Islamic philosophy is the product of a complex intellectual process in which Syrians, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Berbers, and others took an active part. The Arab element is so preponderant, however, that it might be conveniently termed Arabic philosophy. The medium in which writers, hailing from such distant countries as Khurasan and Andalusia, chose to express their thoughts from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries was Arabic. The racial element that provided the cohesive force in this cosmopolitan endeavor and determined its form and direction, at least in the early stages, was Arabic; without the Arabs’ enlightened interest in ancient learning, hardly any intellectual progress could have been made or maintained. Moreover, it was the Arabs who, while they assimilated the customs, manners, and learning of their subject peoples, contributed the one universal element in the whole complex of Muslim culture, i.e., the Islamic religion.
As we proceed we shall note the role of each racial group in the development of Islamic philosophy. We observe here that the intellectual history of the Arabs, to whom the development of philosophy and science in the Near East owed so much, virtually begins with the rise of Islam. The chief cultural monuments of the Arabs, before the rise of Islam, were poetry and literary traditions that were transmitted orally and embody a record of the social, political, religious, and moral aspects of Arab life. However, this record was primitive, regional, and fragmentary. Islam not only provided the Arabs with a coherent and bold world-view, which sought to transcend the narrow confines of their tribal existence, but thrust them almost forcibly upon the cultural stage of the ancient world and set before them its dazzling scientific and cultural treasures.
The pivot round which the whole of Muslim life turns is, of course, the Qur’an. Revealed to Muhammad by God between 610 and 632 from an eternal codex (the Preserved Tablet), according to Muslim doctrine, the Qur’an embodies the full range of principles and precepts by which the believer should order his life. The Qur’an is supplemented, however, by a mass of utterances attributed to Muhammad and constituting, together with circumstantial reports of the actions and decisions of the Prophet, the general body of Muhammadan Traditions, properly designated in Muslim usage as the Prophetic “Way” (al-Sunnah).
Overwhelmed by the awesome sacredness of the divine Word (kalam) and the Prophetic Way, the first generation of Muslim scholars dedicated themselves wholly to the fixing of the sacred canon, commenting upon it and drawing the legal or moral corollaries implicit in it. Thus arose the sciences of reading (‘ilm al-qira’at), exegesis (tafsir), and jurisprudence (fiqh), the only basic sciences the nascent community needed in order to assimilate or live by the divinely revealed ordinances of the Qur’an. From these sciences, however, there soon stemmed the whole body of subsidiary disciplines, collectively referred to as the linguistic or traditional sciences, as distinct from the rational or philosophical sciences. Grammar, rhetoric, and the allied studies were developed during the first two centuries of the Muslim era, chiefly as a means of adequately interpreting or justifying the linguistic usages of the Qur’an and the Traditions. Even study of literature, and particularly pre-Islamic poetry, appears to have been stimulated by the desire to find a venerable basis in ancient usage for the many unfamiliar terms or idioms in the Qur’an and the Traditions.
The canonical text of the Qur’an was finally fixed during the reign of the third caliph, Uthman (644-656), and in honor of him the authorized version of the Qur’an ever since has been called “Musaf Uthman”. A few minor refinements of a purely grammatical and orthographic nature were made in the tenth century. The Traditions, on the other hand, circulated orally for almost two centuries, and in consequence a vast amount of apocryphal material was added to what must have been the original core. By the middle of the ninth century, however, elaborate criteria for sifting this material were developed and compilations of “sound” or canonical Traditions were made, the best known and most authoritative of which is that of al-Bukhari (d. 870).
As one might expect, the greatest scholars of the early period were primarily linguists or exegetes who addressed themselves to the study and analysis of the texts of the Qur’an and the Traditions, on the one hand, or the interpretation of the juridical aspects of Scripture and their application to concrete cases, on the other. The first function was discharged by the commentators and Traditionists, and the second by the jurisconsults (fuqaha’), upon whom also devolved, in the absence of an organized teaching authority in Islam, the task of doctrinal definition as well.
The criteria for settling juridical or even doctrinal problems by the early jurisconsults were often purely linguistic or textual. However, there soon arose a class of scholars who were willing to permit the use of analogy (qiyas) or independent judgment (ra’y) in doubtful matters, especially when a specific textual basis for a decision could not be found in Scripture. Of the four major legal schools into which Muslim jurisprudence eventually crystallized, the school of Abu Hanifah (d. 767) and that of al-Shafi’i (d. 820) were much more liberal than the two rival schools of Malik b. Anas (d. 795) and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855).
The implications of this bipolarity for the subsequent development of scholastic theology (Kalam) are not far to seek. The conservative “people of Tradition,” as the Malikites and the Hanbalites are generally called, tended to repudiate the use of any deductive method. Their position is best epitomized by the comment of Malik on the Qur’anic reference to God’s “sitting upon the throne” (Qur’an 7:54 and 20:5). “The sitting,” he is reported to have said, “is known, its modality is unknown. Belief in it is an obligation and raising questions regarding it is a heresy [bid‘ah].”4
This somewhat narrow approach to the questions raised by the study of Qur’anic texts could not long withstand the pressures of the times. There was first the inevitable confrontation of Islam with paganism and Christianity, both at Damascus and at Baghdad, and the numerous tensions it generated. Second, there were the moral and legal questions raised by the gloomy picture of God’s overwhelming supremacy in the world as depicted in the Qur’an, and its bearing on the responsibility of human agents. And there was finally the necessity of safeguarding what one may call the unity of the Islamic view of life, which could not be achieved without a systematic attempt to bring the conflicting data of revelation (in the Qur’an and the Traditions) into some internal harmony.
The attempt to grapple with these complex problems is at the basis of the rise and development of Islamic scholastic theology. A good deal of the work of the earliest theologians consisted in the rebuttal of the arguments leveled at Islam by pagans, Christians, and Jews. Significantly, the early Mu‘tazilite doctors are often commended for their defense of Islam against the attacks of the Materialists (al-Dahriyah) and the Manichaeans. Indeed, heresiographers explicitly state that scholastic theology arose as a means of buttressing Islamic beliefs by logical arguments and defending them against attack.
Within the confines of Islam itself, discussion began to center by the seventh century around the questions of divine justice and human responsibility. Authorities report that a cluster of early theologians engaged in the discussion of the problem of free will and predestination (qadar), an issue generally recognized as the first major one broached by the early theologians. The Mu‘tazilah, who continued this line of speculation, asserted the freedom of the individual on the one hand and the justice of God on the other. And although they naturally supported their positions by quotations from the Qur’an, their general tendency was to advance arguments of a strictly ethical or rational character in support of these positions.
Moreover, the anthropomorphic passages in which the Qur’an abounded made it imperative to resort to some process of allegorical interpretation in order to safeguard the immateriality and transcendence of God. Here again the Mu‘tazilah were undoubted pioneers. The Qur’anic references to God’s “sitting upon the throne,” as well as the possibility of seeing Him on the Last Day,” (Qur’an 75:22, etc.), are interpreted as allegories for the divine attributes of majesty or royalty on the one hand, or the possibility; of contemplating Him mystically on the other.
The proper prosecution of discussions of this kind naturally called for a high degree of sophistication, which, prior to the introduction of Greek philosophy and logic, was rather difficult, if not impossible. Scholastic theology therefore gave the Muslims, as it had (given the Christians of Egypt and Syria centuries earlier, the incentive to pursue the study of Greek philosophy.
Not much progress was made in that direction during the Umayyad period (661-750). The Umayyad caliphs, especially during the first few decades of their rule, were concerned primarily with the consolidation of their political power and the solution of the numerous economic and administrative problems which governing a vast empire raised.
However, souls thirsting after knowledge were not altogether wanting even during this period. We might mention, as a striking instance, the Umayyad prince Khalid b. Yazid (d. 704), who appears to have sought consolation in alchemy and astrology for his disappointed claims to the caliphate. According to our most ancient sources, Khalid provided for the first translations of scientific works (medical, astrological, and alchemical) into Arabic. Nevertheless, the development of philosophy and theology in Islam is bound up with the advent of the ‘Abbasid dynasty in the middle of the eighth century. Interest in science and philosophy grew during this period to such an extent that scientific and philosophical output was no longer a matter of individual effort or initiative. Before long, the state took an active part in its promotion and the intellectual repercussions of this activity acquired much greater scope. Theological divisions, growing out of philosophical controversy or inquiry racked the whole of the Muslim community. Caliphs upheld one theological view against another and demanded adherence to it on political grounds, with the inevitable result that theology soon became the handmaid of politics. As a consequence, freedom of thought and conscience was seriously jeopardized.
A fundamental cause of this development is, of course, the close correlation in Islam between principle and law, the realm of the temporal and the realm of the spiritual. But such a development required the challenge of foreign ideas and a release from the shackles of dogma. This is precisely the role played by the of Greek ideas and the Greek spirit of intellectual curiosity, which generated a bipolar reaction of the utmost importance for the understanding of Islam. The most radical division caused by the introduction of Greek thought was between the progressive element, which sought earnestly to subject the data of revelation to the scrutiny of philosophical thought, and the conservative element, which disassociated itself altogether from philosophy on the ground that it was either impious or suspiciously foreign. This division continued to reappear throughout Islamic history as a kind of geological fault, sundering the whole of Islam. As a result, throughout Muslim history reform movements have not been marked by a great degree of release from authority or dogma or a quest for the reinterpretation or reexamination of fundamental presuppositions in the realms of social organization, theological discussion, or legal thought. Instead, like the reform of al-Ash‘ari (d. 935) in the tenth century, that of Ibn Taymiya (d. 1327) in the fourteenth century, or that of Muhammad ‘Abdu (d. 1905) in the nineteenth century, they were marked by a deliberate attempt to vindicate the old, Traditionist concepts and assumptions of the earliest protagonists of Muslim dogma, the so-called good forebears, (al-salaf al-salih) of the Muslim community.
One lasting consequence of the introduction of Greek philosophy and the Greek spirit of inquiry, however, was that the “Traditionism” of early theologians and jurists, such as Malik b. Anas, was no longer tenable in its pure or original form. The great Ash‘arite “reformers” committed, as they were to the defense of orthodoxy against heretics and free thinkers, could no longer do so without recourse to the weapons which their rationalist opponents had borrowed from the Greeks. It was as though most of Greek dialectic could no longer be exorcised without recourse to the formula of exorcism which it had itself enunciated in the first place.
Moreover, the, varying degrees of allegiance to Greek philosophy and logic not only gave rise to the diverse theological schools of thought, but generated the more distinctly, Hellenic current of ideas, which we shall designate as the Islamic philosophical school.
The rise and development of this school is the primary concern of the present history. Scholastic theology will be discussed only in so far as it absorbed, reacted to, or by-passed Islamic philosophy. To theology might be added another movement whose relation to philosophy has also fluctuated between the two poles of total endorsement or total disavowal-mysticism or Sufism. Mysticism is ultimately rooted in the original matrix of religious experience, which grows in turn out of man’s overwhelming awareness of God and his sense of nothingness without Him, and of the urgent need to subordinate reason and emotion to this experience. The mystical experience, it is often claimed, is distinct from the rational or the philosophical, and, less often, it is said to be contrary to it. But, whether it is distinct or not, it can hardly be irrelevant to man’s rational or philosophical aspirations; since it allegedly leads to the very object which reason seeks, namely, the total and supreme apprehension of reality. In fact, the history of Muslim mysticism is more closely bound up with that of philosophy than other forms of mysticism have been. The mysticism of some of the great Sufis such as Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240 ), culminated in a grandiose cosmological and metaphysical world-scheme, which is of decisive philosophical significance. Conversely, the philosophical preoccupations of some philosophers, such as Ibn Bajjah (d. 1138) and Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185), led logically and inevitably to the conception of mystical experience (designated “illumination”) as the crowning of the process of reasoning.
The beginnings of the Islamic philosophical school coincide with the first translations of the works of the Greek masters into Arabic from Syriac or Greek. We might accept as credible the traditional account that scientific and medical texts were the earliest works to be translated into Arabic. The Arabs, as well as the Persians, who contributed so abundantly to the scientific and philosophical enlightenment in Islam, are a practical-minded people. Their interest in the more abstract aspects of Greek thought must have been a subsequent development. Even the Christian Syrians, who paved the way for the introduction of the Greek heritage into the Near East shortly before the Arab conquest in the seventh century, were interested primarily in Aristotelian logic and Greek philosophy as a prelude to the study of theological texts. These were not only written originally in Greek, but also were rich in logical and philosophical terms that previously had been unknown to the Semites. In addition to scientific and medical works, collections of moral aphorisms ascribed to Socrates, Solon, Hermes, Pythagoras, Luqman, and similar real or fictitious personages appear to have been among the earliest texts to be translated into Arabic. The Arab accounts of Greek philosophy abound in such apocryphal literature, whose exact origin is sometimes difficult to ascertain. It might be assumed that it was the affinity of these writings to belles lettres (adab) and their literary excellence which insured their early vogue among the elite. Translators had naturally to depend upon the generosity of their aristocratic or wealthy patrons, who, even when they affected interest in other than the purely practical disciplines of astrology or medicine at all, were content with this species of ethical and religious literature, which was cherished and disseminated partly as a matter of social refinement and partly as a matter of moral edification. Interest in the more abstract forms of ancient, especially Greek, learning was bound to follow in due course, however. First, the translators themselves, having mastered skills required for translating into Arabic more practical works, proceeded next to tackle works of a greater speculative interest, and eventually to induce their patrons to provide for their translation. Secondly, the theological controversies had reached such a point of sophistication by the end of the eighth century that the old weapons were no longer sufficient for the defense of orthodoxy, which had now been given the authority of the state. Abstract philosophy was further popularized through the personal idiosyncrasies of such men as the Umayyad prince Khalid b. Yazid, the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun (d. 833), and the Persian vizier Ja‘far the Barmakid (d. 805), who, had acquired more than a conventional zeal for ancient learning in its Persian, Indian, and Babylonian forms in general, and its Greek and Hellenistic forms in particular.
The greater translators, most of whom were Syriac-speaking Christians, of the unorthodox Nestorian and Monophysite communions, were, not mere translators or servile imitators of Greek or other foreign authors. Some of them, such as Hunain (d. 873) and Yahia b. ‘Adi (d. 974), are credited with a series of important scientific and philosophical works. Hunain’s interests seem to have been chiefly medical and scientific, whereas Yahia seems to have been more interested in theological and philosophical questions. To a famous pupil of his, Ibn al-Khammar (d. 940), is ascribed a treatise on the Agreement of the Opinions of the Philosophers and the Christians, which belongs to the same literary lineage as the parallel treatise of the Muslim philosophers (such as Ibn Rushd, d. 1198) who dealt systematically with the questions of reason and revelation in their works.
The works of those early translators were on the whole compilations which lacked originality. They contained ideas that had been gleaned at random from the works they had translated. The first genuine philosopher to write in Arabic was al-Kindi (d. ca. 866), a contemporary of the great Hunain.’Like the rest of the Arab philosophers and expositors, he differed from the Christian translators in two important particulars: his religion and his total ignorance of Syriac or Greek, the two chief languages of the times, besides Arabic. It is surprising that even the greatest admirers of Greek philosophy such as Averroes, lacked even a perfunctory knowledge of Greek. The chief reason appears to have been the contempt of the Arabs for all foreign tongues, which, seems to have spread like an infection, even to non-Arabs of the most bigoted type. Some philosophers, it is true, chose to write in their native tongues, in addition to writing in Arabic, as is illustrated by Ibn Sina’s and al-Ghazali’s Persian writings. This was probably a gesture of nationalist loyalty, not the manifestation of a genuine desire for a polyglot erudition or distinction.
As a result of their total ignorance of Greek, those philosophers tended to be less slavish in their interpretation of Greek texts, if a trifle less exact, than the early Greek commentators, such as Themistius and Alexander. Being Muslims by faith, they were naturally anxious to justify their interest in the pagan philosophers of antiquity. Indeed, almost from the beginning it was standard for the orthodox to reproach all those who “looked into the books of the [Greek] philosophers” -even presumably when they did not understand them. Such theological preoccupation was a distinctive feature of the development of Islamic philosophy. Al-Kindi, the first genuine philosopher, was more than a philosopher with a theological bent; he was to some extent a theologian with an interest in philosophy. We might say that al-Kindi still stands on the borderline of philosophy and theology, which the later philosophers tried more boldly, perhaps, to cross. How far they succeeded in so doing and how far it was possible for them to span the distance separating Islamic belief from Greek speculative thought will be seen in later chapters. But it might be mentioned at this stage that al-Kindi’s theological interests did act as a safeguard against the total submersion of religious belief in the current of abstract philosophical thought, and the total subordination of the supernatural light of faith to the light of reason -a devastating temptation which Islamic philosophy could not ultimately resist. For the subsequent “illuminationist” trend in the history of Islamic philosophy amounted precisely to this: the vindication of the right of reason to scale the heights of knowledge unaided and to lift the veil of mystery which shrouded the innermost recesses of reality. The ultimate goal of reason, according to Ibn Bajjah, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufayl, and others, is “contact” or “conjunction” (ittisal) with the universal mind or active intellect, not the enlightenment which the visio Dei promises, by admitting the soul graciously into the company of the elect, who are blessed with understanding. In this respect, it is clear that the Islamic philosophers remain true to the Greek ideal, in its exaltation of man and its faith in his boundless intellectual prowess and his ability to dispense altogether with any supernatural light.
This is the sense in which Islamic philosophy can be said to have followed a distinctive line of development which gave it that unity of form which is a characteristic of the great intellectual movements in history. We should, however, guard against the illusion that the course of its development was perfectly straight. Some of the most fascinating Muslim thinkers, such as al-Nazzam (d. 845), al-Razi (d. 925), and al-Ma‘arri (d. 1057), fall outside the mainstream of thought in Islam. Their dissident voices lend a discordant note to an otherwise monotonous symphony. The difficulty of expounding their thought with any degree of completeness is bound up with its very nonconformist character. Islam did generate such dissentient and solitary souls, but it could not tolerate or accept them in the end. The historian of Islamic thought cannot overlook them, however, without distorting the total picture.
The origin of Kharijism lies in the first Islamic civil war, the struggle for political supremacy over the Muslim community in the years following the death of Prophet Muhammad. After the third caliph (Uthman ibn Affan), a struggle for succession ensued between Caliph Ali and Muʿāwiyah, the governor of Syria and cousin of Uthman, in league with a variety of other opponents.
In 657, Alī's forces met Muʿāwiyah's at the Battle of Siffin. Initially, the battle went against Muʿāwiyah but on the brink of defeat, Muʿāwiyah directed his army to hoist Qur'āns on their lances. This initiated discord among some of those who were in Alī's army. Muʿāwiyah wanted to put the dispute between the two sides to arbitration in accordance with the Qur'an. A group of Alī's army mutinied, demanding that Alī agree to Muʿāwiyah's proposal. As a result, Alī reluctantly presented his own representative for arbitration. The mutineers, however, put forward Abu Musa al-Ashʿari against Alī's wishes.
Muʿāwiyah put forward 'Amr ibn al-'As. Abu Musa al-Ashʿari was convinced by Amr to pronounce Alī's removal as caliph even though Ali's caliphate was not meant to be the issue of concern in the arbitration. The mutineers saw the turn of events as a fundamental betrayal of principle, especially since they had initiated it; a large group of them (traditionally believed to be 12,000, mainly from Banu Hanifah and Banu Tamim tribes)repudiated Alī.
Citing the verse, "No rule but God's," an indication that a caliph is not a representative of God, this group turned on both Alī and Muʿāwiya, opposing Muʿāwiya's rebellion against one they considered to be the rightful caliph, and opposing ʻAlī for accepting to subject his legitimate authority to arbitration, thus giving away what was not his, but rather the right of the people. They became known as Kharijites: Arabic plural khawārij, singular Khārijī, derived from the verb kharaja "to come out, to exit."
ʻAlī quickly divided his troops and ordered them to catch the dissenters before they could reach major cities and disperse among the population. Alī's cousin and a renowned Islamic jurist, Abdullah ibn Abbas, pointed out the grave theological errors made by the Kharijites in quoting the Qur'an, and managed to persuade a number of Kharijites to return to Alī based on their misinterpretations. ʻAlī defeated the remaining rebels in the Battle of Nahrawan in 658 but some Kharijites survived and, in 661, one Kharijite ultimately assassinated Alī. They are said to have organized simultaneous attempts against Muʿāwiya and Amr as well, as the three men were in their view the main sources of strife within the Muslim community, but were only successful in assassinating Alī, who did not keep bodyguards.