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Arabian School of Philosophy

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Until the eighth century the Arabians, although they expressed their religious feelings in a somewhat mystic poetry, failed to give expression to their thoughts about the world around them, except in so far as those thoughts may be said to be expressed in the Koran. It was only when they came in contact with other civilizations, notably with that of Persia, that their speculative and scientific activities were stimulated into action. A circumstance which favoured the study of letters and philosophy was the accession to the throne about A.D. 750 of the Abassides, an enlightened line of Caliphs who encouraged learning, and patronized the representatives, chiefly Syrian and Persian, of foreign culture. The introduction of foreign ideas resulted first in a twofold movement among the followers of Mohammed. There was on the one hand a movement in the direction of heterodoxy, a kind of rationalistic questioning of the authority of the Koran, which led to the rejection of the current anthropomorphism and fatalism. The representatives of this movement were called "Motazilites" or "Dissidents". They were the first heretics of Islam. Opposed to this movement was the orthodox current, tending to emphasize more and more the authority of the Koran, while, at the same time, it attempted to do this by the aid of Greek philosophy and science. The representatives of this movement were called the "Motacallimin", or "professors of the word". They were rationalists, it is true, in so far as they fell back on Greek philosophy for their metaphysical and physical explanations of phenomena; still, it was their aim to keep within the limits of orthodox belief. In this they bore a close resemblance to the first Schoolmen of Christian Europe. In reaction against both the "Motazilites" aud "Motacallimin" arose the "Sufis", or "Mystics", who flourished chiefly in the Persian portion of the Arabian Empire. They represented the most extreme phase of protest against all philosophical inquiry; they condemned the use of Greek philosophy even within the limits of orthodoxy, and taught that whatever truth there is can be attained by reverent reading of the Koran and meditation on the words of the sacred text. They placed contemplation above observation and inquiry, and set more value on ecstatic meditation than on the study of Plato and Aristotle. From the conflict of these divergent forces there arose, about the ninth century, the tendency of thought represented by the philosophers of Islam. These philosophers had more in common with the Dissidents and the Theologians than with the Mystics; they made ample use of Greek philosophy, and in their free inquiry into the secrets of nature, in which they soon outstripped the Greeks themselves, they paid little attention to the authority of the Koran. For this reason they fell into disrepute with the rulers both in North Africa and Spain, as well as in the East, and instances of persecution, exile, and death inflicted by the Caliphs on the philosophers of Islam were of frequent occurrence from the ninth century to the thirteenth.

Taking its origin from the neo-Platonic schools of Syria and Persia, the philosophy of the Arabians was at first Platonic in spirit and tendency. The Arabians translated the "Timaeus", the "Republic", and the "Laws", and when, attracted by the medical treatises of Galen, they were led to the study of Aristotle, they translated not only the genuine writings of the Stagirite, but also the so-called "Theologia Aristotelis" which was merely a compilation from the "Enneads" of Plotinus, and the famous "Liberde Causis" which was a compilation from the "Elements of Theology" of Proclus. Thus, from the beginning, they imparted to Aristotelean teaching a neo-Platonic meaning, and even those among them who came to be recognized as the most faithful exponents of Aristoteleanism were not entirely free from the influence of the neo-Platonists. Plotinus's view of reality, as a kind of pyramid with God at the apex and material things at the base, and Proclus's view of hypostatized universals as constituting a hierarchy of "Causes", mediating between God and matter, came to be the recognized views in the philosophical schools of Eastern and Western Islam.

Among the most famous of the Arabian philosophers of the East were Alkendi or Alkindi (d. about the year 870), Alfarabi (d. about 950), Avicenna, or Ibn Sina (980-1037), the astronomer Alhazen (eleventh century), and Algazel, or Gazali (1059-1111). In the West, that is in Northern Africa and in Moorish Spain, the most celebrated philosophers were Avempace, or Ibn Badsha (d. 1138), Abubacer, or Abn Bekr, also called Ibn Tofail (1100-85), and Averroes, or Ibn Roshd (1126-98). Of these Avempace, Avicenna, and Averroes were best known to the Scholastics. Avicebrol, whom the Schoolmen regarded as an Arabian, was in reality a Jewish philosopher and poetic writer named Salomon ben Gabirol. The philosophy of the Arabians is not distinguished by its originality; in point of fact, it is merely an interpretation of Greek philosophy and, even as an interpretation, adds little to the interpretations already given by Plotinus, Proclus, Simplicius, and the Syrian neo-Platonists. It is Arabian only in the sense that it was written in Arabic — the greatest of its representatives, Avicenna and Averroes, were not natives of the Arabian peninsula at all. In one respect only did the Arabians develop Greek philosophy, namely, in its relation to medicine, and it was in this regard that they exerted the most far-reaching influence in Europe.

Like the neo-Platonists from whom they borrowed their interpretation of Aristotle, the Arabians were pantheists or semi-pantheists. Aristotle taught that matter is the eternal substratum of movement; in eternity, taught the Arabian commentators, there is no distinction between the actual and the possible, between the substratum, or subject, of movement and the Mover. Therefore, whenever the Arabians had the courage of their convictions they taught more or less openly that God, the First Mover, is really the subject of movement, that He and the Universe are substantially identical. The various teachers, however, compromise more or less successfully between philosophical pantheism and the monotheism of the Koran. With regard to the government of the universe, the Arabians taught that Divine Providence is concerned only with the universal, not with the particular. The world, says Averroes, is a city which is governed from the centre by a ruler whose immediate authority extends only to his own palace, but who, through his subordinates, rules each and every district of the city subject to his sway. This doctrine implied the mediation of numberless beings from the Highest Intelligence down to the lowest material creature. From God, Who is indeed the Author, though He cannot be called the Creator, of the Universe, there emanates in the first place, the First Intelligence (akin to the Logos of Philo), then the Second Intelligence, and so on, down to the lowest of all the cosmic intelligences, the intelligence which animates and directs the sphere of the moon. Each of these intelligences is incorporated in, or inhabits a heavenly sphere — hence the close dependence of medieval astrology on the Arabians, and on their immediate disciples in astronomy, as, for instance, Roger Bacon. The lowest intelligence, to which reference has just been made (the intelligence which rules the sphere of the moon), plays an important part in the psychology of the Arabians. In treating of intellectual knowledge Aristotle taught that in the acquisition of ideas a twofold mental principle is involved, the one active and the other passive. The text of Aristotle being obscure at this point (De Anima, Book III), the commentators were at a loss to know what the Stagirite meant by the "active intellect". The Arabians here, as elsewhere, took up the tradition of the neo-Platonists. The latter had taught that the "active intellect" is something physically distinct from the individual soul; an intelligence, namely, that is, somehow, common to all men. The Arabians adopted this monopsychism and made it part of their psychology. There is, they taught, but one active intellect and that is common to all men. It resides in the sphere of the moon, but, being brought, in some way, into contact with the individual soul (which thereby "participates" in it), it generates there the universal, abstract, immaterial, idea. It was principally against this doctrine of the unity and separation of the active intellect that the Scholastics directed their attacks on the Arabians. The Scholastics objected to the doctrine on two accounts. They denied that it was a tenable doctrine in psychology, and they denied that it was a faithful interpretation of Aristotle. This is the main contention of Albert the Great and St. Thomas, both of whom wrote special treatises on the unity of the intellect, and on one point at least the most unsympathetic critic of Scholasticism agrees with them, namely, when they argue that monopsychism is not in keeping with the general tone and spirit of Aristotelean philosophy.

Another aspect of monopsychism to which the Scholastics did not fail to call attention was its bearing on the question of immortality. The passive intellect, the Arabians taught, is material, and perishes with the body. The active intellect, although it is immaterial and, therefore, imperishable, is not part of the individual soul. There is nothing, therefore, in man that has the power of resisting death; and to say that man is immortal because the impersonal, universal, intellect is immortal has no more meaning than if one were to say that man is immortal because the laws of nature are immortal. This conclusion is frankly admitted by Averroes, who teaches that according to philosophy the human soul is mortal, although according to theology it is immortal. This admission of the principle of two-fold truth (namely, that what is false in philosophy may be true in theology, and vice versa) shows more clearly than anything else the inherent irreconcilability of Arabian philosophy and Scholasticism. The Scholastic movement from beginning to end, whatever may be its deviations and aberrations on other points, held steadfastly to the principle that, since God is the Author of all truth, the truth of reason and the truth of revelation (that is, philosophy and theology) cannot come to any real conflict. The beginning of the decline of Scholasticism dates from the introduction (from Arabian sources) into the Schools of the principle of twofold truth. In the acquisition of knowledge, the Arabians taught, there is a contact (copulatio, continuatio) of the impersonal active intellect with the individual passive intellect. The contact, indeed, is only momentary. The passive intellect, however, has a longing for the active intellect, desires it, as matter desires form. Hence the tendency on the part of the individual soul towards a more permanent union with the great Impersonal Intellect, a union that is to be attained by the practice of asceticism and the exercise of the contemplative powers of the mind. In this union man becomes a saint and a seer, a being divine rather than human; in this state of ecstasy all that is base and petty becomes transformed into the sublime and noble, until at last man can exclaim, "I am God". Here again one sees how closely the Arabian reproduces the neo-Platonic doctrine of purification and ecstasy. It is only fair, however, to add that some of the more faithful Aristoteleans among the Arabians, such as Averroes, were content to put scientific knowledge in the place of ecstatic contemplation, and thus succeeded in avoiding the contradictions implied in the mysticism of the Sufis.

The Arabian philosophy, as is well known, exercised a profound influence on the Scholastic philosophy of the twelfth and succeeding centuries. It is not so well-known that, even when Scholasticism was at its height, when Albert and Thomas were attracting attention by their brilliant exposition of Aristotelean philosophy, there was in the very heart of the Scholastic stronghold, the University of Paris, a group of philosophers who openly professed adherence to the doctrine of Averroes. And this counter current of Averroism is traceable in the progress of Scholastic philosophy down to the time of the Renaissance. Still, one must not overrate the debt which Scholasticism owes to "Arabism" as it was called. The Arabians contributed in a very large degree to making Aristotle known in Christian Europe; however, in doing this, they were but transmitting what they themselves had received from Christian sources; and, moreover, the Aristotle who finally gained recognition in Christian Europe was not the Arabian Aristotle, but the Greek Aristotle, who came to Western Europe by way of Constantinople. The Arabians, in the second place, contributed to medieval medicine, geography, astronomy, arithmetic, and chemistry, but failed to exert any direct influence in philosophy. They provoked discussion, their doctrines were the occasion of disputation and controversy, and thus, indirectly, they contributed to developing the philosophy of the Schools; but, beyond this they cannot be said to have contributed towards shaping the course of Scholastic thought. Indeed the whole spirit of Arabian philosophy — its tendency towards materialistic pantheism, its doctrine of the unity of the intellect, its hesitation on the problem of individual immortality, and, above all, its doctrine of the twofold truth — must have revealed at every point of possible contact the utter impossibility of a reconciliation between Arabian and Scholastic Aristoteleanism. It is true the Schoolmen, or some of them at least, drew largely from Avicebrol's "Fons Vitae"; but, though they did not suspect it, their teacher in that case was a Jew, not an Arabian. Indeed whatever influence came from the Mosque passed through the Synagogue before it reached the Church. When Arabian works were translated into Latin the translation was often made from the Hebrew translation of the Arabic text, and the Jew was often the only means of interchange of ideas between Moorish and Christian Spain. Whatever Scholasticism owes to the Arabians, it owes in equal, if not in greater measure, to the Jews.


MUNK, Mélanges de philosophie juive et arabe, . . . (Paris, 1859); DIETERICI, Die Philosophie der Araber (Berlin, Leipzig, 1858); Archiv f. Gesch. Der Phil., especially for 1889 and 1904; UEBERWEG- HEINZE, Gesch. der Phil., II, (9th ed., Berlin, 1905), 234 sqq.; TURNER, Hist. of Phil. (Boston, 1903), 311 sqq.

About this page

APA citation. Turner, W. (1907). Arabian School of Philosophy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Turner, William. "Arabian School of Philosophy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Frank O'Leary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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