Islamic Philosophy Theology and Mysticism – A Short Introduction by Majid Fakhry
ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY THEOLOGY AND MYSTICISM
In a serious narrative or analysis, it is necessary to trace this development and interaction from beginning to end, rather than stop, as some historians of Islamic philosophy and theology have done, at the fourteenth or fifteenth century.
Throughout the discussion, I have tried to exhibit the relation of philosophy, by which theologians and mystics were influenced or against which they reacted, to its Greek and Hellenistic origins, as well as its eventual transmission across the Pyrenees to Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
That, I believe, is essential for demonstrating its continuity, its affiliation to the great intellectual movements in world history, and its significance as an ingredient in world culture.
The reader who wishes for a more detailed discussion of the basic concepts and movements referred to in this book should consult my History of Islamic Philosophy, second edition, 1983, and my Philosophy, Dogma and the Impact of Greek Thought in Islam, 1994.
I have attempted in the present volume to highlight the major philosophical, theological, and mystical concepts and the problems with their interrelations in a succinct but adequate way, without bothering the reader with lengthy analyses and references.
The Select Bibliography at the end of the book will give the reader a fair idea of the vast literature on the subject in Arabic and Western languages.
Finally, in transliterating Arabic proper names or technical terms, I have, with minor variations, followed the system of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. The translations of Qur’anic passages and other Arabic sources in this book are all mine, with very few exceptions. Majid Fakhry
When Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, philosophy began its eastward migration, which was virtually completed in 529 CE.
In that year, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered the School of Athens to be closed owing to its pagan sympathies which, as a defender of the Orthodox faith, Justinian regarded as a threat to Christianity.
Seven of its most illustrious teachers, led by Damascius (d. 553) and Simplicius (d. 533), made their way across the borders into Persia, where they were well received by Chosroes I (Anu shirwan), a great admirer of Greek philosophy and science.
Around the year 555, he founded the School of Jundisha pur, an important center of Hellenic studies and medical research.
It was at Alexandria, however, rather than Jundisha pur, that Greek philosophy was to undergo its most radical transformation.
From a purely indigenous product of the Greek genius, it now became thoroughly cosmopolitan, with profound religious and mystical leanings almost unknown to the classical Greeks.
Thus, the names we associate with Alexandrian or Hellenistic philosophy are those of Plotinus (d. 270), Porphyry of Tyre (d. 303), and Jamblichus (d. 330), who formulated a new brand of philosophy, designated as Neoplatonism, in which all the major currents of classical Greek philosophy, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and Stoicism were brought together in an imposing synthesis.
When Egypt was conquered by the Arabs in 641, Alexandria was still flourishing as a center of Greek philosophy, medicine, and science, as well as a Hellenized form of Christian theology which had a decisive impact on Muslim philosophy and theology, as will appear in due course.
As an instance of this historic development, we note that the cultural scene began to shift eastwards, first to Damascus in the Umayyad period (661– 750) and subsequently to Baghdad, during the ‘Abba sid period (750– 1258).
As the first scene of Muslim–Christian encounter, Damascus witnessed during the seventh and eighth centuries the stirrings of a new spirit of inquiry, born of political strife as well as theological controversy. In fact, the first stirrings of this spirit took a distinctly political, and often tragic, form.
Because of the close correlation in Islam between the spiritual realm of religion and the temporal realm of politics, the earliest theological controversies between the Qataris, or advocates of free will, and the traditionalists, or advocates of divine predestination, revolved around the question of political accountability.
Did the Umayyad Caliphs have the right to carry out the most repressive policies or perpetrate the most heinous crimes with total impunity, since their actions were all decreed by God?
Qatari theologians like Ma‘bad al-Juhani (d. 699) and Ghayla n al-Dimashqi (d. 743) challenged those arbitrary claims and asserted the responsibility of the Caliphs, as well as their lowliest subjects, for their unjust deeds.
As the controversy grew over questions of free will (qadar), divine justice and the meaning to be attached to the Divine Speech in the Qur’an, theologians felt a growing need to turn to philosophy in general, and logic in particular, for the refinement of their concepts or methods of proof. However, a certain antipathy to Greek philosophy, because of its pagan or foreign extraction, began to surface in theological quarters. Much later, even the most skilled theologians, who had come thoroughly under the influence of Greek philosophy, such as al-Ghazali (d. 1111), reacted violently against it on religious grounds.
Nevertheless, philosophy could boast, almost from the start, the enthusiastic support of a galaxy of distinguished scholars or authors, who assimilated and continued the legacy of their Alexandrian predecessors, with Plotinus at their head.
They were fascinated by that philosopher’s obsession with the concept of the unity and transcendence of the Supreme Being who generates, by an effortless process of emanation, the descending order of beings, starting with the Intellect, or Nous, and ending with the material world. The Soul, or Psyche, which emanates from the Intellect, dominates and animates the material world.
After passing through a series of incarnations, it is fated to return to its original abode in the intelligible world once it has been cleansed of its earthly impurities and discovered its true identity as a citizen of that intelligible world.
What fascinated the Muslim philosophers, once they were exposed to this Neoplatonic worldview, was its profound religious and mystical pathos, especially its concept of the utter transcendence of the Supreme Being and the noble destiny it reserved for the soul in the higher world.
No wonder, therefore, that the first phase in the development of Muslim philosophy was predominantly Neoplatonic.
However, both in philosophical and theological circles, this brand of Greek philosophy was challenged before long and a variety of other more complex systems were proposed as substitutes.
Thus al-Kindi (d. c.866), who still stands on the borderline between philosophy and theology, was as anxious to defend the Qur’anic worldview as he was the Greek; al-Razi (d. c.925) is far closer in outlook to Plato than to Plotinus; and others, like Ibn Rushd (d.1198), regarded Aristotle as the paragon of wisdom or the First Teacher.
Despite their community of purpose in the pursuit or elucidation of religious truth, the philosophers and theologians (mutakallimun) soon found themselves at loggerheads; the Aristotelian worldview, with its twin principles of causality and the uniformity of nature which ‘does nothing in vain, as Aristotle had put it, appeared to the theologians to be inimical to the Quranic worldview.
According to this, God can effect His designs in the world imperiously and miraculously without any impediments or restraints upon His unlimited power.
Nor is He answerable for any of His actions, as the philosophers had argued in the name of divine wisdom or justice. It was for these reasons that from the tenth century the theologians