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Islam in Western philosophy

Most historians who write about philosophy tend to concentrate upon two epochs. The first is ancient Greece around the time of the fifth century BCE, when famous thinkers such as Plato, Parmenides, Aristotle and Plotinus lived. The second is Europe between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, during which time interest in philosophy was given a new lease of life by, among others, Renee Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Immanuel Kant. The extent to which these two periods have come to be seen as history’s periods of philosophical richness is in fact reflected in the words we use to describe different ages. The French word renaissance, for instance, which is used today in English to describe fifteenth century Europe, means literally “rebirth,” suggesting Europe at this time intellectually “woke up” after a deep slumber.

There are, it has to be said, very good reasons for this focus. The Greek thinkers who are listed above produced, for the time, incredibly advanced discussions of such things as human nature and political legitimacy. A whole host of different cultures and languages have borrowed from the ideas that the Greeks discussed, including Britain. The word politics, for example, is derived from the Greek polis, and our ideas about politics often reference the ideas that Aristotle set out in his book of that name. When the modern European thinkers were trying to work out how a government’s legitimacy could be peacefully maintained in the wake of the wars that tore apart the Catholic Church it is to a large extent to the Greek thinkers that they looked. Democracy is also a Greek word, a composite of the words demos (people) and kratos (power); it means quite literally “people power.”

Nonetheless, the fact that this period of philosophical discovery was closely related to—if not a component part of—the various challenges to the Catholic Church’s position as supreme moral authority in Europe has meant that often the involvement of religious thinkers in the history of philosophy has been underplayed. It is now commonplace to oppose “Athens” and “Jerusalem,” the former word standing for reason, debate and scientific advancement and the latter standing for dogmatism, stagnation and backwardness. There is a tendency to gloss over some of the religious thinkers who were also philosophers; or indeed to forget the fact that many of the greatest “secular” philosophers—from Plato to Descartes and Spinoza—were also theists, that is, they believed in some form of God. This relative ignorance is particularly marked in the case of Jewish and Islamic thinkers such as Maimonides, Ibn Sina, al-Kindi and Ibn Rushd. And it is important to bear their works in mind because it is really these individuals who form the bridge between ancient Greece and modern Europe.

Greek thought after the rise of the Byzantines

When the leadership of the Roman Empire accepted Christianity around the time of Emperor Constantine in the third century CE there still existed a number of schools of Greek thought. However, as the Roman Empire declined and was replaced by the Byzantine Empire a number of these schools were closed, having been regarded by the powers that be as pagan institutions and therefore as threatening. Most significantly Emperor Justinian, who lived around three hundred years after Constantine, closed the Academy of Athens, which had been founded by Plato and had played host to Aristotle and the disciples of Plotinus.

The philosophies that had been advocated in these schools could not therefore live on in the Byzantine Empire, or at least not easily. The texts that they had produced were only infrequently translated by Latin scholars. Instead these philosophies were scattered, with texts gradually moving east to Persia and, most importantly, to Baghdad, where they began to find an interested audience. After an initial period of military expansion the Islamic Empire was by the seventh century entering into a golden age. There was a great hunger for knowledge, and in some quarters the Greeks’ works were gratefully received.

In particular, a small group of thinkers emerged who became known in Arabic as the falasifa, which was a direct translation from Greek. (The word “philosopher” is derived from the Greek meaning “lover of wisdom.”) There were three who were of particular importance:

  • Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi/Alkindus (801-873)

Al-Kindi was amongst the earliest falasifa. He lived in Baghdad when the most important Greek works were being translated into Arabic, and he was insistent that philosophical investigation was necessary to discovering God and strengthening one’s religion. As he stated himself:

“Whoever resists acquiring knowledge of the real nature of things possesses in truth no religion, because knowledge of the real nature of things includes knowledge of God’s Lordship and Oneness, Knowledge of virtue, and all the knowledge of everything useful and of the way to it, and of staying away from everything harmful and guarding against it.”[1]

Al-Kindi was a follower of the Greek Plotinus, whose philosophy had attempted to discern connections between human intelligence, the soul, and the divine creator. Plotinus’s philosophy, which became known as Neoplatonism, held that the universe and all that it contained could all be traced back to a mystical, unknowable “First Cause,” a “One” from which all existence emanated.

Neoplatonic philosophy was a mix of rigorous rationalism and spiritualism, and its appeal for thinkers such as al-Kindi lay in that combination. The early falasifa saw in it a way of synthesising the Islamic principle of tawhid—that of an unrepresentable, unknowable God—with the Qur’anic injunction to seek knowledge, or ilm. A line of Islamic Neoplatonists therefore followed from al-Kindi, thinkers who were both theologians and rigorous scientists. Al-Kindi himself, in fact, was hugely influential in the field of optics and medicine, influencing the first great English scientist, Roger Bacon (d. 1294).[2]

  • Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn al-Farakh al-Farabi (872-951)

Al-Farabi, another resident of Baghdad, developed his thought in light of the work done by al-Kindi and his peers. Al-Farabi though was as influential for his writings on the subject of political organisation as much as his speculations upon the nature of the universe. Plato and Aristotle had both written about what makes a person a successful and just ruler. They had argued, specifically, that the best rulers did not need prophecy and revealed law necessarily, but only that they needed to be committed to truth and free from worldly passions. Al-Farabi therefore wanted to try and work out what Muslims could learn from this; indeed his immediate concern was whether or not these ideas stood in opposition to Islam’s prophetic tradition.

Al-Farabi concluded, in his book Ara’ ahl al-madina al-fadila (Ideas of the Citizens of the Virtuous City), that ultimately they were not. But in making this argument he augmented both the Greeks theories and the traditional understanding of prophecy. Al-Farabi came to understand prophecy not as the free gift of God, but as a natural human state—a state not of reason, as Plato had it, but of the imagination. Philosophical knowledge could teach a few, people who could grasp its intricacies, but prophetic charisma could teach and was needed to teach those same truths to all people. Scientific truths needed specialist knowledge, but moral truths needed a pious and charismatic communicator.[3]

Al-Farabi developed this position as part of an elaborate cosmology which included celestial beings, heavenly forces and an almost Christian notion of a “Holy Spirit.”[4] It was a complex view of the world which made use of some very outlandish and esoteric ideas, not least the obscure Aristotelian notion of the Active Intellect, which he saw as a mechanism by which humans could perceive the divine. (He saw God’s relationship to humans as being “like the Sun’s relationship to vision.”)[5] This complexity meant that his theories were influential only some time after his death. Nonetheless, he did impact upon one individual particularly significantly, the Persian philosopher Ibn Sina.

  • Abu Ali al-Husayn ibd Allah ibn Sina/Avicenna (980-1037)

Ibn Sina was the towering intellectual of his day, and was perhaps the most imaginative and daring of the Islamic falasifa. He was for the most part a self-taught thinker (mainly because his teachers couldn’t keep up with him!)[6] and his interests covered mathematics, medicine and astronomy. His most well known text, in fact, was his fourteen-volume Canon of Medicine, which remained a standard medical text up until the nineteenth century, introducing ideas about systematic experimentation, contagion, quarantine and even the beginnings of germ theory.

Philosophically Ibn Sina was interested in grand questions, such as the nature of the afterlife and resurrection. The grandest of these was whether or not the existence of God could be proven, and he spent a great deal of time probing this particularly tense issue. Ibn Sina drew equally upon Aristotle’s theories, which were concerned essences, logic, and the differentiation of species, and Neoplatonic ideas which tended to be more concerned with discerning the first cause of all things. In fact, he developed a kind of synthesis of these two strands of thought to develop what he considered to be a comprehensive proof that God was not a mere product of the human imagination. He reasoned that for things to be differentiated there must be a Necessary Mover, a First Cause, as it were, doing the differentiating.

This proved to be a very popular idea, and like his medical theories it made a significant impact in Europe. Thomas Aquinas, the famous Catholic theologian, made it an integral part of his theology. It also influenced the great seventeenth century Dutch ethicist and Jewish religious dissident Spinoza. In fact, it still has its defenders today.[7] Despite its undoubted complexity and apparent esotericism, it still provides interesting insights into how we can begin to think about how humans and other species are grouped together and separated from each other.

Philosophical controversies

Greek philosophy did not always go down well among Muslims, of course, some of whom considered it to be dangerously speculative, even heretical. In fact, later controversies proved to be decisive in ensuring that Greek philosophy flowered in parts of the Islamic world, whereas in other parts it was driven out or ignored. There were two intellectuals, in particular, who played pivotal roles in these developments.

  • Abu Hamed Mohammed ibn Mohammad al-Ghazali/Algazel (1058-1111)

Al-Ghazali was a philosopher, jurist, theologian and mystic who lived in Tus, and later Nishapur, in what is now Iran. It is arguable that he has been the most influential theologian in Islamic history, and his book the Ihya uloom al-din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) remains a massively popular work of Islamic spirituality.

Al-Ghazali’s popularity rests upon his thoroughgoing attempt to reconcile aspects of Islamic thought that were in danger of causing schism. Profoundly uncertain about the nature of the good, al-Ghazali wrote extensively about the limits to legal knowledge, which he saw as a far from perfect way of encouraging moral behaviour. A person’s inner intention, he wrote, would always ultimately be outside the authority of the Muslim faqih; law was largely, he wrote, external, but Muslims needed to be internally pure too.

To remedy these problems al-Ghazali advocated a form of divinely assisted introspection as a way of cleansing the self (nafs) of all its ills. He wrote lengthy treatises on negative emotions, particularly anger, and developed a whole philosophy (or, perhaps, anti-philosophy) based upon reconciling the internal and external aspects of Islam, the zahir and the batin. In doing so he provided both the intellectual foundations for Sufism and made huge legal advancements, outlining the goals of the Shari‘ah and an early form of individual rights.

However, he also wrote strongly-worded criticisms of the philosophers who preceded him, whose writings he considered dangerous. He believed no universal statements about the human condition could be reached by purely inductive methods, and this was the grave mistake the early falasifa made. He consequently accused both al-Kindi and Ibn Sina of heresy (takir),[8] a highly significant charge in Islam, which contributed greatly to the decline in interest in Greek thought in the Muslim world, particularly in the east.

  • Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd/Averroes (1126-1198)

Al-Ghazali’s rebuttal of the early Islamic Neoplatonists was written in a book called Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). Around a century later an Andalusian philosopher and Muslim jurist penned a lengthy reply, which he titled Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of “The Incoherence”). That philosopher was Ibn Rushd, who lived in Cordoba under the Almohad dynasty.

Ibn Rushd made what might be called a “return” to the texts of Aristotle, concluding that in some respects al-Ghazali had been right: the early falasifa had been wildly speculative. But, he argued, that was their error; it was not a problem that existed within philosophy itself. “To say that philosophy is incoherent,” he stated famously, “is to make an incoherent statement oneself.” He produced great commentaries of Aristotle in an attempt to rectify these errors, which lead to the influential Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas referring to him simply as “The Commentator.”

Ibn Rushd did not display the imagination of, say, Ibn Sina, who was the most daring of the falasifa. He did not try, by and large, to advance a grand theological view of the cosmos and made efforts to ensure that his writings ultimately affirmed orthodox Islamic theology. However, he did insist that it was unsatisfactory to disregard direct material evidence when it was contradicted by a religious text. He would not, one imagines, have been very impressed with “creationists” today. He also insisted in his book Kitab fasl al-maqal (On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy) that those who had the ability were obliged (wajib) to practice philosophy according to Islamic law,[9] which at the time was a very radical argument—one that lead to him being forcefully opposed, and even briefly exiled.

Islamic Philosophy in Europe

The disagreements between the rationalist and spiritualist aspects of Islamic thought were of no little significance. Whilst it is certainly excessive to charge al-Ghazali with stunting the Islamic tradition (he was, and remains, a huge inspiration for great poets and ethical thinkers such as Rumi) he certainly prompted a disinterest in the grand metaphysical speculations that characterised Greek thought.

In fact, as far as the disagreement between Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazali went, one would have to say that the latter’s view won out in the Islamic world. However, that is not to say the former was unimportant. Ibn Rushd played a role that is perhaps greater than any other in allowing the study of Greek philosophy to permeate European intellectual life (often, incidentally, via Jewish thinkers). Ibn Rushd’s attempt to find a way of making religious faith compatible with the rigour of philosophical study lead to what is now known as the “Averroist movement” in Europe. Europeans in fact gave all the above philosophers Latinised names—Alkindus, Avicenna or Alghazel—by which they are perhaps now more commonly known.

Europeans, via the scholastic theology of Aquinas, latched on to Ibn Rushd’s rationalism in particular, and he can be considered a precursor to rationalists such as Descartes and maybe even Immanuel Kant, whose idea of a “moral law” echoes aspects of Ibn Rushd’s thinking. (Today the former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali cites him as an influence too, saying that his position on the role of women is something that we can all learn from.)[10] More recently Ibn Rushd’s ideas have begun to find an audience in Muslim majority countries, where he was introduced by the French intellectual Ernest Renan, who wrote a book called Averroes and Averroism.[11]

Al-Ghazali’s Ihya on the other hand remained largely unknown in Europe during the Renaissance. It is only just beginning to become available to an English speaking audience largely on account of its continued popularity in countries like Malaysia and Turkey. In the writings of some of the finest Islamic thinkers today the ideas of these great thinkers, and the tensions between ethical and scientific thinking that they touch upon, are once again being worked with. Quite what the outcome of this encounter will be, however, and its significance, remains to be seen.

[1] Dimitri Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition: Introduction to Reading Avicenna’s Philosophical Works, E. J. Brill, 1988, p. 243

[2] Brian Clegg, The First Scientist: The Life of Roger Bacon, Constable and Robinson, 2003.

[3] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 16-18.

[4] Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, Oneworld, 2000.

[8] Majid Fakry, Averroes (Ibn Rushd): His Life, Works and Influence, Oneworld, 2001.

[9] Daniel Heller-Roazen, Philosophy before the Law: Averroës’s Decisive Treatise, Critical Inquiry, 32 (spring), pp. 412-442, 2006.

[10] Boutros-Ghali writing in Mourad Wahba and Mona Abousenna (eds.), Averroes and the Enlightenment, Prometheus, 1996, p. 9.

[11] Oliver Leaman writing in Mourad Wahba and Mona Abousenna (eds.), Averroes and the Enlightenment, Prometheus, 1996, p. 53.

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An introduction to philosophers such as al-Kindi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, thinkers who form a bridge between ancient and modern philosophy