Did Islamic Philosophy Die Out In Medieval Islam? – Analysis


An outstanding scholar of India Mulla Nizam-ud-din prepared an academic curriculum for Faranghi Mahall in 18th century. This curriculum, famous as Dars-e-Nizami, was adopted by numerous other religious seminaries. Francis Robinson in his book Faranghi Mahal convincingly argued that the curriculum was deeply steeped in Islamic philosophy. Most of the courses in the syllabus prepared by Mulla Nizam-ud-din had a philosophical content. Did Mulla Nizam-ud-din want to revive Islamic philosophy in Muslim India? An Algerian philosopher Muhammad Arkoun in one of his famous articles held that the Islamic philosophy had died out in the Islamic world by 13th century. Did Islamic philosophy really cease to exist after the 13th century? Is there no lively tradition of Islamic philosophy in contemporary Islamic World? 

Syed Hussain Nasr in his lectures at Harvard University which were converted later into a book Three Muslim Sages said that the first Muslim philosopher was a Persian scholar named Iranshahri. Since all of his works are lost, we are left with nothing to discuss his ideas and his philosophical thoughts. The first systematic Muslim philosopher, according to Majid Fakhri in his A History of Islamic Philosophy was al-Kindi. He was an Arab who sought to negotiate a settlement between religion and philosophy. Kindi was followed by Farabi who laid down the foundations of Islamic political philosophy. Abid al-Jabiri in his work Critique on Contemporary Islamic Philosophy maintained that Farabi was the “Rousseau of Islam” who strived to inject rationalism into Islamic scholasticism. Peter Adamson in his book Philosophy in the Islamic World argued that after the departure of Farabi, a number of scholars in the likes of Rhazi, Baghdadi, Sijistani, Tawhidi, and Amiri furthered the cause of Islamic Philosophy in the intellectual heartlands of Islam. In the 10th, Ibn-e-Sina came to the forefront. He was, according to Roy Jackson in his book What is Islamic Philosophy, one of the greatest and most original philosophers in the history of Islam. Ibn-e-Sina further refined Islamic Philosophy and gave it solid foundation.

Ibn-e-Sina by followed by Ibn-e-Bajja and Ibn-e-Rushd in Islamic Spain in the following years. Ibn-e-Rushd, as William Chittick argued, revived the works of Aristotle, and hence was called the Commentator. Ibn-e-Rushd in many ways paved the way for numerous intellectual movements in the West. But what happened to Islamic philosophy after Ibn-e-Rushd? Muhammad Arkoun, as discussed, considered him the last great Muslim philosopher. The great Moroccan scholar Abid al-Jabiri concurred with the assessment of Muhammad Arkoun and held that Ibn-e-Rushd was the last advocate of rationalism. So, did Islamic philosophy cease to exist after him?

The French scholar Henry Corbin maintained that Islamic Philosophy was under severe attack from traditionalism and mysticism from formative Islamic period. Traditionalism was born out of Islamic conceptions of pietism, and Islamic mysticism was transpired by the marriage of Iranian gnosis and spirituality. This traditionalism and spirituality gave birth to classic Islamic theology rooted in an Islamic conceptual framework. On the contrary, Islamic philosophy was Greek in its content and its orientation. The Islamic conceptual framework buttressed by a rigorous system of theology strangulated the growth of Islamic philosophy. In addition, the consistent intellectual attacks by Razi, Ghazali, Ibn-e-Jawzi, and Ibn-e-Hazm on Islamic philosophy further shrank its constituency. The last-ditched attempt to revive it was made by Ibn-e-Rushd in his work The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But it was already too late. 

Dr Fazlur Rehman in his book Islam and Modernity convincingly argued that Islamic Philosophy ceased to exist as an independent strand of Islamic learning, but expressed itself either in mystical treatises or in theological tractates. In other words, Islamic gnosis and systematic theology absorbed Islamic Philosophy into their systems and robbed it of its own independent identity. Even Ibn-e-Khaldun in his famous Muqaddimah written in 14th century revealed that Islamic Philosophy was replaced by systematic theology and it had lost its utility and purpose as an independent strand of thought. The leading Scottish orientalist William Montgomery Watt in his tome Islamic Philosophy and Theology also maintained that Muslim theologians and practitioners of mysticism replaced Muslim philosophers after the classic period. He further stated that only commentaries and glosses on philosophical works were produced which lacked genuine creativity and originality. 

As we delve into Islamic intellectual history after the 12th century, we come across a number of Muslim theologians and mystics, but do not find philosophers of high order. Nasir uddin Tusi was an acclaimed Muslim scholar. His book Sharah-e-Ishraq was only a commentary. His another work Awsaf al-Ashraf was a treatise on gnosis. Another great scholar Jalal-uddin Suyuti wrote an entire book to dissuade Muslims from engaging in philosophical discourse. He abridged Ibn-e-Taymiyah’s book the Refutation of the Logicians to demonstrate the uselessness of employing logic as an epistemological tool in intellectual works. The famous school of Bahrain led by Jamaal uddin, Kamaal uddin and Baitham uddin was was also a centre of mysticism and gnosis. Philosophy was mere a part of the mystical tradition that was revived by this prestigious centre of learning. Similarly, the school of Isfahan in the 17th century spearheaded by Mir Damad, Mir Fendereski and Mulla Sadra was also a major learning centre for acquiring knowledge of illuminative gnosis. Mulla Sadra, arguable the greatest Iranian scholar, was steeped knee-deep in mysticism. His vision of Islam rested on theosophy. Islamic philosophy constituted only a part of his theosophic imagination. His most famous Four Journeys was actually a work on mysticism. 

Similarly in Muslim India, the famed Maktubaat of Mujaddid Alif Sani was an excellent exposition of classic Islamic mysticism and theology. Drawing heavily from Ghazali, Junayd Shibli, and Abdul Qadir Gilani, Mujaddid Alif Sani developed a sophisticated vision of gnostic Islam. Even the great revivalist Shah Wali-Ullah had a background of theology with an emphasis on mystical ratiocination. His famous book The Conclusive Argument from God was a work of theology. 

As it becomes evident that Islamic philosophy lost its own separate identity, but was articulated by scholars in gnostic and theological treatises. The philosophic content in these treatises was retained to give Islamic tradition a rationalist flavour. But unfortunately, this rationalist impulse did not develop into a school of philosophy and become a source of creative investigation for the exploration of innovative epistemological models of reasoning in the post-classic period. 

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan is a freelancer from Pakistan.

One thought on “Did Islamic Philosophy Die Out In Medieval Islam? – Analysis

  • February 19, 2020 at 4:14 pm

    I do think that Iqbal, though not a comprehensive as some of the names mentioned above, still has a major idea of ‘self’ as contribution to Islamic philosophy.


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