Islamic Philosophy

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Islamic Philosophy (Arabic: الفلسفة الإسلامية) is a discipline concerned with the general problems of being, knowledge, soul, God, and religion. It is originated in Ancient Greece. The first Muslim philosopher was al-Kindi and the founder of the Islamic philosophy was al-Farabi. There have been three important schools of the Islamic philosophy: the Peripatetic or "Mashsha'" philosophy, the Illuminationist or "Ishraq" philosophy, and the Transcendent Philosophy or "al-Hikmat al-Muta'aliya".

The most prominent Muslim philosophers are al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Suhrawardi, Ibn Rushd, Mir Damad, and Mulla Sadra. The most siginificant texts in the Islamic philosophy are al-Isharat wa l-tanbihat, Hikmat al-ishraq, al-Qabasat, al-Asfar al-arba'a, al-Shawahid al-rububiyya, and Nihayat al-hikma.

In the Islamic world, the Islamic philosophy faced some oppositions. Some of its opponents hold that it involves blasphemous contents; others believe that it is as helpful as any other discipline or science, but it has no role in our religious knowledge, and sacred religious texts should not be interpreted in accordance with such philosophical foundations. The best-known Shiite school of thought which opposes the Islamic philosophy is the school of Tafkik.


The Islamic philosophy is a discipline that deals with the general problems of being, such as existence, quiddities, causation, as well as knowledge, soul, God, and religion with a rational, discursive approach. By a rational discursive method, philosophers mean arguments for philosophical positions which are based on rationally evident propositions.[1]


The problems of the Islamic philosophy have been categorized into 5 general parts:

  • General issues or general theology (metaphysics): general properties of existence, independent and dependent (or relational) existence, mental existence, the three modalities, construction, quiddity, unity and plurality, causation, potentiality and actuality, immutability and mutability, knowledge, knower, and the known, and the ten Aristotelian categories.
  • Psychology ('ilm al-nafs): definition of the soul, proof of the existence of the soul, proof of the substantiality (jawhariyya) of the soul, proof of the immateriality of the soul, incipience (huduth) or eternity (qidam) of the soul, faculties of the soul and their tasks, how faculties of the soul interact with the soul, and survival of the soul after death.
  • Epistemology: there is no separate part of the Islamic philosophy devoted to epistemological issues, but there are some epistemological issues here and there in books concerning discursive arguments (al-burhan).
  • Philosophical study of the religion: the nature of death, rejection of tanasukh (metempsychosis), proof of resurrection, the world of barzakh or al-mithal al-munfasil (discontinuous imaginal world), the nature of hashr (gathering of people on the day of resurrection), the nature of resurrection, the nature of calculations and evaluations on the day of resurrection, the nature of happiness and misery, the nature of the heaven and the hell, the nature of revelation, the necessity of the revelation, the problem of prophethood, and bodily resurrection.[2]


The Islamic philosophy has its origin in the Ancient Greek philosophy. Since the second/eighth century, Muslims began to translate Greek philosophical works into Arabic.[3] In this century, much of Aristotle's work, as well as that of the commentators of the Alexandrian school, much of Galen's work and some of Plato's dialogues were translated into Arabic. The first Muslim philosopher, al-Kindi, lived in this period. During the academic movement which emerged from the translation of Greek texts into Arabic, al-Kindi moved to Baghdad and studied many Greek books, and in particular, Aristotle's work.[4]

Challenge of the Appellation

One challenge for the Islamic philosophy was its appellation. Some people take "Islamic philosophy" to be an inconsistent composition because the methodology of philosophy is inconsistent with that of the religion. For philosophical propositions are proved by purely discursive arguments, while religious doctrines of the Quran and hadiths are to be accepted by way of servitude to, or obedience of, God.[5] The challenge is not specific to the Islamic philosophy. Étienne Gilson wrote that some people take Christian philosophy to be impossible because it is a contradictory notion that is impossible to be realized.[6]

In reply to this objection, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi holds that a minimal relation between philosophy and Islam suffices for the consistency of the notion of Islamic philosophy. He believes that some problems of the Islamic philosophy are originated in Islamic doctrines and some of them are at the service of Islamic issues, and this much of relation suffices for the legitimacy of the notion of Islamic philosophy.[7] In order to resolve the apparent inconsistency of the notion of Islamic philosophy, some people suggest that religious doctrines can have an impact on philosophy in such a way that its discursive rational nature is preserved. They hold that Islamic doctrines can affect the Islamic philosophy by reorienting philosophical problems, raising some problems, initiating some arguments, and resolving some errors.[8]

Philosophical Schools in the Islamic World

The three important philosophical schools in the Islamic world are the Mashsha' or Islamic peripatetic philosophy, the Ishraq or Illuminationist philosophy, and the Transcendent Wisdom or Philosophy. The first school of the Islamic philosophy, the Mashsha' philosophy, has been under the influence of Aristotle and employs a fully discursive methodology. The most prominent Mashsha' philosopher is considered to be Ibn Sina (Avicenna).[9] On the contrary, the Ishraq philosophy emphasizes on inner intuition and spiritual journey. The founder of the Ishraq philosophy is Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi.[10]

The Transcendent Philosophy refers to a philosophical system established by Mulla Sadra. He combined the three rational, transmitted, and intuitive methods to construct a new philosophical school that fills the gaps of earlier philosophical schools. In the Transcendent Philosophy, three sources of knowledge, that is, wahy (or divine revelation), reason, and spiritual intuition or mystical revelation, are linked.[11]

Prominent Philosophers

The most important Muslim philosophers include al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (or Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (or Averroes), al-Suhrawardi, Mulla Sadra, Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, and Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i. Al-Kindi, who came to be known as the "Arab Philosopher", was the first philosopher in the Islamic world. He lived in 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries, and was highly influenced by Aristotle.[12] Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (b. 260/873-4, d. 339/950-1) is considered to be the founder of the Islamic philosophy and came to be known as the Second Teacher (al-mu'allim al-thani).[13]

Ibn Sina (b. 370/980-1, d. 428/1037) was the greatest peripatetic philosopher in the Islamic world.[14] His philosophical work has been the most important source of the Islamic philosophy. Ibn Rushd (b. 520/1126, d. 595/1198) was also a peripatetic philosopher who tried to remain loyal to the Aristotelian philosophy. Al-Suhrawardi (b. 549/1154, d. 587/1191) was known as "Shaykh al-Ishraq".[15] His four important philosophical works are the most important texts of the Illuminationist philosophy.[16]

Mir Damad (d. 1041/1631-2) was Mulla Sadra's teacher. It is believed that he paved the path for Mulla Sadra's Transcendent philosophy.[17] Mulla Sadra (d. 1050/1640-1) was the founder of the Transcendent philosophy. He elaborated his philosophical system in his monumental work, al-Asfar al-arba'a.[18]

Mulla Hadi Sabzawari (d. 1289/1873) is considered to be the most important Iranian philosopher in the 13th/19th century. He is a significant commentator of Mulla Sadra's philosophy.[19]

Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i (b. 1904, d. 1981) was one of the most influential Shiite scholars in the intellectual, religious atmosphere of Iran in the twentieth century. Many later teachers of the Islamic philosophy in the Islamic seminary of Qom were his students.

Significant Works

According to Morteza Motahhari, although the Islamic philosophy is originated in the Greek philosophy, Muslim philosophers have remarkably expanded it by producing a great deal of written work.[20] Here are the most important philosophical works written by Muslims:

  • Al-Shifa' is considered a masterpiece of Ibn Sina and the Islamic Peripatetic philosophy. It has widely been cited and consulted by Muslim philosophers, and it has been taught since the time of Ibn Sina until now.[22]
  • Al-Qabasat is the most important work by Mir Damad. It is concerned with the problem of creation and how the world is emanated by God.[24]
  • Al-Asfar al-arba'a by Mulla Sadra elaborates his new philosophical school, that is the Transcendent philosophy.[25]
  • Al-Shawahid al-rububiyya is the most important philosophical work by Mulla Sadra in which all of his philosophical views are presented in a succinct way.[26]

Opposition to Philosophy in the Islamic World

Sunni Muslims and Islamic Philosophy

When the Mu'tazilite movement waned, and Ash'arite and Hadithist approaches gained prominence among Sunni Muslims, opposition to philosophy became prevalent within Sunni Islam.[28] For example, Abu Bakr al-Khwarazmi (d. 383/993), a Sunni scholar, held the belief that philosophers were apostates. He asserted that philosophy was the bedrock of infidelity, heresy, and paganism.[29]

Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 505/1111), a renowned Sunni scholar, authored the notable work Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), which critiques philosophy. In his categorization, he classified philosophers into three groups: atheists (al-dahriyyun) who denied God's existence, naturalists (al-tabi'iyyun) who rejected the concept of the afterlife, and theologians (al-ilahiyyun) who contested certain Islamic doctrines such as bodily resurrection. Al-Ghazzali consequently deemed all philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, and al-Farabi, as unbelievers.[30] Contrarily, Ibn Rushd or Averroes (d. 594/1198), a prominent Sunni philosopher, authored Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence). In this work, he argued that many of the objections raised by al-Ghazzali against philosophers stemmed from a misunderstanding of philosophical perspectives.[31]

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 729/1328), a renowned Sunni scholar, authored several works such as al-Radd 'ala 'Aqa'id al-Falsafa (Refutation of Philosophical Beliefs), Nasiha Ahl al-Iman fi al-Radd 'ala Mantiq al-Yunan (Advice to the People of Faith in Refutation of Greek Logic), and Sawn al-Mantiq wa-l-Kalam 'an Fann al-Mantiq wa-l-Kalam (Protection of Logic and Theology Against the Art of Logic and Theology), wherein he adamantly rejected logic and philosophy.[32] Following his lead, his student Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzi (d. 751/1350) critiqued logic and philosophy, composing poetic verses to refute logic.[33] The anti-philosophy sentiment among Sunni Muslims reached its peak in the twelfth/eighteenth century, championed by Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab. This stance is still upheld by certain contemporary Wahhabists.[34]

Shia and Islamic Philosophy

In contrast to Sunni Islam, the prevailing movement within Shi'a culture embraced a rationalistic approach. Many renowned Shia jurists, such as Khwaja Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, al-'Allama al-Hilli, Mir Damad, Muhammad Baqir al-Sabzawari, al-Fadil al-Hindi, Mulla Hadi Sabziwari, Akhund al-Khurasani, Muhammad Husayn al-Gharawi al-Isfahani, and Imam Khomeini, were practitioners of philosophy as well.[35] However, in the eleventh/seventeenth century, some Shia scholars, known as Akhbarists, critiqued logic and philosophy.[36] Furthermore, in recent decades, a group of Shia scholars has advocated an approach known as the Tafkik (Separation) School of Thought, which opposes the teaching and learning of philosophy or its use in interpreting religious doctrines.[37]

School of Tafkik

The School of Tafkik is the best-known Shiite school of thought which opposes the Islamic philosophy. It emphasizes the separation (tafkik) of three paths to knowledge: the Quran, philosophy, and mysticism. It aims to free the Quranic knowledge from any combinations with other sources of knowledge.[38] Scholars of the school of Tafkik do not have a single unified position with respect to philosophy. Earlier scholars of Tafkik, such as Mirza Mahdi Isfahani and Mahmud Halabi, find an inconsistency between philosophy and sharia,[39] but later scholars, such as Sayyid Ja'far Sayyidan and Muhammad Rida Hakimi do not reject philosophy altogether, taking the point of Tafkik to be a separation between different methods.[40]


  1. ʿUbūdīyyat, Āyā Falsafa-yi Islāmī dārīm?, p. 28.
  2. ʿUbūdīyyat, Āyā Falsafa-yi Islāmī dārīm?, p. 28-29.
  3. Motahhari, Majmūʿa-yi āthār, vol. 14, p. 458.
  4. Corbin, Tārīkh-i Falsafa-yi Islāmī, p. 210.
  5. ʿUbūdīyyat, Āyā Falsafa-yi Islāmī dārīm?, p. 30-31.
  6. Gilson, Rawḥ-i Falsafa-yi qurūn-i wusṭā, p. 7-8.
  7. Miṣbāḥ Yazdī, Falsafa-yi Islāmī, p. 13.
  8. ʿUbūdīyyat, Āyā Falsafa-yi Islāmī dārīm?, p. 32-33.
  9. Motahhari, Majmūʿa-yi āthār, vol. 5, p. 148.
  10. Corbin, Tārīkh-i Falsafa-yi Islāmī, p. 272; Motahhari, Majmūʿa-yi āthār, vol. 5, p. 148.
  11. Naṣr, Mullāṣadra; Taʿālīm, p. 193-210.
  12. Fākhūrī, Tārīkh falsafa dar jahān-i Islāmī, p. 374-380.
  13. Fākhūrī, Tārīkh falsafa dar jahān-i Islāmī, p. 397-398.
  14. Motahhari, Majmūʿa-yi āthār, vol. 5, p. 148.
  15. Ḍīyāʾī, Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī, p. 271.
  16. Ḍīyāʾī, Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī, p. 273-275.
  17. Dabāshī, Mīr Dāmād wa taʾsīs-i maktab-i Iṣfahān, p. 28-132.
  18. Ḥāʾirī Yazdī, Darāmadī bar kitāb-i Asfār, p. 707.
  19. Ḥusaynī Sūrkī, Nigāhī ijmālī bi ārāʾ wa afkar, p. 9.
  20. Motahhari, Majmūʿa-yi āthār, vol. 5, p. 26-32.
  21. Malikshāhī, Ishārāt wa shubahāt-i Ibn Sinā, p. 57.
  22. Gharawīyan, Ilāhīyāt-i shifā wa sharḥ-i ān, p. 53.
  23. Ḥabībī, Ḥikmat-i Ishrāq, vol. 13, p. 770.
  24. Āshināyī bā kitāb-i al-qabasāt, p. 111.
  25. Ḥāʾirī Yazdī, Darāmadī bar kitāb-i Asfār, p. 707.
  26. Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, al-Shawāhid al-rabawīyya, p. 132.
  27. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Uṣūl wa falsafa-yi Riʾālīsm, p. 11.
  28. Aʿrāfī, Barrasī-yi fiqhī-yi falsafa warzī wa falsafa-āmūzī, p. 26-28.
  29. ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Tamhīd li-tārīkh al-falsafa l-Islāmiyya, p. 87-88.
  30. Ghazālī, al-Munqidh min al-ḍalāl, p. 31.
  31. Aʿrāfī, Barrasī-yi fiqhī-yi falsafa warzī wa falsafa-āmūzī, p. 57.
  32. Ṭawīl, Dīn wa falsafa, p. 172.
  33. Ṭawīl, Dīn wa falsafa, p. 172-174.
  34. Aʿrāfī, Barrasī-yi fiqhī-yi falsafa warzī wa falsafa-āmūzī, p. 36.
  35. Aʿrāfī, Barrasī-yi fiqhī-yi falsafa warzī wa falsafa-āmūzī, p. 60-67.
  36. Ibrāhīmī Dīnānī, Mājarā-yi fikr-i falsafī dar jahān-i Islām, vol. 1, p. 104-123.
  37. Aʿrāfī, Barrasī-yi fiqhī-yi falsafa warzī wa falsafa-āmūzī, p. 44-47.
  38. Ḥakīmī, Maktab-i tafkīk, p. 44.
  39. Khusrupanāh, Jaryān shināsī-yi fikrī, p. 111.
  40. Khusrupanāh, Jaryān shināsī-yi fikrī, p. 118.


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