Islamic philosophy

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Islamic philosophy (الفلسفة الإسلامية) is a branch of Islamic studies, and is a longstanding attempt to create harmony between philosophy (reason) and the religious teachings of Islam (faith). Islamic philosophy, as the name implies, refers to philosophical activity within the Islamic milieu. The main sources of classical or early Islamic philosophy are the religion of Islam itself (especially ideas derived and interpreted from the Quran); Greek philosophy which the early Muslims inherited as a result of conquests when Alexandria, Syria and Jundishapur came under Muslim rule; and pre-Islamic Iranian and Indian philosophy. Many of the early philosophical debates centered around reconciling religion and reason as exemplified by Greek philosophy. In early Islamic thought two main currents may be distinguished, Kalam, dealing mainly with theological questions, and Falsafa, founded on interpretation of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy. From the ninth century onward, owing to Caliph al-Ma'mun and his successor, Greek philosophy was introduced among the Persians and Arabs, and the Peripatetic school found representation in Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd (Averroës).

During the Abbasid caliphate in Spain, Arabic philosophic literature, translated into Hebrew and Latin, transmitted Greek, Hindu, and other pre-Islamic knowledge to the Christian West and helped to make Aristotle known in Christian Europe. Islamic philosophy influenced Judaic and Christian thinkers, and contributed to the development of modern European philosophy. Ibn Rushd’s ideas on the separation of philosophy and religion, further developed by the Averroist school of philosophy in Europe, were later influential in the development of modern secularism.

Religion and philosophy

The attempt to fuse religion and philosophy is difficult because there are no clear preconditions. Philosophers typically hold that one must accept the possibility of truth from any source and follow the argument wherever it leads. On the other hand, classical religious believers have a set of religious principles that they hold to be unchallengeable fact. Given these divergent goals and views, some believe that it is not possible to be simultaneously a philosopher and a true adherent of Islam, which is believed to be a revealed religion. In this view, all attempts at synthesis ultimately fail.

Others believe that a synthesis between Islam and philosophy is possible. One way to find a synthesis is to use philosophical arguments to prove that accepted religious principles are true, a technique commonly found in the writings of many religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Another way to approach a synthesis is to abstain from holding any religious principles of one's faith as true, unless they can be independently arrived at from a philosophical analysis. A third path is to apply analytical philosophy to religious questions, such as the nature and existence of God, the nature of revelation and revealed truth, the role of human beings in the universe, the reconciliation of religious truth with science, and the meaning and interpretation of religious doctrines.

Islamic philosophy may be defined in a number of different ways, but the perspective taken here is that it represents the style of philosophy produced within the framework of Islamic culture. This description does not suggest that it is necessarily concerned with religious issues, nor even that it is exclusively produced by Muslims (Oliver Leaman, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Formative influences

Islamic philosophy, as the name implies, refers to philosophical activity within the Islamic milieu. The main sources of classical or early Islamic philosophy are the religion of Islam itself (especially ideas derived and interpreted from the Quran); Greek philosophy which the early Muslims inherited as a result of conquests when Alexandria, Syria and Jundishapur came under Muslim rule; and pre-Islamic Iranian and Indian philosophy. Many of the early philosophical debates centered around reconciling religion and reason as exemplified by Greek philosophy.

Early and classical Islamic philosophy

Early Islamic philosophical activity centered around the Academy (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, which was supported by the caliphs and was known for its tolerance and freedom of scientific inquiry. Within the Academy, there were groups who questioned the authority of the caliph, introducing political issues and theoretical problems. Another group drew upon older traditions (materialist, Manichaean, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, Arabian, and Indian) to identify supposed contradictions and inconsistencies in the fundamental Islamic doctrine of revealed truth. Greek thought became a popular tool for constructing and defining Islamic theology, and for providing a rational defense of Revealed teachings.[1] In early Islamic thought two main currents may be distinguished. The first is Kalam, that mainly dealt with theological questions, and the other is Falsafa, founded on interpretation of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy.


Ijtihad (“to endeavor” or “to exert effort”) was a method of discourse used in Islam before the second century to develop legal or doctrinal solutions, based on the Q’uran and the Hadith, to new problems as they arose. Since it generally took the form of individual opinion (ra'y), ijtihad gave rise to a wealth of conflicting and chaotic opinions, and was replaced in the second century by a formal procedure of deduction based on the texts of the Qur'an and the Hadith, called qiyas (reasoning by strict analogy). Certain outstanding Muslim thinkers, such as al-Ghazali (died 1111 C.E.) continued to claim the right to use ijtihad. Independent minds exploiting the methods of ijtihad sought to investigate the doctrines of the Qur'an, which until then had been accepted in faith on the authority of divine revelation. One of first debates was that between partisan of the Qadar (Arabic: Qadara, to have power), who affirmed free will, and the Jabarites (jabar, force, constraint), who maintained the belief in fatalism. At the second century of the Hijra, a new movement arose in the theological school of Basra, Iraq. A pupil, Wasil ibn Ata, who was expelled from the school because his answers were contrary to then-orthodox Islamic tradition, became the leader of a new school, and systematized the radical opinions of preceding sects, particularly those of the Qadarites. This new school was called Mutazilite (“Muʿtazilah” (Arabic المعتزلة al-mu`tazilah) (from i'tazala, to separate oneself, to dissent). Its principal dogmas were three:

  1. God is an absolute unity, and no attribute can be ascribed to Him.
  2. Man is a free agent. (It is on account of these two principles that the Mu'tazilites designated themselves the "Partisans of Justice and Unity.")
  3. All knowledge necessary for the salvation of man emanates from his reason; humans were able to acquire knowledge before, as well as after, the existence of Revelation, solely by the light of reason. This fact makes knowledge obligatory upon all men, at all times, and in all places.

The Mutazilites, compelled to defend their principles against the orthodox Islam of their day, looked for support in philosophy, and were among the first to pursue a rational theology called Ilm-al-Kalam (Scholastic theology); those professing it were called Mutakallamin. This appellation became the common name for anyone seeking philosophical demonstration in confirmation of religious principles. The first Mutakallamin had to debate both the orthodox Muslims and the non-Muslims, and they may be described as occupying the middle ground between those two parties. But subsequent generations were, to a large extent, critical towards the Mutazilite school, especially after formation of the Asharite concepts.

The Ash'ari theology was instrumental in drastically changing the direction of Islamic theology, separating its development radically from that of theology in the Christian world. In contrast to the Mutazilite school of theologians, the Asharite view was that comprehension of the unique nature and characteristics of God were beyond human capability, and that, while man had free will, he had no power to create anything. It was a Taqlid-based view which did not assume that human reason could discern morality.


From the ninth century onward, owing to Caliph al-Ma'mun and his successor, Greek philosophy was introduced among the Persians and Arabs, and the Peripatetic school began to find able representatives among them, such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd (Averroës), all of whose fundamental principles were considered as criticized by the Mutakallamin.

During the Abbasid caliphate a number of thinkers and scientists, many of them non-Muslims or heretical Muslims, played a role in transmitting Greek, Hindu, and other pre-Islamic knowledge to the Christian West. They contributed to making Aristotle known in Christian Europe. Three speculative thinkers, the two Persians al-Farabi and Avicenna and the Arab al-Kindi, combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism with other ideas introduced through Islam. They were considered by many as highly unorthodox and by some were even described as non-Islamic philosophers.

In Spain, Arabic philosophic literature was translated into Hebrew and Latin, contributing to the development of modern European philosophy. The philosopher Moses Maimonides (a Jew born in Muslim Spain) was also influenced by Arab philosophical literature.

Differences between Kalam and Falsafa

Aristotle attempted to demonstrate the unity of God; but his view that matter was eternal implied that God could not be the Creator of the world. The assertion that God's knowledge extends only to the general laws of the universe, and not to individual and accidental things, is tantamount to denying prophecy. The faith of the Mutakallamin was also challenged by the theory of intellect. The Peripatetics taught that the human soul was only an aptitude, a faculty capable of attaining every variety of passive perfection—and that through virtue and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, it became qualified for union with the active intellect which emanates from God. To admit this theory would be to deny the immortality of the individual soul.

The Mutakallamin therefore sought to establish a system of philosophy which would demonstrate the creation of matter, and they adopted the theory of atoms as enunciated by Democritus. They taught that atoms possess neither quantity nor extension. Originally, atoms were created by God, and God continues to create them as occasion requires it. Bodies come into existence or die, through the aggregation or the separation of these atoms. This theory did not remove the objections of philosophy to a creation of matter.

If it is supposed that God commenced His work at a certain definite time by His "will," and for a certain definite object, it must be admitted that He was imperfect before accomplishing His will, or before attaining His object. In order to obviate this difficulty, the Motekallamin extended their theory of the atoms to Time, and claimed that just as Space is constituted of atoms and vacuum, Time, likewise, is constituted of small indivisible moments. Once the creation of the world was established, it was easy for them to demonstrate the existence of a Creator, and that God is unique, omnipotent, and omniscient.

Main protagonists of Falsafa and their critics

The twelfth century saw the apotheosis of pure philosophy and the decline of the Kalam, which, attacked by both the philosophers and the orthodox, gradually perished. This supreme exaltation of philosophy may be attributed, in a sense, to two opponents of philosophy, the Sufi mystic theologian Al-Ghazali (1005-1111) among the Persians, and the poet Judah ha-Levi (1140) among the Jews. Ghazali wrote Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Destruction of the Philosophers), an attack on philosophers, asserting that philosophy had no role in the discovery of truth. This work produced a reaction favorable to philosophy, including a refutation by Ibn Rushdi, inducing the philosophers to make their theories clearer and their logic more consistent. The influence of this reaction brought forth the two greatest philosophers of the Islamic Peripatetic school, Ibn Bajjah (Avempace) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), both of whom undertook the defense of philosophy.

The Jewish poet, Judah ha-Levi, also seeking to free his religion from what he saw as the shackles of speculative philosophy, wrote the "Kuzari," in which he sought to discredit all schools of philosophy. He censured the Mutakallamin severely for seeking to support religion by philosophy, saying, "I consider him to have attained the highest degree of perfection who is convinced of religious truths without having scrutinized them and reasoned over them" ("Kuzari," v.). He reduced the chief propositions of the Mutakallamin, to prove the unity of God, to ten in number, describing them at length, and concluding in these terms: "Does the Kalam give us more information concerning God and His attributes than the prophet did?" (Ib. iii. and iv.) Judah ha-Levi also opposed Aritotelianism for its preoccupation with details and criticism; Neoplatonism had some appeal to his poetic temperament.

Ibn Rushd (or Ibn Roshd or Averroës), the contemporary of Maimonides, closed the first great philosophical era of the Muslims. The boldness of this great commentator of Aristotle aroused the full fury of the orthodox, who, in their zeal, attacked all philosophers indiscriminately, and had all philosophical writings burned. The theories of Ibn Rushd did not differ fundamentally from those of Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Tufail, who follow the teachings of Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. Like all Islamic Peripatetics, Ibn Rushd admitted the hypothesis of the intelligence of the spheres and the hypothesis of universal emanation. These hypotheses, in the mind of the Arabic philosophers, did away with the dualism involved in Aristotle's doctrine of pure energy and eternal matter. Ibn Rushd’s ideas on the separation of philosophy and religion, further developed by the Averroist school of philosophy in Europe, were later influential in the development of modern secularism.[2][3] Ibn Rushd is, thus, regarded as the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe.[4]

While Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and other Persian and Muslim philosophers barely touched subjects that encroached on religious dogmas, Ibn Rushd devoted considerable attention to them. He said, "Not only is matter eternal, but form is potentially inherent in matter; otherwise, it were a creation ex nihilo" (Munk, "Mélanges," 444). According to this theory, the existence of this world is not only a possibility, as Ibn Sina declared—in order to make concessions to the orthodox—but is also a necessity.

Driven from the Islamic schools, Islamic philosophy found a refuge with the Jews, who transmitted it to the Christian world. A series of eminent thinkers, such as Ibn Tibbon, Narboni, and Gersonides—joined in translating the Arabic philosophical works into Hebrew and commenting upon them. The works of Ibn Rushd especially became the subject of their study, due in great measure to Maimonides, who, in a letter addressed to his pupil Joseph ben Judah, spoke in the highest terms of Ibn Rushd's commentary.

Some historians and philosophers do not agree with this account, claiming that it is based on Western understanding, and describe this era in a completely different way. Their main objection concerns the influence of different philosophers on Islamic philosophy, especially the comparative importance of eastern intellectuals such as Ibn Sina and of western thinkers such as Ibn Rushd.

Jewish philosophy in the Arab world in the classical period

The oldest Jewish religio-philosophical work extant is that of Saadia Gaon (892-942), Emunot ve-Deot, "The Book of Beliefs and Opinions." In this work, Saadia discusses the questions that interested the Mutakallamin, such as the creation of matter, the unity of God, the divine attributes, and the soul. Saadia criticized other philosophers severely. For Saadia there was no problem as to creation: God created the world ex nihilo, just as the Bible attests; and he contested the theory of the Mutakallamin in reference to atoms, which, he declares, is just as contrary to reason and religion as the theory of the philosophers professing the eternity of matter.

To prove the unity of God, Saadia used the demonstrations of the Mutakallamin. Only the attributes of essence (sifat al-dhatia) can be ascribed to God, but not the attributes of action (sifat-al-fi'aliya). The soul is a substance more delicate even than that of the celestial spheres. Here Saadia controverted the Mutakallamin, who considered the soul an "accident" 'arad (compare Guide for the Perplexed i. 74), and employed the following one of their premises to justify his position: "Only a substance can be the substratum of an accident" (that is, of a non-essential property of things). Saadia argues: "If the soul be an accident only, it can itself have no such accidents as wisdom, joy, or love." Saadia was thus in every way a supporter of the Kalam; and if at times he deviated from its doctrines, it was owing to his religious views; just as the Jewish and Muslim Peripatetics stopped short in their respective Aristotelianism whenever there was danger of contradicting orthodox religion.

Later Islamic philosophy

Ibn Rushd was the last major proponent of the discipline of Islamic philosophy usually called the Peripatetic Arabic School. After his death, philosophical activity declined significantly in western Islamic countries, Spain and North Africa, though it persisted for much longer in the Eastern countries, in particular Iran and India.

The shift of political power in Western Europe (Spain and Portugal) from Muslim to Christian control ended the practice of Muslim philosophy in Western Europe, and led to some loss of contact between the "west" and the "east" of the Islamic world. Muslims in the "east" continued to do philosophy, as is evident from the works of Ottoman scholars and especially those living in Muslim kingdoms within the territories of present day Iran and India, such as Shah Waliullah and Ahmad Sirhindi. Logic has continued to be taught in religious seminaries up to modern times.

Later schools of Islamic philosophy, such as those founded by Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra, are of particular importance, as they are still active in the Islamic world.

Post-classical Islamic philosophy

Post-classical Islamic philosophers are usually divided into two main categories according to their affiliation with the Sunni and Shia denominations. Many contemporary philosophers and thinkers such as Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Imam Musa Sadr do not accept the importance of this classification, but there is a general consensus that the thinkers of this era can be categorized into those who mainly worked within the Shi’a tradition, and those who did not. If this division is accepted, each category can be summarized as follows (it should be mentioned that this classification has many overlaps, is not very clear and precise):

Thinkers not primarily concerned with Shi’a beliefs:

  • Philosophers:
  1. Abhari ابحرى
  2. Ibn Sab’in (d. 1268) ابن سبعين
  3. Kateb-e-Qazwini كاتب قزوينى
  4. Rashid-al-Din Fazlollah رشيدالدين فضل الله
  5. Qutb-al-din Razi قطب الدين رازى
  6. Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr
  • Theosophers:
  1. Fakhr al-Din Razi (d. 1209 ) فخرالدين رازى
  2. Iji ايجى
  3. Taftazani تفتازانى
  4. Jorjani جرجانى
  • Opponents of Philosophy
  1. Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328) and his students ابن تيميه
  • History of Philosophy
  1. Zakariya Qazwini زكرياى قزوينى
  2. Shams al-Din Mohamamd Amuli شمس الدين محمد آملى
  3. Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) ابن خلدون
  • Gnostic and Sufi thinkers
  1. Roz bahan Balqi Shirazi روزبهان بلقى شيرازى
  2. Farid al-Din Attar (Attar Nishpuri) عطار نيشابورى
  3. Umar Suhrawardi عمر سهروردى
  4. Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) & his School ابن عربى
  5. Najmeddin Kubra نجم الدين كبرى
  6. Simnani سمنانى
  7. Ali Hamedani على همدانى
  8. Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi مولانا
  9. Mahmud Shabestari & Shams al-Din Lahiji محمود شبسترى و شمس الدين لاهيجى
  10. Abd-al-karim Jili عبدالكريم جيلى
  11. Ne’mat-o-allah vali kermani نعمت الله ولى كرمانى
  12. Huroofi & Baktashi حروفى و بكتاشى
  13. Jami جامى
  14. Hossein Kashefi حسين كاشفى
  15. abd al-Qani Nablosi عبدالغنى نابلسى
  16. Noor ali Shah نورعلي شاه
  17. Zahbiyye ذهبيه

Thinkers primarily concerned with Shi’a beliefs:

  1. Nasir al-Din Tusi (d.1274) خواجه نصيرالدين توسي
  2. Isma’ili اسماعيليان
  3. Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1191) and the Illumination School شهاب الدين سهروردى و مكتب اشراق
  4. Jaldaki جلدكى
  5. Sadr al-Din Dashtaki and the Shiraz School صدرالدين دشتكى و مكتب شيراز
  6. Mir Damad (d. 1631) and the Isfahan School ميرداماد و مكتب اصفهان
  7. Mir Fendereski and his students ميرفندرسكى
  8. Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) and the Transcendent Philosophy ملاصدرا و حكمت متعاليه
  9. Rajab Ali Tabrizi and his students رجب على تبريزى
  10. Qazi Sa’id Qumi قاضى سعيد قمى
  11. Tehran and Qom School مكتب تهران و قم
  12. Khorasan School مكتب خراسان
  13. Mulla Hadi Sabzevari and the Neyshabor School ملاهادى سبزوارى و مكتب نيشابور

Social philosophy

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), in his Muqaddimah (the introduction to a seven-volume analysis of universal history), advanced social philosophy in formulating theories of social cohesion and social conflict.

Modern Islamic philosophy

The tradition of Islamic philosophy is still very much alive today, despite the belief in many Western circles that this tradition ceased after the golden ages of Suhrawardi’s Hikmat al-Ishraq (Illumination Philosophy) or, at the latest, Mulla Sadra’s Hikmat-e-Mota’aliye or Transcendent (Exalted) Philosophy. In the early twentieth century, Allama Muhammad Iqbal reshaped and revitalized Islamic philosophy amongst the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent.[5] Besides his Urdu and Persian poetical work, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.[6] is a milestone in the modern political philosophy of Islam.

From the mid-nineteenth century, Islamic philosophers have sought to redefine Islamic philosophy, seeking to establish a distinctive form of thought and the meet the challenge of Western culture. Writers such as Hasan Hanafi and Ali Mazrui have aimed to give Islamic thought a global perspective and provide an agenda for world unity. There is a continuing interest in mystical and illuminationist thought, especially in Iran. Modern Islamic philosophers also seek to relate non-Islamic philosophical concepts such as Hegelianism and existentialism to Islam.[7]

In contemporary Islamic lands, the teaching of hikmat or hikmah has continued and flourished. Among the traditional masters of Islamic philosophy most active during the past two decades are

  • The Iranian علامه طباطبائى or Allameh Tabatabaei, the author of numerous works including the twenty seven-volume Quranic commentary al-Mizan (الميزان)
  • Sayyid Abul-Hasan Rafi’i Qazwini (سيد ابوالحسن رفيعى قزوينى) the great master of Mulla Sadra's school who has written a few treasured works but has trained many outstanding students such as Sayyid Jalal-al-Din Ashtiyani (جلال الدين آشتيانى), who has studied with both him and Allamah Tabatabai
  • Allamah Muhammad Salih Ha’iri Simnanin, the most loyal follower of Peripatetic philosophy and opposed to Mulla Sadra's school

The younger traditional scholars who have been most active recently in Islamic philosophy include

  • Mirza Mahdi Ha‘iri, the only one of the traditional class of hakims with an extensive experience of the West and author of Ilm-I Kulli and Kavoshha-ye Aqli-Nazari
  • Murtaza Motahhari, the best student of Allamah Tabatabai, a martyr of the Iran Islamic Revolution
  • Seyyed Hossein Nasr
  • Imran Nazar Hosein—author of Jerusalem in the Quran
  • In Malaysia, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas is a prominent metaphysical thinker

See also

  • Islamic scholars
  • Islamic Golden Age
  • Islamic science
  • Modern Islamic philosophy
  • Islam and modernity
  • Islamic Institute of Philosophy
  • The concept of Tai al-Ardh (teleportation)


  1. Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 447.
  2. Abdel Wahab El Messeri, Who was Ibn Rushd? Episode 21: Ibn Rushd. Retrieved December 13, 2007.
  3. Fauzi M. Najjar, The debate on Islam and secularism in Egypt, CNET Networks, Inc. Retrieved December 13, 2007.
  4. Majid Fakhry, Averroes: His Life, Works and Influence (Oneworld Publications, 2001, ISBN 1851682694).
  5., Iqbal. Retrieved December 13, 2007.
  6. Dr. Muhammad Iqbal,The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Retrieved December 13, 2007.
  7. Edward Craig, Islamic Philosophy, Modern, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1998), 410.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Corbin, Henry. 1993. History of Islamic philosophy. London: Kegan Paul International. ISBN 9780710304162.
  • Craig, Edward. 1998. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415073103.
  • Fakhry, Majid. 1970. A History of Islamic Philosophy. Studies in Oriental culture, no. 5. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231032315.
  • Honderich, Ted. 1995. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198661320.
  • Madkour, Ibrahim Bayyumi. The Study of Islamic Philosophy.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Oliver Leaman. 1996. History of Islamic Philosophy. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415056670.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 2006. Islamic Philosophy From its Origin to the Present Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy. SUNY series in Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791468005.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Oliver Leaman. 1996. History of Islamic Philosophy. Routledge history of world philosophies, v. 1. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415056670.
  • Ṣadr, Muḥammad Bāqir, and Shams Constantine Inati. 1987. Our Philosophy. London: Muhammadi Trust in association with KPI. ISBN 9780710301796.

External links

All links retrieved March 7, 2018.

General philosophy sources


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