We can all rattle off a few Greek philosophers to win a trivia prize, but how many Golden Age philosophers are you familiar with? Here’s a primer.
If challenged to name ten philosophers in ten seconds, some of us might make it to ten. Most of us could possibly hit seven. Of those, the majority are likely to be ancient Greek figures with the remainder more modern, western ones. If a non-western name is to be offered it is likely to be one of the extremely famous thinkers of Asia, such as Confucius, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, or Sun Tzu. How many of us would produce an Islamic or Arabic thinker as an example?
This is a shame, as the Golden Age (8th century – 13th century) in the Middle East produced some of the most important thought in human history. It is through these thinkers that the west was able to regain access to the thought of Aristotle and Plato. Of the stars that have proper names in common usage, most of them have the names given to them by Middle-Eastern astronomers. We use the numeral system they devised, including the zero. They set the standard for the scientific method for hundreds of years. It is impossible to fully understand western thought without understanding the ideas of these thinkers.
Here are ten of the most underrated and under-appreciated philosophers from the Middle-East, ordered by date.
1. Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī 854 CE – 925 CE
Famed doctor, chemist, and philosopher. First person to describe smallpox and measles as separate diseases. Developed a metaphysical system, based on Plato, which described the universe as consisting of five elements; God, time, place, soul, and matter. Author of the first book on pediatrics.
“I have written 20,000 pages (in small print), moreover I spent fifteen years of my life – night and day – writing the big collection entitled Al Hawi. It was during this time that I lost my eyesight, my hand became paralyzed, with the result that I am now deprived of reading and writing. Nonetheless, I’ve never given up.“
2. Saadia Gaon 882 CE – 942 CE
Rabbi who lived during the golden age of Islam in the various centers of the Abbasid Caliphate. Known for work on Hebrew Linguistics, translations of hebrew texts into Arabic, Jewish law, and preventing a schism in Judaism by means of simple argument. Appointed as the first foreign head of an Academy in Sura. Combined Hebrew and Greek thought.
“The composition of poems remind(s) man of his state of frailty, wretchedness and toil.”
3. Yahya ibn Adi 893 CE – 974 CE
Logic theorist and doctor based in Tikrit in modern Iraq. Produced dozens of translations of Greek philosophy into Arabic. A Christian, he was able to use his philosophical knowledge to produce defenses of Christian theology grounded in classical thought.
“Many a dead man lives on through knowledge.”
4. Avicenna 980 CE – 1037 CE
Persian Polymath that is often regarded as the single greatest thinker of the Islamic Golden age. Author of 450 books, one of which was a standard medical text until 1650. Refined the scientific method past that of his philosophical idol, Aristotle. Wrote on Astronomy, Chemistry, Geology, Religion, Logic, Mathematics, Physics, and even wrote poetry. His commentaries and translations of Aristotle went on to influence European thought during the Enlightenment.
“The world is divided into men who have wit and no religion and men who have religion and no wit.”
5. Sohrevardi 1154 CE – 1191 CE
Persian Philosopher. Founder of the Islamic school of Illuminationism. Built a metaphysics and Islamic school based largely on Platonic ideas, later went on to write dozens of books on philosophy, mysticism, and their relation to Islam.
“Whoever knows philosophy and perseveres in thanking and sanctifying the Light of the Lights, will be endowed with royal glory.“
6. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi 1149 CE – 1209 CE
Scientist, Philosopher, and Theologian. Proposed several possible models of the cosmos including a multiverse model. Wrote “Tafsir Al-Kabeer”, The Great Commentary, on the Qur’an which is still often referenced. Wrote additional books on logic and medicine, in addition to other topics.
“The arguments of the philosophers for establishing that the world is one are weak, flimsy arguments founded upon feeble premises.”
7. Kâtip Çelebi 1609 CE – 1657 CE
Ottoman historian and geographer. Wrote a bibliographic encyclopedia with 14,500 entries. Wrote extensively on Islamic law, ethics, and theology in addition to history and geography. Primary source for social change in the 16th and 17th century ottoman empire – including the introduction of coffee to the empire.
“With the coming of the period of decline, the winds of knowledge stopped blowing.”
8. Dara Shikoh 1615 CE – 1659 CE
An Indian prince with a life befitting a drama, Dara was executed for being on the losing side of a succession struggle after the illness of the Emperor of Mughal Empire. Despite his short life, he was able to find the time to work on the mystical underpinnings common to both Hindu and Islamic thought. Writing several books and translating several Sanskrit classics for later study by other Islamic scholars. A library established by him is still in use by the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University.
“And whereas I was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostic doctrines of every sect and to hear their lofty expressions of monotheism and had cast my eyes upon many theological books and had been a follower thereof for many years, my passion for beholding the Unity, which is a boundless ocean, increased every moment.”
9. Muhammad Abduh 1849 CE – 1905 CE
Egyptian scholar, jurist, reformer, and philosopher. A founder of the school of Islamic Modernism, and theorist of the application of liberal thought to Islamic nations. Exiled from Egypt by British authorities for using his newspaper to advocate independence. Argued that many western ideas had roots in Islamic thought.
“I went to the west and saw Islam, but no Muslims. I went to the east and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”
10. Fatema Mernissi 1940 CE – 2015 CE
Moroccan Feminist and sociologist. Studied the history of Islamic thought and the role of women in it, publishing works suggesting that the condition of women in Islamic countries is not in line with statements that can be proven to be the thought of Muhammad. Author of the work Beyond the Veil.
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