Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy

Islamic Neoplatonism developed in a milieu already saturated with the thought of Plotinus and Aristotle. The former studied in Alexandria, and the Alexandrine philosophical syllabus included such figures as Porphyry of Tyre and Proclus. Associated with these scholars were two major channels of Islamic Neoplatonism, the so-called Theology of Aristotle and the Liber de Causis (Book of Causes). Other cities beloved of the philosophers at the time of the rise of Islam in the first century ah (seventh century ad) included Gondeshapur and Harran.

Islamic Neoplatonism stressed one aspect of the Qur'anic God, the transcendent, and ignored another, the creative. For the Neoplatonists, all things emanated from the deity. Islamic philosophers were imbued to a greater or lesser degree with either Aristotelianism or Neoplatonism or, as was often the case, with both. Al-Kindi, the father of Islamic philosophy, has a Neoplatonic aspect, but the doctrine reaches its intellectual fruition in the complex emanationist hierarchies developed by al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. Their views are later developed (or metamorphosed) by later thinkers into an emanative hierarchy of lights, as with Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, or the doctrine of the Unity of Being espoused by Ibn al-'Arabi. While al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd both vigorously opposed Neoplatonic views, the latter attacked the former for his general opposition to the philosophers.

Neoplatonism itself had a major impact on that sectarian grouping of Muslims known as the Isma'ilis, and became the substratum for its theology. Historically, Neoplatonism in Islam achieved its climax with the Fatimid Isma'ili conquest of Egypt towards the end of the fourth century ah (tenth century ad). While Neoplatonism later declined in philosophical importance in the face of rampant Aristotelianism and Hanbalism, it may be said to have bequeathed an important religious, historical and cultural legacy to the Islamic world, which in the Isma'ili movement endures to this day.

  1. Milieu and sources
  2. The God of Islamic Neoplatonism
  3. Reaction and counter-reaction
  4. The influence and legacy of Islamic Neoplatonism

1. Milieu and sources

Islamic Neoplatonism developed in a milieu which was familiar with the doctrines and teachings of Plotinus. The city of Alexandria, into which the Arab armies of Islam marched in ad 642, had down the centuries been home to many philosophies and philosophers: Plotinus himself, the founding father of Neoplatonism, studied in Alexandria for eleven years under the scholar Ammonius Hierocles. The Alexandrian philosophical syllabus was imbued with Neoplatonism and coated with Aristotelianism. The works of important Neoplatonists such as Porphyry and Proclus were studied there. Two works, whose exact authorship is unclear but which became associated with Porphyry and Proclus respectively, were the famous Theology of Aristotle and the work which became Latinized as the Liber de causis (see Liber de causis). Both these works, regardless of their actual authorship, were major channels of Islamic Neoplatonism. The Theology of Aristotle, despite its name, had nothing to do with Aristotle but summarized, with some additions, Books IV-VI of Plotinus' Enneads. The Liber de causis (Book of Causes) had its basis in the Elements of Theology by Proclus. The Neoplatonic themes in both the Theologia and the Liber are not difficult to identify, ranging from the key doctrine of emanation through references to the hypostases such as the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul (Theology of Aristotle) or the Procline hypostases of the One, Existence, Intellect and Soul (Liber de causis), to the sublime attributes of the One (see Neoplatonism).

However, Alexandria was not the only major city in the Middle East to foster the rise of Neoplatonism before the rise of Islam. Another was Gondeshapur, a great centre of Greek Byzantine learning, especially in the fields of philosophy and medicine, where Aramaic rather than Persian appears to have been the dominant language. This city, built by Shapur I in the mid-third century ad, acted as a magnet to many Middle Eastern intellectuals in both the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods. The great father of the Arabic translation movement, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, studied there; earlier, Nestorian scholars had fled to that city after the Council of Ephesus in ad 431. These scholars knew the work of Aristotle, but they had also studied Porphyry and so were familiar with the teachings of Neoplatonism. The closeness of Gondeshapur to what became Baghdad meant that the former city was able to infiltrate the latter, when it became an Islamic seat, with a variety of Greek elements.

Then there was Harran in northern Syria, a city which was home to the star-loving Sabaeans, a pagan sect whose transcendent theology was imbued with Neoplatonic elements. In the third century ah (ninth century ad) Harran was visited by refugee scholars from the schools of Alexandria; in the following century these scholars moved from Harran to Baghdad, bringing to that last city elements, both Aristotelian and Neoplatonic, from the rich philosophical heritage of both Alexandria and Harran. Of course, cities such as Alexandria, Gondeshapur and Harran were not the only sources of Neoplatonic thought, but their examples serve to illustrate the ease with which the expanding Arab-Islamic Empire came into contact with Greek thought, especially in its Aristotelian and Neoplatonic incarnations. And it was between the latter that the pendulum of Islamic philosophy frequently swung in the writings of the individual Islamic philosophers, when they were not actually mixing the two in a glorious intellectual syncretism as happened with the thought of the Ikhwan al-Safa' (see Ikhwan al-Safa').

2. The God of Islamic Neoplatonism

The description of God in the Qur'an is by and large fairly clear, though it did give rise to complexities of interpretation in Islamic theology centring on such matters as anthropomorphism, God's omnipotence and man's free will, and the attributes of God. The Qur'anic God, however, is both transcendent and immanent. There is none like him but he is also closer to man than man's jugular vein. He intervenes in human history to reveal himself to man, for example in the revelations of the Qur'an, and sends angels to fight for his prophet Muhammad, as at the Battle of Badr in ad 624. Here he is often like the God beloved of today's process theologians (see Process theism). Above all, however, the Qur'anic God is one who creates ex nihilo. There is no concept of Neoplatonic emanation in the Qur'an. In contrast, for Aristotle, God is the Unmoved First Mover. The emphasis in Aristotelian theology is much more on God's movement rather than on his creation, which is limited in any case to his production of form in prime matter which has existed eternally. With the Neoplatonists, the emphasis moves from the concept of creation to that of eternal emanation: God or the One or the Good - however he is to be characterized - does not create ex nihilo but 'engages' in eternal emanation of all that is below him.

Thus in the Middle East at the time of the rise and spread of Islam there were at least three different 'theologies' vying for space, emphasising different qualities of their deity. There is the Qur'anic God as creator ex nihilo; there is the Aristotelian God as first Mover; and there is the Neoplatonic God as eternal emanator. The debate which was engendered about the relationship between God and the rest of observable and intangible reality and phenomena became a fundamental characteristic of the writings of the Islamic philosophers. The Qur'anic God was linked to his creation by the sheer power of creativity, the Aristotelian God was linked - much less feelingly - with that which moved, while the Neoplatonic God bridged, or attempted to bridge, the huge gulf between transcendence and corporeal reality by the device of emanation. A brief survey of the thought of some individual Islamic philosophers will serve to illustrate how the debate featured in their writings, and thus in the general development of Islamic philosophy.

Abu Yusuf ibn Ishaq al-Kindi is universally acknowledged by scholars of Islamic philosophy as the 'Father of Islamic Philosophy'. Al-Kindi's God has four faces or aspects. Doctrinally, he is classically rooted in and derived from the Qur'an, and bears such epithets as 'creator' and 'active'. God has an essential unity which does not derive from anything else. He also has Aristotelian aspects - he is, for example, unmoved - but of course al-Kindi's deity is much more than a mere Mover. God's attributes are also discussed by al-Kindi in Mu'tazilite terms and al-Kindi espouses a Mu'tazilite antipathy towards anthropomorphism (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila §4). Finally, we can detect a Neoplatonic influence on al-Kindi's thought. He was the first major Islamic philosopher to reflect significant aspects of the Neoplatonic tradition, and is a bridge to the thought of philosophers such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina.

It is with these latter two philosophers that Islamic Neoplatonism reaches its apotheosis, where such fundamental Neoplatonic concepts as hierarchy and emanation are fully developed and integrated into a metaphysics of being. Al-Farabi is rightly regarded as the father and founder of Islamic Neoplatonism, while Ibn Sina, though less original, is often considered to be Islam's greatest Neoplatonic philosopher. While the deity that he portrays certainly has other aspects, it is the Neoplatonic aspects which draw our attention. Like al-Farabi, Ibn Sina has a complex scheme of emanation with ten intellects emanating from the Necessary Being. Again as with al-Farabi, emanation constitutes a bridge between the unknowable God of Neoplatonism and earthbound humanity. However, the theological terminology deployed in Ibn Sina's thought is perhaps less negative than that of al-Farabi; this is particularly true of the mystical dimension of Ibn Sina's thinking.

Neoplatonism in Islam may be said to have reached its furthest limits of development in the thought of Isma'ili theologians such as Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani on the one hand, and that of Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi and Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-'Arabi on the other. Al-Kirmani espouses a Farabian elaboration of God and ten intellects in his Neoplatonic emanationist hierarchy. Al-Suhrawardi, 'the Master of Illumination' (shaykh al-ishraq), as he became known, established an extraordinary complex Neoplatonic hierarchy of lights in which the divine and quasi-divine are seen all in terms of light. God is the Light of Lights (nur al-anwar), and from him emanates the First Light from which emanates the Second Light and so on; but bound into the whole system is a complex three-tier system of Angelic Lights. Because of the doctrine of emanation, the lights (or intellects) have an ontological or noetic precedence, the one over the other, but not a temporal precedence. By contrast, Ibn al-'Arabi employs Neoplatonic terminology to bolster his doctrine of the Unity of Being (wahdat al-wujud). The circularity of his thought, however, precludes the elaboration of a classical system of emanation following Plotinian, or even Farabian, lines. It may be argued that the terms 'theophanies' or 'manifestations' (tajalliyat) of the divinity, rather than 'emanations', are a more accurate rendering of his thought.

3. Reaction and counter-reaction

The reaction and counter-reaction to the infiltration of Neoplatonism into Islamic thought and philosophy may usefully be studied in the writings of the great Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Sunni theologian and mystic, on the one hand and those of Islam's most notable Aristotelian, Abu'l Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, on the other. In his Tahafut al-falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers), al-Ghazali (§3) attacked both the Neoplatonists and Aristotle. He rebutted, for example, the idea that the world was eternal, and tried to show mathematically that the thesis of the Neoplatonists was illogical. He believed that the Neoplatonists had failed to prove that God was One, and attacked their beliefs about a variety of other fundamental and crucial points such as divine knowledge and the question of the immutability of God. The two principal philosophers whose views al-Ghazali attacked were al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. As al-Ghazali himself put it:

However, the most faithful - as Aristotle's translators - and the most original - as his commentators - among the philosophizing Muslims are al-Farabi Abu Nasr, and Ibn Sina. Therefore, we will confine our attention to what these two have taken to be the authentic expression of the views of their mis-leaders.... Therefore, let it be known that we propose to concentrate on the refutation of philosophical thought as it emerges from the writings of these two persons.

(Tahafut al-falasifa: 5)

In all, al-Ghazali itemized twenty particular problems 'in whose discussion in this book we will expose the contradiction involved in the philosopher's theories'.

If al-Ghazali represents Islamic theology's most biting attack on philosophy and severest reaction to Neoplatonism in Islam, Ibn Rushd represents the counter-reaction. This is not to say that the latter wholeheartedly espoused the views of the Neoplatonists: indeed, very far from it. In his Tahafut al-tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence), referring to the incoherence of al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-falasifa, Ibn Rushd wrote a work which Fakhry has described as 'the product of Ibn Rushd's maturest thought [which] constitutes a systematic rebuttal of al-Ghazali's critique of Greco-Arab philosophy' (Fakhry 1983: 276). Al-Ghazali is accused of misunderstanding, and it is clear that Ibn Rushd is concerned to defend the merits of philosophy as a mode of non-heretical thought while at the same time not accepting the theses of the Neoplatonist philosophers. Despite his intention in the Tahafut al-tahafut of defending the philosophical targets of al-Ghazali's wrath, Ibn Rushd, as Bello points out, 'more often than not...does not, in fact, defend al-Farabi and Ibn Sina.... Instead, he shows to what extent they have departed from the authentic Aristotelian philosophical doctrines, and sometimes joins his voice with that of Ghazali in convicting them of heresy' (Bello 1989: 15). Thus Ibn Rushd, despite his defence of philosophy and philosophers, is more than happy to declare open war on Neoplatonism.

4. The influence and legacy of Islamic Neoplatonism

While it is certainly untrue to say that Islamic philosophy came to a sudden end with the death of Ibn Rushd, we can say that his death in ah 595/ad 1198 marks the approaching end of the great debates about Neoplatonism in Islamic thought. By then the kind of peripateticism espoused by Ibn Rushd may be said to have at least revived, if not definitely triumphed over, other forms of philosophy. The death of Ibn al-'Arabi in ah 638/ad 1240 marks that triumph, for the latter's doctrine of wahdat al-wujud was perpetuated by only a few faithful disciples. Furthermore, other movements had arisen in competition with Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism, such as the literalism of the Spanish Muslim Ibn Hazm, and the Hanbalism of Ibn Taymiyya. Neoplatonism as a radical system of philosophical thought with a controversial theological agenda was enshrined in the writings of such thinkers as the Ikhwan al-Safa', but generally speaking its greatest surviving influence was, and is, on the theology of the Isma'ili sect in Islam, one of the three great divisions of Shi'ism. This sect achieved its political apotheosis with the coming to power of the Fatimid Isma'ili dynasty in North Africa and Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries ah (tenth and eleventh centuries ad). The Mosque-University of al-Azhar was a beacon of Isma'ili (and thus Neoplatonic) thought before the Ayyubids took possession of Egypt and returned it to the Sunni fold. Today, Neoplatonism in Islam survives principally as the philosophical substratum which underpins the theology of the Isma'ilis, a group which, though itself split over issues of leadership, nonetheless holds many theological and philosophical points in common.

If we examine the impact of Neoplatonism on Islamic thought generally, it is clear that this philosophy served to emphasize that transcendent aspect of God which is to be found clearly in the Qur'an, sometimes at the expense of the immanent. The impact of Neoplatonism on the course of Islamic history itself has been considerable in some regions. Among many examples we may note that the Fatimid dynasty came to power in Egypt and ruled there from ah 297-567 (ad 969-1171); the Isma'ili Assassins flourished at the Castle of Alamut from ah 483-654 (ad 1090-1256); and a Nizari Isma'ili imamate later moved from Persia to India. Theologically then, it is clear that a body of doctrines, so many of which seemed at odds with mainstream Islamic teaching, served at times to highlight the Qur'anic emphasis on transcendence and was actually absorbed by one, albeit heterodox, sect to become the foundation for that sect; while historically, Neoplatonism from its mainly theoretical Middle Eastern origins in Alexandria, Harran, Gondeshapur and elsewhere became sufficiently powerful to 'hijack' an entire dynasty, the Fatimid.

We may extrapolate from all this, then, the paradigm of an 'alien' cult which becomes 'Middle-Easternized' and 'Islamicized' and which acts on occasion as theological stimulus, irritant, gadfly or foundation, and in so doing ultimately inserts itself from a variety of perspectives into the broad and multivalent fabric of Islam. Alternatively, we may choose to examine the phenomenon of Neoplatonism rather more closely, assess its emphasis on order, structure, emanation, hierarchy, transcendence, intellect and soul, and extrapolate a rather different paradigm, perhaps more akin to that preferred by the Isma'ilis. According to this view, Neoplatonism would not be regarded as a foreign or invasive growth within the body politic of Islam but rather as something which, despite its emphasis on emanation rather than creatio ex nihilo and other real differences from mainstream Islamic theology, addressed an aspect or aspects of Islam which had been neglected or overlaid by other matters in the development of that faith. It is useful perhaps to ponder Lenn and Madeleine Goodman's observation: 'Emanation was perfected by the neo-Platonists, quite consciously as an alternative to creation because the learned neo-Platonic philosophers did not choose to redescend into the anthropomorphic cosmogenies from which Aristotle had rescued them with great difficulty only a few centuries earlier' (Goodman and Goodman 1983: 31).

See also: Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; al-Farabi; al-Ghazali; Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Sina; Illuminationist philosophy; Neoplatonism

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

* Bello, I.A. (1989) The Medieval Islamic Controversy Between Philosophy and Orthodoxy, Islamic Philosophy and Theology Texts and Studies vol. III, Leiden: Brill. (Deals with the conflict between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd with special reference to ijma' and ta'wil.)

* Fakhry, M. (1983) A History of Islamic Philosophy, 2nd edn, London: Longmans; New York: Columbia University Press. (A superb introduction to the whole field.)

* al-Ghazali (1058-1111) Tahafut al-falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers), English trans. S.A. Kamali, Lahore: Pakistan Philosophical Congress, 1963. (A translation of al-Ghazali's attack on the philosophers.)

* Goodman, L.E. and Goodman, M.J. (1983) 'Creation and Evolution: Another Round in an Ancient Struggle', Zygon 18 (1): 3-43. (A fascinating and thought-provoking article.)

Henry, P. and Schwyzer, H.R. (eds) (1959) Plotini Opera, vol. 2, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer; Brussels: L'Édition Universelle. (Contains G. Lewis' English translation of the Theology of Aristotle.)

* Ibn Rushd (c.1180) Tahafut al-tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence), trans. and intro. S. Van Den Bergh, Averroes' Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), 'E.J.W. Gibb Memorial' new series XIX, London: Luzac, 1978. (Ibn Rushd's famous response to al-Ghazali.)

Leaman, O. (1988) Averroes and his Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press; 2nd edn, Richmond: Curzon, 1997. (An introduction to the philosophy of Ibn Rushd arranged according to metaphysics, practical philosophy, and reason, religion and language.)

Nanji, A. (1996) 'Isma'ili Philosophy', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 9, 144-54. (Examination of Isma'ili philosophy including the influence of Neoplatonism.)

Netton, I.R. (1989) Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology, London and New York: Routledge. (Contains major chapters on al-Farabi and Ibn Sina.)

Shayegan, Y. (1996) 'The Transmission of Greek Philosophy into the Islamic World', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 6, 98-104. (Detailed account of how the transmission took place, paying particular attention to the Persian background.)

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