Islamic Philosophy

islamic tile ceiling

In the first half of the class, we covered philosophy and wisdom found in the ancient world.  Now, we are going to begin the second half of the class with the medieval world of Islam and Western Europe, and then transition into the modern world.  First, we look at the rise of Islamic civilization and its relationship to medieval European civilization with regard to logic, technology, science and scholarship.  This is important to know, especially today, as many believe that “the West” and Islam are at war and incompatible as cultures, while others are calling for increased understanding and an appreciation of our common shared humanity.  Second, we will look at central Islamic and medieval European philosophers.

Battle of Nichopolas

America is particularly bad at Islamic Scholarship, though it is hard to beat out Europe.  The United States has very few scholars who have contributed to the field.  Because of this, there are few good comprehensive books about Islam published in the US, so books from the 50s and 60s are republished and taught, which is true of ancient Babylon and Persia as well.  In focusing on ancient Greece and Western Europe, ancient and medieval connections to the Middle East are downplayed.  Centers for Islamic or “Near Eastern” Studies focus on Islamic cultures in modern times, after the rise of Europe, so there is little opportunity for the American student to study the golden age of Islamic civilization, between 700 and 1400 CE, and its massive influence on European civilization.  In addition, philosophy departments rarely offer courses on Islamic philosophy or logic, and few departments of any subject study Islamic literature, philosophy, or science.  As with Indian and Chinese thought, Islamic thought is covered, if at all, as Religious Studies, not as philosophy or the history of science.

Islamic crescent

Islamic civilization was the world’s most powerful and advanced civilization before European civilization rose, so it is the natural place to look for the progression and development of philosophy, technology, and culture.  It was the great multicultural, scientific, and philosophical culture before Europe and it gave Europe an astonishing amount of education and technology.  In spite of this, most scholars remain entirely ignorant as we rarely look outside of ancient Greek or Roman history to find influences on European and modern society.  Muslims took many innovations from India, such as the base-ten numeric system and variables, as well as China.


Between the fall of Rome and the rise of Western Europe, the Tang and Song dynasties of China and the golden age of Islam developed much of the technology, scholarship and science that was crucial for the Renaissance and European Enlightenment.  In 1620, Sir Francis Bacon wrote that gunpowder, the magnetic compass and printing were the most significant advancements of humankind, separating ancient from modern times, unaware that all three were Chinese.  Karl Marx argued that these same three inventions brought about capitalism and the middle class.  Along with these, paper, books, cast iron, gears, the belt drive, the chain drive, the spring, the waterwheel and the windmill all passed from China into Islamic lands and then into Europe.


There is a greater appreciation of India and China in American scholarship, one that does not acknowledge equality with Europe but which acknowledges some depth.  It is a good example of what has been called the “grandfather effect”: the grandfather (China and India) has tension with the father (Islam), the father has tension with the son (Europe) but the grandfather and grandson get along great because there is no direct relationship or conflict.  In the same way, if everyone on the block plays loud music, then everyone hates their neighbor but has an ally in their neighbor’s neighbor through their mutual hatred of their neighbor.  Because Islam has always shared a border with Europe that has shifted back and forth by war and conquest, Islam has been portrayed in a negative light as warlike and despotic.  This is not because Muslims and Middle Eastern people are illogical, violent or authoritarian compared to Christians and Western people, but because Christian Europe viewed Islam as the enemy.

islamic caligraphy and art

Here are some excellent Ahadith, sayings of the prophet Mohammed, the second source of Islam after the Koran, which compliment this one-sided view:

Go in quest of knowledge, even unto China.

It is better to teach knowledge one hour in the night than to pray straight through it.

A moment’s reflection is better than 60 years devotion.

The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyrs.

Ottoman Woman in Court lodging a complaint against her husband

Many times after quoting lines such as these, I have been asked by students, and even some of my professors, how it is that Muslims can say such things if they also behave in such violent and authoritarian ways.  The unfortunate truth is that this makes Muslims our close relatives more than either the intelligence of these verses or the brutality of warfare alone.  Humanity is always capable, and in each civilization openly displays, both intelligence and ignorance, both innovation and brutality.  We should use the best and the worst of Islamic civilization to better understand the best and the worst of our own.

Law and protections for a diverse population were developed the most in Islam before Europe rose and took over.  A woman had the right to sue her husband for divorce, and use algebra to get a percentage of his income and wealth.  Jews and Christians who were not Catholic such as Nestorians fled to Islamic lands from persecutions. Islam thrived as a multicultural and cosmopolitan society.  It would be centuries before Europe passed them in wealth and diversity, the basis of international trade in any prosperous society.

Spanish inquisition torture

Consider that the year 1492 was not simply the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but the year that Spain and Portugal were reconquered from Muslims by Christian kings, as well as the first year of the Spanish Inquisition, the infamous persecution of Jews and other groups deemed heretical by the Catholic Church.  Jews went from thriving and contributing much scholarship in Islamic Spain to outright persecution and secrecy underground in a year’s time.  Maimonides (1135 – 1204 CE), the most famous Jewish medieval philosopher who lived much of his life in Cordoba, Spain, wrote that he read Aristotle but could not understand him until he read Al Farabi, .


Islamic geometry

Algebra is possibly the most useful device (if it can be called a device, though it is part device and part language) in human history.  It is important for us to examine algebra because in the second half of the course logic like mathematics becomes an algebraic language of equations.  In the ancient world, logic was intended to reveal the foundations of debate, but with Islamic and European developments it gradually became a specialized form of mathematics that was intended to reveal the foundations of not debate but mathematics itself.

Before algebra, much of the world used the Egyptian doubling method (including ancient Greece and Rome) to do mathematics.  Unfortunately, this method could not keep track of remainders and could not take account of series and other functions critical to the growth of math, trade and mechanical technology.  Islamic mathematicians and logicians (some of whom are listed below) took the Indian base 10 system, along with the Indian numerals that became our Indian-Arabic numerals we use today, and began doing math in the form of equations.

muslim caravan

Algebra allowed trade caravans to keep greater accounts of goods, as well as sophisticated forms of insurance and banking.  Islamic merchants traded by caravan all the way up through Russia and Scandinavia, as coins discovered attest.  In dark age Europe, Islamic culture was passing through cities and towns with the latest things and systems of thought.  Books and printing come this way too into Europe from China.

iranian questle castle

European Castles are modeled on Islamic questles, the Persian word for fort, far more than they are on Roman palisades, forts surrounded by log fences.  Medieval dress and decoration are not modeled on Roman togas, but rather Persian and Turkish fashions.  Consider hospitals with many beds, doses measured with algebra, and mechanical innovations that use gears, pistons and clocks were all passed from Islamic to European hands before Europe became wealthy and powerful.  Europe owes very much to Islamic mechanics and mathematics.

Arabic Aristotle

Central to logic, it was with Islamic mathematics, logic and science that equations became the language and device that structures our modern shared world.  The ancient Greeks such as Euclid and Aristotle talked out problems in long spoken form.  Today, many scholars use algebraic logic to explain ancient Greek ideas, but it can be quite anachronistic and misleading to do this without acknowledging Islamic contributions.  For instance, the syllogisms of Aristotle seem much clearer and cleaner when presented in variables and equations of first India and then Islamic algebra.  While Aristotle reasoned that if Socrates is a man, and all men are mortal, then Socrates is mortal, we today, using variables, can say that if all As are Bs, and all Bs are Cs, then all As are Cs, speaking about any groups or individuals.

lunar eclipse islamic mathematics

One of the sources of algebraic science was code-breaking or cryptography (also cryptanalysis).  Between questles, codes had to be sent and algebra was used to make and break these codes.  As nature was studied with mathematics, the philosophers and scientists discovered that algebra is an amazing tool for code-breaking nature.  What we call “science” is still very much the mathematical decoding of nature today.  Consider the constant of gravity as a hidden code or message to be discovered and phrased in algebraic language.  As Islamic scientists began using algebra to crack the codes of nature, they believed that they were finding the numbers that were the thoughts and speech of God.  Islamic art, which makes much use of geometric patterns, reflects this too.  Isaac Newton, like many Muslim scientists, believed that mathematics is the language of nature, laws pronounced in mathematics by God over nature which cannot be contradicted.

muslim scholars

Algebraic equations allowed for Wittgenstein’s later truth table logic and other forms that we study as Logic today.  However, equations present us with a new problem that was recognized by the central philosophers of the golden age of Islamic civilization: Is the world truly structured by equations, or are they a model in the human mind?  Those who are more dogmatic, including many American Analytic philosophers, would say that the world is truly mathematical and we can acquire true knowledge of it, while those who are more skeptical, including American pragmatist philosophers, would say that mathematics is human modeling in the mind and it remains human perspective and opinion.

proof that one equals two

Consider the infamous proof that one equals two.  Say that we start with two variables, a and b, and that they are equal.  If we multiply both sides by b, then subtract a squared, then factor out (b – a), we are left with (a = b + a), which is the same thing as saying a is equal to twice itself, which is the same thing as saying that one is equal to two.  How did we come to such a ridiculous conclusion?  This is one example where the mechanics of algebraic mathematics breaks down, and we have to add additional components, such as the rule that we cannot divide by zero.  When we factor out (b – a) and then eliminate it, it is easy to forget that if b and a are equal, we are dividing by zero, and should be left with infinity equal to twice itself, not a equal to twice itself.  The rule has to be added to the system much as a safety device has to be added to a machine to prevent it from breaking down in particular circumstances, like a safety valve that releases steam when it builds up to critical levels.  This is good evidence that mathematics is a human construction, not the laws of nature itself.

muslims praying painting

Many are familiar with the Sunni-Shiite split of Islamic cultures without realizing that the central issue between these are philosophical positions on human reason and obedience to authority.  The Sunni believe that revelation such as the Koran is the supreme authority, and all else, including human authority, is secondary.  The Mutazilites, a smaller sect of Islam and one of the great forces for philosophy and science, believe that God/Being is fully reasonable and human reason and logic are supreme to following tradition or scripture.  Mutazilites argued that God can not contradict reason and thus cannot possibly commit error, which became a major theological and philosophical issue.

sunni shiite muslim distribution map

The Shiites, the second major sect of Islam, take a middle position between reason and authority, much like Confucius says we should balance learning with critical thinking.  Sunnis argued that one must investigate matters when scripture and reason contradict each other.  In all three traditions, opponents debate various interpretations of text and tradition.  This is important to recognize today, as Muslims are often portrayed as unquestioningly traditional and literal in their understanding of the Koran as well as unquestioningly obedient to authority figures, which is mistaken.  It should also be noted that when Western European nations carved up the Middle East after World War I, largely because modern mechanized armies require large oil resources, they ignored boundaries of political and cultural groups that continue to cause problems today.

blind men and the elephant statue

Islam has a long history of debate, called qiyas and kalam, translated most often as reasoning or argument.  There were three types of reasoning recognized by philosophers in the Islamic world: analogy, induction and deduction.  Islamic theologians employed techniques of kalam in their debates with Christian and Jewish scholars who lived in the same cities, and they all studied the works of Plato, Aristotle and others.

Analogy is metaphor, drawing a similarity between two different things.  As mentioned with ancient India, Sufi Muslim mystics borrowed the metaphor of the blind men and the elephant from Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.  Reality is much like an elephant, and each of us and our traditions of thought are like blind men who only grasp and experience one part of the complex whole.

muslim scholars debate

Induction is the gathering of many separate things and events into general groups and rules.  If you see many elephants, each of which has a trunk, you can inductively infer that all elephants have trunks.  You may be wrong, as you have not seen all elephants, but you can hold this rule to be true as long as there are no counter examples.

Deduction is the use of rules to determine what is true of individual things and events.  If you hold that all elephants have trunks, and your friend has an elephant, then you can deduce that your friend’s elephant has a trunk even if you have never seen it.  Again, you may be wrong if you are unaware that counter examples do exist.  Aristotle believed that all swans are white and all crows are black, but he never got to Australia, where there are both black swans and white crows.

Black Swan
White Crow
Ibn Hazm

A big issue for Islamic philosophy was which of these three types of reasoning was primary and best, and which are secondary.  Ibn Hazm (994 – 1064 CE), who lived in Cordoba, Spain,  argued that induction is the only real form of human reasoning, and that deduction and analogy are misleading illusions of the mind.  Al Ghazali, Aquinas’ favorite author and source, says analogy is first, deduction second, and induction third, quite the opposite position to Ibn Hazm.  As we will see soon, the first major split in modern European thought hinges on the same issue, with Rationalists such as Descartes arguing that the certainty of deduction is best and Empiricists such as Hume arguing that everything other than induction is illusion.  Later, we will have Wittgenstein using simple metaphors, analogies, to show how language and rules function in the world, with no underlying absolute rules or logic that induction or deduction can grasp.


Al-Ma’mun (786-833 CE) was the most passionate caliph in supporting scholarship and science, creating an environment that encouraged free thought and debate like no other Islamic ruler.  His father, al-Rashid, had diplomatic ties with Emperors of China and Charlemagne in Europe, and sent Charlemagne an elephant and elaborate brass water clock.  In return, Charlemagne gave al-Rashid what may have been the world’s largest emerald.   At the time, Baghdad was the largest city in the world, with a population of more than a million, far larger than Athens or Rome had ever been.


The grand vizier (minister) Ja’far, featured in the 10,001 Nights (as well as Aladdin, unfortunately as the villain) was Al-Ma’mun’s personal tutor, and instilled in him a lifelong love of knowledge and scholarship.  Al-Ma’mun mastered theology, history, poetry, mathematics and philosophy while young, and was particularly gifted at kalam, dialectical debate and argument.  Al-Ma’mun was a supporter of the Mu’tazilites, who openly questioned literal interpretations of the Qur’an, and he founded the House of Wisdom, a center for study and inquiry which drew scholars and philosophers from all over his empire to Baghdad, becoming central to the Islamic Golden Age.

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