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A Look at the Development of Philosophy in the Islamic Civilization

The term falsafah (philosophy) is the Arabicized version of the Greek word philosophia (the love of wisdom). Philosophy, in its technical connotation, entered the Islamic world when Arab, and often non-Muslim, translators embarked on the translation into Arabic of ancient Greek philosophical works and those from the Hellenistic period, along with books on other subjects, such as medicine, mathematics and astronomy, from their Greek originals or Syriac translations. This so-called translation movement started during the caliphate of the Umayyads and reached its apogee in the `Abbasid period, especially during the reign of Ma’mun (215 AH/830 AD) whose establishment of Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom) provided added impetus to the translation of philosophical works. Here, the patronage of Iranian viziers and other officials played a key role in encouraging those active in the movement.

Here, mention should be made of one of the most widely held misconceptions about the Islamic philosophy which has endured among the European scholars from the Middle Ages to the present, i.e. that the Islamic philosophy was initiated by a handful of philosophers and culminated with Ibn Rushd (Latin Averroes, 595 AH/1198 AD). This hugely misleading notion continues to be bandied about by orientalists, historians of the East and even Muslim scholars. Another misconception has to do with equating the Islamic philosophy with “Arab philosophy”, i.e. to confuse the medium of expression with its conceptual content. Orientalists focusing on Islamic philosophy, in line with the European traditions hailing from the medieval period, have for a long time been echoing these misconceptions, especially as regards the development of philosophical thinking of the Islamic Iran.

The truth of the matter is that after the death of Ibn Rushd the center of gravity of Islamic philosophy was shifted from the west to the east. Here, the Islamic Iran became the focal point of this philosophical renaissance, where the Sunni philosophico-Islamic worldview was replaced with one with a Shi`ite orientation. The history of Islamic philosophy, like the peoples who contributed to its creation, partakes of two distinctive aspects: outward and inward. The outward aspect of Islamic philosophy, as was mentioned above, has been elaborated by orientalists and Muslim historians from a variety of perspectives, all of which have been marred by misconceptions and idiosyncratic views. What are yet to be dealt with in detail are the inward aspects of Islamic philosophy as well as that of Muslim philosophers. The inward history of Islamic philosophy is the history which was being shaped within the minds and souls of Muslim philosophers, that which may be termed as the hermeneutics of the Islamic philosophy, i.e. ta’wil or a referring back of the ideas to their hidden or forgotten spiritual origins so as to divulge that which has been concealed by their outward history. In recent times attempts have been made in connection with uncovering this aspect of Islamic philosophy by the likes of Max Horten (d. 1945 AD) and especially Henry Corbin (d. 1979 AD), whose efforts mainly focused on the philosophical development in Iran and among the Shi`ites.

The true historian of philosophy more than being a mere reporter of philosophical events is their interpreter, not the outward events but those of an inward nature. Islamic philosophy is born from within the heart of the Islamic worldview. It should also be noted that Islamic philosophy has experienced a bumpy ride throughout its development. It has been the subject of widespread disagreements and outward hostility, to the point where at times it has been pushed to the brink of annihilation. Here, we will discuss only one such example out of a long series of cases. Apart from the well known writings of Ghazzali (d. 505 AH/1111 AD) in deprecation of philosophy and philosophers, mention should be made of Taqi al-Din Shahrazuri (d. 643 AH), the great Shafi`ite jurist, traditionist and exegete, who in one of his fatwas characterizes philosophy as the foundation of stupidity and dissolution, the source of ignorance and deviation, and the reason behind the diversion of the Zandaqites (heretics, unbelievers). He also considers logic as evil, owing to the fact that it serves as a gateway to philosophical investigation, and condemns the use of logical terminology in the elaboration of fiqhi issues as an inappropriate innovation. He implores government officials to expel the teachers of philosophy from schools and to punish them with death if necessary.

As was discussed at the outset, Islamic philosophy first flourished in the eastern part of the Islamic world. As was noted by Max Horten: “Islamic philosophy was initiated and developed by Iranians.” Apart from Ya`qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi (d. 260 AH/873 AD), who was of Arab origin, the earliest major Muslim philosophers were Iranians, such as Farabi (d. 339 AH/950 AD) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 428 AH/1037 AD).

That which came to be known as Islamic philosophy was a phenomenon which arose from within the Islamic worldview and drew on Greek ideas, comprising elements from Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophies, with heavy emphasis on the latter, and to a lesser degree from the Stoics. In the second stage of philosophical development in the Islamic world, i.e. the Shi`ite-Iranian philosophy, we encounter an entirely different phenomenon. It goes without saying that the Shi`ite-Iranian worldview played a crucially normative role in the formation of philosophical thought in Islam, just as its theological counterpart in its encounter with the Sunni theology.

In time, the heritage of Islamic philosophy was transmitted from the eastern part of the Islamic world to its western end in Andalus, where it entered upon a new phase of its development, carried out by such philosophers as Ibn Bajjah (Avempace, d. 533 AH/1139 AD), Ibn Tufayl (d. 581 AH/1185 AD), and Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd is the pre-eminent exponent of Aristotelian, or Mashsha’i, philosophy in Islam. His overarching concern was to remain a true interpreter of Aristotle’s ideas, a fact that brought him into conflict with the systems of Farabi and Ibn Sina as well as with those of theologians such as Ghazzali. Ibn Rushd’s philosophical outlook, that which in the medieval Europe went by the name of Averroesism, entered the philosophical circles of Europe in the 13th century AD and went on to gain a substantial following, so much so that it continued to remain the dominant form of European philosophical thinking well into the 16th and 17th centuries AD. The interesting point is that Ibn Rushd’s ideas failed to meet with the same reception in the eastern part of the Islamic world. In other words, after the transfer of the center of Islamic philosophical activity to the east, especially Iran, the worldview of Ibn Rushd was mainly ignored, so much so that his staunch opposition to the views of Ibn Sina remained ineffectual to the point that the latter’s system came to assume an unrivalled position as the dominant philosophical outlook.

Another factor was the appearance on the Islamic philosophical scene of Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 585 AH/1191 AD), also known as Shaykh al-Ishraq (the Master of Illumination), who ushered in a new era in the Islamic philosophical life. His Illuminationist philosophy may be viewed as a revival of the philosophical and mystical thought of ancient Iran. According to Suhrawardi “There were, among Iranians (Faras), a group who were the seekers after truth and who acted accordingly. These were not like the Magi. We revived their noble and luminous wisdom (hikmah), which was attested by Plato and philosophers before him, in our book of Hikmat al-ishraq (the Philosophy of Illumination), something which had not previously been carried out by anyone else.” Suhrawardi’s philosophical outlook provided the impetus for the formation of the Iranian Platonists or Ishraqiyyun (Illuminationists), where, in time, Platonism – especially the type which had filtered through the interpretive systems of Alexandrian philosophers – came to supersede the dominant Aristotelian outlook, especially its Ibn Rushdian version.

During the same period, we witness the rise of the mystical or mystico-philosophical system of the great Muslim thinker and mystic Muhyi al-Din b. al-`Arabi in Andalus, in the western part of the Islamic world, which found its way into the east and left a deep and long-lasting impress on Islamic philosophical thinking. Henceforward, the mystical philosophy of Ibn al-`Arabi came to constitute one of the most prominent aspects of philosophical worldview in Islam, though the mystical orientation had come to the fore ever since the appearance of Surawardi’s Philosophy of Illumination. Among the pre-eminent characteristics of Iranian Islamic philosophy is the synthesis of philosophical thinking with mystical experience, the outstanding example of which is Suhrawardi. In fact, it was Suhrawardi who through his revival of the mystical and spiritual thoughts of ancient Iran on light and darkness elevated philosophy to the point of being viewed as a propaedeutic for mystical experience. The notion of a ‘dual reality”, i.e. the separation of philosophy and theology, which in the medieval Europe was falsely attributed to Ibn Rushd, was refuted by Suhrawardi.

In the Safavid period, the appearance of the School of Isfahan, inaugurated a new chapter in the history of Islamic philosophy. The most prominent members of the school include Mir Damad (d. 1041 AH/1631 AD) and Sadr al-Din Shirazi (d. 1050 AH/1640 AD), better known as Mulla Sadra. The Islamic philosophy of the post-Safavid period is marked by an admixture of philosophical thought and mystical insight, with the mystical epic of Ibn al-`Arabi as its ubiquitous feature. In the final analysis, the philosophical outlook of Mulla Sadra and his followers may be considered as a coherent system resulting from a blending of the Illuminationist philosophy of Suhrawardi and the mystical outlook of Ibn al-`Arabi with the fundamental tenets of Aristotelian philosophy and Platonic and Neoplatonic theology placed within the framework of Iranian Shi`ite beliefs.

Here, without delving into the details of the systems of these Muslim philosophers, we will touch upon a number of important general points. The most seminal subjects of Islamic philosophy include existence (wujud) and quiddity (mahiyyah), and substance (jawhar) and accident (`arad), as well as their concomitant discussions. In Islamic theology the issues include the existence of God, His attributes, His link with the world of creation, i.e. the doctrine of emanation or the emergence of creatures from the source of existence, cosmology, psychology, and the all too important subject of eschatology or the fate of the soul. Here, the two notions of existence and quiddity have played the most prominent role in Islamic thought. The foundational question has been that of determining whether being has preceded nothingness and thus has primacy (asalat) over the later. The majority of Muslim philosophers have subscribed to the notion of the primacy and priority (taqaddum) of quiddity and considered being as accidental to quiddity. They are of the opinion that being is endowed with quiddities by the God, as if by the way of a loan. Among the issues of secondary importance discussed by Muslim philosophers is the notion of Platonic Ideas (muthul). Muslim Aristotelians have denied their existence, while their Platonist counterparts have insisted on their reality. Another significant idea is that of Suhrawardi’s concept of light (nur), which he employs in place of that of existence. According to Qutb al-Din Shirazi (d. 710 AH/1311 AD), the famous commentator of Suhrawardi’s seminal Hikmat al-ishraq, light is the proxy for the existence aspect of the Necessary (wajib) while darkness is of the status of the contingent (mumkin). Sadr al-Din Shirazi also refers to the same notion: “To Suhrawardi nur is a substitute for being, since without the manifestation of being over the existents and quiddities they would have remained concealed behind the veil of darkness.”

Among the key sources used by Muslim philosophers mention should be made of the Arabic translation of a collection of Aristotle’s works, especially those on logic, psychology, and theology, or metaphysics; a number of Plato’s works or their epitomes, the translations of some of the works of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, especially his Athulugia; and the translations of a number of writings of the Neoplatonic philosophy Proclus, such as his al-Idah fi ’l-khayr al-mahz or Kitab al-`ilal. There were a number of Hermetic writings which also exerted influence over the philosophical outlook of Muslim thinkers.

The development of traditional Islamic philosophy has continued from the time of Mulla Sadra to the present, a period which has witnessed the rise of many distinguished philosophers, several of whom have hailed from Iran. The most prominent Muslim philosopher since Mulla sadra is Mulla Hadi Sabzawari (d. 1289 AH/1872 AD), whose Manzumah and Sharh-i Manzumah, along with their numerous commentaries, are among the major textbooks in the traditional philosophical curricula.

* source: Khorasani, Sharafaddin "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.456 - 458

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