Islamic Philosophy: Its Principles and Bases


For a long time Islamic philosophy was under a cloud of doubt and uncertainty. Some people denied its existence while others affirmed it. This uncertainty continued all through the nineteenth century. Those who denied the very existence of an Islamic philosophy feigned ignorance and maintained that the teachings of Islam opposed all free discussion and investigation, and therefore Islam has never risen to the aid of philosophy and science throughout the centuries of its existence. The only fruits Islam has borne for its followes have been intellectual despotism and dogmatism, they said. Christianity, in comparison, has been the cradle of free thought and discussion, they maintained, patronizing art and literature, encouraging the sciences, and becoming a fertile ground for the germination of new philosophy and helping it to develop and bear fruit. [1] 

1. Racial Prejudice 

Those who attacked and denigrated Islamic philosophy did not stop at the kind of arguments that have been mentioned. They went much further an extended their fallacious notions to general racial characteristics, and extended what they said about philosophy and learning to political matters. It is surprising that although the French politically opposed racial discrimination, they were among the people who sowed the seeds of this kind of attitude, the effects of which have continued well into the present century. For example, Renan was the first person who openly stated the view that the Semitic race is inferior to the Aryan race.[2] This judgement of Renan's had an effect on some of his contemporaries, and some of his disciples and students repeated his views and published them far and wide. This was because Renan was both an unequalled master of the Semitic languages and was more familiar with Islamic matters than other researchers of his day. 

Advancing the notions of the 'Semitic spirit' in contrast to the 'Aryan spirit' by Leon Gauthier during the early part of the twentieth century was nothing other than the continuation of the argument made by Renan. In Gauthier's view, the Semitic mind is only capable of comprehending details and particulars which are disconnected with each other or are combined and incapable of conceiving any coherent order or relationship between details. In other words, the 'Semitic spirit' is that of division and separation, or in Gauthier's words, espirit separatiste. The 'Aryan spirit' on th other hand, is the spirit of integration and synthesis, espirit fusionniste, as he calls it.[3] 

It follows naturally that since the Arabs are inherently able to understand only particulars and isolated facts, they would be unable to form any theories, propositions, laws or hypotheses. It would be futile therefore to look for any philosophical or scientific investigations on their part. This is especially true now when Islam has narrowed their intellectual horizons and closed the doors to any speculative discussions, so much so that the Muslim student denigrates and ridicules science and philosophy.[4] 

Those who stated such views, held that Islamic philosophy is simply an imitation of Aristotelian philosophy, and Islamic philosophical texts are nothing other than repititions of Greek ideas in Arabic.[5] 

The views of Renan, which I have just mentioned, were widespread during the nineteenth century. Fortunately the days when the habits, customs, ethical, moral, and intellectual characteristics of a nation were thought to be products of either its geographical conditions or racially inherited traits have passed. Other attempts in the same vein or formulating so-called 'national psychology' or 'group psychology' proved equally futile. 

Moreover, who has claimed that Islamic philosophy is a creation of Arab thinking? It is a well established fact that many nationalities such as the Persians, Indians, Turks, Egyptians, Syrians, Barbars, and Andalusians contributed to the development and enrichment of Islamic philosophy. 

Islamic civilsation at its zenith not only did not block the path of science, it both confirmed and encouraged it. And far from opposing philosophy, it welcomed and embraced it with open arms. It welcomed opinions and views of every shade and colour. How can Islam, which invites mankind to observe the heavens and the earth and to contemplate and meditate upon their mysteries, oppose discussion and inquiry and restrict the freedom of thought? Even Renan, who expressed the kind of views about Islamic philosophy and science that we have already mentioned, has confessed elsewhere that Muslims treated conquered peoples with an indulgence unheard of throughout history. For example, some among the Jews and Christians accepted Islam while others preserved their ancestral faith and attained to high and honoured official positions in the courts of the Muslim caliphs and rulers. Moreover, although Muslims differed with the Jews and the Christians in regard to beliefs and religious principles, they still married in those communities.[6] 

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