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Kindī, Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq al-

By:
Kiki Kennedy-Day
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Kindī, Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq al-

Islamic philosophy finds its beginnings with Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqāb ibn Isḥāq al-Kindī (d. c.AH 252–260 [866–873 CE]). He made it possible to hold philosophical discussions in Arabic by helping to establish terms and define philosophical concepts and by writing the first treatise on metaphysics for an Arabic-language audience. Consequently al-Kindī is known as the philosopher of the Arabs, one of the originators of abstract thought in Arabic culture. During his lifetime the caliph al-Maʿmūn (r. 813–833) set up the bait al-hikma (house of wisdom) where the wholesale translation of Greek texts began, which introduced philosophical questioning and reasoning to the Islamic world. Al-Kindī domesticated Greek philosophy for an Islamic milieu, incorporating Islamic views into philosophy, such as the temporal creation of the world from nothing and the nature and power of God. Specifically, the description of God as a unity without attributes moves far beyond Aristotle 's Prime Mover. Al-Kindī is the only major Islamic philosopher who was an ethnic Arab, related to illustrious Arab tribes. Among his important works are Fī al-falsafa al-ūlā (On First Philosophy), concerning his views on metaphysics; Fī hudūd al-ashāaʿ wa-rusūmihā (On the Definitions and Descriptions of Things); and Fī al-ḥīla li-Daf   ʿ al-aḥzān (On the Device for Dispelling Sorrows).

The ninth century saw a phenomenal rise in abstract thought among the Arabs, where previously there had been only recitations of poetry and battle descriptions: in the science of history and theology (kalām), as well as the beginnings of philosophy. According to the Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadīm, al-Kindī wrote treatises on medicine, astrology, and music in addition to philosophy. Ibn al-Nadīm cites over two hundred titles by al-Kindī, but many of his books have been lost. Therefore our understanding of al-Kindī 's thought must remain imperfect. Although he took much of his metaphysics from Aristotle, he embraced the idea of the temporal creation of the world from nothing, in accordance with the beliefs of Islam. He may have accepted the idea of the unity of God and negative attributes from the Muʿtazilī (rationalizing theologians).

During al-Kindī 's lifetime, Maʿmūn also established an inquisition (mihnah) that required public officials to testify that the Qurʿan was created. Maʿmūn 's desired effect was to elevate the caliphate over the ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) who interpreted the Qurʿan. The caliph evidently feared the growing power of the ʿulamāʿ and tried to undercut the status of the Qurʿan. Perhaps in al-Kindī, who generally eschewed religious discussion and gave cautious philosophical discussions on fraught topics, such as the nature of God and the creation of the world, we see a philosopher who was attempting to avoid political controversy. Being a courtier of any description was a perilous occupation, but philosophers were particularly vulnerable, as their occupation frequently involved delineating troublesome ideas. Historically religion and politics were closely connected in the Islamic caliphate. Philosophers who discussed ideas in which religion has a proprietary interest (God, creation, the immortality of the soul) frequently found themselves on a collision course with religious dogma.

Al-Kindī 's greatest achievement was in encouraging the translation of Greek texts and domesticating philosophy so that it could flourish in Islamic society. For example, in his treatise Fī māhiya al-naum wa al-ruʿyā (On the Essence of Sleep and Dreams), he develops ideas that are later embellished by Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī, such as the idea of dreams as a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds. Like most of the philosophers who frequented court, he suffered disfavor; he was stripped of his library in 848 A.D. It was eventually returned to him.

In his treatise “On the Device for Dispelling Sorrows” al-Kindī recommends a Stoic attempt to withdraw from the world. By not engaging with material possessions, one can avoid the pain of their loss. Similarly, when a beloved person is lost, one must understand that others have also suffered loss and grief. Through acceptance, one may again recover happiness and equilibrium.

He was also known as Alkindus in western Europe in medieval times. Some of his treatises were translated into Latin, particularly a treatise on the intellect, De Intellectu.

Rather than a Muʿtazilī or a Greek-influenced philosopher, al-Kindī should be regarded as an eclectic. He took what he found useful. While he took much of the metaphysics from Aristotle, he rejected the idea of the eternity of the world, and also discussed the unity of God and God 's negative attributes from the Muʿtazilī. His greatest achievement was in encouraging the translation of Greek texts and the study of philosophy in Islamic society. Al-Kindī was a pioneer, more than a sophisticated thinker.

See also IBN AL-ʿARABī, MUHYī AL-DīN and PHILOSOPHY.

Bibliography

  • Adamson, Peter. Al-Kindī. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Endress, Gerhard. “The circle of al-Kindī: Early Arabic Translations from the Greek and the Rise of Islamic Philosophy.” In The Ancient Tradition in Christian and Islamic Hellenism: Studies on the Transmission of Greek Philosophy and Sciences: Dedicated to H. J. Drossaart Lulofs on His Ninetieth Birthday, edited by Gerhard Endress and Remke Kruk, pp. 43–76. Leiden, Netherlands: Research School CNWS, 1997. A study that contextualizes al-Kindī in his time.
  • Kennedy-Day, Kiki. Books of Definition in Islamic Philosophy: The Limits of Words. London and New York: RoutledgeCourzon, 2003. A discussion of al-Kindī 's Book of Definition in comparison with other philosophers.
  • Kindī, Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqub ibn Ishaq al-. Al-Kindī 's Metaphysics: A Translation of Yaʿqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindī 's Treatise “On First Philosophy” (Fi al-Falsafah al-Ula). Introduction and commentary by Alfred L. Ivry. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press: 1974). A translation of his treatise on first philosophy, with notes and comments in a Greek-oriented vein.
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