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Exploring the Contributions of Medieval Islamic Philosophers

From Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi to Avicenna and Averroes, explore the remarkable contributions of medieval Islamic philosophers. Learn more here! 

Exploring the Contributions of Medieval Islamic Philosophers

Medieval Islamic philosophy was an integral part of the intellectual life of the Muslim world for centuries, with numerous highly influential figures such as Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes to their credit. This article examines the brilliant contributions of these philosophers to science, mathematics, logic, and more.

From al-Ghazali to al-Farabi, a variety of Islamic philosophers made key contributions to our present understanding of the world during the Middle Ages. Deeply influential even today, their writings and ideas transcend religious and temporal boundaries. Let's take a look at some of history’s greatest minds and explore how they shaped our current understanding of the world. 

Who are some famous Islamic philosophers?

Many influential Islamic philosophers helped shape the intellectual and religious landscape in the world today. Prominent Islamic figures include Avicenna, a polymath from Persia who wrote extensively on both Islamic and secular topics; Al-Ghazali, an immensely influential theologian and philosopher who lived in 10th century Baghdad; and Ibn Rushd, a 12th century Andalusian philosopher famous for his commentaries on ancient Greek philosophy.

How did Islamic philosophy impact Europe?

Islamic philosophy had a tremendous impact on the intellectual development of Europe. First, many of the works of Islamic scholars were translated into Latin in Spain and Sicily in the Middle Ages, giving Europeans access to ideas that were previously unavailable to them. Secondly, Islamic scholars influenced European philosophers by introducing them to new arguments and ideas not found in classical philosophy. Lastly, Islamic philosophers’ emphasis on reason and rationality inspired European thinkers to look at the world rationally, rather than through a theological perspective.

What are some of the key concepts in Islamic philosophy?

One of the main concepts in Islamic philosophy is the belief that all knowledge is rooted in divine origin. This idea was introduced by the works of philosophers like Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali, who argued that all knowledge comes from God, who is seen as omnipotent, infinitely wise, and merciful. Additionally, Islamic philosophy emphasizes human reason and understanding as important tools for exploring and uncovering truth. Islamic scholars also had diversified views on metaphysics, epistemology, logic, cosmology, ethics and spiritualism.

The Centres of Islamic Thought in the Medieval period

The most influential centres of Islamic thought during the medieval period were in three different cities: Baghdad (in modern-day Iraq), Cordoba (in modern-day Spain), and Cairo (in modern-day Egypt). During this time, these three cities flourished with philosophers and thinkers who wrote numerous works on diverse topics such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy. Each one of these cities served as a hub for the dissemination of Islamic ideas throughout Europe and the Mediterranean

medieval Islamic philosophy

Moreover, much of the substance of philosophical thinking in that time and place was an inheritance from philosophy as it developed in the Greek and Roman worlds  indeed, much of the region had been Roman and (Byzantine) Greek for centuries. 

It matters that the chosen label of identification should recognize these facts. One candidate might be ‘Arab– Persian’ as the closest approximation to an ethnogeographical marker. But this is far from ideal also, given that some of the most important work in this phase of philosophy’s history was done in Spain, and that the actual ethnicity of individual philosophers is irrelevant. Moses Maimonides was a Sephardic Jew, Averroes an Andalusian Arab, Avicenna  was born of Uzbek–Afghan parentage in what had been a far northern corner of the Persian Empire.  

falsafa meaning

Islamic philosophy is philosophy that emerges from the Islamic tradition. Two terms traditionally used in the Islamic world are sometimes translated as philosophy—falsafa (literally: "philosophy"), which refers to philosophy as well as logic, mathematics, and physics; and Kalam (literally "speech"), which refers to a rationalist form of Scholastic Islamic theology which includes the schools of Maturidiyah, Ashaira and Mu'tazila.

Early Islamic philosophy began with Al-Kindi in the 2nd century of the Islamic calendar (early 9th century CE) and ended with Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in the 6th century AH (late 12th century CE), broadly coinciding with the period known as the Golden Age of Islam. The death of Averroes effectively marked the end of a particular discipline of Islamic philosophy usually called the Peripatetic Islamic school, and philosophical activity declined significantly in Western Islamic countries such as Islamic Iberia and North Africa.

Islamic philosophy persisted for much longer in Muslim Eastern countries, in particular Safavid Persia, Ottoman, and Mughal Empires, where several schools of philosophy continued to flourish: Avicennism, Averroism, Illuminationist philosophy, Mystical philosophy, Transcendent theosophy, and Isfahan philosophy. Ibn Khaldun, in his Muqaddimah, made important contributions to the philosophy of history. Interest in Islamic philosophy revived during the Nahda ("Awakening") movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and continues to the present day.

Islamic philosophy had a major impact in Christian Europe, where translation of Arabic philosophical texts into Latin "led to the transformation of almost all philosophical disciplines in the medieval Latin world", with a particularly strong influence of Muslim philosophers being felt in natural philosophy, psychology and metaphysics.

Medieval Islamic Philosophers 

al kindi Islamic Philosophers of the Middle Ages

al kindi philosophy 1252

al kindi the father of arab philosophy. one of the greatest Islamic philosophers of the medieval period was al-Kindi. The first recognized Muslim philosopher is al-Kindi (c.801–73)  Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi). He was not the first to engage with Greek philosophical ideas; the Mu‘tazila kalam had absorbed some influence from that source already, as Ash‘arite criticism of Mu‘tazilite teaching shows; al-Ash‘ari himself blamed Aristotle for some of the Mu‘tazilite doctrines. But al-Kindi was interested in more than applying Greek thought to theology.

Al-Kindi was born in Kufa, the son of its Emir. He was reputed to be a descendant of the kings of Kinda, one of whom was a companion of Muhammad. He had the patronage of both Caliph al-Ma’mun and Caliph al-Mu‘tasim; he dedicated his major work On First Philosophy to the latter’s son Ahmad, whom he tutored. The caliphs appointed him to oversee the translation projects at the Bayt al-Hikma, which gave him complete access to the collections.

contribution of al kindi in philosophy

He was eager to learn from the entire range of what was on offer, and wrote scores of treatises Ibn al-Nadim’s bibliography lists 260 titles of works by him  covering every subject from medicine and astrology to mathematics and philosophy. Unfortunately only a few of these manuscripts survive, perhaps because of the hostility to him of Caliph al-Mutawakkil (822–61) who confiscated his books  and who also persecuted the Shi‘a, destroyed the shrine of the third Shi‘ite Imam Husayn ibn Ali, forced Jews to wear identifying clothing and cut down the sacred cypress of the Zoroastrians to use in building a new palace. 

The philosophical works of al kindi

Among his achievements is the introduction of the Indian system of numerals (0, 1, 2, 3 …) now universally in use. Al-Kindi was eager to establish that ‘the philosophy of the ancients’, as it was called, is consistent with Muslim teaching, and is consistent within itself. His main focus was geometry, logic and physics, and here the problem of compatibility was not serious. 

al-kindi theory of intellect

Al-Kindi theorized that there was a separate, incorporeal and universal intellect (known as the "First Intellect"). It was the first of God's creation and the intermediary through which all other things came into creation.

al kindi metaphysics

The next challenge was to justify the claims of reason against unquestioning acceptance of tradition or dogma. He therefore argued that ‘For the seeker after truth nothing takes precedence over truth, and there is no disparagement of the truth or of him who speaks it  no one is diminished by the truth; rather, the truth ennobles all.’ 

The Soul

Using the only version of Aristotle’s De Anima then available, which was a paraphrase, al-Kindi was able to claim that the Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul, and therefore a dualistic ontology in which the perishable body and imperishable soul are distinct existences.

 This further involved establishing that the soul is substantial, which he did by invoking the Aristotelian notion of essence to argue as follows: ‘Since bodies can perish, “being alive” is not an essential property of them. Being alive is, however, an essential property of being a person.

Therefore a person is not identical with his body. Living things are substances. Persons are living things. Therefore persons (souls, the essentially “being alive” aspect of us) are substances.’ One problem with this is that for Aristotle a substance is a combination of form and matter, which requires a substantial soul to consist of some kind of non-bodily matter. How is it to be understood? Al-Kindi did not offer a solution.

For Muslim theology, kalam, the oneness of God is a key commitment, since unity and singularity are properties of perfection, and the greatest degree of reality attaches to the greatest degree of unity. 

Christian Trinitarian theology was anathema to Islam, so Plotinus’ doctrine of the primordial One was highly attractive to al-Kindi, and reinforced his claim that falsafa and kalam are consistent. If a thing is one, without parts, it is not subject to change and decay, and is therefore eternal. This incidentally gave al-Kindi ammunition against the Hanbalist fundamentalists, who were committed by their literalism to saying that God does things, as reported in the Qu’ran, like sit on a throne, which entails that he undergoes change and is therefore not eternal. 

Moreover the plenitude of reality that is constituted by the oneness of God explains creation: God emanates the universe from the plenitude of his reality  it issues from his overflowing abundance of reality like water spilling from an over-full tank.

al-Farabi Islamic Philosophers of the Middle Ages

Abu Nasr al-Farabi Islamic polymath 872-950 CE

An emanationist view of reality was also accepted by al-Farabi (c.872– 950), Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Farabi), who was known as the ‘Second Teacher’, not after al-Kindi, but instead  in such esteem was al-Farabi held  after Aristotle.


 Little is known about his biography, but a tradition saying that he was born in central Asia has led to the National University of Kazakhstan being named after him, while another tradition assigns him to Persia. Most of his life was passed in Baghdad, although he travelled in Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere, and died at Damascus.

Al-Farabi took the view that philosophy is superior to theology as a way of arriving at truth. He had spent time with Christians in Baghdad, studying logic with them either as a pupil or as a colleague, and his researches in logic were profound. 

al-farabi contribution in philosophy

He made epitomes of the Aristotelian Organon and wrote commentaries on it and on the Rhetoric and De Interpretatione, and also on Porphyry’s Isagoge. Investigation of the forms of valid inference carried a significant implication for al-Farabi: it convinced him that logic is universal, and as such underlies all languages and thought. This contradicts the view that, as the Qu’ran had been dictated by God in Arabic, the grammar of Arabic encapsulates the fundamental structure of language and thought. In al-Farabi’s view logic is superior to grammar, which seemed to imply that, because of the close association of grammar with theology, this further entailed the superiority of logic (of philosophy in general) over theology.

The task of translating Greek philosophical texts and creating a vocabulary for falsafa in Arabic had made the opponents of philosophy suspicious that the philosophers were attempting to substitute Greek grammar for Arabic grammar. 

Al-Farabi made the irenic move of pointing out that the ‘art of grammar’ was indispensable for helping logicians to describe the principles of logic. But in the Book of Letters al-Farabi iterates the inadequacy of Arab grammar to reveal logical structure, and describes ordinary language as merely a popularizing method of expressing philosophical truths in ways that people can understand.


Al-Farabi follows Aristotle in his account of the soul, identifying its chief faculties  in descending hierarchical order  as rational, imaginative, sensitive and nutritive.

 Like Aristotle he describes the ‘common sense’ as the sensorium combining and integrating everything apprehended by the five senses into a unified cognition, and locates it in the heart. 


Imagination is given a special place by al-Farabi because of its association with divination and prophecy. Aristotle had thought of imagining as having images of things when the things themselves are absent, and of the faculty of imagination as the power to rearrange images, as when one takes the head and wings of an eagle and the hindquarters of a horse, and combines them into the mythological creature known as the Hippogriff. To these two functions al-Farabi added a third: the power of imitation, allowing the recreation not just of pictures but of emotions and desires also. 

This fitted with his view that poetry exists to prompt feelings as well as images, and offered an account of prophecy as the reception in imagination of sensory images and associated feelings in a form communicable to a non philosophical wider public images and feelings that encapsulate ideas that would normally be available only to the highest form of intellect, the kind alone capable of being in tune with truth and reality.

al farabi political philosophy

Al-Farabi also wrote about politics, and here he was a Platonist rather than an Aristotelian. He followed Plato in thinking that the best ruler would be a philosopher-king, but was realistic enough to consider it unlikely that such would be available on a regular basis; so he addressed instead the question of why and how societies decline from the ideal. 

He said this happens for one of three reasons: because of ignorance, or because of wickedness, or because of error. Ignorant cities fail to grasp the true nature of humanity and the reason for its existence. 

Wicked and errant cities once knew, or perhaps still know, what the reason is for humanity’s existence, but they fail to act on that knowledge. The wicked ones fail to act on the knowledge because they are wicked, the errant ones because they misapply the knowledge or because their rulers mislead them.

What is Al-Farabi's impact on Islamic Thought?

Later philosophers in the Islamic world were unanimous in their admiration of al-Farabi’s logical works, and some of them  such as Avicenna acknowledged his influence on their philosophical outlook more broadly. Maimonides described him as ‘a great man’ and said that ‘all his writings are faultlessly excellent.’ Although Avicenna and Averroes were more influential on European thought when their writings became known, it was certain of al-Farabi’s works that alerted Europe’s philosophers to the treasures that were to be found in Aristotle.

al ghazali  Islamic Philosophers of the Middle Ages

imam hamid al-ghazali 1058


Who is al ghazali

al ghazālī (1058–1111), Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali) did not like falsafa, did not regard himself as a faylasuf, did not like to be called a faylasuf and wrote a book called The Incoherence of the Philosophers. He was a jurist  and made his initial reputation as such  a theologian of the Ash‘arite school, and a mystic inspired by Sufism. 

He is regarded in Sunni Islam as a Mujaddid, a ‘renewer of the faith’, one of those who appears once a century to reinspire the ummah, the community of the faithful. Yet he figures as a major philosopher of the Islamic world, and one of his works was influential among the Schoolmen of Europe. Born at Tabaran in the region of Khorasan on the borders of central Asia, al-Ghazali studied at Nishapur and Isfahan before being appointed to teach at the prestigious Nizamiyya Madrasa in Baghdad. 

His high reputation had made him the confidant of sultans and viziers, but the proximity of political and military power, and the corruptions of court life, repelled him. After four years teaching in Baghdad he suddenly left his post and travelled to Damascus and Jerusalem, vowing to be independent of patronage thenceforth. 

After making his pilgrimage to Mecca he returned to his home town and founded a small private school and a Sufi convent. But five years before his death he once again changed his stance, and returned to teaching at a public institution, the Nizamiyya Madrasa at Nishapur. He told his followers that he did so because people were theologically confused, and because the authorities had begged him to teach the people once again.

Ghazali to Baghdad

Al-Ghazali wrote an autobiography, and in it claims that while teaching in Baghdad he undertook a two-year study of philosophy in order to refute it, spending a third year writing his Incoherence of the Philosophers to complete the project. 

Some commentators suggest that this was to avoid the imputation that he had studied philosophy extensively while younger, because the Incoherence is a work of both literary and philosophical stature, and reads as a long meditated and mature production. 

al ghazali books

Among his other works are an untitled manuscript in which he had copied out many passages of other philosophers, and a book called The Doctrines of the Philosophers, which is an Arabic version, loosely translated and adapted, of Avicenna’s Persian-language book Philosophy for Ala al-Dawla. It was once thought that this compendium was preparatory work for the Incoherence but subsequent scholarship suggests that it is later in composition and has a different aim.

The translation al-Ghazali made of Avicenna’s Philosophy for Ala al-Dawla was translated into Latin several times in the century and a half after his death, and also into Hebrew. 

The first Latin translation appeared in the second half of the twelfth century CE, made by Dominicus Gundisalvi (d. 1190) and Iohannes Hispanus (fl. 1190), the latter possibly a Mozarab (an Arab Christian) in Toledo. It was the only work by al-Ghazali known to the philosophers of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and because it was a translation and adaptation of the Philosophy for Ala al-Dawla it was assumed that al-Ghazali was a disciple of Avicenna, and that the book was a summary of his master’s work. 

This impression was fostered by the fact that most of the Latin translations omitted the prefatory material in which al-Ghazali distances himself from what he is translating.

Because al-Ghazali described his Incoherence of the Philosophers as a ‘refutation’ of philosophical views, it is assumed that he rejected everything associated with Aristotelian thought. In fact matters are more complex. 

al-ghazali contribution in philosophy 

His principal target was the philosophers’ claim that logic and reason are superior as a source of knowledge to theology, which is based on revelation and faith. This undermines Islam, al-Ghazali says, and encourages some among the philosophers to neglect their religious duties. 

His procedure is to take a number of major philosophical doctrines and demonstrate that the philosophers fail to establish them by the standards of their own methods, chiefly because the assumptions from which they start are uncritically accepted. 

In some cases he shows that truths which he himself accepts could not be established by the philosophers’ methods. The counter arguments he uses are not all original to him; he makes use of the work of Christian anti-Aristotelian critics which had been known in kalam debates since the ninth century.

 A problem that characteristically bedevils thinkers with theological constraints to observe is whether there can be such a thing as ‘secondary causes’ that is, causes in nature other than the causal agency of a deity. The solution al- Ghazali proposes is that there are no such causes; everything that happens is a product of God’s will; but what appears to humans to be a connection between a cause and an effect, this being what putatively distinguishes their linked occurrence from merely fortuitous juxtapositions of events, is the habit of expectation we form as a result of seeing those events so often linked.

Although most of the doctrines al-Ghazali contests were not regarded by him as heretical, there are three that he takes to pose serious challenges to the Islamic faith. They are all to be found in Avicenna’s philosophy, namely, the eternity of the universe, the restriction of God’s knowledge to universals, and denial of bodily resurrection. 

Islam teaches the opposite: that the universe was created by God at a point in time, that God knows particulars as well as universals, and that the souls of the dead will one day be reunited with their bodies. Because Avicenna’s doctrines are dangerous to the faith, and would lead astray anyone who accepted them, al-Ghazali issues a fatwah at the end of the Incoherence saying that anyone who teaches these doctrines is a kafir (an unbeliever) and an apostate, and should therefore be killed.

It was not only philosophers of Avicenna’s stamp but Ismailis whom al-Ghazali attacked as heretics and apostates; in the case of the latter he seems to have misunderstood their views, attributing to them belief in two gods.

His writings laid down the limits of tolerance from the perspective of sharia, stipulating a test for whether a doctrine constitutes apostasy and disbelief. This was that there are three fundamental teachings that cannot be challenged: monotheism, the prophecies of Muhammad and the teaching of the Qu’ran on life after death.

 Anything that impugns these principles is forbidden and must be punished by death. Everything else must be evaluated on its merits, but even if it is erroneous it should be tolerated.

He also proposed a means of reconciling conflicts between the results of valid demonstrative reasoning and revelation, which can  because they are both true  only be apparent conflicts.

 This was to treat Qu’ranic utterances as symbolic if they seem to be challenged by sound argument. For example: such argument demonstrates that the nature of God is such that he does not have hands nor does he sit on a throne. Passages in the Qu’ran that make reference to hands or sitting on a throne are therefore symbolic. 

But it is forbidden to give a symbolic interpretation to anything in the Qu’ran that is not inconsistent with the results of valid demonstration. Most Muslim theologians and jurists after al-Ghazali accepted these views, though some said that in cases of conflicts between reason and revelation, revelation should always be regarded as superior.

In the Islamic world al-Ghazali’s chief work is his Revival of the Religious Sciences, treating of the ethics of daily life for the faithful, covering rituals and customs, the things that lead to perdition and those that lead to paradise. 

He criticizes materialism and extols a life of restraint and good actions, saying that theological and jurisprudential niceties are not nearly as important as the inner purity that virtue brings. 

al ghazali sufism

He was attracted to the Sufi approach to holiness, and the treatise that some regard as a popular recension of the Revival, known in English as The Alchemy of Happiness, promotes the ideal of spiritual self-realization and union with the divine. ‘The mystics, not the men of words, are those who had real experiences,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘I had already progressed as far as possible in the path of learning. What remained was not to be gained by study, but by immediate experience and walking in the mystic way.’

Why He Was a Great Scholar

Al-Ghazali must be credited with a major role in establishing the Sunni Ash‘arite ascendancy in Islam, and thereby the boundaries of tolerance and orthodoxy in this most numerous branch of the religion. 

Although he was far from proscribing the use of reason in logic and mathematics and the citing of empirical evidence in astronomy and physics, the net effect of three things  his attack on falsafa (though in fact restricted to metaphysical matters impinging on theology), the teachings of the Revival, and his own tendency to mystical enlightenment  was to empower doctrinal rigour and fideism over reflection and critical thought. 

There was a political dimension to this, turning on the differences between Sunni and Shi‘a in other  theological  respects. A consequence, already noted, has been that philosophy has remained an avocation more among the latter, by a considerable margin, than among the former.

The chilling effect that al-Ghazali had on falsafa’s reputation in the Islamic world resulted, as noted, in its disappearance or perhaps it might be more correct to say its complete absorption into kalam, theology  in Sunni Islam, which by numbers is 90 percent of Islam today. 

But after the time of Averroes philosophy did not flourish, even among Shi‘a, as it had done in the golden age between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, in the sense of producing great thinkers whose contributions were fully and importantly a part of the general history of philosophy. 

The reason is a simple one: religious doctrine is not hospitable to philosophical reflection; philosophical reflection has too ready a propensity to challenge, upset or undermine dogmatic certainties. The degree of latitude that al-Ghazali was prepared to extend to falsafa looks very generous by subsequent standards, but it was still not enough.

avicenna ibn sina Islamic Philosophers of the Middle Ages

 who is ibn sina

Avicenna  (980–1037), Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sina) was born in Afshana near Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan, in a region once part of the Persian Empire. His father was a respected Ismaili scholar from Afghanistan, who worked as a government official.

avicenna biography

Avicenna relates in his autobiography  he is one of very few Muslim philosophers to have written one  that he had read the Qu’ran by the age of ten, that he learned mathematics from an Indian shopkeeper, and that he learned the rudiments of medical science from an itinerant healer. Later he studied Islamic jurisprudence, Fiqh.

avicenna and the aristotelian tradition

 He began his studies of falsafa as a teenager, and said that he read Aristotle’s Metaphysics forty times before understanding it and that understanding came only when he read al Farabi’s short treatise on it, which he bought at a market stall for a tiny sum because he was importuned to do so by the bookseller.

 He was so delighted to have the key, thus serendipitously, to understanding Aristotle that he hastened out the next morning to give alms to the poor, in gratitude.

 Avicenna began his career as a physician, having given free medical help to the sick of his home town in order to practise the craft. His first appointment was as a medical attendant to the local Emir. Here he had access to a copious library, and made good use of it. After his father’s death he moved from place to place in the region of the Caspian Sea, seeking employment, and sometimes for they were troubled times in the region  having to hide to escape arrest and imprisonment. 

He was at last able to settle in Jibal as physician to Ala al-Dawla (r. 1008–41, Muhammad ibn Rustam Dushmanziyar), who had carved out an independent and, as it proved, short-lived dynasty in western Iran. 

One of the most influential of Avicenna’s books was written in Persian for al-Dawla to explain the doctrines of philosophy, simply entitled Philosophy for Ala al-Dawla.

ibn sina cause of death

Avicenna passed the last decade of his life in Jibal, dying at the age of fifty seven while on the march with al-Dawla’s army during one of its many campaigns. When he fell ill his companions advised him to stay home and rest; he replied, ‘I prefer a short life with width to a narrow life with length.’

Avicenna Philosophy

Avicenna wrote that he saw philosophy’s task as ‘determining the realities of things, so far as it is possible for human beings to do so’. Two tasks invite the philosopher, one theoretical, which aims at finding the truth, and the other practical, which aims at finding the good. 

avicenna on the soul

Seeking the truth perfects the soul through knowledge as such; seeking the good perfects the soul through knowledge of what must be done. Whereas theoretical knowledge concerns what exists independently of our choices and actions, practical knowledge concerns how we choose and act.

Each of these forms of knowledge has three subdivisions. In theoretical knowledge they are physics, mathematics and metaphysics. In practical knowledge they are managing the city, managing the household and managing oneself. 

The first two subdivisions of practical knowledge concern the principles by which things are to be shared. The third concerns coming to know the virtues, thus refining the soul, and coming to know the vices so that they can be avoided, thus purifying the soul. 

Practical knowledge is taught us by the divine sharia, the law derived from the Qu’ran, and the hadith, the reported sayings of Muhammad.

Logic is the basis of philosophy, Avicenna held, and it is also the high road to happiness. This is because it enables us to reach what is not known from what is known, by inference and derivation. It gives us rules for right reasoning, so that we reason validly; valid reasoning leads to knowledge, invalid reasoning to falsehood. (Very rarely, Avicenna conceded, God might give us knowledge gratuitously.)

 Logic is about concepts, and therefore we have to understand the terms in which they are expressed, and also the forms of valid proof involving them. Physics deals with the three principles of bodily things: matter, form and the intellect. Intellect holds matter and form together and is therefore  the cause of the existence of bodies. 

The heavenly bodies move in a circular motion and are not subject to generation and corruption; but generation and corruption happen to the bodies made out of the four elements  earth, air, fire and water whose different combinations give rise to the different kinds of sublunary things: minerals, plants and animals. The highest of these latter are humans, whose form is the soul.

Avicenna devoted much attention to the soul, saying that if its function is restricted to nutrition, growth and reproduction it is a plant soul, if movement and sensation are added to these it is an animal soul, and if rationality is added to all five it is a human soul. 

Rationality has two parts, theoretical and practical; it is cultivation of the theoretical part that makes a human being achieve his proper perfection a very Aristotelian view.

Existence of Soul

The enquiry that applies par excellence to theoretical principles is metaphysics. Its subject matter is existence, existence as such. That means that it examines what is essential to existence: unity and multiplicity, cause and effect, universality and particularity, potentiality and actuality, possibility and necessity, completeness and incompleteness.

 Existents are either substances or accidents, distinguished by the fact that the former are existents which are not in a substance, whereas the latter are. A thing’s existence is either necessary or contingent. To deny that a necessary thing exists is contradictory; to deny that a contingent thing exists is not contradictory. 

Something can exist necessarily in itself, or necessarily through another thing. This doctrine, utilizing the modal notions of necessity and possibility, provided Avicenna with an important argument, as follows.

One can note that a thing x must have a certain property F in order to be the thing it is; that is, F is essential to x. But this is true whether or not x exists. The question whether something x itself exists necessarily is a different matter. Things exist only if they are caused to exist. The things that make up the world exist contingently, because they would not exist unless caused to do so by something else. 

Now, the causal chain that brings things into existence cannot run backwards ad infinitum, so there must be an uncaused, non-contingent  necessary  being as the first cause of everything. Avicenna identifies this being with God. So God is a necessary being; but the fact that he causes everything else to exist (by emanation from the necessary overflowing of the abundance of his reality) means that they are necessary too; theirs is ‘necessity through another necessary thing’.

The creative activity of the necessary being makes it necessary that everything else exists  and that makes them necessary in themselves too.

What pleased Avicenna about this argument is that there was a potential problem in the view adopted from Aristotle that the highest intellect thinks (only) about the highest things there are  namely, universals and necessary truths. 

Avicenna on theology

This would mean that God does not think about or, which would be worse, perhaps cannot think about  particular things. However, if everything is necessary as a result of receiving transmitted necessity from God, then God can think about them. A theological difficulty is solved by this.

Avicenna on theology

It also solves an allied theological difficulty  or the same difficulty in different guise. Particular things and events undergo change, so if God knows about them, then God’s knowledge and therefore God himself  undergoes change. But God, being one and perfect, does not undergo change. To protect the eternal unchangeability of God, God’s knowledge has to be restricted to what does not change: universals and essences. 

But then this makes God not the God of revealed religion, who is interested in individual sin and virtue. By making everything necessary by the transmission of the necessity of God’s being to everything that emanates from him, this difficulty too is overcome.

The God of Avicenna is very close to the abstract, non-personal ‘thought thinking about itself’ God of Aristotle. Avicenna’s God is simple, without parts, unchanging; and since it has neither genus nor difference it cannot be characterized or defined, only named. Because it is immaterial it is wholly good, because evil only arises from matter, which Avicenna had already defined as ‘the source of privation’ or negativity. It is absolute beauty, because there is no greater beauty than absolute intellect. It is the highest pleasure, because it does the highest thing possible thinking. 

As the most perfect goodness and beauty and pleasure, it is the most desirable and lovable thing there is. Everything else, in a hierarchy from celestial things down to mundane things, emanates from God continually and eternally, because if at any point this did not happen then that would be something that had not happened before, creating a perturbation in all the perfections.

But this, happily, is impossible anyway, given the nature of the being in question. This conception of God prompts two associated thoughts: one is of Spinoza’s deus sive natura, and the other is that if references to a deity in Avicenna’s account were replaced by references to the natural universe, it is hard to see what difference it would make. 

This recapitulates the thought that if it is conceivable for anything to cause itself, why not say that the universe causes itself? And that the necessities of everything that follows are the necessities of natural physical laws?

Avicenna and His Impact 

Avicenna’s thought had a very large impact on both Western and Eastern thinking, and it did so both positively and negatively. The negative impact was felt by al-Ghazali among Muslims, who attacked him therefore; and by Thomas Aquinas and William of Auvergne among Scholastics in the West.

They disagreed strongly with his views about the nature of God and God’s relationship to the world, and about the eternity of the universe orthodoxy on both sides of the religious divide required an act of creation in time.

Even Avicenna’s later supporters including Averroes and Mulla Sadra  did not think he had understood Aristotle correctly, and disagreed with some of his views. But as this sketch shows, his was a powerful philosophical mind, and its influence exercised far from the metropolitan centres of learning and power, and achieved in a mainly unsettled life was remarkable.

averroes ibn rushd Islamic Philosophers of the Middle Ages
Averroes ibn Rushd - 1126

Who was Ibn Rushd and what did he do?

Ibn Rushd  , known to the West as Averroes (1126–98), Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd), responded to al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers with his The Incoherence of the Incoherence. This work did not rescue philosophy’s reputation among the Sunni, and indeed neither did Averroes’ other doctrines. But his commentaries on Aristotle made him a major figure among Europe’s Schoolmen, some among whom were for their own reasons as critical of him as his co-religionists.

Who was averroes

Averroes was born in Cordoba in Andalusia, the grandson of a famous and influential judge and legal theorist, Abdul-Walid Muhammad (d. 1126), whose son, Abdul-Qasim Ahmad, was also a judge until dismissed when the Almohad dynasty supplanted the Almoravid dynasty in 1146. Averroes followed in the family legal tradition, establishing his reputation as a jurist.

But he also attained a great reputation in medicine, his treatise on the subject, the Generalities, serving as one of the chief medical textbooks in both Europe and the Islamic world for centuries. It was in response to a request by the Almohad Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf to have Aristotle explained to him that Averroes set to work writing commentaries on all of Aristotle’s texts (other than the Politics), a task that took thirty years. 

He also wrote on Plato’s Republic and Porphyry’s Isagoge among others. His concern was to recover the original Aristotle from the Neoplatonist overlay that earlier philosophers in the Islamic world had imposed, and to understand the philosophy itself. His interpretations were occasionally questionable, but the extent and depth of his engagement with the Aristotelian corpus was the single most significant reason for the recovery of Aristotle among European Schoolmen.

 Averroes Aristotle

Averroes took from Aristotle the idea that the universe is eternal, which entails that it was not created by God. He also interpreted Aristotle as rejecting the idea of personal immortality. For his part Averroes held that only a single, universal mind exists  the mind of God  which contradicts the idea that there are individual souls with minds and will. 

These tenets conflicted with both Muslim and Christian doctrine, and when Averroes’ commentaries arrived among the Schoolmen in Latin translation they caused uproar. People took sides; there were enthusiasts for Aristotle they were called Averroists and opponents. 

A number of schools and universities banned lectures on Aristotle, and in 1231 Pope Gregory IX set up a commission to investigate his works. By this time Aristotelian texts were beginning to appear in Latin directly from the Greek originals, rather than through the intermediary of Arabic and Syriac. Thomas Aquinas’ contributions did not stop at the mere reconciliation of Aristotle with Christian doctrine, in large part by detaching Aristotle from Averroes’ interpretations of him, but made Aristotelian thought (as interpreted by him, in the doctrine known as Thomism) the official philosophy of the Church.

Averroes contribution philosophy

Averroes’ defence of philosophy begins with the claim that the Qu’ran enjoins the study of it, quoting a number of suras (verses) including no. 3, ‘They thought about the creation of heaven and earth,’ and no. 59, ‘Think; you can see.’ It is done best by following the practice of lawyers, he said, which is to draw inferences carefully from facts and accepted premises.

Anyone with the capacity for such thinking should do it, and should draw on the work of predecessors, whether or not they share the same religion; not uncritically, but accepting whatever is found to be true. Those who wish to study philosophy should be allowed to, because any harm that comes to them from it is merely accidental, like spilling water on yourself when drinking from a cup. 

Not everyone will have the capacity for philosophy, however, which is why the Qu’ran speaks of three paths for people to reach the truth: the demonstrative (logic and proof), the dialectical (debate and interpretation) and the rhetorical (ordinary speech). Averroes characterized these as, respectively, the ways of philosophy, theology and the masses.

Because the Qu’ran contains the ultimate truth, knowledge arrived at by demonstrative reasoning cannot be in conflict with it. Apparent conflicts must be just that: apparent only; so if philosophy and scripture disagree, scripture must be interpreted symbolically. This has anyway always been done, said Averroes, because God has mixed hidden with open meanings to encourage study of the scriptures and attentiveness when doing so. 

This might be taken as another reason for his view that philosophical knowledge is superior. He conceded that if the ummah has reached a consensus about the meaning of a certain text, then that is its meaning and other interpretations are forbidden; but where there is no agreed interpretation, discussion of the text should be free. Given that there are very few texts for which a meaning has been agreed, there is much scope for debate. 

In particular, said Averroes, this means that al-Ghazali is wrong to proscribe such views as that the universe is eternal, that resurrection of the body does not occur and that God’s knowledge concerns only universals; all three points are still open for discussion.

The existence of God can be proved by observation of purpose and design in the universe, Averroes said, but he did not agree with the doctrine of emanationism, holding instead that God transcends the universe. 

Averroes philosophy and religion

In accordance with his intention to reconcile philosophy and religion he argued that the dispute over whether the universe is eternal or was created at a point in time can be solved on Aristotelian principles by saying that the universe is eternal, but form was imposed on it at a point in time.

Those among the Schoolmen who were troubled by Averroes’ views understood him as accepting the implication that if talk of God’s knowledge and will can at best only be metaphorical, it would follow that God’s relationship to the world is such that it excludes the possibility of providence ‘providence’ meaning God’s acting in the world to direct, change or intervene in the lives of individuals and societies. 

The scriptures suggest otherwise, but in Averroes as in some of the Schoolmen the doctrine of ‘Double Truth’ philosophy and theology each having access to truth in its own way, or (more concessively) seeing the same truth in a different way solves or avoids the problem. 

Responding directly to al-Ghazali on the question of creation, Averroes argued that eternal and temporal agents behave very differently. A temporal agent can make a decision and then delay implementing it, but for God there is no difference between one time or another and no gap between intention and action. Why would God create a world at a particular time as opposed to any other time? But in any case, before there was a world there was nothing to distinguish points in time so the dispute is empty.

A distinctive doctrine in Averroes is the ‘unicity of the intellect’. He thought that intellect is a single, eternal entity in which individual human beings participate, rather as if many individual laptop computers were all running the same, indeed a single, programme, but with each individual laptop able to access whatever the single programme is using it, individually, to do. 

Averroes took this doctrine to explain how universal knowledge is possible. He thought the doctrine had been expounded by Aristotle in De Anima (‘On the Soul’), but Aquinas argued in his own treatise ‘On the Unity of the Intellect: Against the Averroists’ that this was a misinterpretation. The section in De Anima is notoriously obscure, partly because it is brief but also because by Aristotle’s own admission the question is an extremely difficult one; but he there appears indeed to argue for the immortality and immateriality of the ‘agent intellect’ part of the mind.


A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell


Luscombe, D., Medieval Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997

Marenbon, J., Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction, London: Routledge, 2006

Philosophy: Selected Readings Presenting the Interactive Discourses among the Major Figures, 2nd edn, Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2006

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