The Second Wave Of Hellenism


After the first enthusiastic acceptance of Greek ideas in the years round about 800 the majority of Muslim religious scholars made no further explorations of the Greek heritage but contented themselves with criticizing or assimilating what was already present in Islamic works. It was this lull in exploration which justified the metaphor of a first wave of Hellenism. Before long, however, the beginnings could be observed of a second wave. During the tenth century small groups continued to cultivate philosophy, and this was closely connected with the study of Greek medicine and the other Greek sciences. The Muslim students of philosophy were far from being fanatical adherents of Islam, and, in philosophical discussions and even in teaching, Muslims and Christians seem to have associated on equal terms. The work of these groups culminated eventually in the outstanding achievements of Avicenna in both philosophy and medicine, and these in turn led to the acceptance into Islamic theology of further Greek conceptions and methods through the work of al-Ghazalx.

In the first half of the tenth century philosophy was dominated by the figure of al-Farabi (c.875-950).1 He is known as 'the second teacher', Aristotle being the first. Though bom in Turkistan, he eventually studied philosophy and the 'Greek sciences' in Baghdad, where his chief teacher of philosophy was a Nestorian Christian, while he was in contact with others of the Christian Aristotelians there, such as the philosopher Yahya ibn-'Adi (d.974). How he gained a livelihood is not clear, but, since he lived an ascetic life, his needs were doubtless few. In 942 he accepted an invitation to the court of the Hamdanid prince Sayf-ad-dawla in Aleppo, and spent the remainder of his life there.

His philosophy may be described as having a foundation of Aris-totelianism and a superstructure of Neoplatonic metaphysics. To this he added a political theory based on the study of Plato's Republic and Laws. The last element seems to be an original contribution of his own, but in the former two he is developing the line of thought of al-Kindi. In the centre of his metaphysics is the First Being or absolute One, which was understood to be identical with God as proclaimed in Islamic doctrine. From him emanated all other existing things in hierarchical order. Similarly in the state there is a head, the ia'Is, from whom all authority in the state emanates in that he assigns men to their appropriate grades (in something the same way as the 'Abbasid caliph assigned men to various posts in the court and administration). The grades are described as grades of commanding and obeying or of controlling and being controlled; at the foot in the lowest grade are those who are themselves controlled, but do not control any others below them, while at the top is the ia'Is who control others but is not himself controlled. The intermediate grades control others and are themselve controlled in varying degrees.

Al-Farabi uses perfectly general terms (like 'head' rather than imam or caliph) which could be applied to non-Islamic states as well as to the Islamic empire, but he is thinking primarily of the Islamic world. The 'first head' of his ideal state is a prophet who has also the best qualities of the true philosopher. He is to be followed by a 'second head' who should have slightly different qualities. If the qualities requisite for the 'second head' are not all found in one man, then rule may be divided among those who share the qualities. Some of the descriptions of such persons could apply to the ulema and students of Hadlth as they existed in his time, while the 'second head' might just conceivably be an imam as conceived by the Imamites. Perhaps al-Farabi was deliberately vague, and was chiefly concerned that philosophy should contribute to ordering the affairs of the caliphate.

In the second half of the tenth century we hear of a philosophical coterie in Baghdad which met in the house of Abu-Sulayman al-Mantiqx, 'the logician' (d.985 or later). Unlike most philosophers this man seems to have had no official position, though he was in favour at the Buwayhid court. Some of the discussions at his house have been recorded by his younger friend Abu-Hayyan at-Tawhidl (d. 1023), who was an important literary figure, though he earned his living as a secretary to viziers and other court-officials in Baghdad and the provinces.2 Both men had studied under the Christian philosopher Yahya ibn-'Adi (d.974).

Another man who combined philosophy and literature was Mis-kawayh (or Ibn-Miskawayh) (d.1030), a Persian who served as secretary to members of the Buwayhid reigning family and their viziers. He is best known for a lengthy universal history, of which the concluding part has been translated into English as The Eclipse of the 'Abbasid Caliphate. (Incidentally this reproduces Abu-Hayyan's account of the discussion of 'Adud-ad-Dawla's death in 983 at the house of Abu-Sulayman.) Among Miskawayh's other extant works is a book of philosophical theology, Al-Fawz al-asghar, dealing with the being of God, the being of the soul and the nature of prophethood. It is not an important book in the intellectual history of Islam, but it is an interesting example of how thinkers who were primarily philosophers nevertheless accepted a framework of Islamic conceptions,-the last section of this book, for example, explains in terms of a philosophical account of the soul how prophethood is possible. More influential philosophically was The Refinement of Character, which is the exposition of a complete system of morals on a mainly Platonic basis. The book was used by al-Ghazali and other writers.3

Philosophy must have been cultivated at many centres in the Islamic world. By chance we hear of men versed in the philosophical sciences at a small town near the south coast of the Caspian Sea. At least it was a man from this town who gave the first instruction in philosophy to a boy who later became in the opinion of many the greatest of all the philosophers writing in Arabic. This was Avicenna, or Abu-'Ali ibn-Siria (980-1037). He was mainly of Persian stock, it would seem, but may also have had Turkish blood. He grew up in Bukhara, and began his education by memorizing the Quran and Arabic poetry, before passing on to jurisprudence. He was possibly only about fourteen when the visiting scholar mentioned above introduced him to Aristotelian logic, and found to his surprise that the boy soon had a better grasp of the subject than his teacher. With an insatiable thirst for knowledge Avicenna then devoured all the scientific and philosophical books he could get hold of. He studied medicine, apparently by himself, and obtained so thorough a theoretical grasp that practising physicians came to read medical books under his guidance. According to the autobiographical fragment from which we derive this information all this happened before he was seventeen; and he also tested out and increased his medical knowledge by treating patients.

In this course of omnivorous study the one subject which gave him trouble was metaphysics. He says he had read over Aristotle's Metaphysica forty times and had the text by heart, and yet he was baffled by it, until he chanced to come on a little book by al-Farabi which brought him full illumination. This anecdote indicates that it was the direct influence of the older Islamic philosopher which led him to adopt so similar a general position in philosophy. For the next year or so he had access to a remarkable library of Greek works belonging to the sultan of Bukhara, and made the fullest use of his time. Before he was eighteen, he reckoned, he had assimilated all the scientific and philosophical knowledge available, so that thereafter he added nothing to his store of information, though his understanding of it deepened. Perhaps it was well that he had read so widely while he had the opportunity, for about 998 his circumstances changed. On his father's death he had to seek a civil service appointment to make a living. The political conditions of the region also altered for the worse; and the rise and fall of small dynasties and administrations meant that he had constantly to move from place to place. From about 1015 to 1022 he was in Hamadhan, and for part of this time occupied the difficult and dangerous post of vizier or chief minister to the local Buwayhid prince. From about 1023 until his death he was in Ispahan, under the patronage of the local prince.

In considering Avicenna as a philosopher, it must also be remembered that his Canon of Medicine holds an outstanding place in medical science, and that his writings on other sciences were also influential. His philosophy is contained chiefly in two books, the Shifa' and the Najat, of which the first is a great compendium including sciences as well as philosophy, while the second is an abridged version of the philosophical parts of the longer work. This second is divided into three parts, one dealing with logic, one with 'natural philosophy' (really questions about such matters as substance and accident and the nature of the human soul), and one about 'theology' (including cosmology). The general position is Neoplatonic. God is the One, the 'necessarily existent' (wajib al-wujud), from whom everything emanates. Beneath him are the pure intelligences and the spheres. The conception of the human soul is essentially Aristotelian, but modified apparently in accordance with the discussions and interpretations of later Greek platonizing philosophers. Like most of the other Islamic philosophers he explains the possibility of prophethood; but where al-Farabx had connected prophethood with the highest form of imagination, Avicenna links it with the highest part of the soul, the intellect.

It is also worth noting that in contrast to al-Farabi, there is no trace of Shi'ism in Avicenna, that is, no attempt to show that the actual ruler receives a more than ordinary portion of divine wisdom. He is mainly concerned to explain how through a prophet a state based on divine wisdom may be established in the first place. This change of emphasis and apparent avoidance of Shi'ism is perhaps chiefly due to the fact that by this time Fatimid propaganda was active in the east of the Islamic world. Avicenna himself remembered how when he was a boy propagandists had arrived in Bukhara and how he had overheard heated discussions about the teaching they gave. In his maturity even Imamite-Shi'ite rulers must have realized that this propaganda was a threat to their power; and anything resembling it would therefore be suspect. Another relevant point is that Avicenna had as much political power as he wanted, and does not seem to have felt in any way the rivalry of Sunnite ulema. Thus there was nothing to lead him to exaggerate the importance of philosophy. In this respect he was in a similar position to the Mu'tazilites during the period of their political ascendancy; and like them he took for granted that his philosophical interpretation of Islam was the true one. An identification of their own interpretation with the true Islam was likewise common among mystics; and Avicenna had also a mystic side.

The final questions concerning Avicenna are about the relation of his philosophy to his mysticism and to his religious outlook generally. To begin with the latter, he was brought up as a good Muslim, he memorized the Qur'an and he studied the Shari'a or revealed law. In the autobiographical fragment he tells us that he went to the mosque and prayed about his intellectual problems, and he says nothing about any conscious change in his views. He probably felt that the Greek scientific and philosophical learning belonged to a different sphere from Islamic doctrine, and that there was no fundamental opposition between them. In his philosophy he seems to have thought of himself as supporting and elucidating what he considered to be the central doctrines of Islam—the existence of God who is the source of all being, and the possibility of men becoming prophets and receiving revelations. Avicenna's conception of prophethood and his conception of the soul's journey to God are closely linked both with one another and with his philosophy. Nineteenth-century European scholars thought that his mysticism was extraneous to his philosophy, but fuller acquaintance with his writings makes it clear that this is not so. His mysticism and his philosophy constitute a single integrated system. The extent of his mystical writings shows that the mystical life meant much to him. It was presumably the source of his intellectual energy. Because of this personal religious attitude Avicenna has been held by one of the leading modem scholars to come closer to the spirit of Plato than other philosophers whose style is more Platonic and less Aristotelian. 'He understood something which is the very essence of Plato's thought, and it may be that for this reason he appealed to religious Muslims—as Plato himself has conveyed religious truth, to people open to religion, at all times.'4

While on the subject of philosophy mention may be made of Ikhwan as-$afa or Brethren of Purity. They have been called Neo-platonists, but they were not exactly Neoplatonic philosophers. They have been called Isma'ilites, but, while they may have had some connections originally with Isma'ilism, they did not share the political concerns of the Isma'ilites we know. They seem to have been a secret society engaged in a mystical quest for the purification of the soul with a view to attaining happiness in the life of eternity. Modem scholars have tried to discover their identity, but none has found a convincing solution of the problem. What we have is a collection of fifty-two epistles dealing with mathematics, natural sciences, philosophical disciplines and theology. Nineteenth-century European scholars were greatly impressed by the epistles and regarded them as a kind of encyclopaedia of the sciences of the day ( as known in Basra in the tenth or eleventh century ) ; but further study has shown that the learning is superficial, that there are many contradictions and that the disparate materials have not been shaped into a unified system. Though one or two later writers quote from the epistles, they cannot be said to have been an important formative influence in Islamic thought.5

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