Islam, concept of philosophy in

There is no generally accepted definition of what Islamic philosophy is, and the term will be used here to mean the sort of philosophy which arose within the culture of Islam. There are several main strands to Islamic philosophy. Peripatetic philosophy follows broadly the Greek tradition, while Sufism uses the principle of mystical knowledge as its leading idea. Some would argue that Islamic philosophy has never lost its concentration on the Qur'an and other significant Muslim texts, and that throughout its history it has sought to understand the essence of the realities both of the Sacred Book and of the created world. The decline of Peripatetic philosophy in the Islamic world did not mean the decline of philosophy as such, which continued to flourish and develop in other forms. Although it is sometimes argued that philosophy is not a proper activity for Muslims, since they already have a perfect guide to action and knowledge in the Qur'an, there are good reasons for thinking that Islamic philosophy is not intrinsically objectionable on religious grounds.

  1. Nature and origins of Islamic philosophy
  2. Falsafa and hikma
  3. Heresy and the decline of Peripatetic philosophy
  4. Reason and revelation

1. Nature and origins of Islamic philosophy

One of the interesting features of Islamic philosophy is that there is controversy as to what it actually is. Is it primarily the sort of philosophy produced by Muslims? This is unsatisfactory, since many Muslims who work as philosophers do not deal with Islamic issues in their philosophical work. Also, there are plenty of philosophers who are not Muslims and yet whose work is clearly in the area of Islamic philosophy. Could we call 'Islamic philosophy' philosophy which is written in Arabic? Certainly not, since a great deal of Islamic philosophy, perhaps the majority of it, is written in other languages, in particular Persian. Is Islamic philosophy then philosophy which examines the conceptual features of specifically Islamic issues? Not necessarily, since there are many thinkers whose work on logic and grammar, for example, is part of Islamic philosophy, even though there is no direct religious relevance in their work. Some commentators have tried to develop a central agenda which everyone who can be called an Islamic philosopher must share; they then have the difficulty of fitting everything in Islamic philosophy into that framework, a task which ultimately tends to fail (Leaman 1980). Perhaps the best way of specifying the nature of Islamic philosophy is to say that it is the tradition of philosophy which arose out of Islamic culture, with the latter term understood in its widest sense.

When did Islamic philosophy start? This is also a difficult question to answer, since from the early years of Islam a whole variety of legal and theological problems arose which are clearly philosophical, or at least use philosophical arguments in their elucidation. For example, there were heated debates about the acceptability of anthropomorphic language to describe the deity, and about the roles of free will and determination in the lives of human beings. Philosophy in its fullest sense began in the third century of the hijra. (The hijra was in 622 ad, when the Prophet Muhammad moved to Medina and set up a political community there; it is the first year according to the Muslim calendar, represented as ah 1.) The supremacy of the Abbasids over the Umayyads had led to an eastward movement of the Islamic empire, with the capital moving from Damascus to Baghdad. By this time also, Islam dominated such areas as Egypt, Syria and Persia, all places which were thoroughly immersed in Greek culture. The new rulers sought to apply the learning which existed in the empire to their own purposes. Much of this knowledge was very practical, being based on medicine, astrology, astronomy, mathematics and engineering. The caliph al-Ma'mun founded in Baghdad the bayt al-hikma, the House of Wisdom, in ah 217/ad 832, which served as an observatory and, more importantly, as a library and centre for the translation of Greek texts into Arabic. Many of the translators were Christians, who translated texts first from Greek into Syriac and then into Arabic (see Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy). In addition to the influence of the many translations of Greek texts, there was also an important transmission of Indian and Persian literature into Arabic, which undoubtedly had an influence on the development of Islamic philosophy.

It should not be thought that these translations were uncontroversial. Many Muslims questioned the necessity for Muslims to study philosophy at all. After all, Islam presents a complete practical and theoretical model of the nature of reality, and the 'first sciences' of the Greeks often seemed unnecessary and even opposed to Islam. Muslims had not only the Qur'an to help them regulate their lives and theoretical queries, they had also the hadith, the traditional sayings of the Prophet and the righteous caliphs (his immediate successors and companions) and the sunna, the practices of the community. There was further the system of fiqh, Islamic law, which discussed particular problems concerning how Muslims ought to behave, and the science of grammar, which explained how the Arabic language ought to be understood. There was also by this time a well-developed system of kalam, theology, which dealt with the less obvious passages of the Qur'an, and which sought conceptual unity in apparent difficulties arising from the combinations of different canonical texts (see Islamic theology). What need was there then for the sort of philosophy which existed in Greek, which originated with non-Muslims and was initially transmitted into Arabic by non-Muslims?

This would not have been such a heated issue had philosophy not seemed to be so antagonistic to Islam on so many points. The philosophy that was transmitted into Arabic at this time was profoundly Neoplatonic (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy); it tended to agree with Aristotle (§16) that the world is eternal, that there is a hierarchy of being with the intellect at the summit and the world of generation and corruption at the bottom, and recommended a rather ascetic system of ethics (see Neoplatonism §3). Even more crucial was the criterion of validity which the philosophers used. This was based on reason, as opposed to revelation, and naturally brought into question the significance of religious revelation. Thus philosophy came to be seen not so much as an alternative formulation of religious truths but as a rival and competing system of thought, one which required opposition by Islam. Those Muslims who worked as philosophers had to justify themselves, and they did so in a number of ways.

The first philosopher of the Arabs, al-Kindi, tended to argue that there is no basic inconsistency between Islam and philosophy, just as there is no basic inconsistency between Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy helps the Muslim to understand the truth using different techniques from those directly provided through Islam. Once philosophy became better established, however, it managed to sever the link with religion altogether, as we can see from al-Farabi onwards. Religion is then taken to represent the route to truth available to the unsophisticated and simple believer; when compared to philosophy it is seen as a version of the truth, albeit perhaps of poorer conceptual quality. The most determined defender of this view is undoubtedly Ibn Rushd (Averroes), with whom this form of philosophy largely came to an end in the sixth century ah (twelfth century ad).

2. Falsafa and hikma

Peripatetic philosophy in the Islamic world came to have considerable importance for a fairly limited period, from the third to sixth centuries ah (ninth to twelfth centuries ad). Sometimes the distinctness of this form of reasoning from traditional Islamic methodologies was emphasised by the use of the term falsafa, an Arabic neologism designed to represent the Greek philosophia. Often, however, the familiar Arabic term hikma was used. Hikma means 'wisdom', and has a much wider meaning than falsafa. A good deal of kalam (theology) would be classed as hikma, as would mysticism or Sufism (see Mystical philosophy in Islam §1). Whereas much falsafa is defined as the knowledge of existents, wider conceptions of the discipline tend to use the term hikma. Al-Suhrawardi, the creator of illuminationist philosophy, called it hikmat al-ishraq, a title which was taken up later by Mulla Sadra, and which is often translated in English as theosophy (see Illuminationist philosophy; Theosophy). This sort of philosophy involves study of reality which transforms the soul and is never really separated from spiritual purity and religious sanctity.

Philosophy as hikma has the advantage of referring to a wide range of conceptual issues within Islam. Philosophy can then deal both with the exoteric aspects of the Qur'anic revelation and the esoteric dimensions which lie at the heart of religion. Both the Qur'an and the universe are often viewed as aspects of divine revelation which require interpretation, and philosophy in its widest sense has a vital role here. Western commentators have tended to overemphasize the Greek background of Islamic philosophy, yet most of the major Islamic philosophers wrote extensively on the Qur'an and saw the role of philosophy as lying chiefly in the hermeneutic investigation of holy texts. This is particularly the case with the philosophers in Persia and India, who continued the philosophical tradition after it largely came to an end in its Peripatetic form. Islamic philosophy is then essentially 'prophetic philosophy', since it is based on the interpretation of a sacred text which is the result of revelation. It deals with human beings and their entelechy, with the One or Pure Being, and the grades of the universal hierarchy, with the universe and the final return of all things to God. An important aspect of this view is that it sees Islamic philosophy not as a transitory phenomenon but as a continuing tradition in the Islamic world, not as something largely imported from an alien culture but as an essential aspect of Islamic civilization.

A good example of this wider notion of philosophy lies in the controversy over the 'oriental philosophy' (al-hikmat al-mashriqiyya) of Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Ibn Sina is well known as a creator of a Peripatetic philosophical system, one which came to have considerable significance within both Islamic and Western philosophy. His book Mantiq al-mashriqiyyin (Logic of the Orientals) deals largely with logical differences between him and Aristotle, but also includes a reference to other of his own works in which he claims to have gone in an entirely different direction from that of the Peripatetic (mashsha'i) thinkers. This book is not extant; perhaps the Mantiq is the first part of it. From what we find in his surviving works, a picture of the 'oriental philosophy' can be constructed. The Aristotelian universe becomes transformed, reason is linked to the intellect, the external universe becomes interiorized, facts become symbols and philosophy itself becomes a type of gnosis or sophia. The aim of philosophy is not only the theoretical knowledge of the substances and accidents of the universe, but also the experience of their presence and instantiation in such a way as to enable the soul to free itself from the confines of the universe. The universe is experienced not as something external to be understood but rather as a succession of stages along a path on which one is travelling. The notion of this 'oriental philosophy' has played an important part in the development of future illuminationist and Sufi forms of philosophy which not only seek to understand the universe rationally but also analyse the wonder we feel when we contemplate the divine mystery of that universe.

An advantage of seeing Islamic philosophy as broadly hikma rather than as the more narrow falsafa is that it avoids the danger of regarding it as predominantly an unoriginal and transmitted form of thought. This has often been the form of interpretation favoured by Western commentators, who are interested in seeing how originally Greek (and sometimes Indian and Persian) ideas reach the Islamic world and then form part of alternative systems of philosophy. There is no doubt that an important part of Islamic philosophy does follow this path, and the study of it is perhaps more appropriately a part of the history of ideas than of philosophy. Yet it should not be forgotten that by far the larger part of Islamic philosophy does not deal with the concerns of Peripatetic philosophy as such, but is firmly directed to the issues which arise within the context of an Islamic perspective on the nature of reality. Peripatetic philosophy, falsafa, may well enter this process, but it is far from the uncritical application of Greek ideas to Islamic issues. Although the central principles of falsafa have their origin in Greek philosophy, they were so radically transformed and developed within Islamic philosophy that there is no justification in thinking that the latter is merely a result of the transmission of ideas from outside Islam.

3. Heresy and the decline of Peripatetic philosophy

A highly influential attack on the role of philosophy as part of Islam was carried out by al-Ghazali in his Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). According to al-Ghazali, the Peripatetic philosophers (he was thinking in particular ofIbn Sina) present as truths theses which are often either heretical (kufr) or innovatory (bid'a). One might have expected him to go on to argue that these philosophical theses are therefore unacceptable on those grounds alone, but he does not do so. Instead, al-Ghazali criticizes these theses because, he argues, they do not follow from the arguments which the philosophers themselves give. These arguments are philosophically weak, and so need not be accepted. It is a happy consequence of the failure of these arguments that the principles of Islam are seen to rest on solid rational principles, at least in the sense that their contraries are untrue. Although al-Ghazali is often regarded as the archenemy of philosophy, it is evident on closer inspection of many of his texts that he himself seems to adhere to many of the leading principles of Ibn Sina's thought. Also, in common with many other opponents of philosophy, he had a high regard for logic (which was regarded as a tool of philosophy rather than a part of it) and insisted on the application of logic to organized thought about religion. Some opponents of philosophy such as Ibn Taymiyya even went so far as to criticize logic itself, but on the whole as the Peripatetic tradition of philosophy declined in the Sunni Islamic world it nonetheless entered other areas of Islamic life, such as theology and jurisprudence, and continued to have an influence until it was revived within the last century as part of the Islamic renaissance (nahda) (see Islamic philosophy, modern §1).

Philosophy persisted in the Shi'i world far more easily, and there has been a continuing tradition of respect for philosophy in Persia and other Shi'i communities up to today. Sunni Muslims tend to accept that the door to ijtihad (independent judgment) is now closed, and we must seek resolution of any theoretical and practical difficulties by referring to a series of canonical texts and to the consensus of the community. Shi'i Muslims appeal also to the authority of the imams, and especially in the case of some Shi'is to the 'hidden' or twelfth imam, as being in the continuing line of religious descent from the Prophet and from his son-in-law Imam 'Ali. Since the bases of religious authority are more fluid for the shi'a, it tends to be more receptive to philosophy than is the case with the Sunnis. The legal definitions of what constitutes heresy and unbelief are sometimes much looser (as with the Isma'ilis, for example), and the openness to a diversity of ideas and approaches has marked many Shi'i communities and countries. While Peripatetic philosophy went into a sharp decline in the Sunni world after the sixth century ah/twelfth century ad, it continued as part of a variety of philosophical approaches in the Shi'i world, either on its own or combined with elements of illuminationist (ishraqi) philosophy, and developed into more and more complex theoretical systems. Of course, philosophy continued to flourish in both the Sunni and Shi'i worlds in the sense of mystical philosophy or Sufism, which has been a persistent aspect of Islamic philosophy throughout its life.

4. Reason and revelation

Many Western commentators on Islamic philosophy take the conflict between reason and revelation as its central issue. This is often symbolized as the struggle between Athens and Jerusalem, or between philosophy and religion. While this is far too crude to be an accurate description, it does raise an important issue which has been discussed ever since Islamic philosophy began and which is still a live issue today in the Islamic world. If revelation tells believers everything they need to know, why bother to explore the same topics with reason? There are a number of answers to this question. First of all, the Qur'an itself speaks not only to Muslims, but to everyone who is able to read and understand it. It constantly urges the reader to consider rationally the evidences for Islam, and so places a high value on reason (Leaman 1985). This is not to suggest that there is no role for faith, nor that faith will not be necessary at some stage in order to approach God, but the Qur'an does offer rational indications of the truth of what it is advocating in terms of signs and proofs. This is certainly not an argument for free enquiry in the modern sense of the term, but it is an approach which places high value on the notion of independent reason, which might be seen as sympathetic also to the practice of philosophy itself.

According to Islam, the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet. This implies that from that time on, no messenger can claim divine authority. We are reliant upon the correct interpretation of the ayat (signs) in both the Qur'an and in the universe. The ending of prophecy means that God expects human beings to use their reason to seek to understand the nature of reality, albeit reason which is guided by the principles of Islam. As the Qu'ran has it, 'We will show them our signs in all the parts of the earth and in their own souls, until they clearly see what is true' (Surah 41: 53). It is not as though there is competition between prophecy and philosophy, since the latter should be seen as supplementing and explaining the former. There are good grounds, then, for thinking that there is no basic incompatibility between the pursuit of reason and the pursuit of religion, at least not in Islam.

See also: Aesthetics in Islamic philosophy; Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Causality and necessity in Islamic thought; Epistemology in Islamic philosophy; Ethics in Islamic philosophy; Faith; Hellenistic philosophy; Illuminationist philosophy; Islamic fundamentalism; Islamic theology; Logic in Islamic philosophy; Meaning in Islamic philosophy; Islamic philosophy, modern; Mystical philosophy in Islam; Neoplatonism; Law, Islamic philosophy of; Science in Islamic philosophy; Platonism in Islamic philosophy; Political philosophy in classical Islam; Revelation; Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Akhtar, S. (1995) 'The Possibility of a Philosophy of Islam', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) The History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1162-9. (Defence of the view that there is scope for philosophy within an Islamic context.)

Corbin, H. (1993) History of Islamic Philosophy, trans. L. Sherrard, London: Kegan Paul International. (Very important defence of the significance of mysticism and Persian thought as key aspects of Islamic philosophy.)

* al-Ghazali (1095) Tahafut al-falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers), in S. Van Den Bergh (trans.) Averroes' Tahafut al-tahafut, London: Luzac, 1978. (The classic attack on Peripatetic philosophy in Islam.)

* Leaman, O. (1980) 'Does the Interpretation of Islamic Philosophy rest on a Mistake?', International Journal of MidEastern Studies 12: 525-38. (Critique of the view that all Islamic philosophy is about the reason versus revelation issue.)

* Leaman, O. (1985) 'Introduction', in O. Leaman (ed.) An Introduction to Medieval Islamic Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-21. (Account of the relationship between Islam and rationality.)

Leaman, O. (1992) 'Philosophy vs. Mysticism: An Islamic Controversy', in M. McGhee (ed.) Philosophy, Religion and the Spiritual Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 177-88. (A discussion of two different ways of interpreting Islamic philosophy.)

Leaman, O. (1996a) 'Introduction', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1-10. (Elucidation of different definitions of Islamic philosophy.)

Leaman, O. (1996b) 'Orientalism and Islamic philosophy', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1143-8. (Critique of Western approaches to Islamic philosophy.)

Nasr, S.H. (1996c) 'Introduction', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 11-18. (Nasr has also produced a number of important chapters in this work, including 'The Meaning and Concept of Philosophy in Islam', 21-6; 'The Qur'an and Hadith as Source and Inspiration of Islamic Philosophy', 27-39; and 'Ibn Sina's "Oriental Philosophy"', 247-52.)

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