The Beginning And Development Of Medieval Arabian And Jewish Philosophy And Theology

Philosophy began and flourished in the medieval Islamic world before it developed in the Jewish or Christian communities. The study of Aristotle started with Al-Kindi in the ninth century at Baghdad. He had translations of Aristotle's Metaphysics and On the Heavens made, and also did the same for some of Proclus's writings. This translation effort was continued at the Christian school in Baghdad attended by Al-Farabi in the first half of the 10th century. There he studied under the Christians Ibn Haylan and Abu Bishr Matta. The latter translated the Poetics and the Posterior Analytics of Aristotle into Arabic. The Posterior Analytics dealt with demonstrative science and set up the rules for accepting universal and necessary truths. According to its canons, truths based on any authority, whether divine or human, are not demonstrative. The Christian students were not permitted to study the Posterior Analytics, but Al-Farabi was allowed. Over a hundred works were attributed to Al-Farabi by medieval biographers: on logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, philosophy of man, and politics. Although he was preceded by Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi must be given the premier place in the beginnings of Islamic philosophy. His first main influence was on Avicenna, an 11th-century author who must be rated as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of philosophy. Avicenna's summaries of Aristotle's philosophy were authoritative, even though, under the influence of the Koran and Plotinus, they went beyond Aristotle's teachings themselves.

In reaction to the philosophical-theological amalgam of Avicenna, the 12th-century Spanish Moor Averroes, in Cordova, attempted to remove the accretions made to Aristotle's philosophy by his Arabic predecessors and to recover it in all its rational purity. His commentaries on Aristotle's many philosophical works were paragraph-by-paragraph explanations of what Aristotle held, seemingly assuming an identity between what Aristotle taught and philosophy itself. In addition to his opposition to Avicenna's mixture of Aristotle with the foreign contributions from the Koran and Plotinus, Averroes also fought the theologians. Averroes's attack was focused on Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which was a theological attempt to show the falsity of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic teachings as found primarily in Avicenna, such as the eternity and necessity of the world and other doctrines that, to Ghazali, conflicted with the teachings of the Koran. In his Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes attempted to refute the argument of Ghazali as he attacked the theologians who unhappily, according to him, mixed faith and reason: Unable to reach demonstrative knowledge and the unity of truth it alone ensures, the different schools of kalam, dialectically departing from distinct authoritative principles according to their interpretation of the Koran, divided Islam into doctrinal sects.

The Jewish philosophical and theological world was closely linked to the Arabian intellectual tradition. The writings of these Jewish authors were originally in Arabic, though many were later translated into Hebrew (and Latin). These writings also manifested the dialectical style found in the works of Islamic kalam. Saadiah Gaon, the 10th-century Egyptian expert in Jewish law, Hebrew grammar, and the translator into Arabic and commentator on many biblical books, introduced, as was already indicated, dialectical theology into the medieval Jewish community. The challenges his community faced were both internal and external. From within there was a great deal of perplexity due to the Karaites, Jews who rejected the authority of the oral rabbinical tradition and accentuated the role of rational judgment in regard to their religion. From without were the difficulties arising from the religious rivalries originating from Muslims and Christians and from the philosophical teachings of the Platonists and Aristotelians. Philosophy became for Saadiah a necessary instrument in facing these perplexities. In his biblical commentaries, and especially in his Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, he employs his knowledge of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies to clarify and strengthen the doctrines handed down in the Jewish community to transform basic faith into rational belief. In the 11th century, Avicebron, in The Source of Life, continued this form of kalam, placing technical philosophy at the service of belief.

In the 12th century, Maimonides, born in Cordova and educated in philosophy by Arabian teachers, sought to reconcile Aristotelianism and Judaism in his Guide of the Perplexed. The Guide, Maimonides tells the reader, is meant to help those who are perplexed with seeming conflicts between secular knowledge and the letter of Jewish revelation. Strongly influenced by Alfarabi in his view of the relations between religious doctrines and philosophy, he developed a vision of the reconciliation of faith and reason that drew him high respect in certain philosophical and theological circles and condemnation in others. The 14th-century Jewish writer Gersonides, adhering to Aristotelian philosophy more extensively and explicitly than Maimonides, brought the tensions between philosophy in its Aristotelian dimensions and Jewish beliefs to a high point in Europe. Many found Gersonides's interpretation of the truths of revealed religion insufficient or superficial. In fact, his approach even elicited negative reactions against philosophy as such in Jewish circles.

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