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Influence of Muslim Philosophy on the West
Osman Amin

Cultural relations between the Muslims and Christian Europe were established in two ways: first via Spain and second by way of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples. The translation of Arabic works into Latin was closely associated with the name of the theologian Raymond who was the Archbishop of Toledo from 1130 to 1150 AD. In Toledo, the Muslims lived side by side with the Christians. They lived in the capital and the seat of the Archbishop spurred their neighbours into taking an interest in the intellectual life of the Muslims. In Toledo, Raymond established a translation bureau the purpose of which was to render Arabic masterpieces into Latin. Among works translated were Arabic versions of Aristotle’s works as well as original works by Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). These translations were made under the supervision of Gundiaslivus (d. 1151) followed by Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187).

The result of translating Arabic works into Latin was a new intellectual effort on the part of both supporters and opponents. Thus the point of view of Western thinkers was broadened and Islamic thought acquired a new importance with them.

It is an accepted fact now among Western thinkers that Farabi exercised a great influence on the philosophy of the Middle Ages; his book Isha’ al-‘Ulum was translated into Latin and was established in Christian schools, just as it had been in Islamic schools, as an indispensable reference. Many thinkers made use of this work, such as Roger Bacon (1214-1280 AD), Jerome of Moravia (the first half of the 13th century), Raymond Lull (1235-1315 AD) and many others.

In an interesting research work on the influence of the Arabs on music, Farmer showed that this book was of great value to research workers on the theory of music from among Europeans. He explained that the value of this book lies in the fact that it has drawn the attention of Western thinkers to Arabic science. Farmer came to the conclusion that Farabi’s book led research workers, who flocked from all parts of the world, to Islamic Spain to quaff from the spring of Arabic works on music, by men like Kindi, Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. In his book on Spinoza, Dunnin Borkoswki has shown that Farabi exercised great influence in the Middle Ages on Hebrew thinkers who translated his works into Hebrew. It seems that this influence travelled through some Jewish theologians such as Maimonides and Ben Gerson and came down to modern times until it reached Spinoza. In fact anyone who reads Spinoza’s De Emendatione Intellectus would be struck by the great similarity between this book and Farabi’s book What Should Precede the Study of Philosophy. The succession of ideas in the two books is the same and the motive behind philosophizing in both is the same. Even the final aim of the two books is the same, namely, the knowledge of God “in order to follow His example as much as lies in the human capacity”, as Farabi puts it.

It is not surprising that Spinoza should find in the doctrines of Islamic philosophers, mentioned by his masters, what he missed in thinkers of the Jewish creed such as Ben Gerson, Crescas and Ben Ezra.

Scarcely did one century elapse after the first translations of Arabic works when the European thinkers decided to choose the philosophy of Ibn Sina as representative of Islamic Philosophy. Gundislivus translated “al-Shifa” (The Book of Cure) into Latin while Gerard of Cremona translated al-Qanun which became a text-book for Medicine in all European Colleges from the 13th to the 17th century. It was due to this book that Ibn Sina achieved fame in the West, so much so that Dante put him on a level between Hyppocrates and Galenus, while Scalinger went as far as to placing him in the same category as Galenus in medicine, but on an even higher level in philosophy.

In a series of valuable research works, Professor Gilson has explained the extent of Ibn Sina’s influence on European thought in the Christian Middle Ages. He has also shown the close relation between this Muslim philosopher and the theologians of the school of Augustinus, asserting that western philosophy in the 13th century was no more than diverse attitudes towards Aristotle on the one hand and Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd on the other. The followers of Augustinus took from these new ideas a certain set to complete their doctrine (with a few interpretations), at the same time discarding other sets. They took from Ibn Sina, for instance, the illumination of the “active intellect”, yet they apply to God the same meanings as he gives to the intellect of the moon’s sphere. Gilson proposed that this trend of thought in Europe should be given the name of ‘L’Augustinisme Avicennisant’ (Avicennian Augustinism). After Gilson, other Western scholars extended their study of this important subject and dealt with scholastic thinkers who were not Augustinians. In 1934 Pere de Vaux published his research on ‘L’Avincennisme Latin’ in the 12th and 13th centuries. In that research, he showed that Christian theologians with a tendency to Avicennism quaffed at the springs of Islamic philosophy, using it as a source of their inspiration. Besides these, however, there were other thinkers who followed the doctrines of Ibn Sina even where it diverged from Christian beliefs. Those were called by Pere de Vaux “Latin Aviceninans”.

The first Christian thinkers to be influenced by Ibn Sina was Gundisalivus, the head of the Translation Bureau in Spain. He wrote his book: The Soul in which he started with Ibn Sina and ended with Augustinus. He adopted Ibn Sina’s proofs of the existence of the soul, indicating that it was a substance and not an accident, immortal and spiritual. He also adopted from Ibn Sina his famous symbol known as “the man suspended in space” with no relation with the outside world, and yet his mind revealing to him that he is a thinking being which exists. That symbol was mentioned by many authors of the Christian Middle Ages, and so it is possible that Descartes (17th century) received it from them and expressed it in his Meditations in the formula cagito ergo sum.

An evidence of Ibn Sina’s influence on Christian Middle Ages can perhaps be revealed in the strong attack launched by Guillaume d’Auvergne (died 1249) against Aristotle and his “disciples” (Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ghazali). This theologian mentioned Ibn Sina about forty times in his books sometimes opposing his ideas, other times citing his definitions and examples. He adopts Ibn Sina’s definition of truth as “what corresponds in the mind to what is outside it.” He also adopts Ibn Sina’s distinction between “essence” and “existence”, as well as his inference that the soul can be conscious of itself without resorting to the body. This is the proof mentioned in al-Shifa and al-Isharat and has just been mentioned as the “symbol of the suspended man”.

Roger Bacon was a true representative of what Gilson called the Avicennian Augustinism. He saw in Ibn Sina the greatest leader of Arabic thought and a philosopher next only to Aristotle. Bacon admired Ibn Sina’s forceful proof of the immortality of the soul, and of happiness in the other world, of reincarnation, of creation and of the existence of angels.

There is not doubt, then, that Ibn Sina enriched philosophy and science to an extent which made him one of the glories of human thought.

When we move on to Ibn Rushd, we find that his commentary on Aristotle’s philosophy won for him great admiration in Europe, to the extent that Dante called him “The Great Commentator”. It is a well-known fact that the people at the school of Padova in Italy were followers of the doctrine of Ibn Rushd, and that Siger de Braban was the leader of the school of Ibn Rushd in France during the 13th century. The doctrine ascribed to Ibn Rushd continued to be studied in Europe, both in books and universities from the middle of the 13th century to the early part of the 17th century.

Scholars of Spinoza’s philosophy will find that the attitude of this Jewish philosopher towards matters of philosophy, religion, divine inspiration and prophecy similar to that of Farabi and Ibn Rushd before him. Perhaps Spinoza learnt something of Muslim theories through Maimonides and especially those of Ibn Rushd through the Jewish physician Joseph del Medigo, one of the followers of the school of Ibn Rushd in the 17th century.

Lastly we must refer to the debt which Jewish philosophy owes to Arabic philosophy. Suffice it to say that Aristotle’s works were not translated into Hebrew, but Jewish philosophers were content with what the Muslims wrote as summaries and commentaries. It was discovered by western scholars that Jewish theologians followed in the steps of Muslim philosophers, and that thinkers before Maimonides owed their methods and ideas in religion to them. They also discovered that The Guide for the Bewildered by Maimonides, although full of criticism of the opinions of Muslim philosophers, shows beyond any doubt the importance of Muslim philosophy, and its influence on Jewish thought.

We do not, however, want anyone to think that we are trying to boast unjustifiably of the achievements of the Muslims; in actual fact what we have briefly given here is derived from what western scholars themselves have written, both in the Middle Ages and in our own time. According to their testimony, western culture has greatly profited by the material contributed by the thinkers of Islam.

When the time comes for the doctrines of Islamic philosophers to be studied as they should, and when their unpublished heritage comes to light, we shall then be able to truly show the right place of Muslim philosophy in the intellectual heritage of humanity.

The philosophers of Islam we have mentioned above are close to us; indeed they still live in us. We shall not get rid of our history however much we may recant it, just as man cannot get rid of his past life, however much he may try to forget it.


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