Muslim Contributions to Philosophy – Ibn Sina, Farabi, Beyruni

by Mehmet Aydin Published on: 14th January 2005

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Muslim philosophers were men of science who explored and set the very foundations of knowledge. They had great influence and importance in the history of fundamental ideas.

Ibn Sina

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We all know that the Medieval Western world came to know and appreciate the basic Greek works through the works of Muslim philosophers. The translation of the Arabic versions of the Aristotelian corpus, the commentaries, and the abridgments produced a cultural turning point in the intellectual history of the Western world. We also know that the serious study of Aristotle in the time of Scholasticism begins with Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) who used Ibn Sînâ’s commentaries. Both Albert and his brilliant student St. Thomas Aquinas who shaped the future of Christianity, adopted a version of modified Aristotelianism, which was to a large extent Al-Fârâbîs and especially Ibn Sînâ’s version of Aristotelian philosophy.

When we have a serious look at the historical studies carried out up to now, we can easily see, despite the insufficiency of research, the deep influence of Al-Fârâbî and Ibn Sînâ not only in the fields of logic or natural philosophy, but in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, ethics, and political philosophy as well. As we have pointed out, Muslim philosophers’ analysis of being, their division of beings into contingent and necessary, their definitions of universal and other key metaphysical terms had a lasting impact on the Thomistic and Scotist syntheses. Al-Fârâbî’s theistic views were quoted in many instances en bloc. This is especially true in the case of Thomas Aquinas, who was the head of the Latin Schoolmen. Before the Islamic influence, to talk of the “attributes” of God was almost unknown in the Christian theology. Islamic views of the attributes lived five hundred and fifty years and begat the attributes of the Schoolmen, and the attributes of the Schoolmen lived four hundred years and begat the attributes of Descartes and Spinoza. In fact, the early Church fathers knew little concerning the talk of God except in terms of trinity.

As we mentioned above, Al-Fârâbî and Ibn Sînâ anticipated some important views that now we find in the works of the major contemporary philosophers. For example, long before Descartes, Ibn Sînâ, showed that “being” is the first intuition of the mind. Again, Descartes’ idea of the primary intuition of the ego is very close to Ibn Sînâ’s idea the self-awareness of the soul exemplified in his doctrine of the “flying man”. Some similarities also exist in their views of the Necessary Being, though there are some differences as well concerning this point.

So far we tried to explain, albeit very briefly, the main contributions of Al-Fârâbî and Ibn Sînâ to global philosophical culture. Now we have to look at the contribution of another Turkish thinker who is not, strictly speaking, a philosopher, though he was indebted to the methods used by philosophers for many a solution for his problems. This was Abu Rayhan Muhammad bin Ahmad Al-Beyrûnî (973-1048 CE). This great man stands as a model of the thinker who was able to harmonize within his own intellectual world various forms of knowledge, from the science of nature to religion and philosophy. Al-Beyrûnî has an extremely clear international outlook, and worked to remove the misunderstandings between various communities and bring humanity closer in their outlook upon the world. He was a key figure in bringing about real cultural contact between different races and nations. It is because of his great contributions to many fields, especially to the scientific spirit in general, that George Sarton, the well-known historian of science, wishes to name the eleventh century “the Age of Al-Beyrûnî.”

He seems to be the first Muslim thinker who had first-hand knowledge of Indian philosophical and religious culture, in addition to sound knowledge of Greek and Islamic philosophical and scientific literature – a knowledge which enabled him to make useful comparisons between different cultures. This effort was no doubt a happy intellectual pursuit from which many historians of culture benefit much, even today. The scientific and philosophical erudition exhibited in his Al-âthâr al-Bâkiya and Kitâb ma li’l-Hind is a dazzling achievement.

One of the important contributions of Al-Beyrûnî can be seen in his account of scientific method, or the ethics of scientific investigation. In the introductory chapter of his Al-âthâr al-Bâkiya, Al-Beyrûnî makes it very clear that in order to be an honest investigator; one has to free himself from all kinds of prejudices, selfish motivations, and every kind of harmful element which prevent many from following the right course in the search of truth. Commenting upon Al-Beyrûnî’s work on India, G. von Grunebaum, the famous historian of Islamic culture, states that Al-Beyrûnî was able to develop and apply in his book that descriptive attitude towards another civilization which on the whole has been a distinctive trait of the West.[1]

It should be borne in mind, however, that this attitude of Al-Beyrûnî though very striking indeed, is not at all unique and seems to be a fairly common trait of Islamic scientific and philosophical history. We see the same attitude in Al-Fârâbî and Ibn Sînâ as well, for example. In fact, one might say that such an attitude was one of the characteristics of Turkish philosophers and men of science such as Zamakhshari in the fields of tafsir (the interpretation of the Qur’an), Al-Bukhâri in the field of hadith (the collection and interpretation of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Al-Maturidi in theology, AI-Fârâbî and Ibn Sînâ in philosophy, and of course Al-Beyrûnî especially in cultural history. It is noteworthy that most of these men were born and brought up in the Turkish areas of Central Asia which were far away from the main centres of theological and political controversies. To cite only a few examples, Al-Fârâbî, in his commentary on a work of “Zinon the Great,” criticizes and even condemns some Christian scholars who added many things and left out many statements while commenting upon the Greek philosophical writings. Al-Beyrûnî speaks as follows:

“Between an investigator of truth and a staunch follower of tradition there is, surely, a great difference.”[2]

One of his great contemporaries shares the same view, Ibn Sînâ, who, commenting upon the attitudes of those who followed Aristotle blindly, says that they spend their times in occupation with the past without resorting to their own intelligence.

Al-Beyrûnî condemns the use of scientific knowledge to mislead and harm people. He warns again and again against “the sciences which prey on the ignorance of the people.”[3] He, like Al-Fârâbî, warns us against “the crimes committed by translators.”[4] His simple principle is this: Seek after truth even if it may be against you. One “should not refuse to accept the truth from any source, wherever one can find it.”[5] Despite the incessant wars between the Muslims and the Hindus, Al-Beyrûnî managed to remain impartial while he was writing his major work on India. It is incredible to see in him a man trying sympathetically to have an access to the minds of those who were regarded, politically, as foes by the dynasty under which Al-Beyrûnî served.

In the introduction of his book India Al-Beyrûnî makes the characteristic features of his approach very clear: To begin with, he says that he will investigate the truth of everything he hears, since “what we hear is not like what we see.” Concerning his book he says “I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts.” His main purpose for writing a book on India is “to help those who want to discuss religious questions with them and associate with them.”[6]

Now, such an objective attitude developed and fully applied by Al-Beyrûnî is also indicative of the freedom of thought that existed during the reign of Sultan Mahmud, the great Turkish ruler of the Ghaznawids. The religious policy of this Sultan and his immediate successors must have been very liberal indeed.[7]

It is not out of place to point out that Al-Beyrûnî is one of the keen minds to see the spirit of inquiry inculcated by the Qur’an. He sees a real connection between his objective approach and the demands of the Qur’an in this respect. In the introduction of the India lie explains how he tried to save himself from untruth and falsehood by analyzing some psychological motives such as hatred, ignorance, love, etc., which often lead us to conceal the truth. Through God’s mercy, says Al-Beyrûnî, none of these afflicts him. He says that

“that man alone is praiseworthy who shrinks from a lie and always adheres to the truth, enjoying credit even among liars, not to mention others. It has been said in the Qur’an that one has to speak the truth, even if it were against one’s self”.[8]

According to Al-Beyrûnî, Islam created a living culture-consciousness, as it were, which is free from all sorts of narrow-mindedness. He is fully aware of the rational and inductive spirit of the Qur’an on the one hand, and of the great difficulties caused by the scriptures of some other religions on the other. He says that some Indian scientists in his time misinterpreted the scientific results so as to avoid the probable conflicts between science and religion; and he reproaches them for that.

He has great confidence in his religion and culture – a confidence which is sometimes indispensable for the attainment of a broad frame of mind.

“The sentences of the Qur’an,” he claims, “which deal with these (the shape of the heaven, earth, etc.) and other subjects necessary for men to know are not such as to require a strained interpretation…. They are in perfect harmony with the other religious codes; and at the same time, they are perfectly clear and unambiguous. Besides, the Qur’an does not contain questions which have for ever been the subjects of controversy . . . such as the question of chronology and the like.”

Al-Beyrûnî refers repeatedly to the verse that states

“Our Lord, thou did not create all these in vain. …” He says that “this noble verse contains the totality of what I have explained in detail.”

Al-Beyrûnî was a great lover of knowledge; he emphasized the importance of knowledge for its utility as well as for the sake of perfection of men.[9] For him, knowledge is good as a means and as an end, and there is a clear distinction between the intrinsic worth of a thing and the benefit that it brings in the end. According to Al-Beyrûnî,

“it is knowledge in general that is pursued solely by men, and which is pursued for the sake of knowledge itself because its acquisition is truly delightful and is unlike other pleasures derivable from other pursuits.”[10]The number of sciences are great, and it may be still greater if the public mind is directed towards them at such times as they are in the ascendancy and general favour with all, when, people not only honour science itself, but also its representatives. To do this is, in the first instance, the duty of those who rule over them.”

Al-Beyrûnî was, as has been pointed out, primarily a man of science rather than a philosopher in the technical sense of the term. Nevertheless, there is no harm to call him a philosopher, if we take philosophy to mean a rational and disciplined inquiry. It is said that Al-Beyrûnî wrote three philosophical treatises that seem to have been lost. Thus, we can only obtain some clues of his philosophical ideas. He seems to be somewhat critical of Muslim Aristotelianism in many important points such as the idea of the eternity of the world and the like. He believed in creation ex nihilo and said that to believe otherwise is tantamount to the denial of some basic principles of Islam.[11]

In a series of questions and answers with Ibn Sînâ, Al-Beyrûnî touched upon problems of time, matter, motion, and compared his own views with those of Aristotelian philosophers. As we said, he was the first Muslim thinker who had first-hand knowledge of Indian philosophical and religious thought. He was also quite familiar with Greek and Islamic philosophical literature. He gives some invaluable information about the Brahmanic religion of the people of India, and relates the Indian culture to Islamic and Greek cultures. His comparisons in this respect are very illuminating. In fact, due to his success in this field, some modern scholars consider him as the founder of the discipline of the comparative study of religion. For example, when he explains the Indian idea of immortality and metempsychosis with the corresponding ideas in Greek thought, he gives lengthy quotations from the dialogues of Plato such as Pkaedo, Ximaeus, and the Laws.

It is interesting to note that Al-Beyrûnî finds a kind of monotheism among the educated Indians. To begin with, he makes a clear distinction between the beliefs of the common people and those of the well-educated. Of the latter, he says the following: The educated people call God i’svara, i.e., self-sufficing, beneficent, who gives without receiving. They consider the unity of God as absolute. The existence of God they consider as a real existence, because of everything that exists through Him. Those who study philosophy or theology and desire abstract truth which they call sara, are entirely free from worshipping anything but God alone, and never dream of worshipping an image manufactured to represent Him.

In ethical and political thinking, Al-Beyrûnî tends towards practical solutions rather than theoretical reasoning. In ethics, he stresses the importance of two basic virtues: Muruwwa and ukhuwwa. The first term usually stands for the moral behaviour of the individual, whereas the second stands for the social moral life; the one for “manliness” and the other for communal “brotherhood.” It must be remembered that the first terra has nothing to do with the show of the brute force. In fact, gentleness (hilm), soft-heartedness (riffc), and patience are the basic constituent elements of this virtue.

His idea of brotherhood seems to have made him very critical of the old Indian cast system.

“Among the Hindus,” Al-Beyrûnî says, “Institutions of this kind abound. We Muslims, of course, stand entirely on the other side of the question, considering all men as equals. … This is the great obstacle which prevents any approach or understanding between Hindus and Muslims.”

Beyrûnî was a man of science; so, he tried to build a bridge of understanding between different communities by way of scientific appreciation of human culture. He was a fine example of a true philosopher as the word properly means in Greek: “a lover of wisdom”. The scientific approach he and many other Muslim scholars followed was embraced later in the West and has been a vital bridge of understanding between the West and the rest of the world. This approach is grounded firmly on the love of truth and justice. It is found in all the best human beings and is emphatically demanded in the Qur’an:

O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.

(Qur’an 4:135)

[1] G. von Grunebaum, Islam: Essays in the Natm Tradition, Menasha 1955, p. 48.

[2] Tahdîd Nihâyât al-Amâkin …, ed. Tancî, Ankara, 1962; Eng. tr. by J. AH, The Determination of the Coordinates of Cities, Beirut, 1967, p. 3.

[3] Al-Bîrunî’s India, Eng. tr., S. Eachau; 1914, p. 187.

[4] The Determination, p. 7.

[5] The Determination, p. 79.

[6] Al-Bîrûnî’s India, London 1910, vol. 1, p. 7 and p. 9.

[7] Al-Bîrûnî’s India, vol. 2, pp. 31, 250, 269.

[8] See, Sûrah, IV, 134. See also, B. A. Dar, “Al-Bîrûnî On Hindu Religious Thought,” in Al-Bîrûnî’s Commemorative Volume, Karachi 1979, p. 337.

[9] The Determination…., p. 8.

[10] Ibid, p. 2.

[11] Ibid, pp. 14 ff.

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