Islamic Philosophy

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 11/18/2014


Al-Farabi's cosmology is essentially based upon three pillars:
  1. Aristotelian metaphysics of the first cause.
  2. Plotinian emanational cosmology.
  3. Ptolemaic astronomy. 
In his model, the universe is viewed as a number of concentric circles; the outermost sphere or "first heaven", the sphere of fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and finally, the Moon. At the centre of these concentric circles is the sub-lunar realm which contains the material world. Each of these circles represent the domain of the secondary intelligences (symbolized by the celestial bodies themselves), which act as causal intermediaries between the First Cause (in this case, God) whose principal activity is self-contemplation and the material world. Furthermore these are said to have emanated from God, who is both their formal and efficient cause. The First Cause, by thinking of itself, "overflows" and the incorporeal entity of the second intellect "emanates" from it. Like its predecessor, the second intellect also thinks about itself, and thereby brings its celestial sphere (in this case, the sphere of fixed stars) into being, but in addition to this it must also contemplate upon the First Cause, and this causes the "emanation" of the next intellect. The cascade of emanation continues until it reaches the tenth intellect, beneath which is the material world. And as each intellect must contemplate both itself and an increasing number of predecessors, each succeeding level of existence becomes more and more complex. It should be noted that this process is based upon necessity as opposed to will. In other words, God does not have a choice whether or not to create the universe, but by virtue of His own existence, He causes it to be. This view also suggests that the universe is eternal, and both of these points were criticized by al-Ghazzali in his attack on the philosophers

Al-Farabi wrote Al-Madina al-Fadila where he theorized an ideal state as in Plato's The Republic. Al-Farabi represented religion as a symbolic rendering of truth, and, like Plato, saw it as the duty of the philosopher to provide guidance to the state. Al-Farabi incorporated the Platonic view, drawing a parallel from within the Islamic context, in that he regarded the ideal state to be ruled by the prophet-imam, instead of the philosopher-king envisaged by Plato. Al-Farabi argued that the ideal state was the city-state of Medina when it was governed by the prophet Muhammad as its head of state, as he was in direct communion with Allah whose law was revealed to him.

According to al-Farabi, the afterlife is not the personal experience commonly conceived of by religious traditions such as Islam and Christianity. Any individual or distinguishing features of the soul are annihilated after the death of the body; only the rational faculty survives (and then, only if it has attained perfection), which becomes one with all other rational souls within the agent intellect and enters a realm of pure intelligence.

The prophet, in addition to his own intellectual capacity, has a very strong imaginative faculty, which allows him to receive an overflow of intelligibles from the agent intellect (the tenth intellect in the emanational cosmology). These intelligibles are then associated with symbols and images, which allow him to communicate abstract truths in a way that can be understood by ordinary people. Therefore what makes prophetic knowledge unique is not its content, which is also accessible to philosophers through demonstration and intellection, but rather the form that it is given by the prophet's imagination, So any one with a strong Imagination can be a prophet , A Prophet isn't chosen.

Ibn Cienna (Avicenna)

The creation of the world proceeds from God, the First Cause or First Intellect. The First Intellect, in contemplating the necessity of its existence, gives rise to the Second Intellect. In contemplating its emanation from God, it then gives rise to the First Spirit, which animates the Sphere of Spheres (the universe). In contemplating itself as a self-caused essence, it gives rise to the matter that fills the universe and forms the Sphere of the Planets (the First Heaven in al-Farabi). It continues, giving rise consequential intellects which create between them two celestial hierarchies: the Superior Hierarchy of Cherubim (Kerubim) and the Inferior Hierarchy, called by Avicenna "Angels of Magnificence." These angels animate the heavens; they are deprived of all sensory perception, but have imagination which allows them to desire the intellect from which they came. Their vain quest to rejoin this intellect causes an eternal movement in heaven. They also cause prophetic visions in humans. The angels created by each of the next seven Intellects are associated with a different body in the Sphere of the Planets. These are: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. The last of these is of particular importance, since its association is with the Angel Gabriel. This Ninth Intellect (the moon) occurs at a step so far from the First Intellect that the emanation that arises from it explodes into fragments, creating not a further celestial entity, but instead creating human souls, which have the sensory functions lacked by the Angels of Magnificence. The human intellect is the Tenth Intellect.

The degree to which minds are illuminated by the Angel Gabriel varies. Prophet/Prophets are illuminated to the point that they posses not only rational intellect, but also an imagination and ability which allows them to pass on their superior wisdom to others. Some receive less, but enough to write, teach, pass laws, and contribute to the distribution of knowledge. Others receive enough for their own personal realization, and still others receive less. According to this view, all humanity shares a single agent intellect, a collective consciousness. For Avicenna, the immortality of the soul is a consequence of its nature, and not a purpose for it to fulfill.

Thought experiments

While he was imprisoned in the castle of Fardajan near Hamadhan, Avicenna wrote his famous "Floating Man" thought experiment to demonstrate human self-consciousness and the substantiality and immateriality of the soul. The thought experiment told its readers to imagine themselves created all at once while suspended in the air, isolated from all sensations, which includes no sensory contact with even their own bodies. He argued that, in this scenario, one would still have self-consciousness. Because it is conceivable that a person, suspended in air while cut off from sense experience, would still be capable of determining his own existence, the thought experiment points to the conclusions that the soul is a perfection, independent of the body, and an immaterial substance. The conceivability of this "Floating Man" indicates that the soul is perceived intellectually, which entails the soul's separateness from the body. The first knowledge of the flying person would be "I am," affirming his or her essence. That essence could not be the body, obviously, as the flying person has no sensation. Thus, the knowledge that "I am" is the core of a human being: the soul exists and is self-aware. Avicenna thus concluded that the idea of the self is not logically dependent on any physical thing, and that the soul should not be seen in relative terms, but as a primary given, a substance. The body is unnecessary; in relation to it, the soul is an immaterial substance.

This thought experiment has sometimes been recognized as a precursor to Rene Descartes’ famous ‘Cogito ergo sum’, though that’s probably reading a little too much into Avicenna. Avicenna did not, apparently, take this to be a proof of the immateriality of the soul, as though his analysis was the that soul must be a ‘thinking thing’. Rather, his argument is intended to demonstrate conceptually that Aristotle’s empirical axiom “there is nothing in the mind which was not first in the senses” is mistaken: there is at least one thing in the mind which is not contingent upon experiences – self-awareness.

Avicenna’s argument from contingency for a Necessary Existent (the metaphysical status of the totality of possible things).

1. Something exists.
2. Whatever exists is either possible or necessary.
3. Whatever is possible has a cause, so if that something which exists is possible, then it has a cause.
4. The totality of possible things is either necessary in itself or possible in itself.
5. The totality cannot be necessary in itself since it exists only through the existence of its members (possible things), so the totality of possible things is possible in itself.
6. So the totality of possible things has a cause.
7. This cause is either internal to the totality or external to it.
8. If it is internal to the totality, then it isn't necessary, because the totality is comprised of possible things.
9. And it also cannot in that case be possible, since as the cause of all possible things it would in that case be its own cause, which would make it necessary and not possible after all, which is a contradiction.
10. So the cause of the totality of possible things is not internal to that totality, but external to it.
11. But if it is outside the totality of possible things, then it is necessary because it isn't possible.
12. So there is a necessary existent.

The Necessary Existent, Avicenna holds, must be unique.  For suppose there were two or more Necessary Existents.  Then each would have to have some aspect by which it differ s from the other -- something that this Necessary Existent has that that one does not.  In that case they would have to have parts.  But a thing that has parts is not necessary in itself, since it exists through its parts and would thus be necessary only through them.  Since the Necessary Existent is necessary in itself, it does not have parts, and thus lacks anything by which one Necessary Existent could even in principle differ from another. So there cannot be more than one. Obviously, it follows also that the Necessary Existent, being without parts, is simple or non-composite.  The Necessary Existent must also be immaterial, and thus incorporeal. For matter exists only insofar as it has form, and what is composed of form and matter is not simple but composite.  Here Avicenna’s Aristotelianism is evident.

On his deathbed remorse seized him; he bestowed his goods on the poor, restored unjust gains, freed his slaves, and read through the Qur'an every three days until his death. He died in June 1037, in his fifty-eighth year, in the month of Ramadan and was buried in Hamadan, Iran


Al-Kindi described God as the Creator. This means that he acts as both a final and efficient cause. Al-Kindi theorized that there was a separate, incorporeal and universal intellect (known as the "First Intellect"). It was the first of God's creation and the intermediary through which all other things came into creation. He argues that the external agency of this intellect is necessary by saying that human beings cannot arrive at a universal concept merely through perception. In other words, an intellect cannot understand the species of a thing simply by examining one or more of its instances. According to him, this will only yield an inferior "sensible form", and not the universal form which we desire. The universal form can only be attained through contemplation and actualization by the First Intellect.

The analogy he provides to explain his theory is that of wood and fire. Wood, he argues, is potentially hot (just as a human is potentially thinking about a universal), and therefore requires something else which is already hot (such as fire) to actualize this. This means that for the human intellect to think about something, the First Intellect must already be thinking about it. Therefore he says that the First Intellect must always be thinking about everything. Once the human intellect comprehends a universal by this process, it becomes part of the individual's "acquired intellect" and can be thought about whenever he or she wishes.

He then connects this with a Neo-Platonist idea, by saying that our soul can be directed towards the pursuit of desire or the pursuit of intellect; the former will tie it to the body, so that when the body dies, it will also die, but the latter will free it from the body and allow it to survive "in the light of the Creator" in a realm of pure intelligence.

Al-Kindi adopted a naturalistic view of prophetic visions. He argued that, through the faculty of "imagination" as conceived of in Aristotelian philosophy, certain "pure" and well-prepared souls, were able to receive information about future events. Significantly, he does not attribute such visions or dreams to revelation from God, but instead explains that imagination enables human beings to receive the "form" of something without needing to perceive the physical entity to which it refers. Therefore, it would seem to imply that anyone who has purified themselves would be able to receive such visions. It is precisely this idea, amongst other naturalistic explanations of prophetic miracles that al-Ghazali attacks in his Incoherence of the Philosophers.

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