The Philosophical / Scientific Contribution

David Wade

The Greek material received by the Arabs was not simply passed on by them to others who came after; it had a very real life and development in its Arabic surroundings.

De Lacy O’Leary, How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs
Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorum; from a manuscript of a work by the scholar/astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (b.1200CE/600AH).

The Greek Connection

From the time that Muslim forces overran the Byzantine provinces of Syria and Egypt in the mid 7thcentury CE it was inevitable that Islam would encounter the traditions of late-Classical science and philosophy that were still being taught in the Greek schools there. However, this process of cultural assimilation was slow to develop. The initial intellectual exchanges between the Muslims conquerors and the Christian majority were entirely dominated by religious disputation. Indeed, during the first Islamic dynasty, the Damascus-based Umayyads, there was little interest at all in the secular aspects of Classical culture. This was the extraordinary period of Islamic imperial expansion, and at the time the Arabs were far more interested in learning what they could of Roman military skills - which of course they went on to apply so successfully.

It was in the following dynasty, that of the Abbasids, during Islam’s second century, that interest in Greek science and philosophy really took off. The Abbasid’s were more interested in consolidation than expansion, of controlling the vast territories now under their dominion. They founded a new capital at Baghdad, which effectively, became the focus of an entire civilisation. Here, under the enlightened rule of Harun ar-Rashid, there began a sustained programme of translation of all that remained of Greek science and literature.

Harun’s Caliphate, which began in 786 CE (170 AH), is generally recognised as Islam’s Golden Age. Scholars, engineers, scientists and craftsmen of all kinds flocked to Baghdad from every part of the Empire. Talent was recognised, and well rewarded. At this time there was a dawning realisation of the value and usefulness of Greek mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and of its scientific knowledge in general. This new enthusiasm, for what almost amounted to a second Revelation, was actively encouraged by Harun. Schools of translation were established, and original manuscripts were brought in from every available source.

During the reign of his son, Caliph al-Ma’mun (813 CE/198 AH), the work of translating Greek scientific and philosophical literature was formally institutionalised. A ‘House of Wisdom’ (Bayt al-Hikma), which comprised an academy and library, was set up in 830/215, and continued to translate, revise and teach the Classics for the better part of two centuries. The appreciation and appetite for Classical knowledge was such that, by the end of the 9th century (3rd AH), the entire scientific literature of the Greeks was available in good Arabic translations - and this was despite the fact that many contained doctrines that were at variance with those of Islam.

There are various aspects of this Islamic collation of Greek knowledge that are worth noting. Firstly, the primary sources of the literature were the Christian Syriac schools, which meant that the major part of the material that Muslim scholars received was that which was still valued in the late Hellenistic period - they were unaware of Greek poetry, drama and the works of its historians and orators. Nevertheless, there was a great body of knowledge from this source, and this was supplemented by older Greek material that was brought in from centres in both Persia and India, where Greek maths and science had survived and had developed independently.

As a result, Baghdad became the first great centre of Islamic scientific learning and philosophy, and its scholars were soon making original contributions of their own in such areas as astronomy, optics, algebra and trigonometry. In particular, the central role of mathematics was recognised and widely practised. Later, this knowledge was disseminated to other important centres such as Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, Cordova and Samarkand. Philosophy, on the Greek model, was also to enjoy an independent life in this new Islamic setting …

The Pythagorean/ Platonic Tradition

By the time Muslim scholars encountered Greek thought, Christian Neoplatonic ideas had been a powerful influence for several centuries. This meant that most Islamic interpretations of Greek philosophy tended to be through the lens, as it were, of these later doctrines. In fact, from an Islamic standpoint, the Christian affiliation with Neoplatonism served to ‘disinfect’ this philosophy from any taint of paganism, making it more acceptable. The question of reconciling Classical and late-Classical philosophical systems with the revelations of the Qur’an was always a factor in the history of philosophy in Islam; doctrines that affirmed a divine unity, such as those of Plato and Aristotle were, naturally, more favourably received.

The Neoplatonists themselves traced their roots back to the semi-legendary Pythagoras (6th century B.C.) and the school that developed his ideas. The Pythagoreans were the first to believe that the structure of the universe was to be found in mathematics – ‘All things are made of numbers’ - and it can be fairly said that they laid the foundations of both arithmetic and geometry. This school was much concerned with ratios and proportions (they also uncovered the laws of musical harmony), and seem to have ascribed mystical properties to both numbers and geometrical figures. For the Pythagoreans, numbers and proportions took the place of the Gods. They had a separate existence of their own, entirely independent of men’s minds, the contemplation of which was a form of devotion or prayer.

Plato was greatly influenced by these theories and adopted their belief that number and form were the keys to a deeper understanding of the universe. He was also sympathetic to their perception of the gross material world as a place of corruption and illusion. Plato’s philosophical ideas are extensive and not easily summarised, but one consistent theme was that of a supersensible realm of ‘Forms’, of which the world of ordinary experience was an imperfect copy. He was deeply interested in geometry and clearly felt that its method, which produced clear and definite proofs, could be more generally applied. In the Platonic view the world of Forms or Ideas is separate and superior to our world of ordinary experience – and free of its illusions.

This proposition, the existence of a place, beyond our immediate sense-experience, of timeless perfection, colours the whole range of Plato’s thought. He had a very low regard for the art of representation, seeing this as ‘a copy of a copy’, or ‘a third removal from the truth’. For Plato the truly beautiful could not be conveyed by any work of representation or imagination; at best these could only ever be conditionally beautiful. True beauty had to express at least some of the eternal quality of his ‘Forms’, the terms of which he seems only to have found in geometry

Philosophy in Islam

The Neoplatonists, who conveyed Plato’s philosophical ideas to the Islamic world, had in fact elaborated his philosophical system into a complex cosmology of their own. This movement originated in Alexandria in the 3rd century A.D. (long after the decline of Classical Athens). It was eclectic and was influenced by Pythagoras, Aristotle and the Stoics as well as Plato. In its later development it absorbed Jewish and Christian precepts. The main aim of its founder, Plotinus (200-269 A.D.), was to connect with the supreme unity, the source of all existence and all knowledge, through mystical, ecstatic union. In this system, the lower, material levels of existence are a sort of overflow of the divine fullness. These, and later Neoplatonic speculations, exerted a considerable influence on Islamic philosophy, and on Islamic mysticism (Sufism).

In time, as they became more discriminating, Muslim scholars were able to separate out the older Classical philosophies from later accretions, and to make their own interpretations of this original material. In the three or four centuries following the founding of Baghdad the Islamic world produced many outstanding philosophers, whose contributions were appreciated well beyond the Islamic sphere. Among the most important of these were – Al-Kindi (d.870/256); Al-Farabi (870-950/57-339); Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037/370-429); Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198/520-595). Each of these was concerned to produce a version of Greek philosophy for Muslims, and each incorporated Platonic and Aristotelian concepts (especially the latter) in their philosophical systems. As indicated above, they were also strongly influenced by Neoplatonic cosmological ideas. All of these philosophers were translated into Latin in the Middle-Ages, introducing Classical thought to the Christian West where it acted as a stimulus to philosophical and theological speculation.

There were many other important individual philosophers in the Islamic world during the period of the Abbasid Caliphate, and various esoteric schools. In this Islamic setting, philosophical ideas were frequently bound up with those of religion and politics, which often meant that it was expedient for groups of like-minded scholars to come together in secretive associations. The ‘Faithful Brethren of Basra’ ((Ikhwan as-Safa), who formed in the second half of the 10th/4thcentury, are the best known of such groups. The Brethren were Encyclopaedists; they compiled a sort of summary of all the knowledge of their day, in some fifty volumes (the Rasa’il). Drawing on Pythagorean sources, they attempted to combine religion and philosophy in a unified world view. Following Pythagoras and Plato they saw numbers and proportions as the key to a deeper understanding of nature. They firmly believed in the moral value of this knowledge - and that it was an essential aspect of beauty.

It is unclear to what extent these ideas, or those of any other of the Islamic philosophers, might have influenced the course of Islamic art, but these ideas were definitely in the air at the time. The intellectual climate was pervaded with notions of Platonic idealism.

Religious Revival, Scientific Retreat

As we have seen, the history of Islamic thought was marked by the encounter between the theologies that developed from the Qur’anic Revelation and the Hadith, and various pre-Islamic schools of philosophy (both Classical and late-Classical). In the end though, the latter was absorbed by the former; philosophy was reformulated to theological sensibilities, rather than the other way round. But the working out of this collision of belief systems, rather like the movement of tectonic plates in geology, was a gradual, grinding process.

Serious differences in the formulation of Islamic doctrine arose virtually from the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s death but, under the rule of the early Caliphs, broad notions of orthodoxy developed, if for no other reason than to support the status quo The more literalist defenders of the Faith were always suspicious of Philosophy, but the cultural confidence of Baghdad’s Golden Age period exposed Islamic thinkers to many new influences - and to take a more objective view of their own theological assertions. Under Caliph Ma’mun, who founded the ‘House of Wisdom’ and encouraged science, a rationalist interpretation of Islam (Mu’tazilite) became the official doctrine (in 827/212). Using Greek philosophy as a model, the Mu’tazilites employed argument, reason and dialectic to establish their credentials. The rationalising, even free-thinking, tendencies of the times were also evident in the works of the physician Ar-Razi (Rhazes), and the philosopher Al-Farabi. Farabi actually proposed an allegorical interpretation of the Qur’an, which provoked serious opposition from Traditionalist critics.

The Rationalist era of Islam however, was short-lived. Mu’tazilite doctrines fell out of favour and were finally suppressed under Caliph Mutawakkil in the mid 10th/4thcentury.This was against the background of  the increasing instability of the vast Abbasid Empire; by this time the political authority of the Caliphate itself was under serious threat. Soon after this the political unity of the Empire began to disintegrate into a series of breakaway states, Muslims came to depend on religious, rather than political, unity – which in turn led to a general narrowing of intellectual horizons.

The turmoil and insecurity of the 11th/5th century (largely the result of increasing pressure from Turkish incursions) saw the emergence of an ecumenical, pietistic version of Islam. But this reaction was accompanied by an attitude of intolerance towards perceived heretical beliefs, and proved inimical to scientific and philosophical activities. By the 12th/6thcentury the Rasa’il of the Faithful Brethren, and other philosophical literature, was regarded as irreligious, and publicly burnt. The final flickers of the Graeco-Islamic intellectual enlightenment were expunged in the colossal tragedy of the Fall of Baghdad to the Mongols (see Background Note #1 - The Historical Setting).

Continuity and Transmutation

The enormous achievement of the Golden Age in collecting, translating, disseminating and building on, the philosophies and sciences of the Classical past was of immeasurable importance. Ironically, the Western infidel nations were eventually to be primary beneficiaries of this fund of knowledge; it was instrumental in pulling Europe out of its Dark Ages, and laid the foundations of the Enlightenment. The names of Islamic scholars feature on the first pages of most histories of European science, mathematics, medicine and astronomy - and of course the rich tradition of Classical philosophy was first conveyed to the West in Latin translations from Arabic sources.

But the cultural attainments of the Hellenised civilisation that the early Muslims encountered, and the rich traditions of knowledge that their successors so readily adopted, did have a lasting effect on Islamic civilisation; in fact it helped to create it. Many of the norms of Islamic life were formed as a result of this contact. In essence there was a continuity of late-Hellenistic cultural values into the Islamic sphere. The clearest outward expression of this legacy may be found in Islamic art.

The most familiar aspects of this art – its preoccupation with symmetry, proportion and spacing; its highly geometrised aesthetic; its other-worldly, ‘eternal’ qualities – are essentially an expression of Platonic, or rather Pythagorean/Platonic, philosophical concepts. It is unclear just how this transmutation, from the realm of ideas to the realm of art, was effected. It is the case, however, that at the very time that Falsafa (philosophy) was coming under increasing pressure from religious orthodoxy, Islamic aesthetic sensibilities appear to crystallise around essentially Platonic notions of beauty. In fact (again ironically), the geometric and arabesque decorative modes, which are now so completely associated with Islam in all its manifestations, were originally adopted as the identifiable style of a renascent, Sunni orthodoxy.

Classical philosophy, always treated with suspicion by the narrowly religious, could not thrive in the spiritual and political turmoil that characterised the Islamic world from the 12th/6thcentury on. But pure Geometry could never be considered as heretical, and the interplay of Platonic figures on the Euclidean plane clearly did not violate any injunction in the Holy Qur’an or the Hadith. But the connection with the Classical past was never entirely forgotten. In a revealing passage in the Introduction to his ‘History of the World’, the famous 14th/8thcentury author Ibn Khuldun 1 makes various observations, presumably of fairly widespread currency, about the craft of carpentry …

In view of its origin, carpentry needs a good deal of geometry of all kinds. It requires either a general or specialised knowledge of proportion and measurement in order to bring forms from potentiality into actuality in the proper manner, and for the knowledge of proportions one must have recourse to the geometrician. Therefore the leading Greek geometricians were all master carpenters. Euclid, the author of the ‘Book of Principles’, was a carpenter, and known as such. The same was the case with Apollonius, the author of the book on ‘Conic Sections’, and Menelaus and others.

The Craft of Carpentry in the Muqaddimah
  1. Rightly described as ‘the first social historian’