al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din (1149-1209)

Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi was one of the outstanding figures in Islamic theology. Living in the second half of the sixth century ah (twelfth century ad), he also wrote on history, grammar, rhetoric, literature, law, the natural sciences and philosophy, and composed one of the major works of Qur'anic exegesis, the only remarkable gap in his output being politics. He travelled widely in the eastern lands of Islam, often engaging in heated polemical confrontations. His disputatious character, intolerant of intellectual weakness, frequently surfaces in his writings, but these are also marked by a spirit of synthesis and a profound desire to uncover the truth, whatever its source. A number of his metaphysical positions became well known in subsequent philosophical literature, being cited more often than not for the purposes of refutation. His prolixity and pedantic argumentation were often criticized, but he was widely considered the reviver of Islam in his century.

  1. Theology and philosophy
  2. Metaphysics

1. Theology and philosophy

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi was born in Rayy near present-day Tehran in ah 543 or 544/ad 1149-50. Like his predecessor al-Ghazali, he was an adherent of the Shafi'i school in law and of the theology of Ash'arism (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila). He was attracted at an early age to the study of philosophy, in which he soon became proficient. In his late twenties, he visited Khwarazm and Transoxania, where he came in contact with some of the last theologians in the Mu'tazilite tradition. Although he endured hardship and poverty at the beginning of his career, on returning to Rayy from Transoxania he entered into the first of a series of patronage relations with rulers in the east which contributed to his reputedly considerable wealth and authority.

Al-Razi's skill in polemic ensured that controversy followed him in his subsequent sojourns in Khurasan, Bukhara, Samarqand and elsewhere (he is said to have visited India). He consequently made several dangerous enemies, including among them the Karramiyyah (an activist ascetic sect, staunch defenders of a literal interpretation of scripture and of anthropomorphism), the Isma'ilis, and the Hanbalites, each of whom apparently threatened his life at various points. Al-Razi settled finally in Herat, where he had a teaching madrasa built for him, and where he died in ah 606/ad 1209.

In the religious sciences, al-Ghazali had legitimized the use of logic, while at the same time attacking those key metaphysical doctrines of the philosophers which most offended against orthodox doctrine. This move prepared the ground for the subsequent incorporation of philosophical argumentation into theology. It was through al-Razi that this marriage was most completely effected in the Sunni world. His major theological works all begin with a section on metaphysics, and this was to become the pattern for most later writers.

The problem of how far al-Razi should be considered a philosopher (rather than a theologian) is complicated by changes of view during the course of his life, and by his highly disputatious and often intemperate personality, which he himself acknowledged. His style is marked by an extensively ramifying dialectic, often ending in highly artificial subtleties, and is not easy to follow. The relentlessness and sometimes obvious delight with which al-Razi used this method to home in on his victims earned him among philosophers the sobriquet of Iman al-Mushakkikin (Leader of the Doubters). Nevertheless, al-Razi was scrupulous in representing the views he set out to criticize, manifesting his concern to lay out a rigorous dialectic in which theological ideas could be debated before the arbitration of reason. This predictably brought him under subsequent attack from those who believed that upholding orthodox doctrine was the primary task of theology, one of whom remarked that in al-Razi's works 'the heresy is in cash, the refutation on credit'.

One of al-Razi's major concerns was the self-sufficiency of the intellect. His strongest statements show that he believed proofs based on Tradition (hadith) could never lead to certainty (yaqin) but only to presumption (zann), a key distinction in Islamic thought. On the other hand, his acknowledgement of the primacy of the Qur'an grew with his years. A detailed examination of al-Razi's rationalism has never been undertaken, but he undoubtedly holds an important place in the debate in the Islamic tradition on the harmonization of reason and revelation. In his later years he seems to have shown some interest in mysticism, although this never formed a significant part of his thought.

Al-Razi's most important philosophical writings were two works of his younger days, a commentary (sharh) on the physics and metaphysics of Ibn Sina's Kitab al-isharat wa-'l-tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions) (see Ibn Sina) and another work on the same subject, al-Mabahith al-mashriqiyya (Eastern Studies), which is based in large part on the latter's al-Shifa' and al-Najat as well as al-Isharat, but in which al-Razi frequently preferred the views of Abu 'l-Barakat al-Baghdadi (d. after ah 560/ad 1164-5). Also of great philosophical interest is his theological text Muhassal al-afkar (The Harvest of Thought). Perhaps al-Razi's greatest work, however, is the Mafatih al-ghayb (The Keys to the Unknown), one of the most extensive commentaries on the Qur'an, running to eight volumes in quarto and known more popularly as simply al-Tafsir al-kabir (The Great Commentary). As its more orthodox detractors have been happy to point out, this work, which occupied al-Razi to the end of his life and was completed by a pupil, contains much of philosophical interest.

The person who did the most to defend Ibn Sina, and philosophy in general, against the criticisms of al-Razi was Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, whose commentary on the Kitab al-isharat was in large measure a refutation of al-Razi's opinions. Al-Tusi also wrote a Talkhis al-muhassal al-afkar (Abridgement of the Muhassal al-afkar), where he likewise undertook a criticism of many of the philosophical criticisms in the Muhassal al-afkar.

2. Metaphysics

Al-Razi was associated by later authors with the view that existence is distinct from, and additional to, essence, both in the case of creation and in the case of God, and that pure existence is merely a concept (see Existence). This view is at variance with the Ash'arite and Mu'tazilite positions, as well as with that of Ibn Sina and his followers. Al-Razi only departed from this view in his commentary on the Qur'an, where he went back to a more traditional view that in God essence and existence are one.

Another challenge to the philosophers for which al-Razi achieved fame was his refutation of the emanationist principle ex uno non fit nisi unum (only one can come from one.) In Ibn Sina's formulation, if an indivisible single thing were to give rise to two things, a and b, this would result in a contradiction, for the same single thing would be the source of both a and of not-a ( TeX equation). Al-Razi's refutation was based on the claim that the contradictory of 'the emanation of a' is 'the non-emanation of a', not 'the emanation of not-a'. On a related point, he originally denied the possibility of a vacuum, but in his Mafatih he argues for its existence, and for the power of the Almighty to fill it with an infinity of universes.

The philosophers, following Ibn Sina, held knowledge to be an inhering in the knower of the form of the thing known, and that consequently God knew only universals and not particulars, knowledge of the latter implying inadmissible changes in God's essence as particulars changed (see Immutability). For the most part theologians were opposed to thus restricting God's knowledge, on the grounds that he was omniscient (see Omniscience). Al-Razi upheld the theological side of the debate through postulating that knowledge involved a relation between the knower and the thing known, so that a change in the thing known would produce a change in the relation but not in the essence of the knower. This notion of a relation involved the substitution of a philosophical term, idafa (relation), for a theological one, ta'alluq (connection), in an argument about the attribute of knowledge which belonged essentially to Abu 'l-Husayn al-Basri's Mu'tazilite school.

In ethics, al-Razi held that God alone, through revelation, determines moral values for man, it being these which give rise to praise and blame. God himself was beyond the moral realm and acted from no purpose extraneous to himself, be it out of pure goodness or for the benefit of his creation. Following al-Ghazali, and before him al-Juwayni, al-Razi's solution to the problem posed for divine subjectivists by God's threats of punishment and reward was to acknowledge a subjective rational capacity within man allowing him to understand what causes him pleasure and pain and thus enabling him to perceive where his advantage lies. In his 'Ilm al-akhlaq (Science of Ethics) al-Razi built upon al-Ghazali's ethical writings, particularly from the Ihya' 'ulum al-din, providing a systematic framework based on psychology, again under the influence of al-Baghdadi (see Ethics in Islamic philosophy).

On the question of free will, al-Razi took a radical determinist position and rejected outright the Ash'arite doctrine of kasb (acquisition). Al-Razi postulated two factors necessary for the production of an action: the power to do it or not to do it, and a preponderating factor, the motivation, which leads to the action being performed or not. Once the preponderating factor exists together with the power, either the act comes about necessarily or else it becomes impossible. Al-Razi pushed this essentially Mu'tazilite thesis, which is also similar to Ibn Sina's thinking, to its logical conclusion, arguing that both the power and the preponderating factor had to be created by God for the result to exist necessarily, and hence that all human actions have been produced through God's determination. We thus appear to be free agents because we act according to our motives, but in reality we are constrained. A consequence of this theory when it is applied to God's own acts is that since God acts through his power, he must himself either act through constraint (if there is a preponderating factor in this case) or else by chance (if there is not), both of which conclusions violate the central Sunnite position that God is a totally free agent. Those who came after al-Razi felt that he had never adequately solved this difficulty, and he himself confessed that, whether from the point of view of reason or of tradition, there was in the end no satisfactory solution to the free will problem (see Free will).

Al-Razi held the Ash'arite position that God could re-create what had been made inexistent, and this formed the basis of his literal understanding of bodily resurrection. However, he also expressed views which were influenced by the theory of the late Mu'tazili Ibn al-Malahimi, who held the contrary position on the restoration of non-existence, that the world did not pass into non-existence but its parts were dissociated, and that the essential of these parts were reassembled on the resurrection. This ambivalence on al-Razi's part perhaps reflects the changes in his position on atomism, which he vehemently denied in his earlier purely philosophical works but of which he was more supportive towards the end of his life.

See also: al-Ghazali; Ibn Sina; Islamic theology; al-Tusi

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din (before 1185) al-Mabahith al-mashriqiyya fi 'ilm al-ilahiyyat wa-'l-tabi'iyyat (Eastern Studies in Metaphysics and Physics), Hyderabad: Da'irat al-Ma'arif al-Nizamiyyah, 1923-4, 2 vols; repr. Tehran, 1966. (One of al-Razi's most important philosophical texts.)

al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din (before 1239) al-Tafsir al-kabir (The Great Commentary), Cairo: al-Matba'ah al Bahiyyah al-Misriyyah, 1938, 32 vols in 16; several reprints. (Al-Razi's commentary on the Qur'an, completed by his pupil al-Khuwayyi; useful in many places as in indication of his later philosophical positions.)

al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din (before 1209) Muhassal afkar al-mutaqaddimin wa-'l-muta'akhkhirin min al-'ulama' wa-'l-hukama' wa-'l-mutakallimin (The Harvest of the Thought of the Ancients and Moderns), Cairo: al-Matba'ah al Bahiyyah al-Misriyyah, 1905. (Printed with al-Tusi's Talkhis al-Muhassal at the bottom of the page and al-Razi's al-Ma'alim fi usul al-din (The Waymarks and Principles of Religion) in the margin.)

al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din (before 1209) Kitab al-nafs wa-'l-ruh wa sharh quwa-huma (Book on the Soul and the Spirit and their Faculties), ed. M.S.H. al-Ma'sumi, Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 1968; trans. M.S.H. al-Ma'sumi, Imam Razi's 'Ilm al-akhlaq, Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 1969. (Al-Razi's work on ethics.)

al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din (before 1209) Sharh al-Isharat (Commentary on the Isharat). (No critical edition of al-Razi's commentary on Ibn Sina's Kitab al-isharat has appeared. Portions can be found in S. Dunya (ed.) al-Isharat wa-'l-tanbihat, Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1957-60, 4 parts, 3 vols in 2; also in al-Isharat wa-'l-tanbihat, Tehran: Matba'at al-Haydari, 1957-9, 3 vols. Both these editions contain al-Tusi's commentary as well as parts of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi's commentary, to which al-Tusi is responding. The Tehran edition also contains Qutb al-Din al-Razi's commentary, which set out to adjudicate between al-Tusi and al-Razi.)

al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din (before 1209) Lubab al-Isharat (The Pith of the Isharat), ed. M. Shihabi in al-Tanbihat wa-'l isharat, Tehran: Tehran University Press, 1960; ed. A. 'Atiyah, Cairo: Maktabat al-Kharji, 1936/7. (Al-Razi's epitome of Ibn Sina's work, written after he had completed his commentary.)

References and further reading

Abrahamov, B. (1992) 'Fakhr al-Din al-Razi on God's Knowledge of Particulars', Oriens 33: 133-55. (Discussion of a key point of difference between Islamic theologians and philosophers.)

Arnaldez, R. (1960) 'L'oeuvre de Fakhr al-Din al-Razi commentateur du Coran et philosophe' (The Works of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Qu'ranic Commentator and Philosopher), Cahiers du Civilization médiévale, Xe-XIIe siècles 3: 307-23. (In this article, Arnaldez has dug into al-Razi's enormous commentary on the Qur'an to come up with his mature philosophical ideas. Can be compared with McAuliffe (1990) and Mahdi's response to McAuliffe.)

Arnaldez, R. (1989) 'Trouvailles philosophiques dans le commentaire coranique de Fakhr al-Dîn al-Râzî ', Études Orientales 4: 17-26. (A follow-up to Arnaldez (1960).)

Ibn Sina (980-1037) Kitab al-Isharat wa-'l-tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions), trans. A.-M. Goichon, Livre des directives et remarques, Beirut and Paris, 1951. (Introduction and notes by the translator. Contained in the notes are a number of al-Razi's comments from his commentary on this work, as well as some of al-Tusi's criticisms of al-Razi.)

Kholeif, F. (1966) A Study on Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and His Controversies in Transoxania, Pensée Arabe et Musulmane 31, Beirut: Dar al-Machreq Éditeurs. (Arabic text and English translation of al-Razi's text of sixteen questions (philosophical, logical, legal) broached with scholars in Transoxania; gives a good idea of al-Razi's style. Also contains a list of al-Razi's works.)

Kraus, P. (1936-7) 'Les "Controverses" de Fakhr al-Din Razi' (The 'Controversies' of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi), Bulletin de l'Institut d'Egypte 19: 187-214. (An important early study of the 'controversies' translated in Kholeif (1966). An English translation appears in 'The controversies of Fakhr al-Din Razi', Islamic Culture 12, 1938: 131-53.)

McAuliffe, J.D. (1990) 'Fakhr al-Din al-Razi on God as al-Khaliq', in D.B. Burrell and B. McGinn (eds) God and Creation: An Ecumenical Symposium, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 276-96. (An examination of al-Razi's late philosophical theology, with particular reference to the problem of creation; see also M. Mahdi's response in the same volume (297-303) on the general question of al-Razi as philosopher.)

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