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A Resume of Arabic Philosophy

Prior to Islam, the Arabs’ store of “wisdom” comprised of proverbs and aphorisms – the results of practical experience of mundane life, which were sometimes put in poetic verse form. They were characterised by observation of individual facts leading to no reflection on universals. Islam presented to them revealed knowledge but relied for its acceptance on an awakening of the intellect and common-sense – a stimulation of thought rather than stupefaction through a show of miraculous powers. The result was that the early Muslims were fortified with the self-assurance that in upholding the tents and practices of the new faith they were only following the path of wisdom and virtue. Ere long, however, their conquests of the neighbouring lands brought them into contact with cultured communities belonging to other faiths, notably the Monophysite and the Nestorian Christians and the Persians, in whose land the Greek currents of thought mingled with the Perso-Indian tradition. Liberal social intercourse and discussions on comparative religion brought home to the Muslims the realisation that their religious thought was characterised by simplicity worthy only of the common-sense of practical-minded enthusiasts. There was need for philosophical articulation and logical formulation to match the subtleties of the Schoolman and the Dialectician. Besides the stimulus from outside, there were certain individual problems of faith which were pressing themselves for re-examination due to stresses and strains within their own political and social fabric. Thus the beginnings of philosophical thought centred around the problems of Predestination and Freewill and the Attributes of Godhead with their bearing on Unity – the main point of difference with the believers in Trinity and Dualism. But to proceed, the Muslims needed a mastery of Greek philosophy – the source of what they believed to be the tactical strength of their opponents.

During the ninth-tenth centuries C.E. many of the treasures of Greek philosophy (Arabicised falsafa) were passed on into Arabic through the labours of Syrian Christians under the patronage of the Caliphs and the elite of Baghdad. Though the works of the early Muslim thinkers rely far more on neo-Platonist, neo-Pythagorean, Stoic and the Hermetic writings, ultimately Aristotelianism came to reign supreme. But the interpretation of Aristotle was always based on neo-Platonic commentaries. Moreover, there were several spurious works attributed to Aristotle. One of them, the so-called Theology of Aristotle, based on several sections of Plotinus’ Enneads, exercised a profound influence on Muslim thinkers. The Arab scholars succeeded well in passing beyond the narrow limits of Nestorian studies but perhaps it was beyond their resources to disentangle Aristotle from neo-Platonism.

The first look by the Muslims at Greek philosophy amply confirmed their self-assurance that Reason could not conflict with Revelation. The towering fact of monotheism emerging from the circles of Greek philosophy so enraptured them that they set about hastily adopting and appropriating the new acquisition instead of critically examining it in all its details. This is best exhibited in the attempt at parallelism between the language of philosophy and the language of religion, e.g. the theory of the spheres was taken over and the Intellects recognised as “angels” while the Intellectual Light was equated with Revelation. But when all the possible equations were exhausted it was found on deeper thought that there remained a considerable residue representing the area of disagreement between Reason and Revelation. It is the working of the Muslim mind, represented more by the Persians and the Turks than by the Arabs, on this marginal area which justifies distinctive term “Arabic Philosophy”, “Arabic” referring only to the language of expression and to some extent to historical milieu.

The impact of philosophy gave rise to two schools of thought among the Muslims. First, there were those who clung to the primacy of Revelation but, in demonstrating its identity with Reason resorted to a liberal or what appeared to them to be the “reasonable” and the “natural” formulation of the tenets of Islam. These apologists of Revelation, the Mu‘tazilites as they were called, went for in the pursuit of the concept of Natural Religion until they veered themselves into a position of antagonism to Orthodoxy. They could not resist the temptation of imposing their Intellectual Islam on the masses at the point of the bayonet under the aegis of their champion, the Caliph Mamun (813-33), a venture ruined them and defeated their own purpose. However, the sanguinary showdown came only after they had left their indelible mark on Muslim thought and shaken orthodoxy out of rigidity forever.

Secondly, there were the philosophers in the proper sense of the word, who believed in the primacy of Reason but were still at pains to demonstrate its compatibility with Revelation. For them the end of the first stage of establishing an authentic version of Greek philosophy was reached with the first and last of the Arab philosophers, al-Kindi (d. c.873) and the Turk, al-Farabi (d. 950). The second stage of the formulation of a doctrinal system was completed by Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037). The outstanding problems which these Muslim philosophers had to grapple with were no easy ones: the Eternity of Matter, the process of the creation of the Many from the Absolute One, His Omnipotence and Omniscience with regard to the Universal and the Particular, Immortality of the Soul and Resurrection, and, of course, the overall consideration of the need for, and the nature and admissibility of, prophethood. From the orthodox point of view, the philosophers appeared to be sceptics but where tolerated so long as they did not repudiate Revelation outright. A strong reaction was, however, touched off by the attacks of Ibn al-Rawandi (d. 935), a Jewish convert of questionable motives, on the institution of prophethood. The reaction culminated in Ash‘ari (d. 935) and Ghazali (d. 1111), both of whom exposed the unreliability of philosophy and repudiated the same on behalf of Religion. They were, of course, accomplished in the use of the weapons of philosophy and, in turning them against unbridled Reason, satisfied not only the masses but also the intellectuals. Only Ash‘ari’s accasionalism – the assertion of direct activity and creation by God and the denial of natural causation – had a reactionary effect on the Muslim mind. It was left to Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) to resuscitate philosophy by making amends for the vagaries of the renegades and at the same time exposing the retaliatory partisan attitude of Ghazali.

Significantly enough, Ibn Rawandi declared himself to be depending on Indian wisdom in the repudiation of prophethood. The Samaniyya, ie. the Buddhists, were well represented in the cosmopolitan Abbasid society by Jarir Ibn H~azim al-Azdi of Basra, who, though remaining within the community, invited the intellectuals of his age to his home and argued Buddhist philosophy with them. But atheism or agnosticism constituted a palpable heresy not only against Islam but also against Greek philosophy; it was viewed only as a curio of philosophical thought. The attacks on the institution of prophethood, which was equally lacking in Greek philosophy, called forth a spirited defence especially from the Fatimid Shiites, who believed in the divine guidance of their Imams or leaders. It was just because of its ultimate monotheism that Hindu – as distinguished from the Buddhist – thought had greater chance of admission within the circle of Muslim philosophers. Aristotelianism asserted the existence of the “Unmoved Mover” but posited Eternal Matter in a sort of Dualism with Him. It was here that the Monism of Hindu thought attracted the Muslim thinkers strongly. Moreover, once the existence of God is regarded as a fundamental reality, the urge to establish some sort of communion with Him is awakened. Strictly speaking, Islam provides for this communion only through the consciousness of the will of God during the full course of Man’s participation in the normal life-pattern of this world. But already under the influence of neo-Platonism, ways of contemplation – as opposed to activity – were being explored by the Muslims when the concepts of emanation and re-emanation came across their way. Thus pantheism was able to enter surreptitiously and under sufficient disguise. Yet the other characteristic features of Hindu thought such as Incarnation and Transmigration were vigilantly kept outside. Even the excesses resulting from the concept of “Union with God” touched off violent reaction as in the case of H~usayn Ibn Mansur al-H~allaj (who was executed in 922). Once the contemplative ways of communion came in vogue, the ascetic practices and the institution of the Orders were borrowed from the Christian monks, the Hindus, whose mortification of the flesh, nevertheless, continued to be abhorrent, and from the Buddhist sangh, whose moral ideal of self abnegation deeply impressed the common Muslim. Remarkably enough, even vegetarianism was dissociated from the notion of birth cycles or mere compassion for the sentient being; it was assimilated to a much higher ideal which made H~ayy Ibn Yaqzan, the hero of Ibn T~ufayl’s philosophical romance, pause to think whether he was not obstructing the ordained processes of nature by appropriating for himself the milk of the cow, which was really meant for the subsistence of the calf, and the fruit of the tree, which was designed for the propagation of the kind.

Philosophy also came to be cultivated in secret societies possessing an esoteric doctrine in a political setting. One of them, the Brethren of Purity (c. 970), became famous for a somewhat incoherent compendium of philosophical thought collected from all the sources and showing a marked deviation in favour of Pythagorean speculation.

Lastly, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1476), the father of the Philosophy of History, applied the discipline to the world of men, determining the facts of history and their proximate causes and deriving the law governing the development of human society.

On the whole, the Arabic philosophy is remarkable for the evolution of a peculiar approach by Reason towards Revelation. It was fortuitous indeed that the Muslims received Aristotelianism overgrown with Neo-Paltonism, but the synthesis which they themselves assiduously worked afterwards remains distinctly theirs. Still more important is the concession which Discursive Reason was ultimately compelled to make in favour of Intuition. The example of the Muslims in reconciling Religion with Philosophy was emulated by the Jews living in the western parts of the Islamic world and they in turn acted as intermediaries between the Muslim philosophers and the Western Christians. The influence of Avicenna, Ghazali, Averroes and others, so prominent in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, ultimately led to Christian Europe’s discovery of the lost treasure of Greek learning.

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