The relation of Islamic philosophy to Greek philosophy
There are two views regarding the relationship between the Islamic and Greek philosophical traditions. One holds that Islamic philosophy served merely to transmit Greek philosophy through the ages, that is, what is called ‘Islamic philosophy’ is merely Greek philosophy translated into Arabic, without any addition thereto, and that those called ‘Islamic philosophers’ had in fact left the fold of Islam. This view is posited by certain Orientalists and is based on several justifications. The first of these is that the ability to philosophize (that is, engage in abstract rational activity) is unique to the Aryan race (stemming back to the ancient Greeks), while the Arab Muslim peoples, as Semites, are simply incapable of it. Proponents of this argument include Renan and Goethe. The second justification offered is that Islam and the Qur’an prohibit free rational inquiry (which is precisely the distinction of philosophy). Proponents of this argument include Tenneman, in his Abridged History of Philosophy.
The first justification noted above is based essentially on a racist characteristization of a tribal stage of social existence. In this frame of thought, the sole criterion of belonging to a tribe is consanguinity (whether literal or symbolic). Most world societies progressed past this phase to a new stage at which the focus of belonging is cultural identity, its locus being language, and not mere blood relation. For this reason, most later Orientalists drew away from this justification. This line of reasoning further involves a number of errors and contradictions, the most important of which is the division of all humanity into three types (Semites, Hamites, and Aryans). That division itself is, strictly speaking, a linguistic and not ethnic one, for you will find no pure ‘race’ that is not thoroughly mixed through with the others; and moreover, abstraction, as noted by psychology, is a generally human rational power, not restricted to a specific race.
The second justification is based on a certain (very limited) conceptualization of philosophy as starkly distinct from metaphysics and religion, whereas in fact any philosophical position stems from first principles and presuppositions that are not subject to rational verification or falsification. Even were they to admit such scrutiny, they would bear metaphysical import by the definition of this approach. Further, this conceptualization of philosophy requires excluding from its bounds all religious philosophy, whether Eastern or Western, which comprises a great part of the philosophical corpus at every stage of its development. In addition, every philosopher begins his philosophizing from the cultural values of the particular community to which he belongs. Therefore, whether Islamic philosophy draws on metaphysics or whether Islamic philosophers drew on the Islam that shaped the cultural matrix of their community and people, neither of these negate their being philosophers or Muslim. It is worth noting that certain Islamists, seeking to defend a ‘pure’ Islamic thought from outside influences, in fact agreed with the Orientalists in adopting this conceptualization.
The second broad view regarding the relationship between the Islamic and Greek philosophical traditions holds that Islamic philosophy is the result of adopting and developing Greek philosophy. This approach affirms the independence of Islamic philosophy—that is, that even if the Arabs took on the seeds of knowledge (including philosophy) from the Greeks, they nurtured and developed them on their own. History confirms that this philosophical tradition went through three distinct phases:
1) Around the second century AH, the Caliph al-Ma’mun established the fabled “House of Wisdom” specifically for a translation effort. Translation is not some automated task of transferring texts from language to another, but is a deliberate process of selecting and working with those texts that do not conflict with the broader civilizational matrix. Thus the Arabs translated Greek philosophical texts as opposed to Greek mythical lore, and devoted more effort to Aristotle than Plato, and, at that, emphasized the Republic rather than his discourses on ethics and beauty.
2) The third century AH came into its own with an impetus to annotation and exegesis. These are not merely efforts of paraphrase but yield independent commentary and critical literature, as in al-Farabi’s book on Aristotle’s philosophy.
3) After translation and commentary came further composition, which is a stage of augmenting the philosophical corpus. These stages build on each other, such that al-Farabi was able to write his book Tahsil al-sa‘ada after having written his earlier work on Aristotle.
Why did the Islamic philosophers take Greek philosophy as a starting point?
If the preceding offered evidence that Islamic philosophy did not merely serve to transmit Greek philosophy to later generations (and ultimately to Europe), but in fact developed and nurtured it, it is worth recognizing that the Islamic philosophers took Greek philosophy as a starting point. The rapid Islamic conquests annexed foreign populations such that a range of other creeds, religions, and legal regimes came under the sway of Islam—which then gleaned from philosophy and Greek logic the tools and instruments to defend its beliefs against these others it encountered. This task of defending Islam fell essentially upon the Islamic philosophers, who sought to do combat using the weapons of the enemy, as it were, starting from the suppositions of Greek logic and philosophy in order to argue for the precepts of Islam. While this strategy may have yielded a form of veneration accorded Greek logic and philosophy (the result of the philosophers’ long instrumental engagement with them), it differs strongly from the one taken by the discipline of kalam (speculative theology), which, as its practitioners essentially addressed other Muslims, would take Islamic precepts as its point of departure. In other words, Islamic philosophy is an effort at establishing a rational foundation for Islam that essentially addresses people who already admit the validity of Greek logic and philosophy but not Islamic precepts. The discipline of kalam, on the other hand, is an effort at establishing a rational foundation for Islam that essentially addresses those already admitting the validity of Islam.
It follows from this that Islamic philosophy, contrary to a multitude of Orientalists, is not limited to the intellectual output of figures like al-Kindi, al-Farabi, or Ibn Sina (in the Islamic East) or Ibn Majah, Ibn Tufayl, and Ibn Rushd (in the Islamic West). Rather, it extends to broadly include theoretical Sufism, the principles of kalam, legal theory, the principles of exegesis, and others, because the theoretical terminology of Islamic thought proximates the philosophical terminology of Western thought (each of them comprising operations of generalization and abstraction). In other words, Islamic philosophy in a restricted sense means the intellectual output of those philosophers, but in a broader sense includes all these Islamic disciplines.
The relation of Islamic philosophy to the religion and civilization of Islam; and whether, strictly, Islamic philosophy is Arab or Islamic Views on the relation of Islamic philosophy to Islam itself One view of the relation of Islamic philosophy to Islam is a position of absolute denial, holding that they have nothing to do with one another—that there is a fundamental conflict between Islam and philosophy generally and with Greek philosophy particularly. We may not, then, meaningfully describe the intellectual output of those philosophers as “Islamic” in any sense, nor consider them “Islamic” philosophers. Those advancing this view include certain later Hanbalis, such as Ibn al-Salah in his al-Fatawa. It is based on the premise that philosophy takes a united position on all issues that is opposed to the religious position of Islam, yet the fact of the matter is that there is a multiplicity of positions due to the radical differences between philosophical schools and philosophers. Ibn Taymiyya recognized this in the course of his refutation of those who held the philosophers collectively believed in the eternity of the world: “An unrestricted denial or affirmation of philosophy is not possible, because the philosophers do not adhere to a single position or agree with a sole opinion, whether in the realms of divinity, prophecy, or eschatology, nor in the realms of the natural sciences or mathematics” (Minhaj al-sunna, p. 253).
This position (of absolute denial) appeared in the period in which philosophy itself was changing, from a general and abstract rational activity to more specialized esoteric discourse mixed through with forbidden knowledges like magic, fortune-telling, and witchcraft. This is indicated by the relationship drawn between philosophy and these forbidden knowledges by such later jurists as al-Nawawi: “We have noted the types of sacred knowledge and those beyond it, whether forbidden or disliked or permitted. The forbidden comprises such knowledge as that of magic, philosophy, witchcraft, and astrology” (Majmu‘ sharh al-Muhadhdhab 1:27). It is clear that “philosophy” here denotes those habits of thought given to myth and fabulation that are resolutely opposed to those of philosophy and science no less than those of religion.
This position (of absolute denial) is also consistent with that of some of the above-mentioned Orientalists, who took the views of those supporting this stance as evidence for their own argument.
A second broad position on the relation between Islamic philosophy and Islam involves selected negation and affirmation—that is, a more critical position based on the supposition that there is no absolute contradiction with philosophy generally and Greek philosophy particularly. Rather, there are aspects each of consonance and dissonance, the former aspects of philosophy being accepted and the latter rejected. Thus, it is possible to call “Islamic” what of the philosophers’ corpus is broadly consistent with the religion of Islam, and deny such attribution for what is inconsistent.
For example, Ibn Taymiyya (as noted above) did not make a singular, absolute judgment on philosophy (meaning Greek philosophy). Instead he distinguished between various kinds of intellectual efforts all falling under the broad rubric of Greek philosophy: 1) metaphysics, which he rejected (most of his much-touted rejection of philosophy refers to this aspect); 2) natural sciences, which he permitted so long as they do not implicate one in metaphysics (paraphrased from his words, these are, for the most part, worthy discourse, prolific and expansive; though they are said to yield knowledge of truth, the effects of such knowledge are not manifest upon the practitioners of these sciences, who, obdurate, are ignorant of Divine knowledge); 3) mathematics, which he permitted (in his words, being “imperative for the science of dividing estates for purposes of inheritance and otherwise” [al-Radd ‘ala al-mantiqiyyin (Beirut: Dar al-ma‘rifa)]). Based on this approach and its distinctions, Ibn Taymiyya’s criticisms do not refuse describing the philosophical corpus of these thinkers as “Islamic”; rather, he concluded, “surely each of them contained their share of heretical distortions insofar as they contravened the Qur’an and Sunna; and too their share of sanction insofar as their insights confirm them” (Minhaj al-sunna, p. 252).
Al-Ghazali, for his part, similarly distinguished between three kinds of Greek philosophy, according to their compatibility or otherwise with the principles of religion: 1) one kind conflicting with Islamic principles in both formulation and meaning, being limited to the three issues of the eternity of the world, the philosophical denial of bodily resurrection, and philosophical denial of Divine knowledge of particulars; 2) one kind conflicting with Islamic principles in formulation but compatible in meaning, being seventeen issues; 3) and one kind compatible with Islamic principles in both formulation and meaning (al-Falasifa, Beirut ed., p. 9-13). He identified the views that take one beyond the pale of the orthodox creed, incurring charges of unbelief (takfir) and innovation (tabdi‘), and those that need not be denied at all. Based on this approach and its distinctions, al-Ghazali does not refuse generally describing the philosophical corpus of these thinkers as “Islamic”.
Finally, it must be noted that the source of much confusion over the Islamic status of Islamic philosophy is the lack of distinction between what the Islamic philosophers themselves wrote and held to be true, on the one hand, and their translations and paraphrase of the Greek philosophers, on the other.
The relationship of Islamic philosophy to Islamic civilization
The adjective “Islamic” in the term “Islamic philosophy” refers to Islamic civilization, not Islamic religion, for Islamic philosophy is not one of the sciences of Islamic religion but one of the sciences cultivated in Islamic civilization. This can be clearly illustrated through distinguishing between religious and rational sciences, the former relating to the foundations of religion and the latter to the fruits of rational activity (here, as manifested in Islamic societies). Islamic philosophy belongs to the latter category, like Islamic architecture, art, and pharmaceuticals.
Is Islamic philosophy properly Islamic or Arabic?
Certain scholars hold that this philosophy is, strictly speaking, Arabic philosophy, as it was the Arabs who proved the vanguard and made the first strides therein (the first philosopher was al-Kindi, a descendent of the Arab tribe called Kinda). Proponents of this view include Lutfi al-Sayyid, a sometime rector of Egyptian University.
Other scholars hold that this philosophy is indeed properly Islamic, because a good host of the philosophers in question were not Arabs at all (being Persians, Turks, and others). Proponents of this view include Shaykh ‘Abd al-Razzaq, shaykh of al-Azhar in his time.
Other scholars yet hold that Islam provides the basic infrastructure of Arab civilization, for it is what bound together all the varying tribes and nations in its territory into a single community. This suggests that each of the two preceding views is incorrect on its own, for they are based on starkly differentiating Arabness and Islam, which is incorrect and indeed impossible. If the criterion for belonging to a tribe is lineage or blood, the cultural identity of the Arabic, Muslim community is ultimately bound to the Arabic language, which is why philosophers’ roots beyond the Arab clans do not bar them from the community. This emphasis on a community of language echoes the hadith of the Prophet, God bless him and grant him peace: “Your being an Arab is due not to your father or mother; surely, Arabness is [on account of your] tongue, so whoever speaks Arabic is an Arab.” In this way, it is not only a definition based on Islam, which, as a religion, may encompass a host of communities with their own culture and philosophy, as with Persian or Turkish Islamic philosophy.
The Islamic Philosophers of the East
and Some of the Matters into which they Delved
Views on existence
1) The existence of the universe:
Al-Kindi held that the universe is contingent, meaning that it has beginning and end, emerging from void to existence and someday from existence again to void, due to the Divine will. This opposes belief in the eternity of the universe, that is, the position that it has neither beginning nor end, being pre-eternal and everlasting, as certain Greek philosophers opined.
He provides several proofs for the contingency of the universe, among them bodily finitude:
- If we separate part of a body from it, the remaining portion will either be finite or infinite
- If the remaining portion is finite, and we add to it again the separated part, the resultant aggregate will likewise be finite
- If the remaining portion is infinite, and we add to it again the separated part, the resultant aggregate will be either greater than or equal to the original
- If it is greater than the original, it follows that it would have become greater than itself, that is, an infinite body greater than another infinite body, and this is a contradiction in terms
- If the original body is equal to itself before separating the part and after its addition, this is also a contradiction
- And therefore it is necessary that the original body is finite, both after separating a part of it and after adding it to it again
- The universe is thus a finite body
- If the universe is finite, then its constituent propensities (like movement and time) are likewise finite (Mustafa Shahin, Tarikh al-fikr al-Islami, p. 102-104)
2) The existence of God the exalted
Evidence for his existence
Al-Kindi’s discussion of the existence of God follows his discourse on the contingency of the universe, because its premises are related to the latter argument. He holds that the existence of God is self-evident to those possessing sound faculties of reason and understanding, and those who still require proofs have limited insight. He holds that the admissible proofs for the existence of God are those gleaned from heavenly scriptures and the works of certain philosophers. One of these kinds of proofs is the argument from teleology, which argues that the order found in the universe requires the existence of an Orderer. However, al-Kindi does not admit causal arguments (those asking why or why not) because they are based on notions of cause and effect that are effective in the created universe but do not bind its Creator.
Evidence for his attributes
There are two kinds of Divine attributes: attributes of negation, that is, those negating certain qualities for God; and attributes of necessity, that is, affirming certain qualities necessary for the perfection of God. Al-Kindi addressed each of these kinds of attributes, saying of the former “we have clarified that the One, the Real, partakes in no type of concept, constituent, sex, genus, species, intellect, nor part”; he addressed the latter as when he said, for instance, “This is the ordering of one who is wise, knowing, powerful, knowledgeable and attentive to what He made.” However, he had the attributes of necessity rest on the attributes of negation, that is, giving the latter priority (like the Mu‘tazilites). Thus he held a doctrine of divine simplicity, namely, that the divine attributes are not external to the divine essence but are identical to it.
Evidence for his knowledge
Al-Kindi held that the divine knowledge encompasses general (ideal) forms and mutable (material) particulars. In this he opposed the view of certain Greek philosophers who restricted divine knowledge to changing generalities.
Views on knowledge
Al-Kindi holds there to be three sources of knowledge.
1) The senses, by which one perceives mutable particulars. These gain knowledge by appearances, and the knowledge thus gained forms a picture or figure within oneself.
2) Reason, by which one perceives fixed ideas. This is knowledge of the hidden realities of things, and is distinct because the perceiver does not thereby conceptualize an internal picture or figure. Rather, the perceived here is abstract and “limited to a brief and common term, such as the word ‘human.’”
3) Revelation. Al-Kindi held that one who relies solely on the senses perceives only apparent realities, and one who relies solely on reason perceives only hidden realities, yet in either case requires a lengthy period of time in order to adjudicate these sometimes conflicting or mistaken perceptions. Hence the third source of knowledge: illumination, meaning revelation. This knowledge inheres only in those persons chosen by God the Exalted for purposes of prophecy and messengership. The former two kinds of knowledge are attained without superlative striving or effort, but this kind of knowledge rests on the will of God the exalted and requires specific acquisition.
Views on ethics
Al-Kindi defines philosophy as “imitating godly acts to the extent of human ability”, where ‘godly acts’ are the complete virtues and ‘human imitation’ is striving to adhere to these virtues. These are defined in relation to two categories, one of which lies inside the self and the other outside the self. The first kind of ‘internal’ virtue is related to knowledge, that is, wisdom: what yields theoretical knowledge of the realities of things and calls for their prudential employment. The second kind of internal virtue is practical, and includes courage, which is the virtue related to the spirited faculty in appropriate matters (such as defending the nation), being the median between excessive aggression and negligent cowardice; and continence, which is a virtue related to the appetitive faculty and moderates the satisfaction of bodily needs. ‘External’ virtues, or the social virtues, are the fruits of the former individual ones, and comprise justice.
Al-Kindi’s understanding of creation, based on the Qur’an, was of existentiation from nothingness (as noted viz. the contingency of the universe). In this he opposed certain Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and others who insisted on the eternity of the universe, and instead followed the opinion of certain Islamic philosophers. His position that God the Exalted has knowledge both of generals and particulars likewise accords with the Qur’anic description of absolute Divine knowledge (as in the verse Q 6:59: And with Him are the keys of the unseen. None but He knows them. And He knows what is in the land and the sea. Not a leaf falls but He knows it, not a grain amid the darkness of the earth, naught of wet or dry but [inscribed] in a clear record). His ethical views exhibit the influence both of the Qur’anic median (Q 17:29: And let not your hand be chained to your neck nor open it with a complete opening, lest you sit down blamed, insolvent) and the Platonic typology of the four cardinal virtues (wisdom/prudence, courage, continence, and justice). Finally, he took up the Mu‘aizilite position in prioritizing attributes of negation over those of necessity and in the identity of Divine essence and attributes.
Historical roots for the theory of emanation
The theory of emanation is of Greek and Persian origin. Muslims encountered it in the ninth century CE (third century AH) in two ways: from the West, through the school of Alexandria, and from the east, through the school of Harran. Islamic philosophers tried to develop and direct it in line with the concepts and understandings of Islam, because it provided a philosophical foundation for a number of religions and creeds that prevailed among the populations (such as the Sabeans in Persia) that entered the domain of Islam through the early conquests. Hence the efforts of Islamic philosophers in this regard strove to begin with what was admitted by these populations (the theory of emanation) in order to reach what was admitted by the philosophers themselves (the religion of Islam).
The Theory of Emanation in Greek Philosophy
This theory emerged in neo-Platonism, such that we can find Plotinus in his Enneads dividing the world into the realm of ideal truths and sensible illusions. Then he divided the former into three hypostases: the one, the intellect, and the soul. The one emanates, existentiating the universal intellect, which in turn emanates, existentiating the universal soul. Matter, for its part, is the result of the exhaustion of potential emanation, being void, or, the lack of existence; the source of our belief in its existence is nothing but the deception of our senses.
Theory of emanation among the Sabeans
A theory of emanation is also found among the Sabeans, who divide being into a spiritual, luminescent, and exalted existence and a dark, abased existence. The universe comes into existence through the act of emanation in ten spiritual existents: the one, the intellect, the soul, and seven spiritual subtleties (the soul emanates the first, which emanates the second, and so on until seven).
Attempts by Islamic philosophers to ‘Islamize’ the theory
As noted earlier, Islamic philosophers sought to Islamize the theory of emanation because it formed the foundation of numerous philosophies and creeds prevailing among newly conquered peoples. Based on this theory, for instance, the Sabeans devoted themselves to a plurality of gods, holding that the seven spirits are minor divinities to be worshipped for their relationship to the planets. This is no different from neo-Platonic recastings of the trinity (that there are three gods). Hence the efforts of Islamic philosophers in similar vein to articulate the theory in line with Islam. This is evident in their interest in the eastern form of the theory, precisely because it prevailed among the populations annexed by the Islamic conquests (e.g., in Persia). These attempts culminated in efforts to interpret religious texts in order to conform to the theory and to modify the theory in order to conform to the conceptualizations of Islam.
Al-Farabi, and following him Ibn Sina and a host of Islamic philosophers, sought to ‘Islamize’ the theory of emanation by interpreting ‘the one’ to be God the Exalted, ‘the intellect’ to be the realm of omnipotence (the world of witnessing), ‘the soul’ to be the angelic realm (the world of the unseen), the ‘effective intellect’ to be Gabriel (upon him peace) or the Trustworthy spirit, and the ten intellects to be ten angels.
Al-Farabi held that all other existents emanate from ‘the one’ as do rays from the sun, according to the following gradations: the one, considering its own essence, emanates an intellect and the highest domain. This first intellect also comprehends its own essence, resulting in the second intellect and the production of the first heaven. The third intellect comprehending the one results in the emanation of the fourth intellect; and, in comprehending its own essence, the galaxies. This emanation continues from the fourth intellect through the eleventh, resulting in the production of the astral entities, from Saturn through the Moon. The eleventh intellect (the active intellect) emanates the souls in their bodily dispositions. Every intellect emanates twice: first, comprehending the one, and resulting in the production of another intellect; and second, comprehending itself, resulting in the production of astral phenomena.
Ibn Sina held that the one comprehended its essence, emanating the first intellect. When the first intellect comprehends the one, it emanates the second intellect; when it comprehends its own existence as necessary, it emanates a celestial soul; when it comprehends its own existence as possible, it emanates a celestial body. The progressive emanations continue in the manner and modifications described by al-Farabi, until reaching the active intellect. The difference introduced by Ibn Sina here holds that each of the ten intellects comprehends itself twice: once as necessarily existing in itself and again as possibly existing with reference to others. (Al-Farabi held that each intellect comprehended itself only once, for he did not include a notion of celestial soul in his theory.)
We have noted above some of the reasons Islamic philosophers strove to Islamize the theory of emanation, without attending to the fact that the philosophical basis for this theory was a pantheistic unity of all existence (that there is a single reality, being the Divine existence, and the independent reality of every other existent is illusory). This stands opposed to the philosophical basis for creation as existence from nothingness, which is tawhid (Divine unicity)—that is, that God the Exalted has real existence in an absolute sense, while all creation likewise has real existence but only as circumscribed by God beginning to end. The theory of emanation also proved compelling at the time for its explanatory power in accounting for heavenly bodies. On this front, however, its proponents ultimately confused religion (which investigates what is absolute and constant) and science (which investigates what is relative and variable). The Qur’an suffices for the realm of the absolute and constant, but explicitly recognizes the ambit of the latter—hence all its many verses regarding natural phenomena, which proliferate to encourage people to search out natural laws instead of simply recoursing to the Qur’an.
Philosophical Contributions of Imam al-Ghazali
His position on philosophy
Imam al-Ghazali first belonged to the Ash‘ari school of theology (one of the Sunni schools), and used philosophy and Aristotelian logic to defend the religion, like other theologians of his time. Then he moved toward a more mystical approach while remaining within the orthodox doctrine, as is evidenced in his leading attempt to reconcile Sufism and the Ash‘ari school. At this stage, he was quite thoroughly influenced by Platonic philosophy, but he always looked at it through the lenses of Islam (not the other way around, as did proponents of philosophical Sufism)—at least in his books addressing the public, like Ihya ‘ulum al-din. In his way, although al-Ghazali was not an Islamic philosopher in the strict sense of the word, he nonetheless made philosophical contributions during both his theological and mystical orientations.
It follows that al-Ghazali’s critical position on philosophy is based on whether it accords with or differs from the principles of religion. He divided philosophy into three types. One substantively contradicts the foundations of Islam; he identified the three issues on which they differ and deemed it prohibited. Another only outwardly contradicts the foundations of Islam; here he identified seventeen issues and deemed it heretical innovation. Finally, he held that the remaining philosophical issues contradict the foundations of Islam neither in substance nor in form, and so he deemed them permissible and accepted—all with the continuous caveat that the philosophy intended here is Greek philosophy.
Views on knowledge
The very possibility of knowledge:
Al-Ghazali adopted a method of systematic doubting (beginning with doubt to arrive at certainty) as in his book al-Munqidh min al-dalal. He begins with doubt in sensory knowledge, arguments for which includes the fact that we gauge the planets to be the size of a coin, whereas we have established proof that they are greater even than the earth. If the senses yield information that reason denies—what then prevents a faculty higher than the intellect from undermining one’s confidence in reason? Likewise he doubted the knowledge yielded by emotions, because throughout our dreams we steadfastedly believe that what we see and feel is true, whereas upon awaking we realize it was but illusion. Al-Ghazali then moves to the certainty afforded by revelation and inspiration, or, in his words, through “the light God casts in the heart.”
The means of gnosis (revelation):
Al-Ghazali, like most Sufis, affirmed a theory of divine disclosure that held that the senses and reasons were means to only presumptive knowledge. Hence the recourse to divine disclosure (kashf) as a means to attain certainty. It comprises spiritual exercises directed at the veil between the person and his Creator, implemented until the veil falls away and the human receives knowledge from God directly, without sensible or rational intermediary. He held that the heart was the locus of this means to knowledge, but this heart was not the material organ found in the chest; rather, it is a “spiritual subtlety” encompassing human reality to the extent it is able.
The nature of gnosis:
Al-Ghazali tried to clarify how knowledge is attained, propounding two parables thereof. The first figures the heart as a mirror and knowledge as the reflection of images in it. The unreceptive heart does not receive gnosis. The pursuit of desires causes the heart’s mirror to rust, and abstention from them burnishes it. The second parable figures the heart as a spring dug to gather water from streams and rain, and gnosis as the water. The deeper the basin is dug, the sweeter and purer the water will be. The senses here are the streams feeding the basin. Thus it becomes possible to glean knowledge from within, through the lifting of veils.
Views on existence
Al-Ghazali’s views on being are based on a selective adoption of the theory of emanation, based on what he deemed consonant with the precepts of Islam. He adopted a theory of two realms: a lower, bodily one, which he called the world of the manifest and of possession; and a higher, spiritual, imaginal one, which he called the world of the unseen. He added a median, subtle and liminal realm, the world of might, the equivalent of an isthmus (the barzakh) between them. He also held that God the Exalted was the source of the intelligence, for he is the emanating source of every existent—but al-Ghazali did not try to identify the modality of every intellect springing from this intelligence, for he made “emanation” synonymous with Divine command. He argued that the intellect is the first rank of emanation, given the hadith: “The first thing created by God was the intellect; then He said to it: come! Then He said to it: withdraw! And it retreated…” He elaborated the ranks of emanation following the intellect, namely, the material intellect (also called the Pen) and the soul (also called the Preserved Tablet), and held that the emanated intellects were the source of the corporeal world (through the souls). Yet, against the other proponents of the theory of emanation, he repudiated its logical consequence (namely, the eternity of the universe), and advanced arguments against this in some of his works.
Views on ethics
Al-Ghazali’s views on ethics were based on an Ash‘ari and Sufi framework. We find him first relating a number of definitions of good deeds according to various criteria and held to various standards, whether customary and functional, religiously sanctioned, or deontological. He is committed to a religious approach that deems good and evil to be functions of what God has sanctioned, being indeterminate prior to revelation, rather than the essentialist Mu‘tazilite reification of good and evil. In other words, al-Ghazali, like other Ash‘aris, affirmed the absolute impartiality of revealed obligation, denying a delimited, existential impartiality inhering in primordial nature. Hence his account of the relationship between moral value and benefit, in which an act is neither evil due to the harm it causes nor virtuous due to the benefit it yields: “surely, falsehood is not forbidden, accursed due to its detriment to the addressee or otherwise” (Ihya ‘ulum al-din 3:39).
Many scholars have observed that al-Ghazali’s approach involves numerous apparent inconsistencies, but we can only understand their rationales by accounting for the shift in his thought (from a theological/kalamic orientation to a mystical, Sufi one, retaining a basic Ash‘arism in each phase). It is, moreover, necessary to distinguish between the texts he composed for a close, elite circle (involving more discussions of Platonism and philosophical terminology) and those composed for the broader public (involving more explicitly religious texts and literal interpretations), as was the practice in his time.
Views on existence
We may conceptualize al-Farabi’s theory of being as a pyramid with six levels, corresponding to the six foundational principles of being. These six elements follow:
1) God the Exalted, the cause of everything else
2) Secondary causes, or the ten intellects (the equivalent of the angels or spirits), concerned with the world of heaven
3) The Active Intellect (the holy spirit), responsible for the world of earth (the sublunar realm)
4) Soul, the faculty that moves the celestial bodies and inhering in humans, animals, and plants
5) The form, meaning embodied form
6) Matter, for every body in its form is comprised of raw matter.
The six bodies of the universe are materially composed in such embodied form: heavenly bodies (planets); rational animals (humans); irrational animals (animals); plants; metals; and the four elements (water, fire, earth, air).
Al-Farabi divided all existents into two types based on whether they are necessary or contingent. The existence of the former is rationally necessary, being the Primary Cause (God the Exalted). The existence of the latter is possible, requiring a prior cause for its existence. Its move from potentiality to actuality (two modes of existence) is achieved because of the necessary existent (God).
Al-Farabi sought to explain the existence of the universe with reference to an Islamized version of the theory of emanation, first through pointed interpretations of Qur’anic texts and second through certain modifications to the theory of emanation to make it accord with Islamic precepts. As noted above, he held that all other existents emanate from the one as do rays from the sun, and that this emanation is systematically ranked (variously generating subsequent intellects and celestial phenomena). Bodies revolve and differentiate although comprised of a common substance, and through this differentiation transform through a hierarchy of existence from form to form (lower to higher)—from the four elements into minerals, plants, animals, and humans, to the last of which the active intellect imparts the soul.
Al-Farabi distinguished between three types of people: the folk of the virtuous city (who attain knowledge and practice it), the folk of the wicked city (who attain knowledge but do not practice it), and the folk of the ignorant city (who neither attain nor practice knowledge). Knowledge, for al-Farabi, is true freedom from materiality, and so the virtuous are those who achieve immortality in their freedom from finite matter, their souls abiding in felicity. The souls of the wicked are likewise freed from matter in their attainment of knowledge but abide in misery for they did not practice it. Finally, the ignorant are neither freed from materiality nor do their souls abide, being rather bound to the earth. Al-Farabi refused the need to argue for a bodily resurrection and held that bodies are utterly extinguished with death, for in any case the soul’s spiritual felicity and misery are stronger and more powerful than their embodied counterparts.
Al-Farabi attempted to reconcile aspects of the theory of emanation with certain Islamic precepts. Yet the underlying reason for their conflict is a fundamental opposition between a (pantheistic) theory of the emanation (wahdat al-wujud, unity of being) and a (monotheistic) theory of creation (tawhid, unicity of God). His position on the immortality of the soul, although seeking to address the problem of the immortality of the soul of those lacking spiritual maturity/responsibility (the insane and infants), ended up denying its very integrity (for either every soul expires with the corpse or every soul abides after death). As evident in his discussion of spiritual (not bodily) resurrection, he is influenced by Platonic concepts radically separating the soul from the body and privileging the former. This differs sharply from Islamic conceptualizations based on a unity of soul and body.
Views on knowledge
Al-Farabi discussed intellection through the following categories:
1) Potential intellect, which marks the human possibility of attaining knowledge and takes the form of primordial instincts. Its name derives from the Aristotelian contrast between potential and actual existence
2) Actual intellect, which confirms and hypothesizes from sensible perceptions
3) Acquired (predicative) intellect, which is the knowledge accumulated by the person (and specifically the philosopher)
4) Active intellect, which is the eleventh intellect responsible for the sublunar world and therefore dissimilar to the human mind, although it is a necessary condition for human knowledge (like light is for sight). This is what moves the intellect from ability to effect, that is, from potentiality to actuality. Aristotle held that the only way to access the active intellect was through intellection, one philosophical implication being refusing revelation in place of reason for attaining knowledge. Thus al-Farabi added an additional way to access the active intellect, being the imaginative faculty, which he held was extremely strong in a prophet.
Views on ethics
Al-Farabi posited an intimate relationship between knowledge and virtue, as noted earlier. He introduced a classification of virtues as follows:
1) Theoretical virtue: related to the attainment of theoretical sciences (philosophy, logic, etc.)
2) Practical arts: related to the acquirement of experimental knowledge (through inferring from particulars)
3) Deliberative virtue: related to the pursuit of practical ends, as for instance military leadership and economics.
4) Moral virtue: related to ethical values
Al-Farabi sought to add revelation to reason as a means of attaining knowledge, affirming the possibility of prophecy and prophethood. Yet a necessary consequence of his approach is that a philosopher, who employs intellection, is ranked higher than a Prophet, who uses his imaginal faculty to perceive ideal forms. (The intellect is ranked higher than the imagination.) His approach further requires that prophethood is acquired, not bestowed, for the imaginative faculty that al-Farabi holds yields access to revelation is in fact common to everyone. Al-Farabi sought to ward off this logical consequence by saying that the imaginative faculty is imbued by God. Finally, another consequence of his rational framework insists that God has knowledge only of fixed, ideal generalities rather than mutable particulars. Al-Farabi sought to distance himself from this argument by repeatedly insisting that God’s knowledge encompasses everything, general or particular: “‘His knowledge’ means first of his undivided essence, and second from his essence. If it proliferates it does not do so in his essence but following it—[as indicated in the Qur’anic verse Q 6:59] not a leaf falls but that he knows it, the Pen inscribing the Tablet unceasingly until Resurrection Day” (al-Fusus, Hyderabad ed., p. 4).
Views on existence
Ibn Sina adopted the Aristotelian definition of the soul: the primary perfection of a natural, instrumental body potentially possessing existence.
By primary perfection, Aristotle meant effective perfection. According to him, existence is either potential or actual (as in the relationship between seed and tree), but the effective existence to which perfection relates is divided into first and second degrees (respectively, the tree before it bears fruit, the first perfection; and the fruitful tree, the second perfection). Thus, that the soul is the primary perfection and that its existence is the first degree of effective existence denote its sound ability to perform its functions, not their actual performance (such as learning knowledge without applying it).
Then Ibn Sina turned to specifically address the properties of the body, which is the utility of the soul. It is natural, meaning that its movement is essential to it (inhering in the soul) rather than caused by something external to it. It is instrumental, meaning that it serves as an instrument to the soul and its limbs as instruments to perform its functions. It potentially possesses existence, for the body possesses potential existence that the soul (in its actual existence to the first degree) transforms into actual existence (from potentiality to actuality).
If Ibn Sina took his understanding of the soul from Aristotle, he adopted his view of its genesis from Plato, due to his belief that Plato and Islam accorded on this point. He held that the soul existed in the heavenly realm prior to its body, and descended to it when the body was ready to receive it—like in his poem (set to rhyme with the letter ‘ayn) in which the soul is likened to a pigeon imprisoned in a cage and yearning for freedom.
Then Ibn Sina lists a set of arguments to prove the existence of the soul, including arguments from nature, from psychology, from continuous observation, and from its unique singularity. Of these, we briefly elaborate his proof that the human is suspended in space, because it was of his devising. It proceeds by noting that if we admit that a human created in space at once, who does not sense the existence of his limbs because they are set in such a way that they do not touch one another nor air rippling around them, such that he does not even consider his body, that if he imagines a hand or leg he does not suspect them to be his own—if even after fulfilling all of these conditions he then still feels his own essence and that he exists, this can affirm nothing but the existence of a noncorporeal soul. Ibn Sina held, moreover, that although body and soul are conjoined, the latter is not affected by the corruption or illness of the former. The body does not immediately affect the soul, for the soul is a non-composite spiritual subtlety, meaning that it does not admit corruption and decay.
Ibn Sina divided souls according to their powers, into a tripartite order of life: plant, animal, and intellect. Vegetative souls have three faculties: nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Animal souls have two additional faculties: locomotion and perception. Human or rational souls have two additional faculties yet, the practical and theoretical.
Ibn Sina’s views on the soul strove to establish an Islamic psychology drawn both from Aristotle and Plato. In other words, Ibn Sina’s criterion for adopting Aristotelian and Platonic notions was their perceived consonance with Islam. Thus we find him adopting Aristotle’s definition of the soul but not his account of its genesis, because Aristotle denied the immortality of the soul that is essential to religion. On this latter question he resorted to Plato, ignoring Plato’s sharp differentiation between the soul and human body and his privileging of the former (while the more properly Islamic conception would affirm the unity of soul and body).
Ibn Sina held there to be two ways to establish the existence of God.
The intellectual argument proceeds by first dividing being into two categories: the necessarily existent and the possibly existent. The former, in his words, is “that which positing whose non-existence is inconceivable”, namely, God the Exalted. The latter, in his words, is “that which positing whose non-existence or existence is not inconceivable”, namely everything other than God. Then he divides being into another two categories: what is necessarily existent in itself and what is necessarily existent due to another. The former, in his words, is “what exists in itself and not due to any other”, namely, God the Exalted with reference to himself. The latter is also necessarily existent but the source of its existence is the existence of another, here, namely, everything other than God after he caused its existence, with reference to its relationship to God. Then Ibn Sina divides the possibly existent into two categories: what is possibly existent in itself, namely, everything other than God, both before and after he caused its existence, with reference to itself; and what is necessarily existent due to another, being everything other than God after he caused its existence, with reference both itself and its relationship to God. After offering this typology of being, Ibn Sina observes that any existent can be either necessary or possible. If it is necessary, its existence is required to follow from the necessarily existent (God the Exalted). If it is possible, its possibility also rests on the necessarily existent (al-Naja, p. 235).
The intuitive argument for the existence of God does not employ logic or evidence, that is, it does not establish premises that lead to conclusions, nor does it argue from creation for the existence of a Creator. Indeed, it argues the opposite: from the Creator to creation, as sustained through intuition, that is, knowledge that takes the form of light alighting upon the souls as they abstain from sensual affairs (pursuing their worldly desires).
Ibn Sina fell into the same error as al-Farabi in seeking to Islamize the theory of emanation. As noted earlier, one way to do so was by reinterpreting Qur’anic texts (as did al-Farabi) to conform with the theory. The other way to do so was by modifying the theory to accord with Islamic precepts. The most important emendations he contributed were to hold that, as the one comprehends itself, it emanates the first intellect—which is possibly existent with respect to itself but necessarily existent with respect to others. Each of the ten intellects, moreover, comprehends itself twice: once in its capacity as necessarily existent with respect to others, and once in its capacity as possibly existent with respect to itself. This stands in contrast to the view of al-Farabi, who held they do so only once. The cosmos is thus comprised of body and soul, according to Ibn Sina, and body alone, according to al-Farabi.
Ibn Sina completed the philosophical project initiated by al-Farabi, in taking Greek philosophy as a starting point to arrive at Islamic precepts, transforming the former to accord with the latter. This line of thought became near doctrinal among philosophers after Ibn Sina. His contributions extended (with no little originality) the work of al-Farabi, as is evident in his delineated modality of emanation.
Views on knowledge
Ibn Sina divided the intellect according to its faculties:
1) intellectual capacity (signalling the possibility of knowledge), being the primordial instinctive capacity inhering in every person
2) The actual and possessive intellect, which confirms abstract and sensual knowledge (in his words, the first and second intelligibles)
3) The acquired (predicative) intellect, which completes the acquisition of knowledge
4) The active intellect: the tenth in the series generated from the first intellect. This serves as an objective condition for knowledge (as does sunlight for sight), moving things from being potentially intelligible to being actually so.
5) The holy intellect: the revelation of prophets and the intuition of saints
Ibn Sina added revelation as a source of knowledge to the intellectual faculties established by Greek philosophy. This was the point at which Islamic philosophy started to shift from taking the intellect as the principle source of knowledge to taking intuition as the principle source (though without marking decisive differences between them), as is evident in the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity.
Islamic Philosophy of the West
Views on knowledge
Ibn Bajja propounded his views in his work Tadbir al-mutawahhid, which provides a regimen to follow in order to achieve the furthest aim, namely, union with the active intellect—and thereby with absolute existence, which is unique to God the Exalted. Ibn Bajja believed it possible for the individual to achieve this end and arrive at the rank of unity by ascending from concern with sensible particulars to rational universals, with the auspicious succor from on high of the active intellect.
In its ascent, the intellect encounters and departs from a series of forms, traveling through the ranks corresponding to these forms. Everything existing in this world associated with sensible matter can be found in the active intellect in divested (that is, immaterial) form.
The intelligible forms correspond to seven stages:
1) Material forms, that is, the shapes of things that are part of the cognitive apparatus of the human intellect
2) Intelligible, embodied forms, that is, what approximates those of sensual perception
3) Psychological, conceptual forms at the median between the living and the rational, that is, what approximates those of abstract perception
4) The essentially human intellect, which comprises the human’s properly rational nature
5) The active intellect, the last of the ten intellects responsible for the sublunar world, being the equivalent of Gabriel or the Holy Spirit in religious terms
6) The heavenly intellect, the set of ten immaterial intellects upholding the affairs of the heavenly world, the equivalent of the angels and spirits in religious terms or the planets in scientific ones
7) The one, the first: God the exalted
There are two types of forms: material and immaterial. The material intelligible forms are found in the human intellect in a state of potentiality, and are actualized by the active intellect. It then becomes the acquired intellect, which acquires experience. Its existence takes specific forms abstracted from matter. The immaterial intelligible forms are those that are not essentially bound to matter. Thus they do not change and abide as they are, the intellect comprehending them as they exist in themselves. The acquired intellect is a form of the effective intellect and its intelligible forms.
Then Ibn Bajja alluded to the one, abiding human intellect, the one that arrives to congress with the active intellect. The particular human intellect is perishing, and does not subsist past death unless it can imagine sensible/material particulars in a manner that combines them with immaterial intellection.
In his epistemology, Ibn Bajja refuted the notion that humans passively receive divine knowledge. Rather, it is the outcome of the dialectical interaction between the purification of knowledge of God and the human manifestation of this through intellection of the intelligibles. He made this accord with an orthodox Islamic epistemology that opposed a Sufi one, as influenced by Aristotle. However, he did agree with the Sufi notion of disclosure (and specifically that of philosophical Sufism) as the objective, holding that the possibility of purification through divine knowledge (not its description) is the essence of knowledge of God for non-prophets as well. In other words, he upheld the possibility of revelation for those who are not divinely appointed prophets and messengers, being influenced in this by the Platonic rendition of philosophical Sufism. This is evident in his opinion regarding two kinds of forms corresponding to two realms, one being sensible (in the human intellect) and the other ideal (in the active intellect). His epistemology was based on his metaphysical idealism (the abiding of spiritual existence and the obliteration of material existence).
Social and Political Philosophy
Ibn Bajja intimated that the rule of the solitary (the title of one of his major works, Tadbir al-mutawahhid) requires some form of political management in virtuous government, for social reform begins with the individual. As such solitary individuals consolidate themselves and the social relations that emerge between them, they are able to establish a perfect society in which virtue prevails; they put an end to evils to the extent they are able, in their congress with the active intellect that inspires wisdom and guidance. For this reason, such a society would have no need for doctors or judges. Under the sway of the current governments, imperfect as they are, it is incumbent on these singular individuals only to cleave together in solidarity, as the core of the virtuous city. So long as broader society refuses to heed their counsel, they remain blessed foreigners to the polity, because they are citizens of the virtuous government whose imminent emergence they herald (Mustafa ‘Ali Abu Rayyan, Tarikh al-fikr al-falsafi fil-Islam, Dar al-Ma‘rifa al-Jami‘iyya).
The influence of al-Farabi is evident in Ibn Bajja’s conceptualization of virtuous government and the virtuous society. Dr. Abu Rayyan has questioned whether his approach here is strictly that of a philosopher, in the sense of emerging from first principles, given that Ibn Bajja has recourse to empirical notions of social conditions, ethics, and customs in his theory of the just society. However, he does not arrive at his social and political views by monitoring the fluctuations of actual existence and the set Divine habits that govern it; rather, he arrives at them through consistently and methodically applying his idealist epistemology. If he is influenced by al-Farabi in this regard, it is but as a resonance in some of the views that comprise his broader philosophy.
Ibn Bajja expounded an eminent parable to directly affect existing conditions and address its problems by reconceiving it in new form. Yet his effort resulted in an idealism whose actualization is simply not practicable. This becomes evident in his description of a virtuous society that would even abolish natural corruption (illness) such that it would not need physicians, and social corruptions such that it would not need a judiciary. It is inconceivable to consider a society without crime, though of course there are differences between a society that legitimizes criminal activity and one that does not.
Ibn Tufayl propounded his philosophy through the fable of Hayy b. Yaqzan. Five of its principles are here elaborated.
1) The externalities of religion suffice the majority
The fable proceeds through the tale of two islands. One of these islands is inhabited by a traditional human society in which desires and worldly conflicts hold sway; its denizens arbitrate them as they choose. They admit the literal meanings of scripture and its arguments. The Qur’an came in this form to address such people, who reject all efforts at allegorical interpretation to reach its deeper meanings.
2) There are scholars of externalities and scholars of subtleties
Two young men emerged on this island, distinguished by the clarity of their insight and their disciplining of their desires. The first joined broader society and followed their religion in its externalities, coming to have authority over them. The second left this island and retreated to the neighbouring island, thinking he would leave society for the uninhabited wilderness.
3) Stages of Knowledge
Yet on this second island lived Hayy b. Yaqzan, who was spontaneously generated from the natural elements or marooned there as a child and then reared by a doe. He then led himself through the levels of knowledge, teaching himself how to suffice his natural needs and struggling until he transcended the animal stage of existence. Then came upon him an intensity of religious feeling when marveling at fire. He proceeded through his life in seven stages, each of which comprised seven years and which culminated in spiritual union. Through his intellection, his spirit related to the heavenly realm. His aim throughout was to seek the one in everything, and he saw the entirety of nature tending to Him and the encompassing manifestations of the divine. Thus he reached fifty years of age.
4) Denying that religion contradicts philosophy
Ibn Tufayl then recounts the meeting between Hayy and the young man, called Absal. Once they learned to communicate, it became clear that although the prevailing religion of the neighboring island had not reached Hayy, he had nonetheless attained gnosis of its realities through the guidance of the active intellect. Absal knew that a doctrine was only a spiritual symbol veiled from people due to their involvement in the sensible, material universe; seeking its reality required employing symbolic interpretation. For although a doctrine has both external and subtle aspects, it ultimately addresses a single reality that most people understand to the rank of their physical lives and a select few understand to the rank of their rational perfection.
5) The widespread inability to perceive subtleties
Hayy then accompanied Absal back to the neighboring island, seeking to release its inhabitants from their ignorance and teach them the secrets of truth. Yet the more assiduous he was in his philosophical expounding, the more determinedly the people refused it, until he faced outright hostility and he was forced to leave. He and Absal returned to their uninhabited island in order to devote themselves to solitary worship until embraced by death. This makes clear that the broader public are unable to perceive the truth, it being rather a minor faction of monotheist adepts who possess this quality of divesting themselves of bodily demands and worldly needs. The Prophet Muhammad, God bless him and grant him peace, acted rightly when he offered the general populace religious truths in easily perceptible form (not proclaiming the perfect, illuminating disclosures not only a few, namely, the mystic philosophers, would be able to apprehend) (Dr. Muhammad ‘Ali Abu Rayyan, al-Tarikh al-falsafi fil-Islam, p. 425-427).
Some argue that Ibn Tufayl elaborated his fable in order to hypothesize the human condition in the absence of revelation, as to whether one would be able (without teacher or guide) to reach the truths of revelation and the essence of creed. Others hold that he intended to demonstrate the accordance between reason and transmitted knowledge, in that they each address a single truth albeit in different forms. However, we may note that this fable also yields a justification for sending Divine messengers, when possible, to those populations unable to arrive at the essentials of creed without teacher or guide beyond themselves. In contrast, we find monotheistic adepts who do not need such messengers because they are able to arrive at such revealed truths through exercising their reason and with the guidance of the active intellect.
Reconciling religion and philosophy
Ibn Rushd pursues four broad arguments reconciling religion and philosophy.
1) The Shari‘a requires philosophical reflection
Ibn Rushd begins with a definition of philosophy: the practice of philosophy is nothing more than considering existents and addressing them with a view to arguing for their Maker (Fasl al-maqal, Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Muhammadiyya al-Tijariyya). The Shari‘a recommends precisely this, as in the Qur’anic verses Q 7:185 (Have they not considered the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and what things God has created) and Q 59:2 (So learn a lesson, o you of vision!). “Learning a lesson” (i‘tibar) and “consideration” (nazr) here are merely rational analogies, “for al-i‘tibar is nothing more than deriving and deducing what is unknown from what is known; this is a logical analogy” (Fasl al-maqal, p. 11). Although someone might say that legal analogical considerations were absent during the early period of Islam, none would question their later usage as an innovation (except for a faction of the Hashwiyyites). Given that, as we have expounded, the Shari‘a encourages and enjoins employing such rational analogies, it is generally imperative that thinkers study the rules of analogy (hence the study of logic and philosophy).
2) Shari‘a, esoteric and exoteric: the need for interpretation
Ibn Rushd held that religion and philosophy were mutually compatible, for truth does not contradict truth and in fact confirms it. Although there exist Qur’anic verses and Prophetic reports that on their face differ from philosophical truths, and some thereby imagine that philosophy opposes what is revealed, this is only in a literal sense and admits interpretation. Supporting this view, Muslims are unanimously agreed that it is not required to admit every revealed formulation in its entirety by its literal meaning. The higher wisdom in receiving revelation of both esoteric and exoteric significance lies in the variety of human understanding, for this demonstrates their genius in accepting guidance. As Ibn Rushd wanted to describe humanity deliberately in philosophic fashion, with reference to the types of analogies, he wrote that the philosophers divided analogy into three types:
- The evidentiary analogy, which is established on certain premises and yields a conclusive result
- The dialectical analogy, which is established on hypothetical premises and yields a hypothetical result (being fit only as a tool for polemic and debate)
- The rhetorical analogy, which is established on acceptable but thin premises, used to emotionally prepare the audience. This emotional analogy helps to affect more than understand.
On this basis, Ibn Rushd divided humanity into three categories: those confirming evidence (al-burhaniyyun), who are the philosophers; the dialecticians, who are the speculative theologians (mutakallimun); and the rhetoricians, who are the general public.
3) Rules of interpretation
There are rules of interpretation that must be upheld. “There are three categories of people: one category who are not truly folk of extended interpretation, being rather orators, who are the majority of the population; one category who are folk of polemical interpretation, who are the dialecticians; and one category who are the folk of certain interpretation, and they are those confirming evidence (al-burhaniyyun)” (Fasl al-maqal, p. 35). One should only perform esoteric interpretation openly when among folk of the latter category, for supporters of exoteric meaning will have none of the esoteric understanding. Here Ibn Rushd alluded to the mutakallimin in general and al-Ghazali in particular, because they publicly conducted extended interpretations of many verse: “encountering that, the people dispersed and fell into mutual hatred and conflicts; and they tore up the revelation and split into each their own schisms” (Fasl al-maqal, p. 33).
4) Revelation complements reason
As noted earlier, revelation encompasses two senses, esoteric and exoteric, each of which denote a single philosophical truth. If the manifest sense appears to differ from the philosophical truth, the hidden sense instead affirms it. It is a mistake to attribute an epistemological dualism to Ibn Rushd, as was done of old. Revelation came to complement reason, scripture exceeding the philosophical truth in its language and symbolism while conforming to the popular rationality and encouraging the masses to perform good works. In this way, revelation compensates for the limits of intelligence, what it calls angels being reason’s astronomical phenomena; what it calls Paradise and Fire being reason’s reward and reprisal; what it calls gnosis being afterworldly intelligence in a specific positive and negative sense; what it calls creation from void being necessary emanation; and what it calls bodily resurrection being the ascension from stage to stage.
The question of reconciliation between religion and philosophy, in Islamic philosophy in general and Ibn Rushd in particular, arises because the Islamic philosophers took Greek philosophy as a starting point, developing it over time to accord with the precepts of Islam. Hence the contradiction between religion and some of the concepts and theories of Greek philosophy, such as in the issues of the eternity of the universe, the denial of bodily resurrection, and denial of Divine knowledge of particulars. Addressing this problem, Ibn Rushd finally ensconces philosophical truth (and specifically the philosophy of Aristotle, among whose greatest proponents and commentators he was) above religious truth. He clearly rank evidentiary analogies (those deductive procedures employed by the philosophers) over rhetorical ones. His solution to this problem rests on its premises, being his definition of philosophy. Those philosophers who affirmed the existence of God tended to agree with his definition and its implications.
Views on existence
Ibn Rushd adhered to the Aristotelian notion of the universe as eternal and mutable. He therefore held that it was pre-eternal, its non-existence impossible; no existentiation from nothingness nor void possible after existence. Every contingency occurs through the actualization of potentiality and the return from the latter to the former (as in a tree growing from seed, then the extinguishing of the tree and the abiding of seed). But he did not admit that a notion of the pre-eternality of the universe denied the existence of a creator (as hold Western materialist philosophers). Rather, it only precludes a specific meaning of creation, namely, existentiation from void. Thus he propounded another meaning: emergence from potential to actual existence. This supports his view on the nature of the relationship between form and the primordial matter of which bodies are composed (and which Aristotle called dark matter), that it is impossible to absolutely differentiate between them (except in human conceptualizations). The form is essentially constituted in matter, and material forms do not cease to contingently arise.
Ibn Rushd conceived of an interconnected hierarchy of existence comprised of three classes of being: divested accidents, being matter set to specific forms (corresponding to non-existence); material forms, being matter set to specific forms (corresponding to material existents) and effect (actual existence); and the convening essence (that is, God the exalted), to which is applied the name the Primary Form of the universe. Finally, Ibn Rushd held there to be two types of existents: material, which are moved from without; and simple intelligibles, which move others. Each of these is subsequent to the Prime Mover in its utmost simplicity, that is, its unity.
God the Exalted
If mutability is eternal, it requires eternal movement, in turn necessitating an eternal principle of movement. Ibn Rushd’s position on the eternal motion of knowledge here is identical to his position yielding a notion of a divided universe, whose Mover since pre-eternity is God the Exalted. Existent through his existentiation, this perpetual motion is created by the existentiator of the universe, albeit through the intermediary of the celestial sphere. The quiddity of the Prime Mover is ideal, admitting no plurality or number. In the descriptions necessary for God, given that existence is one, Ibn Rushd nears notions of a unity of being.
Ibn Rushd follows Aristotle in holding that the soul is related to the body as forms are related to matter (as a table made of wood, for instance). Yet he seeks to avoid the necessary conclusion of this position, that is, denying the immortality of the soul, by denying the immortality of the particular soul. He is able to distinguish this through his tripartite typology of intellects: the material intellect, which is an eternal, unending intellect equivalent to the intellect of humanity as a whole; the active intellect, which is likewise eternal and is the intellect of the final sphere; and the passive intellect, which is a rational ability that exists and is extinguished with each person, equivalent to the intellect of the individual. The relationship between these three intellects is such that the active intellect posits the forms that the passive intellect comprehends, each of which is made possible through the material intellect. In other words, the passive intellect makes the soul capable of perception, the active intellect raises the forms until they become intelligible, and the material intellect seeks to make it part of what it comprehends.
Ibn Rushd took a general Aristotelianism as the starting point for his thought, and strove then to develop it in line with mystical Islamic teachings regarding existence. Yet he failed in this attempt at a number of points, given the ineluctable opposition between certain philosophical positions and Islamic understandings based in authentic and express scriptural texts. One such is in replacing one specific meaning of creation (existentiation from void) with another (emergence from potentiality to actuality), the former being expressly attested in scripture. Likewise the case of denying the immortality of the particular soul, and holding instead its abiding as a part of the human intellect. Likewise the Greek philosophical (Aristotelian) position upheld by Ibn Rushd that the effect of the Prime Mover in knowledge is secured through the intermediary of celestial intellects, seeking thereby to preserve the Divine transcendence from involvement in material and mutable existence—yet this itself implies a restriction of the absolute actions of God in his lordship. However, Ibn Rushd’s effort demonstrates that Western and Islamic philosophy may begin from identical premises to arrive at divergent conclusions—for instance, the Marxist materialism that begins from the premise of the universe (as material and eternal) to conclude that no one created it nor is there any greater power than it, while Ibn Rushd likewise began from the premise of the universe yet without denying the existence of God.
and the critique of philosophy and logic
In what has reached us of his views, Ibn Khaldun criticized the universal claims of philosophy. According to him, the world does not correspond to its articulated philosophical conceptualizations, for in its vastness and multitude it exceeds intellectual comprehension—as in the Qur’anic verse, Q 16:8: and He creates that which you know not. Ibn Khaldun held further that the logical analogies employed by philosophers often simply do not obtain because they fail to accord with the empirical nature of things; such knowledge is not attained through inference but by observation. Some assert the possibility of arriving at reality solely through adhering to the laws of logic, but this is patently false, requiring the scholar to consider the matters that invoke empirical experimentation. The soul in its primordial ipseity is free of knowledge but possesses the ability to reflect on what it encounters through the sensorium, and often its intuitions are more valid than the conclusions reached by purely formal logical means. Moreover, logic alone does not yield gnosis; rather, it indicates the route appropriate for thought to follow, and has the task of protecting us from slipping into fault, hones our discernment, and urges us to nuance in thought. It is an instrumental discipline sufficient for one party to specialize in; but it does not have the fundamental status granted it by the philosophers (Daiber, al-Falsafat al-islamiyya, trans. ‘Abd al-Hadi Abu Rida, p. 271), who focussed their efforts on it to the exclusion of other scholastic disciplines.
Ibn Khaldun opposed the mystical intellectual tendencies of philosophers through simple religious principles. If the preceding criticism was directed at the philosophers influenced by Aristotle through neo-Platonism, it was likewise directed at the Platonists en masse and the Pythagoreans. His position that the senses are the foundation of every perception and the relationship of his approach to real life oppose mystical tendencies in general, all the while trying to articulate an instinctive relation to perceiving the truth directly (without recourse to logic).
The corpus of Islamic thought comprises three fundamental branches: theology (‘ilm al-kalam), Sufism (tasawwuf), and philosophy. We have sought to define each of these, note the conditions of their development, and explore selected topics and positions they address.