Arabian Philosophy

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"Arabian philosophy" usually denotes the philosophical thought of those inhabitants of the Islamic world who were influenced by Greek learning but used the Arabic language as their medium of expression. An Arabian philosopher, therefore, was not necessarily a native of the Arabian peninsula but perhaps a native of Persia, like Avicenna, or of Spain, like Averroës, or of any of the lands conquered by the followers of Muammad. Since the Arabic word for philosopher, failasūf, referred to one who made use of Greek learning, this account of Arabian philosophy begins with the transmission of Greek culture to the Arabic-speaking world, continues with an introduction to the thought of the major Arabian philosophers and the problems they discuss, and concludes with an indication of their influence on the Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages.

Greek and Arab background. The Arab world was introduced to Greek culture between the eighth and tenth centuries by the Syrian Christians. Having learned Greek to read theological works, the Syrians had also studied philosophical and scientific writings of the Greeks. They translated some of these into Syriac and, for the caliphs who employed them, especially for al-Mansur and al Mamun, made Arabic translations either directly from the Greek or by way of Syriac translations. Notable among the Syrian Christian translators were unayn ibn Ish:āq (johannitius) of Baghdad (809873) and costa ben luca (864923), author of a work translated into Latin in the twelfth century as De differentia spiritus et animae. Among the works that the translators made available in Arabic were Plato's Republic, Laws, Timaeus, Sophist; Aristotle's Organon, Physics, Metaphysics, De anima, Nicomachean Ethics; and two pseudo-Aristotelian treatises with a Neoplatonic content, the so-called Theology of Aristotle and the liber de causis.

Some of the theologians of Islam saw in Greek thought a danger to their religion. Influenced by the Jews and the Christians, whom he respected as "People of the Scripture," the Prophet Muammad had taught the unity of God, creation, the divine knowledge of individual things, and the resurrection of the body. These and other teachings expressed in the holy book of Islam, the qur'n seemed to be challenged by the views of Greek thinkers.

Among the theologians, one groupthe mutazilites, the so-called people of unity and justice who were known as opponents of fatalismbegan to use reason and argument, kalĀm, in their work as apologists of the Koranic teachings. Although they were regarded as too liberal and rationalistic by orthodox theologians, the latter group also began to use kalām against the kalām of the Mutazilites. Thus the orthodox theologians became the Mutakallimun (Loquentes, to the Latins), and the scholastic theology of Islam was founded.

One of the most influential of the early theologians was a man who renounced the Mutazilite views and became a Mutakallim, al-asharĪ (873935). In an effort to exalt the power and the arbitrary will of God, he taught a cosmology of atomism. He held that matter was composed of separate and distinct atoms continually being recreated by God, with their accidents, in each instant of time. According to his view, fire does not cause burning, but God creates a being that is burned when fire touches a body. There are no secondary causes; the sole cause of all change is God.

A contrast to this attempt at a rational defense of a dogmatic position was the movement of sufism, or Islamic mysticism. The Sufis, or those clothed in wool (sūf ), sought to achieve union with God through asceticism and prayer, first singly, and in the later history of the movement, through religious communities. Their early stress on religious practices was later combined with more speculative interests. Among the more famous Sufis was Rabia, the woman mystic of Basra (d. 801); al-Hallaj, a Persian who was tortured and executed for heresy in 922; and jalĀl al-dĪn al-rŪmĪ (d. 1273), a Persian mystical poet.

Arabian philosophers in the East. The religious movements of Islam influenced Arabian thinkers, but the first outstanding Arabian philosopher, the only one of Arabic descent, undertook the task of presenting Greek thought to the Muslims. Abū Yūsuf al-kindĪ (c. 805873), called "the first Peripatetic in Islam," translated and commented on some of Aristotle's works. His acceptance as a genuine work of Aristotle of the so-called Theology of Aristotle, an abridged paraphrase of the last three books of the Enneads of plotinus, was to give a Neoplatonic tinge to the Arabs' interpretation of Aristotle. A prolific writer with a wide range of interests, al-Kindī wrote more than 260 treatises on such varied subjects as mathematics, music, astronomy, optics, meteorology, medicine, politics, logic, and psychology. His treatise on the intellect, circulated in Latin translation during the Middle Ages, shows his interest in the problems of Aristotle's De anima and the influence of Alexander of Aphrodisias, the Greek commentator on Aristotle. al-Kindī's teachings concerning the "first intelligence that is always in act," distinct from and superior to the soul, marks the beginning of the Arabian doctrine of one agent intellect for all men.

Alfarabi (c. 870950) was born in Turkistan and studied at Baghdad. Known as "the second master" (Aristotle being the first), he wrote commentaries on Aristotle, and in his treatise The Harmonization of the Opinions of Plato and Aristotle tried to show a basic agreement in the thought of "the two founders of philosophy." Platonic influences are evident in his works on political theory, which include Political Regime and Aphorisms of the Statesman. Regarded as the founder of political philosophy among the Arabs, Alfarabi also had a great interest in metaphysics and anticipated Avicenna in the presentation of a Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation together with a distinction of essence and existence in creatures. His treatise on the intellect, known to medieval Europe in Latin translation, posits, like the treatise of al-Kindī, an agent intellect or intelligence that is a separated spiritual substance. This agent intelligence, by abstracting sensible forms, enables man's possible intellect to pass from potency to act and become first an "intellect in act" and, when in possession of knowledge, an "acquired intellect" (intellectus adeptus ). When the human intellect has acquired almost every abstracted intelligible, then the intelligible forms that never did, do not, and never will exist in matter can become objects of direct human intellection. On man's abstractive knowledge of sensible being, Alfarabi thus seems to superimpose a non-Aristotelian intuitive knowledge of separated intelligible forms. His theory of intellect has been described as Aristotelian at its base and Neoplatonic at its summit.

Ibn Sina or, to the Latins, avicenna (9801037) was born in Persia. Of his many works, one of the best known is his Canon of Medicine; its Latin translation was used as a standard textbook of medicine through the seventeenth century. His chief philosophical work was the al-Shifa (The Cure ), which included sections on logic, mathematics, physics, and metaphysics. The last section sets forth a theory of emanation similar to that of Alfarabi. At the summit of Avicenna's universe is a Necessary Being, who is one, incorporeal, and the source of all other beings. Through this Being's act of self-reflection, the first effect, a Pure Intelligence, necessarily proceeds. This effect must be one, for from one simple thing, only one can proceed. When this First Intelligence thinks of the Necessary Being, it gives rise to a Second Intelligence. When the First Intelligence thinks of itself as necessary by the First Being, it gives rise to the soul of the outermost celestial sphere; when it thinks of itself as possible in itself, it gives rise to the body of this same sphere. Then the Second Intelligence, in similar fashion, gives rise to a Third Intelligence, and to the soul and body of the second sphere. This emanation of intelligences is halted only with the production of the sphere of the moon and the tenth or last intelligence, which is called the agent intellect. The agent intellect, instead of begetting the soul and body of a sphere, begets human souls and the four elements (Meta. 9.4, fol. 104v105r).

This theory is primarily a description, in temporal imagery, of the eternal relation of the world to God. It is meant to safeguard the unity of the Necessary Being and to stress that creatures that are "possible in themselves but necessary through another" depend for their actual existence upon that Being. In addition to its metaphysical implications, as for example, the real distinction of essence and existence, the theory also has implications for a doctrine of intellect and the nature of man. Here the agent intellect, the last of the separated intelligences, is a spiritual substance and one for all men. From it intelligible forms or species are infused into the possible intellects belonging to individual human souls (De anima 5.56). Each human soul, although a form in its function of animating the body, is in itself an immortal spiritual substance, for a man could know himself to be, even without knowing whether he had a body (De anima 1.1, 5.4 and 7). Some of the views expressed by Avicenna seem consistent with the teachings of Islam, but an eminent theologian, Algazel, opposed him.

Al-Ghazzālī or algazel (10581111), a Persian, is regarded as one of the great theologians of Islam for his work, the Iyā' Ulūm ad-Dīn, on the renewal of religious knowledge. Called "the Muslim St. Augustine," he tells in his spiritual autobiography, Deliverance from Error, about his painful doubts concerning the basis of certitude, his search for truth among the theologians and philosophers, and his surrender of wealth and position to lead for ten years the life of a Sufi. One of his later achievements was to incorporate the values of Sufism into the orthodox Muslim tradition. Although he knew the positions of the philosophers, as is clear from his summary in the Maqāid al-falāsifah of the views of Alfarabi and Avicenna, he strongly opposed them. In his Tahāfut al-Falācifah he tried to show the limits of reason by exposing incoherence in the philosophers' handling of 20 important problems. Because many medieval Christians, including Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, knew only the Maqāid in Latin translation, and not the Tahāfut, they thought Algazel was a follower rather than an opponent of Avicenna.

Thought in the West. The Arabian philosophers mentioned so far belonged to the eastern part of the Arabian empire, but after the Arab conquest of Spain there was also an Arabian philosophy of the west. Ibn Baddja or, to the Latins, avempace (d. 1138), one of the first outstanding philosophers among the Arabs in Spain, wrote commentaries on Aristotle and some original works. In his Regime of the Solitary he discussed the philosophical means by which man could achieve union with the agent intellect. A younger contemporary, Abū Bakr ibn ufail or, to the Latins, Abubacer (c. 110585), is famous for his novel, Hayy ibn-Yaqan, an allegorical statement of the author's position on faith and reason. It was also Ibn T : ufail who introduced Ibn Rushd at the court of the caliphs in Spain.

Ibn Rushd or, to the Latins, averroËs (112698), was born at Cordova, Spain. He studied theology, law, medicine, and philosophy. He wrote a work on medicine that was known to Christian thinkers as Colliget and used by them as a textbook. He wrote a paraphrase of Plato's Republic and commentaries on many of the works of Aristotle, including the Metaphysics, Physics, On Generation and Corruption, Nicomachean Ethics, and De anima. For him, Aristotle was "the Master," and any attack on him or his followers had to be answered. In the Tahāfut al-Tahāfut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence ), Averroës attempts to destroy Algazel's "destruction" of the philosophers. Averroës implies, in The Accord between Religion and Philosophy, that the philosopher sees truth as it is; the ordinary believer attains only a symbolic representation of the truth. The troublemakers of Islam are not the philosophers, he claimed, but the theologians who arouse the people against each other by openly teaching different interpretations of the Qurān.

On the question of the world's relation to God, philosophy might seem to oppose religion. Religion teaches that the world had a beginning and was created ex nihilo; for Aristotle and Averroës the world existed necessarily and eternally. Averroës rejected Avicenna's "concessions" to the theologians (In 4 meta. 3). He rejected the principle that from one only one can proceed, the type of emanation theory that Avicenna developed from that principle, and the Avicennian distinction between existence and essence (Tahāfut al-Tahāfut, disp. 3.182; In 4 meta. 23). For Averroës being is substance, and God may be called a cause of being insofar as "the bestower of the conjunction of matter and form is the bestower of existence" (In 4 meta. 3; Tahāfut al-Tahāfut, disp. 3.180). Thus both the philosopher and the simple believer may say that the world is dependent upon an eternal "Creator," but the philosopher, in Averroës's view, gives a more exact statement of this truth.

On the intellect Averroës held not only that the agent intellect is a separated substance and one for all men, but that this is true also of the possible intellect. The highest powers of the individual human soul are the cogitative power, imagination, and memory, and their task is to prepare phantasms for the separated intellects to use. When the separated agent intellect has made the intelligible species potentially present in these phantasms actually intelligible, the separated possible intellect is put in act (In 3 de anima, comm. 46, 3233). Averroës's doctrine was meant to ensure the spirituality of the possible intellect and the universality of its knowledge, but by denying to man a spiritual power of knowing, it seemed to destroy the philosophical basis for maintaining the immortality of the individual human soul.

The intellect and knowledge, the relation of the world to God, and the relation of philosophy and religion are topics that were often discussed by Arabian philosophers. They were also interested in science, but for the Arabs' accomplishments in this field one would have to consult the work of such astronomers as al-Battani (Al-batani, c. 900), al-Farghani (Alfraganus, c. 860), al-Bit :rūjī (Alpetragius, c. 1180), and such mathematicians as Alkwarizmi (c. 830) and Alhazen (c. 1000). All these men were known to medieval Christians through Latin translations of some of their writings.

Influence on Christian philosophy. One of the main channels by which Arabian works were transmitted to Christian Europe was the school of translators founded during the first half of the twelfth century by Archbishop Raymond at Toledo, Spain. As these works became available in Latin translation, the names of their authors began to be cited by Christian thinkers. The influence of Avicenna and Averroës on Christian thought is especially notable. dominic gundisalvi, roger bacon, and john peckham identified Avicenna's agent intelligence with the Christian God. Other thinkers, including william of auvergne, henry of ghent, Duns Scotus, and thomas aquinas, although critical of Avicenna's teachings, were favorably impressed by some aspects of his metaphysics.

Averroës was known to Christian thinkers as "the Commentator" on Aristotle. Those who, like siger of brabant, had read his commentaries in Latin translation and accepted as necessary conclusions of human reason such teachings as the eternity of the world and unity of the intellect for all men, were called Latin Averroists (see averroism, latin). Because they refrained from asserting that these teachings were true, they thought they could still be good Christians. But seeing in such views a source of error, Bishop Tempier of Paris condemned these and related propositions in 1270 and 1277. Three of the leading thinkers of the thirteenth century attacked the errors of Averroës: St. Albert in De unitate intellectus contra Averroem; St. Bonaventure, especially in the Collationes in Hexaemeron, Sermo VI; St. Thomas Aquinas, especially in De aeternitate mundi contra murmurantes and De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas. Because these refutations were not always understood or accepted, Averroism continued to flourish, especially in Italy, during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. The history of western philosophy from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries is, in part, an account of the influence of Arabian thought on Christian philosophers.

See Also: double truth, theory of; intellect, unity of; neoplatonism; scholasticism; islam.

Bibliography: É. h. gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York 1955). w. m. watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology (Edinburgh 1962). t. j. de boer, The History of Philosophy in Islam, tr. e. r. jones (London 1933). m. fakhry, Islamic Occasionalism and Its Critique by Averroës and Aquinas (London 1958). d. o'leary, How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs (London 1949); Arabic Thought and Its Place in History (New York 1939). É. h. gilson, "Les Sources gréco-arabes de l'augustinisme avicennisant," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen-âge 4 (1929) 5149.

[b. h. zedler]