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


1. Prior to its contact with Hellenism, the Semitic mind had proceeded no farther in the path of Philosophy than the propounding of enigmas, and the utterance of aphoristic

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wisdom. Detached observations of Nature, but especially of the life and fate of Man, form the basis of such thinking; and where comprehension ceases, resignation to the almighty and inscrutable will of God comes in without difficulty. We have become familiar with this kind of wisdom from the Old Testament; and that it was developed in like manner among the Arabs, is shewn to us by the Bible story of the Queen of Sheba, and by the figure of the wise Loqman in the Arab tradition.

By the side of this wisdom there was found everywhere the Magic of the sorcerer,--a knowledge which was authenticated by command over outward things. But it was only in the priestly circles of ancient Babylonia,--under what influences and to what extent we do not precisely know,--that men rose to a more scientific consideration of the world. Their eyes were turned from the confusion of earthly existence to the order of the heavens. They were not like the Hebrews, who never got beyond the wondering stage 1, or who saw merely an emblem of their own posterity in the countless stars 2; they resembled rather the Greeks who came to understand the Many and the Manifold in their sublunary forms, only after they had discovered the harmony of the All in the unity and steadiness of the movement of the heavens. The only drawback was that much mythological by-play and astrological pretence was interwoven with what was good, as in fact was the case also in Hellenism. This Chaldaean wisdom, from the time of Alexander the Great, became pervaded, in Babylonia and Syria, with Hellenistic and later with Hellenistic-Christian ideas, or else was supplanted by them.

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[paragraph continues] In the Syrian city of Harran only, up to the time of Islam, the old heathenism held its ground, little affected by Christian influences. (Cf. 1, 3, § 4).

2. Of more importance than any Semitic tradition, was the contribution made to Islam by Persian and Indian wisdom. We do not need to enter here upon the question as to whether Oriental wisdom was originally influenced by Greek philosophy, or Greek philosophy by Oriental wisdom. What Islam carried away directly from Persians and Indians may be learned with tolerable certainty from Arabic sources, and to this we may confine ourselves.

Persia is the land of Dualism, and it is not improbable that its dualistic religious teaching exercised an influence upon theological controversy in Islam, either directly or through the Manichaeans and other Gnostic sects. But much greater, in worldly circles, was the influence wielded by that system which, according to tradition, came to be even publicly recognized, under the Sasanid Yezdegerd II (438/9-457), viz. Zrwanism (Cf. III, 1, § 6). In this system the dualistic view of the world was superseded by setting up endless Time, (zrwan, Arab. dahr) as the paramount principle, and identifying it with Fate, the outermost heavenly sphere or the movement of the heavens. This doctrine, pleasing to philosophic intellects, has secured, with or without the guise of Islam, a prominent place for itself in Persian literature and in the views of the people, up to our own day. By theologians, however, and no less by philosophers of the Idealistic schools, it was disavowed as Materialism, Atheism and so forth.

3. India was regarded as the true land of wisdom. In Arab writers we often come upon the view that there the

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birthplace of philosophy is to be found. By peaceful trading, in which the agents between India and the West were principally Persians, and next as a result of the Muslim conquest, acquaintance with Indian wisdom spread far and wide. Much of it was translated under Mansur (754-775) and Harun (786-809), partly by means of the intervening step of Persian (Pahlawi) versions, and partly from the Sanskrit direct. Many a deliverance of ethical and political wisdom, in the dress of proverbs, was taken over from the fables and tales of India, such as the Tales of the Pantshatantra, translated from the Pahlawi by Ibn al-Moqaffa in Mansur's time, and others. It was, however, Indian Mathematics and Astrology,--the latter in combination with practical Medicine and Magic,--that mainly influenced the beginnings of secular wisdom in Islam. The Astrology of the Siddhanta of Brahmagupta, which was translated from the Sanskrit, under Mansur, by Fazari assisted by Indian scholars, was known even before Ptolemy's Almagest. A wide world, past and future, was thereby opened up. The high figures with which the Indians worked produced a powerful, perplexing impression upon the sober Muslim annalists, just as, on the other hand, Arab merchants, who in India and China put the age of our created world at a few thousand years, exposed themselves to the utmost ridicule.

Nor did the logical and metaphysical speculations of the Indians remain unknown to the Muslims. These produced, however, much less effect on scientific development than did their Mathematics and Astrology. The investigations of the Indians, associated with their sacred books and wholly determined by a religious purpose, have certainly had a

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lasting influence upon Persian Sufism and Islamic Mysticism. But,--once for all,--Philosophy is a Greek conception, and we have no right, in deference to the taste of the day, to allot an undue amount of space in our description to the childish thoughts of pious Hindoos. What has been advanced by these meditative penitents about the deceptive show of everything sensuous, may often possess a poetic charm, just as it agrees perhaps with those observations on the evanescence of all that is earthly, which the East had access to in Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic sources; but it has contributed just as little of importance as these did, towards the explanation of phenomena or the awakening of the scientific spirit. Not the Indian imagination, but the Greek mind was needed to direct the reflective process to the knowledge of the Real. The best example of this is furnished by Arabic Mathematics. In the opinion of those who know the subject best, almost the only thing Indian in it is the Arithmetic, while the Algebra and the Geometry are Greek, preponderatingly, if not exclusively. Hardly a single Indian penetrated to the notion of pure mathematics. Number, even in its highest form, remained always something concrete; and in Indian Philosophy knowledge in the main continued to be only a means. Deliverance from the evil of existence was the aim, and Philosophy a pathway to the life of blessedness. Hence the monotony of this wisdom,--concentrated, as it was, upon the essence of all things in its One-ness,--as contrasted with the many-branched science of the Hellenes, which strove to comprehend the operations of Nature and Mind on all sides.

Oriental wisdom, Astrology and Cosmology delivered over

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to Muslim thinkers material of many kinds, but the Form,--the formative principle,--came to them from the Greeks. In every case where it is not mere enumeration or chance concatenation that is taken in hand, but where an attempt is made to arrange the Manifold according to positive or logical points of view, we may conclude with all probability that Greek influences have been at work.


7:1 Job XXXVIII.

7:2 Gen. XV: 5.

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