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The Oxford History of Islam What is This? Includes in-depth topical chapters by leading scholars, examining the origins and historical development of Islam.

Philosophy and Theology

FROM THE EIGHTH CENTURY C.E.TO THE PRESENT

Majid Fakhry

Ahab Bdaiwi

Islamic theology (kalam) was to a large extent a by-product of Islamic philosophy. However, recent research has shown that as early as the middle of the 8th century Muslim rational theology, which centered primarily on the question of divine attributes, flourished among the Ibadi community of Kufa. Be that as it may, to place Islamic philosophy in its proper historical context, one must first review the various stages through which its predecessor, Greek-Hellenistic philosophy, passed, to the eventual capture of Alexandria by Arabs in 641 c.e. Founded by Alexander the Great in 330 b.c.e., Alexandria had become during the Ptolemaic period (323–30 b.c.e.) the heir to Athens as the cultural center of the ancient world. By the beginning of the common era, Alexandria had become the major hub of philosophical, scientific, and medical studies, as well as the center of the interaction of Greek thought with Near Eastern religions: Egyptian, Phoenician, Chaldean, Jewish, and Christian. By the third century c.e. a new brand of philosophy known as Neoplatonism attempted to fuse the purely Greek legacy with those of the ancient nations of the Near East. What characterized the new amalgam was the profound religious and mystical spirit that animated it and the urge to transcend the intellectual categories that Greek philosophy in its greatest moments had consecrated as the chief channels for truth seeking. Identified with Aristotle, known in Arabic sources as the Master of Logic and the First Teacher, this ancient brand of philosophy was now challenged by a new variety that claimed Plato as its master and fully exploited the religious-mystical tendencies inherited from Pythagoreanism.

The Egyptian-Greek philosopher Plotinus (205–70) is the accredited founder of Neoplatonism, but he made no claims to originality. Plotinus contends in his work the Enneads, that his sole aim was to comment on or interpret the works of the “Divine Plato.” Plotinus’ disciple and editor, Porphyry of Tyre (ca. 234–305), a Syrian, carried on his teacher's legacy and pushed it one step further in the direction of mysticism. Porphyry argued that the ultimate goal of philosophy is self-purification, or cleansing of the soul from worldly passions and turning toward the intelligible world. One of the most influential figures in the history of Islamic logic and ethics, Porphyry was a great critic of Christianity. He found support for this thesis in Plato's Theaetetus, which describes philosophy as an attempt to rise above the material world and to seek “likeness unto God” (homoiosis Theo). Porphyry's successor was another Syrian, Jamblichus (d. 330), a shining star in the Neoplatonic firmament. Jamblichus’ disciple Syrianus (d. ca. 430) was the teacher of Proclus of Athens (ca. 410–485), who wrote Elements of Theology. This work was partially translated into Arabic in the tenth century as the Pure Good and later into Latin as Liber de causis (Book of Causes), and it forms a major link in the development of Islamic and Latin Neoplatonism.

Philosophy and Theology

(Left) Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) was the greatest theologian of Islam, and his treatise Ihya ulum al-din enjoyed wide circulation. The Mamluk sultan Qaitbay donated this fine copy to his madrasa at Sahra in 1495.

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The Eclipse of Philosophy during the Byzantine Period

Philosophy and Theology

The Sasanian academy at Gundishapur, founded in southwest Iran around 555 by Anushirwan, continued in the early centuries of Islam to be a major center for the transmission of Greek science and medicine. Nothing is left at the site, but the nearby ruins of the Sasanian dam and bridge over the Juhayl River at Shushtar testify its importance.

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The school of Athens, which had been philosophy's home for almost a thousand years, was the last bastion of Greek paganism. In 529 the Byzantine emperor Justinian, as defender of the Orthodox faith, ordered that school to be closed, because its teachings constituted a threat to Christianity. After the school's closing, seven of its teachers, headed by Simplicius and Damascius, crossed the border into Persia, lured by reports of the philhellenic sympathies of the Persian emperor Khosrow I, known in Arabic and Persian sources as Anushirvan (the Just). Around 555, Anushirvan founded the school of Gundishapur, which became a staging station in the transmission of Greek medicine and science to the Muslim world. When Baghdad became the capital of the Abbasid Empire in 762, Gundishapur provided the caliphs with a long list of court physicians, such as the members of the famous Nestorian family of Bakhtishu. These physicians served the caliphs well and were instrumental in setting up the first hospital and observatory in Baghdad, modeled on those in Gundishapur during the reign of the caliphs Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809) and his second son, al-Mamun (r. 813–33). Medicine, astronomy, and philosophy flourished in Gundishapur, primarily because of Yahya al-Barmaki (d. 805), Harun's vizier and mentor, whose zeal for Hellenic studies was instrumental in promoting the translation of Greek philosophical works into Arabic.

The primary channel through which Greek philosophy was transmitted to the Muslim world was Alexandria, where the study of Greek philosophy and science was flourishing when the Arabs conquered it in 641. In Syria and Iraq the study of Greek was pursued by Nestorians and Jacobites, Syriac-speaking scholars in the cities of Antioch, Edessa, and Nusaybin, who read or translated theological writings from Alexandria. These writings included Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, St. Clement's Recognitiones, the Discourses of Titus of Bostra against the Manicheans, and the works of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus.

The translations of Greek logical texts often accompanied the translations of these theological texts, to serve as preparatory instruction. Accordingly, Porphyry's Isagoge and Aristotle's Categories, Hermeneutica, and the first part of Prior Analytics were translated into Syriac, laying the groundwork for their eventual translation into Arabic. There is no evidence that Syriac scholars were interested in the other parts of Aristotle's Organon—including the Posterior Analytics, which dealt with demonstrative syllogisms, and Sophistica, which dealt with sophistical arguments or fallacious modes of discourse—perhaps because it was feared that these parts constituted a threat to the Christian faith. It was left to Baghdad's Muslim logicians some centuries later, with the philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi (ca. 878–950) leading the way, to break this tradition. These logicians eventually commented on or paraphrased the range of Aristotle's logical treatises, as well as his Rhetoric and Poetics, which were regarded as an integral part of the Organon in the Syriac and Arabic traditions.

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