Political philosophy in classical Islam

Political philosophy in Islam is the application of Greek political theorizing upon an understanding of Muhammad's revelation as legislative in intent. In lieu of Aristotle's Politics, unknown in medieval Islam, Plato's political philosophy assumed the primary role in an explanation of the nature and purpose of the Islamic state. Al-Farabi conceived of the prophet as a latter day philosopher-king, Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl took their cue from Socrates' fate and cautioned the philosopher against the possibility of successfully engaging in a philosophical mission to the vulgar masses, and Ibn Rushd presented philosophy as a duty enjoined by the law upon those able to philosophize.

  1. Background
  2. al-Farabi
  3. Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl
  4. Ibn Rushd

1. Background

Two principal facts have formed political philosophy in Islam: first, the revelation of Muhammad, and second, the absence of Aristotle's Politics, whether by intention or historical circumstance, from the canon of texts translated from Greek and Syriac in ninth-century Baghdad (see Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy §2). Muhammad's revelation is of course foundational for Islam itself. From the vantage point of political theorizing, however, the revelation accounts for the perceived divinity of the state (the caliphate) which Muhammad is taken to have founded. It further accounts for the state's legal basis, with the state established on and grounded in obedience to a set of divine injunctions and sanctions. Muhammad's revelation, then, was perceived by political philosophers in Islam as providing an opportunity to understand and clarify the nature of the perfect state here and now, not in some distant future when human nature might be transformed. For Islamic political philosophers, the divine law (shari'a) revealed to Muhammad was a necessary and sufficient condition for bringing about human felicity.

The second fact noted above, the absence of Aristotle's Politics from the Arabic philosophical corpus, is of capital importance in understanding Islamic political philosophy. As late as the sixth century ah (twelfth century ad), this work was apparently unavailable (see Rosenthal's introduction to Averroes' Commentary on Plato's Republic (1969: 22)). The absence of the Politics meant that Plato and Platonic political philosophy, as found in the Republic and the Laws, became paradigmatic (see Platonism in Islamic philosophy). The implications of this are enormous, for Aristotle's critique of Platonic political philosophy from the standpoint of his own non-idealist philosophical anthropology was not to become part of the tradition of political philosophy in Islam. Instead, what we find in the Islamic political philosophers are variations on standard Platonic themes, pre-eminently the notion of the prophet as an analogue to the Platonic philosopher-king, the ambiguous role of philosophy in the practical political sphere, and the deep division between an elite and the vulgar masses (see Plato §14). These themes are especially prominent in the founder of political philosophy in Islam, al-Farabi, and it is to him that one must first turn.

2. al-Farabi

For al-Farabi (§4), 'the idea of the philosopher, supreme ruler, prince, legislator, and Imam is but a single idea. No matter which one of these words you take, if you proceed to look at what each of them signifies among the majority of those who speak our language, you will find that they all finally agree by signifying one and the same idea' (Tahsil al-sa'ada: 43-4). These remarks, not anomalous in the Farabian corpus, indicate the convergence, indeed identity, of theoretical and practical concerns. These dual concerns, reminiscent of the Platonic notion of the philosopher-king, are together present in the Farabian notion of the prophet. For al-Farabi, the Prophet (Muhammad) is to be understood as a divinely inspired legislator, offering a perfect way of life and a community in which to flourish.

The successors to the Prophet - caliphs and imams - preserve this original beneficence by so ruling that each group of believers is offered a measure of truth commensurate with its particular capacity to comprehend it. This latter stratification of the social and political framework is again reminiscent of Plato and his division of the perfect state into intellectually disparate groups. For al-Farabi, the relevant division is between those who are able to ground their belief philosophically and those who are not, these latter being the 'simple' believers. Religion is an imitation of philosophy in this scheme, the former presenting the truth in a non-theoretical, non-abstract way, in pictorial terms replete with parables and stories. Viewed thus, al-Farabi's political teaching may well be seen as interpreting the historical state founded by Muhammad along the lines of Platonic utopian theorizing. However, such Platonically-inspired intellectual elitism is offered not as a blueprint for political reform in a distant future, but rather as a fair description of Muhammad's constitution and the state he founded. In its own way, Farabian political philosophy is a defence of Islam.

3. Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl

In turning to Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl, one turns not only from East to West, from Baghdad to Andalusia, but one also notes a marked change of emphasis away from that aspect of al-Farabi's political Platonism which identified the prophet with a philosopher-king who rules a state founded on and governed by a divine law. For Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl, philosophy (theoretical insight) and practical politics do not mix. They are quite incommensurable. As Leaman puts it: 'ibn Bajja's problem is how the philosopher in the imperfect state should relate to society' (Leaman 1980: 110). The emphasis here must be upon the notion of 'the imperfect state'. Courtiers both, Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl must have taken a hard look at the political scene around them and drawn the relevant (pessimistic) conclusions.

In his Tadbir al-mutawahhid (The Governance of the Solitary), Ibn Bajja addresses himself to the nawabit (weeds) in imperfect societies. These nawabit are the nonconformists in the societies they inhabit. They do not share the common goals and aspirations. Simply put, they are the philosophers in an imperfect world, and for Ibn Bajja the focus is how best to secure their happiness and safety. Ibn Bajja's 'realism' leads him to fasten upon that strand of the Platonic political philosophical tradition which is the underside of al-Farabi's political Platonism, the non-utopian strand. The problem for the philosopher in the midst of an imperfect society is to achieve happiness while avoiding dirty hands, not befouling himself (and philosophy) with the hopes and desires of the masses. The nawabit dwell amongst people, but do not find perfection in their midst. Thus they must live in isolation, dissociating themselves from 'those whose end is corporeal [and] those whose end is the spirituality that is adulterated with corporeality' (Tadbir al-mutawahhid: 78). The background here is no less Platonic for its being non-utopian and apolitical. For Plato, Athens and her citizenry stand guilty by their execution of Socrates, the philosopher. The lesson to be drawn is clear for Ibn Bajja as he forcefully denies any easy commensurability between philosophy and politics, between theory and practice in imperfect societies. For Ibn Bajja, the nawabit exist in spite of the society they inhabit (as in Republic VI 496d-e), and thus owe it nothing.

Ibn Tufayl's allegorical tale, Hayy ibn Yaqzan (The Living Son of the Vigilant), is not at odds with the 'realism' of his predecessor Ibn Bajja. Indeed, the story may well be read as a vivid elaboration of the latter's thought about the incommensurability of philosophy and politics in an imperfect world and the resulting isolation which the philosopher must seek if he is ever to achieve felicity. The whole thrust of Ibn Tufayl's allegory is the lesson that Hayy, the protagonist, finally learns painfully, that the philosopher will be unable to communicate successfully the deepest truths (the illuminative mysteries) as discovered by himself to mankind at large. Hayy's strenuous efforts to instruct, born of compassion for and inexperience of humanity, are shown to be useless as even the best among men 'recoiled in horror from his ideas and closed their minds.... [And] the more he taught, the more repugnance they felt' (Hayy ibn Yaqzan: 150). Worse, Hayy comes to realize that not only are his pedagogical efforts nugatory, but they are also counterproductive, for they tend to undercut the very beliefs which the simple (non-philosophical) believers hold. The tale ends with Hayy, dispirited, returning to the isolated island whence he came.

Plato's pessimism about the possible transformation of the empirical realm is manifest in the works and teachings of Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl. The philosopher-king, the prophet, has no greater a foothold among his contemporaries than did Abraham amongst the idolaters or Socrates amongst the Athenians. The mass of mankind cannot become philosophers, and to attempt such a transformation is both dangerous for the philosopher and bad public policy. Both Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl may be understood as cautioning would-be prophets (philosophers) of the perils inherent in their mission. Correlatively, they can be read as urging a rather conservative (traditional) status quo political agenda, in which stability and order prevail and are grounded in a punctilious observance of the law (Hayy ibn Yaqzan: 153-4). If society cannot be remade from the ground up, then perhaps no innovation whatever should be tolerated, lest anarchy and antinomianism prevail.

4. Ibn Rushd

Ibn Rushd (Averroes) wrote commentaries on both Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. For Ibn Rushd, the Nicomachean Ethics provides the theoretical substructure for the practical sciences, while the Republic (in lieu of Aristotle's Politics) provides the practical, political foundations for the attainment of human felicity, the goal of the practical sciences. So conceived, Plato's Republic provides a kind of blueprint for the best political order. In this framework, Ibn Rushd resuscitates the Farabian emphasis on the active role the philosopher should play in the political arena. Though he is aware of the precarious position of the philosopher, this activist focus should be understood in contrast to that of his Andalusian predecessors, Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl, and their focus upon the necessity for the philosopher to maintain an apolitical stand.

Ibn Rushd thus shares with al-Farabi the view that philosophy has political implications. He underscores this dramatically by grounding the very study of philosophy in the law. The first question of his famous Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise on the Connection between Religion and Philosophy) is: 'What is the attitude of the law to philosophy?' Ibn Rushd's answer is that the law commands the study of philosophy for those capable of it. There is thus a duty to philosophize. It should be noted, however, that the study of philosophy is no idle enterprise for Ibn Rushd, for given the legal injunction upon those capable of studying philosophy, a practical political obligation follows. The law revealed by the Prophet is a divine law, given to insure the well being of the entire community. If then the law enjoins philosophy, the philosopher is obliged to 'use' his wisdom for the benefit of all, in just the same way that the Farabian prophet (or Platonic philosopher-king) uses his wisdom, in a manner commensurate with the audience in question. Inasmuch as only the philosopher has an insight into the truth in a 'straight', undiluted way, without mediation of the senses, only he can interpret the law in an appropriate manner. Only the philosopher can allegorize when necessary, for only he knows the grounds upon which the allegory resides.

In his own way, Ibn Rushd provides an important defence of philosophy in a society governed by lawyers and judges like himself. Lest politics and political philosophy be handed over to those who (merely) apply the law, Ibn Rushd argues forcefully for a practical political philosophy which probes the foundations and guiding principles of the law. This, then, is arguably the greatest achievement of political philosophy in Islam, to conceive of a society grounded in obedience to a divine law as itself the manifestation of a coherent and theoretically defensible structure.

See also: al-Farabi; Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy; Ibn Bajja; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Tufayl; Law, Islam philosophy of; Platonism in Islamic philosophy; Political philosophy, history of; Political philosophy, nature of

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Butterworth, C.E. (ed.) (1992) The Political Aspects of Islamic Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (An up-to-date collection of essays on, among others, al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Bajja, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd.)

Daiber, H. (1996) 'Political Philosophy', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 50, 841-85. (Account of some of the main political thinkers from the classical period.)

* al-Farabi (c. 870-950) Tahsil al-sa'ada (The Attainment of Happiness), trans. M. Mahdi, Al-Farabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962. (Translation, with introduction and notes, of Tahsil al-sa'ada and the précis of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.)

Frank, D. (1996) ' Ethics', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 55, 959-68. (The ethics of the classical period, with particular reference to their links with society.)

Galston, M. (1990) Politics and Excellence: The Political Philosophy of Al-Farabi, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Al-Farabi's political philosophy against the backdrop of the Greek philosophical tradition.)

* Ibn Rushd (c.1174) Commentary on Plato's Republic, ed. and trans. E.I.J. Rosenthal, Averroes' Commentary on Plato's Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969; trans. R. Lerner, Averroes on Plato's Republic, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974. (Rosenthal is an edition of extant Hebrew text, with introduction, translation and notes. Lerner is a translation with introduction and notes, in part critical of Rosenthal.)

* Ibn Tufayl (before 1185) Hayy ibn Yaqzan (The Living Son of the Vigilant), trans. L.E. Goodman, Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Los Angeles, CA: Gee Tee Bee, 1983. (A felicitous translation of the tale, with introduction and notes.)

* Leaman, O. (1980) 'Ibn Bajja on Society and Philosophy', Der Islam 57 (1): 109-19. (Ibn Bajja's political philosophy.)

Leaman, O. (1988) Averroes and His Philosophy, 2nd edn, Richmond: Curzon. (A recent study of Ibn Rushd's metaphysics, practical philosophy, and theory of language and truth.)

* Lerner, R. and Mahdi, M. (eds) (1963) Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Important collection of primary texts in translation, including al-Farabi's al-Siyasa al-madaniyya (The Political Regime) and Tahsil al-sa'ada, Ibn Bajja's Tadbir al-mutawahhid, Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan and Ibn Rushd's Fasl al-maqal.)

Mahdi, M. (1991) 'Philosophy and Political Thought: Reflections and Comparisons', Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 1: 9-29. (A fine overview of the nature of political philosophy in Islam.)

Rosenthal, E.I.J. (1962) Political Thought in Medieval Islam, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (The most comprehensive account in English. Part II is entitled 'The Platonic Legacy'.)

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