Note that none of this is original from the author;
all of this is taken from scholarly sources

Also read - Early History of Islamic Thought

Islamic Philosophy and Philosophers


Political Influences
Neoplatonic Ideas
2 different beliefs about God
Context of translations


Early Ethics
Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

When did Islamic philosophy start?

This is 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 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.

Also read - Mu'tazila - Use of reasoning in early Islamic Theology"

Favorable Political Influences

The Umayyad prince Khalid b. Yazid (d. 704) provided support for the first translations of scientific works (medical, astrological, and alchemical) into Arabic. 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, because the state began taking an active part in its promotion. Theological divisions, growing out of philosophical controversy or inquiry, soon racked the whole of the Muslim community, and Caliphs upheld one theological view against another and demanded adherence to it on political grounds.

Islamic philosophy in its more formal sense began in the third century of the hijra. 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 Islamic rulers sought to acquire and apply the knowledge already existing in their new empire. Much of this knowledge was very practical, being based on medicine, astrology, astronomy, mathematics and engineering.

Harun al-Rashid became the fifth Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty on 14 September 786, about the time that al-Khwarizmi was born. Harun ruled, from his court in the capital city of Baghdad, over the Islam empire which stretched from the Mediterranean to India. He brought culture to his court and tried to establish the intellectual disciplines which at that time were not flourishing in the Arabic world. He had two sons, the eldest was al-Amin while the younger was al-Mamun. Harun died in 809 and there was an armed conflict between the brothers.

Al-Mamun won the armed struggle and al-Amin was defeated and killed in 813. Following this, al-Mamun became Caliph and ruled the empire from Baghdad. He continued the patronage of learning started by his father and founded an academy called bayt al-hikma, the House of Wisdom, where Greek philosophical and scientific works were translated. It served as an observatory and, more importantly, as a library and centre for the translation of Greek texts into Arabic. 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. He built up a library of manuscripts, the first major library to be set up since that at Alexandria, collecting important works from Byzantium. Many of the translators were Christians, who translated texts first from Greek into Syriac and then into Arabic. The philosophy that was transmitted into Arabic at this time was profoundly Neoplatonic; that there is a hierarchy of Being with the intellect at the summit and the world of generation and corruption at the bottom.

Neoplatonic Ideas

Islam developed in a time and place which was generally familiar with the doctrines and teachings of Plotinus. The city of Alexandria in Egypt, 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 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. 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, or the Procline hypostases of the One, Existence, Intellect and Soul (Liber de causis), to the sublime attributes of the One.

So the intellectual, philosophical minds of the Islamic empire became intrigued with these newly discovered neoplatonic ideas, unless they were already familiar with them. This then greatly influenced their thinking and writings. However, this was all taking place in the milieu of Islamic theology concretizing itself and vying for the minds and hearts of the populace. So there was bound to be some heated clashes between the new philosophers and the religious elite.

Philosophy and debate ensued about the relationship between God and the rest of observable and intangible reality became a fundamental characteristic of the writings of the Islamic philosophers.

Even more crucial was the criterion that the philosophers used to acquire understanding and validate truth . This was fundamentally based on reason, as opposed to revelation, which naturally brought into question the significance of religious revelation. Thus, for most of the purely religious Muslims, philosophy came to be seen as a rival and competing system of thought, one which required opposition by Islam. So the early Muslim philosophers had to justify themselves, and they did so in a number of ways.

Two different beliefs about God

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 centering on such matters as anthropomorphism, God's omnipotence and man's free will, and the attributes of God. The Qur'anic God creates the world ex nihilo, 'something from nothing'. Moreover, God creates from His Will. Thus the Quran's God is transcendent, creating the world from outside it. Granted, the God of Islam is also immanent, in that He gives to the world His Divine Qualities of goodness and beauty, etc. However, in the Qur'an God is continually reaffirmed as being both greater and beyond the world.

On the contrary, the Neoplatonic idea (from Plotinus) is that the universe is an outward emanation of The Source (The One). So there is no division, as it were, between the Divine Source (Plotinus' God) and creation. The world is in the emanation of God; the world is God in outward expression. God is The One, and nothing is but the One. The Qur'anic God is linked to creation by the sheer power of His creative Will, while the Neoplatonic God simply emanates and fills all possible space with One Being, and the world is a part of divine emanation. There is no concept of Neoplatonic emanation in the Qur'an.

Thus, the neoplatonic emanationist position is based, not a single Creator-created dichotomy, but rather on a 'vertical series' or "hierarchy" of "worlds" (or realities). Thus, Creation is not out of nothing, but rather out of the Being of the higher hypostasis 'above' it. So with the neoplatonists, God or the One or the Good - however this is to be characterized - does not create ex nihilo but 'engages' in eternal emanation of all that is below him.

The word "Emanation" comes from the Latin e-manare, "to flow forth". The cosmos and finite beings are all seen as having emerged out of the Absolute Reality through a sort of "out-flowing". Neoplatonic metaphors are with the ocean (the Absolute) and the waves (the Universe); the Sun (the Absolute) and the Light that shines from it (the Universe); a fountain (the Absolute) which overflows (the universe); and so on.

Just as the ocean forms its surface into waves, so the Absolute forms upon and as Itself successive manifestations, successive entities. And these in turn create - or rather, emanate - further entities, and so on, with all these entities combining and interacting in the extraordinary network of existence. Each of the levels of reality in the Emanationist Cosmology could be termed a "world" (this being used as a general term meaning any self-contained realm of existence). One could equally well say "sphere", "realm", "plane", "level" or "state of existence". One could think of the relationship between each of these levels as being like "soul and body", "spirit and matter", or "Creator and creature", in that each higher level is the Soul, Spirit, and Creator of the level immediately below it; and the body or created being of the level immediately above it.


Al-Kindi was born about 801 (d. 866-873 ?) and brought up in Kufah, Iraq, which was a centre for Arab culture and learning in the 9th century. Al-Kindi's father was the governor of Kufah, as his grandfather had been before him, and al-Kindi was descended from the Royal Kindah tribe which had originated in southern Arabia. After beginning his education in Kufah, al-Kindi moved to Baghdad to complete his studies and there he quickly achieved fame for his scholarship.

He came to the attention of the Caliph al-Ma'mun who was at that time setting up the "House of Wisdom" in Baghdad. Al-Ma'mun was a patron of learning and founded an academy called the House of Wisdom where Greek philosophical and scientific works were translated. Al-Kindi was appointed by al-Ma'mun to the House of Wisdom together with al-Khwarizmi and the Banu Musa brothers.

The main task that al-Kindi and his colleagues undertook in the House of Wisdom involved the translation of Greek scientific manuscripts. Al-Ma'mun had built up a library of manuscripts, the first major library to be set up since that at Alexandria, collecting important works from Byzantium. In addition to the House of Wisdom, al-Ma'mun set up observatories in which Muslim astronomers could build on the knowledge acquired by earlier peoples. (((House of Wisdom – translations by Syrian Nestorians ; al-kindi didn’t learn Greek))) Baghdad became the intellectual center of the world and was characterized by a new philosophical and scientific spirit.

Al-Kindi became known as the philosopher of the Arabs, for he was the only notable philosopher of pure Arabian blood and the first one in Islam. He was the most learned of his age, unique among his contemporaries in the knowledge of the totality of ancient scientists, embracing logic, philosophy, geometry, mathematics, music and astrology. Al-Kindi was also the first writer on philosophical ethics. He was in sympathy with Mu'tazilite theology during the heyday of that movement. However, unlike his Mu'tazilite contemporaries, whose starting-point was the Qur'an and the Traditions of Muhammad, al-Kindi's starting point was Greek philosophy.

Yet, although he was the first genuine philosopher of the Islamic world, Al-Kindi was more of a theologian with an interest in philosophy. One might say that al-Kindi stands on the borderline of philosophy and theology. Al-Kindi tended to argue that there is no basic inconsistency between Islam and philosophy, and that the pursuit of philosophy is compatible with orthodox Islam. Philosophy helps the Muslim to understand the truth using different techniques from those directly provided through Islam.

Doctrinally, Al-Kindi's idea of God 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. Finally, we can detect a Neoplatonic influence in 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.

Al-Kindi’s best known treatise is the metaphysical study, Fi al-Falsafa al-Ula (On First Philosophy). Aristotelian influence can be seen in certain elements, such as the four causes. However he is Aristotelian only up to a point. The point of divergence is reached over the question of the origin of the world. Aristotle teaches the eternity of the world; Al-Kindi propounds creation ex nihilo.

The later philosophers, such as al-Farabi, are usually considered to understand Aristotle more accurately; they had the advantage of better translations and a greater number of works. In Fi al-Falsafa al-Ula, al-Kindi described the first philosophy, which is also the most noble and highest philosophy, as the knowledge of the first truth, including the cause of every truth (the first cause). The first cause is prior in time because it is the cause of time. By the study of philosophy, people will learn the knowledge of things in reality, and through this the knowledge of the divinity of God and his unity. They will also learn human virtue. Throughout many of his treatises, al-Kindi emphasizes the importance of the intellect (‘aql) and contrasts it with matter.

He also discusses the One Truth, which is another name for God, and states that it does not have any attributes, predicates or characteristics. This view is consonant with the Mu‘tazili declaration of the unity of God as being strictly without attributes, and consequently al-Kindi has sometimes been deemed to be a Mu‘tazili by scholars.

Other aspects of his position include emphasis on the absolute unity of God, his power – particularly as creator – and creation ex nihilo. The Eternal, that is God, is not due to another; he has no cause and has neither genus nor species. There is no ‘before’ for the Eternal. The Eternal is unchanging, immutable and imperishable. In human terms, death is the soul’s taking leave of the body, which it employed during life. For al-Kindi, the intellect continues. Perhaps the soul is primarily the locus of the intellect. He reiterated in his ethical treatise the idea that humans must choose the world of the intellect over the material world (see §3).

Al-Kindi differs from the Hellenistic philosophical tradition primarily in espousing the belief that the world was created ex nihilo. In Aristotelian metaphysics the Prime Mover set the world in motion, but in the Hellenistic tradition, time and motion are intrinsically linked. Matter set in motion is eternally existing, since it exists before motion (and therefore before time). In this system, time is defined as the extension of the series of movements. Thus time begins with movement. In al-Kindi’s system, matter, time and movement are all finite, with a beginning and a cessation at some future point. Other subjects that concern al-Kindi can be seen from his titles, including Fi wahdaniya Allah wa tunahiy jirm al-‘alam (On the Unity of God and the Limitation of the Body of the World), and Fi kammiya kutub Aristutalis wa ma yahtaj ilahi fi tahsil al-falsafa (The Quantity of the Books of Aristotle and What is Required for the Acquisition of Philosophy).

In his philosophical writings, al-Kindi does not so much direct arguments to the concerns of religion as avoid them altogether, instead describing a parallel universe of philosophy. He consistently tries to show that the pursuit of philosophy is compatible with orthodox Islam. The mutakallimun had previously speculated on questions about matter, atoms and substance, which he also considers. Another reason for the claim that he was a Mu‘tazili was his persecution by the Khalif al-Mutawwakil, who instigated a reactionary policy against the Mu‘tazili and a return to traditionalism (see Ash‘ariyya and Mu‘tazila). Al-Kindi was caught in the general net of the Khalif’s anti-intellectualism; the Kindian emphasis is always on rationalism, an attitude which the orthodox establishment of a revealed religion is bound to find inimical.

Al-Kindi’s ethics appears to be influenced by the Stoic tradition, which was known throughout the Islamic world at the time through contact with Syriac Christian scholars, if not through specific texts. The Stoic, Epictetus emphasized the importance of freedom from the world and human beings’ responsibility for their own happiness. Like the writings of the Stoics, al-Kindi’s treatise exhorts readers to concentrate on the life of the mind and the soul, not of the body. Al-Kindi says that human beings are what they truly are in the soul, not in the body. On the futility of looking for eternities in the visible world, he says that whoever wishes for what is not in nature wishes for what does not exist. The reader is admonished that unhappiness follows such an attitude.

In this treatise, al-Kindi advocates maintaining an internal mental balance and not becoming upset over material concerns, for this will upset an individual’s mental equilibrium. Stoic ideas about the ephemeral nature of earthly goods are recalledand al-Kindi warns against attachment to favourite worldly goods. Some ethical remarks are contained in other treatises, such as the virtues of wisdom, courage and temperance. A reflection of each virtue which exists in the soul is seen in the body. Virtue exists as a focal point between two extremes, as Aristotle proposed. Bravery, for example, is both mental and physical, and it is midway between rashness and timidity. (Kiki Kennedy-Day)


Abu al-Nasr al-Farabi (870 – 950 AD) was born in a small village Wasij, near Farab in Turkistan. His parents were originally of Persian descent, but his ancestors had migrated to Turkistan. Farabi was the son of a general. He completed his earlier education at Farab and Bukhara but, later on, he went to Baghdad for higher studies, where he studied and worked for a long time viz., from 901 A.D. to 942 A.D. During this period he acquired mastery over several languages as well as various branches of knowledge and technology. He lived through the reign of six Abbasid Caliphs. Al-Farabi travelled to many distant lands and studied for some time in Damascus and Egypt, but repeatedly came back to Baghdad, until he visited Saif al-Daula's court in Halab (Allepo). He became one of the constant companions of the King, and it was here at Halab that his fame spread far and wide.

Although many of his books have been lost, 117 are known, out of which 43 are on logic, 11 on metaphysics, 7 on ethics, 7 on political science, 17 on music, medicine and sociology, while 11 are commentaries. Some of his more famous books include the book Fusus al-Hikam, which remained a text book of philosophy for several centuries at various centres of learning and is still taught at some of the institutions in the East. He was a great expert in the art and science of music and invented several musical instruments, besides contributing to the knowledge of musical notes.

As a philosopher, he may be classed as a Neoplatonist who tried to synthesize Platonism and Aristotelism with theology. Some of his works aimed at a synthesis of philosophy and sufism. Yet, al-Farabi nevers tries to base his philosophical views on Islamic tradition, nor does he feel any need to justify his views with religious tradition. This new attitude marks a bold trurning point in Islamic philosophers. Though fundamental Neoplatonic concepts as hierarchy and emanation are fully developed and integrated into his metaphysics of being, much of his ideas on psychology and metaphysics are original.

At the top of the metaphysical hierarchy is the Divine Being, God, also called First Being. Then from God emanates the First Intellect. Like God, this Intellect is an immaterial substance. A total of ten intellects emanate vertically down from God, the First Being. The First Intellect comprehends God, which is its own essence, and in consequence, produces the next being which is the Second Intellect. The First Intellect also produces the body and soul of al-sama' al-ula, the First Heaven. Each of the following emanated intellects are associated with other cosmic phenomena, including the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon.

Of particular significance in the emanationist hierarchy is the Tenth Intellect: it is this intellect which constitutes the real bridge between the heavenly and terrestrial worlds. This Tenth Intellect (called the Agent Intellect (or 'aql al-fa''a) was responsible for actualizing the potentiality of man's intellect and also responsible for emanating form to man and the sublunary world, much like the role of Plotinus' Universal Soul.

In Farabian metaphysics, then, the concept of Neoplatonic emanation replaces that of Qur'anic creation ex nihilo. Furthermore, the Deity at the top of the Neoplatonic hierarchy is portrayed in a very remote fashion. Al-Farabi's philosophers' God does not act directly on the sublunary world: much is delegated to the Active Intellect. However, God for al-Farabi certainly has an indirect 'responsibility' for everything, in that all things emanate from him.

al-Farabi's complex theories of intellection are described in his Risala fi'l-'aql. In this work he divides 'aql (intellect or reason) into six major categories in an attempt to elaborate the various meanings of the Arabic word 'aql. First, there is discernment or prudence; and the individual who acts for the good is characterized by this faculty. The second of the intellects is common sense; this intellect has connotations of 'obviousness' and 'immediate recognition' associated with it. Al-Farabi's third intellect is natural perception; and it is this intellect which allows us to be certain about fundamental truths. The fourth of the intellects is 'conscience'; it is a quality whereby good might be distinguished from evil and it develops from considerable experience of life. Al-Farabi's fifth intellect is complex, but important in his theory. It is of four different types: potential intellect, actual intellect, acquired intellect and agent or active intellect. 'Aql bi'l-quwwa (potential intellect) is the capacity of abstracting and apprehending the forms/essences of existing entities, which is knowledge. When potential intellect becomes active/activated, it is then 'aql bi'l-fi'l (actual intellect). In its relationship to the actual intellect, the third sub-species of intellect, 'aql mustafad (acquired intellect) is the 'the agent of actualization' to the actualized object. Finally, there is the 'aql al-fa''al (agent intellect), which is the source of human intellect or might be described as the world of intellect itself. The sixth and last of the major intellects is Divine Reason or God Himself, the ultimate source of all intellectual power and knowledge. (Ian Richard Netton, Routledge)

Al-Farabi also contributed to ethical discussions. It is reported that he wrote a commentary on parts of the Nicomachean Ethics, translated into Arabic by Ishaq ibn Hunayn. This commentary is lost, but judging from his Excerpts on Ethics, he appears to have followed Aristotle in dividing the virtues into moral (practical) and intellectual. The former include temperance, courage, liberality and justice. The the perfections of the intellectual part include practical reasoning, good judgment, sagacity and sound understanding. Also following Aristotle's views on justice, al-Farabi says that justice consists in the equitable distribution of 'common goods' in the city or the state. These goods include security, wealth, dignity and public office, of which every member of the city or state is entitled to a share. At the heart of al-Farabi's political philosophy is the concept of happiness (sa'ada). The virtuous society (al-ijtima' al-fadil) is defined as that in which people cooperate to gain happiness. The virtuous city (al-madina al-fadila) is one where there is cooperation in achieving happiness. The virtuous world (al-ma'mura al-fadila) will only occur when all its constituent nations collaborate to achieve happiness.


Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (864-930 A.D.) was born at Ray, Iran. Al-Razi was a Hakim, an alchemist and a philosopher. Initially, he was interested in music and was reputedly well versed in musical theory and performance before becoming a physician. Later on he learnt medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and philosophy from a student of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, who was well versed in the ancient Greek, Persian and Indian systems of medicine and other subjects. So Al-Razi became well trained in the Greek sciences.

In medicine, his overall contribution was so significant that it can only be compared to that of Ibn Sina. Among the most famous of his medical writings are those on Stones in the kidney and bladder and Smallpox and measles. In addition to being a physician, he compounded medicines and, in his later years, gave himself over to experimental and theoretical sciences. Like the alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan, al-Razi was a firm believer in the possibility of transmutation, yet it seems that he developed his chemistry independently of Jabir. His work in alchemy takes a more empirical and naturalistic approach than that of the Greeks or Jabir, and he brought the same empirical spirit to medicine. He has portrayed in great detail several chemical reactions and also given full descriptions of and designs for about twenty instruments used in chemical investigations.

In philosophy and theology, al-Razi tended to be more of a rationalist and scientist, while being critical of religious dogma. In a debate with an Isma'ili philosopher, al-Razi faces a Mu'tazili argument that God's mercy would not deny humanity the guidance of leaders inspired with revealed knowledge of God's own will and His plan for human destiny. Al-Razi answers that God has provided us with a capacity to discover with reason what we need to know, which belongs equally to all. Prophets do not tell us anything true that we could not just as well discover by ourselves. In fact, he says that most so-called prophets are self-deluded. Asked if a philosopher can follow a prophetically revealed religion, al-Razi retorts: 'How can anyone think philosophically while committed to old tales and dogmatism?'

Yet al-Razi describes his own metaphysical narrative, which appears to be influenced by a mixture of Aristotle and Plato. The world Soul initially stood apart from matter in a spiritual realm of her own. She yearned, however, to be embodied. And God, like a wise father, understanding that Soul learns only by experience, allowed her to embroil herself here, as a king might allow his headstrong son into a tempting garden, not out of ignorance, unconcern, or even powerlessness or spite, but out of understanding that only through experience will the boy's restlessness abate. In the case of Soul's entry into materiality, chaos was the first result, as she set matter stirring in wild and disordered motion. God, in His grace, intervened, imparting intelligence of His own to the world that Soul's impetuous desire had formed. As an immanent principle, intelligence gave order to the world, stabilizing its motions and rendering them comprehensible. But it also gave understanding to the Soul itself, allowing her to recognize her estrangement in this world and seek a return from exile. It is this striving for return that gives meaning to all human strivings in the realm of life.

Seen here, al-Razi is not a materialist, because he acknowledges a transcending [higher] intelligence giving order to nature and giving movement to an otherwise inert and passive matter. And al-Razi affirms a temporal origin to the universe, whereby nature's intelligence and order is not intrinsic but imparted; which agrees with both Islamic scripture and Plato's Timaeus. Also, in this narrative, the Soul's fall is neither devised nor forced by God. It is ascribed to her spontaneity, not to God's Will. So it was
neither coerced and destined, nor mandated by the very nature of intelligence - as though it were a necessity of essence (as in Neoplatonism); but it was foreseen and tolerated by an all-seeing Wisdom. (L.E. Goodman)


Ibn-Masarra (883-931), born in Cordoba, Andalusia, had to take refuge in the mountains for awhile because of persecution by Mâlikî jurists. He was quite early in the philosophical movement, following the pious al-Kindî, and contemporary with al-Farabi and al-Râzî. He identifies himself as a philosopher, but also as a follower of Islam. He propounds the main teachings and hierarchical cosmos of neo-Platonism, but in an Islamic context. His two short treatises, the Risâla al-i`tibâr and Khawâss al-hurûf, are the only works of his to have survived. A main purpose and unifying theme of the Risâla al-i`tibâr is to defend the use of reason, i.e. philosophy, to arrive at the highest truths, but he also tries to reconcile religious prophesy with philosophy. The Khawâss al-hurûf is a presentation of the neoplatonic universe in the form of a highly allegorical exegesis of the Qur'ân, taking the letters (hurûf) at the beginning of any sûra as a key to its inner meaning. Ibn Masarra held an inner (batin) view which ennobled and universalized the deepest spiritual meanings of Islam.

In his Risâla al-i`tibâr Ibn-Masarra begins with the observation that the nature of the elements cannot explain why water rises in a plant. He then outlines a hierarchical universe, where God first created his throne (al-`arsh), then his chair (al-kursî), then the seven heavens. The "soul sphere" is subject to a superior intelligence, which in turn is subject to God. Nothing below God subsists by itself, but is contingent and dependent on superior beings; yet this is contingency on intermediate powers, not an immediate dependence on God. When souls recognize that they will suffer in the four elements until they purify themselves, they will then aspire to the universal soul, which is the totality of all souls.

Ibn-Masarra speaks of different categories of angels, then elaborates on "the universal intellect" (al-`aql al-kullî) and "the great soul" (an-nafs al-kubrâ) from which come revelation in this world, and which is surrounded by "universal space" (al-makân al-kullî) and "universal time" (az-zamân al-kullî). Ibn-Masarra developed the idea that the human soul is guided by the "great soul" (an-nafs al-kubrâ) of the heavenly world and the Intelligences beyond. He distinguishes four kinds of souls: the vegetative, animal and rational/human souls, and a special Intelligence to which the human soul is related like the moon to the sun. For Ibn-Masarra, human society is hierarchical, like the world of nature. Prophets, religious scholars (`ulamâ') and philosophers (hukamâ') correspond to the human soul, kings and other worldly leaders correspond to the animal soul, and workers correspond to the vegetative soul.

Ibn-Masarra says that we cannot have a comprehensive knowledge of God, but only a general or comparative knowledge. There are three ways of knowing God, first by metaphysics (rubûbiyya), then by prophetic revelation (an-nubuwwa) and finally by the test (al-minha) found in his laws. The best way to know God is to meditate on his names and attributes mentioned in the Qur'ân. These are many, but each one implies all the others. God is both revealed and hidden by his creatures. Happiness, according to Ibn-Masarra, consists in knowing God the best we can by reason or revelation. This makes one ready for the company of God and for the vision of his being – which is the promised reward. But those who close their eyes to the truth have an unhappy end as described in the Quran. Heaven and hell should be understood allegorically and psychologically.

In his Risâla al-i`tibâr Ibn-Masarra questions whether prophecy is the only way of knowledge. He defends the ability of philosophy to discover truths that are traditionally considered the domain of religion. Yet most Muslim theologians would not agree. He goes on to explain that God gave us an intellect to know Him as he knows Himself. We know Him through the world, which is like a book. We also know Him through the prophets, who tell of God's highest attributes and point to earthly signs of God. Prophesy starts at God's throne and goes down, whereas philosophy starts from the earth and goes up. While philosophy confirms the truth of prophecy, prophecy cannot be understood without philosophy. Nevertheless, philosophers sometimes make mistakes in trying to describe the order of creation under God. Prophets in such cases correct them. Once in each revolution of the spheres, the noblest essence of the universal soul takes human shape, and by whatever name, this is the Prophet who teaches, guides and alters the orientation of humanity.

Ethics from Ibn Miskawayh, Al-Tusi, and Al-Dawani

Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ibn Miskawayh (c.940-1030) was the first great writer on ethics in Islam. He was a philosophical eclectic though inclined to Platonism,. He laid down in his Tahdhib al-akhlaq (The Cultivation of Morals) and other ethical writings the groundwork for a whole tradition of Persian ethical writing, including Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Jalal al-Din al-Dawani. The psychological basis of Ibn Miskawayh's ethics is clearly Platonic, as was generally the case in most Islamic philosophical circles. Onto Plato's threefold division of the soul he grafts a threefold division of virtue. Wisdom Corresponds to the rational part of the soul, courage corresponds to the irascible part, and temperance corresponds to the concupiscent part. Justice, which Ibn Miskawayh describes as a form of moderation (i'tidal) or proportion (nisba), arises when the three powers or parts of the soul are in harmony.

Al-Tusi follows much of Ibn Miskawayh’s general ethics, but they add 'household management' and politics to their practical ethics. In the political section, inspired chiefly by al-Farabi, al-Tusi argues that order is an essential precondition of the good life. Of the three forms of government, the monarchical, the tyrannical and the democratic (which he attributes to Aristotle); he favours the monarchical, identified like Plato's with the 'rule of the virtuous' or aristocrats. The true monarch is assisted by divine inspiration but acts in an interim capacity to ensure the administration of justice until the appearance of the true head of the community, the 'hidden imam'.

Al-Dawani follows essentially al-Tusi's lead, but in genuine Shi'ite fashion he stresses more than his predecessor the position of humans as God's vicegerent (khalifa) on earth (Surah 2: 30). In mystical fashion, he then goes on to argue that people reflect in their capacity as God's vicegerent the dual character of the divine nature, the outer and the inner, the spiritual and the corporeal, and more than any other creatures, including the angels, can be described as the 'image' of God. The foremost duty of the ruler, he argues, is to preserve the ordinances of the divine law (shari'a) and to conduct the affairs of state in accordance with universal principles and the requirements of the times. The ruler is for that reason God's 'shadow' and the vicar of the Prophet.

Two principal facts formed political philosophy in classical Islam. First, the revelation of Muhammad, which is of course foundational for Islam, and 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. Second, the absence of Aristotle's Politics - not discovered until much latter - which meant that Platonic political philosophy, as found in the Republic and the Laws, became paradigmatic. 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, and the deep division between an elite and the vulgar masses. For al-Farabi, 'the idea of the philosopher, supreme ruler, prince, legislator, and Imam is but a single idea'. 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. However, such Platonically-inspired intellectual elitism is offered not as an ideal for the future, but rather as a political defense of Muhammad's constitution and the Islamic state he founded.

Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037)

Ibn Sina was born in 980 C.E. in the village of Afshana near Bukhara which today is located in the far south of Russia. His father, Abdullah, an adherent of the Ismaili sect, was from Balkh and his mother from a village near Bukhara. Ibn Sina's father was the governor of a village in one of Nuh ibn Mansur's estates. He was educated by his father, whose home was a meeting place for men of learning in the area. When ibn Sina reached the age of thirteen he began to study medicine and he had mastered that subject by the age of sixteen when he began to treat patients. He also studied logic and metaphysics, receiving instruction from some of the best teachers of his day, including al-Farabi, but in all areas he continued his studies on his own. In his autobiography ibn Sina stresses that he was more or less self-taught but that at crucial times in his life he received help.

Among his scientific works, the leading two are the Kitab al-Shifa (Book of Healing), a philosophical encyclopaedia based upon Aristotelian traditions and the al-Qanun al-Tibb which represents the final categorisation of Greco-Arabian thoughts on Medicine. Ibn Sina noted the close relationship between emotions and the physical condition and felt that music had a definite physical and psychological effect on patients.

Inspired by Plotinus, Ibn Sina sets forth an emanatist theory of creation in which Being overflows from itself. Ibn Sina argues that God is a Necessary Being, and that creation is the necessary and eternal emanation from God. Since creation is necessary, this idea opposes the orthodox belief of God deciding at some point to make creation. Yet this creative emanation involves intermediaries, which are also creators. Ibn Sina has a complex Neoplatonic 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. God is pure Intellect and knowledge consists of the mind grasping the intelligible. To grasp the intelligible both reason and logic are required, and grasp of the intelligibles determines the fate of the rational soul in the hereafter, and therefore is crucial to human activity.

From the One can come only one, and so the Necessary Being produces a single Intelligence, and from it is derived another Intelligence, a celestial Soul and a celestial body. Emanation descends from sphere to sphere as far as a tenth Intelligence, the Agent Intellect, which governs our terrestrial world – which is made of corruptible matter. This brings with it a multiplicity that surpasses human knowledge, but it is dominated by the Agent Intellect. The Agent Intellect produces all the substantial Forms of nature in accordance with the potentialities of matter, and it can apprehend both the Forms with their mutual relationships and the concrete beings with their mutual relationships.
The philosophical origin of this Agent Intellect is in the De Anima of Aristotle which describes the active part of the human soul. According to Aristotle, the active Intellect of man produces all intelligible ideas. But for Ibn Sina, the Agent Intellect is the real producer of intelligible ideas, separate from man’s soul, so the human soul must receive its intelligible ideas passively and cannot understand truth except by what is given from the Agent Intellect. The soul of man is a unique ‘possible intellect’ which participates in and derives its ‘active-ness’ from the common Agent Intellect. The human soul can apprehend and elaborate on truth, but only by virtue of the intelligle ideas given to it by the Agent Intellect. This means that comprehension, knowledge and the sciences are now no longer up to man, but rather dependent on the Intellect above the human soul/mind.

Being and intelligence overflow like a river from the necessary Being and descend to the extreme limits of the created. There is an equally full re-ascent, produced by creatures' love and desire for their creators, as far as the supreme Principle, which corresponds to the abundance of this gift. This beautiful concept, which could derive only from a soul inclined towards religion, has been thought of as mystical. The Risala fi 'l-'ishq, 'The Epistle on Love', however, is primarily a metaphysical explanation of the tendency of every being towards its good. The rational soul of man tends towards its good with a conscious motion of apprehension of, and love for, the active Intellect, and, through it, for the necessary Being, which is pure Good. In the highest states, however, it can tend directly towards the latter. Ibn Sina believed in the immortality of the individual soul, saying that corruption cannot touch it, for it is immaterial. The proof of this immateriality lies in its capability of apprehending the intelligibles, which are in no way material. But he is much more hesitant on the question of what the afterlife is once passed from this world.


In his Tahafut al-falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers), al-Ghazali attacked both the Neoplatonists and Aristotle. 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'. According to al-Ghazali, the Peripatetic philosophers (he was thinking in particular of Ibn 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 contradictory, and so need not be accepted; while the principles of Islam are seen to rest on solid ground.

Although al-Ghazali is often regarded as the arch-enemy of philosophy, it is evident on inspection of many of his texts that he himself seems to adhere to many of the principles of previous philosophical thought. He had a high regard for logic (as a tool) and insisted on the application of logic to arguments about religion.

In both his ethical treatise The Balance of Action and his religious summa The Revival of the Religious Science, he developed an ethical theory in which Platonic psychology serves as the groundwork of an essentially Islamic and mystical worldview. In this theory, the table of the four cardinal virtues accords with the Platonic virtues but admits of a series of subdivisions or ramifications analogous to those of his predecessors. A good example of the combination of religious and philosophical ideas in al-Ghazali is the manner in which happiness can be achieved. Happiness, as the chief good, admits of two subdivisions, the worldly and the otherworldly. Otherworldly happiness, which is our ultimate goal, cannot be achieved without certain worldly virtues. These include the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice, the bodily virtues of health, strength, good fortune and a long life, the external virtues of wealth, kin, social position and noble birth, and finally the 'divine virtues' of guidance, good counsel, direction and divine support. Those virtues are referred to in the Qur'an and the hadith, al-Ghazali says, and the final virtue, 'divine support', is identified with the Holy Spirit (Surah 2: 87, 253).

The road to moral and spiritual perfection is described as the 'quest for God'. The seekers after God must satisfy two conditions: their actions must be governed by the prescriptions or ordinances of the 'divine law' (al-shar'), and they must ensure that God is constantly present in their hearts. By this presence al-Ghazali means genuine contrition, adoration and submission, born of the seeker's awareness of the beauty and majesty of God which al-Ghazali, like other Muslim mystics or Sufis, regards as analogous to the human passion of love ('ishq). (Majid Fakhry, Routledge)

Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

Ibn Rushd represents the counter-reaction to al-Ghazali’s attack on philosophy. This is not to say that Ibn Rushd 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, 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 Neoplatonist theses. Despite his intention of defending the philosophical targets of al-Ghazali's wrath, Ibn Rushd does not defend al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. Instead, he shows to what extent they have departed from the authentic Aristotelian philosophical doctrines. Yet like Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd holds that philosophy and Islam can be in harmony, though superior intellects ought not to philosophise in public, and ordinary people should be taught by means of the Koran and the traditions without trying to turn them into philosophers. So Ibn Rushd accepts a valued place for religion in society, but at the same time, religion represents the route available to the unsophisticated and simple believer, and when compared to philosophy obtained by reason he sees religion as a poorer version of the truth.

Ibn Rushd disagrees with Ibn Sina on many points, such as Ibn Sina’s distinction between essence and existence (and the corrolary distinction between possible and active intellect). Ibn Rushd argues there is no real distinction between these, no essence apart from existence, and no realm of ‘possible intellect’. He also maintains an Aristotelian view that the soul of a man is no more than the intellect of his body. That is, the soul is the ‘form’ of the body, meaning its intellect. Thus, a soul only exists in relation to a body, so when the body dies so too does its soul. There is no spiritual realm, apart from material existence, where a soul ‘exists’ only as the capacity of intelligence in matter. Also, unlike Ibn Sina who maintained that each man has a unique ‘possible intellect’ which participates in and derives its activity from the common Agent Intellect; Ibn Rushd denied such distinctions between individual intellects – instead, arguing that some people develop an ability to grasp the Universal Intellect, while others do not. So, there is no logical necessity for there being unique souls or possible intellects. Thus, despite his defence of philosophy and philosophers, Ibn Rushd is more than happy to declare open war on Neoplatonism.

In political philosophy, Ibn Rushd upheld that the law revealed by the Prophet is a divine law, given to insure the well being of the entire community. The philosopher is obliged to 'use' his wisdom for the benefit of all, as only the philosopher has an insight into the truth in a 'straight' way, and only he can interpret the law in an appropriate manner. This provides an important defence of philosophy in a society governed by lawyers and judges like Ibn Rushd. 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. (Daniel Franks)


A special mention needs to be made regarding the ideas of alchemy in Islamic philosophy. These ideas came from Greek and Egyptian writings, just as did neoplatonic ideas. Alchemy and Neoplatonism have a related history, and in some sense, the two ideas have a relation, but it seems to engender its own type of followers. In addition, alchemy is a precursor to empirical science and to theories about causal essences in things. Granted that most alchemical theories have a whole lot of assumption as their premise; it is also true that practical-alchemy promoted experimentation and observation in order to reach success.

The word 'alchemy', as the article’ al-‘ indicates, is Arabic (al-klmya'). The origin of the word kimya', pre-Arabic, is arguable. The word 'chemy' could have come from the Greek khymeia, 'fusion', i.e. the art of melting gold and silver. A Byzantine text states that Diocletian ordered the destruction of Egyptian books relating to khymeia, to the 'fusion' of gold and silver.

Muslim alchemy was derived from the Greek. The frequency with which Greek authors are quoted, the numerous theories that are common to both Greek and Arabic alchemy, and the large number of Arab technical terms clearly taken over from Hellenic treatises (e.g. hayuli, atisyus, athalia, iksir, qambar) prove beyond doubt the affiliation of Muslim and Greek alchemy. The transmission was made partly through direct contact in Egypt, partly through the medium of Syrian Christian translators, and partly by way of Persia. Most of the principal Muslim alchemists were Persians.

This Greek-Egyptian alchemy survived in Alexandria for several centuries. From here it will go to Constantinople, where several recensions of the 'collection of Greek alchemists' were compiled, and to the Arabs when they conquered Egypt in the seventh century. The Arabs appeared in alchemical history in the seventh century. Alchemy had by then gone through a long path. The first contacts took place in Egypt, in Alexandria, where the traditions went back several centuries before Christianity.

Arab alchemists considered the Babylonian Hermes as the first one to have mentioned the art of alchemy. He wrote a number of books on alchemy and was equally interested in the study of the hidden forces of nature. The Fihrist gives a list of thirteen books of Hermes about alchemy, though some of them are about magic.

Pythagoras is often mentioned in Arabic philosophy and in gnomic literature. Jaldaki calls him al-mu'allim al-awwal because he acquired the science from hermetic texts. Jabir refers to him as an alchemic author and speaks of Ta'ifat Fthaghurus, the school of Pythagoras, and of his book Kitab almu'sahhahat (Book of Adjustments). Other quotations refer to Pythagoras's theory of numbers.

Jabir ibn Haiyan (721-815) is the most famous leader and revivalist of alchemical studies. Jabir accepts the Aristotelian theory about the composition of matter: earth, water, air, fire – and then also adds a theory of four elementary qualities, or natures: heat, cold, dryness, humidity. When they get together in a substance they form compounds. The union of two of these qualities gives:

hot + dry + substance -------------- fire
hot + wet + substance -------------- air
cold + wet + substance ------------- water
cold + dry + substance ------------- earth

Regarding the context of translations

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”[8] -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.