Monday, March 25, 2013

Islamic Philosophy

Islamic Philosophy

1.    Greek Philosophy—The Islamic texts concerning Greek philosophy, or Hellenistic philosophy, in the beginning were held in a philosophical school’s library located in Haran, northern Iraq, in both Greek and Syriac languages.  During the prosperous period of the Abbasid Dynasty when the caliph ordered that the texts be translated, in order learn about Greek heritage and it satisfy his curiosity about Greek knowledge of the sciences and civil administration, to see what might be useful to Muslims in the Abbasid dynasty during approximately 750-830 AD.  This was mainly in response to the criticism of the legitimacy of Islam by Christians and Jews, who themselves escaped scrutiny by use of Greek philosophers who had tried to analyze and perhaps reconcile the nature of Judeo-Christian thought with a Greek philosophical counterpart.  It is important to understand that the underpinnings of the Islamic philosophical traditions are preceded from a millennium of Greek thought and philosophy.  The texts translated during the period that Islamic philosophy saw its birth were tainted with the conquering of all of the surrounding lands around the Mediterranean Sea by the Roman Empire and an influx of the religion that the Romans brought with them—Christianity.  Concordantly, paganism and splashes of other polytheistic pseudo-religions were scattered around the Roman territories, and as is consistent with the pragmatic nature of the Roman conquest system, many of the elements of the previous religion of paganism were simply integrated into the new craze of Christianity, that if left unchecked, could threaten the foundations of the empire itself.  Greek philosophy and science was undoubtedly influenced by this dramatic change in the religious and political landscape, and the reflection of this change can be seen in the philosophical texts that were acquired and translated by the Muslims and their subsequent areas of use.  Greek philosophy, for the purpose of understanding Islamic philosophy, can be summarized in the works of a few outstanding men who forever changed the landscape of logical thought and processes, namely, Aristotle and Plato, and to a lesser degree the works of the philosopher Galen.

2.    Aristotle—Aristotle is perhaps the most widely known and studied philosopher that has ever existed.  He is known as the “First Teacher” and the “Master of Logic” to Muslims, and has had a major impact on the areas of philosophy, science, metaphysics, law, mathematics, among many others.  Aristotle wrote many works on philosophy and the sciences, the most notable that was used by Islamic philosophers being his work entitled Metaphysics.  The teachings of Aristotle were so highly prized that he was given the name “The First Teacher”, and was revered slightly under the level of the prophets and Jesus.  However, it is important to note that the texts Muslims translated that were attributed to Aristotle were sometimes incomplete, or not even his work—which was especially the case in the work The Theology of Aristotle, which was erroneously attributed to him in the title but was written by Plotinus, and was his work Enneads.  According, some of the major works that define Aristotelian thought such as his Poetics, his works on law, and others were not in the collection, meaning that Muslims at the time had a very corrupted idea of the works of one of the most influential figures of Islamic philosophy.

3.    Plato—Plato is perhaps the most influential philosopher during the infancy of Muslim philosophy, as many of the first Islamic philosophers adopted his teachings, starting a neo-Platonist revolution that would sweep across the minds of Muslim philosophers and theologists, and have a much greater affect than a simple philosophical commentary to the Islamic religious text, the Qur’an.  This revival occurred during the 3rd century AD by Plotinus and it was especially influential on Islamic thought.  Plato was also the teacher of the famous Aristotle, and Plato, himself, learned from Socrates.  Some of the contributions of Plato include his works on ethics and morality, law, mathematics, science, astronomy, and cosmology.  In addition to this, Plato founded the first ever institution for higher learning in Athens, Greece, called the Academy.

4.    Neo-Platonism—Neo-Platonism refers to the movement in Islamic philosophy where Muslim philosophers revived the ideas of Plato to use as a foundation for their philosophy.  Neo-Platonism is a fusion of Greek thought from the Hellenistic period with Middle Eastern thought and theology.  Some of the ideas that were held by many neo-Platonists were Plato’s view of Creation and his theory on the transmigration of souls, as well as the five spheres of the heavens and his affinity and study of numbers, shapes and geometry of the natural world--sometimes known as the Platonic solids.  Neo-Platonism saw a revival in the Middle East among Muslim philosophers during the time of Ptolemaic Alexandria in the 9th century AD, and as early as the 3rd century AD.

5.    Abu ‘Ali Al-Husayn Ibn ‘Abd Allah Ibn Sina—Ibn Sina was the most famous Muslim philosopher, and his popularity even gained him a Latinized name to help people in the West to identify him, which was Avicenna.  Besides philosophy, Ibn Sina was also an extremely famous physician, debatably just as famous for his work in medicine as in his work in philosophy, although he had no formal medical training or any medical teachers of any kind.  In fact, Ibn Sina was known to have taught medical science and procedure to a number of the leading physicians of his day, when he was only sixteen years old.  He was also well versed in all of the sciences, and in fact had them mastered, by the age of eighteen and published his first philosophical book at the age of twenty one.  While his family was greatly influenced by Ishmaili propaganda, Ibn Sina formally rejected their principles and instead adopted his own style of philosophy and morals which he wrote about and taught throughout his lifetime.  He was able to master these sciences through his great intellect and notable memory, and gained access to the written material needed to teach himself through libraries—one of which, the library of the Samanid princes, because he cured a member of the aristocracy of Khurasan from a life-threatening illness.

6.   Al-Farabi—Al-Farabi was the first Muslim philosopher to really break through the barrier of needing explicit contextual verification of using philosophy from the Qur’an.  Before Al-Farabi, any philosophical notion that would even be considered by many Muslim scholars had to have specific reference in the Qur’an in order to be accepted.  This led to the only philosophical tenets that could be accepted to be very vague and extremely fundamental, and without any room for interpretation or explanation, other than by expounding on it through the Qur’an.  Al-Farabi wrote many works that attempted to reconcile the philosophical works of Aristotle and Plato, being the founder of neo-Platonists, including a commentary on the work of Aristotle entitled Metaphysics, which was used to help teach other highly revered Muslim philosophers in both his time and after his death who benefited from his vast understanding of logic and the Greek interpretation of logical principles and the logical process.  Al-Farabi was also the first Muslim political philosopher, and his political works focused around the goal of attaining happiness which he felt could only be achieved through the political system Plato outlined called the “virtuous city”.

7.    Virtuous City—The “virtuous city” was an idea of Plato’s that the Islamic philosopher Al-Farabi used in his Islamic political philosophy when he began reviving Plato’s philosophies in the 9th century in the neo-Platonist movement.  He felt that man was a political animal that could not achieve happiness alone, and it was only through the formation of a “virtuous city” could man achieve happiness.  Al-Farabi theorized that this city must be constructed so that there is a political system put into place that allows for the development of happiness.  Here, happiness refers to the soul’s separation from the physical body, and that this “happiness” is the goal of all humanity.  

8.    Transmigration of souls—Transmigration of souls is a concept of Plato’s that postulates that the soul can be transmitted to another body once the soul’s original body dies.  This concept is similar to the Eastern concept of reincarnation, however it differs in that the soul that Plato describes never loses its own identity, whereas reincarnation postulates that when the soul has entered into a new host body, it’s memories and identity are “reborn” with the new body, allowing the two to form a symbiotic relationship that fosters a joint growth in the soul and the body as each matures through experience and time.  One could understand the concept of transmigration better with an analogy derived from a Chinese proverb that states:  “Consider a cup of tea, if I were to drop this cup on the floor it would break.  Even though the vessel that houses the tea is broken, the tea is still tea; it has just taken another form because the cup/vessel that held it no longer binds it to a specific form.  If the tea were to be picked up somehow and poured into another cup, the tea would still remain the same time, only the vessel would have changed.”  If one would think of the tea as a person’s soul, this would shed light onto the difference in the two concepts.  Plato’s transmigration theory is analogized here as the tea that remains the same, simply changing the container that holds it.  There are no changes made it to, and even though the cup could be said to go through a process of change, the tea itself has not changed at all.

9.   Abu Yusef Yaqoub Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi—Al Kindi, shown to the right, is known as the father of Islamic philosophy.  He is known for his assertion of recognizing that philosophy, as well as many of the sciences, as a search for truth; and that truth, no matter where it comes from or who teaches it, cannot be condemned because of its origins.  His search for truth led him to study many things during his lifetime, and through his study he became an accomplished philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, physician, geologist, and musician.  Al-Kindi believed that philosophy was the highest level of understanding our existence and the existence of all created things that we could ever possibly hope to achieve, and that philosophy revealed “the knowledge of the essence of things, insofar as it is possible for man.”  Al-Kindi was a supporter of causality, which many other Muslim philosophers rejected and found blasphemous, and believed that in order to find truth we must seek out and understand the cause of the event in question to ever be able to properly understand the event’s essence, meaning, and connection to the natural world.  Al-Kindi also made invaluable contributions to mathematics and the field of mathematical metaphysics and theory, some of which come from his argument against the eternity of the world.  He used the concept of infinity to actually disprove the notion of eternity or the quality of an object to be eternal through mathematics and postulated that no object or body can be eternal that possesses any type of quality or quantity of itself, rather than objects may only possess the potentiality for being eternal.  His theories on this and other philosophical concepts through which he used mathematics to argue for or against have had a immeasurable impact on the field of mathematics and logic, and the use of logical processes to prove mathematical theories.

10.Revelation—Revelation in this context refers to the spiritual or philosophical awakening one experience after a lifetime of intense periods of study, prayer, and reflection, which can be likened to the experience of attaining enlightenment.  It is a common concept in Middle Eastern thought and it is believed that once one achieves this state of revelation that the soul can be released from the body.  The debate among Islamic philosophers was whether revelation and philosophy are compatible, or whether either revelation or philosophy was needed to attain happiness and release the soul from the body.

11.Abu Bakr al-Razi-- Al-Razi rejected Al-Kindi’s attempt to reconcile philosophy and revelation, and instead taught that philosophy itself was a sufficient means of releasing the soul from the body.  In place of the truth gained from revelation, al-Razi believed that one could attain truth and morality through reason.  But perhaps the most interesting and controversial Hellenistic ideology that al-Razi held to were the ideas of Plato regarding the Platonic view of Creation and the transmigration of souls.  Plato, as with many of his students and other Greek philosophers, believed that numbers held a special significance in nature and that many principles and truths about the world around us and about the Creator could be discerned more accurately by understanding their fullness by which number was ascribed to each natural phenomenon or metaphysical occurrence or ideal. 

12.Platonic View of Creation The Platonic view of Creation is a philosophical theory developed by Plato.  He believed that the world was formed from eternal truths or principles, for which there are five—five being the number of higher knowledge and understanding—which are the Creator, matter, time, space, and the soul.  The idea is to think of these principles as “eternal truths” instead of the Creator as an entity or person, and matter as “the truth that all things are made up of different parts of the same basic parts of matter” instead of the physical interpretation of matter, and likewise with the other three eternal truths.

13Brethren of Purity—The Brethren of Purity were a Ishmaili secret society of Muslim philosophers that believed that knowledge of the divine could be best understood by the use of numerology, and that other philosophical methods and ideals not connected to a numerological interpretation would only hinder the person from learning real truth, and that when viewed from their perspective one could see clearly without making false assumptions and committing oneself to them before understanding the larger picture—a mistake that could not be made with the help of mathematics.  The believed that mathematics and the numbers that the science manipulates have not only quantitative properties, but also physical, metaphysical, spiritual, and even ethical connotations that must be properly studied and understood under the realm of neo-Pythagorean thought and processes.  They believed that philosophy in general would lead to the understanding of a hidden reality, known as batin, but that without proper use of mathematics to study and describe the philosophy one could not attain true knowledge of the soul, and therefore could not attain truth about God.  To the left is a diagram of a cosmological hierarchy, similar in nature to Plato’s cosmological diagram of the heavenly spheres, and connections can be made across specific lines and within circles to discern important concepts of the physical universe.

14.Hanbalites—The Hanbalites came to the forefront of the Islamic philosophical debate after the immense controversy over the “Divine Speech” being a “created accident”, as proposed by the Mu’tazilites.  It was led by its founder Ahmad Ibn Hanbal who contended that the Qur’an was the word of God and was created by God and was eternal.  Each group that arose during this period had a majority of their philosophical focus on the debate of the creation and eternal nature of the Qur’an.  This was because the philosophy that was supported by the current caliph became the religious norm, and those who opposed the authority of the caliph were dealt with legally by the regime in power at the request of the caliph.  During the period that Ahmad Ibn Hanbal proposed his theory on this matter; the caliph had him thrown in jail because he had already supported another theory contrary to the Hanbalites.  It was not until his death and his subsequent successor caliph Mutawakkil came to become caliph was Ibn Hanbal released from prison, because Mutawakkil luckily supported the Hanbalite viewpoint.  Because of the violent controversy over this matter of the Qur’an’s nature, philosophers such as the Hanbalites had to return to explicit textual references to their philosophies, as it had been done in the advent of Muslim philosophy in an attempt to subvert persecution and imprisonment.

15.Mu’tazilites—The Mu’tazilites were a philosophical group that preceded the Hanbalites and had sparked the controversy over the nature of the Qur’an itself, bringing to light a number of other philosophies and philosophical groups that either tried to support to contradict Mu’tazilite philosophy through explicit reference in the Qur’an or by implicit ideology of the nature of Allah and the concepts of eternity and creation.  They were founded by a Muslim philosopher known as Wasil ibn Ata and his principle that the Qur’an was created, but not eternal.  This viewpoint was supported by the current caliph, caliph al-Ma’mun who went as far as to incite an inquisition amongst the judges and other officials that had decision-making power to profess the ideology of the creation of the Qur’an.  One of the principles that is on the same level as the controversy over the Qur’an was the idea that all men, no matter what sin they have committed, should no longer be considered infidels for committing a very serious sin, and instead they should be all grouped together into one group, simply sinners, or fasiq.  This was important concept of the time, because a religious system that did not consider a degree of sin was not established until much later when the Catholic church began to lose power and some sects of Protestants began to profess this belief—although it was first proposed even before Islam in the early Christian church and in the writings of the Christian apostle Paul.  Some of the more interesting things that developed in philosophy in response to the Mu’tazilites were the idea that God was not bound by anything, even morality; which led to a plethora of other principles that sparked many different philosophical movements with their own ideas about what God was and was not bound to, in addition to the many other basic philosophical ideas that had began to pile up at this point in Muslim philosophy.  Concordantly, many groups emerged that only differed on one or two key ideas, but held most, if not all, of the other tenets of other philosophical orders as truth.

16.Ash’arites—The Ash’arites were a philosophical group that began, once again, as a response to the Mu’tazilites and the Hanbalites in order to try and reconcile both of their beliefs into one system.  Its founder was a Mu’tazilite named al-Ash’ari during the turn of the 10th century AD.  Like many of the other philosophical groups of this time and the decades preceding them, they maintained that al-Ash’ari was also visited in a dream, this time by Muhammad, and told that the Islamic community was in disarray due to the misunderstanding of philosophies and the subsequent in-fighting amongst Muslim believers, and that he had to promote the truth in order to take control over the Islamic community.  Some of the beliefs that the Ash’arites theorized were that God is all-powerful and that God’s attributes were distinct from his essence, the latter of which was an attempt to answer the query over whether or not there existed co-eternal attributes in God, or if co-eternal attributes could exist simultaneously at all.  They agreed and adopted some of the Mu’tazilites tenets, such as the use of reason, but rejected the idea that a man can create his own actions.  This was proposed on the perception that a person creating his own acts cannot logically be, because this would contradict their belief in one God, since the person creating anything would liken him to God.  The viewpoint allowed for an alternate theory of free will, without violating the tenets of the Hanbalites.  One interesting theory that they proposed was that God continually created and recreated everything in existence in every moment, and that something ceased to exist whenever God chose not to recreate it.

17.Qadar—Qadar is the Islamic word that means “free will” and it is thoroughly debated amongst Muslim philosophers during the 8th and 9th centuries.  The issue of free will was brought to the forefront during the reign of caliph ‘Abd al-Malik who proposed the question to the Muslim philosopher and supported of free will named Hasan al-Basri, “How can God punish people if they have no control over their actions?”.  This question revealed a huge hole in the logic of determinism, or rather for determinists that also believe in a God that will ultimately punish humanity for their deeds while they were alive on the earth.  This issue was further extended when a group of Muslims who held this belief came together and formed a group called the Qadaris.  The reason for the formation of the group was to challenge the aristocracy of the Umayyad dynasty, who claimed that the right to rule the people was given, or rather predetermined, by God, and therefore could not be challenged.  This obviously would shake the foundations of Umayyad aristocracy whom had ruled unchallenged on this sole principle, and it also put into question the legitimacy of the rule of the next generation of their family.

18.Sadr al-Din Muhammad/Mulla Sudra—Mulla Sudra was known to his followers as the “foremost among the theosophers”.  His life and works began during the Safawid period in Persia, where he was born in 1571, and his influence was far reaching for the next three and a half centuries, although many have never heard his name, even amongst other Muslim countries.  After an extensive education due to his wealthy family, Mulla Sudra showed intellectual promise in many areas, but was interested and especially excelled in the areas of metaphysics and philosophy.  He moved to Isfahan, the capitol of Persia at the time, to continue his studies in the philosophical sciences.  After his studies in Isfahan, Mulla Sudra retired to live a life of seclusion in a small village where he worked extensively on self-purification in an attempt to reach a revelation and happiness in order to free his soul from its mortal bonds.  After fifteen years of living and studying in this manner, it is said that Mulla Sudra reached a point where he had an epiphany, and was able to see, in his mind’s eye, the theoretical concepts that he had learned about and taught in the years preceding his seclusion.  This ability to “see”, led him to establish a sect of philosophy known as Illuminationism, which postulates that all things in reality depend on the diffusion of light.  Allah, referred to as the Light of Lights, commands creation into being by speaking “Be.”, and Mulla Sudra used this concept to further argue his theories on infinity by stating that even the created things by the Light of Lights were not themselves eternal or infinite, stating that all created things, or things that possess quality or quantity, will eventually or already have passed away, and are therefore not eternal.

19.Ishraqiyya—Ishraqiyya, otherwise known as Illuminationism, is the branch of Muslim philosophy founded by Mulla Sudra which contends that the diffusion of light is the necessary condition for the reality of the physical world.  The diffusion of light refers to the property of physical objects to scatter light in differing directions, once the light hits the object, which allows humans to see the object.  Based on the physical properties of the object’s surface, the diffusion of the incident light can be scattered or focused to differing degrees.  After the philosophies of al-Ghazali, which vehemently opposed the works of Ibn Sina, other neo-Platonists, and philosophy as a whole in regard to their connection to religion and the interpretation of religious texts, Illuminationism was founded in order to contend with the rising supporters of al-Ghazali and others that he inspired, such as Ibn Taymiyya and the Literalists—which nearly killed the entire Islamic philosophical movement.  The idea that the world is composed of differing amounts of light and purities of light, and its opposing force, darkness, was a metaphysical idea in nature that closely resembled the tenets of Sufism.  In fact, it is said that Aristotle himself appeared in a dream to an Illuminationist and revealed to him that Sufis were the only true philosophers.

20.Sufism—Sufism is the sect of Islam that is primarily denoted by its practice of mysticism and practitioners of this Islamic system are known as Sufis.  Sufism first gained a legitimate following during the Umayyad Dynasty in response to the caliphate’s increasing secularism.  Sufism first had its entrance on the philosophical stage during the advent of Illuminationism, or Ishraqiyya, in which the philosophies of previous Muslim thinkers was integrated into the Sufi traditions and beliefs in order to reconcile the two into a coherent whole.  It is said that Aristotle appeared to al-Suhrawardi and told him that Sufis were the only true Islamic philosophers.

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