Islamic philosophy (al-falsafah) began around the 800s and remains a major intellectual pursuit in parts of the Muslim world. It has influenced and has been influenced by many other fields, including theology, logic, and the sciences. Muslim philosophy grapples with such themes as free will, predestination, the nature of God, and the relative merit of faith and good works. It focuses on the Qur'an and hadith, the nature of prophecy, and the role of revelation in society. Islamic philosophers believe that reason is compatible with truths passed down through scripture.
Early Philosophers and Works
Early Muslim scholars discovered classical Greek philosophical works, translated them, and began to develop their own explanations of the universe. They were especially inspired by Plato and Aristotle, as well as Persian and Indian philosophers. From these thinkers, Muslims learned that the search for truth could involve logic, the natural sciences, mathematics, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. They formed a distinctive philosophy with its roots in Islam. Several Muslim philosophers rose to fame during the Middle Ages.
The first Muslim philosopher, Abu Ya'qub al-Kindi (died 873 ), is known as the “Philosopher of the Arabs.” He founded the most prominent philosophic tradition in Islam—the mashshaun, or Peripatetic school (named after Aristotle's school), which attempted to harmonize Islamic doctrines with elements from Aristotle's teachings. The first scholar to discuss Aristotelian thought in Arabic, al-Kindi pondered the difference between worldly and spiritual phenomena. He also confronted what he considered the central problem of a religious society: how to balance faith and reason. Al-Kindi believed that people could gain a purely human knowledge of all things through reason and study. He also stated, however, that God could provide individuals with this knowledge directly, as in the case of prophecy. God cleansed and enlightened the souls of certain humans, enabling them to spread divine teachings to others in clear, eloquent language.
An influential teacher, al-Kindi wrote an estimated 240 books on subjects ranging from astronomy to medicine and music. His major philosophical works include Fi al-aql (The Intellect) and Fi al-falsafah al-ula (On Metaphysics). Translated into Latin, al-Kindi's works had a significant influence on European thinkers as well as on other Muslim scholars.
Another early philosopher, the physician and scholar Abu Bakr al-Razi (died 932 ) inspired negative reactions from some scholars for his unorthodox views. Al-Razi developed a theory of creation based on five eternal principles: God, Soul, matter, infinite space, and absolute time. He taught that creation occurred as the result of an unexpected and quick turn of events (faltah). Echoing classical Greek themes, al-Razi explained that Soul, who existed in the world of infinite space and time, ignorantly desired physical matter. Taking pity on her, God created the universe and allowed Soul to experience it so that she could understand suffering. He wanted to guide her into realizing her error, renouncing the physical world, and returning to Him. Al-Razi believed that his account relieved God of any responsibility for imperfection or sin in the universe.
Al-Razi voiced some unusual beliefs that turned many scholars against him. He rejected prophecy, revelation, and divine law, stating that any reasonable human being could achieve knowledge of any subject and did not need divine guidance. Individuals could determine their own actions, know truth for themselves, and improve on the teachings of earlier authorities. Al-Razi even questioned the nature of religion, believing it to be a device that enabled evil men to hold tyranny over others and to wage war. Many Muslims expressed outrage at these ideas, and al-Razi earned the criticism of several philosophers.
Discovering Truth Through Study.
The scholar Abu Nasr al-Farabi (died 950 ) introduced formal logic and political philosophy to the Islamic world. Al-Farabi wrote books on a variety of subjects, including mathe-matics, astronomy, music, and poetry. His masterpiece, Kitab ara ahl al-madinah al-fadilah (The Book of the Opinions of the Citizens of the Virtuous City) applies the political philosophy of Plato to Muslim society. In the text, al-Farabi discussed the ways in which humans could achieve an ideal community. He explored such issues as leadership, social order, divine law, and the fate of communities that stray from Islamic beliefs. Al-Farabi argued that philosophers alone were qualified to head a state, having discovered truth through years of study. Only philosophers could guide their subjects in correct actions and instruct them on how to fulfill moral obligations. In the event of the philosopher's death, a ruler with good judgment could take his place and implement his laws.
Al-Farabi opposed al-Razi's rejection of prophecy, stating that prophecy and philosophy are basically the same. Prophets receive the same information as philosophers, but through bursts of divine information rather than through rational thought. Al-Farabi valued philosophy above prophecy, however, claiming that it leads to a purer version of the truth. Al-Farabi's work profoundly influenced scholarship in the Muslim world, as well as in Jewish and Christian communities.
Chain of Existence.
Often considered the greatest Muslim philosopher, Ibn Sina (also known by the Latin name Avicenna, died 1037 ) provided a detailed analysis of Peripatetic thought. His book Kitab al-shifa (The Book of Healing) dominated Islamic scholarship for centuries. Focusing on the question of being and creation, Ibn Sina determined that life could not exist without intervention from a higher power. He distinguished between an object's essence and existence, stating that essence could not cause existence and that objects could not take on life and interact with one another by themselves. Ibn Sina argued that God bestowed a life force on all things. Moreover, God stood at the head of a great chain of being that included all the creatures in the universe, ranging from angels to dust, with each entity responsible for the existence of the one below it.
Ibn Sina also wrote on the immortality of the human soul. Created at the same time as the body, it uses the body as an instrument. It determines the individual's personality, looks, and moral character. The soul survives the death of the body and receives punishments or rewards according to its sins or good deeds. Ibn Sina's writings also deeply influenced scholars of other traditions.
Development and Opposition
Around the 1000s, Islamic philosophy underwent several significant changes. Various rulers encouraged or suppressed the development of philosophic thought in their regions, and intellectual movements emerged in different parts of the Islamic empire. Groups began to oppose one another, and philosophers debated the ideas of the early Islamic scholars.
Rise of Theologians.
From the 1000s to the 1200s, the Seljuks dominated western Asia. Valuing theology over philosophy, they discouraged the teaching of science and caused a decline in philosophical thought in the region. Major theologians emerged during this period and wrote treatises against Peripatetic philosophy. The great Sufi scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (died 1111 ) wrote the most famous attack on the Peripatetics, along with another book explaining their views, which caused some later scholars to view him as a member of this school. In his Tahafut al-falasifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers), al-Ghazali criticized the Peripatetics for deviating from Islam and for wasting their time on trivial arguments. For example, he opposed their rejection of bodily resurrection and their claim that God could not have specific knowledge of aspects of His creation.
The theologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (died 1210 ) wrote a detailed criticism of Ibn Sina's work that strongly influenced the course of Islamic philosophy. Philosophers wrote furious responses to al-Razi's critique, and the scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (died 1274 ) produced a celebrated defense that essentially revived Ibn Sina's philosophy. The debate over Ibn Sina ultimately led to a regeneration of philosophic inquiry in the Muslim world.
Islamic Philosophy in Spain.
While philosophy stagnated in the Seljuk domains of Asia, it flourished in Islamic Spain. Ibn Bajjah (died 1138 ) was a major philosopher in the region. In Tadbir al-mutawahhid (The Regimen of the Solitary), he maintained that a perfect state could arise only after certain individuals had perfected themselves by uniting their intellects to an overarching Active Intellect. Ibn Bajjah also held that philosophers should lead solitary lives, shun the company of nonintellectuals, and study the sciences while pursuing contact with the Active Intellect.
One of his followers, Ibn Tufayl (died 1185 ), continued to explore the relationship between intuition and learning. He wrote on the interaction between inner illumination and knowledge revealed through scripture. His book Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Living Son of the Awake) was translated into Hebrew and Latin and became famous in Europe as Philosophies Autodidactus. It influenced both philosophers and literary scholars.
A physician and chief religious judge of Córdoba, Ibn Rushd (died 1198 ) wrote the most famous medieval commentaries on Aristotelian philosophy. Known in the Western world as Averroës, Ibn Rushd set out to revive Peripatetic philosophy, responding to al-Ghazali's Tahafut with his own Tahafut al-tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence). Ibn Rushd argued that divine law exists in order to ensure the happiness of all. Individuals must accept the teachings of the Qur'an and the hadith and perform obligatory acts of worship. Each individual must also pursue knowledge according to his or her capacity. The divine law grants philosophers the right to analyze and interpret revelation as they see fit. Furthermore, it denies theologians the authority to criticize or interfere with these efforts. Considered the greatest philosopher of Muslim Spain, Ibn Rushd had a far greater influence in the West than in the eastern Islamic world.
New Philosophical Schools.
Beginning in the 1100s, several Islamic schools of philosophy developed. The Iranian scholar Shihab al-Din Umar Suhrawardi (died 1191 ) created the School of Illumination, integrating rational and mystical philosophy with Islamic teachings. He taught that true philosophy stemmed from ishraq (illumination) as well as from mental effort. Suhrawardi viewed all creatures as existing on a continuum of light and darkness. He linked light with inner purity and cited God as the perfect manifestation of this light. He stated that change occurs when lower lights experience desire for the higher lights and interact with them. Fully purified souls ascend to a world of lights after death, while darker souls inhabit a world of images that they create based on their own level of purification. Officials executed Suhrawardi in Aleppo in 1191 , forcing his followers underground. A generation later, scholars revived his teachings.
Between the 1200s and 1500s, Persia became the center of philosophical activity. The scholar Mir Damad (died 1631 ) founded the School of Isfahan, named after the city in which he taught. His most famous student, Mulla Sadra (died 1640 ) is considered the greatest of all Islamic metaphysicians. Mulla Sadra integrated Peripatetic and mystical thought. He taught that everything other than God and divine knowledge originated both eternally and temporally. He also held that spirituality should play a significant role in political reform and that moral and ethical principles should serve as the foundation of social movements. Mulla Sadra and his followers influenced thinkers in Persia, India, and Iraq.
Colonialism and Contemporary Concerns.
Beginning in the late 1700s, Western nations colonized most of the Islamic world. Their rule inhibited the growth of Islamic philosophy but brought European and American thought into the Muslim consciousness. Some scholars developed an interest in Western traditions. Others despised the new influences and urged a movement back to Islamic teachings.
By the mid-1900s, most Islamic countries had gained their independence from the Europeans. Scholars, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Iqbal , began a revival of Islamic philosophy, looking to earlier texts for guidance on how to create a new Muslim state. Islamic philosophy plays an especially important role in Iran. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini taught philosophy for years before turning to politics, and he appointed a leading philosopher as head of the Council of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 . Many Muslim scholars have taken a renewed interest in Islamic philosophy, and Western students show an increasing interest in Islamic works. See also Afghani, Jamal al-Din al-; Farabi, Abu Nasr al-; Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-; Ibn Rushd ; Ibn Sina ; Iqbal, Muhammad; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi; Mulla Sadra ; Seljuk Dynasty; Theology.