By Ibrahim Kalin
02 May, 2015
At a time when philosophy has become a distant academic enterprise recovering the basic insights of the Islamic philosophical tradition, it can bring many blessings and benefits to our confused world
Why read philosophy when it appears to be largely irrelevant outside academia? Why bother with quaint, now largely unintelligible metaphysical arguments formulated centuries ago? Against all odds, there are good reasons to read the classical Muslim philosophers today. The ancient Greeks defined philosophy as "the love of wisdom" and there was a special reason for this peculiar definition. Since only "gods" can possess true wisdom, Pythagoras said famously, we humans can love it, not own it. Claiming to "own" true knowledge was seen as pure hubris. One can aspire to gain the knowledge of things, but do so only by acknowledging its transcendent roots.
The Muslim philosophers gave a more precise definition of philosophy and called it the ability "to know the reality of things as they are to the extent possible for human beings, and act accordingly." Philosophy defined as such entailed a fundamental premise upon which all thinking rested: there is a "reality" outside my mind and I can know it with the proper means. Though emerging out of different conceptual frameworks and linguistic traditions, the Greek and Muslim notions of philosophy combine the rational and the ethical. They give us what Aristotle called "wisdom," i.e., making sense of the world through reason and virtue and acting accordingly.
Aristotle's "good life" was also based on this premise whereby we humans maximize the one faculty that is unique to us: reason/intelligence. Using our reason/intelligence to its full capacity is the sine qua non of living a life as a "rational animal." But this can happen only when we use our reason correctly and properly. That is why we need both logic and ethics. We discipline our minds to know the difference between true and false and between right and wrong. Reason and virtue combined give us wisdom and lay the foundation for our engagement with the world around us.
The Muslim philosophers, who read Aristotle mostly through the eyes of Plato, were already familiar with the term "wisdom" (hikmah) from the Quran and the sayings of the prophet of Islam. In its rich etymology, hikmah means reason, principle, pillar, reasoning, thinking, the ability to know the difference between right and wrong and leading a virtuous life in accordance with reason and virtue. The Quran praises it as a blessing; Prophet Muhammad refers to it as "a Muslim's lost property," which he/she should seek wherever it is.
To further delineate philosophy as wisdom, the Muslim philosophers, depending on their philosophical perspective and taste, used striking adjectives. Thus we have Ibn Sina's "Eastern/Oriental Wisdom" (al-hikmat al-mashriqiyyah), Suhrawardi's "The Wisdom of Illumination" (hikmat al-ishraq), and Mulla Sadra's "Transcendent Wisdom" (al-hikmat al-muta'aliyah). We also have Abu Bakr al-Razi's "philosophical life" (al-sirat al-falsafiyyah) that defines philosophy as a way of life. These are meant to emphasize the unitary nature of philosophy, science, ethics, virtue and wisdom. They suggest that philosophy cannot be just a mental exercise; it cannot turn reality into an internal property of my mind. If philosophy is to be more than mere cleverness, it ought to enable us to connect with the deeper aspects of reality that are larger than my mind or self.
In a broad outline, this is the conceptual framework through which the classical Muslim philosophers approached the main problems of philosophy. Al-Farabi's 'virtuous city' is based on a political philosophy that treats reality, reason, ethics and human society as a holistic structure. Ibn Sina's ontology, based on his famous distinction between "necessary" and "contingent" beings, is a response to the Islamic (Abrahamic) notion of creation out of nothing and the actual reality of the universe. Ibn Rushd's synthesis of reason and revelation asserts diverse ways of knowing the philosophical and religious truth. Suhrawardi's "philosophy of illumination" refers to the complementary nature of the logical and mystical ways of knowing. Mulla Sadra's "transcendent wisdom" anchors everything in the all-embracing reality of being (wujud) and its modalities. What unites these diverse philosophical perspectives is their integral and holistic approach to reality and how we can understand it through philosophy as wisdom.
This key claim of classical Islamic philosophy remains valid, and this is the main reason why we should study it today. Since the 18th century, we have lost this sense of holism. Our universe has become fragmented. A holistic understanding of reality has been undertaken by many scientists and philosophers in the modern times but with little success. There is much insight and wisdom to gather from the work of the traditional Muslim philosophers to develop a holistic view of the universe. True, the scientific cosmology with which the classical Muslim philosophers worked was based mostly on Aristotelian-Ptolemaic physics and is now largely outdated. But this does not take away anything from the philosophical insights of their work. One of the tasks of contemporary Muslim philosophy is to bridge this gap and take a fresh look at the philosophical cosmology of the classical philosophers.
The second reason is to see how the classical Muslim philosophers constructed a philosophical tradition by dove-tailing pre-Islamic schools of thought with their own Islamic beliefs. The paradigmatic shift from the Greek notions of the universe which had no beginning and end to the theistic concept of divine creation was a watershed event in the history of human thought. Long before the medieval Christian philosophers developed their own philosophical theology in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Muslim philosophers confronted the lore of the pagan Greeks and produced a new philosophical outlook. Studying this history in earnest can help us overcome the Eurocentric view of history that has colored much of what we know about intellectual history.
Finally, the third reason why we need to read the classical Muslim philosophers today concerns what they have to say about the enduring questions of philosophy. The nature of reality, the functions and limits of the human reason, truth, freedom, ethics and in essence, how we should live are fundamental questions that have never left the stage of philosophy. They remain as pressing and pertinent as ever. At a time when philosophy has become a distant academic enterprise on the one hand, and a handmaid of the physical sciences and commercial technology on the other, recovering the basic insights of the Islamic philosophical tradition can bring much blessing and benefits to our confused world.