Sacred Texts  Islam  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

History of Philosophy in Islam, by T.J. de Boer [1904], at

p. 97


1. KINDI. 1

1. Kindi is related in various ways to the Mutazilite Dialecticians and the Neo-Pythagorean Natural-Philosophers of his time, and we might therefore have dealt with him among the latter, even before Razi (v. III, 1, § 5). But yet tradition with one accord represents him as the first Peripatetic in Islam. What justification exists for this traditionary view will be seen in what follows, so far as an inference can be drawn from the few and imperfectly-preserved writings of this philosopher which have come down to us.

Abu Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (i.e. of the tribe of Kinda) was of Arabian origin, and therefore was called the "Arabian" philosopher, to distinguish him from the numerous non-Arab associates of his, who had taken to the study of secular wisdom. He traced his genealogy to the old Kinda princes, although whether he was entitled to do so we need not seek to decide. The South-Arabian tribe of Kinda was

p. 98

in any case farther advanced in outward civilization than other tribes. Many Kindite families too had for long been settlers in Iraq (Babylonia); and there, in the town of Kufa, of which his father was governor, our philosopher was born, probably in the beginning of the ninth century. He received his education, it would appear, partly in Basra, and thereafter in Bagdad, and therefore in the headquarters of the culture of his time. Here he came to put a higher value upon Persian civilization and Greek wisdom than upon old Arab virtue and the Muslim faith. He maintained even,--no doubt, following others--, that Kakhtan, the ancestor of the South-Arabians was a brother of Yaunan's, from whom the Greeks were descended. It was possible to make an observation of that kind in Bagdad at the Abbasid court, for there they knew of no nationality, and regarded the ancient Greeks with admiration.

It is not known how long Kindi remained at court, or what position he held there. He is mentioned as a translator of Greek works into Arabic, and is said to have revised and improved translations made by others, for example, in the case of the so-called "Theology of Aristotle". Numerous servants and disciples, whose names have been handed down to us, were probably set to this work under his supervision. Farther, he may have rendered services to the court in the capacity of astrologer or physician, and perhaps even in the administration of the revenues. But in later years he was dismissed, when he with others was made to suffer from the restoration of orthodoxy under Mutawakkil (847-861); and his library was for a long time confiscated. As regards personal character, tradition reproaches him with having been niggardly,--a stigma,

p. 99

however, which appears to have rested upon many other literary men and lovers of hooks.

The year of Kindi's death is as little known as that of his birth. He appears thus to have been out of court-favour when he died, or at least to have been in a subordinate position. It is strange that Masudi:(v. II, 4 § 4), who had a great regard for him, is utterly silent on this point; but it seems in the highest degree probable from one of his astrological treatises that he was still alive subsequent to the year 870. The expiry of some petty astronomical cycle was imminent at that date, and this was being utilized by the Karmatites for the overthrow of the reigning family. In this matter, however, Kindi was loyal enough to make out the prolongation, for about 450 years, of the State's existence, menaced though it was by a planetary conjunction. His princely patron might well be satisfied; and history conformed to the time predicted, to within half-a-century. 1

2. Kindi was a man of extraordinary erudition, a Polyhistor: he had absorbed the whole learning and culture of his time. But although he may have set down and communicated observations of his own as a geographer, a historian of civilization and a physician, he was in no respect a creative genius. His theological views bear a Mutazilite stamp. He wrote specially on Man's power of action, and the time of its appearance, i.e. whether it was before the act or whether it was synchronous with the act. The righteousness and the unity of God he expressly emphasized. In opposition

p. 100

to the theory,--known at that time as Indian or Brahmanic,--that Reason is the sole and sufficient source of knowledge, he defended prophecy, while yet he sought to bring it into harmony with reason. His acquaintance with various systems of religion impelled him to compare them together, and he found as a common element in them all the belief that the world was the work of a First Cause, One and Eternal, for whom our knowledge furnishes us with no more precise designation. It is however the duty of the discerning to recognize this First Cause as divine; and God himself has shewn them the way thereto, and has sent them ambassadors to bear witness for him, who are instructed to promise everlasting bliss to the obedient, and to threaten corresponding punishment to those who do not obey.

3. Kindi's actual philosophy, like that of his contemporaries, consists, first and especially, of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, in which Neo-Platonism and Neo-Pythagoreanism merge into one another. According to him no one can be a philosopher without studying Mathematics. Fanciful play upon letters and numbers is frequently met with in his writings. Mathematics he also applied to Medicine in his theory of the compound remedies. In fact he based the efficacy of these remedies, like the effect of music, upon geometrical proportion. It is here a matter of the proportionality of the sensible qualities, warm, cold, dry and moist. If a remedy has to be warm in the first degree, it must possess double the warmth of the equable mixture,--in the second degree, four times as much, and so on. Kindi seems to have entrusted the decision of this point to Sense, particularly to the sense of Taste, so that in him

p. 101

we might have a hint of the proportional relation existing between stimulus and sensation. Yet that view, though quite original, was with him a mere piece of mathematical play. However, Cardan, a philosopher of the Renaissance, on the ground of this doctrine, reckoned him among the twelve most subtle-minded thinkers.

4. In Kindi's opinion, as has already been said, the world is a work of God, but His influence in its descent is transmitted through many intermediate agencies. All higher existence affects the lower, but that which is caused has no influence upon its cause, standing as this does above it in the scale of Being. In all the events of the world there is a pervading causality, which makes it possible for us, from our knowledge of the cause, to foretell the future,--for example, of the positions of the heavenly bodies. Farther, in any single existing thing, if it is thoroughly known, we possess a mirror, in which we may behold the entire scheme of things.

It is to the Spirit or Mind that the higher reality and all activity belong, and matter has to dispose itself in conformity with the desire of the Spirit. Midway between the Spirit of God and the material and bodily world stands the Soul, and it is the Soul which first called into being the world of the Spheres. From this Soul of the world the Human Soul is an emanation. In its nature, that is, in its operations, it is bound to the body with which it is united, but in its spiritual essence it is independent of the body; and thus the influences of the stars, which are limited to physical occurrences, do not affect it. Kindi goes on to say that our Soul is an uncompounded, imperishable substance, descended from the world of reason into that of the senses,

p. 102

but endowed with a recollection of its earlier condition. It does not feel at home here, for it has many needs, the satisfaction of which is denied to it, and which consequently are attended with painful emotions. Verily there is nothing constant in this world of coming and going, in which we may be deprived at any moment of what we love. Only in the world of reason is stability to be found. If then we desire to see our wishes fulfilled, and would not be deprived of what is dear to us, we must turn to the eternal blessings of reason, to the fear of God, to science, and to good works. But if we follow merely after material possessions in the belief that we can retain them, we are pursuing an object which does not really exist.

5. Kindi's theory of knowing corresponds to the ethical and metaphysical duality of the sensible and the spiritual. According to it our knowledge is either knowledge conveyed by the senses, or knowledge acquired by the reason: that which lies between,--the Fancy or Imagination, is called a mediating faculty. The senses, then, apprehend the Particular, or the material Form, but the reason conceives the Universal,--species and genera, or the spiritual Form. And just as that which is perceived is one with Sense-Perception, so too that which is conceived by the reason is one with Reason itself.

Here then emerges for the first time the doctrine of the Reason or of the Spirit or Mind, (νοῦς, ‘aql) in a form in which, merely modified somewhat, it occupies a large space with the later Muslim philosophers. It continued to be a characteristic feature of philosophy in Islam throughout its whole course. And just as in the controversy regarding Universals in the Christian Middle Ages an objective

p. 103

and scientific interest is made evident also, so in the philosophical discussions of the Muslims concerning the thinking Spirit, the subjective requirement of intellectual culture is brought conspicuously to the front.

Kindi has a fourfold division of the Spirit 1: first the Spirit which is ever real,--the Cause and the Essence of all that is spiritual in the world,--thus without doubt God or the First Spirit produced; second, Spirit as the Reasoning capacity or Potentiality of the human soul; third, as the Habit or actual possession of the soul, which it can make use of at any moment, just as, for example, the writer can make use of his art; fourth and last, as Activity, by which a reality within the soul may be carried over to the reality that is without. The Activity last named appears, according to Kindi, to be the act of Man himself, while to the First Cause,--to the ever-existing Spirit,--he ascribes the carrying of Potentiality into Habit, or the realisation of the Possible. The real Spirit or Mind we have thus received from above, and the third ‘aql is therefore called ‘aql mustafad, (Lat. intellectus adeptus sive adquisitus). The fundamental view of antiquity,--that all our knowledge about things must come from a source outside of us--, runs, in the form of this doctrine of the ‘aql mustafad or Spirit which we receive from above, through the whole of Arabian Philosophy, and thence passes into Christian Philosophy. Unfortunately the theory is nearly correct, as far as this philosophy is itself concerned, for the

p. 104

[paragraph continues] 'Active Spirit', which has created it, is in reality the Neo-Platonic Aristotle.

Man has always attributed to his God or Gods the highest of his own possessions. Muslim theologians directly attribute to the divine agency the moral actions of men. But in the opinion of the philosophers, Knowing is of more importance than Doing. The latter, having more to do with the lower world of the senses, may possibly be Man's own; but his highest knowledge, the pure Reason, comes from above,--from the Divine Essence.

It is clear that the doctrine of the Spirit, as it stands in Kindi, goes back to the 'Nous'-doctrine of Alexander of Aphrodisias in his second book "On the Soul". But Alexander expressly maintained that according to Aristotle there is a threefold 'Nous'. Kindi says on the contrary that he is representing the opinion of Plato and Aristotle. In this the Neo-Pythagorean and the Neo-Platonic views unite: for in everything the number 'Four' must be pointed out, and Plato and Aristotle brought into agreement.

6. Let us now sum up: Kindi is a Mutazilite theologian and Neo-Platonic philosopher with Neo-Pythagorean additions. Socrates, the martyr of Athenian heathenism, is his ideal: on him, his fate and his teaching he has composed several works; and he seeks to combine Plato and Aristotle in Neo-Platonic fashion.

Tradition nevertheless calls him the first who followed Aristotle in his writings; and assuredly this representation is not altogether unfounded. In the long list of his works Aristotle takes a prominent place. He was not satisfied with merely translating him, but he studied his translated works and endeavoured to improve and explain them. At

p. 105

all events the Aristotelian Physics, with the commentary of Alexander of Aphrodisias, had an important influence upon him. Such assertions as that the world is only potentially unending and not actually so, and that motion is continuous, and the like, point rather in that direction. The Natural-Philosophers of that day, as well as the Faithful Brethren, said for instance, that motion had as little continuity as number. But farther, Kindi resolutely turned away from the marvel-mongering philosophy of the time, by declaring Alchemy an imposture. That which nature alone could produce, he held to be beyond the power of man. Whoever then gives himself up to alchemistic experiments, is in his opinion deceiving either himself or others. The famous physician, Razi, attempted to controvert this view of Kindi's.

7. The influence of Kindi as a teacher and an author has operated mainly through his Mathematics, Astrology, Geography and Medicine. His most faithful and certainly his most notable disciple was Akhmed ibn Mohammed al-Tayyib al-Sarakhsi († 899), a government official and friend of the Caliph Mutadid, to whose negligence or caprice he fell a victim. He worked at Alchemy and Astrology, strove to gain a knowledge of the wisdom and might of the Creator from the wonders of creation, and prosecuted the study of Geography and History. Another disciple of Kindi's has become better known,--Abu Mashar († 885), who, however, owes all his reputation to Astrology. He is said to have become, when 47 years of age, an admirer of Kindi's,--though up till then he had been a fanatical opponent of philosophy, having been attracted to the pursuit of Astrology, by a superficial study of Mathematics.

p. 106

Whether this be truth or fiction, such a course of education is at all events characteristic of that inquisitive grasping at half-understood knowledge, which peculiarly belongs to the first centuries of Arab Science.

The school of Kindi went in no way beyond the master. Of its literary activity hardly any sample has been preserved to us beyond a stray quotation or two. It is of course possible that in the treatises of the Faithful Brethren, something of it may have been saved, but this cannot be determined, in the present state of our knowledge.


97:1 Cf. my Article "On Kindi and his School" in Stein's 'Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie XIII', p. 153 sqq., from which I have taken over, without much alteration, not a little that appears in this chapter.

99:1 [Translator's note.--The Bagdad Caliphate lasted up to the death of Mustassim (A.H. 656 or A.D. 1258), i.e. for 400 Mohammedan years after A.H. 256 or A.D. 870].

103:1 The Arabic ‘aql (νοῦς) is usually translated by Reason and Intelligence (Lat. intellectus and intelligentia). I prefer however the rendering, Geist, Spirit or Mind, because the expression includes God and the pure (separate) spirits of the spheres. Moreover it is hard to decide how far the personification of Reason was carried by individual thinkers.

Next: 2. Farabi