The meaning and concept of philosophy in Islam

In the light of the Qur'an and Hadith in both of which the term hikmah has been used,1 Muslim authorities belonging to different schools of thought have sought over the 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 one 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 not completely. Hikmah and falsafah continued to be used while such terms as al-hikmat al-ilahiyyah and alhikmat 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 hikmah, which was 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."2 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,3 while many mutakallimun such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi claimed that kalam and not falsafah was hikmah,4 Ibn Khaldun confirming this view in calling the later kalam (kalam al-muta'akhkhirin) philosophy or hikmah.5

Our discussion in this chapter 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.6 This understanding includes of course what the Greeks had comprehended by the term philosophia and many of the definitions from Greek sources which were to find their way into Arabic sometimes with only slight modifications. Some of the definitions of Greek origin most common among Islamic philosophers are as follows:7

1- philosophy (al falsafah) is the knowledge of all existing things qua existents (ashya' al-maujudah bi ma hiya maujudah).8

2-philosophy is knowledge of divine and human matters.

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 (sind'ah) of arts and the science (ilm) of sciences.

6-philosophy is predilection for hikmah.

The Islamic philosophers meditated upon these definitions of falsafah which they inherited from ancient sources and which they identified with the Qur'anic term hikmah believing 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 philosopher's end in theoretical knowledge is to gain truth and in practical knowledge to behave in accordance with truth.”9 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),10 hence dialectic and sophistry, and insisted that philosophy was the mother of the sciences and dealt with everything that exists.11

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