The translation of Greek philosophical works into Arabic fell on fertile ground—on receptive, keen minds. This is immediately seen in the first Islamic philosopher Kindi, who was involved with the translation movement, encouraging the translators in their work. He alights on the philosophical scene unexpectedly—not as the hesitant novice, but with full confidence, energy, considerable knowledge and skill in argument. The range of his writings, many of them lost, but known by their titles, is wide and include an abundance of scientific treatises. His extant philosophical works include a treatise on definitions that represents an important step in the development of an Arabic philosophical vocabulary. They also include the first Islamic metaphysical treatise. This, the most important and longest of his extant philosophical treatises, entitled On First Philosophy? consists of four parts.
In the short introductory part, he defines philosophy as knowledge of things in their true nature to the extent of man's capability, a definition which Avicenna much later on repeats. First philosophy or metaphysics, Kindi then declares, is knowledge of the First Truth who is the cause of every truth. He exhorts his Islamic readers not to be ashamed of acquiring truth "from whatever source it comes, even if it comes from distant races and different people." He also refers to Aristotle as the philosopher who excels all others. The second part offers a detailed argument to prove the world's creation exnihilo at a finite moment of time in the past from the present. Body, he argues must be finite. For if one supposes it infinite, then theoretically speaking one can remove from it a finite part. What is left would still be infinite but less than the infinite from which the finite is removed. This meant for the medievals that we have unequal infinities, a contradiction. Body, he argues, cannot exist without being in motion. Motion and time, he continues, must also be finite. The two are coextensive, time being the measure of motion. Accordingly, motion and time are created with the world which is created out of nothing.
Kindi's position on the world's origin is atypical in terms of medieval Islamic philosophy. The main position on this issue is represented by his successors Alfarabi and Avicenna. Both upheld the doctrine of the world's pre-eternity. The Islamic theologian (lawyer and mystic) Ghazali (al-Ghazali) (d. 1111) pronounced the latter philosophers as infidels for upholding this doctrine, as well as two other doctrines: the doctrine that only souls are immortal—there is no bodily resurrection—and the doctrine (properly associated with Avicenna) that God knows terrestrial particulars only "in a universal way," not in their particularity. On the first two points Kindi's position is consistent with traditional Islamic belief. Not only did he argue philosophically for the doctrine of creation ex nihilo—a notable departure from Aristotle whom he revered—but supported his position with quotes from the Qur'an. He also explicitly upheld the doctrine of bodily resurrection. (A later medieval Arabic source reported that Kindi also believed that God knows all particulars in their particularity, but there is nothing in his extant writings showing that he discussed such a question). It is clear, however, that his philosophical position was in harmony with traditional Islamic beliefs and offered a defense of it. In this sense, his philosophical perspective is Islamic.
To return to his treatise, the third and fourth parts consist of a sustained argument for the existence of God and a probing into of the nature of His unity.5 Kindi argues from the existence of plurality in this world for the existence of a creator who is utterly one. The unities in the created world, from which pluralities are formed, are accidental, not essential unities. Whatever belongs accidentally to one thing, he then argues, derives its existence from another thing wherein it exists essentially. The accidental unities in the world must ultimately derive their existence from an existent who is essentially one, God, the True One. The treatise is largely a synthesis of selected Platonic, Aristotelian, and Neoplatonic concepts. These are integrated and welded to form a distinctive world view that is other than the sum of its parts. It is a distinctively "Kindian" world view. It is as though the Greek ideas embodied in it and that pervade it now acquire a new philosophical personality.
This phenomenon of forming new syntheses substantially based on Greek concepts is encountered in subsequent more highly developed Islamic philosophical systems. This is certainly the case with the philosophy of Avicenna, the most detailed and developed medieval Islamic metaphysical system. Again, the conceptual building blocks, so to speak, of Avicenna's system also derive mainly from Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. These concepts, however, are subjected to critical analyses: some are rejected, some are accepted in their original form; others are modified, rethought and expanded on.6 They are integrated to form a cosmic view that has a character all its own. To give some idea of its characteristic features, we will begin with the distinction so basic to Avicenna's entire metaphysical system. This is the distinction he draws between quiddity or essence and existence which, he holds, applies to all existents, potential or actual, other than God.
The basic idea of this distinction is not difficult to grasp. From knowing what a thing is, one cannot infer that it exists. To use an example suggested by Avicenna in a related discussion, I can have a concept of a heptagonal building. From my conception of such a building I cannot infer that it exists. It is true that if I conceive it, it exists as a concept in my mind. But its mental existence is not part of its definition as heptagonal. To be sure, any such quiddity or essence can exist either in the mind, outside the mind, or in both. But considered strictly in itself, that is, simply in terms of what it is, it includes neither existence, nor the concomitants of existence, unity and plurality. The quiddity horseness, considered in itself, he tells us, is simply horseness. In itself it is neither one nor many, exists neither externally, nor in the soul, existing in none of these things either in potency or in act.
This distinction has a number of ramifications which Avicenna discusses as he builds up his system. The quiddity considered in itself and by itself, though at one point referred to by Avicenna in a general way as a universal, is not strictly speaking a universal. It is, however, he maintains, a component of the universal concept. It becomes a universal when universality, that quality that renders it predicable of many instances, is added to it. Again, quiddities exist outside the mind, in external reality, in particular instances. This, Avicenna explains, does not render a quiddity many quiddities. To take animality as an example, it exists associated with many individuals, but this does not render it many animalities. In itself, it is neither one nor many. Its being particularized does not prevent it from being considered in itself. For as Avicenna expresses it, animality itself with another is still itself.
But if quiddities do not include existence, what is their relation to existence? Since quiddities exist either in the mind, externally, or both mentally and externally, they are existents. But although existence is not a constituent of what they are, it is their necessary concomitant. Otherwise quiddities would exist neither mentally nor externally. What about existence itself? Here there are two ways of looking at it encountered in Avicenna's writings. One pertains to the existence of one's immaterial self. In his psychological writings, Avicenna maintains that the human rational soul, an immaterial self, has a direct awareness of its own existence. But, he also speaks of the existent, the thing, and the necessary, as primary concepts, similar to the self-evident truths of logic. These primary concepts underlie all our thinking.7 It is through an examination of the concept of the existent that we arrive at the existence of God. (Implicit in this argument is that the concept of the existent has a referent outside the mind). Avicenna does not exclude the causal argument based on our experience of the external natural world as a proof for God's existence. But the argument through the examination of existence he regards as the superior argument. "It is the mode that is more reliable and noble, that is, when we consider the state of existence, we find that existence inasmuch as it is existence bears witness to God while He thereafter bears witness to all that comes after Him in existence."8
The proof is based on the distinction between essence and existence, though not with respect to God. If a quiddity or essence exists, then it is either necessary in itself or only possible. The impossible cannot exist. If necessary in itself, Avicenna then argues, it has to be one, unique, uncaused and the ultimate cause of all other existents. This would be God. If on the other hand it is not necessary in itself, and this applies to existents other than God, and if the quiddity in itself does not include existence, then it must derive its existence externally. As a being in itself only possible, it can exist or not exist. It needs a preponderant to bring it into existence, a necessitating cause. If this cause is also only possible in itself, it needs another external cause and so on. But such a chain of causes— Avicenna here is speaking of essential causes that coexist with their effects—cannot be infinite. They must terminate in a being whose quiddity does not require an external existence. This is God, whose quiddity is existence.
But Avicenna does not stop at this point. He proceeds to infer the existence of the world in a triadic series of emanations from the existence of God. (We will be discussing this emanative system when discussing his religious philosophy) This emanative scheme is certainly vulnerable to the serious logical criticisms Ghazali leveled against it in the Third Discussion of his The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Whatever its shortcomings, however, it offered a synthesis between the astronomical view to which Avicenna subscribed and the emanative scheme which he developed. In this he conveyed a cosmic vision that was very influential in subsequent Islamic thought. But is this all that there is to this cosmological view?
The basic element in Avicenna's system about which thus far we have said nothing is what is distinctively Islamic. Avicenna expands on a cosmological emanative scheme whose foundations were laid down by his predecessor Alfarabi. Both Alfarabi and Avicenna identified (to their own satisfaction) their Neoplatonic conception of the first cause of all existents (other than God) with the Qur'anic God. Both developed a theory of prophecy and revelation where the prophet becomes the link between the celestial and terrestrial worlds. Islamic institutions are interpreted in terms of what in essence is a Platonic theory of an ideal state. To see more clearly how this is accomplished we will be turning to the architect of this philosophical interpretation of Islam, to Alfarabi. We will also be returning briefly to Avicenna to see how his expansion on Alfarabi fills certain gaps in the interpretation of his predecessor.
First, however, it should be remarked that it is primarily in the endeavor of these two philosophers to give a philosophical interpretation of Islamic beliefs and institutions that we are referring to them as Islamic. They are, to be sure Islamic in the broad sense that they belonged and participated in that complex civilization we term Islamic. This is a civilization which though multicultural and varied remained in its ethos Islamic in the religious sense. At the same time this was a civilization that accommodated other religions. Thus, for example, the medieval Muslim historian of Islamic sectarian thought, al-Shahrastani (d. 1153), referred to Yayha Ibn Adiyy (d. 974), a noted Christian philosopher as Islamic in this broad cultural sense. Yahya wrote in Arabic and was part of this civilization. But as just stated, he was a Christian, not a Muslim. Alfarabi and Avicenna, on the other hand, regarded themselves as Muslims. And there is no reason for doubting their sincerity in believing that their philosophical interpretation of Islam was concordant with Islamic belief.
Sincerity, however, is one thing and the validity of what one is sincere about is another. The more traditional religious Islamic thinkers rejected their philosophical interpretation of Islam. They argued, in effect, that this interpretation was based on a concept of God as an intellectual principle far removed from the Qur'anic concept of a creator God directly involved in human history. It is thus that the theologian Ghazali condemned these two philosophers as infidels. He did not condemn them because they did not believe in one God and in revelation, but because, as he saw it, they had an erroneous conception of the one God and a wrong interpretation of what constitutes revelation. But whether or not one agrees with Ghazali, the philosophy of these two individuals represents a form of synthesis between aspects of two cultural traditions, the classical and the Islamic. But, perhaps more to the point, their interpretation of Islam was central to their philosophical enterprise.
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