The Attraction Of Greek Thought

Within the culture associated with the Islamic religion there has always been a tendency to maintain that Islam is self-sufficient and that in Qur an and Hadith it contains in essentials all the religious and moral truth required by all humanity to the end of time. Muslims have accordingly been hesitant about accepting ideas from other intellectual traditions, and especially from the Judaeo-Christian tradition because of the theory they developed that the Jewish and Christian scriptures had been 'corrupted'. Even material derived from Biblical sources—such as the genealogy from Abraham back to Adam in Ibn-Hisham's life of Muhammad—is not acknowledged as such. It is thus all the more noteworthy to find it openly admitted that much was borrowed from the Hellenistic tradition. Yet even here the actual influence was more extensive than was admitted, while in the end much of what was borrowed was rejected or treated as of minor importance. The admitted borrowings came by way of translations of Greek works and original compositions in Arabic in the Greek philosophical and scientific tradition. The unadmitted borrowings are found in the development of the discipline of 'philosophical theology' or Kalam.

A system of Hellenistic education had been established in Iraq under the Sasanians and was continued under the Muslims. The main subject of instruction was probably medicine; but philosophy and other 'Greek sciences' were always taught as well. The teaching was mainly in the hands of Christians, and the best-known college was at Gunde-Shapur (about 150 km north-east of Basra). Later, when a hospital was set up in Baghdad, there were probably philosophical lectures in connection with the medical teaching. This system of Hellenistic education was thus complete in itself, and was spread over a number of institutions.

Even before the inauguration of the 'Abbasid caliphate a beginning had been made of translating Greek scientific and philosophical works into Arabic. At first the choice of works depended probably on the individual scholar or his patron, but the caliph al-Ma'mun (813-3 3) or his advisers realized the importance for the whole empire of the Greek sciences and organized the work of translation on a large scale. An institution was set up called the House of Wisdom' (bayt al-hikma), where books were translated and copied, and where a library was kept for reference. For a period of a century or two translations continued to be made, and the older translations revised. The greatest name is that of Hunayn ibn-Is'haq (809-73), a Christian from al-Hira who became a teacher of medicine in Baghdad and court physician to the caliph al-Mutawakkil (iegnabat 847-61). He had something like a bureau for translation, with several well-qualified colleagues. Unlike most of the earlier translators—nearly all Iraqian Christians— who had translated from Syriac, Hunayn had leamt Greek and was in the habit of collating a number of manuscripts before making his translations. This was the highest level reached by the translators from the technical and linguistic standpoint. Later, however, with the growth of independent philosophical thinking in Arabic, the translations were revised to express the arguments with greater clarity, precision and accuracy; but this was usually done from Syriac versions and not from the Greek originals.

The vast extent of the work of translation is impressive. Many translations are still extant and an even greater number are known by title only.1 At first sight it looks as if all Greek works on science and philosophy had been translated into Arabic; but this is not so. Recent studies have shown that what in fact was translated was that section of Greek scientific and philosophical literature which was still valued in the late Hellenistic schools. This includes the whole of Aristotle except the Politics -, even the Poetics was translated, though one wonders how intelligible it was to men who had no acquaintance with drama. The pre-Socratics were neglected, but some later writers received more attention than has been the case in the modem European tradition; indeed philosophical works of Galen have been preserved in Arabic which are not extant in Greek. Thus the translations of Greek works throw light not merely on the origins of philosophy in Arabic, but also on the later history of Greek science and philosophy in Hellenistic times.

All this work of translation was only possible because at various points there was contact with a living tradition.2 Most important was the school of Gunde-Shapur.3 From 765 to 870 the Persian-Nestorian family of Bokhtishu' from this centre supplied the court physician to the caliphs, and at the same time were responsible for a teaching hospital in Baghdad. Besides the strictly medical curriculum there must also have been some work in philosophy here. Secondly there was the philosophical tradition of Alexandria. Hie fact that before the Arab conquest Syriac had been replacing Greek suggests that it was not in a healthy condition—perhaps because of the rising 'nationalism' of the Copts or their unmetaphysical outlook. Whatever the reason—and it may be connected with the weakness of Islamic intellectual life in Egypt—about 718 the college was moved to Antioch. Here it remained for over a century, but about 850 migrated eastwards to Harran, along the road to Mosul, and then about half a cenntury later was attracted to the metropolis, Baghdad. These migrations were primarily migrations of the teachers and also to some extent of the library. In Baghdad they seem to have taken a full share in the intellectual life of the capital or at least that section of it which was sympathetic to philosophy.

There were also other lines of philosophical tradition, but we are not so well informed about them. Besides the Alexandrian college in Harran, which was under Christian direction, there was a pagan centre belonging to the sect known as the $abi'ans. Their religion included star-worship, but it had a basis in Greek philosophy, and in consequence of this they made important contributions to the arab-izing of the Hellenistic intellectual tradition. In 872 one of their leading scholars, Thabit ibn-Qurra (d.901), who had already studied at Baghdad, quarrelled with other members of the sect and left Harran for the capital. Here with support from the caliph he devoted himself to translating and to composing original works, chiefly in medicine and mathematics; he also collected round him some younger §a-bi'ans. It was not only in Baghdad, however, that philosophy was cultivated. The biographies of some of the leading philosophers makes it clear that there was also considerable interest in it in the eastern part of the caliphate; but it is not possible to say anything definite about this.

How exactly the transition was made from translation to the composition of original works is not altogether clear. It would be natural, however, for some of the scholars engaged in translation to want to write something original, either to add something to what was in the Greek works, or to provide a simple introduction for those unfamiliar with the Greek sciences. There was also a need to bring philosophical conclusions more into line with Islamic doctrines. This transition and these motives are exemplified in Abu-Yusuf Ya'qub ibn-Is'haq al-Kindi (c.800-70). He is usually known as al-Kindl, and, as the first of the notable Islamic philosophers and the only one of Arabic descent, he is also called the 'philosopher of the Arabs' {faylasuf al-'Arab). The last reason for original philosophical writing was perhaps the most important, and his production has been described as essentially 'Greek philosophy for Muslims'.4

Al-Kindi's family had held a number of official posts in Arab parts of the caliphate; the chief of these had been the governorship of Kufa. He himself became attached to the caliphal court, and during the reign of al-Mu'tasim ( 833—42 ) was tutor to the latter's son. This was during the period of the Mu'tazilites' ascendancy ( to be described in the next chapter ), and al-Kind! seems to have shared their views on dogmatic questions. In this respect he was much closer to the main body of Islamic theological thought than most of the other philosophers. Early in the reign of al-Mutawakkil (847-61) there was a reversal of government policy and the Mu'tazilites fell from favour. This may have contributed to an unfortunate experience which befell al-Kindi; by the intrigues of two hostile courtiers his library was taken from him and removed to Basra for a time, but in the end he got it back again.

From this incident we know that al-Kindi had what was for the time a huge library. He must have spent the greater part of his time in study, and was an acknowledged expert in nearly all the Greek sciences. His numerous short writings suggest that he was an effective agent in spreading the knowledge of these sciences among the Muslims. The philosophical position which he adopted was by and large Neoplatonic, as was that of most of the Islamic philosophers. This was mainly the result of the form taken by the later Greek philosophical tradition when the Muslims came into contact with it. Though Aristotle was studied carefully, he was seen through Neoplatonic eyes. To increase the confusion there was a work in circulation among the Muslims known as The Theology of Aristotle, which has now been recognized as consisting of extracts from the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. This work had a considerable vogue in its Arabic version. Its Neoplatonic doctrine of God must have seemed sufficiently close to Qur'anic monotheism. At any rate al-Kindi accepted Neoplatonism with what must have seemed to him minor modifications. He felt capable of asserting that the truths revealed through prophets were metaphysical knowledge, and that there was no contradiction between philosophy and revelation. Presumably he meant that philosophy could be developed in a way that was both in accordance with its own nature and also compatible with revelation. He did not simply take over the views of others, but into the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation quietly inserted a creation out of nothing, as if there was no difficulty in reconciling the two.

The other chief scholar in the Greek tradition during the early 'Abbâsid period was ar-Ràzï ( that is, the man from Rayy ), well known in Europe as Rhazes. His full name is Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Zakariyyâ' ar-Ràzï, and he is said to have been bom in 86 s and to have died in 923 or 932. His early life was spent in his native town of Rayy (near modem Teheran), and it was only after his thirtieth birthday that he began to study medicine in Baghdad. He practised as a physician and taught both at Rayy and Baghdad and also for short periods at some of the minor courts in the eastern regions of the caliphate.

His chief claim to fame is as a physician, and his medical works were long read and valued in Europe. Yet like most physicians of this period he was also something of a philosopher. Indeed philosophy might be said to take the place of religion for him, as it did for Plato, whom he greatly admired and tended to follow. It was through philosophy and the use of reason, he believed, that human life could be improved. This outlook finds expression in a simply written little book on ethics and the art of living, which has been translated into English under the title of The Spiritual Physick.5 The translator speaks of his attitude as one of 'intellectual hedonism', which 'reflects very characteristically the outlook of the cultured Persian gentleman'. He had little use for religion, Islamic or any other. Doubtless he shared something of the outlook of the Persian secretary class, of whom he must have known many; but, though he is said to have had Manichaean sympathies, there is no clear evidence of this in his writings. Likewise, he is said to have had connections with the Sabi'an philosophical school of Harran; but his philosophy is more Platonic than either Neopythagorean (like that of the §abi'ans) or Neoplatonic. Its precise source is, indeed, still something of a mystery, and he stands apart from the other Islamic philosophers. His ideal of life was of one devoted to intellectual pursuits, and his philosophy was of a piece with this. The ideal could not be made universal, but the philosophy justified his own use of his talents in helping to raise the level of Islamic culture, even if it was not a satisfactory account of what he in fact achieved.

The attraction of Greek science and philosophy for the Muslims seems to have been due in the first place to practical interests. The caliphs were concerned for their own health and that of those around them, and believed that the practitioners of Greek medical science could do something to help them. In this milieu, too, a high practical value was attached to astrology, which was not distinguished from astronomy. Astrological-astronomical works had an important place in the translation programme, and those competent in this discipline were received with favour at court. Since philosophy was closely associated with these sciences in teaching, it was natural that attention should be paid to it also. It is important to realize, however, that all this cultivation of the Greek tradition took place largely in isolation from the main stream of Islamic thought represented by the 'general religious movement'.

The contacts of this latter with the living Hellenistic tradition came about chiefly in two ways. Some men came to realize the usefulness of logical methods and of philosophy as a whole through having arguments with members of other religions. Such arguments seem to have been common. Among the works of St John of Damascus (d.750) is a T)isputation between a Christian and a Saracen'

which shows Christians the arguments they were likely to meet and possible lines of reply.6 A record has also been preserved of the speech made by the Nestorian patriarch Timothy in 781 in a public discussion in the presence of the caliph.7 In Iraq there were also Buddhists and members of Indian sects. Thus from an early date Muslims must have realized that they were living among people of high intellectual culture who criticized and rejected some of their religious beliefs, and the needs of polemics and apologetics would encourage them to pay some attention to philosophical concepts and methods.

The other form of contact was through the conversion to Islam of men who had been brought up in the Hellenistic tradition of Iraq. This is difficult to document exactly, but it is known that many of the most prominent religious scholars of the early 'Abbasid period were converts or the sons of converts. Allowance must be made, however, for the fact that in Iraq—in contrast to Egypt— many men, even when they had not received explicit Hellenistic teaching, seem to have had a natural penchant towards the use of reason. Discussions of legal questions were prominent in the general religious movement, and some of the scholars involved, notably Abu-Hanifa and his followers, favoured rational forms of argument. When such scholars turned to theology, it was natural that they should make use of reasoning in this sphere also. Other scholars, and in particular the Hanbalites, strenuously opposed rational methods in both jurisprudence and theology. The discipline of rational, philosophical or speculative theology was known as Kalam (literally 'speech'}, and must have been well established before the end of the eighth century, since we hear of discussions in the salon of the Barmakids.

One of the prominent early Mutakallimun or exponents of Kalam was Dirar ibn-'Amr, whose floruit was about the reign of Harun ar-Rashid (786-809 ).8 He is known to have visited Baghdad, but spent most of his life in Basra, where he is reported to have been the leader of the discussions on Kalam before the Mu'tazilite Abu-1-Hudhayl. Only brief accounts of his views on various points have survived, but these cover all the matters discussed at the time from politics to physics. His political position may be described as moderate, and he was sufficiently versed in the Greek tradition to write a book on the Aristotelian doctrine of substances and accidents. In respect of theology in the narrower sense he was broadly speaking a Sunnite, and he seems to have been the first exponent of a conception later regarded as characteristic of Ash'arism, die conception of kasb or 'acquisition'. This was an attempt to reconcile the individual's responsibility for his acts with God's omnipotence. All Muslims held that God was omnipotent and also that he was a just judge; but to condemn people to Hell for acts for which they were not responsible would be unjust. Diràr's solution of the problem was that God creates our acts, whereas we 'acquire' them. Obviously any human act, such as shooting an arrow, presupposes that all the things involved will continue to function according to their natures. All, however, are created by God, as indeed is also the agent's power to initiate the act. Yet despite this the act is in some sense his act, and the term kasb is an attempt to indicate this relationship between the human agent and his act. It probably had a commercial connotation and meant 'having it credited to him' rather than simply 'acquiring'. Other renderings would be 'appropriating it' or 'making it his'.®

Another scholar who was a contemporary of Diràr's and participated with him in theological debates in the salon of Yahyâ the Barmakid, was Hishâm ibn-al-Hakam. In many respects his views were similar to those of Dirâr, but in politics he was an Imâmite ( or Ràfidite). While Diràr seems to have been an Arab, Hishâm was probably a non-Arab, and moreover in Kufa, where he spent most of his life, was in touch with at least one of the groups which mingled dualistic speculations with Greek ideas.

The names are preserved of half a dozen other scholars who seem to have been followers of Diràr and to have constituted something like a school. They are sometimes referred to collectively as Ahl al-Ithbat, 'the upholders of the affirmation' (sc. of God's omnipotence). One or two others are also known to have engaged in Kalàm who were neither Mu'tazilites nor followers of Diràr. In the period after Diràr and Hishâm the development of Kalàm was largely in the hands of the Mu'tazilite sect, but some of the earliest Mu'tazilites worked closely with these two men and seem to have been influenced by them. Indeed for a time the term 'Mu'tazilite' ( originally a nickname ) was used loosely and was applied to Dirâr and others who employed Greek ideas in theological discussions. It is clear that all the early theologians mentioned were very interested in Hellenistic thought and had a wide knowledge of it, though they were perhaps not as expert as the translators and the philosophers like al-Kindï. During the excitement of the pioneer exploration of Hellenistic philosophy men of diverse views and interests seem to have mixed freely with one another, but before the end of the ninth century the philosophical theologians and the philosophers proper were working in complete isolation from one another.

The phrase 'the first wave of Hellenism' used as the title of Part 2 describes this first period of enthusiasm for the study of the Greek tradition, and also indicates that it was limited in certain respects. Though the theologians sometimes discussed questions that were essentially philosophical, more and more they lost interest in such matters. What they continued to use was certain methods of argument they had learnt and a few ideas which were found helpful in arguments with other Muslims and with members of other religions. By about 850, however, this 'first wave' had subsided, and no fresh Greek elements were taken into Kaläm until the late eleventh century with al-Ghazäli.

Dirär and his followers have been described as a 'forgotten school'. The Muslim writers of books on heresies could not conceive of a development of doctrine but thought that it remained static and unchanging. All they did therefore was to mention heretical views and to classify theologians on that basis. Though Dirär was in fact working his way towards some of the formulations of Sunnite Kaläm, the heresiographers failed to appreciate this, and recorded some of his incidental speculations, such as the suggestion that on the day of resurrection the faithful would receive a sixth sense by which they would perceive God's essence. The modem historian, thinking in terms of development, is able to see that Dirär and his associates made important contributions to the elaboration of Kaläm in both its Sunnite and Mu'tazilite versions.

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