The Golden Age of Islam – typically around the 8th to 13th centuries – saw Muslims lead the world in science, culture and the arts. Due to expansion under the Abbasids, Muslims were the first to have access to discoveries of the natural world across cultures.
Muslim philosophers, inspired by their enormous exposure to new knowledge, set to work on a vast project: interpreting all previous world philosophies through the lens of Islamic revelation. In this effort, they hoped to determine the relationship between spirituality and reason, thus integrating the two into a single coherent system which made sense of the natural world and man’s place in it.
Here are five of the most influential Islamic philosophers who embarked on this quest to understand reality:
Al-Farabi (872 – 950)
Al Farabi’s writings pertained to science, cosmology, mathematics and musical theory alongside philosophy. Diverse fields of study were common among the Philosophers, who believed acquiring all sorts of knowledge was an essential part of their quest to understand the nature of the universe.
In his consideration of the Aristotelian concept of a ‘First Cause’, which describes a perfectly beautiful, indivisible initiator of the universe, Al-Farabi found a logical basis for Tawhid (the Islamic principal of the oneness of God). Through his commentaries of Aristotle, he preserved the original Greek texts for future generations and influenced prominent philosophers like Ibn Sina.
Ibn Sina (980 – 1037)
While often hailed as the father of early modern medicine, Ibn Sina also published a great number of highly influential philosophical works. His commentaries of Aristotle were critical – one example of which sees him reproach inductive reasoning as a means of defining a fact. Instead of solely drawing on one’s experiences to infer a truth, Ibn Sina proposed a method of examination and experimentation. Thus, an early form of the scientific method was born.
Ibn Sina also followed Al-Farabi’s lead to comment on the question of being and the existence of God. He distinguished between existence and essence to develop an understanding of the soul. Through his ‘Proof of the Truthful’, Ibn Sina argued that God’s existence was necessary as there would need to be an agent-cause that imparts existence to an essence. Historian of philosophy Peter Adamson describes this as one of the most important medieval arguments for God’s existence.
Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111)
Sufi Imam and jurist Al-Ghazali preferred to think of himself as more of a theologian and mystic than a philosopher. His inclusion in this list is important, however, because even though he sought to refute past philosophers’ rationalisation of the Divine through logic, he also utilised their methods of reasoning to do so.
Through his ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers’, Ghazali claimed that by using the Greeks’ philosophies of metaphysics as the foundations for their own, philosophers like Ibn Sina had committed heresy. Ghazali claimed that ideas such as God’s existence being necessary were contradictory to revelation. It was not natural laws that governed causation, Ghazali said, but God’s rational will that enables the universe to operate in a way that we are able to make sense of and decipher rules for; Godis not fixed by these rules, so attempting to prove His existence through them is futile.
Ghazali’s argumentation was widely celebrated and marked a major shift against the rationalisation of revelation in the Islamic world.
Ibn Rushd (1126 – 1198)
Ibn Rushd was a highly proficient judge, physician and philosopher from Cordoba, Spain. By his time, the mainstream of Muslim thinking had shifted firmly away from Aristotelianism to Ghazali’s Asharite school of thought. Despite a valiant effort to defend the pursuit of philosophy in his systematic rebuke of Ghazali, Ibn Rushd’s ‘Incoherence of the Incoherence’ didn’t hold much clout with his co-religionists by the end of his life.
In fact, his philosophical works survived not in Arabic but in Hebrew and Latin translations that ultimately earned him fame in the West. There, he became known as ‘The Commentator,’ the immensely important guide to the teachings of Aristotle.
Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406)
A venerated Islamic scholar, social scientist and historian, Ibn Khaldun is credited as the pioneer of the philosophy of history. By approaching history empirically and treating sources critically, Ibn Khaldun developed a method for historiography that refuted myths and falsehood. His most famous work, ‘Muqaddimah,’ identified critical issues made by his fellow historians and proposed a scientific method to the field that is practiced in varying forms to this day.
These Muslim Philosophers form a cornerstone of our Islamic intellectual and cultural heritage. The pursuit of knowledge should be celebrated, especially where it serves to develop our relationship with our spirituality. Within Islamic philosophy we find questions which underpin our most fundamental beliefs as Muslims. Questions that ask us to think critically and innovatively, to strive for truth and understand our world and ourselves. It is imperative that we face them and continue to ponder reality and spirituality through the lenses they provide