What is Islamic philosophy, and what can we learn from this tradition? The purpose of this article is to introduce several different ideas from Islamic philosophy in an accessible, introductory way. This article begins with a discussion of the term “Islamic philosophy” and explains some of the difficulties contained in it. In particular, it focuses on the ways in which this term appears to exclude non-Muslim philosophers living in the Islamic world, and tends to diminish Islamic philosophers who lived after the medieval period. It then moves on to consider two theories of the relationship between language, logic, and thought. Al-Kindi’s argument for the non-eternity of the universe is explored, before finally Ibn Sina’s turn towards focusing on being as such is considered.
What Is Islamic Philosophy?
What is Islamic philosophy? The term itself is contentious, and for good reason. There are many issues with it, but we can start with the continuities between philosophy in the tradition of the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonists, Stoics, and so on) and philosophy as it was practiced in the Islamic world from roughly 800 CE onwards.
The fact is that Islamic philosophy draws on, extends, and contests the Greek tradition heavily, and there is no good reason to refer to “Islamic philosophy” and not refer to Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and many other major philosophers of the modern period as “Christian philosophers.” At the very least, to do so would take some interpretative work if it was to be justified.
Another problem is that the term “Islamic philosophy” tends to exclude or diminish the contributions of non-Muslims living and working in majority-Muslim areas. Many of the translations of Greek philosophy used by Muslim philosophers were done by Syriac Christians, for example.
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Moreover, plenty of non-Muslims were philosophers in their own right. Given that their work took place at the same time and in the same places as so-called “Islamic philosophy” (Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, and Ibn Rushd, Islam’s foremost philosopher-jurist, were direct contemporaries in Andalucia). Are we to separate these basically contemporaneous philosophers out into distinct intellectual traditions simply on the grounds of religion? If not, what to make of the term “Islamic philosophy”?
The final issue worth raising with the term “Islamic philosophy” is that it is commonly used to refer not to Islamic philosophy overall, but more specifically to the philosophy of the medieval period (roughly, 800 CE to 1200 CE). But, of course, Muslims have been writing and reading philosophy ever since, and indeed the contributions made by more modern Muslims to a whole range of philosophical disciplines are often tragically overlooked, perhaps all the more so for their being excluded from the category of “Islamic philosophy.”
Moreover, this conception of Islam as having had a period of intellectual fluidity and freedom earlier in its history and having become intellectually rigid and sterile ever since is a loaded, heavily politicized conception of Islam and of Muslims. We would do well to query it wherever possible. In the discussion which follows, the term “Islamic philosophy” should always be read in scare quotes, as a self-consciously partial and incomplete attempt to describe a loose collection of philosophers and their ideas.
1. Logic as the Language of Thought
The first two arguments we will discuss are, in fact, opposing. In conjunction, they constitute the crux of a dispute about the relationship between logic, language, and thought that was had during the earlier years of Islamic philosophy. The dispute involved two of the major philosophers of medieval Islam (al-Kindi and al-Farabi), the Christian philosopher and translator Abu Bishra Matta, and the grammarian Abu Said al-Sirafi.
During the 9th century, Islamic philosophy was introduced to the work of Aristotle, including some of his work on logic: Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Categories, and other works which compose the Organon, which is the collection of texts containing Aristotle’s discussion of logical subjects.
What is logic? Logic can be described in various ways, but the essence of logic for Aristotle was deductive. A deduction he describes thus: “A deduction is speech (logos) in which, certain things having been supposed, something different from those supposed results of necessity because of their being so.” Here, we can observe the relationship between logic and speech, and that the essential method of logic (the deduction) can be found in speech.
Yet, Aristotle’s method for investigating deduction occurs in a more schematic, formal context. There are, for instance, the Aristotelian syllogisms, which are abstract inference patterns that allow for a conclusion to follow from (at least) two premises.
For our purposes, what is important is the very formality of it: he is attempting to deduce patterns that might occur in language, and not simply giving examples of what he means in everyday language.
What develops in Islamic philosophy is an attempt to suggest a relationship between this formalization and thought. We can trace this idea back to Matta, who—when pushed on what made the logic developed in Greek applicable to those who speak other languages, such as Arabic—replied that logic represents intellectual processes that are universal, and particular to no one language.
This thought was developed extensively by al-Farabi, who held that the relationship between language and its expressions is equivalent to that which exists between thought and logical expressions. In other words, the structure of language is to be found in thought, an idea that has recurred in a variety of more modern contexts, including in contemporary logic and linguistics.
2. Language as Use
We have discussed the arguments used to relate logic, language, and thought. What of the alternative view? Matta was challenged to give the answer above by his opponent al-Sirafi, who held that logic taught us nothing about language in general, and, indeed, that there was no such thing as language in general.
Moreover, to understand a language—any language—does not depend on our being able to appeal to some structure of the intellect, but on our ability to actually use the language as those who understand it do.
Al-Sirafi offers us grammar as a kind of alternative to the study of logic, and suggests that whatever rules of proper speaking should be grounded in our observation of actual linguistic practice. As such, these rules should be ever contingent, never finished. This idea, too, has recurred and has proven to be a popular response to attempts to analyze language through more formal methods.
3. The Non-Eternity of the Universe
The argument for the eternity of the universe, which comes from al-Kindi, is one of the most famous in Islamic philosophy, although it is not considered an argument of great merit so much as being of great interest.
It is worth saying that the prevailing view in Greek philosophy was that the universe was eternal. This was the view attributed to Plato, held by Aristotle, and many other Greek schools. However, such a view is clearly anathema to a Muslim point of view, given that God is meant to be the creator of the universe, which implies that it is not an eternal entity but once was not.
Al-Kindi’s argument is an attempt to extend another Aristotelian idea—the impossibility of an actual infinity—to the eternity of the universe. Given that the universe must be spatially limited, it follows from this that it must be temporally limited. Trading on the conceptual holism of the term “infinity” is not regarded as an especially strong argument, and yet it contains the seeds of the many and various reconceptualizations of infinity in later philosophy.
4. Metaphysics as the Study of Being
The last idea we will focus on is that of metaphysics as the study of being as such. This is arguably the culmination of the analysis of being that begins with the attempt to make sense of Aristotle’s theory of actuality and potentiality in a religious context.
If the concept of potentiality implies the existence of a minimal formal conception of being as unrealized, then it is in Ibn Sina’s work that the focus shifts (or, if you like, is reversed) to focus primarily on being in itself, and the study of particular beings as primarily in the service of understanding being in general rather than theorizing being in general in order to understand particular forms of being.
This further abstraction marks a critical moment in the history of empiricism, and the history of philosophy as a whole, as a kind of turn away from existence and towards essence, even within an empiricist epistemological framework.