Islamic Philosophy

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Islamic philosophy is a general term for the works of Islamic scholars who tried to reconcile the philosophical tradition of the ancient world (primarily of Aristotle and Plato) with the teaching of Islam. It covers the genesis and development of philosophical thought in the Islamic world, from Andalusia to India, from the ninth century to the present.

Formative Period

Whereas Judaism and Christianity began as a religion of small groups, Islam developed as the religion of an expanding empire. Within a hundred years of Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 AD, military conquest extended the Islamic world to India, North Africa and Southern Spain.[1]

As a result, a variety of different communities came under Muslim rule, and Islam came into contact with the theological systems of Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastranism, and the philosophy of India and Greece. This led Islamic theologians to use philosophical ideas and principles to interpret Qur'anic doctrines.

The first stage of this process was the translation into Arabic of Greek philosophical and scientific works that had been preserved by Eastern Christians in Mesopatamia, Syria and Egypt. The translators were mostly Nestorian and Jacobite Christians, working in the two hundred years following the early Abbasid period (c. 800). The most important translator of this group was the Syriac-speaking Christian Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (809-873), known to the Latins as Joannitius. The texts were first translated into Syriac, then into Arabic. Despite this process, the translations were generally accurate, aiming for a literal reading rather than elegance.[2]

In the tenth century another school arose among the Jacobites. These knew little Greek, and used only Syriac translations. The works translated included nearly all the works of Aristotle, the writings of commentators such as Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius and Theophrastus, most of the dialogues of Plato, and some Neoplatonist works.

The next stage was the development of Islamic theology by the Mutakallimun. These were divided into the Mu'tazilities and the Ash'arites. The Mu'tazilities originated in groups that met in Basrah and Baghdad to discuss how Greek philosophical ideas might help to resolve certain theological problems, such as divine unity, and how human beings can be free even though God is omnipotent. They also developed proofs of the creation of the world, using Christian Neoplatonist ideas. The Ash'arites (founded by Al-Ash'ari, 873-935) tried to clarify Qur'anic doctrines. They denied the existence of any causation except through God, and, hence it would appear, the true freedom of human will.[3] They likewise established that God was more powerful than he was just, for the limitation of justice, they decided, could be restrictive upon a God powerful enough to be injust if he so desired.[4]

Golden Age

Al-Kindi (801–873) is generally regarded as the first Aristotelian philosopher. He advocated the independent study of philosophy, and also wrote on science and logic. Al-Razi (865- c. 925), by contrast, defended Plato against Aristotle, who he regarded a corrupter of philosophy. Aristotelianism continued with Al-Farabi (870-930), while Ibn Sina, known to the Latins as Avicenna (980-1037), developed his own school of thought which reconciled Islamic theology with Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism.

The Ash'arite theologian Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), by contrast, represents Islamic reaction to Aristotle. Ghazali bitterly denounced Aristotle, Socrates and other Greek writers as non-believers and labelled those who employed their methods and ideas as corrupters of the Islamic faith.

Islamic Aristotelianism reached its height with Ibn Rushd, known to Europe as Averroes. Ibn Rushd argued against Ghazali's criticisms of Aristotelianism, although he is best known in the West for his commentaries on Aristotle. Hebrew translations of his work also had a lasting impact on Jewish philosophy. Averroes' school of thought is known as Averroism, which only survived in Latin West after Ibn Rushd's work was condemned and then ignored in the Islamic world.

Transmission of the classics from the East to the West began from the 11th century onward, culminating in the thirteenth century. These works had great influence on the development of Medieval Scholasticism.[5]

Reaction and Decline

The twelfth to the fifteenth century was marked by the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, and a reaction to the humanistic and often secular ideas of the Golden Age philosophers. After the Abbasid caliphate was overthrown by Mongol conquests in the thirteenth century), Islamic philosophy was fragmented in different centers. In the fourteenth century, fundamentalist traditionalist views, exemplified by the polemics of Ibn Taymiyyah, who called for believers to rid Islam of all forms of innovation, began to dominate Islamic scholarship. The same period also saw the rise of Al-Ghazali's approach to 'Ash'arite theology.[6]

This had the effect of curtailing the spread of philosophy in Islam in a way that was not encountered to such an extent in the Latin West in the post-medieval period.[6]

Revival in Iran

The sixteenth to early seventeenth century saw a revival of philosophy with Safavid rule in Iran, which established Shi'ism as the state religion, primarily as a defensive measure against the Ottoman Sunni Empire. The Safavid dynasty was a literate family from its early origin endowing centers of scholarship, and supported academic freedom. One important outcome was the creation of Shi'ite thought, reform of the law based on the principles set out by al-Farabi.[6]

The main scholars of this period are Mir Damad and his pupil Molla Sadra, and other members of the School of Isfahan. Molla Sadra's main work is the voluminous The Four Intellectual Journeys.

Modern Period

The most recent period (the early seventeenth century to the present day) is still distinguished by a scholastic method and style,[6] and mostly fails to engage with ideas of modernity. However Abdallah Laroui (1976), who has noted the contrast between Islam and modernity, has advocated Westernization as the appropriate strategy for the Islamic world to engage once again with philosophy.[7]

See Also

  • Philosophy - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Philosophy


  1. Hyman, J. and Walsh, J.J., "Philosophy in the Middle Ages", Indianapolis: Hackett, p. 203, ISBN 9781603842082, 1973, 
  2. Hyman, J. and Walsh, J.J., "Philosophy in the Middle Ages", Indianapolis: Hackett, p. 204, ISBN 9781603842082, 1973, 
  3. Hyman, J. and Walsh, J.J., "Philosophy in the Middle Ages", Indianapolis: Hackett, p. 205, ISBN 9781603842082, 1973, 
  4. Rahman, F., Islam, University of Chicago Press, p. 90-100. 1979.
  5. Scholasticism is a style of philosophy that arose in the Latin West in the middle ages (10th century to 15th century. The defining characteristics of scholasticism are: the project of reconciling Christian faith with classical philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Aristotle; a particular style of teaching and writing; a system arranged round certain books, such as the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Aristotle's logical works, the works of Augustine; focus on a characteristic set of questions, the most famous being the problem of universals.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Ted Honderich, "Oxford Companion to Philosophy", Oxford University Press, (article 'Islamic Philosophy'), ISBN 9780198661320, 1995, 
  7. "Islamic philosophy, modern", Islamic Philosophy Online, accessed February 12, 2014 (archived),