Exploring The Tradition of the Falsafa (Muslim Philosophers)

Al Qalam plans to carry several articles in a new “Islamic Thinkers Series”. In our first piece Ayesha Omar gives a general  account of the Muslim Philosophical tradition

During the medieval period, the tradition of Greek philosophy had a major impact on Islamic philosophical thought. Muslim thinkers considered revealed religious ideas, or the Qur’an as the ultimate source of ethics. Yet Greek philosophy, in particular the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, allowed for much re-thinking and conceptualisation. As a consequence many original ideas were developed in the realm of Muslim scholarship. 

The field of Islamic philosophy was not simply a reiteration of Greek ideas. Muslim philosophers must be understood and appreciated in their own settings and according to their own intentions, as they represented a distinct tradition, which tried to reconcile Greek philosophical ideas with Islam. At the same time, there was much disagreement from the traditionalists and religious scholars as to what place Greek philosophy ought to have in the broader framework of Islamic revealed scripture, and whether it could genuinely contribute to matters of faith and belief. 

Many religious scholars objected to Greek philosophy, describing it as knowledge from polluted springs, and warned harshly of its danger to Islamic faith. On the other, the Muslim philosophers (falsafa) defended philosophy with some degree of vigour, claiming that the truths within it were undeniable, and that there ought to be no shame associated with acknowledging this, even if it originated from foreign sources.

Although Islamic philosophy in the classical period, that is, from the time of Al-Kindi in the 7th century till the time of Ibn Rushd in the 12th century, is generally regarded as a period of high-learning in the Muslim world, it is important to note that most of the philosophers prior to Ibn Rushd faced significant challenges in their intellectual communities, and were often derided for aspiring to create a philosophical worldview that was religious in nature. 

Al-Ghazali, one of the greatest scholars the Muslim world has ever produced, further intensified the marginalisation of the philosophers in the 10th century, when he mounted an attack on the philosophers by composing a detailed and thorough discussion of the logical failings of certain philosophical principles of the Muslim philosophers in a work entitled the Tahafut al Falsafah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). Here he singled out two Muslim philosophers, Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, as the propagators of ‘heresy’ and ‘disbelief’, for advancing contradictory ideas that he argued were irreconcilable with Islamic doctrine. 

Al-Ghazali was especially perturbed by the way in which philosophers were overly-impressed by “high-sounding names such as Socrates, Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle” and sought to merely “imitate” the Greek philosophers and their followers, without a proper understanding of their thought. 

The notable Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd, later wrote a critique of Al-Ghazali’s charges against philosophy in a text entitled Tahafut a-Tahafut ( Incoherence of the Incoherence). The writers of the Muslim philosophical tradition were not only deeply committed to the tradition of Greek philosophy but appropriated its fundamental ideas through various means and methods, in order to provide political and philosophical thought new light in the context of Islam. The falsafa viewed their role as restating and interpreting Greek texts for the benefit of those after them. 

Philosophy as a discipline was merged with theology resulting in an innovative intellectual project. The use of Greek texts were for example pivotal in the formulation of a new a kind of Islamic political theory. 

Often, the interest of Muslim philosophers in politics stemmed from a desire to venerate a subject that the Greeks had viewed as highly significant to social organisation. Muslim philosophers clearly selected arguments that would help them in finding political solutions and these were informed by their social and historical contexts. 

Al-Farabi is widely regarded as the founder of the Muslim philosophical tradition. His work attempts to synthesise the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle and later his ideas instantiate the harmonisation of philosophy and religion. Al-Farabi’s ideas were reinvigorated in Ibn Rushd’s work a few centuries later. Al-Farabi held that the concept of the ideal ruler is best explained in Plato, and thus, that the Islamic concept of the Caliph or ruler can be theoretically reshaped to fit this Platonic ideal of the philosopher king. Underlying this kind of thinking was Al-Farabi’s claim that although philosophy was the “highest perfection of which man was capable”, it did not necessarily oppose religion, as both of these systems of thought would necessarily lead to the same truths, albeit in a different form. 

Philosophy, on the one hand, employed demonstrative reasoning, and this according to Al-Farabi, was a noble and legitimate means of uncovering the truth about reality. Similarly, religion would present these truths through revelation and it employed the use of rhetoric and symbolic language, which appealed more widely to a majority of people at various points in history.

Dr Ayesha Omar is a Lecturer in political theory in the Department of Political Studies at Wits, a Mellon Early Career Scholars Fellow and Research Associate at SOAS (University of London). She works in the area of comparative political theory, with a focus on Islamic and African political thought and South African black intellectual history. 

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