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History of Philosophy
Arabian Philosophy During the Middle Ages
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

The Arabians received Aristotle's works from the Syrians and Persians, who in 529 gave shelter to the philosophers banished from Athens by Justinian. The most important of the translators and commentators who made Aristotle and Plato intelligible to these Oriental peoples are David the Armenian (sixth century), the Nestorian Christians of the schools of Edessa and Chalcis (fifth and sixth centuries), and Honain ben Isaac, who, in the ninth century, began a series of translations from Syriac into Arabic. It is, therefore, beyond dispute that the Arabians owe their knowledge of Greek philosophy to the Syrian Christians.

Sources. The classic works on Arabian philosophy are: Munk, Mťlanges, etc. (Paris, 1859); articles by Munk in the Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques; Renan's De Philosophia peripatetica apud Syros (Paris, 1852), and his AverroŤs et l'AverroÔsme (Paris, 1869). To the bibliography given by Weber (p. 211) and Ueberweg (p. 406) add M. Forget's articles in Nťo-Scolastique (1894), Figuier, Vies des savants du Moyen Age (Paris, 2883), and De Vaux, Avicenne (Paris, 1900).


Speculative thought among the Arabians passed through the following phases:

1. Primitive unquestioning belief in the Koran. From the middle of the seventh century until the middle of the eighth, the authority of the Koran was supreme among the followers of Mahomet.

2. Motazilites, or dissidents. This sect represented a rationalistic movement against the orthodox fatalism and anthropomorphism, -- a movement occasioned by the contact (A.D. 750) of the Mussulman with the civilization of Persia, Babylonia, and Assyria.

3. MotacallimÓn, or professors of the word. These were the first theologians of Islam. In their effort to expound the Koran rationalistically, and yet without exceeding the limits of orthodox belief, and in the use which they made of the philosophy of the Greeks, they resemble the schoolmen of Christian Europe. The Motacallimin received encouragement and patronage from the Abbassides, who began to rule as caliphs about the year 750.

4. Sufis, or mystics. These represented a more extreme phase of the theological reaction against rationalism. They flourished chiefly in the Persian portion of the Arabian empire. Distrusting reason and philosophy, they taught that the only source of truth is the Koran, and that the reading of the Koran is to be supplemented by ecstatic contemplation.

5. Philosophers. The philosophical movement among the Arabians extended from the ninth century to the end of the twelfth. The philosophers were, in a sense, the continuators of the dissident movement. As a rule, they disregarded the authority of the Koran, and built their systems of philosophy upon lines traced by the Greeks, whose works they obtained from the Syrian Christians. They were opposed by the mystics and persecuted by the caliphs both in Asia and in Europe.

The chief philosophers are: (1) Among the Arabians of the East, Alkendi (died 870), Alfarabi (died 950), Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980-1037), and Algazel (1059-1111); (2) Among the Arabians of the West, that is, in Spain, Avempace (died 1138), Abubacer (1100-1185), and Averroes (Ibn Roshd) (1126-1198).

Avicenna, physician, philosopher, and theologian, was born in the province of Bokhara. He composed a medical Canon and numerous philosophical works in which he expounded the doctrines of Aristotle and of his Greek commentators. He devoted special attention to metaphysics, maintaining the existence of a Sovereign Intelligence as the highest reality, and of matter, or the non-existent, as the lowest in the scale of being. The first emanation from the Supreme Intelligence is the active intellect, to which Avicenna assigns a metaphysical as well as a psychological role, teaching that it is the source of all heavenly and earthly intellects, and that it is the principle by which the potentially intelligible becomes actually intelligible to the human mind. [11]
[11] St. Thomas, Contra Gentiles, II, 42; Opusculum De Substantiis Separatis, Cap. 10. cf. Archiv f. Gesch. der Phil., X, 2 (January, 1904).
Despite these Neo-Platonic principles, Avicenna maintained the Aristotelian doctrine of sensation and the moderate realistic doctrine of universals. The latter he expressed in the formula so often quoted by Albert and other schoolmen: "Intellectus in formis agit universalitatem." His definition of the soul [12] is identical with Aristotle's: "Completa definitio animae est perfectio prima vel actus primus corporis organici." Still, he returns to Neo-Platonic principles in his account of the origin of intellectual knowledge, as when [13] he teaches that intelligible species are acquired in two ways: by rational discourse, or demonstration, and by infusion ("infusio vel manatio divina").
[12] De Anima, II, fol. 5. This and following quotations from the works of the Arabians are given by StŲckl, Gesch. der Phil. des Mittelalters, II, 25ff.

[13] Op. cit., VIII, fol. 23.
Both St. Thomas and Albertus Magnus ascribe to Avicenna the doctrine of the unity and transcendency of the active intellect. The former says: [14] "Intellectum agentem ponit Avicenna quandam substantiam separatam," [15] "Avicenna ponit quod intellectus agens est unus in omnibus, quamvis non intellectus possibilis."
[14] C. G., II, 74.

[15] Op. cit.. II, 76.
Historical Position. Avicenna was the first of the Arabians of the East to depart from the Neo-Platonic interpretation of Aristotle. The remnant of Neo-Platonism in his system of philosophy is proof of his inability to escape altogether from the influence of his predecessors. AverroŽs, who represents the Arabian philosophy of the West, looked upon Avicenna as a materialistic pantheist; Algazel and other mystics regarded him as a rationalist; and many of the schoolmen spoke of him as the first of the mediaeval Occasionalists.

AverroŽs was born in the year 1126 at Cordova. His career, like that of Avicenna, shows the bitterness of the intolerance prevailing among the followers of Islam, inclined as they were to side with the mystics, whom they regarded as orthodox, rather than with the philosophers, whom they suspected of hostility to the Koran. Like Avicenna, too, he was a physician. Exiled to Morocco on account, it is said, of his political doctrines, he died there in the year 1198. AverroŽs was regarded as the greatest of all the Arabian commentators of Aristotle. He composed besides his commentaries several treatises on astronomy, medicine, and philosophy, and also a controversial work, Destructio Destructionis, in answer to Algazel's Destructio Philosophorum. His admiration for Aristotle knew no bounds. "Aristotelis doctrina," he says, "est summa veritas, quoniam ejus intellectus fuit finis humani intellectus." [16]
[16] Prooemium in Aristotelis Physica.
In logic AverroŽs limits himself to the task of commenting on Aristotle's Organon. He adopts Avicenna's formula, "Intellectus in formis agit universalitatem." Science, he teaches, treats of individual things under the form of universality which the intellect abstracts. [17]
[17] Compendium Metaphysica, Tract. II.
Metaphysics. Matter and form are the principles of being. Matter is not to be conceived as identical with not-being. It is the eternal potency out of which the First Mover extracted (extractio is to be substituted for creatio) the successive forms, or forces, which determine matter to different modes of existence. [18]
[18] Cf. Destructio Destructionis, Disp. 1.
Heavenly bodies are endowed with a more excellent kind of form than are terrestrial bodies. The Prime Mover imparts motion to the celestial sphere, which in turn moves the planetary spheres. The mover of the sphere of the moon is the active intellect. [19]
[19] "Intellectus autem agens ordinatur ex ultimo horum in ordine et ponamus ipsum esse motorem orbis Lunae." Compend. Metaph., Tract. IV.
Psychology. The most characteristic of AverroŽs' psychological doctrines is that of the unity of the active intellect. Whenever Aristotle speaks of the intellect as separate from matter or unmixed with matter, AverroŽs understands him to mean that the power by which the potentially intelligible is rendered actually intelligible is physically and topically separate from the body and is numerically one and common to all men. The passive intellect, which AverroŽs calls the material intellect, is also one: "Possumus opinari intellectum materialem esse unicum in cunctis individuis." [20] In the context of the passage just quoted, the active and passive intellects are called parts of the same intellect. Still, in a certain sense, it is true that there are as many intellects as there are individuals, for the separate intellect is communicated to the individual soul, just as the light, while remaining one, is communicated to the multiplicity of objects which it illuminates. [21] This communication is described as continuatio or copulatio, and the schoolmen understood AverroŽs to mean that the continuation of the individual soul with the transcendent intellect takes place by means of the phantasmata of the sensitive soul. [22]
[20] De An., fol. 165.

[21] Destr. Destr., Disp. 1, dubium 8.

[22] Cf. St. Thomas, C. G., II, 73; III, 43; also, Opusculum De Unitate Intellectus contra Averroistas. Cf. Albert, De Natura et Origine Anima and De Unitate Intellectus contra Averroem.
It is evident from this doctrine that, according to AverroŽs, the individual soul contains nothing superior to matter, and is, therefore, corruptible. The impersonal intellect is immortal; but there is no personal immortality. Nevertheless, AverroŽs apparently believed in personal immortality. St. Thomas represents him as saying: "Per rationem concludo de necessitate quod intellectus est unus numero, firmiter tamen teneo oppositum per fidem." [23] The distinction to which allusion is made in this quotation was adopted by the Averroists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when they maintained, in opposition to the fundamental principles of Scholasticism, that what is true in philosophy may be false in theology, and vice versa.
[23] Opusc. XXII, p. 493.
Historical Position. AverroŽs was known as the commentator of Aristotle. He intended, no doubt, to reproduce as faithfully as he could the doctrines of the Stagirite. He did not, however, succeed in breaking with the pantheistic and rationalistic tradition of the Moorish schools; indeed, he emphasized in his commentaries those points of Aristotle's teaching which were opposed to Christian dogma, so that St. Thomas was obliged to judge him "non tam Peripateticus quam Peripateticae philosophiae depravator."


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