History of Philosophy in Islam, by T.J. de Boer , at sacred-texts.com
I. Arabic Poetry and Annalistic were developed independently of the learning of the schools. But as time went on, Literature and Historical Composition could not remain untouched by foreign influences. A few notices, confirmatory of this statement, must suffice us here.
The introduction of Islam involved no break with the poetical tradition of the Arab race, such as had been occasioned by Christianity in the Teutonic world. The secular literature of the times even of the Omayyads handed down many wise sayings, partly taken from ancient Arabic poetry, which rivalled the preachings of the Koran. Abbasid Caliphs, like Mansur, Harun and Mamun, had more literary culture than Charlemagne. The education of their sons was not confined to the reading of the Koran: it embraced acquaintance also with the ancient poets and with the history of the nation. Poets and literary men were drawn to the courts and rewarded in princely fashion. In these circumstances, Literature underwent the influence of scholarly culture and philosophical speculation, although, in most cases, in a very superficial manner. The result is specially exhibited in sceptical utterances, frivolous mockery of what is most sacred, and glorification of sensual pleasure. At the same time, however, wise sayings, serious reflections and mystic speculations made their way into the originally sober and realistic poetry of the Arabs. The place of the first natural freshness of representation was now taken by a wearisome play on thoughts and sentiments, and even on mere words, metres and rhymes.
2. The unpleasant Abu-l-Atahia (748-828), in his effeminate poetry, is nearly always talking about unhappy
love and a longing for death. He gives expression to his wisdom in the following couplet:
Whoever possesses any faculty for appreciating life and the poetry of Nature will find little to enjoy in his world-renouncing songs; and just as little satisfaction will be afforded him in the verses of Mutanabbi (905-965), frightfully tedious in their contents, although epigrammatic in their form. And yet Mutanabbi has been praised as the greatest Arabic poet.
In like manner people have unduly extolled Abu-l-Ala al-Maarri (973--1058) as a philosophic poet. His occasionally quite respectable sentiments and sensible views are not philosophy, nor does the affected though often hackneyed expression of these amount to poetry. Under more favourable conditions,--for he was blind and not surpassingly rich,--this man might perhaps have rendered some service in the subordinate walks of criticism as a philologist or a historical writer. But, in place of an enthusiastic acceptance of life's duties, he is led to preach the joyless abandonment of them, and to grumble generally at political conditions, the opinions of the orthodox multitude, and the scientific assertions of the learned, without being able himself to advance anything positive. He is almost entirely wanting in the gift of combination. He can analyse, but he does not hit upon any synthesis, and his learning bears no fruit. The, tree of his knowledge has its roots in the air, as he himself confesses in one of his letters, though in a different sense. He leads a life of strict celibacy and vegetarianism,
as becomes a pessimist. As he puts it in his poems "all is but an idle toy: Fate is blind; and Time spares neither the king who partakes of the joys of life, nor the devout man who spends his nights in watching and prayer. Nor does irrational belief solve for us the enigma of existence. Whatever is behind those moving heavens remains hidden from us for ever: Religions, which open up a prospect there, have been fabricated from motives of self-interest. Sects and factions of all kinds are utilized by the powerful to make their dominion secures though the truth about these matters can only be whispered. The wisest thing then is to keep aloof from the world, and to do good disinterestedly, and because it is virtuous and noble to do so, without any outlook for reward".
Other literary men had a more practical philosophy, and could make their weight more felt in the world. They subscribed to the wise doctrine of the Theatre-Manager in Goethe's Faust: "He who brings much, will something bring to many". The most perfect type of this species is Hariri (1054-1122), whose hero, the beggar and stroller, Abu Zaid of Serug, teaches as the highest wisdom:
3. The Annalistic of the ancient Arabs, like their Poetry, was distinguished by a clear perception of particulars, but
was incapable of taking a general grasp of events. With the vast extension of the empire their view was necessarily widened. First a great mass of material was gathered together. Their historical and geographical knowledge was advanced by means of journeys undertaken to collect traditions, or for purposes of administration and trade, or simply to satisfy curiosity, more than it could have been by mere religious pilgrimages. Characteristic methods of research, brought to bear upon the value of tradition as a source of our knowledge, were elaborated. With the same subtlety which they displayed in Grammar, they portioned out, in endless division and subdivision, the extended field of their observation, in a fashion more truly 'arabesque' than lucid; and in this way they formed a logic of history which must have appeared to an oriental eye much finer than the Aristotelian Organon with its austere structure. Their tradition,--in authenticating which they were, as a rule, less particular in practice than in theory,--was by many made equal in value to the evidence of the senses, and preferred to the judgment of the reason, which so easily admitted fallacious inferences.
There were always people, however, who impartially handed down contradictory reports, alongside of one another. Others, although exhibiting consideration for the feelings and requirements of the present, did not withhold their more or less well-founded judgment on the past, for it is often easier to be discerning in matters of history than in the affairs of the living world.
New subjects of enquiry came up, together with new modes of treatment. Geography included somewhat of Natural Philosophy, for example in the geography of climate; while
historical composition brought within the range of its description intellectual life, belief, morals, literature and science. Acquaintance also with other lands and nations invited comparison on many points; and thus an international, humanistic or cosmopolitan element was introduced.
4. A representative of the humanistic attitude of mind is met with in Masudi, who died about the year 956. He appreciates, and is interested in, everything that concerns humanity. Everywhere he is learning something from the men he meets with: and in consequence the reading of books, which occupies his privacy, is not without fruit. But it is neither the narrow, everyday practices of life and religion, nor the airy speculations of Philosophy, that specially appeal to him. He knows where his strength lies; and up to the last, when he is spending his old age in Egypt, far from his native home, he finds his consolation,--the medicine of his soul,--in the study of History. History for him is the all-embracing science: it is his philosophy; and its task is to set forth the truth of that which was and is. Even the wisdom of the world, together with its development, becomes the subject of History; and without it all knowledge would long since have disappeared. For learned men come and go; but History records their intellectual achievements, and thereby restores the connection between the past and the present. It gives us unprejudiced information about events and about the views of men. Of course Masudi leaves it often to the intelligent reader to find out for himself the due synthesis of the facts and the individual opinion of the author.
A successor of his, the geographer Maqdasi, or Muqaddasi, who wrote in the year 985, deserves to be mentioned
with high commendation. He journeyed through many countries, and exercised the most varied callings, in order to acquaint himself with the life of his time. He is a true Abu Zaid of Serug (cf. II, 4 § 2), but one with an object before him.
He sets to work in critical fashion, and holds to the knowledge which is gained by research and enquiry, not by faith in tradition or by mere deductions of the reason. The geographical statements in the Koran be explains by the limited intellectual horizon of the ancient Arabs, to which Allah must have seen fit to adapt himself.
He describes then, sine ira et studio, the countries and races he has seen with own eyes. His plan is to set down, in the first place, results gathered from his own experience and observation; next, what he has heard from trustworthy people; and last of all what he has met with in books. The following sentences are extracted from his characterization of himself.
"I have given instruction in the common subjects of education and morals: I have come forward as a preacher, and I have made the minaret of the mosque resound with the call to prayer. 1 have been present at the meetings of the learned and the devotions of the pious. I have partaken of broth with Sufis, gruel with monks, and ship's-fare with sailors. Many Man a time I have been seclusion itself, and then again I have eaten forbidden fruit against my better judgment. I associated with the hermits of Lebanon, and in turn I lived at the court of the Prince. In wars I have participated: I have been detained as a captive and thrown into prison as a spy. Powerful princes and ministers have lent me their ear, and anon I have
joined a band of robbers, or sat as a retail-dealer in the bazaar. I have enjoyed much honour and consideration, but I have likewise been fated to listen to many curses and to be reduced to the ordeal of the oath, when I was suspected of heresy or evil deeds".
We are accustomed at the present day to picture to ourselves the Oriental as a being who, in contemplative repose, is completely bound to his ancestral faith and usages. This representation is not quite correct, but still it agrees better with the situation which now exists than it does with the disposition of Islam in the first four centuries, for during that period it was inclined to take into its possession not only the outward advantages of the world, but also the intellectual acquisitions of Mankind.
67:1 V. Rückerts Uebers. d. Makamen II, p. 299.