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 golden age era 8 to 14

 Islamic philosophy of history / history of Islamic philosophy

Some therefore choose to demarcate this slice of philosophy’s history as ‘Philosophy in the Islamic World’. Despite the persistence of an association with a religion it is like calling philosophy in Europe ‘Philosophy in the Christian World’, which would not be true for nearly half of the history of Western philosophy  it is a less inaccurate option, and its adoption as an historico geographical label of convenience is acceptable. ‘Arabic–Persian’, this time relating to the languages in which the philosophy was written. The virtue of this is that it keeps in mind the fact, significant for philosophy in the Western tradition, that it was via Arabic that some of the key texts of antiquity were preserved and recovered.


islamic golden age philosophy

What follows here is an account of the leading thinkers in the Islamic world in the period between al-Kindi (c.801–73 CE) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126–98 CE). The focus here is on the treatment of questions of strictly philosophical interest, not least in connection with their influence on debates, just alluded to, in the wider philosophical community of their time, through translations from Arabic into Latin and the use of texts such as Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle in the universities of Europe. The work of these thinkers is emphatically an aspect of the wider history of philosophy as such; the theology of Islam is a different subject, though a line of demarcation is often hard to draw, given the insistence of some Muslim historians of the subject that ‘the tradition of Islamic philosophy is deeply rooted in the world view of the Qur’ānic revelation and functions within a cosmos in which prophecy or revelation is accepted as a blinding reality that is the source not only of ethics but also of knowledge.’ In these words lies the problem; if the starting point for reflection is acceptance of a religious doctrine, then the reflection that follows is theology, or theodicy, or exegesis, or casuistry, or apologetics, or hermeneutics, but it is not philosophy.

If this seems too sharp a demarcation, consider this: if you accept as an unquestionable basis the existence and continuing interested activity of an omnipotent, benevolent, eternal and supernatural creator, then you have certain immediate commitments that are not open to discussion  for example: that the world has a beginning in time  and certain tricky problems to solve, for example: the existence of moral and natural evil, which on the face of it would have to be viewed as ultimately the responsibility of the being in question because it caused everything to exist, but which contradicts that being’s goodness and benevolence, typically supposed to be total. Or: if the being is One, because Oneness is perfect, complete, self-consistent and self-subsistent, why are there many things? why would such a being create or emanate pluralities? Or: if reality is a continuous emanation (in Islamic thought, fayd) from the divine being by some necessity of its nature, does that entail that free will does not exist in the universe? If the being emanates the universe by its own free will, why does it do so, given the imperfection of plurality and the evil that results? Finding solutions to these problems is a matter for theology and theodicy; a philosophical approach would question the conceptual robustness of the ontology (the existence of a being or beings of the kind at issue) which creates such difficulties in the first place.


In Arabic the words for ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosopher’ are respectively falsafa and faylasuf, adapted from Greek. Philosophy, mathematics, physics, astronomy and medicine were known as ‘foreign sciences’, having been acquired from Hellenic sources in the regions conquered by the spread of Islam in its first century. But what were these Hellenic sources? If one consults the catalogue of the Baghdad bookseller Ibn al-Nadim who, in 988 CE, produced a survey of the books available in the Islamic world, one can see what had been translated from the classical tongues. There is no Homer or Thucydides, nor Ovid nor Virgil; there is no Aeschylus or Cicero. It is only part of the legacy of the classical world that figures in the catalogue, for between the classical world and the arrival of Islam there had been Christianity  Syria was a Nestorian Christian domain, the Greek-speaking Roman Empire in the East, centred on Constantinople, was an Orthodox domain and the Christians not only had not sought to preserve the humanistic culture of classical times, they had taken active steps to expunge it. What the Christians kept was technical literature mathematics, medicine, logical treatises, astronomy. There were works by Plato and Aristotle, Euclid, Galen and Ptolemy; but there were none of the poets, none of the plays, no letters and speeches.

It is interesting but futile to speculate what impact the humanistic culture of classical antiquity might have had on Islamic culture had it survived in any quantity. We know the effect its rediscovery had on the European Renaissance. Might something similar have happened? Nevertheless what chiefly stood out, as Ibn al-Nadim’s catalogue shows, was Aristotle. Aristotle was philosophy to almost all the Muslim scholars (al-Farabi, a Platonist, was the exception), and even parts of the Neoplatonist corpus were credited to him.

By the time of the Arab conquest, the chief centres of philosophy in the Christian Hellenic world were Athens a very pale imitation of its former glory  and, much more importantly, Alexandria, which fell to the Muslim forces of Ibn al-As in September 642. By one of the strange reversals of history Aristotle, whose philosophy had only just managed to survive, centuries before, by the skin of its teeth , had become the most admired and studied figure at Alexandria in the period directly before this event, while Plato had gone into relative eclipse. In any case the Neoplatonism that preserved ideas from Plato was by then a syncretistic form of theosophy (a family of views claiming the possibility of direct intuitive encounter with and knowledge of a deity), having absorbed other strands of thought and emphasized the more mystical Plato of the Timaeus. So the view that Arab scholars had of the history of Greek philosophy was idiosyncratic.

Another conduit of philosophy into the Islamic world was Persia. The Emperor Justinian closed the Academy in Athens in 529 CE, confiscating its property and expelling the philosophers. They went as refugees to Persia, to the court of Chosroes  Anushirvan (Khosrow I, 501–79 CE), King of the Sassanian Empire, who had a reputation for wisdom. Little is known of Athenians’ activity there, but a number of Greek philosophical texts were incorporated into the collection of Zoroastrian texts, the Avesta, over the following decades of that century, which demonstrates that their presence left a mark. They would not have been introducing anything unfamiliar to Persian scholars, though, because intercourse between the Greek and Persian worlds had persisted for more than a thousand years by that point, so perhaps what they achieved was an increase in interest in the philosophical tradition they represented, enough to recommend some of the texts they brought with them to the Avesta’s editors.

Some final preparatory remarks are required, concerning the theological background to the rise of philosophy proper in the Islamic world. A brief timeline prepares this preparation. The prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE, succeeded by Abu Bakr. The latter’s appointment by the elders at Medina angered those who expected to see Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, become Caliph. Ali eventually became the fourth Caliph, but the damage had been done; the rift that was to split Sunni from Shi‘a was permanently opened by this disagreement over the succession. Ali’s appointment was opposed by the Umayyad clan, and he was murdered in 661, to be succeeded by his son Hasan, who abdicated that same year, at which point the Umayyads took control. Under them the Empire expanded hugely and rapidly, until it touched the Atlantic shores in the west and the borders of China in the east.


The Umayyads ruled from Damascus for a century before being overthrown by the Abbasids, who established themselves at Baghdad and ruled most of the Islamic world for the next five hundred years, from 750 to 1258. This was the golden age of Islam, promoted by the Abbasids’ desire to foster culture and learning. They built a great library in the capital, the Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom; hikmah means ‘wisdom’), as a centre for study and for translation of Greek and Syriac manuscripts into Arabic. The early Abbasid caliphs – Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), Abu al-Abbas al-Ma’mun (r. 813–33) who famously had a dream that translations must be made, and al-Mu ‘tasim (Abū Ishaq Muhammad ibn Harun al-Rashid, r. 833–42)  all sponsored scholars and translators, and included them among their courtiers.

In this environment of learning the theology, kalam, encouraged by the ruling house was Mu‘tazilite, which promoted reason and evidence as adjuncts to faith. ‘Mu‘tazili’ means ‘withdrawer’, one who withdraws that is, one who withholds judgment, who sees two sides of the question, who uses rational and evidential tests in evaluating arguments. While the Mu‘tazila theology was ascendant, the Sunni–Shi‘a split was not especially serious, and it was possible for thinkers to question orthodoxy, disagree with one another without fear and freely debate difficult points in kalam. A significant aspect of the rationalist and evidentialist approach of the Mu‘tazilites was that it provided a means of distinguishing between genuine and fake teachings and teachers, and between true and false beliefs  which of course mattered because true beliefs are what get the believer to heaven.

Islamic philosophy mutazila -From the early ninth century the Mu‘tazilites began to be opposed by three other groups: the fundamentalist Hanbalites (followers of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, 780–855) who demanded an unquestioningly literalist reading of the Qu’ran, the Zahiris (followers of Dawud al-Zahiri, 815–84) and most importantly the Ash‘arites, named after Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari (874–936). All these groups were more literalist and dogmatic than the Mu‘tazilites.

The Ash‘ari school became, and is still, the most important of the Sunni theological schools (it is sometimes described as the ‘Sunni orthodoxy’). The Mu‘tazila remained influential among Shi‘a, and is today regarded as authoritative by the Zaydi Shi‘a school of law. Islamic philosophy has mainly been associated with Shi‘a Islam as a result; the Sunni schools, based on the ideal of following the ‘tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the ummah [community]’, are inhospitable to philosophizing and cleave instead to orthodoxy.

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