The meaning and concept of philosophy in Islam

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A. Hikmah and falsafah (metaphysics and philosophy)
In the light of the Qur’an and Hadith in both of which the term hikmah has been used,(For the of hikmah in the Qur’an and Hadith see S.H. Nasr, “The Qur’an and Hadith as Source and Inspiration of Islamic Philosophy,” Chapter2 below.) Muslim authorities belonging to different schools of thought have sought over ages to define the meaning of hikmah as well as falsafah, a term which entered Arabic through the Greek translations of the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. On the hand what is called philosophy in English must be sought in the context of Islamic civilization not only in the various schools of Islamic philosophy but also in schools bearing other names, especially kalam, ma’rifah, usul al-fiqh as well as the awa’il sciences, not to speak of such subjects as grammar and history which developed particular branches of philosophy. On the other hand each school of thought sought to define what is meant by hikmah or falsafah according to its own perspective and this question has remained an important concern of various schools of Islamic thought especially as far as the schools of Islamic philosophy are concerned.

During Islamic history, the terms used for Islamic philosophy as well as the debates between the philosophers, the theologians and sometimes the Sufis as to the meaning of these terms varied to some extent from one period to another but completely. Hikmah and falsafah continued to be used while such terms as al-hikmat al- ilahiyyah and al-hikmat al- muta’aliyah gained new meaning and usage in later centuries of Islamic history, especially in the school of Mulla Sadra. The term over which there was the greatest debate was hikmat, which claimed by the Sufis and mutakallimun as well as the philosophers, all appealing to such Hadith as “The acquisition of hikmah is incumbent upon you and the good resides in hikmah” (Alayka bi’l –hikmah fa inna’l –khayr fi’l-hikmah.) Some Sufis such as Tirmidhi were called hakim and Ibn Arabi refers to the wisdom which has been unveiled through each manifestation of the logos as hikmah as seen in the very title of his masterpiece Fusus al-hikam, ( See Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi, The Wisdom of the Prophets trans. T. Burckhardt, trans. From French A. Culme- Seymour (S alisbury, 1975), pp. 1-3 of Burckhardt’s introduction, and M. Chodkiewicz, Seal of the Saints –Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn Arabi, trans. A. L. Sherrard (Cambridge,1993): 47-8. While many mutakallimun such as Fakhr al- Din al- Razi claimed the kalam and not falsafah was hikmah,(See S. H. Nasr, “Fakhr al- Din Razi” in M. Sharif (ed). A History of Muslim Philosophy, 1 (Wiesbaden, 1963) 645-8) Ibn Khaldun confirming this view in calling the later kalam (kalam al-muta’akhkhirtn) philosophy or hikmah. (Abd al-Razzaq Lahiji, the seventh/seventeenth-century of Mulla Sadra who was however more of a theologian than philosopher, writes in his kalami text Gawhar –murad, “Since it has become known that in acquiring the divine sciences and other intellectual matters the intellect has complete independence, and does not need to rely in these matters upon the Sharr’ah and the proof of certain principles concerning the essence of being in such a way as to be in accord with the objective world through intellectual demonstrations and reasoning…. The path of the hukama, the science acquired through this means is called in the vocabulary of scholars hikmah. And of necessity it will be in accord with the objective world through intellectual demonstrations and reasoning …the path of hukama, the science acquired through this means is called in the vocabulary of scholars hikmah. And of necessity it will be in accord with the true Shari’ah for the truth of the Shari’ah is realized objectively through intellectual demonstration”(Gawhar –murad (Tehran, 1377): 17-18), Although spesking as a theologian ,Lahiji is admitting in this text that hikmah should be used for the intellectual activity of the philosophy and not the mutakallimun, demonstrating the shift in position in the understanding of this term since the time of Fakhr al- Din al- Razi.)

B. Definitions of philosophy
Our discussion in here is concerned, however, primarily with the Islamic philosophers understanding of the definition and meaning of the concept of philosophy and the terms hikmah and falsafah. (There is considerable secondary material on this subject in Arabic as well as in European languages. See Abd al- Halim Mahmud, al-Tafkit al- falsafi fi’l- islam (Cairo, 1964): 163-71, Mustafa Abd al- Raziq, Tamhid li-ta’rikh al-falsafat al-islamiyyah (Cairo,1959), chapter 3:48ff ,G.C Anawati, “Philosophile medieval en terre d’ Islam” Melanges de l’Institut Dominicain d’ Etudes Orientales du Caire, 5 (1958), 175-236, and S.H. Nasr, “The Meaning and Role of Philosophy in Islam”, Studia Islamica, 37 (1973),57-80. This understanding includes of course what the Greeks had comprehended by the term philosophia and many of the difintions from Greeks sources which were to find their way into Arabic sometimes with only slight modifications. Some of the definitions of Greeks origin most common among Islamic philosophers are as follows (See Christel Hein, Definition und Einleitung der Philosophie – Van den spatan tiken Einleitungsliteratur zur arabischen Enzyklopadie (Bern and New York, 1985): 86)

1. Philosophy ( al- falsafah) is the knowledge of all existing thing qua existents (ashya’ al-mawjuddah bi ma hiya mawjudah)(This is repeated with only a small alteration by al-Farabi in this al- Jam’ bayn ra’ay al-hakimayn. According to Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, al-Farabi even wrote a treatise entitled Concerning the Word philosophy (Kalam fi ism al-falsafah) although some have doubted that this was an independent work. See S. Stroums,’ “Al-Faradi and Maimonides on the Christian Philosophical Tradition”. Der Islam ,68 (2) (1991) :264, and Aristoteles –Werk und Wirkung, 2 ed .J.Weisner (Berlin,1987)
2. Philosophy is knowledge of divine and human maters.
3. Philosophy is taking refuge in death, that is, love of death.
4. Philosophy is becoming God-like to the extent of human ability.
5. It [Philosophy] is the art (sina’ah )of arts and the science (ilm) of sciences.
6. Philosophy is predilection for hikmah.

“Hikmah” and “falsafah” are the same
Islamic philosophers meditated upon definitions of falsafah which they inherited from ancient sources and which they identified with the Qur’anic term hikmah beliving the origin of hikmah to be divine. The first of the Islamic philosophers, Abu Ya’qub al-Kindi wrote in his On First philosophy, “Philosophy is the knowledge of the reality of things within people’s possibility, because the philosophers’s end in theoretical knowledgeis to gain truth and in practical knowledge to behave in accordance with truth”(Quoted in Ahmed Fouad El – Ehway, “Al-kindi”, in M. M. Sarif (ed), A History of Muslim Philosophy, 1 ( 1963): 424)Al-Farabi, while accepting this definition, added the distinction between philosophy based on certainty (al-yaqiniyyah) hence demonstration and philosophy based on opinion ( al- maznunah)( Kitab al- Huruf, ed M. Mahdi ( Beirut, 1969): 153-7) hence dialectic and sophistry, and insisted that philosophy was the mother of the sciences and dealt with everything that exist (Kitab Jam bayn ra’ay al- hakimayn (Hyderabad, 1968) 36-7)

The meaning of philosophy according to Ibn Sina
Ibn Sina again accepted these earlier definitions while making certain precisions of his own. In his Uyun al- hikmah he says “Al- hikmah [which he use as being the same as philosophy] is the perfection of human soul though conceptualization [tasawwur] of things and judgment [tasdiq] of theoretical and practical realities to the measure of human ability.” ( Fontes sapientiae (Uyun al- hikmah ).ed. Abdurrahman Badawi ( Cairo, 1954):16.)

But he went further in later life to distinguish between Peripatetic philosophy and what he called “Oriental philosophy” (al-hikmah almashriqiyyah) which was not based on ratiocination alone but Included realized knowledge and which set the stage for the hikmah al-ishraq of Suhrawardi. (On Ibn Sina’s “Oriental philosophy “ see Chapter 17 below.) Ibn Sina’s foremost student Bahmanyar meanwhile identified falsafah closely with the study of existents as Ibn Sina had done in his Peripatetic works such as the Shifa, repeating the Aristotelian dictum that philosophy is the study of existents qua existents. Bahmanyar wrote in the introduction to his Tahsil, “The aim of the philosophical sciences is knowledge of existents”.( Kitab al- Tahsil,ed. M. Mutahari (Tehran, 1970): 3.)

philosophy and leading a virtuous life
Isma’ili and Hermetico- Pythagorean thought, which paralleled in development the better-known Peripatetic philosophy but with a different philosophical perspective, nevertheless gave definitions of philosophy not far removed from those of the Peripatetics, emphasizing perhaps even more the relation between the theoretical aspect of philosophy and its practical dimension, between thinking philosophically and leading a virtuous life. This nexus, which is to be seen in all schools of earlier Islamic philosophy, became even evident from Suhrawardi onward and the hakim came to be seen throughout Islamic society not as someone who could only discuss mental concepts in a clever manner but as one who also lived according to the wisdom which he knew theoretically. The modern Western idea of the philosopher never developed in the Islamic world and the idea stated by the Ikhwan al-Safa who lived in the fourth/ tenth century and who were contemporary with Ibn Sina was to echo ever more loudly over the ages wherever Islamic philosophy was cultivated. The Ikhwan wrote, “The beginning of philosophy (falsafah) is the love of the sciences, its middle knowledge of the realities of existents to the measure of human ability and its words and deeds in accordance with knowledge,” (Rasa’il, 1 (Cairo, 1928): 23.)

The meaning of philosophy, after Suhrawardi
With Suhrawardi we enter not only a new period but also another ream of Islamic philosophy. The founder of a new intellectual perspective in Islam, Suhrawardi used the hikmat al- ishraq rather than falsafat al-israq for both the title of his philosophical masterpiece and the school which he inaugurated. The ardent student of Suhrawardi and the translator of Hikmat al- ishraq into French, Henry Corbin, employed the term theosophie rather than philosophy to translate into French the term hikmat as understood by Suhrawardi and later sages such as Mulla Sadra, and we have also rendered al- hikmat al- muta’aliyah of Mulla Sadra into English as “transcendent theosophy”(See S. H. Nasr, The Transcendent Theosophy of Sadr al- Din Shirazi ( Tehran 1977.) and have sympathy for Corbin’s translation of the term. There is course the partly justified argument that in recent times the term “theosophy” has gained pejorative connotations in European languages, especially English, and has become associated with occultism and pseudo-esoterism. And yet term philosophy also suffers from limitations imposed upon it by those who have practiced it during the past few centuries. If Hobbes, Hume and Ayer are philosopher and vice versa. The narrowing of the meaning of philosophy, the divorce between philosophy and spiritual practice in the West and especially the reduction of philosophy to either rationalism or empiricism necessitate making a distinction between the meaning given to hikmah by a Suhrawardi or Mulla Sadra and the purely mental activity called philosophy in certain circles in the West today. The use of the term theosophy to render this later understanding of the term hikmah is based on the older and time-honoured meaning of this term in European intellectual history as associated with such figures as Jakob Bohme and not as the term became used in the late thirteenth/ nineteenth century by some British occultists. Be that as it may, it is important to emphasize the understanding that Suhrawardi and all later Islamic philosophers have of hikmah as primarily al-ilahiyyah (literally divine wisdom or theosophia) which much be realized within one’s whole being and not only mentally. Suhrawardi saw this hikmah as being present also in ancient Greece before advent of Aristotelian rationalism and identifies hikmah with coming out of one’s body and ascending to the world of lights, as did Plato.(See his Talwihat, in H. Corbin (ed) Oeuvres philosophiques et mystiques, 1 (Tehran ,1976 ): 112-13) Similar ideas are to be found throughout his works, and he insisted that the highest level of hikmah requires both the perfection of the theoretical faculty and the purification of the soul.( See S. H. Nasr Three Muslim Sages (Delmar, 1975): 63-4)

Definetion of “Hikmah” and “falsafa” according to Mulla Sadra
With Mulla Sadra, one finds not only a synthesis of various earlier school of Islamic thought but also a synthesis of the earlier views concerning the meaning of the term and concept philosophy. At the beginning of the Asfar he writes, repeating verbatim and summarizing some of the earlier definitions, “falsafah is the perfecting of human soul to the extent of human ability through the knowledge of the essential reality of things they are in themselves and though judgment concerning their existence established upon demonstration and not derived from opinion or through imitation”. And in al- Shawahid al-rubuiyyah he adds, “[through hikmah] man becomes an intelligible world resembling the objective world and similar to the order universal existence.”

In the first book of the Asfar dealing with being, Mulla Sadra discusses extensively the various definitions of hikmah, emphasizing not only theoretical knowledge and “becoming an intelligible world reflecting the objective intelligible world” but also detachment from passions and purification of the soul from its material defilements or what the Islamic philosophers calls tajarrud or catharsis. Mulla Sadra accepts the meaning of hikmah as understood by Suhrawardi and then expands the meaning of falsafah to include the dimension of illumination and realization implied by the ishraqi and also Sufi understanding of the term. For him as for his contemporaries, as well as most of his successors, falsafah or philosophy was seen as the supreme science of ultimately divine origin, derived from “the niche of prophecy” and the hukama as the most perfect of human beings standing in rank only below the prophets and Imams.

This conception of philosophy as dealing with the discovering of the truth concerning the nature of combining mental knowledge with the purification and perfection of one’s being has lasted to this day wherever the tradition of Islamic philosopher has continued and is in fact embodied in the very being of the most eminent representatives of the Islamic philosopher tradition to this day. Such fourteenth/twentieth century masters as Mirza Ahmad Ashtiyani, the author of Nama-yi rahbara-i amuzish-i kittab-i (“Treatise of the Guides to the Teaching of Book of Creation”). Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Assar, author of many treatises including Wahdat al- wujud (“The Transcendent Unity of Being”), Mahdi llai Qumsh’I author of Hikmat-i ilahi khwass, wa amm (“Philosophy/ Theosophy- General and Particular”) and Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i, author of numerous treatises especially Usul-i Falsafa –yi ri’alizm(“ Principles of the Philosophy of Realism”) all wrote of the definition of philosophy along lines mentioned above and lived accordingly. Both their works and their lives were testimony not to over a millennium of concern by Islamic philosophers as to the meaning of the concept and the term philosophy but also to the significance of Islamic definition of philosophy as that reality which transforms both the mind and the soul and which is ultimately never separated from spiritual and ultimately that the very therm kikmah implies in the Islamic context.


History of Islamic philosophy – seyyed Hossein Nasr- pages:21to25


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