COMMENTARY
 
Al-Kindi: Father of Muslim Philosophy
Weekly Pulse
January 6-12, 2006
We ought not to be embarrassed of appreciating the truth and of obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. Nothing should be dearer to the seeker of truth than the truth itself, and there is no deterioration of the truth, nor belittling either of one who speaks it or conveys it—al-Kindi Yakub ibn Ishaq al-Sabah al-Kindi (795-866), who worked in Baghdad’s Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) under Caliphs al-Ma’mun-ur-Rashid and al-Mutasim, is best known as the “Philosopher of the Arabs” or the “Father of Muslim Falasafa.”

Al-Knidi was the first champion of Greek philosophy, which was approached with some suspicion in traditional and popular Arab circles as a foreign and pagan import. He translated important Greek works into Arabic and produced a synthesis of the earlier philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle. He was simultaneously a physician, pharmacist, ophthalmologist, physicist, mathematician, geographer, astronomer, and chemist. A prolific encyclopaedic author to whom around 265 works are attributed, al-Kindi believed that the study of philosophy, regardless of its foreign extraction, should not be feared by the true believer, because philosophy’s chief subject of enquiry is the True One, source of all being and unity.

Al-Kindi was born and brought up in Kufah, Iraq. After receiving his elementary education there, he moved to Baghdad to complete his studies and there he quickly achieved fame for his scholarship. He came to the attention of the Caliph al-Ma’mun, (813-833). The Caliph appointed al-Kindi as a researcher and translator in the House of Wisdom.

Al-Kindi worked with a number of encyclopaedic scholars of the time, including al-Khwarizmi, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the Banu Musa brothers. The House of Wisdom was a research and educational institute, founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Under the reign of his son al-Ma’mun, observatories were set up in the House of Wisdom. During the Abbasids, it became the centre for intellectual development, where many great scholars were introduced, including al-Kindi.

Philosophy Defined

Al-Kindi defined philosophy as “the establishment of what is true and right.” He first wrote treatise in epistemology and logic books such as Risalah fi Hudud al-Ashya’ wa Rusumiha (On the Definitions of Things and their Descriptions). His other philosophy works include Rasa’il al-Kindi al-falsafiya (Philosophical Treatises of al-Kindi), Fi al-falsafa al-ula (On First Philosophy), Fi wahdaniyat Allah wa tunahiy jism al-’alam (On the Oneness of God and the Limitation of the Body of the World), Fi kammiya kutub Aristutalis wa ma yohtaju ilaihi fi tahsil al-falsafa (The Quantity of Aristotle’s Books and What is Required for the Acquisition of Philosophy) and Fi al-hila li-daf’ al-ahzan (On the Art of Averting Sorrows).

Although al-Kindi was influenced by the works of Aristotle and Plato, he put the Greek philosophic ideas in a new context and laid the foundations of a new philosophy. He first elaborated a system of thought based on the logic of Greek philosophy, and then developed logic and systematic explanations for some of the debated theological issues of his time, such as creation, immortality, God’s knowledge, and prophecy.

Al-Kindi’s was essentially an effort to bring about reconciliation between science and philosophy, on the one hand, and of both with religion, on the other. This led to the development of syncretism, which is indeed the characteristic feature of the systems of almost all the Muslim philosophers. In philosophy, al-Kindi had leanings towards Neoplatonism, and in Muslim theology, towards the then flourishing school of Mu’tazilism. He was persecuted during the orthodox reaction led by al-Mutawakkil (841- 861).

Religious Justification

More explicitly than any other Muslim philosopher before or since, al-Kindi proclaimed his adherence to the principal Muslim articles of faith, including the existence of God, the creation of the world out of nothing, and in time, the resurrection of the body, and the truth of prophetic revelation. According to al-Kindi, these articles, embodied in the Quran, could be demonstrated philosophically and their truth dialectically reinforced. They belong to that body of divine wisdom, which surpasses human wisdom but is perfectly compatible with it.

As for other subjects such as geometry, al-Kindi invented the theory of parallels. He gave a lemma investigating the possibility of exhibiting pairs of lines in the plane, which are simultaneously non-parallel and non-intersecting. He also contributed to the Arabic system of numerals, which was largely developed by al-Khwarizmi. Al-Kindi wrote many works on arithmetic, which included manuscripts on Indian numbers, the harmony of numbers, lines and multiplication with numbers, relative quantities, measuring proportion and time, and numerical procedures and cancellation. He wrote on space and time, both of which he believed were finite, ‘proving’ his assertion with a paradox of the infinite.

Contribution to Medicine

Al-Kindi also delved in medicine. He produced 22 publications on medical topics. One of his major contributions in medicine and pharmaceutics is to determine and apply a correct dosage, which formed the basis of medical formulary. He was critical of alchemy. Interestingly, Al-Kindi is also known to have invented alcohol.

His writings, most of which were short treatises, are classified into seventeen groups; Philosophy, Logic, Arithmetic, Globe, Music, Astronomy, Geometry, Sphere, Medicine, Astrology, Dialectic, Psychology, Politics, Meteorology, Dimensions, First things and Metals, Chemicals. Several of his books were later translated into Latin by Gherardo da Cremona. His thoughts very much influenced medieval Europe, contributing to its renaissance.

References

1. John Esposito, ed, The Oxford History of Islam (London: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp 272-273.

2. Badr Azimabadi, Great Personalities of Islam (New Delhi: Adam Publishers, 1998), pp 143-155.

3. Ismail R. Al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, Cultural Atlas of Islam (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 305-306.

4. Muslim Heritage Foundation www.muslimheritage.com

5. Islamic Philosophy Online www.muslimphilosophy.com