Islamic Platonists and Neoplatonists

Islamic Platonists and Neoplatonists


T his page lists some important Islamic philosophers, theologians, and writers influenced by Platonism and Neoplatonism (and, in some cases, Neopythagoreanism). The purpose is to help demonstrate the extent of continuity between Christian and Islamic philosophy, which are both very strongly influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition.

This page complements the list of Christian Platonists and Neoplatonists.

Contents

Introduction

Few people understand the importance of Platonism and Neoplatonism for modern culture. Most probably consider them out of date, mere historical curiosities. These are actually great and still relevant intellectual traditions of Western culture. Since we entered the "Age of Reason" they have been largely dismissed as antiquated and irrelevant. But now in the post-modern age we recognize the need for answers beyond those which reason and science alone can provide. We will find some of these answers -- or at least a better framework for pursuing them -- in the as- yet barely explored ancient literatures of Platonism and Neoplatonism.

The average Western Christian would be surprised and impressed if he or she understood the depth and sophistication of Neoplatonist treatment of such issues as the nature of God, the soul, and the relationship between faith, reason, and personal religious experience. Among other things, this literature has decided implications for a major revision of modern concepts of psychology.

This is an activity which Christian, Islamic, and Jewish scholars ought rightly to share. The possibility of such collaboration is consistent with the hope for greater inter-faith intellectual exchange expressed by the Islamic message A Common Word to Pope Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church, and all Christians.

We should briefly mention by way of introduction that Neoplatonism was a dominant intellectual force in the West -- in Athens, Rome, Alexandria, and elsewhere -- from about the third through the sixth centuries AD. Eventually it gave way (and was to a large degree assimilated by) Christian intellectual culture. It nevertheless persisted as a distinct entity until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. It was then assimilated into Islamic intellectual culture.

Platonism and Neoplatonism then disappeared in Christian culture for several centuries. They did not fully reappear until the Renaissance -- most notably in Latin translations by Marsilio Ficino and his contemporaries. However these traditions remained in Islamic culture, influencing philosophy and theology there. In the Middle Ages, Islamic Neoplatonism indirectly influenced Christian philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas via the works of Avicenna and Averroes. A second thread of influence was felt "underground", as it were, in the development of Western esotericism, which borrowed from Spanish Sufi mysticism and other Islamic sources. Likely the Caballa tradition, and certainly Alchemy, were strongly influenced by Islamic Neoplatonist and Neopythagorean writings.

It might not be too far from truth to suggest that Islamic philosophy held in trust Europe's own philosophical tradition until the latter was ready to reclaim it, while at the same time developing and refining it. But even that view is too ethnocentric and fails to properly acknowledge that the philosophical development of Neoplatonist ideas is inherently a joint enterprise of Christian and Islamic cultures. Indeed, it may be taken as evidence that we are not distinct cultures at all. The discerning soul might seen in this evidence of God's Providence and His plan for the development of humankind.


Timeline (700 - 1300 AD; 80 - 699 AH)

Image copyright (c) John Uebersax

List of Philosophers

Jabir Ibn Hayyan (c. 721 - c. 815; Geber). Arab or Persian.
     - The Books on Balance
     - The Emerald Tablet? (Tabula Smaragdina)

Al-Kindi (c. 801 - 873; Alkindus). Arab. [Stanford] [IPO]
     - On First Philosophy
     - On the Intellect
     - Discourse on the Soul

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi (850 - 934; Persian; disciple of al-Kindi)

Abu Bakr al-Razi (865 - 925; Rhazes). Persian.

Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. 934; Isma'ili; sometimes opponent of Rhazes)

School of Baghdad Peripatetics (c. 870 - c. 1023). Muslim and Christian members.

Abu'l Hasan al-'Amiri (d. 992; Persian; al-Kindi follower)
     - On the Afterlife (Kitab al-amad 'ala'l-abad)

Ibn Miskawayh (932 - 1030). Persian.

Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani (fl. 971). [IEP]

Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (c. 930 - 1023; Persian; follower of al-Sijistani)
     - Borrowed Lights (al-Muqabasat)

Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa'; 10th century; Basra, Iraq). [Stanford] [IEP]

Ibn Sina (c. 980 - 1037; Avicenna). Persian. [IEP] [IPO]
     - The Book of Salvation (Kitab al-najat)
     - The Soul (al-Nafs)
     - Theology (al-Ilahiyat)

Hamid al-Din Al-Kirmani (996 - 1021). Persian. [IEP]

Nasir Khusraw (1004-1060?). Persian. [IEP]

Al-Sarakhsi (d. c. 1106; Central Asia; al-Kindian tradition)

Al-Ghazali (1058 - 1111). Persian. Opposed 'technical philosophy'; like other critics of Platonism and Neoplatonism, he was able to make his arguments only by using categories and concepts that had been developed in those traditions. [Stanford] [Website]
     - Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahfut al-falsifa)
     - The Alchemy of Happiness

Ibn Rushd (1126 - 1198; Averroes). Andalusia. Aristotelian; opposed certain Neoplatonist ideas. [IEP] [IPO]
     - Commentaries on Aristotle
     - The Incoherence of the Incoherence (refutation of Al-Ghazali's criticisms)
     - Commentary on Plato's Republic

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149 - 1209). Persian or Arab.

Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi (1155 - 1191). Persian. Founded School of Illumination. [Stanford]
     - Temples of Light
     - Philosophy of Illumination
     - Book of Radiance
     - The Treatise of the Bird

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165 - 1240). Andalusia. Sufi. [Website]
     - Meccan Revelations (Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya)
     - The Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikam)
     - Sufis of Andalusia
     - The Holy Spirit in the Counselling of the Soul (Ruh al-quds)
     - The Book of Annihilation in Contemplation (K. al-Fana' fi'l- mushahada)

Sadruddin al-Qunawi. (1210 - 1274; student of Ibn Arabi; friend of Rumi).
     - The Divine Inblowings (al-Nafaht al-ilhiyya)
     - Commentary upon Forty Hadths

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201 - 1274). Persian. [IEP]

Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (1236 - 1311). Persian.

Mir Damad (d. c. 1631). Persian.
     - Book of Embers (Kitab al-qabasat)

Mulla Sadra (c. 1571 - 1640). Persian.
     - The Transcendent Wisdom Concerning the Four Intellectual Journeys (Asfar)
     - The Book of Metaphysical Penetrations (Kitab al-masha'ir)
     - The Wisdom of the Throne (al-Hikma al-'arshiyya)

Qadi Said Qummi (d. 1696)


Acknowledgments

The helpful suggestions of Peter Adamson , Russ Kinter, and others are gratefully acknowledged.

Bibliography

Adamson, Peter. Al-Kindi. Oxford: OUP, 2006.

Adamson, Peter and Taylor, Richard C. The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. See especially:

Ahbel-Rappe, Sara. 'Plato's Influence on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Philosophy'. In: Hugh H. Benson (ed.), A Companion to Plato. (ch. 29). London: Blackwell, 2006.

Amin Razavi, M. Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination. Richmond: Curzon, 1997.

Badawi, 'A. La transmission de la philosophie grecque au monde arabe. (The Transmission of Greek Philosophy in the Arab World). Paris: Vrin., 1968.

Burrell, David. 'Platonism in Islamic Philosophy'. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998.

Butterworth, C.E. and Kessel, B.A. The Introduction of Arabic Philosophy into Europe. Leiden: Brill, 1994.

Chittick, William C. Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-'Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity. Albany: State University of New York (SUNY) Press, 1994.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge. Albany: SUNY Press, 1989.

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Corbin, Henry. The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1998.

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Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Leaman, Oliver. History of Islamic Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1996. Especially see:

Netton, Ian Richard. 'Neoplatonism in Islamic Philosophy'. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998.

Netton, Ian Richard. Muslim Neoplatonists: An Introduction to the Thought of the Brethren of Purity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991 (Routledge, 2003).

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