sasanid emperor Shāpūr I, Jundīshāpūr became a refuge for Nestorians after the deposition of their patriarch, Nestorius, at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The school flourished in Sasanid times, and although little is known about it in the Umayyad period, it became prominent under the Abbasids as well; from 765 to 870, its Bakhtīshūʿ family provided court physicians for the caliphs.
Among the early translators, mention must be made of Yaḥyā ibn al-Biṭrīq (d. 830?); Astat (Eustathius), about whom very little is known, but who made a translation of Aristotle's Metaphysics, a work known to al-Kindī; and Ibn Naʿīmah al-Ḥimṣī (d. 835), who translated the very influential if apocryphal Theology of Aristotle. The best-known and most influential of the translators was the Nestorian physician and scholar Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 873), who was known for his translations of medical works but who was responsible for translating logical and philosophical treatises as well. Unlike earlier and some later scholars, Ḥunayn knew Greek; he followed a system of collating Greek manuscripts before translating and undertook revision of earlier translations from the Syriac. He worked with a team of other translators, who included his son Isḥāq, his nephew Ḥubaysh, and ʿIsā ibn Yaḥyā. Among the Harranians the most important translator was Thābit ibn Qurrah (d. 901), who also wrote a commentary on Aristotle's Physics. Later translators included Qusṭā ibn Lūqā (d. 912?), also noted for his treatise The Difference between Soul and Spirit, Abū ʿUthmān Saʿīd al-Dimashqī (d. 900), the logician Abū Bishr Mattā (d. 940), Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī (d. 974), Ibn Zurʿah (d. 1008), and Ibn al-Khammār (d. 1020).
The three ancient philosophers who conditioned the rise and development of falsafah were Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. As with medieval western Europe, Aristotle was the most authoritative figure; his influence lay in the realms of logic, physics, and metaphysics. Plato, whose thought was known largely through the expositions of others, particularly the translated works of the physician Galen, had his greatest influence on the political philosophy of the falāsifah. Plotinus was likewise known indirectly, through two main works, the Neoplatonic Theology of Aristotle, a paraphrase of books 4, 5, and 6 of the Enneads, and the work based on Proclus known in Arabic as Fī maḥḍ al-khayr (On the pure good), which was translated into medieval Latin as the Liber de causis.
A substantial body of commentary, particularly on Aristotle, was also translated. Thus such commentators as Themistius, Simplicius, and Alexander of Aphrodisias were influential in the development of falsafah. There was knowledge of pre-Socratic philosophy and late Stoic philosophy and logic, and the translations also included a body of medical works, particularly those of Galen, and mathematical and scientific works such as Euclid's Elements and Ptolemy's Almagest.
Al-KindĪ and al-RĀzĪ
The philosophical venture in medieval Islam was pioneered in different ways by two remarkable thinkers, Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb al-Kindī and the physician-philosopher Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. 926). Their philosophies, particularly in their doctrines on the world's creation and the nature of the Creator, differed radically from the thought of the major philosophers who succeeded them. As falāsifah, they were atypical; moreover, they differed radically from each other.
Ironically, al-Kindī was atypical because his philosophy conformed with fundamental, generally accepted Muslim beliefs. Thus he argued vigorously and at great length to prove that the world was created ex nihilo and at a finite moment of time in the past relative to the present. He also upheld the doctrine of bodily resurrection. At the same time, his writings were thoroughly philosophical in approach and spirit. "We must not," he insisted, "be ashamed of deeming truth good and of acquiring truth from wherever it comes, even if it comes from races remote from us and nations different from us" (Rāsaʾil al-Kindī al-falsafīyah, ed. M. A. A. Abū Rīdah, Cairo, 1950, p. 103). Al-Kindī was born around the year 800 in Kufa. Little is known about his education except that he was associated with Christian translators and the caliphs who sponsored the translation movement. He alights on the philosophical scene quite unexpectedly, yet with full confidence, betraying none of the hesitancy of the novice. Like the Islamic philosophers who succeeded him, he was also a physician and a scientist, and the range of his learning was encyclopedic.
Of his numerous writings, only a few treatises, philosophical and scientific, have survived. Fortunately, these include the very important work On First Philosophy, a relatively long treatise consisting of four chapters. In the first, al-Kindī offers an introduction to philosophy, which he defines as "knowledge of things in their true nature, to the extent of man's capability." The chapter is also a justification and promotion of its pursuit: Philosophy's ultimate concern, he argues, is the quest after "the True One," the supreme good, the cause of all things.
The chapters that follow constitute a remarkable piece of vigorous, sustained argument. Most of the second chapter is devoted to proving the creation of the world ex nihilo at a distant but finite past. The argument rests on a basic premise, the impossibility of an infinite magnitude. Al-Kindī begins by arguing that an infinite body is impossible. If one supposes the existence of such a body, he maintains, then theoretically it is possible to remove from it a finite part. What remains would also be infinite, but less than the original infinite by the amount of the finite body removed. The consequence would then be the existence of two unequal infinities, amounting, for al-Kindī, to a contradiction. But if a body must be finite, he then tries to show, time and motion must also be finite. The temporal existence of the world could not then go back to infinity; it must have a temporal beginning. Moreover, he argues, creation in time cannot simply mean that a static world (and hence a world outside time) was put into motion at some past finite moment relative to the present. A body by definition, he argues, must be in motion; a static world is a contradiction in terms. Hence not only did the world begin at a finite moment in the past, but it came into being out of nothing.
Having proved the doctrine of creation ex nihilo to his own satisfaction, al-Kindī then offers a proof for the existence of God, "the True One," and an investigation of the nature of this oneness. The Neoplatonic influences on this part of the treatise are very manifest, particularly in al-Kindī's exposition of the nature of divine oneness. The proof for God's existence is a causal one, based, however, on the phenomenon of plurality and unity in the world. The proof, given in a short version and a lengthy one, is quite elaborate. The fundamental point al-Kindī makes is that the unity that one experiences in things and that is the cause of plurality does not belong essentially to things; it is a derivative, accidental unity. He then argues that it must derive ultimately from a being who is essentially one and the only being who is essentially one. This is the True One who bestows accidental unities on things. The giver of this unity is the giver of existence.
In this and other treatises, al-Kindī also makes statements about prophecy and the nature of revelation. These are not detailed statements, but the ones concerning prophecy are suggestive of the kind of developed theories encountered later on in the thought of al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). Thus, anticipating Ibn Sīnā, al-Kindī argues that prophetic knowledge is received "instantaneously," requiring neither intellectual exertion on the part of the prophet nor the disciplines of mathematics and logic. In conformity with generally accepted Islamic belief, al-Kindī maintains that the inimitability of the Qurʾān lies in the excellence of its literary expression, in the way it conveys divine truths directly and succinctly.
Although al-Kindī had followers, notably al-Sarakhsī (d. 899), properly speaking it cannot be said that he founded a school of philosophical thought. The same is true of the major faylasūf to succeed him, al-Rāzī. Abū Bakr Zakarīyāʾ al-Rāzī (Rhazes), one of the foremost physicians of medieval times, was born in 865 in the Persian town of Rayy, and he practiced medicine there as well as in Baghdad. Very few of his philosophical works have survived, and consequently, much of his philosophical thought has to be reconstructed from medieval Islamic accounts that are, for the most part, highly critical of his ideas.
In his cosmogony, al-Rāzī was greatly influenced by Plato's Timaeus. The world, he holds, was created at a finite moment in time, but not out of nothing. As with Plato, creation for al-Rāzī means the imposing of order on disorder. He subscribes to the doctrine of the five eternal principles: atomic matter, space, time, the world soul, and the Creator. The atoms, flitting about in disorder, are given order by God at a moment in time. The now-organized atoms allow the world soul to join matter and to become individuated by it, forming individual living beings. Just as this ordering of the atoms, that is, creation, came about at a finite moment of time in the past, the order will cease at a finite moment of time in the future when the five eternal principles revert to their original state. Al-Rāzī offers discussions of atomic matter, absolute space, and absolute time that are scientific in spirit and approach. But when it comes to explaining ultimates, namely, the reason for the world's creation, he resorts to myth, and his philosophy is noted for its myth of creation.
For al-Rāzī, creation poses two related questions: Why is it that the world was created at one particular moment of time and not at any other, and why was the world created at all? In answering the first, al-Rāzī holds that it is precisely because all the moments of time are similar that God's choice of one moment rather than another was utterly free. If the moments of time were not similar, then his choice of one moment rather than another would have been determined by "a giver of preponderance" (murajjiḥ ) outside him. Hence it is because the Creator's will is utterly free that he arbitrarily chooses one moment for his creation to take place. It is in his answer to the second question that al-Rāzī provides his famous myth.
The world soul became infatuated with matter and sought union with it. To achieve this union, the soul endeavored to give disorganized matter form. Matter, however, resisted this forming activity of the soul, leaving the latter in sorrow. God, being powerful and compassionate, then intervened to help the soul and introduced form, order to the material atoms; in other words, he created the world. In creating humankind, God endowed humans with reason, an emanation of his very essence, so that the soul would awake from its bodily slumber and seek a return to its original eternal existence. This, for al-Rāzī, is salvation. At some finite moment in the future, all people's souls, awakened by philosophy, will shun their bodies. The individual souls then will reunite with the eternal world soul, and the atoms will resume their chaotic state for eternity.
Salvation, as defined by al-Rāzī, is possible only through philosophy. He thus maintains that there is no need for prophets. All people are capable of pursuing truth through reason. The fact that many do not pursue this rational course is not due to inability, but to willful choice. He further argues that it would also be unjust for the Creator to favor either one individual or one nation with prophethood. The mistaken belief that God has favored individuals and nations with prophets has caused nothing but strife, so that, al-Rāzī maintains, for the most part wars are caused by religion. If to this is added that al-Rāzī also subscribed to a theory of the transmigration of souls, one can see why his ideas did not find favor within Islam. Nonetheless, he helped the fermentation of philosophical ideas, and the responses to his philosophy constitute a body of intense argument, philosophical and theological.
Apart from the intrinsic interest of their philosophies, both al-Kindī and al-Rāzī showed in their respective ways how philosophizing is possible within medieval Islam, and thus they prepared the ground for the flowering of falsafah in medieval Islam.
Al-FĀrĀbĪ and Ibn SĪnĀ
In the tenth and early eleventh centuries, Islamic philosophical thought was dominated by two intellectual giants, al-Fārābī (d. 950) and Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037). Their philosophies have much in common, but remain quite distinct. Al-Fārābī, born shortly after 870 in Transoxania, studied and taught in Baghdad until 942. He studied logic with the Nestorian logician Yuḥannā ibn Haylān (d. 910) and was associated with Abū Bishr Mattā ibn Yūnus, who was another renowned Nestorian logician. He also studied Arabic grammar with Ibn al-Sarrāj (d. 929), a leading grammarian of the period. In 942, for reasons not fully known, he left Baghdad for Syria, and he seems to have lived the remaining years of his life in relative seclusion in Damascus, where he died.
The foremost logician of his time, al-Fārābī wrote commentaries on Aristotle's Organon and on other works of Aristotle and other Greek writers. He was medieval Islam's greatest musical theorist and musicologist and is reputed to have been a skilled instrumentalist. He developed a Neoplatonic emanative scheme that greatly influenced the development of emanative systems by his Islamic successors. But perhaps above all else, he was the founder of a Platonic theory of the state that was adopted (with variations) by the major falāsifah who succeeded him. It should be noted, however, that his philosophical writings pose problems of dating and raise the question of whether they always reflect his real views.
For al-Fārābī, the world is an eternal emanation from God, forming a hierarchically ordered series of existents with the closest to him being the highest in rank. This highest existent is a first intelligence, overflowing directly from God. From it the emanative process continues in the form of dyads: The intelligence undergoes two acts of cognition, an act of knowing God and an act of self-knowledge, from which in turn proceed two existents, a second intelligence and a body—the outermost body of the universe. The second intelligence undergoes a similar act of knowing God and knowing itself, resulting in the emanation of a third intelligence and the sphere of the fixed stars. Successive intelligences repeat this cognitive process, causing the existence of the spheres of the planets, the sun, the moon, and finally, from the last of the intelligences, the Active Intellect, which is this world, the world of generation and corruption.
This entire cosmic order is rational and harmonious, with each sphere governed by an intelligence. Humanity in the world of generation and corruption, endowed with reason and free will, must actualize its potentialities and attain the highest good, happiness. This is achieved when in their way of life people emulate the rational cosmic order, but they can only do this in the society of others. Hence they must strive to form a society that is itself in tune with the rational cosmic order, a hierarchical society ruled by reason, where the various ranks actualize their potentialities in harmony.
In order to achieve this ideal political order, which al-Fārābī refers to as "virtuous," its first ruler must be both a philosopher and a prophet, an individual who receives the revealed law. Because this law is received from the Active Intellect in the form of images that symbolize universal philosophical knowledge or represent particular examples of it, revelation is the "imitation" of philosophy, a copy of it in images and symbols that the nonphilosopher can understand. Revelation and philosophy are thus in total harmony. Another necessary condition for achieving a virtuous political regime, however, is that the philosopher-ruler must be endowed with exceptional practical powers, for it is necessary to persuade, lead, and educate a majority of citizens incapable of philosophical understanding. In fact, the philosopher-ruler must not address the nonphilosophical majority in philosophical language.
Al-Fārābī's political philosophy is comprehensive, detailed, and subtle. It includes, for example, detailed discussion of the existence of nonvirtuous states, the majority of which he characterizes as "ignorant" because they are led by people who are ignorant of the true nature of happiness. While his view is certainly Platonic in its essentials, one meets in al-Fārābī a tendency toward universalism that is less perceptible in Plato. Thus al-Fārābī does not speak only of the virtuous "city" but also of a desirable nation consisting of virtuous "cities" and of a desirable world consisting of virtuous "nations." He also maintains that inasmuch as people in different parts of the world differ in language and in their symbols, it is quite possible that the differences among religions are merely differences in symbols, not in what is being symbolized.
It was on the foundations laid by al-Fārābī in logic, metaphysics, and political theory that his successor, the renowned Ibn Sīnā, built his imposing philosophical system. Born in 980 near Bukhara and largely self-taught, Ibn Sīnā was one of medieval Islam's leading physicians, an astronomer, and a scientist. He held positions as court physician, sometimes as vizier as well, in various Persian principalities until his death in 1037.
Of his numerous writings, mostly in Arabic, but some in Persian, two in particular were very influential in Europe, namely, the encyclopedic Al-qānūn fī al-ṭibb (Canon of medicine) and his major philosophical work, the voluminous Al-shifā ʾ(Healing). His writings include short mystical narratives and treatises where the language of symbolism is used. This mysticism, encountered in his writings, is not inconsistent with his "rationalism." The mystic's journey to God is the journey of the rational soul to the ultimate source of all reason. God, for Ibn Sīnā, is pure mind (ʿaql maḥḍ).
Ibn Sīnā's philosophical system is "rationalist." He maintains that in addition to the self-evident first principles of logic, not dependent on one's sense perception of the external world, there are self-evident intuitive concepts, also not dependent on sense experience. These intuitive concepts include the "existent," the "thing," and the "necessary," the last with its correlates, the "possible" and the "impossible." A rational consideration of these concepts is sufficient to yield a demonstration of God's existence. In itself, an "existent" is either necessary or only possible. If it is necessary in itself, Ibn Sīnā then tries to show, it must be the only such existent, devoid of multiplicity and uncaused. If it is only possible in itself, he then argues, it must be necessitated by another existent, the latter by yet another, and so on, forming a chain that must be finite, having as its beginning the existent necessary in itself. Hence each alternative affirms the existent necessary in itself, which is God.
But what does it mean to say that every existent other than God is in itself only possible? This is the distinction on which Ibn Sīnā's philosophy rests, the distinction between the quiddity or essence of the possible and its existence. From what a thing is, one cannot infer that it exists, because existence is not included in the definition of the possible existent. The quiddity considered in itself excludes not only existence, but unity and plurality, particularity and universality. From this concept of the quiddity considered in itself, Ibn Sīnā develops a theory of universals (where universality is something added to the quiddity as such) that is of intrinsic philosophical interest and one that had great influence on medieval Latin thought.
Although the existent, other than God, is in itself only possible, it is necessitated by another. Ibn Sīnā uses this concept of the possible in itself but necessary through another to transform al-Fārābī's dyadic emanative scheme into a triadic system. God, the existent necessary in himself, undergoes an eternal act of self-knowledge that necessitates the existence of a first intelligence, an existent in itself only possible, but necessary through another. This intelligence then undergoes three acts of cognition: knowledge of God, knowledge of itself as a necessitated being, and knowledge of itself as a possible being. These three acts produce three other existents respectively: another intelligence, a soul, and a body, the outermost body of the universe. This process is repeated by each successive intellect, giving existence to the various heavenly spheres, each with its soul and intelligence, until from the last of the celestial intelligences, the Active Intellect, the world of generation and corruption emanates.
The human rational soul, an emanation from the Active Intellect, is immaterial, becomes individuated when it joins the body, and retains its individuality as an immortal soul when it separates from the body after death. Good souls, untarnished by having succumbed in their earthly existence to animal passions, live an eternal life of bliss contemplating the celestial intelligences and God; bad souls live an eternal life of misery, being deprived from such contemplation yet forever seeking it. All theoretical knowledge is received from the Active Intellect. This knowledge consists of primary intelligibles, which are the self-evident logical truths and primitive concepts received by all people without the need of experience and learning. It also consists of the secondary intelligibles (received only by those capable of abstract thought), namely, deductions from the primary intelligible as well as more complex concepts. Normally the reception of these intelligibles from the Active Intellect requires preparatory activities of the soul such as sensation, memory, imagination, and cogitation and the learning processes associated with them. Only the prophets do not require these preparatory activities of the soul; they receive all or most of the secondary intelligibles directly and instantaneously, and this theoretical knowledge is then translated through the prophet's imaginative faculty into symbols and images that the nonphilosopher can understand. These constitute the revealed word, which is in total harmony with philosophy, and here Ibn Sīnā embraces al-Fārābī's doctrine that religion is the "imitation" of philosophy.
Ibn Sīnā thus believes in the oneness of God, the prophethood of Muḥammad, and the individual immortality of the soul. His philosophical interpretations of these beliefs, however, were found unacceptable by his chief critic, al-Ghazālī.
Al-GhazĀlĪ's Critique of the FalĀsifah
Falsafah, as represented by al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā, received its most severe rational criticism at the hands of Islam's great religious thinker, the lawyer, Ashʿarī theologian, and mystic Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). Tension between kalām and falsafah had existed prior to al-Ghazālī's critique of the falāsifah, although it was expressed in reciprocal, but on the whole, muted criticism. Underlying this tension were differences in starting point and ethos, which crystallized in irreconcilable metaphysical outlooks.
Kalām in its Ashʿarī form was atomic in its theory of matter and occasionalist in its interpretation of causal sequences. Accordingly, the temporal and transient conglomerates of atoms forming the physical world were not seen to interact causally with each other in reality. Causal efficacy resided with God; what appear as natural causes and effects are in reality concomitant events created directly by God. The uniform order of nature has no intrinsic necessity but is arbitrarily decreed by the divine will; the divine act is not the outcome of any necessity within the divine nature. Causal action proceeds only from a living, willing, powerful agent, not as the necessary consequence of an existent's nature or essence. By contrast, al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā embraced the Aristotelian theory of matter as potentially infinitely divisible. Moreover, Ibn Sīnā maintains quite explicitly that the world proceeds from God as the necessitated effect of God, the supreme cause of all other existents, and this doctrine seems implicit in al-Fārābī's emanative scheme as well. God, in his essence an eternally active, changeless cause, necessarily produces an eternal effect—the world.
It is the conflict between these two worldviews that al-Ghazālī makes explicit in his attack on philosophy. Between 1091 and 1095, while teaching Islamic law in Baghdad, he made a systematic study of falsafah, particularly that of Ibn Sīnā. It should be emphasized that al-Ghazālī was greatly impressed by Ibn Sīnā's logic and wrote a number of works explaining this logic to his fellow theologians and lawyers, urging them to adopt it. He considered this discipline doctrinally neutral, a mere tool of knowledge, nothing more, a view that he expresses in one of the four introductions to his incisive critique of al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā, Tahāfut al-falāsifah (The incoherence of the philosophers). In these introductions he asserts that his concern is only with those philosophical theories that contravene religious principle and that he will show how, contrary to their own claims, the falāsifah have failed to demonstrate such theories. Moreover, he states that in this work he will not adopt any particular doctrinal position, his task being only to refute, and it is true that in the Tahāfut, for the sake of arguing against the falāsifah, al-Ghazālī sometimes adopts non-Ashʿarī views. It can be shown, however, that for the most part the premises underlying his attack on falsafah remain Ashʿarī.
Al-Ghazālī directs logical arguments against twenty philosophical theories, seventeen of which he regards as heretical innovations and three as utter Islamic unbelief. His method is to present the opponents' position clearly, object to it, raise possible objections to his objection, answer these, and so on, until he is satisfied that the theory in question has been refuted. Thus, before condemning these theories, he strives to show on rational grounds either that they have been unproven or that they are outright inconsistent. The three theories he condemns as utterly irreligious are those of the world's pre-eternity, Ibn Sīnā's theory that God knows the particulars in the world of generation and corruption only in a universal way (which means that he does not know every individual in the terrestrial world), and the doctrine of the soul's individual immortality, which denies bodily resur-rection.
The most detailed of his discussions is the first, in which he attacks the theory of the world's pre-eternity. The main thrust of his attack is that such a theory is based on the unproven premise that God's acts proceed by necessity, a premise that, in effect, denies the divine attribute of will. Further, Ibn Sīnā's theory that God knows terrestrial individuals only in a universal way is unproven and contrary to the Qurʾanic pronouncements that God knows all things. The denial of bodily resurrection is also a denial of divine power, al-Ghazālī argues; bodily resurrection is not logically impossible, and what is logically possible is within God's power.
In the Seventeenth Discussion of the Tahāfut, al-Ghazālī argues for the possibility of certain kinds of miracles that are rejected as impossible by the falāsifah, who base their rejection on a theory of natural, necessary causal connection. Al-Ghazālī first tries to show that this theory is provable neither logically nor empirically—observation shows only concomitance, not necessary causal connection. In this he voices the Ashʿarī position that all change is caused directly by God and then suggests another possible causal theory, modifying the philosophers' theory to allow the possibility of the miracles the philosophers reject. In the Tahāfut, he declares that both these theories are possible, but in his Iqtiṣād fī al-iʿtiqād (Moderation in belief), the theological work that complements the Tahāfut, he reaffirms the Ashʿarī occasionalist position as the only true one.
Al-Ghazālī's attack on falsafah put it on the defensive, more so than it had hitherto been. At the same time, his attack made falsafah better known, because in order to refute the falāsifah, al-Ghazālī had to explain them to the nonphilosophers. In the same way, he legitimized and popularized the study of Ibn Sīnā's logic, and this had the effect of making Greek modes of thinking accessible to the more traditional Muslims. Finally, his criticism evoked replies, the most important of which came from Islamic Spain.
Falsafah in Islamic Spain
In the intellectual history of Islamic Spain, or al-Andalus, as the Arabs called it, falsafah was a latecomer. A lone Andalusian faylasūf, Ibn Masarrah (d. 931), appeared relatively early, but he was a shadowy figure who made no real philosophical impact. The first major Andalusian faylasūf was Ibn Bājjah (Avempace, d. 1138), and he was followed by two major thinkers, Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185) and Ibn Rushd (Averroës) (d. 1198), the greatest of the Andalusian falāsifah. The late flowering of falsafah in Spain was partly due to its geographic remoteness from the centers where the translation movement took place. Scientific and philosophical ideas, however, did travel from the Islamic East to Spain, stimulating a very significant scientific and philosophical movement.
A number of Ibn Bājjah's philosophical treatises have survived, including his Tadbīr al-mutawaḥḥid (Governance of the solitary), a major work in the tradition of al-Fārābī's metaphysical and political thought. It expands on a theme that appears in al-Fārābī almost in passing, namely that of the philosopher in a corrupt political state. Al-Fārābī had stated that such a philosopher should immigrate to a virtuous city, but that if no such city existed at the time, the philosopher would be "a stranger in the world, live poorly in it, death for him being better than life" (al-Fārābī, Fuṣūl muntazaʿah, ed. F. M. Najjār, Beirut, 1971, p. 95). Ibn Bājjah, however, argues that if no virtuous city exists at the time, the philosopher must be isolated from society, associating with others only to ensure survival, and must be devoted to inner intellectual and moral growth. Ibn Bājjah discusses psychology, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics as he outlines the path the solitary philosopher must pursue to attain the highest good, the state of union with the Active Intellect. The philosopher's isolation, Ibn Bājjah admits, is "essentially" an evil, because one by nature is a social or political animal. Under the circumstances of the philosopher's having to live in a corrupt political regime, however, such isolation becomes "accidentally" a good.
Most of the writings of Ibn Bājjah's successor, Ibn Ṭufayl, physician, astronomer, and administrator at the court of the Almohad (al-Muwaḥḥid) dynasty then ruling al-Andalus, are lost. The notable exception is his masterly philosophical story, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, written as an answer to a friend (real or fictitious) who asks Ibn Ṭufayl to divulge to him the secrets of Ibn Sīnā's mystical philosophy. In the introduction, which includes criticisms of al-Fārābī, al-Ghazālī, and Ibn Bājjah, Ibn Ṭufayl answers, in effect, that because the mystical experience is ineffable, he can only suggest to his friend the sort of thing its pursuit involves by narrating the story of Ḥayy.
Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān (literally, "the living, son of the awake") is the name of the story's hero. In a lush equatorial island, uninhabited by humans, a baby boy, Ḥayy, comes on the scene. (The author gives two possible explanations for his being there.) A deer that had lost its young discovers the infant, suckles him, and rears him. Ḥayy then undergoes a process of self-education, learning how to clothe himself and fend for himself, but he continues to live with his mother, the deer. She eventually dies, and in his anguish, Ḥayy tries to bring her back to life by dissecting her, only to realize then that his real mother was spirit, not the material body that died. At this point his education takes a reflective turn: Through observation and rational thought, he discovers that every event must have a cause, that an actual infinity of causes is impossible, and hence that there must be one cause of all existents, which is God. He now seeks knowledge of God, and through contemplation, asceticism, and spiritual exercises he achieves his goal: direct experiences of the divine and of the emanative chain of being descending from him. Meanwhile, on a nearby island, a community ruled by the revealed law, which is a replica of philosophical truth, there are two brothers named Salāmān and Absāl (or Ᾱsāl) who have different attitudes toward scriptural language. Salāmān and the rest of the community accept it literally, being incapable of comprehending its inner meaning. Absāl, on the other hand, pursues its inner meaning. Finding no one on the island who understands his quest, he seeks seclusion on a deserted island, which turns out to be Ḥayy's abode. The two meet. Absāl teaches Ḥayy language and discovers that Ḥayy is an unusual philosophical mystic who, unaided, has attained the highest truth, of which Absāl's own religion gives symbolic expression. For his part, Ḥayy recognizes Absāl's religion to be true and believes in its prophet. Both return to Absāl's island, where Ḥayy endeavors to teach some of its religious citizens the inner meaning of their religion. In this he fails because they are incapable of understanding him. He then adjures them to forget everything he has told them and to continue to take their religion literally. He and Absāl leave for their deserted island to live their mystical existence to the end of their days.
This story, amenable to a variety of interpretations, gives dramatic illustration of two of al-Fārābī's principles: that religion is the "imitation" of philosophy, and that the nonphilosopher ought not be addressed in philosophical language.
It was Ibn Ṭufayl who introduced Ibn Rushd to the Almohad court. Born in 1126 in Cordova, Ibn Rushd was the son and grandson of noted Islamic judges. Trained in medicine, philosophy, and Islamic law, this most Aristotelian of the falāsifah was a noted Islamic lawyer and, according to medieval accounts, an authority on Arabic poetry. In 1169 he was appointed judge in Seville and in 1171, chief judge of Cordova. He then became attached to the Almohad court, serving its philosophical ruler Abū Yaʿqūb until the latter's death in 1184, and then his son, al-Manṣūr, for another ten years. Largely because of the opposition of conservative religious scholars, as it seems, al-Manṣūr exiled Ibn Rushd in 1194 but reinstated him soon afterward. The philosopher died in the service of this monarch in 1198.
Ibn Rushd is noted in the history of philosophy for his substantial body of commentaries, largely on Aristotle but also on other thinkers. These commentaries had great impact on medieval Latin philosophy as well as the philosophy of the Italian Renaissance. Although Ibn Rushd never set out to formulate a philosophical system of his own, from his commentaries, and perhaps more so from his philosophical reply to al-Ghazālī's criticism of falsafah, an Aristotelian philosophical view emerges, informed by Ibn Rushd's individual insights and stamped by his personality. The view is powerful and compelling.
Al-Ghazālī's attack on falsafah in his Tahāfut, although logically incisive, was theologically motivated. Moreover, his condemnation of al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā as "infidels" was a pronouncement in terms of Islamic law. Thus Ibn Rushd's reply to al-Ghazālī encompasses the legal, the theological, and the philosophical. The legal and theological replies are embodied in two main works that are relatively short, namely, the Faṣl al-maqāl (Decisive treatise) and the Kashf ʿan manāhij al-adillah (Expositions of the methods of proof); the philosophical reply to al-Ghazālī's Tahāfut is the Tahāfut al-Tahāfut (Incoherence of The Incoherence ), a much larger book.
In the Faṣl, Ibn Rushd raises the general question of whether Islamic law commands, allows, or prohibits the study of philosophy. He answers that the law commands its study but that this command is incumbent only on the one class of scholars, the demonstrative class (i.e. scholars who understand and use Aristotle's demonstrative method in acquiring knowledge), capable of understanding philosophy; nonphilosophers must not pursue it. Ibn Rushd's position is essentially that of al-Fārābī, but it is now couched in Islamic legal language. The Faṣl also includes a theory of scriptural interpretation and a defense of the falāsifah 's three doctrines against al-Ghazālī's charge that they were irreligious. The Kashf complements the Faṣl but offers more specific criticisms of Ashʿarī theological principles.
In the Tahāfut al-Tahāfut, Ibn Rushd quotes almost all of al-Ghazālī's Tahāfut, commenting on it paragraph by paragraph. Although his main criticisms are directed against al-Ghazālī, at times he criticizes Ibn Sīnā, particularly for his Neoplatonism. Ibn Rushd's Tahāfut is a sober work of criticism that tracks down ambiguities, draws distinctions, reformulates positions, corrects misunderstandings, and offers analyses. It reasserts and defends an Aristotelian causal view, arguing incessantly against the Ashʿarī conception of divine causality and against their denial of natural causes.
Ibn Rushd's writings on the hereafter, however, pose the question of what he actually believes on this matter. His "technical" discussions of the question of the soul's immortality—whether in his commentaries on Aristotle or in those parts of the Tahāfut where he is highly critical of Ibn Sīnā's doctrine of the soul's individual immortality—leave no room for a theory of the soul's individual immortality, to say nothing of a doctrine of bodily resurrection. In the Kashf, however, he affirms a doctrine of individual immortality, whether this is confined to the soul or involves bodily resurrection. Again, at the end of the Tahāfut (where the discussion is not technical) he seems to affirm a doctrine of bodily resurrection. The indications are that in these conflicting statements he is practicing what he preaches as a follower of al-Fārābī's political thinking. In other words, he is addressing the philosophers philosophically and the nonphilosophers in language they can understand. He also seems to be protecting himself against charges of unbelief.
Falsafah did not end with Ibn Rushd. But the period from al-Kindī to Ibn Rushd witnessed some of its greatest practitioners and established a rich philosophical tradition on which later Islamic thinkers, men of originality and genius, were to build and enrich falsafah even more. The majority of these thinkers came from Persia and were in a real sense the spiritual descendants of Ibn Sīnā. But some came from other parts of the Islamic world—Spain and North Africa, for example.
Persia became noted for its mystical philosophy of illumination, al-ishrāq. The founder of this tradition was al-Suhrawardī (d. 1191), a contemporary of Ibn Rushd. The basic idea of his philosophy is that reality consists of light of varying degrees of intensity. Light, which for al-Suhrawardī is neither material nor definable, proceeds from the Light of lights (nūr al-anwār ), God. Its emanation and diffusion at various levels constitute the created world. In this metaphysics of light and illumination, he harks back to the old religions of Persia. He is also noted for criticizing the Aristotelians for their rejection of the Platonic doctrine of eternal forms. From the thirteenth century onward, al-Suhrawardī was succeeded by a series of Persian philosophers who either adopted his doctrine of al-ishrāq or, such as the philosopher-scientist Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274), were greatly influenced by it. Those who adopted it included such leading thinkers as Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631), Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1640), and the latter's commentator, Sabzawārī (d. 1866), to name but a few.
Of al-Suhrawardī's successors, Mullā Ṣadrā is generally recognized as the most important and most original. Although he adopted al-Suhrawardī's metaphysics of illumination, he disagreed with him on a basic idea concerning the relation of essence to existence. Al- Suhrawardī had argued for the priority of essence over existence. Mullā Ṣadrā maintained the reverse, arguing for the priority and "primacy of existence" (aṣālat al-wujūd). By "existence," he meant real existence as distinct from the static concept of existence in the mind. Real existence is grasped intuitively, the act of intuiting it being itself part of the flow of existence. The key idea governing his whole philosophy is that of existence as a dynamic process. This manifests itself in his theories of motion and time. Motion is not simply the rotation of forms over a static substratum, but is inherent in the substratum itself. Similarly, time is not merely the measure of motion: Physical body has an inherent time dimension. There is an ever upward moving process of existence (imperceptible to humans) that is irreversible, a manifestation of God's ceaseless creative impulse.
In Western Islam, philosophical mystical thought attained its heights with two thirteenth-century thinkers, both from Murcia, Spain. The first was the great philosophical mystic Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240), noted for his doctrine of the unity of being (waḥdat al-wujūd), which exerted a very great influence on Persian mystical thought. The second was Ibn Sabʿīn (d. 1270), a mystic-philosopher who expounded a doctrine of the unity of being in terms of Aristotle's concept of form. A much more empirical approach is encountered in the thought of the Tunisian-born historian-philosopher Ibn Khaldūn, one of Islam's most original minds. He served various Islamic rulers as ambassador, envoy, and chief judge. Combining a thorough legal, theological, and philosophical education with firsthand experience in politics, he utilized this background to write his universal history, best noted for its muqaddimah ("prolegomena"). It is in this muqaddimah that he sets forth his conception of history as a science concerned with the causal explanation for the rise, decline, and fall of civilizations and that he probed the rise and development of social institutions. In doing this, he realized, in effect, a philosophy of history.
Both Ibn Khaldūn and Mullā Ṣadrā in their very different ways are examples of philosophers who broadened the dimensions of falsafah. They certainly made advances over the thought of their predecessors. But these were advances within a rich philosophical tradition whose first foundation stone was laid in the ninth century by al-Kindī.
Corbin, Henry. Histoire de la philosophie islamique. Paris, 1964.
Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy. Rev. ed. New York, 1983.
Sharif, M. M., ed. A History of Muslim Philosophy, vol. 1. Wiesbaden, 1963.
Collections of Studies
Anawati, Georges C. Études de philosophie musulmane. Paris, 1974.
Hourani, G. F., ed. Essays on Islamic Philosophy and Science. Albany, N.Y., 1975.
Marmura, M. E., ed. Islamic Theology and Philosophy: Studies in Honor of G. F. Hourani. Albany, N.Y., 1984.
Morewedge, Parvis, ed. Islamic Philosophical Theology. Albany, N.Y., 1979.
Morewedge, Parvis, ed. Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism. Delmar, N.Y., 1981.
Stern, S. M., Albert Hourani, and Vivian Brown, eds. Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition. Columbia, S.C., 1972.
Walzer, Richard. Greek into Arabic: Essays on Islamic Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass., 1962.
Fārābī, al-. Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Translated by Muhsin Mahdi. New York, 1962.
Fārābī, al-. Al-Farabi's Commentary and Short Treatise on Aristotle's De Interpretatione. Translated by F. W. Zimmerman. London, 1981.
Hyman, Alfred, and James J. Walsh, eds. Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions. New York, 1967. Includes translations of al-Fārābī, Avicenna, al-Ghazālī, and Averroës (pp. 20–235).
Ibn Rushd (Averroës). Tahāfut al-Tahāfut. Translated by S. Van Den Bergh as The Incoherence of the Incoherence. London, 1953.
Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). Avicenna's Philosophy. Translated by Fazlur Rahman. London, 1952.
Ibn Sīnā. The Life of Ibn Sīnā. Edited and translated by William E. Gohlman. New York, 1967.
Kindī, al-. Al-Kindī's Metaphysics. Translated by Alfred L. Ivry. New York, 1963.
Lerner, Ralph, and Muhsin Madhi, eds. Medieval Political Philosophy: A Source Book. New York, 1963. Includes translations of al-Fārābī, Avicenna, Ibn Bājjah, Ibn Ṭufayl, and Averroës (pp. 21–190).
Michael E. Marmura (1987)
"Falsafah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/falsafah
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