The legacy of Islamic philosophy

By Peter Adamson for New Humanist

Although they worked within a religious framework, many philosophers in the Islamic world were pioneers of rational thought.

Averroes Arab philosopher Averroes. Detail from Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497)

What can humanists or other non-believers find to interest them in Islamic philosophy? The phrase suggests the problem. If a philosophical tradition is distinctively Islamic, it would seem the humanist can see only a target for critique. The humanist might go further and argue that “Islamic philosophy” is a contradiction in terms. Philosophy is an exercise of unbounded reason, a search for understanding on the basis of discernment rather than revelation or faith.

Plausible though this line of thought is, I want to persuade you that it is wrong. Let’s start with the biggest assumption, that philosophical reflection must exclude a religious context. This is clearly unsustainable. Nearly all mediaeval Christian philosophers considered themselves to be theologians. It seems pretty clear that a definition of “philosopher” that rules out Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus is a definition that is in urgent need of revision. Looking further back, many ancient thinkers worked within an explicit religious framework. This is especially obvious in late antiquity with Christians like Augustine and Boethius, but applies at least as much to pagan thinkers like Iamblichus and Proclus. And what about Plato? We don’t think of him as a “religious” thinker, but he certainly weaves religious ideas into his philosophical works. Just read the Phaedrus to see what I mean.

Yet there does seem to be something to the idea that philosophy should distance itself from religious assumptions. What could be less philosophical than accepting a certain belief as true, just because that belief is endorsed by the Bible, or some other scriptural text? Plato wouldn’t do that, we hope. Would Aquinas? Well, yes and no. Like many Christian mediaeval thinkers, he adopted a sophisticated view of the relationship between reason and faith. The natural light of reason is sufficient for the establishment of philosophical understanding, from logic to natural philosophy to the study of the soul, ethics and politics. Reason can reach even as far as God, proving his existence and many of his traits. Yes, there are other truths inaccessible to reason, such as God’s being a Trinity. But these truths, once accepted by faith, can be more fully understood using reason. Most thinkers in the mediaeval Christian world would be able to meet the humanist halfway, offering rational arguments without appeal to the Bible.

What about Islamic philosophy, or, as I prefer, “philosophy in the Islamic world”? The recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism may lead you to expect that throughout history, Muslim intellectuals have been bound to the dictates of their religion, more even than mediaeval Christians like Aquinas. This is not the case. In Latin Christendom, it was only occasionally that philosophy was practised without any explicit theological context or agenda, as, for instance, with theories of logic and language developed at the universities in the 13th and 14th century. In the Islamic world, such independent pursuit of philosophy was closer to the norm than the exception.

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In the formative period of philosophy in the Islamic world – that is, up to the 12th century or so – “philosophy” was strongly associated with Greek culture. It was even called falsafa, a loan-word from the Greek philosophia. “Philosophers (falāsifa)” were pursuing a science with foreign origins, centred above all on the study of Aristotle, but drawing on numerous other sources in mathematics (e.g. Euclid), medicine (e.g. Galen), natural science (e.g. Ptolemy) and philosophy (e.g. Plotinus). For this reason “philosophy” was considered to be outside the Islamic sciences, and it was not grounded in scriptural authority. Naturally, Islamic concerns did play some role in the writings of philosophers. They might quote the Qur’an to show that their theories were in agreement with the holy book. Sometimes, one suspects that the theories themselves were engineered to fit with Islamic belief, as when the supreme oneness of God or immortality of the soul are proved by rational argument. On the other hand, the supreme oneness of God and immortality of the soul were standard topics in Greek philosophy (Plotinus insists on both), something that could hardly be overlooked by the readers of the Arabic translations. So even these doctrines were not seen as distinctively Islamic. Philosophers spent much of their effort working on logic, epistemology, natural philosophy and so on. They were handling topics with no obvious religious import and, unlike in Latin Christendom, working outside any religious institution.

These were the conditions that made it possible for some thinkers of the Islamic world to embrace a rationalism far more radical than anything we can find in Christian Europe of the same period. In particular, we see such an attitude in al-Fārābī and Averroes, who lived respectively in 10th-century Iraq and Syria and 12th-century Islamic Spain. For both, philosophy is the effort to establish truths demonstratively, which means providing unshakeable proofs based on indubitable first principles. Both saw Aristotle as a figure who had come closer than any other thinker to completing this ambitious project; the theory of demonstrative truth itself is based on his works. Aristotelian science has for both al-Fārābī and Averroes the highest possible status, with all other forms of knowledge – including religious – necessarily falling short. Which is not to say that the Qur’an is false, only that it presents truths in a non-scientific way. Religious discourse is persuasive and powerful, just right for the ordinary believer, but it does not lay out the scientific explanations for the universal truths understood by the accomplished philosopher.

One consequence of the universality of philosophy is that the truths and demonstrations it discovers are in principle open to all peoples. And not only in principle. Aristotle had used his reason to get further than anyone else in Greece, and in the Islamic world philosophy developed as an ecumenical enterprise, with Muslims, Christians and Jews meeting on the common ground of philosophy. The very Greek-Arabic translations that kicked off the falsafa traditions had mostly been made by Christian scholars, at the behest of Muslim patrons. So, especially in this early period, to engage with falsafa often meant collaborating with Christians. In the 9th century the first self-styled faylasūf of the Islamic world, al-Kindī, led a group of those Christian translators. A few generations later al-Fārābī had Christian teachers and students, one of whom, Yahyā Ibn ‘Adī, engaged in a philosophical correspondence with a Jewish interlocutor. Al-Fārābī and his colleagues emphasised that philosophical disciplines are cross-cultural in other respects too. Philosophy is not bound to any place, people or language. They liked to contrast the universal validity of logic with the parochial concerns of grammar, a burgeoning science of their day.

Hence my preference for “philosophy in the Islamic world” rather than “Islamic philosophy”: many of the thinkers in question were not Muslims, and even those who were Muslim often engaged in an inquiry that they themselves distinguished sharply from “Islamic” sciences, like Qur’anic exegesis. One should be careful not to exaggerate, though. Philosophy was indeed an ecumenical enterprise, but its tools could also be used for interfaith disputation. Al-Kindī was happy to collaborate with Christian translators, but he deployed Aristotelian logic in a short work intended to refute the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The very foreignness of philosophy made it an easy target. Some argued on behalf of the indigenous Arabic or Islamic sciences, like the grammarian al-Sīrāfī, who mocked Greek logic as pretentious and useless for parsing actual arguments and sentences. Later critics went further, issuing legal decisions condemning the practice of logic.

Another caveat is needed here: al-Fārābī and Averroes are famous, but hardly representative of philosophy in the Islamic world. Their radical rationalism and detailed engagement with Aristotle has endeared them more to today’s historians than to contemporary readers. Averroes, through Hebrew and Latin translations of his works, had a vastly greater impact on Jewish and Latin Christian readers than on his co-religionists. More typical was an irenic approach, which did not make the provocative claim that philosophical demonstration is superior to religious discourse. Instead, it was suggested that philosophical inquiry would reach the same conclusions as those set out in scripture; an independent confirmation of revealed truths.

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So far I’ve been talking about self-professed philosophers. But returning to philosophy in mediaeval Latin Christendom, many thinkers from that culture whom we now treat as “philosophers” would not have used this name. They thought of themselves as theologians, or perhaps something else. Similarly, in the Islamic world many people were doing philosophy despite refusing the label of faylasūf. Perhaps the best example is al-Ghazālī, famous for a work called Incoherence of the Philosophers. In it, he tries to show the flaws in the philosophy of the falāsifa, by which he means the philosophy of Avicenna. If asked to identify al-Ghazālī’s intellectual profile, most scholars would probably say that he was a theologian (mutakallim). And though he was exceptional in many ways, he was not in this respect. Many thinkers who engaged in theology (kalām) engaged in philosophical argument, arguing back and forth over such topics as free will and the nature of knowledge.

A widespread misconception is that philosophy in the Islamic world drew to an end in the 12th century. But it’s now agreed by most experts in the field that this was not the case. The impression that philosophy died at this time, with Averroes as its last representative, can be traced to two factors. First, until recently scholars were interested almost exclusively in Arabic philosophical works that were translated into Latin, because they wanted to understand those who influenced Christian thinkers like Aquinas. Since the Latin-Arabic translation movement peaked in the 12th century, later thinkers made little impact in Europe.

Second, there really was a change in the 12th century, insofar as Avicenna (who died in 1037) now replaced Aristotle as the central philosophical figure. If one thinks of “Islamic philosophy” as engagement with Greek sources in Arabic translation, one may easily conclude that it ended in the 12th century. But this is a pretty narrow definition of philosophy. For many generations, all the way to the colonial period, there was intense engagement with the provocative and brilliant ideas of Avicenna, who reworked Aristotelian philosophy and put his own distinctive stamp upon it. His works were the subject of commentaries, critiques and summaries, works which duly received their own commentaries and critiques. Reactions ranged from enthusiastic embrace of Avicenna’s philosophy to bitter opposition. But Avicenna’s impact was enormous, greater even than Aristotle’s in the formative period, because it was felt more widely. His methods and terminology became pervasive in intellectual discourse, and set the agenda for philosopher-theologians from Egypt to Muslim India.

Avicenna was notorious for several reasons – he drank wine and thought the world was eternal. But the intellectuals of the Islamic world saw in his writings a source that could help them engage in their own independent reflections, on matters both philosophical and theological. Even the titles sometimes tell the story, as with the Mu‘tabar of the Jewish-Muslim convert Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī: it means What has Been Carefully Considered. Other thinkers, like the prolific and subtle Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, likewise revelled in their ability to weigh up arguments on all sides of an issue before passing judgement. As a whole, later Islamic theology constitutes a powerful rebuke to anyone who thinks religious thinkers are tradition-bound. Arabic speakers had a word for such uncritical acceptance of authority: taqlīd. If there is any theme that runs through the whole history of Islamic thought, it is the importance of avoiding this intellectual sin.

From an early period, we see sunnis (including such different thinkers as Abū Bakr al-Rāzī and al-Ghazālī) accusing shi‘ites of taqlīd, on the basis that shi‘ites follow the authority of an Imam, who must be descended from the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī. But the insult is not thrown only across the sunni-shi’ite divide. Philosophers complained that theologians are guilty of taqlīd, and theologians returned the favour. After all, didn’t the philosophers blindly follow Aristotle? This is not to say that one must always start from scratch. In Islamic law, the founders of the legal schools were respected even as room was left for the individual judgement of the jurist. Similarly, in philosophy and theology the views of Aristotle or al-Ash‘arī, founder of the eponymous Ash‘arite school, were admired, even revered. But no Aristotelian or Ash‘arite would be caught dead saying that they believed something simply on the say-so of an honoured predecessor. Rather, independent and honest inquiry ratified the school’s teachings, and often led to revisions or extensions of those teachings.

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The negative attitude towards taqlīd continued well past the formative period. A recent book by Khaled El-Rouayheb discusses the 15th-century Moroccan theologian al-Sanūsī, who said that all Muslims have the duty to engage in independent reflection. Failing to do so is taqlīd, which for al-Sanūsī is “the root of the unbelief of the idolaters”. Few thinkers went quite this far. More typically, it was assumed that taqlīd is appropriate for the uneducated mass of humanity, who are not in a position to go beyond received opinion. Instead, they should follow the lead of the learned scholars, or avoid inquiring into matters above their level – a strikingly similar idea to the one put forward by al-Fārābī and Averroes, except that here it is experts in religious law and theology who form the intellectual elite, rather than philosophers.

One might argue that the rejection of taqlīd, and the spirit of rational inquiry that this implies, was the common thread that bound together all philosophically inclined intellectuals of the Islamic world. It was a thread that ran across historical and religious boundaries. A Jewish legal and philosophical expert like Maimonides had much in common with his contemporary and fellow Andalusian Averroes – in some ways, more than he had in common with the average Jewish believer. Of course not all learned men were so optimistic about the prospects of individual inquiry. We’ve already seen that there were sceptics about logic, and many mystics and theologians did emphasise the limitations of human reason. Then too, codified teacher-student relationships existed across the intellectual spectrum, implying a period of apprenticeship while the student’s mind was being formed. But well into the modern era, mature, mainstream theologians presented themselves as disinterested inquirers into the truth. In so doing, they were following the lead of the earlier philosophers and those influenced by them, like al-Ghazālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī. This is not to claim that these figures were somehow humanists. But it is to say that in the Islamic world, faith has very rarely been blind.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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