Books of Definition in Islamic Philosophy. The Limits of Words

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For example, Renan was the first person who openly stated the view that the Semitic race is inferior to the Aryan race. This was because Renan was both an unequalled master of the Semitic languages and was more familiar with Islamic matters than other researchers of his day. Advancing the notions of the 'Semitic spirit' in contrast to the 'Aryan spirit' by Leon Gauthier during the early part of the twentieth century was nothing other than the continuation of the argument made by Renan.

In Gauthier's view, the Semitic mind is only capable of comprehending details and particulars which are disconnected with each other or are combined and incapable of conceiving any coherent order or relationship between details. It follows naturally that since the Arabs are inherently able to understand only particulars and isolated facts, they would be unable to form any theories, propositions, laws or hypotheses. It would be futile therefore to look for any philosophical or scientific investigations on their part. This is especially true now when Islam has narrowed their intellectual horizons and closed the doors to any speculative discussions, so much so that the Muslim student denigrates and ridicules science and philosophy.

Those who stated such views, held that Islamic philosophy is simply an imitation of Aristotelian philosophy, and Islamic philosophical texts are nothing other than repititions of Greek ideas in Arabic. The views of Renan, which I have just mentioned, were widespread during the nineteenth century.

Books of Definition in Islamic Philosophy

Fortunately the days when the habits, customs, ethical, moral, and intellectual characteristics of a nation were thought to be products of either its geographical conditions or racially inherited traits have passed. Other attempts in the same vein or formulating so-called 'national psychology' or 'group psychology' proved equally futile. Moreover, who has claimed that Islamic philosophy is a creation of Arab thinking? It is a well established fact that many nationalities such as the Persians, Indians, Turks, Egyptians, Syrians, Barbars, and Andalusians contributed to the development and enrichment of Islamic philosophy.

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Islamic civilsation at its zenith not only did not block the path of science, it both confirmed and encouraged it. And far from opposing philosophy, it welcomed and embraced it with open arms. It welcomed opinions and views of every shade and colour. How can Islam, which invites mankind to observe the heavens and the earth and to contemplate and meditate upon their mysteries, oppose discussion and inquiry and restrict the freedom of thought?

Even Renan, who expressed the kind of views about Islamic philosophy and science that we have already mentioned, has confessed elsewhere that Muslims treated conquered peoples with an indulgence unheard of throughout history. For example, some among the Jews and Christians accepted Islam while others preserved their ancestral faith and attained to high and honoured official positions in the courts of the Muslim caliphs and rulers. Moreover, although Muslims differed with the Jews and the Christians in regard to beliefs and religious principles, they still married in those communities.

Of course, this is not the first time that this French historian and philologist has contradicted himself. Then he goes on to contradict his denial and asserts that there is a uniquely Islamic philosophy whose special characteristics must be given attention. These contradictory statements of Renan's and the negligence evident in his works did not remain hidden from Dugat, one of his contemporaries. Dugat believed that the quality of thought such as witnessed in Ibn Sina could not result in anything other than original and sophisticated interpretations and views: and the schools of thought such as that of the Mu'tazilites and the Ash'arites are nothing other than original creations of Islamic thought.

In the twentieth century what was expressed in the form of guess and speculation by menlike Dugat wad found to be irrefutable and proven fact. Researchers became gradually more familiar with Islamic topics than before, and their understanding of the original and unique characteristics of Islamic thought gradually increased.

As they came to know more about Islam, their judgement of it became fairer and more even-handed. It is well to keep in mind that these scholars had no direct access to Islamic philosophy because they did not have the original texts at their disposal, while the Latin translations could not give a full and accurate portrayal of the scope and depth of this philosophy.

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Today, however, we can speak with complete certainty of the accomplishments which the Islamic civilization had made in this regard and still claim that there are a large number of topics in Islamic thought which have not yet been fully investigated and discussed. This philosophy developed and grew in an Islamic environment and was written in the Arabic language. The fact however that these thoughts were written in Arabic does not mean that Islamic philosophy is a creation of the Arab element.

We who have already condemned racism have never claimed any such things. Islam gathered in its fold numerous nationalities and all of them contributed to the growth and development of its thought. Historical records show that the earliest teachers of the Muslims were Nestorian, Jacobites, Jews, and Sabaeans, and that Muslim scholars cooperated with their Nestorian and Jewish contemporaries in their philosophical and scientific investigations.

Firstly, Islam is not just a religion it is also a civilization; and the topics of Islamic philosophy, despite the variety of its sources and backgrounds of writers, are rooted in the Islamic civilization. Secondly, the problems, the foundations, and aims of this philosophy are all Islamic, and it was Islam that formed this cohesive philosophy by gathering teachings and views belonging to many different cultures and schools of thought.

Islamic philosophy is unique in the sort of topics and issues with which it deals, the sort of problems it attempts to solve and the methods it uses in order to solve them. Islamic philosophy concerned itself with such matters as the problem of unity and multiplicity, the relationship between God and the world, both of which had been subjects of heated controversies and discussions among the theologians for a long time.

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Another aim of this philosophy was to reconcile revelation with reason, knowledge with faith, and religion with philosophy, and to show that reason and revelation do not contradict each other, and that religion would be accepted by the pagan when it is illuminated by the light of philosophic wisdom. It aimed to prove also that when religion embraces philosophy it takes on philosophical qualities just as philosophy too assumes the colour of religion.

In all, Islamic philosophy is a creature of the environment in which it grew and flourished, and as is quite obvious, it is a religious and spiritual philosophy. Although Islamic philosophy is religiously oriented, it has not ignored any major philosophical issues.


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For example, it has extensively discussed the problem of being, and defended its position on issues like time, space, matter, and life. Its treatment of epistemology is both unique and comprehensive. It drew distinction between the self nafs and reason, inborn and acquired qualities, accuracy and error, surmise and certain knowledge.

It has investigated the question of what is virtue and happiness and divided virtues into a number of categories and reached the conclusion that the highest virtue is uninterrupted contemplation and serene realization of the Truth.

Muslim thinkers divided philosophy into the two generally accepted categories of 'speculative' and 'practical' and their discussions extended over varied topics such as natural philosophy, mathematics, metaphysics, ethics and politics. Evidently, the Islamic thinkers believed philosophy to have a much greater scope than is generally given it today, and in this regard their work was similar to that of the Greek philosophers, specially Aristotle, whom they imitated and followed.

Thus, Islamic philosophy was intermingled with medicine, biology, chemistry, botany, astronomy and music. Generally speaking, all the fields of science were considered to be nothing other than branches of philosophy. Considering all that has been said, it would not be an overstatement to claim that Islamic philosophy encompasses all the various aspects of Islamic culture. It should, of course, be kept in mind that during the ages when Islamic philosophy was developing and maturing, learning and investigation were carried out in an encyclopedic and all-round manner.

Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that the full range of Islamic philosophical thought cannot be fully accessible through the study of philosophical texts alone. In order that a full understanding be attained, it is necessary to expand the range of investigation and research to include discussion of theology kalam and mysticism tasawwuf. It might even be necessary to relate any discussion of Islamic philosophy to the history of Islamic Law and the principles of jurisprudence.

It is not rare to discover philosophical ideas, concepts, and views in what are ostensibly Islamic scientific texts dealing with such topics as medicine, geometery, chemistry, and astronomy. Furthermore, some Muslim scientists showed more courage and freedom in expressing philosophical views than that shown by those specializing in the field of philosophy. Also, amongst Islamic mystical and theological discussions, views and positions are encountered which in their profundity and precision equal any found amongst the Aristotelians. These Muslim thinkers challenged Aristotle's philosophy and struggled against it for many years.

This struggle led to the emergence of a distinctive Islamic philosophy and thought. Later on a certain methodology and forms of rational analysis were introduced into discussions about the foundations of Islamic law and the principles of jurisprudence which have a distinctly perceptible philosophical tinge.

It is even possible to uncover in their involved procedures, rules and methods similar to those in use today. What we have already said may give an idea of the wide scope of philosophical thought in Islam. And it would be a mistake to limit ourselves-as the nineteenth century European scholars did-to the study of a few scattered Latin and Hebrew translations.

In fact, if the depth and the scope of Muslim philosophers' thinking is ever to be clearly and fully understood, it must be done through an examination of the original sources themselves. However, even though not all the original texts have as yet been published and subjected to research, enough is known to convince us that the material gathered by the Muslim thinkers of the Middle Ages was greater than that gathered by the Christian scholars of that era, that the Muslim thinkers explored wider horizons, enjoyed more complete freedom, and made greater inventions and discoveries than their Christian counterparts.

If, therefore, one is to speak of a Christian philosophy, or as it is better known, of Christian Scholasticism, it would be more apt to speak first of an Islamic philosophy and an Islamic Scholasticism, especially since Christian Scholastic thought owes much to Islamic Scholasticism for developing and clarifying many of its problems and issues.

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Islamic philosophy is to the East what Latin philosophy is to the West. The combination of these two philosophical traditions plus the scientific investigations carried out by Jewish scholars complete the history of speculative thought of the Middle Ages. In order that the true place of Islamic philosophy can clearly be understood, and a full understanding of the various stages in the development of human thought be attained, it is essential that we investigate the relationship of the Islamic philosophy with ancient, medieval, and modern philosophies. We do not deny the fact that philosophical thought in Islam has been influenced by Greek philosophy and that Islamic philosophers have mostly adopted Aristotle's views.

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Nor do we deny that Islamic thinkers looked upon Plotinus with wonder and followed him in many instances. If a word is not repeated it dies, and who has not been an apprentice at the school of his predecessors? We, the children of the twentieth century, are still relying on the scientific work done by the Greeks and Romans in a number of fields.

Just as it has been influenced by Greek thought, it has also been influenced by the Indian and Persian cultural traditions. The exchange and adoption of ideas do not always imply blind obedience. Several individuals may examine a particular topic and the result of their investigations may appear in a number of forms. A philosopher may utilize some of the ideas of another philosopher but this does not prevent him from giving birth to new ideas or to wholly new philosophical systems. Spinoza, for example, even though clearly followed Descartes, was the originator of an independent philosophical system of his own, and Ibn Sina, even though a loyal disciple of Aristotle, put forth views never professed by his master.


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  7. Each of the Islamic philosophers lived in a particular environment distinct from the environment of the other, and it would be a mistake if we ignore the influence that these particular circumstances have had on their philosophical ideas and views.

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