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Page last edited on 22 April, 2003

Groundwork on Islamic Philosophy

Philosophy and Islam

Chapters in this essay

Groundwork on Islamic Philosophy

Philosophy is concerned with the fundamental questions about nature and reality.   Al-Kindi called philosophy the most exalted science, since it dealt with issues which are universal.

Al-Kindi (Alkindus, 800 – 873 CE) is recognized as the first Arab or Muslim philosopher.   He defines philosophy as the love of wisdom, from the greek words philo (friend) and sophia (wisdom).   (Kindi 18-19)

Ibn Rushd (Averroes) goes a step further and states that the Quran makes the study of philosophy obligatory upon all believers. Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1128 – 1198 CE) is considered a major Aristotelian Muslim and Spanish philosopher.  He states that philosophy is nothing more than the study of beings and reflection upon them.   The Quran encourages mankind to “Reflect, you have vision.”   At another place it states, “have they not studied the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and whatever things God has created?”   Here God is urging the readers to study the world and how and why objects and beings exist.    Ibn Rushd concludes that God requires man to try to obtain demonstrative knowledge of His existence.  But prior to having demonstrative knowledge, Man must be able to have dialectical, theoritical and logical knowledge.  That is for man to learn he must know the basis of reasoning.   Hence, philosophy is not only necessary but also commanded by the divine.  (Ibn Rusd 44-46)

Al-Ghazzali finds serious problems with the philosophers of his era.   He writes, “they have abandoned all the religious duties of Islam imposes on its followers.”   He thinks that the kind of reasoning used by philosophers would never result in the proof of the existence of God.   Al-Ghazzali (Algazel, 1058 – 1111 CE) was an extremely influential orthodox Muslim thinker who rebuffed many of the claims of the ‘philosphers’ who claimed they could proof God by reason alone.

Ibn Rushd admits that philosophy may have its harms as a discipline, but these harms are no greater than those resulting from the study of medicine or law.  Since, the study of philosophy is commanded by God Himself, it is obligatory, although it is possible to misuse the science for other purposes. (Ibn Rushd 47).  As Al-Kindi and most
Muslim philosophers agree philosophy cannot reach as far as revealation can.  Hence, the basis of our actions should be based upon Islam, whereas philosophy ought to be considered as an independent discipline.   It should also be noted that the thrust of Ghazzali’s argument is not against philosophy, but rather its use.  His main concern is that the philosophers are drawing conclusions from their ‘arguments’ that are not valid.

Muhammad Iqbal sees no contradiction between faith and reason.   Iqbal (1877-1938 CE) in this century is considered the poet-philosopher of Islam, his works have been extremely influential in the revival of Islamic thought.  He was born in (what is now) Pakistan but studied in Britian and Germany, thus providing insight into both philosophical traditions.  He thinks that both thought and intuition arise from the same source and don’t oppose each other, but rather are complimentary. Reason aims at understanding the physical world and existence, whereas religious experience aims at transcending this world and achieving the knowledge of the ultimate.   Iqbal then thinks that it is necessary for Muslims to engage themselves in the study and science of philosophy in order to redefine Islamic culture, which is now confronted with a more advanced western civilization.  If Muslim thinkers fail in this challenge, then Muslim thought may be absorbed by Western philosophy, as the two cultures begin to integrate further.

This debate is not uniquely Islamic, similar debates have persisted in Christian thought as well.   While religious tensions in Europe were hindering analytical thought, it was flourishing in Muslim lands.  As the Churches influenced decreased a more dynamic movement emerged in Europe brining with it a whole new worldview moving towards reason and away from dogma.   Today many Christian theologians also use philosophy to justify their positions, as is similar among certain Muslim groups.   The irritating problem, however, is to uphold the conclusion of these theists on purely philosophical grounds, in the face of a challenge from radical skepticism.

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Last updated on 22 April, 2003

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