home | 6th-15th centuries


previous | next

Muslims, Science and Philosophy

Al-Kindi | Ibn Sina (Avicenna) | Muhammad al-Ghazal | Omar Khayyam


Expansion into Syria put Arabs in contact with the works of Plato, Aristotle and neo-Platonists. In the mid-800s, an Arab Muslim, al-Kindi (801-73), was a prominent figure in Baghdad and appointed by the caliph to oversee the translation of Greek scientific and philosophical texts into Arabic.

Al-Kindi has been described as the first of the Muslim philosophers influenced by Aristotle. He tried to combine Aristotelian philosophy with Muslim theology three centuries before Thomas Aquinas was doing the same with Aristotle and Christianity. Al-Kindi was interested in science, mathematics, logic, chemistry, cosmology, meteorology, medicine, psychology, optics and music theory. He was also interested in the nature of God, the soul and prophecies.

His translation of Aristotle, The Theology of Aristotle, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell would describe as having "introduced great confusion ... from which it took Arabic philosophy centuries to recover." note46   Al-Kindi's impressions included his belief in the Ptolemaic view of the solar system – a belief he shared with Aristotle – that the sun, moon, planets and stars move around the earth. He described these other bodies as rational entities whose circular motion was their worship of and obedience to Allah.

Al-Kindi accepted Aristotle's gravity theory about bodies having a will to rush to the center of the earth – the imagined center of the universe. And he had other misconceptions about celestial bodies and elements common during his time. But he did believe in laboratory work and experimentation. He was the first to describe the production of pure distilled alcohol from the distillation of wine. And he created recipes for perfumes, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Al-Kindi was concerned with air, water and soil contaminations. In medicine he developed a scale to quantify the strength of a drug, and he provided the first scientific explanation and treatment for epilepsy. Wikipedia describes him as "partly influenced by the ideas of Galen, and partly by his own personal experience and other Muslim physicians in his time."

He could hardly go wrong in introducing Muslims to the decimal system, borrowed from the Babylonians, India or wherever – and eventually to find its way to Western Europe.

Al-KIndi stated that revelation was a superior source of knowledge to reason because it guaranteed matters of faith that reason could not uncover. Also, he said that "We must not hesitate to recognize the truth and to accept it no matter its origin, no matter if it comes to us from the ancients or from foreign people."

Al-Kindi enjoyed the patronage of the caliphs al-Mamun (reign 813-33) and al-Mu'tasim (833-42), but caliph rule was deteriorating and Al-Kindi was under attack for straying from orthodoxy.

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.