Commitment to Philosophy: Al-Kindi

COLUMN: Commitment to philosophy
By Intizar Husain, Dawn, May 11, 2008

Some extremist groups with their own version of Islam appear to be dominating the Muslim world today. As a reaction to it, some intellectual circles are engaged in proving what Islam really means, leading to a search for the soft face of Islam. This in turn has led to a study of Muslim history from a different angle of vision. Hitherto this study had highlighted our warriors, who with their astounding conquests captured the popular imagination in the Muslim world. But now those studying this history with a different mind have discovered a galaxy of benign faces, as opposed to the image of great warriors.

We can see a slight shift in the interests of those engaged in the act of writing. Enough of Muslim warriors and their conquests, they seem saying. Let us talk for a while about conquests in areas other than battlefields. So the development of philosophical thought in Muslim history seems to have emerged as a favourite subject of study in our times. I have already talked about such a book recently written by a Pakistani scholar living in France, A Chronology of Islamic Culture by Prof Mustayeen Bin Mahmood Ahmad Khan, appears very much to be a reaction to the newly emerged poor impression about Islam and the Muslims in general in the intellectual circles of the West. He says that Islam and the Muslims should not be judged by these freak phenomena of violence being carried out in the name of Islam. Look into their past. They in times of their glory were Greeks in their own way carrying the torch of knowledge to distant corners of Europe.

Now here is a book in Urdu written by Zafar Sipal under the title Muslim Falsaphay ka Tareekhi Irtiqa. He begins his survey with the times of Hazrat Umar Farooq (RA) when Egypt was conquered and a philosopher from Alexandria, Yahya Nehvi, had met Umar Bin-ul-Aas. He talks about some translations from Greek in Umayyad times and then crosses over to the Abbasi period. He refers to a strange dream by Caliph Al-Mamun. He sees Aristotle sitting on a pulpit and delivering a sermon. Zafar Sipal holds this dream as the starting point of Mamun’s involvement in Greek philosophy and the later projects of translations from Greek. It was during this period that the renowned group of the rationalists known as Muatzilas rose in prominence and soon appeared dominating the intellectual scene of those times.

But philosophy in the true sense of the term made its start at a later stage. Yaqoob Kindi is regarded as the first Muslim philosopher. He lived in the ninth century. But if this book has some value it is not because it provides an account of the philosophical development in the intellectual history of the Muslim. In Urdu too we have books such as the one by Mohammad Kazim, which gives a more exhaustive account of this kind.

This book has the distinction of saying something else in addition to the achievements of our great minds. Those writing on this subject glibly talk about Abbasi Caliphs’ patronage extended to philosophy and philosophers. But they are reticent in telling us about the fate of a philosopher when he loses the favour of the caliph. They politely refer to his falling from grace and pass on.

Here in this book we are told bluntly about the fate of the philosophers who were unfortunate to lose the favour of the Caliph. The author describes in few plain words the punishments given to different philosophers and we shudder to think of the pain and the allied insult they had to undergo. Think of the great crowd waiting for the criminal to reach and be punished. An old man appears coming slowly and reaches the spot where a Negro with a whip in hand is waiting for him. As he reaches and bows his head, the Negro begins lashing him.

This old man was Al-Kindi, the first philosopher of the world of Islam. He was fated to undergo this punishment of fifty lashes because of his philosophic thoughts, which amounted to heresy in the eyes of the obscurantist, who prevailed upon Mutwakkil, the Caliph to punish him for his unorthodox ideas.

As is evident from this account, all philosophers, who have been universally acknowledged as great minds, were at the mercy of fickle-minded Caliphs. Most of them were in agreement with orthodox clerics, who regarded philosophy as anti-Islamic. The Caliphs who thought otherwise were inconsistent in their behaviour. They could easily be prevailed upon by the obscurantist conspirators, who in general succeeded in deceiving the ruler that the philosopher patronised by the court is an evil genius working against beliefs dear to us.

Of course these philosophers deserve our respect not only for their achievements but also for their deep commitment to their philosophic occupation. At times they found themselves at odds with the larger sections of society, who in general were under the influence of obscurantist clerics. They suffered for it and yet stuck to their occupation.


the rueful tune said…
Of course these scholars DO NOT deserve our respect no only for their lack of original achievements but also for their tendency to stray from Islam into the domain of infidelity. As such, they do not deserve the title of "Muslim Philosophers." Sure, they can be titled Islamic Scholars as any form of development, either literary or technological, under the Muslim empire can be called "Islamic" in the loose sense of the term.

It is a known fact that except few Islamic philosophers, most of them extrapolated Greek ideas and moulded them into Islamic terminology. This lack of innovation and originality demands our pity for their tormented souls.

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