When preparing myself to write about medieval Islamic philosophy and the classical tradition, I felt a touch of anxiety—a fear that I would be belaboring the obvious.1 For medieval Islamic philosophy, as we know it, was a direct result of the translations of Greek philosophy and science to Arabic. It is rooted in Greek philosophy. I also felt some discomfort with the term medieval, a chronological and cultural term commonly applied to European history. To what extent and in what sense can it apply to Islamic history? This is a question which should at least be asked, even though it is beyond my scope to go into it here. For my purposes, when writing about the medieval Islamic philosophers I will confine myself to those philosophers who flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries. They include such major figures as Kindi (al-Kindi) (d. ca. 870), Alfarabi (al-Farabi) (d. 950), Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (d. 1037) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (d. 1198). These are also the main philosophers who influenced the development of Jewish and medieval Latin scholastic thought.
At this point, however, we should remind ourselves that creative Islamic philosophy did not cease in the centuries that followed the death of Averroes. The world of Islam saw a multitude of post-Averroes philosophers. These included some of the most original Islamic thinkers as, for example, the Tunisian philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun who died in 1406 and the great Persian metaphysician Mulla Sadra who died in 1641. Mulla Sadra represents a rich tradition of post-Avicennan Iranian philosophy that continues unabated to the present day. This is a philosophy that has its own native genius and originality. Nonetheless, it remains rooted in what we have termed medieval Islamic philosophy that in turn rests on the Arabic translations of Greek thought.
The translators of Greek philosophy and science to Arabic were Syriac speaking scholars, mostly Nestorian and Jacobite Christians, but also Sabians from the city of Harran whose religion which included star worship had a Greek philosophical base. Some translations were made during the Umayyad caliphate (661-750), but most of them were undertaken, within approximately a period of two centuries, during the caliphate of the Abbasids who came to power in 750. There were phases in the history of these translations: translations were revised, new translations of works already translated and of works hitherto untranslated were made. The achievement of these translators was quite remarkable, not only for the volume of philosophical and scientific works translated, but also, as in the case of the most famous of the translators, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (d. 871) and his team of translators, for the high standards of scholarship they strove to maintain. Most of the translations were made from the Syriac, but sometimes directly from the Greek. These translators, many of them physicians, scientists and philosophers in their own right, were the teachers of the Islamic philosophers, whether directly as in the case of Alfarabi, or through their translations and treatises. More than anything else, It was their translations of Platonic, Aristotelian and Neoplatonic works that gave rise to Islamic philosophy.
Plato's thought seems for the most part to have been known indirectly, although we are in the realm of uncertainty here. Medieval Arabic histories mention such works as The Republic, The Laws, the Parmenides, the Timaeus, other dialogues and even The Letters as having been translated. These, however, seem to have been translations of paraphrases and summaries, Galen's Synopsis of the Platonic Dialogues being a most likely major source. Alfarabi gives a summary of the Laws, but without Bk.10 and in his Philosophy of Plato, he gives a summary of the Dialogues. Averroes wrote a middle commentary on Plato's Republic, that is, a lengthy paraphrase, not a commentary that reproduces the original text and comments on it section by section. It is not entirely clear, however, whether Averroes based his commentary on an Arabic translation of Plato's original text or only on a translation of a prosaic summary that concentrates on the substance of some of its main political themes. Plato's theory of ideas was well known to the Islamic philosophers, partly through Aristotle's account and criticism of it. Most of the medieval Islamic philosophers accepted Aristotle's interpretation of the theory and some, like Avicenna, gave parallel arguments in refuting it. The philosopher al-Suhrawardi (d. 1191) was a notable exception: he defended it and adapted it to his philosophy. The ideas of the Timaeus left their impact on the cosmology of the physician-philosopher Razes (al-Razi) (d. ca. 925) who argued for the world's creation at a finite moment in time, but not out of nothing. Creation for him was the imposing of order on pre-existing atoms. The main influence of Plato on Islamic philosophy, however, was on the development of medieval Islamic political philosophy.
Aristotle's thought was known more directly. Most of Aristotle's major works were translated, excepting the Politics and Bk.K of the Metaphysics. The earliest Arabic version of the Metaphysics was made probably in the first half of the 9th century by a certain Astat (Eustathius), about whom little is known. Translations of Aristotle's Organon together with elements of Stoic logic formed the basis of Arabic logic. In this connection, it should be remarked that Aristotle's very influential Posterior Analytics was a relatively late comer to the Islamic world. A partial Syriac translation first made by Hunayn Ibn Ishaq was followed by a complete translation by his son Ishaq, which in turn was translated into Arabic by Abu Bishr Ibn Matta (d.940). Aristotle's works embodied his scientific writings which together with translations of Greek medical, astronomical and mathematical works formed the basis of Islamic science. In addition to the works of Aristotle, a body of Greek commentary on Aristotle was also translated.
Neoplatonism, which had its impact on such main stream Islamic philosophers as Alfarabi and Avicenna, also influenced sectarian philosophies, notably Ismaili philosophy. Neoplatonic thought was known mainly through two works. The first was the apocryphal The Theology of Aristotle, a paraphrase of Books IV, V and VI of Plotinus' Enneads, translated in the 9th century for Kindi by Ibn Naima al-Himsi. The second was a work that seems to have been derived largely from Proclus' Elements of Theology, known in Arabic as Fi Mahd al-Khayr, On the Pure Good, and in its Latin translation as the Liber de Causis.
As already suggested, it was these translations, philosophical and scientific, that gave rise to both medieval Islamic philosophy and Islamic science. But they also had a determining effect on the development of other Islamic disciplines. This is particularly true of Islamic dialectical theology,2 defend and explain revelation. It differed from Islamic philosophy, falsafa, kalam. Kalam used reason—excessively according to some of its critics—to in that its starting-point was an implicit acceptance of the revealed word. The starting-point and concern of falsafa, on the other hand, is perhaps best entailed by a definition of philosophy enunciated, as we shall see, by some of the Islamic philosophers, namely, as knowledge of things in their true nature to the extent of man's capability. True enough, the theologians used premises that seemed independent of revelation, but as Maimonides (d. 1204) in his adverse criticism of the kalam noted, each school of the kalam (and there were many schools) chose those premises that suited their doctrine.3 Nonetheless, one must not underestimate the Islamic theologians' acumen and perceptiveness. The theories they developed, though in the service of religious doctrine, did not lack originality, intense probing, subtlety, and the systematic building of a world view.
Kalam also differed from falsafa in its historical origins. It had as its background seventh century religious sectarian concerns. It preceded the translation movement proper. But with time it became influenced by it, changing and adapting to itself Greek philosophical ideas, as for example, atomism. It interacted with falsafa and came into conflict with it. But it was also influenced by it. It reinterpreted philosophical theories, adapting them to its own theological views. The interaction between kalam and falsafa is at the heart of medieval Islamic intellectual history. But this is a topic all unto itself, beyond the scope of this lecture.
In what follows our concern will be with Islamic philosophy proper, with falsafa, more specifically with certain metaphysical outlooks engendered by the translation of Greek philosophical works. We will be confining ourselves to the thought of three representative medieval Islamic philosophers.
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