Understanding Islamic Philosophy: 4 Interesting Traditions

Islamic Philosophy in a nutshell!

What is Islamic Philosophy and its Varied Traditions?

Understanding Islamic Philosophy: 4 Interesting Traditions


What is philosophy? What does it necessarily constitute of in essence and to its very core? This is a question which has been a matter of debate since many centuries among different philosophers, historians, literary scholars and also scientists in particular for that matter. In order to understand what guides philosophy and what does it intend to promote and suggest to its audience, one first needs to explore the question of what is meant by philosophy. Philosophy in the most simple and logical sense is understood as a discipline exploring questions of knowledge and how to acquire knowledge. The term philosophy can be broken down as ‘philein’ meaning ‘to love’ and ‘sophia’ meaning ‘wisdom’. Therefore, philosophy is briefly understood as the love for acquiring wisdom.

Philosophy as a discipline of thought, essentially focuses upon the doctrines of ‘God’, ‘Self’, ‘Free Will’, ‘Goodness’ and ‘Reality’.

Philosophy has been discovered, defined and structured by scholars and researchers primarily across six traditions of thought namely, the Western, Islamic, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and African philosophical traditions. The term ‘philosophy’ was used initially by Herodotus in his text ‘Histories’ as a part of conversations between Solon and Croesus.

According to Bertrand Russell in his text ‘History of Western Philosophy’, “philosophy is something intermediate between Christian theology and science.” Therefore, if one reiterates the thoughts and ideas presented in Russell’s definition of philosophy, philosophy can be understood as something which lets Christian theology and sciences survive in coexistence to each other and as much as it relies on proposed theories of knowledge and the reality and the self, it also lays major emphasis on reasoning by logic and persistently revisiting and revising one’s thoughts. As mentioned earlier, philosophy is divided across six different traditions of thought based on major development of events and circumstances across different geographical borders and territorial landscapes.

Islamic Philosophy

The term ‘Islam’ literally connotates ‘the straight path’. Islamic philosophy largely emphasized on the usage of Arabic as the medium of communicating propositions, ideas and thoughts. But, using the word ‘Islam’ in this context, doesn’t restrict us to follow and understand the traditions of Islam or Arabia for that matter, it also explores the ideologies of the Christian as well as Jewish cultures which were flourishing in the Byzantine empire between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. The period of the beginning of Islamic philosophy and Islam as a cultural tradition can be traced back to 622 AD. This year marks the migration of Prophet Muhammad along with his followers from Mecca to Medina. This emigration period is termed as ‘hijra’ in Arabic.

An important ritual which scholars and philosophers under this tradition followed was the dominant usage of Arabic as the language of communication for any text or article they authored, despite of not being natively of Arabic origins. Gradually, Hebrew and Persian also became important languages in Islamic philosophy. Islamic philosophy and the internal developments within it can be understood by separating it into two periods, one being before Avicenna and the other being after Avicenna also known as the formative period.

The formative period marked the translation and interpretation of Greek texts of philosophy. This didn’t necessarily appeal as a practice to most scholars and therefore eventually this practice ceased to hold importance. Islamic tradition considers philosophy as ‘falsafa’ which is the Arabic translation of the term ‘philosophy’.

With the arrival of Avicenna in the tradition, thinkers began responding to him than Aristotle as their usual practice.

Islamic philosophy brought with itself a set of several interesting terms. The basic idea which motivated the Islamic faith was of ‘shahada’ meaning that there was ‘no God but God, and Muhammad was his prophet.’ The other term was ‘tawhid’ or ‘oneness’ in terms of a singular and universal cause for the existence of everything in the Universe and therefore attributing agreement to monotheism.

The tradition of kalam in Islamic Philosophy

The tradition of kalam, meaning ‘word’ and translated as ‘rational theology’ was introduced by Wasil ibn ‘Ata’ which emphasized that there is one God and that he is Just. They understood their God as that of possessing no attributes i.e. without physical features or a form. They also laid importance on free will and holding no accountability for actions which aren’t in their control. Theologians under the tradition of kalam practiced something known as the ‘science of word’, which popularly brought out topics such as freedom, existence of God, etc. ‘Hikmat’ or ‘Hikmah’ is another important term one should remember over here. ‘Hikmah’/’Hikmat’ literally translates as ‘wisdom’ or ‘philosophy’ and also refers to ‘rationale’.

The tradition of Sufism in Islamic Philosophy

Along with this, arose the tradition of ‘Sufism’ derived from the word ‘suf’ meaning wool, the material of the fabric worn by the mystic saints practicing Sufism. Sufism focused on the practice of composing verses and poems as a part of attempting to form a bond of passionate love and mystical faith with the God. It promoted virtues of longing for God’s affection, spirituality and meditation. Ibn Arabi is considered as one of the first ‘philosophical sufis’ and he studied different philosophical texts to propose contradictions between ideologies of ‘oneness’ i.e. henotheism and ‘multiplicity’ i.e. polytheism.

Illuminationism in Islamic Philosophy

It also gave rise to an important doctrine of ‘Illuminationism’, founded by Suhrawardi in his ‘Kitab Hikmat al Ashraq’. ‘Illuminationism’ or ‘Wisdom of the Rising Light’ or ‘Sunrise’ combined the philosophies of ancient Iranian ideas, Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, Plotinus and propagated the view that ancient Greek philosophers as well as Egyptian Hermes shared the wisdom possessed by the ancient Persians and therefore this was a rediscovery of the ancient wisdom. Mulla Sadra, an important and influential philosopher in the Islamic tradition proposed his idea of ‘Illuminationism’ as a fusion of the ideas of the traditions of kalam and Sufism.

Islamic Philosophy in the Indian sub-continent

Islamic Philosophy soon spread rapidly across the Indian sub-continent with the emergence of the Mughal empire and with it the rise of important Mughal emperors such as Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and the most important of them all, Dara Shukoh. Sanskrit texts witnessed a massive translation boom during the reign of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan. In fact, Akbar was the first Mughal emperor to adopt Persian as the official court language. Iranian Al Biruni, a contemporary of Avicenna, in his visit to the sub-continent during the reign of Mahmud of Ghazni, learnt the Sanskrit language and was surprised to witness similarities between Indian and Greek thoughts.

Dara Shukoh translated the Upanisads into Persian and declared the text to be the oldest revelations of God and considered them as his major source of reference and guide to understand the essence of the Qur’an. The Qur’an mentions a ‘hidden book’ in a famous verse in it, which was the Upanisads for Dara.



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