THE BIOGRAPHICAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY – Book Sample
Introduction – THE BIOGRAPHICAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY
It is the aim of this volume to include entries on Islamic philosophers and to constitute a comprehensive list of all those who could be given that description. Philosophy flourished in the Islamic world for many centuries, and continues to be a significant feature of cultural life today.
The compilation of biographical dictionaries has long been a tradition within Islamic culture, and it would be helpful to have a modern version of such dictionaries. We are only including thinkers who are no longer alive.
The issue of the definition of Islamic philosophy has been controversial, and it probably should be classified as an essentially contested concept. There is nothing specifically Islamic about this issue, it occurs in all systems of philosophy which are classified under the label of a particular religion. Religion is a matter of faith and often seems to be opposed to philosophy, which is a system of ideas built on a foundation of reason.
Yet much of the work which goes on under the label of Islamic philosophy has nothing to do with religion at all, or at least makes no direct link with religion. One thinks in particular of logic here, and the other more technical aspects of philosophy.
Then there is the fact that philosophy itself as a technical term had a range of meanings within the Islamic world. It is sometimes translated as falsafa, itself a neologism stemming from the Greek, where this term referred largely to philosophy within the Peripatetic tradition. Sometimes philosophy is translated as hikma, or more generally wisdom, and that is the sense in which we are going to take it here, since this will include all kinds of theoretical enquiry which were in their time regarded as philosophy or philosophical.
It was not only those who were formally philosophers who discussed philosophy, and scientists, theologians, jurisprudents, and physicians all made important contributions to the topic.
Of course the idea of philosophy as a technical profession is quite modern and Socrates would himself have been horrified at the prospect of philosophers being paid for their ser- vices. He argued that the philosopher should be able to earn his living doing something else, thus leaving him free to say what he likes when doing philosophy.
Most of the Islamic philosophers earned their livings doing a variety of occupations, and philosophy itself was often a sideline or minor interest in a far more extensive career as something else. nonetheless, the resulting work is often of major significance, and it will be represented here.
So we are taking a wide notion of philosophy here, and we are regarding it as any intellectual enquiry which directly or indirectly raises issues of primary philosophical significance. So we shall include some of the major thinkers within the Islamic sciences, those who wrote on grammar, theology, law, and the Traditions of the Prophet, since these areas of work clearly came to form part of the context of the philosophical curriculum of the time.
This is not to say that they were all philosophers or regarded themselves as philosophers, but their ideas and arguments became part and parcel of what philosophers worked on. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to include in this volume every Muslim who was interested in any theoretical issue whatsoever. Many of these thinkers and their ideas do not figure in the arguments of the philosophers, however philosophy is understood, and it is important to make a distinction between philosophy as an intellectual enquiry from other types of theoretical activity.
Critics of philosophy will be included, provided that they argue philosophically in their critique.
Most entries are short, giving details as far as they are known of the life of the thinker, the main works, their main ideas, those influential on them, and those they influenced. At the end of each entry we will have some references to the main works, and secondary material as appropriate.
Readers should be aware that many Islamic philosophers wrote a very large number of books and no attempt will be made here to refer to them all, but appropriate bibliographical information will be given. There will often be information in the bibliographies of such general works as:
- Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literatur, Leiden: Brill, 1898–1902,
- Supplementband 1937–42; revised edn 1943–9.
- Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1998.
- Encyclopedia of Philosophy, new York: Macmillan, 2006.
- Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden: Brill, 1913–16; 2nd edn, 1960–.
- Encyclopedia Iranica.
- Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, Leiden: Brill, 1967–98.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia, ed. O. Leaman, London: Routledge, 2006.
- TDV Islam Ansiklopedisi, Istanbul.
All these works will have a good deal of relevant material in them and may be usefully consulted by the reader.
What date represents the start of interest in philosophy in the Islamic world? It is really not possible to answer this question, since theoretical questions were raised right from the beginning of Islam, questions which often look specifically religious since they can be answered by reference to Islamic texts such as the Qur’an, the practices of the Islamic community, and the traditional sayings of the Prophet and his Companions. On this initial basis emerged the Islamic sciences, and these consisted largely of religious law, the study of the language in which God transmitted the Qur’an (Arabic), and schools of theology which represented differing understandings of Islam.
Added to this were the ahadith (hadith in singular), the traditional sayings of the Prophet and his family, and there was a specific science of hadith which determined how reliable the line of transmission was.
Other disciplines came to be added later, although they had a looser relationship with education than the more religious disciplines, and these came to include history and general information on culture, a broad label represented by the Arabic term adab or belles-lettres. It is difficult to distinguish between theological and philosophical topics, since often a philo- sophical issue would be dealt with using theological language, and vice versa.
For example, there was a general issue about God’s knowledge. That form of knowledge is perfect and complete, but does it include knowledge of the everyday events of the world of generation and corruption?
The Qur’an suggests it does since it refers to God’s knowledge encompass- ing every leaf that falls. If God does not know what we as individuals do, how can he judge us on the day of Judgment? Yet Aristotelian philosophers had difficulties with the notion of God knowing particulars, since he is without sensory equipment, and that seems to be a necessary aspect of such knowledge. Even from a theological point of view there are problems with God’s knowledge being like ours, but more so, and so right from the start of Islam these theoretical questions were much debated and progressively refined.
This refinement had a lot to do with growing contact with centers of civilization that were in one way or another permeated by Greek culture. This led to a fierce reaction by many Muslims, rejecting that foreign and unbelieving culture for the familiar Islamic sciences.
Yet the very real material advances of Greek culture, in particular in medicine and science, must have made a lasting impact on many intellectuals, and there was evidently much enthusiasm for what could be learned from the developed cultures that were rapidly incorporated in the Islamic empire. The caliph al-Ma’mun who reigned from 813 to 833 was a determined sup- porter of Greek thought, and founded an institution in Baghdad whose main purpose was translating Greek texts into Arabic.
Often these translations came about through translation of a Greek text into Syriac, and then into Arabic. Some important texts came to be translated several times, and the skill of translators progressively improved with their experience. Early translations included works of Aristotle, commentaries on him, summaries of many of Plato’s dialogues, and later Greek elaborations of their work, and many works in the standard neoplatonic curriculum which at that time dominated the pursuit of philosophy.
There was a degree of confusion about who precisely wrote what, and a tendency to link Plato and Aristotle in ways that today would be thought surprising, but this was a reflection of neoplatonism.
There are three main schools of thought in Islamic philosophy. Peripateticism or mashsha’i philosophy is very much based on Greek thought, and in particular neoplatonism. This started around the time of al-Kindi and is said to have come to an end with Ibn Rushd who represented the height of Peripatetic thought in al-Andalus, the Islamic empire in the Iberian Peninsula.
Ibn Rushd (1126–98) (Averroes) was unusual for two reasons. One was his rejection of mysticism, which by contrast was something that was adopted enthusiastically by most of the other Peripatetic thinkers. The other line he followed that was untypical is his disavowal of neoplatonism and his attempt at establishing a more genuine form of Aristotelianism. But he had few followers in the West of the Islamic world. The attack on his style of philosophy had suffered a reverse at the hands of al-Ghazali, and his attacks had swung intellectual debate away from philosophy in the style of the Peripatetics toward a more theologically centered form of work.
Or so it is often argued. It is difficult to know whether al-Ghazali’s work was really so influential, because it certainly did not have that much effect on Peripateticism in the Persian world, where it continued to play an important part in the philosophical curriculum, especially in combination with mystical philosophy.
Mysticism in Islamic philosophy is an almost constant topic of interest. Some went to the lengths of arguing that philosophy that was analytical could not be of value since reality is one, and dividing it up to examine it is to misunderstand it profoundly. Of course, this itself is an analytical argument. The mystical thinker Ibn al-‘Arabi (1165–1240) pursued this line and represented himself as burying the old Peripatetic form of thought when he carried the bones of Ibn Rushd back to al-Andalus on the back of a donkey.
But many philosophers combined mysticism with Peripatetic philosophy, arguing that these are just two different philosophical methodologies, with mysticism going deeper into the nature of reality.
Illuminationist (ishraqi) thought comes from the term ishraq, which is linked with the idea of the East, and really is hostile to the Peripatetic system of knowledge. The Ishraqis argued against the principle that reasoning starts with definition in terms of genus and differentia, a process of explaining something by breaking it down into its smaller parts that is the basis of Peripatetic thought.
Illuminationist thinkers such as al-Suhrawardi (1154–91) argue that this is to explain the unknown in terms of something even less known. They also seek to demote deductive knowledge, the sort of knowledge we get from using the principles of syl- logistic reasoning, with knowledge by presence, which is knowledge so immediate that it cannot be doubted. Light itself comes into the picture since the idea is that such knowledge is lit up in a way which makes it impossible to doubt or ignore, and this is because light flows through the universe and brings to existence and awareness a range of levels of being.
The differences between things can be described in degrees of luminosity or light, not in terms of their essences. God is often linked with the Light of Lights, the light that is the source of all other light and that does not itself receive light, rather like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, that other things move around but does not itself move.
This form of philosophy was particularly popular in the Persian world, where it was combined in varying degrees with aspects of mysticism and even Peripateticism. Mulla Sadra (1572–1640), whose thought has dominated the Persian philosophical curriculum since his time, used all three forms of philosophy in his writings, as became very much the style of much Persian philosophy.
Islamic philosophy and Islam have always had a close relationship, even thinkers who oppose the use of philosophy tend to use it to oppose it, like al- Ghazali arguing that it is full of contradictions even if its own principles are followed. Even when no explicit philosophy is used at all, it still does enter when the question of how to interpret texts arises, as it does all the time in Islam.
How far should independent reason be used, or how far should one stay close to the precise reasoning of the individual Islamic sciences such as theology, law, hadith, gram- mar, and so on? Even trying to stay close to the precise rules does use logic, and logic could be regarded as part of philosophy. This itself was a controversial topic, with some arguing that logic was only a tool employed by philosophy, and in fact is independent of metaphysical assumptions altogether.
Other thinkers hostile to philosophy argue that logic is inevitably contaminated with it and so should not be used. There was also a controversy about whether logic is independent of language, obviously a not unrelated issue. Right at the start of Islamic philosophy there was a celebrated debate between al-Sirafi and Ibn Bishr Matta on whether knowing grammar of a particular language is more useful than knowing logic that takes itself to underpin all language itself.
By the nineteenth century Peripatetic philosophy had become part of the Arabic Nahda or Renaissance, often seen as a symbol of modernity and the growing identification with the non-Islamic world.
After all, the philosophical thought of Islam was introduced and enthusiastically taken up by Europe in the medieval period, and is often argued to have played an important part in the European explosion of science and intellec- tual thought in general. The works of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina were in the curriculum of the Christian and Jewish worlds for many centuries; there were many translations that played a significant role in the development of philosophy in Europe as a whole.
What were the leading issues of Islamic philosophy? The whole range of general philosophical topics was explored, but some topics were of more interest than others. There was a protracted debate about the objectivity or subjectivity of ethical rules, over the issue of whether an action is just if and only if God says that it is just, or whether it is just in itself, both issues that arise in similar forms in Islamic theology.
How to reconcile the social virtues that arise through living in a community and the intellectual virtues that tend to involve a more solitary lifestyle was a deeply felt issue, since so many philosophers had difficulties in being accepted by their local communities, especially the political authorities. Why should the philosophical thinker who can grasp the truth through the use of reason involve himself in the social and religious activities of the community?
They often argued that philosophy represents the truth in an unvarnished form, whereas religion was a shaping of that truth in a way that makes it palatable and comprehensible to the community in general. during a period when religious and social identity were so closely connected, this gave rise to questions about the real religious beliefs of the philosophers, and their sincerity was often questioned. Although the philosophers were keen for prudential reasons to link up with the practices of the community, this is clearly a different form of attachment than was normal, and gave rise to some suspicion.
Political philosophy looked to Greek thinkers for ways of discussing the nature of the state, and often combined Aristotelian and Platonic political ideas with Qur’anic notions. This was not difficult to do since it enabled them to argue that the state ought to be concerned with both the material and the spiritual welfare of its inhabitants.
The philosopher would be the best ruler because he can understand what is in the general interest, and he can ensure that religion is used to teach the community in general how to behave so that its welfare is enhanced.
This sort of elitism was common across the range of philosophies, even Sufi and Illuminationist thinkers were largely of the opinion that only a limited group of people could understand precisely how the state operated, and that traditional religion was an important source of information for the people as a whole.
The nature of the soul, the thinking part of human beings, was a particularly important issue. Many Peripatetic thinkers followed Aristotle in regarding the soul as the form of a person, which implies that once the body or matter dies, the soul or form of the matter no longer exists.
Yet Islam has a strong notion of an afterlife, indeed a physical afterlife, and the soul and body would in some sense be regarded as eternal. Some philosophers suggested that the Qur’anic view is largely allegorical, so that our actions in this life have consequences, which extend farther than this life, and a good way of talking about this is through talking about us as having eternal souls. Other thinkers tended to use a Platonic account of the soul as something eternal and immaterial, and this also seems to contradict the Qur’anic account of the afterlife as a decidedly physical sort of place.
Of course it could be that the religious account is in terms of the physical because for most people that is what is important in their lives. It is a way of explaining to them why it is important for us to behave well, whereas a more spiritual grasp of the links between this world and the next one is achievable only by a few intellectuals or spiritually advanced adepts, and should not be made into a standard religious doctrine for everyone.
We have already seen that the role of logic, if any, in the Islamic sciences was a controversial one. Some enthusiasts for logic saw it as having a role everywhere. Even poetry was taken to have some sort of a logical structure, since poetry is writing that is expected to have a conclusion, perhaps the eliciting of an emotion, and it sets out to achieve this conclusion by a careful shaping of language.
In fact, each type of writing has a logical structure that describes how it is supposed to operate, and what the appropriate rules are. The logic of theology is dialectical, for example, and takes a particular proposition as true, because it occurs in a text in which it is reasonable to believe, and works out what the logical implications of that text are. But since the text could be wrong, the standard of conclusion that one derives is always
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