Al-Kindi The renowned Islamic philosopher

ByMalik Nasir Mahmood Aslam

Seasoned social activist


December 24, 2022

Al-Kindi The renowned Islamic philosopher

Malik Nasir Mahmood Aslam
recollects the contribution of an outstanding thinker

Abu Yusuf Yaqub bin Ishaq Al-Kindi The renowned Islamic philosopher was born in Basra it is widely acknowledged that Al-Kindi was the first philosopher in the Muslim Arabic tradition and his works constitute a substantial corpus and display a great range of interests. His father Ishaq bi al-Sabbah was the emir of Kufa and his family was a particularly noble one within the important Arab tribe of Kinda. Al-Kindi seems to have moved to Baghdad early in his life and it was here that he received his education. His reputation as high-level man of learning was of great standing under Abbasid caliphs al-Mamun and al-Mutasim. His depth of knowledge was greatly appreciated by caliph Al-Mamun who himself was a scholar in his own right and encouraged matters of philosophy and learning. Al-Kindi addressed to al-Mamun many of his treatises reinforcing the idea that he was already a highly placed young scholar under the scholar caliph.

Though his influence reduced in the caliphate of Al-Mutasim but Al-Kindi wrote most of the philosophical works to be considered in this book including ‘On First Philosophy’, addressed to the caliph himself. It also so happened that Al-Kindi was also the tutor to al-Mutasim’s son Ahmad, who was the recipient of numerous treatises of al-Kindi. Al-Kindi’s influence waned during the caliphate of al-Mutawakkil who reigned from 847 to 861. It was known that Al-Kindi was victimised by the plotting of the two famous mathematicians and scientists, Muhammad and Ahmad bin Musa. The Banu Musa persuaded al-Mutawakkil to seize al-Kindi’s library which at this stage of his career consisted a large number of books and manuscripts. Along with this outrage it was also known that al-Kindi was physically mishandled. Al-Kindi died of infection but by this time his reputation had soared far and wide.

It is generally recognised that the most important feature of al-Kindi’s wider historical context is that he worked during the massive translation effort that took place under the Abbasids who were known sponsors of learning in the Muslim world. The translation movement began already under the caliph al-Mansur and by the time of al-Kindi had reached its peak. Building on earlier Syriac translations from the Greek, translators sponsored by the Abbasids rendered a huge amount of Greek scientific and philosophical literature into Arabic, sometimes by way of a new Syriac version. This exercise was undertaken by the Abbasids in competition with the Byzantines and they successfully offered new learned Arabic culture placing it in comparison of the prevalent Persian culture. The texts translated were chosen for practical purposes such as the ‘Sophistical Refutations’ that was translated early on for use in theological dispute and much effort was put into translating medical literature.

The ninth century saw an explosion in Islamic theological speculation, or ilm al-kalam and al-Kindi responded directly to this development. At this time also emerged refined Arabic literature. Al-Kindi however traversed much farther than this genre and is widely acknowledged as the first philosopher in the Muslim Arabic tradition and his works constitute a substantial corpus and display a great range of interests. Along with philosophical and theological topics he also wrote about medicine and astrology. As a commentator, he had things to say about figures such as Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy. Concerned to use newly translated Greek philosophical works to speak philosophically to an Arabic-speaking audience, al-Kindi delivered an inheritance to later Arabic thinkers such as Avicenna and Averroes, an inheritance which filtered through to Christian philosophers and theologians working in Europe from the early thirteenth century and onwards.

It must be emphasised that the history of philosophy is a competition and plenty of emphasis is placed upon the originators. In this context few philosophers invite both sorts of interest as much as al-Kindi. In the tradition of true polymaths Al-Kindi is known to have listed 300 titles in his corpus that show the astonishing range he worked on. Many of his works are devoted purely to philosophical topics and many logic and practical philosophy such as his book on governance titled ‘kutubuhu al-siyasiyyat’ apart from titles on both ethics and politics. Some of the texts are labeled as cosmological and more literally are books on the celestial spheres known as ‘kutubuhu al-falakiyyat’.

The list shows that al-Kindi also wrote many works on mathematics, in its various branches such as arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, spherics, and the measurement of distances as well as on medicine and astrology. These, along with philosophy proper, were his major areas of interest. He also evinced keen interest in astrology and his topics included other methods of precognition. Some miscellaneous topics he addressed show the diversity of his interests, including jewels, glass, dyes, methods described for the removal of stains, swords, perfumes, zoology, tides, mirrors, meteorology, and earthquakes.

The most important and famous of his works is ‘On First Philosophy’ which is in fact only partially extant that deals most prominently with the eternity of the world and the problem of divine attributes. Al-Kindi’s most famous work titled ‘On Intellect’ has tremendous influence on succeeding generations of philosophers. Then there are works on cosmology, in particular the nature of the heavens and how they relate to the sub-lunar world. There is a lengthy ethical work, ‘On Dispelling Sadness’, which is very profound in its content. Two further works are aids to the study of philosophy and one version of ‘On Definitions’, is transmitted in several very different redactions. There are many treatises that are scientific in nature and deal with meteorology. One treatise explains phenomena like snow, hail and thunder.
Al-Kindi also waxed eloquent on medicine discussing coitus and lisps, astronomy that pertains to eclipses, measuring the height of mountains and the nature of colour. In other manuscripts one can find numerous works on optics and catoptrics particularly the study of mirrors. One of the longest treatises is titled as ‘On Rays’ which explains magic and the influence of the stars. There are several extant medical works and ‘On Degrees’ dealing with the administration of drugs. From his pharmacological works one can delineate a medical formulary, that is, a list of recipes for drugs. In addition there are numerous works on astrology as well as several works on music and the bulk of the extant corpus, then, deals with topics in the physical sciences.

Like a true philosopher Al-Kindi’s intellect was dominated by concern regarding metaphysics and psychology, the eternity of the world and cosmological concerns. These works show an interest in an axiomatic methodology inspired by mathematics though they show at most a rudimentary use of mathematics itself, including geometry despite some of the cosmological treatises that do have very simple geometrical diagrams. By contrast there are numerous other works that are dominated by their use of complex geometrical demonstrations and mathematics such works on optics, his treatment of the proportions of drugs in ‘On Degrees’ and also the use of geometrical relations as a general theory of physical influence in ‘On Rays’ though this treatise also makes major doctrinal departures. Al-Kindi begins ‘On Degrees’ by saying that he is undertaking a project the ancients had not, namely the analysis of compound drugs. Even more strikingly, he is critical of Euclid in several works on optics, one of which is titled ‘On the Rectification of Euclid’s Errors’. TW


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