An Overview of the Muslim Intellectuals Now Relegated to the "Forgotten Past"

An Overview of the Muslim Intellectuals Now Relegated to the “Forgotten Past”


This article examines and highlights the contribution of some of the Muslim intellectual giants now relegated to the “forgotten past”. In as much as knowledge is continuum, their contributions were important in maintaining the continuity between the Greco – Roman intellectualism and the contemporary philosophical thoughts (Western Philosophy). Hopefully, there will ensue a period of renaissance in the intellectual world of the Muslims which will bring about better understanding of mysteries of the universe, life, death, matter, soul, and many unknowns.

The Origin

The origin of the Muslim intellectual tradition can be traced back to the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD. The revelations of the Quran provided the essential framework of ideas and concepts in the realm of ethics, morality, sociology, politics and jurisprudence, and others. The message of Islam was based on Unity of Allah (one God), unity of Religion, Islam (submission to one God), and unity of Mankind. The core concepts provided in the Quran were elaborated, and augmented by the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, known as Hadith..

As the Muslims spread out from the peninsula of Saudi Arabia into neighboring countries and established their dominions and formed governments, they came face to face with new people, new cultures and new ideas. It may be pointed out that within a short span of 20 years, Muslims had established a vast empire stretching from Saudi Arabia, through the Middle East, Northern Africa to Spain in the West. This provided the landscape where core Islamic thoughts and principles needed to be established and preserved, new ideas to be assimilated, and the philosophical thoughts of antiquity to be examined.

Divergence of Ideas

It was out of necessity that the earliest scholars devoted their time in understanding and analyzing the Quran and the Hadith (the Traditions) and developing a system of jurisprudence in resonance with real life situations. It was in this context that the Traditionalist allowed the use of analogy (Quiyas) and independent judgment (Raye) in matters where guidance from the Quran and Sunna was not explicit. As a result, there developed four major schools of jurisprudence, each championed by:

  1. Imam Abu Hanifah (d 767)
  2. Imam al-Shafi (d 820)
  3. Malik bin Anas   (d 795)
  4. Ahmad bin Hanbal (d 855)

The first two scholars were more liberal in their interpretation of the Quran and Sunna allowing analogy and independent judgment, while the later two were strictly traditionalist, and abhorred any speculation. This represented the first signature of divergence of ideas which became more pronounced with the passage of time.

In as much as human being is endowed with the faculty for reasoning and thinking, the inquisitive mind attempted to explore and assimilate new ideas and philosophical thoughts.  There was a tremendous effort towards translation of Greek and other philosophical work into Arabic. This endeavor was undertaken by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. This lead to an attempt of exploring the religious and philosophical contents of the Quran in the light of Greek logic and philosophy.  Thus there ensued an era of Muslim scholasticism and dialogue (Kalam).  Ijtehad (change and evaluation) came in vogue. This was the time when an attempt was made to understand theosophical and dogmatic content of the Quran in the light of Greek logic, and demonstrate that faith and reason were not exclusive to each other.

Development of Philosophical Schools

The Greek logic and philosophy, a fascinating realm for the Arab mind hitherto unknown, found unfettered application in understanding and resolving the theological and theosophical issues raised by the Quran. This resulted in distorting or clouding the original concepts and ideas presented in the Quran. As a result we find a sharp polarization in the intellectual community at the time. As a reaction to unfettered application of Greek philosophy, there developed an extreme orthodox group of people who believed that the Quran and the Hadith should be accepted in their original form and be understood and interpreted literally. They considered application of philosophy or logic in understanding the Quran as innovation and therefore it was a bidah (forbidden). These theosophists belonged to the group known as Zahirites, and represented the ultra Orthodox who had zero tolerance for any innovation or ijtehad. The other groups of people were the rationalists, represented by Mu’tazillites and Asharites.

Mutazillite and Asharite

The founder of Mutazilite School was Wasi b. Ata (d    748 AD). Mutazilite subscribed to five tenets. The first is the Divine unity, second is the Divine justice third is the Divine promise and threat, the fourth is the place between the two places. The fifth is commanding the good and prohibiting the evil.

Inherent in God’s unity was the concept that divine essence and attributes were in fact one, these were not separate qualities, if considered separate then it will smack of a dual nature of God. Divine justice implied that those who do good deeds will be rewarded and those who were sinners will be punished. Mu’tazillites argued that if a man will be punished or rewarded depending on the nature of his deeds, then logically he must be the originator of such deeds. If his deeds were predetermined by God or willed by God then the question of reward and punishment should not arise. The Mutazillites found official sanction from the caliphs Al-Mamun and Al-Rahid.  Their philosophical thoughts, greatly influenced by the newly acquired Greek logic and philosophy, flourished, and Islamic thoughts as expressed in the Qurran were subjected to logical scrutiny and interpretation. The zeal to interpret religious thoughts purely in light of logic went so far as to border on agnosticism.

It was perhaps one of the reasons which created a backlash, and a group of people, while still being rational, did not subscribe to the evaluation of religious thoughts purely on the basis of reason. This lead to the development of Asharite School of thoughts who laid the foundation of Orthodox Kalam as opposed to Rational Kalam of Mutazilites.

Paradoxically, the leader of the Asharite School, Al-Ashari (d 945 AD), was a student of al Jubaii, a leading teacher of Mutazillite rationalist philosophy.  The Asharite argued that religious thoughts cannot be examined on the basis of pure logic because these are not only physical concepts but has strong metaphysical component.  While subscribing to many of the Mutazilite tenets, Al Ashari debated and disputed some of the Mutazilite concepts. While agreeing on the unity of God, Asharite took issue with Mutazillite concept of essence and attributes of God being the same. They maintained that essence (mahiyya) and attributes (siffat) are different things although they appear to be similar. Attributes are integral part of God’s essence. As regards human free will, Ashari argued   that man cannot be creator of his own action because the act of creation is exclusive to God. Therefore, human free will essentially does not exist. Even if it exists, the choices made as per free will are inconsequential because it was according to divine destiny. Aharite and Mutazillite had divergent views on many aspects of the Quranic proclamations which are beyond the scope of this short article.

The underlying struggle between the Rational Kalam (Mutazillites) and the Orthodox Kalam (Asharites) was that whether logic and reason should justify the Quranic revelations or the Quranic revelations should be considered as the source of ultimate truth.

Muslim Thinkers

It is not possible to dwell here at any length on the contributions made by Muslim intellectuals in the realm of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and etc… Nevertheless, mention of a few well known names must be made, as for example Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibne Sina, Ibne Rushd, Fakhr al-Din Razi, Al-Battani, Al Ghazali, Ibne Khaledun, and many more.

Al Kindi (Al Kindus) is credited to be the first systematic thinker of the Muslim world. He had encyclopedic knowledge and was a copious writer. His full name was Abu Yusuf Yaqub Ishaq al-Kindi (d 866 AD). He dealt with a wide variety of subjects like logic, metaphysics, music, astronomy, geometry, astrology, theology, politics and chemistry. He was considered as a scientist and a philosopher. Although he had a distinct Mutazillite leaning, he sought to bridge gap between religious dogma and philosophy. He advocated the concept of creation of the world ex nihilo and the permanence of the creation, which supported the orthodox philosophy. He defined philosophy as the “knowledge of the realities of things according to human capacity” and more specifically for al-Kindi, it was “the knowledge of the First Reality which is the Cause of every reality”.  Although, he advocated examination of religious thought in the light of logic and reason, he believed the revelations to be a higher source of ultimate truth. He also attempted to popularize the use of Indian numerals indicating his interest in the pool of knowledge of Indian origin.

Al-Farabi (Al Farabius), another stalwart in the realm of Muslim thinkers, was born in approximately 870 AD. He, like many of the medieval intellectuals, was a polymath.  He made contributions in the field of logic, philosophy, psychology mathematics, and music. He wrote excellent commentaries on Aristotelian philosophy which earned him the title of “second Master”, first being Aristotle. He was recognized as a peripatetic and a rationalist. He is credited to have distinguished logic into speculative (ideas) and confirmatory (proof).  In the realm of psychology and metaphysics he tried to understand the nature of the First Cause, as well as the cosmos. He underlined the limitation of human knowledge in comprehending the metaphysical world. He philosophized that the cosmos and all other type of beings are natural results of the existence of the First Being.

Al Farabi

Al Razi (Rhazes), Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (865 AD-925 AD) was a physician, philosopher and alchemist, all at the same time. In the Latin world he was known as Rhazes, the physician.  He was unique in the annals of Muslim thinkers of his time in view of the fact that he was a naturalist and emphasized and practiced empirical observation in the field of chemistry and medicine, as well as philosophy.  He was born in Iran, in the city of Rayey where, later he became the director of the hospital. He also held similar position in the much larger and famous hospital in Baghdad, Iraq. His medical book  Mansuri, dedicated to Governor Al Mansur of Rayey, his medical observation edited in 25 volumes as al Hawi fil Tib, and the  Kitab al ami al Kabir (Great Medical Compendium) represented authority on the prevailing medical sciences and were translated in different languages. His observations on stones in gall bladder and kidney as well as measles and small pox were the final words at the time. No doubt, he drew heavily on the preexisting pool of medical knowledge of the Greeks such as those of Galen, Hippocrates and others. His critical and independent observations, sometimes, differed from the old Masters’.

Al Razi

As a philosopher, he was a complete outsider primarily because he brought the same logical approach to understanding the realities of things. Because of his intense logical thinking he was not inclined to believe in the prophetic revelations and the Holy Scriptures such as the Quran or the Bible. He considered Prophets as self appointed representative of God who spread bigotry and intolerance in the world resulting in wars and bloodshed. He did believe in God though, but was considered a heretic all the same. Razi did not believe that God created the Universe out of nothing. He thought that there were five eternal components – God, soul, matter, time and place, against the prevalent view of eternity assigned to God alone. It is astonishing however to note that al Razi was allowed the freedom of speech without being persecuted particularly in view of the religious intolerance that we find in the contemporary Muslim world.

Ibne Sina, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibne ʿAbd Allāh ibne Al-Hasan ibne Ali ibne Sīnā (August. 980 – June 1037 AD), of Persian heritage, known as Avicenna in the Latin world, was a shining polymath during the golden age of Muslim scholarship. He is known to have written more than 400 books on diverse subjects including medicine, philosophy. Islamic theology, psychology. Logic, chemistry, physics, etc. His traditions in medicine and philosophy proved to be more enduring. His book, The Cannon of Medicine remained as a prescribed text book on medicine in many of the European Universities as late as 1650 AD. The Book of Healing is a voluminous encyclopedia on philosophical and scientific discourses.

Ibn Sina

Central to his philosophy was the emphasis that reasoning should be allowed to play its due part in arriving at conclusion in understanding the realities. He benefited greatly from Farabi’s commentaries on Aristotle’s philosophical works. He wrote extensively on the question of Essence and Existence and God – the Necessary Being. He believed in Prophets and considered them as inspired Philosophers. He sought to understand the religion Islam, the Prophets, and the Quranic revelations in the light of logic.

AL Ghazali, Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibne Muḥammad al-Ghazali (c. 1058–1111) was the shining star in the realm of Muslim thinkers and was known as Algazale in the Latin world. He was considered as Mujaddid (revivalist of the Faith) and earned the prestigious title of Hujjatul Islam (Proof of Islam). He subscribed to the Asharite group of thinkers. Among his numerous writings, Ihya e Ulum al Din (Revival of Religious Science) is of towering importance.  It revived the orthodox Islamic teachings based on the Qurran and Sunna which he thought was the source of salvation of the soul. In doing so, he discouraged the logical thinking and promoted Sufi ways of investigating the mysteries of life, death and realities of things. The realities are behind the veil, logic alone cannot penetrate it. He found application of logic and philosophy in understanding the realities totally inadequate.  It was perhaps this idea which caused him to write the book Incoherence of Philosophers where he discussed the inadequacy of logic and philosophy to comprehend the realities.   Although Ibne Rushd, his contemporary, wrote a rebuttal in his book called Incoherence of Incoherence, he did not succeed in mitigating the influence of Ihya on the intellectual community of the time. The Ihya remained the last word. The cause of logical thinking suffered a lasting blow from which Muslim thinkers have not yet recovered fully. In recent times, scholars like Mohammad Iqbal Lahori tried to revive logical thinking in understanding the ultimate truth in his book Reconstruction of Religious Thoughts. Such voices are however few and far between.

Ibne Khaldun, Abū Zayd ‘Abdu r-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad bin Khaldūn Al-Ḥaḍrami (May 27, 1332 AD- March 19, 1406 AD) was born in Tunis, Tunisia. He was the first historian, the sociologist and the economist of the Muslim world. His works are credited to be the precursor of modern thinking in sociology, politics and economics. His main work was published in a compendium entitled Kitab ul Ibar. It is composed of seven volumes, the first one being the oft quoted Muqaddimah, volume 2-5 deals with the history of mankind, while volume 6 and 7 deals with the history of Berber peoples and the Maghreb. His idea of social cohesion is derived from the tribalism so prevalent in the Arab world which formed the basic unit of society. This can be enlarged by a variety of external forces such as political alliance, religious ideology or common economic interest. When such societies or nations attain a measure of success, they become complacent and vulnerable to decay and are invaded and overtaken by more vigorous and ambitious tribe or group of people. In the field of economics he observed that the businesses owned by organized group of merchant will surpass those of the rulers. It alludes to the concept of Social Cycle. He considers history as a science of development of societies and nations, not as mere narrative of events. In the field of economics, he introduced the labor theory of value and conceived labor as a source of value.

Al-Khwarizmi,AbÅ« Ê¿Abdallāh Muḥammad ibne MÅ«sā al-KhwārizmÄ«    (780 AD-850 AD) was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, astrologer geographer during Abbasid period. He may have had some affiliation with Zoroastrian religion, but as his name indicates, he had converted to Islam.  He served on the faculty in the House of Wisdom, the world renowned academic institution in Baghdad in those days. He was considered inventor of Algebra, he originally wrote the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations, although he may have derived some insights from the preexisting source of mathematical knowledge of Indian and Persian origin. His major contribution in the field of Algebra is contained in the book Al-Kitāb al-mukhtaá¹£ar fÄ« ḥisāb al-jabr wa-l-muqābala‘, the Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balance. The word algebra is derived from the word aljabr, meaning completion or subtraction from both sides of the equation. The book was written around 830 AD. Under the patronage Caliph al Mamun. Algebra revolutionized the mathematical science which was able to treat numerical and geometrical domain as algebraic entity. Algorithm Latinized form of Al Khwarizmi, is derived from his name.

In addition, his contribution in the field of Arithmetic, Astronomy and Trigonometry are well known. He did benefit from some of the existing knowledge on astronomy and arithmetic of Indian source. His contribution in Arithmetic is represented by Kitāb al-JamÊ¿ wa-l-tafrÄ«q bi-ḥisāb al-Hind[22] (“The Book of Addition and Subtraction According to the Hindu Calculation”)


It is interesting to note the inquisitiveness of Muslim mind notwithstanding the dogmatic nature of religious thought it was initially conditioned with. It simply refused to accept everything on its face value. This is evidenced by the early development of 4 religious schools of thoughts. The leaders of each of these groups had divergent opinion on the interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah. This opened the avenue for dialogue (Kalam). The dialogue was intense. It seemed that nothing was sacrosanct, human mind was allowed to run wild. The debate was much fueled by the philosophical thoughts of the Greek heritage. The nature of God, its essence and attributes were debated, the Quranic revelations, and traditions were scrutinized. Logic and reason became the tool for understanding the realities behind the appearance and the physical world. It was carried so far as to lead Abu Bakr al Razi not finding any logical justification for God to appoint Prophets to convey His message to mankind. Imam Ghazali stands out as a  towering figure in reviving the religious doctrines and refuting the basis of application of logic in understanding the metaphysical world. In so doing he may have suppressed the process of logical and philosophical approach in comprehending nature of objects and phenomena. The purpose of Kalam was to adopt a critical and logical approach in understanding religious concepts and traditions.  The question is if human intellect keeps unveiling the mysteries, can it encounter the Pure Intellect – the First Cause. One can argue that If God has revealed Himself through His creation of the universe and the physical world, then a better understanding and appreciation of the physical world should lead to its Creator.  Ibne Arabi, a 12th century Sufi thinker did not place much hope on seeking the ultimate Truth through physical world.  But that was his opinion!

The contributions made by Muslim intellectuals served as the basis and springboard for the European Renaissance intellectuals to continue on the path of formulating new concepts and discovering new principles in the field of physical and natural sciences. Pool of knowledge continues to grow, and so it must. Human intellect has to wait for the day when it can reconcile the physical and metaphysical world.  Man does not have that wisdom yet.


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