Islamic philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-H057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 01, 2022, from

1. The early years of Islamic philosophy

Islamic philosophy is intimately connected with Greek philosophy, although this is a relationship which can be exaggerated. Theoretical questions were raised right from the beginning of Islam, questions which could to a certain extent be answered by reference to Islamic texts such as the Qur’an, the practices of the community and the traditional sayings of the Prophet and his Companions. On this initial basis a whole range of what came to be known as the Islamic sciences came to be produced, and these consisted largely of religious law, the Arabic language and forms of theology which represented differing understandings of Islam.

The early conquests of the Muslims brought them into close contact with centres of civilization heavily influenced by Christianity and Judaism, and also by Greek culture. Many rulers wished to understand and use the Greek forms of knowledge, some practical and some theoretical, and a large translation project started which saw official support for the assimilation of Greek culture (see Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy). This had a powerful impact upon all areas of Islamic philosophy. Neoplatonism definitely became the prevalent school of thought (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy), following closely the curriculum of Greek (Peripatetic) philosophy which was initially transmitted to the Islamic world. This stressed agreement between Plato and Aristotle on a range of issues, and incorporated the work of some Neoplatonic authors. A leading group of Neoplatonic thinkers were the Ikhwan al-Safa’ (Brethren of Purity), who presented an eclectic philosophy designed to facilitate spiritual liberation through philosophical perfection (see Ikhwan al-Safa’). However, there was also a development of Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy, especially by those thinkers who were impressed by the logical and metaphysical thought of Aristotle, and Platonism was inspired by the personality of Socrates and the apparently more spiritual nature of Plato as compared with Aristotle (see Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Platonism in Islamic philosophy). There were even thinkers who seem to have been influenced by Greek scepticism, which they turned largely against religion, and Ibn ar-Rawandi and Muhammad ibn Zakariyya’ al-Razi presented a thoroughgoing critique of many of the leading supernatural ideas of Islam.

Al-Kindi is often called the first philosopher of the Arabs, and he followed a broadly Neoplatonic approach. One of the earliest of the philosophers in Baghdad was in fact a Christian, Yahya Ibn ‘Adi, and his pupil al-Farabi created much of the agenda for the next four centuries of work. Al-Farabi argued that the works of Aristotle raise important issues for the understanding of the nature of the universe, in particular its origination. Aristotle suggested that the world is eternal, which seems to be in contradiction with the implication in the Qur’an that God created the world out of nothing. Al-Farabi used as his principle of creation the process of emanation, the idea that reality continually flows out of the source of perfection, so that the world was not created at a particular time. He also did an enormous amount of work on Greek logic, arguing that behind natural language lies logic, so that an understanding of the latter is a deeper and more significant achievement than a grasp of the former. This also seemed to threaten the significance of language, in particular the language – Arabic – in which God transmitted the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. A large school of thinkers was strongly influenced by al-Farabi, including al-‘Amiri, al-Sijistani and al-Tawhidi, and this surely played an important part in making his ideas and methodology so crucial for the following centuries of Islamic philosophy.

Ibn Sina went on to develop this form of thought in a much more creative way, and he presented a view of the universe as consisting of entirely necessitated events, with the exception of God (see Causality and necessity in Islamic thought). This led to a powerful reaction from al-Ghazali, who in his critique of Peripatetic philosophy argued that it was both incompatible with religion, and also invalid on its own principles. He managed to point to some of the major difficulties with the developments of Neoplatonism which had taken place in Islamic philosophy, and he argued that while philosophy should be rejected, logic as a conceptual tool should be retained. This view became very influential in much of the Islamic world, and philosophy came under a cloud until the nineteenth century.

Citing this article:
Leaman, Oliver. The early years of Islamic philosophy. Islamic philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-H057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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