Early Islam, Part 3: The Path of Reason

By Namit Arora

Part 1: The Rise of Islam / Part 2: The Golden Age of Islam

(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanfords Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)

ArabPhilosophers Islamic scholars during the golden age of Islam (roughly 9th-12th centuries) widely referred to Aristotle as the ‘First Teacher,’ evidence of the high regard in which they held the ancient Greek philosopher. The man ranked by them as second only to Aristotle was a tenth-century Muslim thinker by the name of Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870-950 CE). [1] Perhaps a good way to illustrate the rational current of early Islam is through the life and times of this important thinker. In the words of Muhsin Mahdi, a modern scholar of Islamic studies,

‘[Al-Farabi was] the great interpreter of the thought of Plato and Aristotle and their commentators, and the master to whom almost all major Muslim as well as a number of Jewish and Christian philosophers turned for a fuller understanding of the controversial, troublesome and intricate questions of philosophy … He paid special attention to the study of language and its relation to logic. In his numerous commentaries on Aristotle’s logical works he expounded for the first time in Arabic the entire range of the scientific and non-scientific forms of argument and established the place of logic as the indispensable prerequisite for philosophic inquiry.’ [2]

For a flavor of what other notable thinkers of his age thought of him, consider this remarkable passage from the autobiography of Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna, 980-1037 CE), the Persian philosopher and physician famous in the West as the ‘Islamic Galen.’ Ibn Sina wrote that after a diligent study of ‘the logical, natural, and mathematical sciences’ in his youth, he finally reached the study of metaphysics:

BukharaArkCitadel‘I read the Metaphysics [of Aristotle], but I could not comprehend its contents, and its author’s object remained obscure to me, even when I had gone back and read it forty times and had got to a point where I had memorized it. In spite of this I could not understand it nor its object, and I despaired of myself and said, ‘This is a book which there is no way of understanding.’ But one day in the afternoon when I was at the booksellers’ quarter a salesman approached with a book in his hand which he was calling out for sale. He offered it to me, but I refused it with disgust, believing that there was no merit in this science. But he said to me, ‘Buy it, because its owner needs the money and so it is cheap. I will sell it to you for three dirhams.’ So I bought it and, lo and behold, it was Abu Nasr al-Farabi’s book on the objects of Metaphysics. I returned home and was quick to read it, and in no time the objects of that book became clear to me because I had got to the point of having memorized it by heart. I rejoiced at this and the next day gave much in alms to the poor in gratitude to God, who is exalted …’ [3]

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