Terminology

The term falsafa is an Arabised form of the Greek philosophia. The Arabic hikma may also be used more or less synonymously with the same term, although more often the intended meaning is closer to the word "wisdom". Used in numerous Arabic and Persian texts, falsafa indicates an inclusive rational process aimed at knowing the nature of things and expressing the result in a systematic way. The term hikma, by contrast, is used in several ways, some of them not related to the science, or the art, of systematic philosophy. Some historians have used words such as "theosophy" to translate the term hikma as a means of explaining the presumed esoteric and mystical dimensions of Islamic philosophy, but such usage is not justified in the actual Arabic and Persian texts. Based on the Greek term, an agent noun faylasuf was coined, which means "philosopher". In relation to the Arabic term hikma, the adjectival form hakim may be used in the same sense as faylasuf, but it is mainly employed to denote a special, often religious quality associated with the practitioner/follower of falsafa or hikma.

Throughout history Islamic philosophers sought to construct holistic philosophical systems, and some made special efforts to harmonise philosophical principles with religion. Following Avicenna (Abu 'All ibn Sina, 980-1037), the story of Islamic philosophy can best be understood as the quest to refine and construct holistic philosophical systems that have also served to uphold the deduced validity of revealed truths.

EaRLY TRaNSLaTIONs and state patronage

From as early as the late decades of the seventh and early decades of the eighth century evidence exists that Arabic translations were being made from the Syriac and perhaps also from the Greek. No sources are known from earlier periods, however, and our knowledge of the earliest translations is limited to later accounts. One superb source, cited in every study of the intellectual history of Islam, is a work known as the Fihrist, a Persian term meaning ''list'' or "outline". This work was compiled in the tenth century by the famous Baghdad book-dealer Ibn al-Nadlm (d. 995).4 It notes the first instance in which a member of the Arab ruling elite, Khalid ibn Yazid (d. 704), commissioned the translation of medical, astrological and alchemical treatises, allegedly from the Greek.5 The text further reveals that under the patronage of the Umayyad caliph Marwan (683-85) the earliest translations of medical compendia from the Syriac were produced.6 The most significant personality in this earliest period of translations into Arabic was 'Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa' (d. 757). His translations from Sanskrit, best exemplified by the Kalila wa Dimna of Bidpai, and from Pahlavi, best exemplified by a version of Khuday Nameh, indicate an early intellectual curiosity about the cultural heritage of non-Muslim nations.

The caliphs became increasingly interested in commissioning translations of works of all kinds from various disciplines into Arabic, the newly declared language of state. This interest intensified during the reign of al-Mansur (754-75), when the first Arabic translations of philosophical texts appear. Ibn al-Muqaffa', or his son Muhammad, translated a good number of Aristotle's texts, including the Categories and the Posterior Analytics, as well as one of the philosophical tradition's most widely read works, the Isagoge of Porphyry. After the reign of al-Mansuar, attention paid to the scientific and medical heritage of all nations took on a new dimension.

Beginning with the reign of the caliph Harun al-Rashid and reaching an apogee under his son, the caliph al-Ma'mun (r. 813-833), translations and the study of non-Muslim intellectuality became institutionalised. Several factors contributed to this period's spirit of discovery and genuine regard for scholarship beyond the limits imposed by most juridical interpretations of Islam.

The triumph of the Abbasids over the Umayyads was in no small measure due to the Persian armies led by Abu Muslim of Khurasan. The Persians subsequently played a very significant role in early Abbasid rule, and when the new capital of Baghdad was built, many learned Persian families involved themselves in all types of state institutions. In the domain of science, the famous Nawbakhti family, many of whom were physicians at the still functioning medical complex and university of Jundi Shapur, built by the Sasanian emperor Anushiravan, served the period's medical needs. This scientific centre had furnished a refuge for many Greek philosophers who had fled the theological tyranny of Justinian, and when Baghdad was built, a degree of scholarship and the study of the sciences and philosophy was still alive there. Learned members of this centre joined the retinue of the Abbasid caliphs, and some served important functions at court. One example was Fadl al-Nawbakhtai, a celebrated Persian astronomer, who was assigned to the court of al-Mansur,-others are supplied by the Bokhtishu' family of scholars and medical doctors, such as Georgius ibn Jibraa'ail, head of the medical school, and his pupil 'Isi ibn Shahlithi, who were among the eminent physicians who found employment at the Abbasid court. In addition, the Barmecide family of Persian Buddhists, who had converted to Islam, assumed leadership roles in Baghdad.

The atmosphere at court, certainly during Ma'mui n's period, was that of an active interest in and overt support and patronage for the scientific, medical and various other accomplishments of other nations and cultures, as well as of individuals. The caliphate as a state did not attempt to label as ''heretic'' those of its subjects who were active in philosophical and scientific endeavours.

This early period represents the Islamic state's height of self-confidence, in which ideas and traditions of all kinds were permitted to be debated in forums often presided over by the caliph himself. During this time, religious and juridical scholarship was also gaining in definition, and gradually the four schools of Islamic law were developed. The idea of a single, Islamic, all-inclusive legal system symbolised by these schools had not yet taken hold, and every aspect of the principles and practices of statecraft, including the foundations of belief itself, were subject to debate and intensive examination.

The reasons for the birth of Islamic philosophy in such an environment are clear. By sanctioning and even promoting a culture of debate, the state encouraged the expression of a wide range of beliefs, arguments and doctrines originating in different religious and scientific views. To maintain its authority, the Islamic state increasingly found it necessary to defend its position against well-argued but diverse challenges on a range of theological topics. Very soon, therefore, the need emerged for a much more powerful tool than qiyas, or analogy, which the Muslim scholars had employed successfully up to that time in the science of hadith and in the codification of Islamic law.

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