Translated by Yusuf Ali
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Al-Falsafa al-Islamiyyah, or Islamic Philosophy, is a discipline that is concerned with the study of:
All the above are in the context of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w) and the Holy Household, the Ahlulbayt.
The discipline of Islamic Philosophy is an integral part of the wider field of Islamic Studies and, in the parlance of Islamic Sciences, it is the central and primary focus of The Rational Sciences (Al-Ulum Al-Aqliyyah).
The scope of Islamic Philosophy is far-reaching and, unlike other traditional disciplines in Islamic studies, Islamic Philosophy does not yield linear knowledge but it informs a variety of disciplines by encouraging rational thinking and critical studies of concepts, theories, and traditions.
Islamic Philosophy is made up of many branches and sub-branches that deal with a variety of topics and subject areas of particular relevance to Islamic Studies; the branch of epistemology, for example, also known as the theory of knowledge, has been and remains an invaluable tool for Muslim Jurists and theologians. Whilst philosophical reasoning within the realm of metaphysics plays an important role in our Twelver Shi’a theology which has successfully reconciled Al-Nass and Al-Aql.
The word Philosophy (Falsafa) comes from the Greek phrase Philo (love) and Sophia (wisdom); hence Philosophia is Love of Wisdom and a philosopher is a Lover of Wisdom
The main debates and arguments in Islamic philosophy can be broken down into twelve pivotal subject-headings which form the main chapters of all standard philosophy text books in Twelver-Shi’a circles today. The predominant portion of all Islamic philosophy text books today focus on Existence (Wujud) and the Necessary Being (Wajib Al-Wujud), i.e. that which is the source of all existence and the most perfect of all existents, God.
As well as dealing with topics such as existence etc. Islamic philosophy has a rich tradition of philosophical mysticism (Irfan). Irfan is traditionally studied along with philosophy in Islamic centres of learning; it is made up of two branches: theoretical Irfan (Al-Irfan Al-Nazari) and practical Irfan (Al-Irfan Al-Amali).
Muslim mystics, (Urafa) point a number of Qur’anic verses which allude to spirituality and mysticism such as:
“he for whom wisdom is given, he truly has received abundant good”
[2:269] where the word ‘wisdom’ is interpreted as 'hikmah,' or divine philosophy.
In a world dominated by superstitions and incorrect beliefs, philosophy teaches Muslims to think correctly and critically in light of the Qur’anic injunction which incites believers to ponder and contemplate.
Islamic Philosophy (Al-Falsafa al-Islamiyyah) is a discipline concerned with the study of metaphysics, existence, knowledge, psychology, aesthetics, ethics, mysticism and dialectical theology in light of the Qu’ran and the Sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w) and the Holy Household.
The discipline of Islamic Philosophy is an integral part of the wider field of Islamic Studies and, in the language of Islamic Sciences, it is central and primary to The Rational Sciences. The scope of Islamic Philosophy is far-reaching and, unlike other traditional disciplines in Islamic Studies, Islamic Philosophy does not yield linear knowledge, but it informs a variety of disciplines by encouraging rational thinking and critical studies of concepts, theories, and traditions.
Islamic Philosophy is made up of many branches and sub-branches that deal with a variety of topics and subject areas of particular relevance to Islamic Studies. The branch known as the theory of knowledge, has been and remains an invaluable tool for Muslim jurists and theologians. Whilst philosophical reasoning, within the realm of metaphysics, plays an important role in Twelver Shi'a theology.
The Origin of Words and their Meaning
The word ‘Falsafa’ is an Arabic rendering of ‘Philosophia’ which itself is compound term from the Greek ‘Philo’ (love) and ‘Sophia’ (wisdom); hence ‘Philosophia’ is Love of Wisdom and a philosopher is a Lover of Wisdom.
The early Arab Muslim philosophers translated philosophia as ‘Falsafa’; however, in the latter tradition of Islamic Philosophy the word Hikmah was given more credence in Twelver Shi’a circles because it was more consistent with the Qur’an usage of the term.
History of Islamic Philosophy
The Qur’an provides the first impetus to think about reality in a rational and a deductive manner in a way that is philosophical and contemplative. For example:
(This is) a Book that We have revealed unto you (O Prophet), full of lasting Bliss that they may ponder upon its Messages and that those who have understood may (take them to heart and [always] be mindful.[38:29]
Will they not then ponder over the Qur’an, or is it that they have their locks on (their) hearts (which bar them from reason) [47:24]
In many instances, elsewhere in the Qur’an, God turns the attention of the non-believers to consider the signs of creation such as the heavenly celestial spheres, the earth’s natural beauty and moments of human kindness. The encouragement of the Qur’an to live a contemplative life, coupled with righteous deeds, was embodied by the Imams of the Ahlulbayt.
Emergence of Islamic Philosophy
The earliest philosophical deliberations and meditative contemplations of what later became Twelver Shi’a began in earnest with Imam Ali (a.s) (d.40AH/661AD) who eloquently discussed issues relating to existence, essence, knowledge, God, justice, aesthetics, ethics, and general rationality in his strikingly exquisite sermons that formed the core of Nahju’l balagha.
A collection of sermons, sayings, and letters of Imam Ali (a.s) was later compiled by al-Sharif al-Radi (d.366AH/977AD). Contemplative, yet succinct, sayings and remarks attributed to the Imam (a.s) form the major component of all the significant Hadith compilations in Twelver Shi’a. One finds, for example, Imam al-Sadiq (a.s) (d.148AH/765AD) and Imam al-Rida (a.s) (d.203AH/818AD) engaging in public debates and discussions on important philosophical themes covering issues such as God’s existence, creation, ethics and theology.
Towards the end of the formative period of early Imami history a number of companions of the Imams wrote short works on philosophy; in particular Shi’a scholars of pre-eminence including Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti (d.311AH/923AD), together with his nephew Abu Mohammed al-Hassan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti (author of the famous work 'Firaq al- Shi’a'). Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti wrote important works on Imamate, Prophecy, Ijtihad and Divine Unity. His nephew, Abu Mohammed wrote equally important works on Divine Unity, Divine Justice, Imamate, and, perhaps the first to work on philosophy.
It is worth noting that early Kalam traditions were inspired by philosophical themes, which has been taken as evidence that fourth/tenth century theologians were also philosophers, or philosophically-inclined. The Kalam traditions of the Mutazilite were dominant from the beginning to the end of the third/ninth century, during which time falsafa was emerging and being further developed by such figures as Iranshahri (d. unknown) and al-Kindi (d.259AH/873AD) and his students, also known as the al-Kindi circle of translation. The early philosophical current at that time was known for its preference for Aristotelianism (with a mild taste for Neo-platonism as well) and became known as The School of Peripatetics associated with towering figures like al-Kindi, al-Farabi (d.338AH/950AD), IbnSina (d.428AH/1037AD), and IbnRushd (d.594AH/1198AD).
Aristotelianism vs Neo-Platonism
The period lasting from the second/eighth the sixth/twelfth century saw the development of two parallel intellectual currents within the Islamic community, with each current developing and defining its jurisdiction at the exclusion of the other.
Early Muslim theologians were not overly concerned by the growing divide between the factions, however, in the period between the third/ninth to the fifth/eleventh century, opposition intensified prompting leading figures from both sides to write a number of works condemning the other side’s beliefs.
The most famous attack on Avicennian philosophy, came from the Asharite theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.504AH/1111AD) under the heading of ‘‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers’, which later received a counter-refutation by IbnRushd’s (d. 594/1198) ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence’ and IbnTufayl’s (d.580AH/1185AD) ‘Living Son of the Awake.’
In the aftermath of al-Ghazali’s critiques of philosophy in general, and Avicennian philosophy in particular, tensions between Falsafa and Kalam eased. It is worth pointing out that in the Sunni circles at the time of al-Ghazali (circa sixth/twelfth century onwards) Asharite kalam prevailed over Falsafa, which received little attention in Sunni madrasah texts. While that was the case, the tradition of Falsafa thrived in Shi’a society around Persia.
The Kalam-falsafa Dynamic
From the late fifth/eleventh century onwards, Falsafa increasingly began to discuss issues which had been central to Kalam. Concepts such as the meaning of prophecy and the Divine Word, the question of human and Divine will (connected with the issue of pre-destination and free will) and the Divine Attributes began to be tackled by Falsafa philosophers. Meanwhile, Kalam became more open to philosophical discourse and began to incorporate both ideas and arguments drawn from Falsafa. That is why IbnKhaldun, who lived shortly after this period, wrote that there appeared men whom it was difficult to classify exclusively in the category of Faylasuf or Mutakallim.
The old lines separating Kalam and Falsafa were further blurred from the seventh/thirteenth century onwards with the emergence of The School of Illumination which incorporated themes central to the Kalam tradition. The School of Illumination was founded by Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi (d.587AH/1191AD) with the assistance of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s (d. 672AH/1274AD), a Twelver- Shi’a author of the well-known Epitome of Doctrine which had a profound impact on the Kalam-Falsafa dynamic in the Islamic world.
Al-Tusi’s Shi'a successors, namely Ibn Mutahhar al-Hilli (d.725AH/1325AD) and Maytham al-Bahrani (d.699AH/1300AD), and al-Miqdad al-Suyuri (d.826AH/1423AD), wrote influential works in Twelver- Shi’a theological-philosophy that had a profound lasting effect on the teachings of Usul al-Din in Shi’a centres of learning and continue to be relevant today. Students are taught al-Hilli’s The Eleventh Chapter and his important commentary on the Epitome of Doctrine, Unveiling the Desired from the Epitome of Doctrine.’
The School of Shiraz
The rise of Suhrawardi’s Illuminationist philosophy, which sought to reconcile the prevalent Avicennism in the Muslim world with Platonic philosophy, paved the way for al-hikmah al-mutaaliyah and The School of Shiraz. The School of Shiraz was founded by four notable Twelver-Shi’a scholars:
The School of Isfahan
The efforts of The School of Shiraz philosophers helped pave the way for The School of Isfahan in the tenth/sixteenth century onwards. The major achievement produced in this period marks an important juncture in Islamic intellectual history, where philosophical discussion became closely linked to theology and mysticism. As Mashai and Ishraqi philosophy became more closely aligned, The School of Isfahan flourished in Twelver-Shi’a circles, driven by great masters like Sayyid HayderAmulu.
There were several key pioneers of The School of Isfahan, including:
Mulla Sadra’s greatest achievement was his grand synthesis of all forms and expressions of Islamic modes of enquiry into a new form known as ‘Transcendental Wisdom’ which was summed up in his greatest work which later became the standard text book on Islamic philosophy, ‘The Transcendental Wisdom in the Four Intellectual Journeys.’
In its later phase, The School of Isfahan produced a number of significant figures such as Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani (d.1091AH/1680AD), Abd al-Razzaq Lahiji, Mulla Rajab Ali Tabrizi, Mulla Shamsa Gilani, Agha Husayn Khunsari, Sayyid Ahmed Alawi, and Qadi Said Qummi.
Mulla Sadra’s Legacy
Soon after the establishment of the Qajar Dynasty in 1210AH/1796AD Mulla Abd Allah Zanuzi, a follower of the school of Mulla Sadra and a student of Mulla Ali Nuri, revived interest in Islamic philosophy by writing a number of important summaries of the works of Mulla Sadra, including the ‘Transcendental Wisdom in the Four Intellectual Journeys’, al-Shawahid al-rububiyyah, and al-Mabda wa’l-maad.
The trend of writing and commenting on Mulla Sadra’s philosophical writings reached its pinnacle with Hajji Mulla Hadi Sabziwari (d.1289AH/1872AD) works. Sabziwari wrote one of the definitive summaries of Islamic philosophy in the form of the rhythmic prose which later became another standard text book in Islamic philosophy.
Following Sabziwari's death, a number of philosophers emerged in Tehran to continue his legacy including
They were later to be called 'The School of Tehran'.
Modern day philosophers have continued the traditions of their forbearers, most notably
Today, the study of Islamic philosophy is most active in the seminary city of Qum with the cause led by former students of Tabatabai, including:
Main Debates and Arguments
The main debates and arguments in Islamic philosophy can be broken down into twelve pivotal subject-headings which form the main chapters of all standard philosophy text books in Twelver-Shi’a circles today. Written in 1946, Allamah Tabatabai’s summary of Mulla Sadra’s ‘’The Beginning of Wisdom’’ (Islamic Metaphysics and "The End of Wisdom" discusses all twelve Islamic philosophy concepts in detail).
1. The General Principles of Existence – Mulla Sadra argues that existence is fundamental and reality gradually changes over time.
2. Division of Existence – Existence is divided into External Existence and Mental Existence.
3. Subcategories of Existence – Ibn Sina further subcategorises Existence into ‘Existence-in-itself’ and ‘Existence-in-something-else.’ ‘Existence-in-itself’ is further divided into ‘Existence-for-itself’ and ‘Existence-for-something-else.’
4. The Three Modes of Existence – These are Necessity, Contingency and Impossibility. In this regard a number of rational proofs for the existence of God, the Necessary Existence are discussed in detail.
Differentia distinguishing between:
5. Issues Relating to Essence – Organising all living things and distinguishing between the species.
6. Issues of Categories and Accident – Classifying quiddity into substance so that it exists but not in a necessary locus for its existence, or an accident that exists in a locus but not one that needs it for existing.
7. Causality – The debate focuses on cause and effect, and what factors influence essence.
8. Nature of Existence – Whether existence is a single reality of equal intensity or rather a graded reality of hierarchical intensity.
9. Priority and Unimportance – Whether existence is posterior to non-existence or the non-precedence of existence by non-existence.
10. Actuality and Potentiality – Whether a thing possesses external properties and so exists in external reality or the state in which it is before actualization, said to be in potentiality.
11. Theory of Knowledge – The study of how one comes to know anything. The divisions of knowledge into Acquired Knowledge and Presentational Knowledge delve into the issue of sources of knowledge and which, if any, sources yield infallible knowledge.
12. Necessary Being – The discussion on the Necessary Being and the proofs of Its Existence, Its Attributes and Acts.
Mysticism in Islamic Studies has traditionally been intertwined with the notion of Divine Wisdom. The source of mysticism and the mystical elements in Islam are to be traced to the Qur’an and the Islamic doctrine itself. Some of the Qur’anic verses have been viewed by the mystics and philosopher-mystics of Islam as vague moral hints for those who can see them:
“God is the Outward and the Inward” [57:3], “he for whom wisdom is given, he truly has received abundant good” [2:269],
and the famous light verses:
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth, the likeness of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp, the lamp is a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star kindled from a blessed tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil well-night would shine, even if no fire touched it; light upon lights; God guides to His light whom He will. And God strikes similitudes for man, and God has knowledge of everything. [24:35]
From a mystical perspective, all later developments and interactions between Islamic philosophy and other intellectual traditions should therefore be seen as rational expressions of the mystical elements within an Islamic society. Mystical elements exist in Islam in two different and independent ways. Practically, mysticism represents the little understood dimension of Twelver-Shi'a Islam in its purest form, while theoretically salient features of Islamic mysticism were gradually incorporated into the Islamic philosophical tradition.
Islamic mysticism, therefore, stands on two pillars: first practical, then philosophical. That is, wisdom can either be attained through practical wisdom, which includes inner purification and simple living, or through a type of philosophy which includes, but is not limited to outside reasoning.
Islamic philosophy focuses on the pursuit of enlightened engagement and honourable action, which is in turn rooted in Islamic scriptures and the teachings of the Ahlulbayt. To philosophise is to cultivate a higher understanding and knowledge of the nature of Islam. The more truth one knows, the more knowledgeable one becomes. In a world dominated by superstitions and incorrect beliefs, philosophy teaches Muslims to think correctly and critically in light of the Qur’anic order which incites believers to ponder and contemplate.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Allah created human beings with the ability to speak, and gave them a tongue as a tool by which to talk. Yet to be able to converse, humans must learn to speak the same language in order to communicate.
The Prophet of Islam informed the people that he had been sent to teach them moral behaviour. One of his teachings was that people should encourage each other to do good, and discourage and prevent others from doing what is bad and evil.
The religion of Islam strongly encourages the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge both through the verses of the Holy Qur’an and the statements of the Prophet (s.a.w) and his Holy Household. Additionally, Islam teaches Muslims to explore the natural world, push the boundaries of their imagination and seek knowledge and understanding. The Qur’an and the narrations of the Infallible Prophet (s.a.w) and Imams (a.s) encourage Muslims to ponder their existence, question the natural world and its mechanics and most importantly pursue a higher reality and awareness through knowledge.
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