The Introduction of Greek Philosophy in the Muslim World


Greek or to be precise Hellenistic philosophy came into the Muslim world by way of Syriac. At Haran, in northern Iraq, a philosophical school kept versions of the Hellenistic philosophical heritage intact in either the original Greek or in Syriac translations. In the time of the Abbasid rule, that fertile period, in which the Greek heritage was being translated into Arabic. The Caliph at first was interested to see what sciences there were there, then works on civil administration, then to ethical works, if any then it was all works. So it was no surprise that there was a vigorous effort to translate all the works (ca. 754-833).

[2] At first, some of the translations were not from good original copies but as the demand for the philosophical literature was up more and better copies were found. Interestingly however, some important works never made it into Arabic for example the politics of Aristotle (c.f. Aristu) was never found. Also among the bad copies/translations was Aristotle's poetics. To make matters even worst, some of Plotinus' Enneads (available online c.f. Enneads) would be translated under the title of the “Theology of Aristotle”, so the Muslims had a skewed if not a contradictory view of Aristotle. Some writers questioned its attribution to Aristotle but no one could research this further. One of those who strongly apposed the view that the “Theology” was a work of Aristotle is Averroes (d. 1198). As Greek was not one of the languages that many Arabic speaking Muslims learned. The perceived superiority of the Arabic language deterred many from learning or writing in any other language.

[3] The spread of Hellenistic philosophy in the Muslim world would be first expounded on by the first Arabic philosopher al-Kindi (ca.800-865). He wrote many works on Greek science and philosophy. He laid the foundation for others to follow in studying philosophical works. His main contribution was the firm conviction that Greek heritage contained important truths that Muslims could not afford to overlook. As a mathematician he realized the importance of Aristotelian Logic, However, al-Kindi found Aristotelian metaphysics contradictory; that Aristotle did not offer valid logical support to the issue of the eternity of the world. 

[4] Al-Kindi in his mathematical philosophy presented an argument that actual infinity is self-canceling. Also in his philosophy of nature he showed that matter, motion, and time as closely related concepts (this is an advanced worked comparing it with the knowledge of the middle ages.) Since matter cannot be eternal, and cannot generate its existence (c.f. essence and generation argument) then its motion and time are not eternal too. Al-Kindi was the first Muslim philosopher to note clearly that the metaphysics of the Greek philosophers is first self contradictory, and second it contradict the Islamic belief. He also gave a religious basis for studying these fields. 

[5] Al-Kindi would prove to be the most difficult Islamic thinker to study which explains the dearth of works on him. This is due to a variety of reasons some of which is that he was a scientist, philosopher of science, a rigorous mathematician and a man of letters with a high command of Arabic. One who is not well versed in all of these topics in addition to a solid grasp of scientific Arabic would not be able to fully appreciate al-Kindi nor his contributions.

[6] Then it would be up to al-Farabi (870-950) [who served in the Hamdanid court in Aleppo, northern Syria.] that would formulate philosophy in a manner that would be palatable to Muslim tastes. His efforts would be aimed at expounding philosophy in Islamic terms. It is worthwhile to note that in his lifetime he was not a noted figure in field.  Actually, Avicenna is the one that popularized his writings. He became known as the Second teacher (after Aristotle). He also laid an important groundwork in every major field of philosophy and most importantly political philosophy. He would be the credited with the popularizing neo-Platonism in the Muslim world.

[7] Important to Islamic philosophers is the concept of Prophethood, namely God selecting messengers and endowing them through prophecy (communication from God, either directly or through Angels) with enlightenment and truth. This was a concept that would have to be explained philosophically. It would be al-Farabi who would formulate such a concept in Hellenistic terms. To al-Farabi, he would equate two sources of knowledge namely revelation and philosophy as the two roads to enlightenment and truth.

[8] Al-Farabi had accomplished much in all the major fields of philosophy including metaphysics, logic, music theory, ethics and politics. Not only did he make a brave attempt to reconcile philosophy with Islamic doctrine, he also attempted to reconcile philosophy with it self, namely a work on the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (available online c.f. al-Farabi).  He was also an accomplished musician of great renown.

 [9] Soon thereafter, a hodgepodge work called the epistles of the brethren of purityRasil Ikhwan al-Safa”. (ca. 946-1055) This work is a mix of philosophy (Pythagorean speculations), theology (Jewish, Christian, Persian, Hindu, and Islamic elements), mysticism, math, music theory, and astrology.  Prof. Hitti, in his history of the Arabs says of the group “...they evidently aimed to overthrow [Abbasid rule] by undermining the popular intellectual system and religious beliefs.” p. 373. It is important to note they were aligned with the Fatimid rule.

[10] The third most important figure in philosophy is Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037) [He lived in Northern Iran/FSSR]. He wrote on a wide variety of sciences, medicine being his most valuable contribution. He also wrote on all branches of philosophy. He is also credited with popularizing philosophy for the elite. There are many legends that surround not only his life but there are many books that are attributed to him that he did not write according to scholarly accounts. Still he wrote extensively on philosophy ranging from short works to encyclopedic length works, namely his famed al-Shifa (lit. healing ) that runs in 12 volumes (2 volumes available online c.f. Avicenna). Outside of philosophy his is famous for his medical encyclopedia, al-qanun fi-al-tibb (Canon of Medicine -available online in original Arabic(1593 ed.), from which the English term 'canon' comes from.

[11] Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is an important figure in the history of Islamic thought.  He was a a scholar of Islamic Jurisprudence and theologian by training who delved into philosophy out of necessity.  He was also a gifted writer with keen knack for clarifying terse subjects. He claimed three things with regard to philosophy in the Muslim world at his time. The first claim is that some of the teachings of philosophy run against the teachings of Islam to the point that they cannot be rationally reconciled. Second, these teachings are also contradictory to the teachings of philosophy it self, hence they are incoherent at best and otherwise destructive. These teachings run counter to philosophy and its stated goals of being coherent, logical and consistent. Thirdly, some of the teachings of philosophy are useful to Islam, namely logic, math, astronomy, physics, etc.

[12] To prove his point al-Ghazali did two things first of all he wrote a summary (titled Maqasid al-falasifah (Aims of the philosophers) of philosophical teachings concentrating on metaphysics and logic. This summary proved useful and with the missing introduction and closing remarks would earn him the title of “the expositor of Avicennain philosophy” in the west. His stated goal is that in order to be able to refute philosophy one had to be competent in it. This he did, much to the dismay of his compatriots who claimed that you have done the philosophers task by simplifying their teachings for the layperson. Ibn Rushd would vent his anger on him years later for doing this as well. How could he bring to the masses the literature of the elite that has been hidden by complex terminology and vague statements that only the ‘select’ were understand after undergoing through ‘training’.

[13] The other work (titled Tahafut al-falasifah (Incoherence/Destruction of philosophers- available online c.f. al-Ghazali) was a refutation of the metaphysical teachings of philosophy summarized in twenty points. Three of these points not only lead to heresy but outright infidelism.  This work was well accepted by the scholars of his time who heralded it as a victory for Islamic teaching. Philosophy was once and for all defeated in its own battlefield. It no longer held that charm or air of mystery that Avicenna had sought so hard throughout his life to veil it with. This fact should not be construed to denote the end of philosophy in the Muslim world. This was hardly the case as it opened the door for many theologians to study philosophy with relative ease. Actually the case can be made that he popularized the works of Ibn Sina in religious circles which continued to studied till the latter days of the Ottoman Empire.

Philosophy in the Muslim West:

[14] The works of al-Ghazali would have an interesting history in Andalusia. Part of the mystery is due in part to the fame that al-Ghazali achieved. Some theological and esoteric not to mention heretical works be written by anonymous authors and attributed to al-Ghazali. Add to the fact that al-Ghazali would change his mind on some issues of legislation and theology. These two elements added together led to a misunderstanding of al-Ghazali.

[15] A major figure in Andalusia who contributed to the misunderstanding of al-Ghazali is a personal physician of Almohad caliph Abu Ya’qub Yusuf (1163-1184).  Ibn Tufyal (1106-1185) dappled in neo-Platonism and followed the esoteric teachings of Avicenna in addition to his flourishing medical career. He is the celebrated author of the fictional philosophical romance entitled “Hayy bin Yaqthan” [Living son of Awake]. It is a philosophical parable set on an island in the Indian Ocean (modern day Sri Lanka?) that tells the story of Hayy a child who grows up on the Island without any human contact, he is raised by a gazelle (fawn/deer). As Hayy grows up he discovers natural religion. Later on when he grows up a sailor is shipwrecked on the Island who teaches him human language and religion and much to surprise they find many points of agreement.

[16] The point the author here is trying to make is that religion can be arrived at naturally without the aid of revelation. Interestingly this concept is not so foreign to Islam, which sees itself as the “Natural religion”. Surprisingly, this neo-Platonist would be the mentor of the most famous Arab Aristotelian, Ibn Rushd. [Historical Note: This last claim of Ibn Rushd's mentor is really open to question perhaps it is the stuff of legend along with a similar historical claim that Ibn 'Arabi learned philosophy from Ibn Rushd. Perhaps Ibn 'Arabi learned (if not emptied) Ibn Rushd of Ibn Tufail's philosophical (read Sufi) thought.]

[17] Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) -known as Averroes in the west and sometimes ‘the commentator’- would fare well in the west then among his own people. The reason for this is the both see him as an expositor of Aristotelian ideas. He is a strict follower of Aristotle to a fault. Ibn Rushd would make a brave attempt to extract Aristotle’s ideas on politics from Plato’s Republic. He would not only comment on all of the existing Aristotle’s work but also would summarize them and write grand commentaries on them. He would also write a point-by-point refutation of al-Ghazali’s criticism of philosophy, the tahafut -the success of of which is widely debated due to the fact that he only defended Aristotle's doctrines.

[18] However, in his attempt to defend philosophy he would only defend Aristotle’s ideas only. He believed that the peak of philosophical teachings ended with the master, Aristotle. Many later scholars would see this as an attempt to defend Aristotle and not a complete refutation of al-Ghazali. The philosophical ideas that al-Ghazali was attacking were the ideas of Avicenna and al-Farabi some of which came from Aristotle while the majority came from Plato and Plotinus.

[19] To his credit, Ibn Rushd would have quite an influence on the medieval philosophy of Europe through Latin translation of his works. He would also cast doubt on the authenticity of the attribution of the “theology of Aristotle” to Aristotle. The work, as mentioned above, was a compilation of some of the chapters from Plotinus’ Enneads. 

Philosophy in the Muslim East a history yet to be completed:

[20] The history of the philosophical debate that was started by al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd would continue at the hands of authors in the Islamic East in general and in the Ottoman lands after the eclipse of the Muslim rule of Andalusia. In fact the famed sultan Mehmet II (a.k.a. fatih [conqueror] r.(1451-1481) orders two of the empires’ scholars to compile books to summarize the debate between al-Ghazali and Muslim Philosophers. Both of these works have been published one of which in a critical edition. (both of which is available online c.f. ipo) As indicated this part of history needs is yet to be written, any takers?


Written by Muhammad Hozien



  1. How did the translation of Greek works into Arabic skew the Muslim interpretation of Hellenistic Philosophy?

  2. How did Al-Ghazali present philosophy as useful to Islam?

  3. What was Ibn Rushd's stubborn fault as a philosopher?

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