Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy

During the Hellenistic period (323-43 bc), classical Greek philosophy underwent a radical transformation. From being an essentially Greek product, it developed into a cosmopolitan and eclectic cultural movement in which Greek, Egyptian, Phoenician and other Near Eastern religious and ethical elements coalesced. This transformation is best symbolized by the role Alexandria played as the hub of diverse currents of thought making up the new philosophy.

When the Abbasid Caliphate was founded in Baghdad in 750 ad, the centre of learning gradually moved to the Abbasid capital, which became in due course the heir of Athens and Alexandria as the new cultural metropolis of the medieval world. About two centuries later Cordoba, capital of Muslim Spain, began to vie with Baghdad as the centre of 'ancient learning'. From Cordoba, Greek-Arabic philosophy and science were transmitted across the Pyrenees to Paris, Bologna and Oxford in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries.

The initial reception of Greek-Hellenistic philosophy in the Islamic world was mixed. It was frowned upon at first as being suspiciously foreign or pagan, and was dismissed by conservative theologians, legal scholars and grammarians as pernicious or superfluous. By the middle of the eighth century ad the picture had changed somewhat, with the appearance of the rationalist theologians of Islam known as the Mu'tazilites, who were thoroughly influenced by the methods of discourse or dialectic favoured by the Muslim philosophers. Of those philosophers, the two outstanding figures of the ninth and tenth centuries were al-Kindi and al-Razi, who hailed Greek philosophy as a form of liberation from the shackles of dogma or blind imitation (taqlid). For al-Kindi, the goals of philosophy are perfectly compatible with those of religion, and, for al-Razi, philosophy was the highest expression of man's intellectual ambitions and the noblest achievement of that noble people, the Greeks, who were unsurpassed in their quest for wisdom (hikma).

  1. The rise of Neoplatonism
  2. Arabic translations of Greek philosophical texts
  3. Eclecticism and the systematization of philosophical ideas
  4. The legacy of Aristotle
  5. Presocratic and post-Aristotelian philosophers

1. The rise of Neoplatonism

Neoplatonism has been described as the final summation or synthesis of the major currents in Greek philosophy, Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, Platonism and Aristotelianism, into which an oriental religious and mystical spirit was infused (see Neoplatonism). Its founder, Plotinus, was born in Lycopolis in Egypt, studied at Alexandria and lectured in Rome. He studied with Ammonius Saccas and was a classmate of Origen, who became a Christian. Plotinus was so profoundly interested in oriental religions that he joined the abortive expedition of the Roman Emperor Gordian to Persia, as we are told by Porphyry, Plotinus' disciple and biographer, in search for 'the ways and beliefs of the Persians and Indians'. When the Emperor died on the way and the expedition came to grief, Plotinus sailed to Rome in ad 244, where he achieved great success as a teacher.

The other great representative of Neoplatonism was Diadochus Proclus, whose metaphysical outlook, like that of Plotinus, marks the final phase in the struggle of Greek paganism against Christianity at Athens, where he taught, and Alexandria, where he studied under Olympiodorus. It also marked that version of Greek philosophy which exerted a particular fascination upon Muslim minds. Other representatives of Neoplatonism during the Byzantine period include Syrianus, the teacher of Proclus, Damascius, Proclus' pupil, Simplicius and Philoponus. All those philosophers or commentators were known to the Arabs and some of their writings, sometimes lost in Greek, were translated into Arabic.

In ad 529 the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered the school of Athens, the last bastion of Greek paganism, to be closed. Seven of its teachers, including Syrianus and Damascius, emigrated to Persia and were well received by the Emperor Chosroes I, who was an admirer of Greek learning and the founder, in ad 555, of the School of Jundishapur which was destined to become a major centre of Greek medical and scientific studies (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy §1). Subsequently, due to its proximity to Baghdad and the close political links between the Abbasids and the Persians, Jundishapur served as a staging station in the process of transmitting Greek medical and scientific learning into the Islamic world.

However, the first phase in the process of transmitting Greek learning into the Near East was the translation of theological treatises, such as Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History and Clement's Recognitiones, into Syriac. As a prelude, a series of logical texts were also translated into Syriac, including the Isagog of Porphyry, Aristotle's Categories, De interpretatione and Prior Analytics. Beyond these, for theological reasons, the Syriac translators were not allowed to proceed.

2. Arabic translations of Greek philosophical texts

The Arab conquest of Syria and Iraq in the seventh century did not, on the whole, interfere with the academic pursuits of Syriac scholars at Edessa, Nisibis, Qinnesrin and other centres of Syriac-Greek learning. To these Christian centres should also be added Harran in Northern Syria, home of a sect of star-worshippers known in the Arabic sources as the Sabaeans and alleged to have been founded by Alexander the Great. Throughout the eighth and ninth centuries (second and third centuries ah), a new impetus was given to the translation movement thanks to the enlightened patronage of three of the early Abbasid caliphs at Baghdad, al-Mansur, Harun and his son al-Ma'mun, who founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad to serve as a library and institute of translation. It was during the reign of al-Ma'mun that the translation of medical, scientific and philosophical texts, chiefly from Greek or Syriac, was placed on an official footing. The major translators who flourished during al-Ma'mun's reign include Yahya ibn al-Bitriq, credited with translating into Arabic Plato's Timaeus, Aristotle's On the Soul, On the Heavens and Prior Analytics as well as the Secret of Secrets, an apocryphal political treatise of unknown authorship attributed to Aristotle.

However, the shining star of al-Ma'mun's reign was the Nestorian Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. ah 264/ad 873), who hailed from al-Hirah in Iraq and, jointly with his son Ishaq (d. ah 299/ad 911), his nephew Hubaysh and other associates, placed the translation of Greek medieval and philosophical texts on a sound scientific footing. The chief interests of Hunayn himself were medical, and we owe to him the translation of the complete medical corpus of Hippocrates and Galen, but Hunayn and his associates were also responsible for translating Galen's treatises on logic, his Ethics (the Greek original of which is lost) and his epitomes of Plato's Sophist, Parmenides, Cratylus, Euthydemus, Timaeus, Statesman, Republic and Laws. (Only the epitomes of the Timaeus and the Laws have survived in Arabic.)

The interest of Hunayn and his school in Galen, the outstanding Alexandrian physician and Platonist, is noteworthy and this philosopher-physician is a major figure in the history of the transmission of Greek learning into Arabic. Not only his sixteen books on medicine but a series of his logical and ethical writings were translated and played an important role in the development of Arabic thought. Apart from the epitomes of Plato's Dialogues already mentioned, his Pinax (list of his own writings), That the Virtuous can Profit from Knowing Their Enemies, That One Should Know His Own Faults and especially his Ethics have influenced moral philosophers from Abu Bakr al-Razi to Ibn Miskawayh and beyond.

Of the works of Aristotle, Hunayn's son Ishaq is responsible for translating the Categories, De interpretatione, On Generation and Corruption, the Physics, On the Soul, the Nicomachean Ethics and the spurious De Plantis, written by the Peripatetic philosopher Nicolaus of Damascus (first century bc). By far the most important Aristotelian treatise to be translated into Arabic during this period is the Metaphysics, known in the Arabic sources as the Book of Letters or the Theologica (al-Ilahiyat). According to reliable authorities, a little-known translator named Astat (Eustathius) translated the twelve books (excluding M and N) for al-Kindi, as did Yahya ibn 'Adi a century later. However, Ishaq, Abu Bishr Matta and others are also credited with translating some parts of the Metaphysics.

Equally important is the translation by Ibn Na'imah al-Himsi (d. ah 220/ad 835) of a treatise allegedly written by Aristotle and referred to in the Arabic sources at Uthulugia or Theologia Aristotelis. This treatise, which consists of a paraphrase of Plotinus' Enneads IV-VI, made by an anonymous Greek author (who could very well be Porphyry of Tyre), together with Proclus' Elements of Theology (known as the Pure Good or Liber de causis), thoroughly conditioned the whole development of Arab-Islamic Neoplatonism (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy). Al-Kindi is said to have commented on the Theologia Aristotelis as did Ibn Sina and others, and al-Farabi refers to it as an undoubted work of Aristotle. A series of other pseudo-Aristotelian works also found their way into Arabic, including the already mentioned Secret of Secrets, De Plantis, Economica and the Book of Minerals.

Among other translators of Greek philosophical texts, we should mention Qusta ibn Luqa (d. ah 300/ad 912), Abu 'Uthman al-Dimashqi (d. ah 298/ad 910), Ibn Zur'ah (d. ah 398/ad 1008) and Ibn al-Khammar (d. ah 408/ad 1017), as well as the already-mentioned Abu Bishr Matta (d. ah 328/ad 940) and his disciple Yahya Ibn 'Adi. None of those translators made any significant or original contribution to Arabic philosophical literature, although they laid the groundwork for subsequent developments and served as the chief purveyors of Greek philosophy and science into the Islamic world. However, there were noteworthy exceptions: Abu Bishr Matta was a skilled logician, and the Jacobite Yahya ibn 'Adi stands out as the best-known writer on Christian theological questions and on ethics in Arabic. The Harranean Thabit ibn Qurra (d. ah 289/ad 901) was an outstanding mathematician and astronomer as well as a translator.

3. Eclecticism and the systematization of philosophical ideas

Al-Kindi, already mentioned in connection with the translation of Aristotle's Metaphysics and the apocryphal Theologia Aristotalis, should be regarded as the first genuine writer on philosophical subjects in Islam. He appears from bibliographical sources to have been a truly encyclopedic writer on every philosophical or scientific subject; his works total around three hundred, of which only a small number have survived in Arabic or Latin. He was profoundly interested in Greek thought as well as Indian religious ideas, and was a professional astrologer. His extant works, however, give the impression of eclectic and hasty composition, reflecting the influence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in an undefined manner. We owe to him however the first treatise on philosophical terms and definitions, modelled on Aristotle's Book Delta of the Metaphysics, which became in due course the model of almost all subsequent parallel treatises (see Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy).

The first genuine system-builder in Islam, however, was al-Farabi. He was the first outstanding logician of Islam, who commented on or paraphrased the six books of Aristotle's Organon, together with the Rhetoric and the Poetics, which formed part of the Organon in the Syriac-Arabic tradition and to which the Isagog of Porphyry, also paraphrased by al-Farabi, was added. He also wrote several original treatises on the analysis of logical terms, which had no parallels until modern times. He defended Aristotelian logic against the Arabic grammarians who regarded logic as a foreign importation, doubly superfluous and pernicious (see Logic in Islamic philosophy). He also laid down the foundations of Arab-Islamic Neoplatonism in a series of writings, the best-known of which is al-Madina al-fadila (Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City). This treatise is inspired by the same utopian ideal as Plato's Republic (see Plato §14), but is essentially an exposition of the emanationist world-view of Plotinus to which a political dimension has been added. In that latter respect, it had hardly any impact on political developments in Islam, but it did inspire subsequent writers on political philosophy such as Ibn Bajja. Another great champion of the emanationist world-view was Abu 'Ali al-Husayn Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who was a confessed spiritual disciple of al-Farabi.

The only great Platonist of Islam was Abu Bakr al-Razi, the greatest medical author and practitioner of the third and fourth centuries ah (ninth and tenth centuries ad). Both in ethics and in metaphysics, al-Razi exhibits a profound veneration for Plato, 'the master of the philosophers and their leader', as well as to the great Alexandrian doctor and philosopher Galen, whose epitomes of Plato's Dialogues, as we have mentioned, formed the basis of the Arabic translations of Plato's works in the third century ah (ninth century ad). Although a Manichean or Harranean influence is discernible in his thought, the 'five eternal principles' which form the substance of al-Razi's metaphysics and cosmology, namely the Creator (al-Bari'), the soul, prime matter (al-hayula, hyle) space and time, can be shown to derive from Plato's Timaeus and his other dialogues. The other noteworthy Platonist, especially in the realms of ethics and psychology, was a fellow Persian philosopher, Ibn Miskawayh, the best known ethical philosopher of Islam (see Ethics in Islamic philosophy §4; Platonism in Islamic philosophy).

4. The legacy of Aristotle

As already mentioned, all the works of Aristotle were translated into Arabic with the exception of the Politics, which for some obscure reason remained unknown to the Arabs. In addition a large number of apocryphal writings, including the Secret of Secrets, the Economica, De plantis, De mundo, the Theologia and the Liber de causis were also attributed to Aristotle. Of these works, the Organon, On the Soul, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Physics, the Metaphysics, On Generation and Corruption and On the Heavens played a decisive role in the development of logical and metaphysical ideas in Islam. However, chiefly due to the influence of the apocryphal Theologia Aristotalis, the tendency of early Muslim philosophers was to interpret Aristotle in Neoplatonic terms; a basic premise of this interpretation was the total agreement of Plato and Aristotle on all major issues alleged to separate them. (A famous treatise of al-Farabi entitled al-Jam' bayn ra'yay al-hakimayn (The Reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle), probably modelled on Porphyry's lost work of the same title, illustrates this point.)

The picture radically changed with the appearance on the philosophical scene of the greatest Arab Aristotelian, Ibn Rushd of Cordoba, known in Latin as Averroes. Ibn Rushd continued the tradition of commenting on Aristotle's works initiated in Arab Spain by Ibn Bajja (Avempace) and in the East by al-Farabi. Ibn Rushd, however, produced the most extensive commentaries on all the works of Aristotle with the exception of the Politics, for which he substituted the Republic of Plato. These commentaries, which have survived in Arabic, Hebrew or Latin, earned him in the Middle Ages the title of the Commentator, or as Dante put it in Inferno V. 144, 'che'l gran commento feo' (he who wrote the grand commentary). Ibn Rushd actually wrote three types of commentaries, known as the large, middle and short commentaries, on the major Aristotelian treatises, notably the Physics, the Metaphysics, the Posterior Analytics, On the Soul and On the Heavens. In addition, he defended Aristotle against the onslaughts of al-Ghazali, the famous Ash'arite theologian, in a great work of philosophical debate entitled the Tahafut al-tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence), a rebuttal of al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers).

5. Presocratic and post-Aristotelian philosophers

The records of the early Greek philosophers in Arabic, such as al-Sijistani's Siwan al-hikma (Vessel of Wisdom) and al-Shahrastani's al-Milal wa'l nihal, usually begin with the Seven Sages, followed by a list of the Presocratics, including Thales, Anaxamines, Anaximander, Democritus, Pythagoras and Heraclitus, with very brief accounts of their views, which are invariably given a religious and mystical twist. This is particularly true of Empedocles and Pythagoras, who are said to have received 'wisdom' (hikma) from Semitic sources, notably Luqman and Solomon, and to have asserted as genuine Muslims avant la lettre the unity of God, the creation of the world and the resurrection.

Of the post-Aristotelian philosophers, Chrysippus is almost the only Stoic philosopher mentioned; Zeno of Citium is almost unknown, despite the significant influence of Stoicism both in logic and in ethics on the early philosophers and theologians. Diogenes the Cynic (see Diogenes of Sinope), often confused with Socrates, is represented as a key moral and ascetic figure, but of the latter Stoic philosophers such as Cicero, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, no mention is made in the classical Arabic sources. Of the materialists, only the names of Democritus and Epicurus are mentioned. The impression one gains from reading these sources is that Greek philosophy had, according to the authors, reached its zenith with Aristotle, who superseded his predecessors in such a way as to render them superfluous. Ibn Bajja, for instance, in his paraphrase of the Physics of Aristotle, justifies his total omission of the views of the Presocratics on the grounds that Aristotle had refuted their 'dialectical' views and therefore it was unnecessary to dwell on them, a position which al-Ghazali had also adopted in his Tahafut al-falasifa. As his target, al-Ghazali chose Aristotle to the exclusion of all others, on the ground that 'he (Aristotle) had refuted all his predecessors, including his teacher, whom they nickname Plato the Divine. Then he excused himself for disagreeing with his teacher, saying: "Plato is a friend and the truth is a friend, but truth is a greater friend than Plato"' (an obvious paraphrase of Nicomachean Ethics I). Of Aristotle's Greek commentators, the Arab historians of ideas and philosophers refer frequently to, or quote from, the writings of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, Olympiodorus, Simplicius, Philoponus and Nicolaus of Damascus (first century bc). The earliest commentators, such as Theophrastus (d. 288 bc) and Strato (d. c.269 bc), were virtually unknown to the Arabs.

The chief historical significance of the Muslim-Spanish phase in the rise and development of Muslim philosophy is that it served as a major link in the transmission of Greek philosophy to Western Europe. The Muslims had been the custodians of that philosophy, which had been almost completely forgotten in Western Europe since the time of Boethius, who was responsible chiefly for translating the Aristotelian logic into Latin. By the end of the twelfth century, the translation of Arabic philosophical, scientific and medical works into Hebrew or Latin by such eminent scholars as Gerard of Cremona, Michael Scot and Herman the German (see Translators) had wrought a genuine intellectual revolution in learned circles. The most influential Muslim philosopher to leave a lasting impression on Western thought was Ibn Rushd (Averroes). During the thirteenth century, philosophers and theologians split into two rival groups, the Latin Averroists with Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia at their head, and the anti-Averroist group led by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas (see Averroism). The confrontation between these two groups became so violent that in the second half of the thirteenth century the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, had to intervene and in 1270 and 1277 issued ecclesiastical condemnations of a total of 219 propositions which were of Aristotelian or Averroist inspiration (see Aristotelianism, medieval). It should be noted, however, that it was thanks to the Latin translations of Ibn Rushd's commentaries that the rediscovery of Aristotle in Western Europe and the concurrent emergence of Latin Scholasticism, one of the glories of late medieval thought, were made possible.

See also: Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Hellenistic philosophy; Islam, concept of philosophy in; Islamic philosophy: transmission into Western Europe; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy; Platonism in Islamic philosophy

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Badawi, A.-R. (1987) La transmission de la philosophie grecque au monde arabe (The Transmission of Greek Philosophy into the Arab World), Paris: Vrin. (Contains useful information on manuscripts and Greek-Arabic texts or translations.)

Duval, R. (1970) La littérature Syriaque (Syriac Literature), Amsterdam: Philo Press. (First published in 1899, this is a detailed account of the Syriac translations of philosophical texts.)

Madkour, I. (1969) L'Organon d'Aristote au monde arabe (The Organon of Aristotle in the Arab World), Paris: Vrin. (First published in 1934, an important review of the stages through which Aristotelian logic passed in the Arab world.)

Peters, F. (1996) 'The Greek and Syriac Background', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 3, 40-51. (Discussion of some of the important features of Greek and Syriac culture as sources of Islamic philosophy.)

Pines, S. (1986) Studies in Arabic Versions of Greek Texts, Jerusalem: Hebrew University and Brill. (The first part consists of a series of important Greek texts in Arabic translation, with valuable comments and information.)

Shayegan, Y. (1996) 'The Transmission of Greek Philosophy into the Islamic World', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 6, 98-104. (Detailed account of how the transmission took place, paying particular attention to the Persian background.)

Steinschneider, M. (1960) Die Arabischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen (The Arabic Translations of Greek Writings), Graz: Akademische Druck U. Verlagsanstalt. (First published 1889, this is the earliest authoritative review in a European language of the Arabic translation of Greek texts.)

Vacherot, E. (1846-51) Histoire critique de l'École d'Alexandrie (Critical History of the Alexandrian School), Paris. (The most comprehensive history of philosophical developments during the Alexandrian period.)

Walzer, R. (1962) Greek into Arabic, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (A collection of studies dealing with the transmission of Greek philosophy to the Arabs, by an eminent classical scholar and Arabist.)

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