An Introduction to Arabic Philosophy

Exploring Arabic Philosophy

Friday 10th December 2021

On the evening of Thursday 2nd December, we welcomed Jane Clark from Oxford University for an Introduction to Arabic Philosophy. Jane is also a Senior Research Fellow of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabī Society.

Jane spoke about important scholars such as Ibn Sīnā whose work on logic, ethics and metaphysics has shaped our modern understanding of philosophy. We also learned how the Arabic world preserved thousands of important philosophical and scientific texts such as the works of Aristotle and Plato.

Jane explained how the rise of philosophy in Islam stems from ancient Greek Philosophy and began with the translation movement. The translation movement began in the 8th century in the Abbasid caliphate where wealthy intellectuals would have important works translated, first into Syriac, then into Arabic. When a new text was discovered or translated it was of great importance and a translation could fetch up to a million pounds in today’s money. As a result of this wealth of intellectual heritage, Arabic readers in 10th century Baghdad had similar access to the works of Aristotle that we have today.

Many of the philosophers we learnt about were polymaths, philosophy being one of their many areas of study. These intellectuals also brought medieval cities such as al-Basrah and Baghdad to the centre of study for Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine and more.

We were guided through centuries of Islamic philosophical development, which became sophisticated, influential and unique. A leading cause for the uniqueness of Arabic Philosophy is its anchoring in the classical Arabic of the Qur’an which has led to the preservation and continued understanding of intellectual texts and has made Arabic Philosophy one of the major intellectual perspectives in Islamic civilisation and the rest of the world.

Most philosophers we learnt about were peripatetic. Widely regarded as the first Arabic philosopher influenced by Hellenistic intellectual heritage is al-Kindī who is responsible for introducing Indian numerals, which became Arabic numerals, to the Middle East. After al-Kindī came al-Farābī, whose works were aimed at combining Philosophy, mysticism, and Sufism. He is regarded as the ‘Second Teacher’, second only to Aristotle. We were introduced to many other thinkers but none as important as Ibn Sīnā, sometimes referred to as Avicenna which is a Latin derivation of his name. He was the foremost intellectual of the Islamic Golden age. He is believed to have written over 400 works, of which 240 have survived mostly concerning Philosophy and Medicine. He is also remembered for early ontological arguments where Allah is a ‘necessary existent due to what is other than itself’, far predating Anselm, Aquinas and Descartes.

The talk was enjoyed by all and it was immensely valuable for pupils of Philosophy and of Arabic to go past what is taught in their A level courses and, by doing so, expand their knowledge of the importance of philosophy around the world and throughout history. I would like to thank Jane Clark for her engaging assessment of Arabic philosophy and its immense impact on the modern world.

Review by Lochie (L6)

Other News