The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy
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 The Oxford Handbook Of Islamic Philosophy
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The Rise of Falsafa Al-Kindī (d. 873), On First Philosophy

Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb b. Isḥāq al-Kindī (ca. 185/801–ca. 252/870), “the philosopher of the Arabs” as the biographical tradition likes to call him, was raised in Kufa, where his father was governor, to a family whose noble Arab lineage has been emphasized by all bibliogra- phers. Very little is known about his life otherwise. According to the bio-bibliographical tradition, he held an important position at the caliph’s court under al-Maʾmūn (198/813– 218/833) and al-Muʿtaṣim (218/833–227/842), the latter appointing him as a preceptor for his son Aḥmad. However, he fell into disgrace under al-Mutawakkil (232/847–247/861), victim either of the intrigues of the Banū Mūsā, his rivals in court, or of his Muʿtazilī inclinations.

In a few words Dimitri Gutas encapsulated Kindī best as “a polymath and a univer- sal scholar imbued with the spirit of encyclopedism which was characteristic of early 9th c. Bagdad and which was fostered by the translation movement” (Gutas 2004, 201). Indeed, al-Nadīm’s Fihrist lists more than 250 titles under his name. They show an astonishing range of interests, reflecting all the sciences of his time. Around 50 of these (maybe more) seem to have been devoted to philosophy. On First Philosophy is the most important and the most famous of them.


Our treatise bears the title Kitāb al-Kindī ilā l-Muʿtaim bi-llāh Fī l-falsafa al-ūlā (Book of al-Kindī to al-Muʿtaim bi-llāh On First Philosophy) in the only manuscript in which it has reached us (MS Istanbul, Aya Sofia 4832, ff. 196r–206r). Kindī himself refers to it by the same title, that is, Fī l-falsafa al-ūlā, in his treatise On the Explanation of the Prostration of the Outermost Body and Its Obedience to God the Almighty and Exalted (Fī l-ibāna ʿan sujūd al-jirm al-aqā wa-āʿatihi li-llāh ʿazza wa-jall)

(Prostration hereafter) (Œuvres, 187.3; Rasāʾil 1:251.3), as well as in On the Explanation of the Proximate Efficient Cause of Generation and Corruption (Fī l-ibāna ʿan al-ʿilla al-fāʿila al-qarība li-l-kawn wa-l-fasād) (Proximate hereafter) (Rasāʾil 1:215.8), and in the prologue of his treatise On the Great Art (Fī l-ināʿa al-ʿu), namely his para- phrase of the first eight chapters of the first book of Ptolemy’s Almagest, where it is referred to as Kitāb fī l-falsafa al-ūlā al-dākhila (Rosenthal 1956, 442; Kindī, ināʿa, 127).

However, the same treatise is listed by Nadīm (Fihrist, 1, 255) followed by Qifṭī (Taʾrīkh, 368 and Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa, ʿUyūn, 1, 206) as the Book of First Philosophy, on What Is Above (beyond) Physics, and of Oneness (Kitāb al-Falsafa l-ūlā fīmā dūn al- abīʿiyyāt wa-l-tawīd).

Al-Falsafa al-ūlā or first philosophy is Aristotle’s third designation of theoretical philosophy (Metaph. VI.1, 1026a29 ff. and XI.4, 1061b19 and 28 as well as 7, 1064a33–b3), and indeed Kindī treats first philosophy as a theology, though definitely not the theology of Metaphysics XII. As has been already noted, Aristotle’s “theology” makes sense in the context of an eternal universe that is set in motion by a primary object of desire (see Œuvres, 4); whereas, as we will shortly see, Kindī shows in the second chapter that the universe is not eternal.

It is created and has a creator. For Kindī then, first philosophy is the science of the first Cause, which is the “cause of time,” as well as the science of the first Truth, which is the cause of every truth. Expressed in the prologue, this statement is echoed again in the conclusion of the treatise, which ends with the apparition of a first true One and first Creator, cause of the creation. The true One is thus the One God Almighty of the revealed religion, and the henology of chapter 4 ends with a description of the creative action of the One in which the philosophical theology of Neoplatonic inspiration is interwoven with Muslim religious and theological concepts in an intricate fabric that places Kindī at the crossroads of several traditions all at once (Jolivet 1984, 322–23; Ivry 1974, 14 ff.).

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Scope and Structure

The Book on First Philosophy (FPh hereafter) is one of the longest of Kindī’s treatises that have reached us, and yet it is incomplete. The fourth and last chapter ends with the mention of a sequel: “Let us complete this chapter (fann) and follow it up with what naturally comes after” (Rasāʾil 1:162.15; Œuvres, 99), and the colophon of the text makes this understanding clear when it says: “End of the first part (al-juzʾ al-awwal) of the book.” Cross-references in Kindī’s writings, as well as external evidence, corroborate the assumption of a larger work.

Aiming primarily to prove the oneness of God, the first and only surviving part of the treatise consists of four chapters that form a consistent unit (for a handy and yet detailed outline see Œuvres, 1–5). From the first page, which introduces the first Truth, cause of all truths, to the last page closing this first part with the apparition of a true One cause of the unity and the existence of all things, the treatise unfolds by following a very tight argument in which each step paves the way for the rest of the discussion.

 Despite some redundancy and an often obscure style, the treatise is organized in order to make room for a “henology” that unfurls progressively in chapters 3 and 4, leading to the the- sis toward which the whole treatise seems to aim: the true One, who is the principle of unity and hence the principle of existence of all beings, on the one hand, and the abso- lutely transcendent God that can be approached only through a negative theology, on the other, are one and the same principle.

Sources, Program, and Method

Even though he is credited with having inaugurated the philosophical tradition in Islam, Kindī is part of a tradition to which he stakes a claim, as can be clearly demonstrated from the prologue of FPh (Œuvres, 13.15–22; Rasāʾil 1:103.4–11):

We should not be ashamed of appreciating the truth and acquiring the truth wher- ever it comes from, even if it comes from remote races and different nations. For him who seeks the truth, nothing is worthier than the truth, and the truth is neither belittled nor demeaned by him who reports it or by him who brings it. Nobody is demeaned by the truth, but everybody is ennobled by the truth.

We would do well—since we are striving to perfect our species and in this the truth resides—in this book to stick to our habits in all the subjects [we have dealt with]: to present what the ancients have dealt with completely, in the most straightforward and easiest way for those who will follow this path, and to complete what they did not deal with completely, following, in so doing, the custom of the language and the usages of the time, to the best of our ability.1

Indeed, Kindī’s name is associated with the translation movement of scientific and philosophical works from Greek into Arabic (Hasnawi 1992, 655), though it is generally admitted that he did not know Greek. He was rather a “patron” around whom gravitated a group of translators, recognizable by a distinctive terminology and phraseology as well as by an often loose method of translation. Arabic versions of several of Aristotle’s works have been produced in the so-called “circle” of Kindī as well as important fragments of Proclus and Philoponus often in the garb of Alexander of Aphrodisias (Endress 1973, 1997; Zimmermann 1986, 1994; Hasnawi 1994; for an annotated list of the main works translated in Kindī’s circle see Endress 2007).

The ultimate aim of this activity of selecting, translating, paraphrasing, and rear- ranging has been clearly expressed in the lines quoted above and falls under more than one heading: (1) assimilation of Greek philosophy and science; (2) completing what the

1 All translations of al-Kindī’s texts are mine and based on Œuvres, unless otherwise specified. References to Rasāʾil, which I sometimes follow, are always mentioned along with it. For an English translation of al-Kindī’s philosophical works see Adamson and Pormann 2012.

ancients did not achieve and hence developing Aristotle’s metaphysic into a theology conveying a monotheistic and creationist interpretation of the Neoplatonic system that is compatible with the creed of the One and Unique God, the tawīd of Islam (Endress 1997, 54; Zimmermann 1986, 119), though there is no scholarly consensus as to the extent of the implication of al-Kindī as well as to the intentional reordering and misattribu- tion (D’Ancona 2011, 1033); (3) creating a philosophical and scientific terminology in order to put the Greek philosophical and scientific corpus within the reach of his own community.

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The breadth and depth of the activity of Kindī’s circle as well as the wide array of sources translated will, not surprisingly, find a direct echo in Kindī’s own work, not only in terms of doctrinal influence, but also in terms of method and style. Maybe more than any of his other works, FPh reflects the influences that have shaped the worldview of its author.


It is difficult to locate Kindī within a specific philosophical tradition. As has been already noted by Ivry (1974, 11–21), despite an “ambivalent usage” of what might look very close to a Neoplatonic terminology, FPh does not develop into a Neoplatonic structure. From Neoplatonism Kindī borrows a henology consistent with the Muslim tawīd, but ignores the theory of hypostasis as well as the emanationist system (Hasnawi 1992, 655).

 The necessary existence of an absolute transcendent true One that provides existence to all beings while dispensing unity to them will lead to a negative theology close to the Muʿtazilī notion of tawīd as well as to the doctrine of the One proper to the Plotiniana Arabica. If one can find in FPh echoes of the Theology of Aristotle (see Endress 1973; D’Ancona 1998), these remain nevertheless tenuous, as noted by Hasnawi (1992, 655) compared to the more significant dependence on the Arabic fragments of Proclus’s Elements of Theology (Endress 1973, esp. 242–46) as well as the Platonic Theology (Jolivet 1979), though we do not know of any Arabic translation of the latter.

 The influence of John Philoponus on Kindī’s arguments against the eternity of the world has also been highlighted (Walzer 1962, 190–96; Davidson 1969, 370–73; Davidson 1987, 106–16), though the structure of the argumentation is different (Hasnawi 1992, 655).

Conversely FPh unfolds within a clearly Aristotelian framework from which it departs progressively, while it continues to operate with some of its main concepts, for example, the categories and the predicables, but also the concepts of causality, time, body, and motion. Ivry (1974, 16–18) has shown the influence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics I and II on the opening remarks of FPh. Aristotle’s physics looms large also, and al-Kindī borrows from the De Caelo even more than the Physics, in order to reach often non-Aristotelian conclusions.

Drawing from Aristotle, the Neoplatonic tradition as well as the Greek commentators, FPh elaborates a complex and original synthesis that culminates with a demonstration of the absolute unity of the first Cause where the philosophical discourse ultimately yields to a theological development that concludes with the identity of the Neoplatonic true One with the Creator and One God of Islam.

Mathematical Method

In several of his extant philosophical treatises, including not only FPh but also On the Quiddity of What Cannot Be Infinite and What Is Called Infinite (Quiddity hereaf- ter), and his Epistle to Muammad b. al-Jahm on the Oneness of God and the Finiteness of the Body of the Universe (Oneness hereafter), as well as the one to Muḥammad al- Khurasānī Explaining the Finiteness of the Body of the Universe (Finiteness hereaf- ter), Kindī uses a geometrical method of argumentation clearly inspired by Euclid’s Elements.

 As a matter of fact, the reader of FPh cannot but be struck by the extensive usage of the axiomatic method, for example in chapter 2, and the proof by reductio ad absurdum that looms large in Kindī’s method of argumentation throughout the whole treatise. The above-mentioned treatises are all concerned by proving the finite- ness of the universe, and, in one way or another, each one of them deals with one of the issues addressed in the second chapter of FPh.

 In all of them Kindī follows, more or less, the same Euclidian pattern of argumentation: providing first definitions of the main terms, then listing the “first true and immediately intelligible premises” (Rasāʾil 1:114.12; Œuvres 29.8), in other words the axioms, and finally proceeding to the proof by deduction often following an argument by reductio ad absurdum (Rashed 2008, 132).

Al-Kindī was himself a scientist and a mathematician who, according to Nadīm’s Fihrist, devoted at least sixty treatises to mathematics in its four branches (Fihrist, 256– 58; Rashed 1993, 7), among them several commentaries on Euclid’s Elements.

However, what is at stake here is the application of the geometrical method to the philosophical inquiry, despite the fact that some of the treatises mentioned above are listed by Nadīm, under the “books on astronomy” (kutub al-falakiyyāt). This being said, Kindī wrote also a treatise titled That Philosophy Can Only Be Acquired through the Mathematical Science (Fī annahu lā tunālu al-falsafa illā bi-ʿilm al-riyāiyyāt, see Fihrist, 255), which is no lon- ger extant.

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At any rate, it is worth noting that in the second chapter of FPh, he establishes explicitly the mathematical examination (al-faḥṣ al-taʿlīmī/al-faḥṣ al-riyāī) as the most appropriate method of investigation for “what has no matter” (Œuvres 23.20,23; Rasāʾil 1:111.1,4), that is, metaphysics.

Al-Kindī’s philosophy is “written in geometrical terms” (Jolivet 2004, 679) paradoxically in order to reach, through sound but industri- ous geometrical proofs, the truths of the “divine science” (al-ʿilm al-ilāhī) immediately accessible to the prophets (for further details on the place of mathematics in al-Kindī’s classification of theoretical sciences, see Endress 2003, 129-130; Gutas 2004; Adamson 2007a, 30-37; Gannagé, forthcoming).

 Creation of a Philosophical Terminology

The program Kindī draws at the beginning of FPh leaves little doubt as to his aware- ness of being the first philosopher to write in Arabic. The foremost philosophers he invokes as his forerunners did not share his language (al-mubarrizīn min al-mutafalsifīn qablana, min ghayr ahl lisāninā, Œuvres 11.21; Rasāʾil 1:102.5), as he is careful to point out.

That places him as the direct heir to a Greek philosophical tradition and puts on his shoulders a burden he outlines in the introduction of FPh (Œuvres 13.19–22; Rasāʾil 1:103.8–11): that is, to present what the ancients have dealt with completely and to com- plete what they left unfinished, “following, in so doing, the custom of the language and the usages of the time.”

Language is at the heart of Kindī’s enterprise of transmission of Greek philosophy and sciences into Arabic, as he himself emphasizes by constantly referring to his own com- munity, in that context, as “the people speaking our language” (ahl lisāninā) (Rosenthal 1956, 445 n. 2). Gerhard Endress has shown that Kindī was the patron and the spiritus rector of a circle of translators recognizable by a distinctive phraseology and terminol- ogy—they would also share with Kindī’s own writings—characterized, for example, by the use of loanwords or direct transliterations from Greek, the formation of neologisms, and an often rough style reflecting Greek stylistic constructions (Endress 1973, 75–155; Endress 1997, 58–62).

FPh is emblematic of such a philosophical terminology, which was still in the making at that early stage of the transmission of Greek philosophy into Arabic. It is fraught with neologisms intended to render abstract universals or philosophical concepts for which no Arabic term had yet been coined.

 Among the most representative examples are terms gravitating around the concept of being, like inniyya or anniyya. Most probably derived from the Arabic particle inna or anna and substantified with the addition of the suf- fix –iyya in order to denote an abstract notion (Endress 1973, 77 ff.; Ivry 1974, 120–21; Adamson 2002, 299–300), it is used mostly with the meaning of existence in the affir- mative sense of the existence of a particular thing but can also refer to being in general as well as to essence. Likewise, inniyyāt or anniyyāt refer most often to “the things that exist,” hence echoing the Greek τὰ ὄντα.

Inniyya seems to be the equivalent of huwiyya, and they are often used interchangeably (e.g., Œuvres, 35.14–15 and 37.7–8; Rasāʾil 1:119.16 and 120.17–18), though the latter, being derived from the pronoun huwa, has sometimes the sense of being an entity, an ipseity (Ivry 1974, 159). More unusual is tahawwī or taʾyīs for bringing into existence (e.g., Œuvres, 41, 5; 97, 8–9; Rasāʾil 1:123.3, 162.1).

The latter is derived from ays, attested in the earliest Arabic dictionary compiled by al-Khalīl (d. ca. 175/791)2  as referring also to particular existence, but which, like inniyya and huwiyya, can signify being in general, especially in opposition to lays used as a substantive meaning

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