Philosophy in Islamic Persia: An Outline

  August 31, 2021   Read time 4 min
Philosophy in Islamic Persia: An Outline
What is known as Peripatetic or mashshāʾī philosophy in Islam is not simply Aristotelian philosophy in Arabic dress, despite the identification of the school with that of the Stagirite.

Actually, from the beginning—that is, the third/ninth century when al-Kindī set the foundations for this school—the Muslim Peripatetics saw Aristotle through the eyes of his Alexandrian and Athenian commentators, al-Kindī being more related to the Athenian interpretation and Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā the Alexandrian, especially Themistius, Alexander Aphrodisias, and Simplicius. Now it must be remembered that these later commentators were mostly Neoplatonists, while one can also detect certain Stoic and even Hermetic elements in mashshāʾī thought. Furthermore, a recension of Plotinus’s Enneads appeared in Arabic not under the name of the father of Neoplatonism but under that of Aristotle, the work becoming famous as the Ūthūlūjiyā, or ‘Theology’ of Aristotle.

Of even greater significance is the fact that the Islamic mashshāʾī philosophers were Muslim, lived individually as Muslims, and functioned in a society in which revelation loomed as the most dominant of realities on the horizon. Therefore, they not only sought to harmonize the Aristotle of the Metaphysics with the ‘Aristotle’ of the Enneads—that is, to achieve a synthesis of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism—but also to integrate both of them into the Islamic worldview, thereby creating not simply Greek philosophy in Arabic but also Islamic philosophy. That is why Islamic philosophy has been quite correctly called by some prophetic philosophy. It is a philosophy that recognizes beyond reason and the senses, the channel of revelation—and by extension intellection—which at the highest level is its microcosmic counterpart, as a means of gaining access to knowledge of the most elevated level.

Mashshāʾī philosophers were consequently concerned, in addition to philosophical issues dealt with by the Greeks, with such questions as the relation between faith and reason, the created versus ‘eternal’ nature of the world, and survival of the soul after death—questions that were discussed extensively by the major figures of this school. They were also confronted with Islamic doctrines such as God’s knowledge of particular existents and events in this world, the Qurʿanic doctrine of the origination of the cosmos corresponding to the Biblical fiat lux, resurrection of the body, and other major beliefs that could not be explained by means of mashshāʾī philosophical tenets, although they usually accepted these doctrines individually as Muslims, as seen in the case of Ibn Sīnā. Nevertheless, the mashshāʾī were attacked over these and other issues by theologians and other schools of Islamic philosophy, especially in later centuries.

Although, in contrast to what one finds in most Western histories of Islamic philosophy, mashshāʾī philosophy was not the whole of Islamic philosophy, even during the early centuries of Islamic history, it was nevertheless the most important during the period from the third/ninth century to the fifth/eleventh century, culminating with Ibn Sīnā as far as Persia is concerned, although in Spain the school reached another peak with Ibn Rushd—who, however, followed a path that led more to medieval European thought than to later Islamic philosophy. But the works of the eastern Peripatetics, especially Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā, became a permanent heritage of all later philosophy in Persia. So many ideas, even of followers of later philosophical schools opposed to the mashshāʾī school, originated with this or that thought of Ibn Sīnā, as is clear in an even cursory reading of the works of Suhrawardī or Mullā Ṣadrā. Furthermore, the early mashshāʾī school, the thought of whose major figures follows, was revived in Persia in the seventh/thirteenth century, having been eclipsed for near two centuries as a result of attacks by theologians (mutikallimūn) such as Ghazzālī, Shahrastānī and Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī. This revival carried out by Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī re-established the mashshāʾī philosophy of the early period, with which this section of Part 2 deals, as a permanent feature of the philosophical landscape of Persia for the next seven centuries.

From Mīr Dāmād and Mullā Rajab ʿAlī Tabrīzī in the tenth/sixteenth and eleventh/seventeenth centuries to Mīrzā Abu’l-Ḥasan Jilwah in the thirteenth/ nineteenth century, Ibn Sīnā continued to have followers who were usually called simply mashshāʾī but who should perhaps be called more specifically Ibn Sīnian. Even today the texts of this early period of mashshāʾī philosophy, especially al-Shifāʾ and al-Ishārāt wa’l-tanbīhāt of Ibn Sīnā, are taught in the traditional madrasahs of Persia, and no one is allowed to delve into the works of Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā without having mastered Ibn Sīnā. Therefore, in the same way that temporarily this early mashshāʾī school preceded the later schools of Islamic philosophy, intellectually it served as the first floor of the intellectual edifice of later Islamic thought as far as theoretical aspects of philosophy are concerned.