The Rise of Prophetic Philosophy in Islamic World

  January 01, 2024   Read time 4 min
The Rise of Prophetic Philosophy in Islamic World
Islamic philosophy (al-falsafah) was born as a result of the meditation of Islamic thinkers—those who lived in the intellectual universe dominated by the reality of the Quranic revelation—on the philosophical ideas of the Hellenic and Hellenistic worlds and to some extent the philosophical heritage of India and pre-Islamic Persia.
Islamic philosophy is not simply the conduit of Greek philosophy for the West, although it performed this function in the fifth/eleventh and sixth/twelfth centuries. Nor is it simply Aristotle in Arabic. Islamic philosophy is essentially “prophetic philosophy,” that is, a kind of philosophy based on a worldview in which revelation is a living reality and a source, or rather the supreme source, of knowledge and certitude. It is a philosophy born of the synthesis of Abrahamic monotheism and Greek philosophy, giving rise to a type of philosophical thought that was to wield great influence in both the Jewish and Christian worlds. Although opposed by proponents of kal m, Islamic philosophy must be considered a major field of Islamic religious knowledge, and one can no more deny its significance for Islamic thought than one can negate the importance of Maimonides for Jewish thought or St. Thomas Aquinas for Christian thought. In contrast to the view held by so many Western students of Islamic philosophy, this philosophy is part and parcel of the totality of the Islamic intellectual universe, and without it one cannot gain full understanding of that universe.
Activity in Islamic philosophy began in the third/ninth century in Baghdad as more and more Greek and Syriac philosophical texts, especially those belonging to the school of Aristotle and his Neoplatonic commentators, became available in Arabic, transforming Arabic into one of the major philosophical languages and a repository for a great deal of the philosophy and science of Greco-Alexandrian antiquity. The first outstanding Islamic philosopher, Ab Ya‘q b al-Kind (d. ca. 260/873), sought to create a synthesis between Islamic teachings and Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy, laying the foundation for the mashsh ’ , or Islamic Peripatetic school, which is therefore not purely Aristotelian, as the name might indicate.
It remained for the second great figure of this school, Abu Nasr Al-Farabius (d. 339/950), from Khurasan, to complete the synthesis that al-Kind was aiming to achieve. Al-Farabi not only commented on the logical works of Aristotle and Porphyry, but also attempted to unify the political thought of Plato with Islamic political ideas and harmonize the views of Plato and Aristotle (Aristotle, for Muslims, “included” Plotinus, whose Enneads was thought to have been written by Aristotle and was referred to as The Theology of Aristotle). Many consider al-Farabi , who was called the Second Teacher after Aristotle, the “First Teacher,” to be the founder not only of Islamic political philosophy, but of Islamic philosophy itself.
It was, however, Ibn Sina (d. 428/1037), the most influential of all Islamic philosophers within the Islamic world, who brought the mashsh ’ school to its peak of maturity and perfection. His magnum opus, the Kitab al-shifa’ (“The Book of Healing”), a monumental encyclopedia of both philosophy and the natural and mathematical sciences, exerted vast influence in the Islamic world and even among Jewish and Christian thinkers. There, as well as in shorter works, Ibn S n developed ontology as the foundation of philosophy, for which he has been called by some modern scholars the first “philosopher of being” who left his indelible mark on all medieval philosophy. It was he who first formulated the distinction between necessity and contingency, equating the Necessary Being with God and contingency with all of creation. The themes of the relationship between faith and reason, creation and emanation, spiritual and physical resurrection, rational and revealed knowledge—and numerous other subjects of religious philosophy created by the confrontation between the two worldviews of Semitic monotheism and Greek philosophical speculation—were treated by Ibn Sina. He did this in a manner that was to exercise a great influence on many types of Islamic religious thought, including kal m, whose proponents, such as al-Ghazz l and Fakhr al-D n al-Razi , singled out Ibn S n in their criticism of mashsh ’ philosophy.
Toward the end of his life, Ibn Sina wrote “The Oriental Philosophy” (al- ikmat al-mashriqiyyah), which he considered to be for the “intellectual elite,” while the mashsh ’ philosophy was for the common public. This “Oriental Philosophy,” of whose main texts only fragments survive, is based more on intellection than on ratiocination and views philosophy as a means of transcending the limits of our human condition rather than providing a scheme of things that is rationally satisfying. This dimension of Ibn S n ’s philosophy was pursued two centuries later by Suhraward , the founder of the School of Illumination (ishr q), and had a profound influence on the later history of Islamic philosophy.

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