The Iraqi Philosopher

Al-Kindi was born and brought up in Kufah, which was a centre for Arab culture and learning in the 9th century. This was certainly the right place for al-Kindi to get the best education possible at this time. Although quite a few details (and legends) of al-Kindi’s life are given in various sources, these are not all consistent. We shall try to give below details which are fairly well substantiated.

Al-Kindi defined Philosophy as ‘the establishment of what is true and right’ and believed that the pursuit of philosophy was compatible with orthodox Islam. By Sonal Panse, 11/3/2004

The Iraq crisis and the general and hypocritical Western perception of Islam as the harbringer of terrorism made me think of Al-Kindi recently. Renowned as the first great philosopher of Arabic and Islamic origin in the world, his full name was Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Sabbah Al-Kindi, quite a mouthful, and he was the scion of a very illustrious family descended from the Royal Kindah Tribe of Southern Arabia. He was born in 801 in Kufah, Iraq.

Kufah, in the ninth century was an important and cospomolitan city, famous as the second capital of the Caliphate after Medina, and Al-Kindi’s father just happened to be its governor – his grandfather too had once been the governor. His lineage as well as Kufah’s cultural importance made it possible for Al-Kindi to receive the best possible education available in that period. Afterwards he moved to Baghdad for further studies and here, as he had in Kufah, he soon proved his intellectual prowess.

Baghdad was then under the rule of Caliph al-Ma’mun, the son of the famous Haroun al-Rashid. Haroun al-Rashid had founded a research and educational institute called the ‘bayt al-hikma’ or the House of Wisdom. His son al-Ma’mun, who succeeded him in 813 after defeating his brother in an armed power struggle, proved to be an equally enlightened and capable ruler. Shifting his capital from Merv to Baghdad in 818, he became a patron of the House of Wisdom and had observatories set up which Arabic astronomers used to study and further explore the works of earlier researchers. Al-Ma’mun also collected rare and valuable Byzantine manuscripts and created a vast library that was second only to the famed ancient one in Alexandria. The House of Wisdom, under the Abbasid Dynasty, gained great renown as an intellectual centre where erudite scholars gathered to exchange and teach their ideas.

Hearing of Al-Kindi’s brilliance, al-Ma’mun summoned him to his court and, aside from appointing him as a tutor to his young son, also had him inducted into the House of Wisdom. Here, Al-Kindi had for colleagues intellectuals like al-Khwarizm, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and the three Banu Musa brothers, Jafar Muhammad Ibn Musa ibn Shakir, Ahmed ibn Musa ibn Shakir, and al-Hasan ibn Musa ibn Shakir. The main task of these people was to research and translate Greek scientific and philosophical manuscripts into Arabic. Al-Kindi, however, did not do the actual translation himself, but reworked and corrected the translations made by others and then, based on these, wrote his commentaries on the Greek works.

Al-Kindi was greatly influenced by the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Porphyry, and Proclus, and incorporated their ideas into his own philosophical work. He soon began to outshine his colleagues in his work. Unlike the Banu Musa brothers, who were mainly mathematicians, and Abu Ma’shan, whose sphere was astrology, Al-Kindi was a versatile genius with a wide knowledge of Philosophy, Logic, Geometry, Mathematics, Music, Art, Optics, Geography, Astronomy, Chemistry, Pharmacy, Logogriphs, Armaments, and Cooking. He wrote over 270 works on various subjects, out of which 22 were on Medical topics and 11 on Arithmethic.

Al-Kindi defined Philosophy as ‘the establishment of what is true and right’ and believed that the pursuit of philosophy was compatible with orthodox Islam. He said – “We ought not to be embarrassed of appreciating the truth and of obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. Nothing should be dearer to the seeker of truth than the truth itself, and there is no deterioration of the truth, nor belittling either of one who speaks it or conveys it.”

Al-Kindi’s philosophical works include a treatise on Epistemology and the logic treatise ‘Risalah fi Huded al-Ashya’wa Rusumiha’ (On the Definition of Things and Their Descriptions). Also ‘Rasa’il al-Kindi al-falsafiya’ (Philosophical Treatises of Al-Kindi), ‘Fi al-falsafa al-ula’ (On First Philosophy), ‘Fi wahdaniyat Allah wa tunahiy jism al-alam’

(On the oneness of God and the Limitation of the Body of the World), ‘Fi Kammiya Kutub Aristutalis wa ma yohtaju ilaihi fi tahsil al-falsafa’ (The Quantity of Aristotle’s Books and what is required for the acquisition of Philosophy), and ‘Fi al-hila li-daf’al-ahzan’ (On the Art of Averting Sorrow).

Al-Kindi’s success unfortunately didn’t make him too popular with his colleagues and they began conniving against him. Under al-Ma’mun and his successor, al-Mu’tasim, Al-Kindi remained in favor. But his star began to descend under the next two orthodox Caliphs. He died in 873 in Baghdad.


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