Philosophy of the Islamic world -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Philosophy of the Islamic world

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The religion of Islam arose in the 7th century in Arabia, in the period of the transition of the Arab people from the primitive communal system to class society. It signified the unification of the Arabs in a common state (the Caliphate). The advent of Islam radically transformed the lives of millions of people. With its simple, levelling message, and its opposition to the reactionary caste system (though not classes) it struck a responsive note especially among the poorest and most downtrodden layers of the population. In its origins, Islam represented a revolutionary movement and the awakening of the great Arab nation. One of Mohammed's last speeches ends with the following words: "Ye people! hearken to my speech and comprehend the same. Know that every Moslem is the brother of every other Moslem. All of you are of the same equality." (Quoted in A.C. Bouquet, Comparative Religion, p. 270.)

Like all revolutionary movements in history, it also revealed itself as a spiritual and intellectual awakening. Despite frequent attempts by later so-called fundamentalists to interpret Islam in a narrow and fanatical spirit that denies independent thought and cultural inquiry, in its early period, the Islamic revolution gave a powerful impulse to culture, art and philosophy. In his classic Short History of the Saracens, Ameer Ali Syed has this to say about Ali, the nephew of the Prophet and head of the first Arab Republic: "While Islam was ... extending its sway in distant parts, Ali was endeavouring in Medina to give an turn to the new-developed energy of the Saracen race. In the public mosque at Medina, Ali and his cousin Abdullah the son of Abbais, delivered lectures on philosophy and logic, the traditions (history), rhetoric and law, whilst others dealt with other subjects. Thus was formed the nucleus of that intellectual movement which displayed itself in such great force in later times in Baghdad." (Ameer Ali Syed, Short History of the Saracens, p. 47.)

This was already the state of affairs in the 7th century. Contrary to the opinions of the modern fundamentalists, Islam, in its origins, was not equivalent to the worship of ignorance and narrow-minded fanaticism. In complete contrast to what passed for philosophy in the universities of medieval Europe, where it was utterly subservient to the Catholic Church, Islamic philosophy was not a handmaid of theology. The formative period of Islamic philosophy dates from the late 8th century to the mid-9th century. Supported by the Caliphs, notably Ma'mun, it was known for its tolerance and freedom of scientific inquiry. Scholars from nations conquered by the Arabs were welcomed by state-endowed institutions. Free-ranging rationalist debate was encouraged. An important feature was the study of Greek texts in translation. At a time when Europe languished in the dark ages, the flame of culture and civilisation was kept shining brightly in the Islamic countries. Baghdad was the centre of a vast civilisation that extended from Cordoba in Spain to India.

As early as 664 A.D. an Arab force reached as far as Afghanistan and took Kabul. About 717, the conquest of Sind was carried out. From here the Arabs turned south and captured Multan. By 1010 the western part of Punjab was subdued. In 1206 Kutb-ul-Din proclaimed himself sovereign of the whole of northern India at Delhi. During the next 120 years the invasion moved steadily south. In the 15th century, the Moslem rule in India was split up into a number of petty states. Finally, these were united into a mighty empire under the Moghul emperor Akbar and his successors. A.C. Bouquet writes: "Akbar was tolerant of Hinduism, and tried to establish an eclectic religion, including elements from all the other faiths recognised in his realm." (A.C. Bouquet, Comparative Religion, p. 138.)

This was a truly universal civilisation. Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Sina (known in the West by his Latin name Avicenna), who lived in Central Asia, in the important university town of Bokhara, was not only a philosopher but also a physician and natural scientist who, although faithful to Islam, did much to spread the knowledge of the scientific and philosophical knowledge of Greek antiquity throughout the Arab world, and thence to Europe, which, for all its fear of Islam, looked to the Arabs as a source of knowledge and education. There were many other great thinkers, like Al-Farabi (flourished 9th-10th centuries), the author of the first works of political philosophy within the context of the religion of Islam (The Attainment of Happiness and The Political Regime). Ibn Sina and others like him helped to consolidate rationalist thinking and propagate natural science and mathematics, both fields in which the Arabs made great discoveries.

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