Islamic philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-H057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

4. Islamic philosophy and the Islamic sciences

Islamic philosophy has always had a rather difficult relationship with the Islamic sciences, those techniques for answering theoretical questions which are closely linked with the religion of Islam, comprising law, theology, language and the study of the religious texts themselves. Many theologians such as Ibn Hazm, al-Juwayni and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi presented accounts of Islamic theology which argued for a particular theory of how to interpret religious texts (see Islamic theology). They tended to advocate a restricted approach to interpretation, rejecting the use of analogy and also the idea that philosophy is an objective system of enquiry which can be applied to anything at all. Most theologians were Ash‘arites (see Ash‘ariyya and Mu‘tazila), which meant that they were opposed to the idea that ethical and religious ideas could be objectively true. What makes such ideas true, the Ash‘arites argued, is that God says that they are true, and there are no other grounds for accepting them than this. This had a particularly strong influence on ethics (see Ethics in Islamic philosophy), where there was much debate between objectivists and subjectivists, with the latter arguing that an action is just if and only if God says that it is just. Many thinkers wrote about how to reconcile the social virtues, which involve being part of a community and following the rules of religion, with the intellectual virtues, which tend to involve a more solitary lifestyle. Ibn Miskawayh and Al-Tusi developed complex accounts of the apparent conflict between these different sets of virtues.

Political philosophy in Islam looked to Greek thinkers for ways of understanding the nature of the state, yet also generally linked Platonic ideas of the state to Qur’anic notions, which is not difficult given the basically hierarchical nature of both types of account (see Political philosophy in classical Islam). Even thinkers attracted to Illuminationist philosophy such as al-Dawani wrote on political philosophy, arguing that the structure of the state should represent the material and spiritual aspects of the citizens. Through a strict differentiation of role in the state, and through leadership by those skilled in religious and philosophical knowledge, everyone would find an acceptable place in society and scope for spiritual perfection to an appropriate degree.

Particular problems arose in the discussions concerning the nature of the soul (see Soul in Islamic philosophy). According to the version of Aristotle which was generally used by the Islamic philosophers, the soul is an integral part of the person as its form, and once the individual dies the soul disappears also. This appears to contravene the notion of an afterlife which is so important a part of Islam. Even Platonic views of the soul seem to insist on its spirituality, as compared with the very physical accounts of the Islamic afterlife. Many of the philosophers tried to get around this by arguing that the religious language discussing the soul is only allegorical, and is intended to impress upon the community at large that there is a wider context within which their lives take place, which extends further than those lives themselves. They could argue in this way because of theories which presented a sophisticated view of different types of meaning that a statement may have in order to appeal to different audiences and carry out a number of different functions (see Meaning in Islamic philosophy). Only the philosopher really has the ability to understand this range of meanings, and those who work in the Islamic sciences do not know how to deal with these issues which come outside of their area of expertise. While those skilled in dealing with the law will know how to adjudicate between different legal judgements, we need an understanding of the philosophy of law in Islam if we are to have access to what might be called the deep structure of law itself (see Law, Islamic philosophy of). Similarly, although the Qur’an encourages its followers to discover facts about the world, it is through the philosophy of science that we can understand the theoretical principles which lie behind that physical reality (see Science in Islamic philosophy).

Many of the problems of religion versus philosophy arose in the area of aesthetics (see Aesthetics in Islamic philosophy). The rules of poetry which traditionally existed in the Arabic tradition came up against the application of Aristotle’s Poetics to that poetry. One of the interesting aspects of Islamic aesthetics is that it treated poetry as a logical form, albeit of a very low demonstrative value, along the continuum of logical forms which lie behind all our language and practices. This is explained in studies of both epistemology and logic (see Epistemology in Islamic philosophy; Logic in Islamic philosophy). Logic came to play an enormous role in Islamic philosophy, and the idea that logic represents a basic set of techniques which lies behind what we think and what we do was felt to be very exciting and provocative. Many theologians who attacked philosophy were staunch defenders of logic as a tool for disputation, and Ibn Taymiyya is unusual in the strong critique which he provided of Aristotelian logic. He argued that the logic entails Aristotelian metaphysics, and so should be abandoned by anyone who wishes to avoid philosophical infection.

However, the general respect for logic provides the framework for the notion that there is a range of logical approaches which are available to different people, each of which is appropriate to different levels of society. For the theologian and the lawyer, for instance, dialectic is appropriate, since this works logically from generally accepted propositions to conclusions which are established as valid, but only within the limits set by those premises. This means that within the context of theology, for example, if we accept the truth of the Qur’an, then certain conclusions follow if we use the principles of theology; but if we do not accept the truth of the Qur’an, then the acceptability of those conclusions is dubious. Philosophers are distinguished from everyone else in that they are the only people who use entirely certain and universal premises, and so their conclusions have total universality as well as validity. When it comes to knowledge we find a similar contrast. Ordinary people can know something of what is around them and also of the spiritual nature of reality, but they are limited to the images and allegories of religion and the scope of their senses. Philosophers, by contrast, can attain much higher levels of knowledge through their application of logic and through their ability to perfect their understanding and establish contact with the principles which underlie the whole of reality.

Citing this article:
Leaman, Oliver. Islamic philosophy and the Islamic sciences. Islamic philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-H057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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