The Quran contains philosophical elements, or at least statements which offer material for reflection – creation, the universe, man, destiny etc. The Muslim philosophers tried to assimilate the data of revelation into the framework of Greek philosophy. Their attempt aroused the suspicion of traditional believers, even their condemnation. Some may maintain that they are liberals but their influence remains upon all those who desire a ‘reasonable’ religion through reconciling Greek wisdom with ‘revelation’.
A number of Muslim thinkers felt threatened by aggressive ideas and wished to use the resource of reason and turn it against their opponents. This belligerent intellectual tendency was the historical basis for the Mutazilite thinkers. They were made up of a certain number of intellectuals who lived either in Basra or Baghdad who tried to make the dogma of Islam acceptable to reason.
In the tenth century the Muslim community was rocked by the great controversies between Asharite theologians represented by such as al-Baghdadi and al-Ghazali and the Muslim Neoplatonists al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. Al-Ghazali listed twenty severe errors of which seventeen were considered innovations (bida’); the remaining three were concerned with the eternity of the world, the rejection of the knowledge of God, and the rejection of the resurrection of the flesh. The defence of the orthodox resulted in the eclipse of philosophy and the triumph of ‘Asharite theology. The later attempts of such philosophers as Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and theologians such as Fakh al-Din al-Razi to moderate the conflict between theology and philosophy were not entirely successful.
Muslim thought first encountered Greek philosophy at Baghdad in the eighth century and particularly under the reign of Al-Ma’mun in the nine century. The vast number of Greek and Syriac philosophical texts had become available in Baghdad and elsewhere. In its outworking and constant interaction with theology, problems that were most discussed were predestination, the created Quran and through the access of Christian apologetics, the problem of the divine attributes.
Arab philosophy was in essence Greek thought modified by the thinking of conquered peoples and other Eastern influences and adapted to Islam, and mediated through the Arabic language. The works of Aristotle (particularly Organon: Categories: Hermeneutica and Prior Analytics) formed the groundwork of Arabic-Islamic philosophy and represented a codification of Greek philosophy which the West possessed. These translations began to be made into Arabic during the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (754-775)
1) They all have as their starting point the Quran and the everyday teachings of Islam. At certain points they may turn to allegorical methodology but they never denied the ‘revelation.’
2) Muslim revelation was believed to be the continuation of the unity of Greek philosophical thought.
3) Muslim philosophy is a wisdom of the oneness of knowledge found in the totality of the various Islamic sciences.
4) It applies religious principles to the structure of Greek philosophy with the intention of giving Islam a scientific status.
The harmonisation of Greek philosophy with Islam began with Al-Kindi. His pure Arabian descent (in Kufa), earned him the title ‘the philosopher of the Arabs’. His great grandfather was one of Muhammad’s Companions. He was the first and last example of an Aristolian student in the Eastern caliphate who sprang from Arab stock. Initially his views were approached with some suspicion in traditional and popular circles as they were seen as a foreign pagan import. Al-Kindi believed that the study of philosophy, regardless of its foreign extraction, should not be feared by the believer as it’s chief objective was an inquiry into ‘the True One.’ More than any other Muslim philosopher that followed he maintained the articles of Islamic faith. He initiated a philosophical and scientific vocabulary which later was replaced by a more precise vocabulary. He developed an eclectic system combining the views of Aristotle and Plato and regarded Neo- Pythagorean mathematics as the basis of all science. Many of his works deal with subjects that concerned theology, including the nature of God, the soul, and prophetic knowledge. About three hundred and fifty works are ascribed to him but most are not extant.
The caliph al-Mamun appeared to have a passion for foreign ideas especially in the area of philosophy and science and in 830 founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad to serve as an institute for translation and research; Al-Kindi became a prominent figure in this establishment. A number of Abbasid Caliphs appointed him to oversee the translation of classical Greek scientific and philosophical texts into the Arabic language. This contact with “the philosophy of the ancients” had a profound effect on his intellectual development, and led him to write original treatises on subjects ranging from Islamic ethics and metaphysics to mathematics and pharmacology. In mathematics, al-Kindi played an important role in introducing Indian numerals to the Islamic and Christian world.
The central theme underpinning al-Kindi’s philosophical writings was that he accepted the compatibility between philosophy and orthodox Islamic sciences, particularly theology. He is not to be confused with the Christian theologian Abd Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi who wrote an apology for Christianity.
Al Farabi (870-950)
Educated under a Christian physician and a Christian translator in Baghdad he experienced the fabulous court of the Shia’ Amir of Aleppo, Saif al Dawlah al Hamdani. He is respected among Muslims for his commentaries and was known as “the second teacher”, the first being Aristotle. Some of his works on Aristotle were translated into Latin in the Middle Ages and he exerted a considerable influence in European thought where he was known as Alpharabius. He wrote many philosophical and metaphysical treatises, as well as books on medicine, mathematics and music, being a lute player himself. He developed the terminology Arab Scholasticism.
He believed that essentially Plato and Aristotle taught the same doctrine as Islam but in a different manner. They both had the same conception of life and both instructed their followers, in a similar way, to go beyond the superficial appearances of myths (Plato) and obscure language (Aristotle).
He developed the metaphysics of Neo-Platonism with its ultimate goal of the acquisition of happiness; true happiness consists in the soul’s total dissociation from everything material or bodily.
Yet, unlike the Sufi solitary practice, Al-Farabi postulated that the most natural way to achieve this was association in human society. He developed his ideal of a virtuous city based on Plato’s Republic which he called al-Siyasat al-Madaniyah (Political Economy). His model system was conceived of as a hierarchical organism analogous to the human body. The object of this ideal city was the happiness of the people under a moral and intelligent sovereign. Because of his profound interest with the political structure he is regarded as the founder of political philosophy in Islam.
Avicenna (Ibn Sina) 980-1037
Ibn Sina who was a philosopher and physician, fully developed al-Farabi’s philosophy arguing that the soul would become a replica of the intelligible world, from which the whole order of intellectual, celestial and terrestrial entities originally emerged by way of emanation. He codified the sum-total of Greek wisdom and with his ingenuity brought it to the disposal of the educated Muslim world in an intelligent form. Through him the Greek system, particularly that of Plato, was rendered capable of incorporation with Islam.
After learning the Quran by heart he studied Porphery and logic and put forward a new interpretation of Tawhid on the basis of reason and not on the Quran and Hadith; although he did accept all the ‘revealed’ data in the Quran. He considered that God was the only necessity, that he is the good all-powerful, creator of all things. Through his system he believed he was able to resolve the problem of evil. His Greek philosophy was made a target by Al-Ghazalli tahafut-al-falaasifa ‘The Incoherence of Philosophy.’
He was especially known for his work in medicine where he provided a coherent clinical theoretical system based on anatomy, physiology, pathology and therapy. His unified synthesis of medical knowledge was founded on logical and theoretical principles. In Europe he was known as the ‘Prince of Physicians.’
Revival of philosophy in Muslim Spain
Spain served as the major link in the transmission of Greek philosophy to western Europe. The Muslims had been the chief custodians of a philosophy which had been almost completely forgotten in western Europe since the sixth century, when Boethius (d. 525) was chiefly responsible for the Latin translation of Arisotelian logic.
In consequence of the success of the ‘Asharities and Hanbalites in the East, and in an attempt to rival the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad, philosophy received a new lease of life under the Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba in the tenth century. Caliph Hakam 2 (915-976) ordered the import of scientific and philosophical books from the East so that its library and university could rival Baghdad. Neo-Platonic philosophy once again flourished under the philosopher, scientist and physician Ibn Bajjah (1095-1139). His theme was that man could attain oneness with God, the Active Intellect, and so the object of philosophy is to show how the human spirit can gradually achieve perfection, through union with the divine.
The orthodox physician and philosopher Ibn Tufail (1105-1184) wrote a novel expressing the view that through observation and reflection alone, human beings can discover the truth about God. He believed that the intellectual ideal of the neo-Platonists was not enough and argued that in order to achieve the condition of perfect union with its source, the soul must rise to the level of ecstasy expressed in the Sufi ideal of fana (extinction). These Sufi overtones did not make much headway in Muslim-Spanish philosophical circles.
Islamic philosophy became stronger with the appearance of Ibn Rushd (Averroes 1126-1198), the greatest Muslim philosopher of Spain. He stands out as one of the great advocates of the harmonisation of Aristotle and the Quran.He believed that the Quran was miraculous but that every belief, except the revealed commandments of God, should be understood in the light of reason. Two of his important works grapple with the problem of reason and faith. Those verses that are clear can be comprehended by all minds. Texts that make use of symbols and metaphors hold a deeper meaning and only the philosophers are able to understand them. The common people are only able to understand the texts in a literal way and they should be kept away from the deeper meanings because their failure to understand would lead them to conflict in their faith. These are they “in whose hearts is perversity” however, the philosophers are “men of understanding” (Al-Imran 3:7) those who were “firmly grounded in knowledge.”
He wrote a defence of philosophy ‘Incoherence of the Incoherence’ in reply to the criticism of Imam Ghazali. He argued that Al-Ghazalli misunderstood the philosophers who were overall in agreement with orthodoxy. He concentrated on three particular points: 1. the eternity of the world: his thesis was that the world was generated from eternity rather than in time; 2. denied that philosophers opposed the view that God’s knowledge is analogous with human knowledge; 3. believed the view of the philosophers was in accord with belief in the resurrection and immortality however, they regarded the pleasures and pains of heaven and hell as pictorial representations of spiritual truth.
Ibn Rushd was appointed qadi (religious judge) of Seville and chief judge of Cordoba. He wrote commentaries on Aristotle and the caliph, Abu Yusuf Yaqub (1163-1184), ordered him to expound the works of Aristotle for this reason he became known as the ‘Commentator’ (of Aristotle). His philosophical views were opposed by conservative Muslims and for a short time he was exiled only to be restored again after two years. Although Averrroes and the Persian Avicenna (980-1037) translated Aristotle from Greek into Arabic for the benefit of the Islamic world Averroes particular influence was felt mostly in the West. Later Christian scholars such as Michael Scotus of Toulouse (1180-1235) translated the Arabic (along with commentaries on Aristotle) into Latin for the benefit of the Western catholic world. Arabic translations of Aristotle found their way into Catholic Europe chiefly through Muslim Spain, especially after 1085 when the Spanish re-conquered the Muslim city of Toledo, which had been the capital of the Spanish Muslim Kingdom of Cordova.