Skip to main content

Full text of "Christian Al Kindi Who He Is - Islam & Muslims"

See other formats

AL-KINDI + ‘Philosopher of the Arabs’ 
— from the keyboard of Ghurayb 

Abi Yusuf Ya‘qtb ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi, an Arab aristocrat from the tribe 
of Kindah, was born in Basrah ca. 800 CE and passed away in Baghdad 
around 870 (orca. 196-256 AH). This remarkable polymath promoted 
the collection of ancient scientific knowledge and its translation into 
Arabic. Al-Kindi worked most of his life in the capital Baghdad, where 
he benefitted from the patronage of the powerful ‘Abbassid caliphs al- 
Ma’min (rg. 813-833), al-Mu‘tasim (rg. 833-842), and al-Wathiq (rg. 
842-847) who were keenly interested in harmonizing the legacy of 
Hellenic sciences with Islamic revelation. Caliph al-Ma’mun had 
expanded the palace library into the major intellectual institution BAYT 
al-HIKMAH (‘Wisdom House’) where Arabic translations from Pahlavi, 
Syriac, Greek and Sanskrit were made by teams of scholars. Al-Kindi 
worked among them, and he became the tutor of Prince Ahmad, son of 
the caliph al-Mu‘tasim to whom al-Kindi dedicated his famous work On 
First Philosophy. 

Al-Kindi was a pioneer in chemistry, physics, psycho-somatic 
therapeutics, geometry, optics, music theory, as well as philosophy of 
science. His significant mathematical writings greatly facilitated the 
diffusion of the Indian numerals into S.W. Asia & N. Africa (today 
called ‘Arabic numerals’). A distinctive feature of his work was the 
conscious application of mathematics and quantification, and his 
invention of specific laboratory apparatus to implement experiments. 
Al-Kindi invented a mathematical scale to quantify the strength of a 
drug; as well as a system linked to phases of the Moon permitting a 
doctor to determine in advance the most critical days of a patient’s 
illness; while he provided the first scientific diagnosis and treatment 
for epilepsy, and developed psycho-cognitive techniques to combat 

The tenth century book seller Ibn al-Nadim states al-Kindi wrote 
over 250 books—regrettably less than one-sixth of them are extant, 
some in medieval Latin translations. In the mid-twentieth century a 
manuscript in Turkey was identified containing twenty-four short 

philosophic writings; these were published in Cairo in 1950. Fresh 
discoveries and new studies over the past several decades have made 
his seminal contribution to both Islamic and world civilisation 
appreciated more accurately. Recent research shows that Al-Kindi also 
made fundamental contributions in cryptography, weather forecasting, 
botany, study of environmental pollution, pharmacology, cosmetics 
and the manufacture of perfume products (his Book On Chemistry of 
Perfume was recently published). 

During the first half of the ninth century (third century AH) al-Kindi 
gathered together an outstanding group of scholars in Iraq from 
several religions, known today as the ‘Kindi Circle’, whose influence 
persisted several centuries until the era of al-Ghazali. He directed them 
in the study of Greek, Persian and Indian wisdom, organized the 
production of a vast body of works on all aspects of natural science, 
and acted as the spiritual leader of his ecumenical circle. He specified 
the guiding principle behind this great effort: 

We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, 
from wherever it comes. Even if it should come from far-flung 
nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth 
nothing more important than the truth ...; Study the books of 

wisdom! for that is the feast of the rational souls. 
| On First Philosophy | 

Perhaps his most important achievement was the formation of a 
philosophical terminology (specific terms for concepts) and of a 
philosophical language in Arabic, which led to a linguistic and 
conceptual transformation. He systematized this in his glossary of 
terms and definitions (Kitab al-Hudiid /Epistle on Definitions and the 
Description of Things). In the long run this signaled the rise of a rational 
discourse beyond the discourse of traditionist ‘wlama’ or speculative 
theologians. Al-Kindi intended a coalition of the Islamic Faith with 
Hellenic thought (Falsafah & Science). Philosophy and science were 
understood to vindicate the pursuit of rational scientific activity in the 
service of Islam. 

In his On Definitions al-Kindi gave six definitions of philosophy 
(Rasa@’il, ed. Abū Ridah, I pp.172-4): 

1. Love of wisdom. 2. To make oneself resemble divine 
actions to the extent possible for humans (i.e. to perfect 
virtue). 3. To be concerned with death—with the soul 
abandoning preoccupation with the body, and the death of 
the passions. 4. The ‘Art of arts’ and the Wisdom of 
wisdoms. 5. Human knowledge of oneself [al-Kindi likes 
this definition, for it leads to knowledge of man as 
microcosm]. 6. Knowledge of eternal and universal things to 
the extent possible for humans (i.e. the essence of philosophy). 

Al-Kindi’s teaching on Mind (a/-‘aql) stressed the immaterial substance 
of intelligible realities as well as of the rational soul. He also taught that 
human knowledge (“ilm insani) may derive from various sources and 
may still be expected to develop, to increase and be perfected. He and 
his circle took this duty very seriously. He emphasized the ultimate 
condition and value of scientific knowledge as a religious enterprise for 
intellectuals: Only he who purifies his soul will gain true happiness 
and ultimate vision of truth. 

Al-Kindi was committed to formulate agreements between certain 
philosophical ideas and specific articles of Islamic faith, elaborating a 
mode of philosophic tawhid where Allah was described as ‘The ONE First 
Real’ /al-Wahid al-Haqq al-Awwal. He defended the Qur’anic doctrines of 
creation from nothing and that the universe will come to an end. His 
writing On the Unity of God and the Limitation of the Body of the World 
affirmed the finite temporal nature of the created world—against 
Aristotle. In his cosmologic work On the Prostration of the Outermost 
Sphere he explained that the heavens are possessed of souls and freely 
follow God’s command, moving in such a way that the providentially 
intended sublunary events will occur. According to al-Kindi, this is 
what the Qur’an refers to when stating that the stars ‘prostrate’ 
themselves before God (c.f. Q 55:6). He viewed philosophy to be the 
contents of “the science of things and their true nature” - and identical 
to the message of the Prophets: the science of divine Sovereignty and 
divine Oneness, and sacred teachings of morality and ethics. Al-Kindi 
thus prayed for God’s assistance in pursuit of knowledge and venerated 
the Prophet’s message. 

Among the many important writings produced by the Kindi Circle 
we should mention an extensive commentary-paraphrase from the 
Enneads books IV-VI by PLOTINUS (d. 270 or 271 CE), the great Neoplatonic 
mystic from Alexandria. This was translated for Prince Ahmad by the 
Christian ‘Abd al-Masth ibn Na‘imah from Hims (in central Syria) with al- 
Kindi editing its Arabic terminology. This highly influential writing was 
transmitted and received by Muslim thinkers as the true ‘Theology 
[uthuliujivvah/divine science] of Aristotle’. Its teaching on Soul and self- 
knowing was fundamental for al-Kindi’s enterprise of rational research. 
Closely related to the ‘Theology of Aristotle’ were translated selections 
from the Elements of Theology of the major Neoplatonic thinker PROCLUS 
(d. 485 CE). Such writings convey a monotheistic, creationist 
interpretation of cosmologic Soul-science and served al-Kindi’s Circle as 
a philosophic model for Islamic tawhid. The distinctive literary style 
and consistent technical vocabulary of the Arabic Plotinus and Proclus 
translations produced for al-Kindi confirm that a group of multi- 
religious collaborators united by a common purpose promoted Hellenic 
thought in Arabic in order to propagate a natural theology 
transcending factional dogmas. The same circle of early translators 
working under al-Kindi’s direction translated the Neo-Pythagorean 
guide to number theory by Nichomachus, /ntroduction to Arithmetic, 
reworked by al-Kindi from a version by Habib b. Bihriz (Metropolitan of 
Mosul). The most productive translator of philosophic works in his 
group was Yuhanna or Yahya b. al-Bitriq, a former mawlā of caliph al- 
Ma’ min. 

For the last twenty years of his life this great scientist suffered 
humiliation and censure. When caliph al-Mutawakkil (rg. 847-861) took 
power he championed the cause of Hanbali traditionalism to win 
popular support for his rule. This caliph put an end to the Mihnah 
/inquisition which had enforced Mu‘tazilite doctrine, repressed the 
minority Shi‘ah as well as non-Muslims, and had al-Kindi placed under 
house arrest while his personal library was confiscated. The triumph of 
orthodoxy could not tolerate the marriage of revelation and scientific 
rationalism. Al-Kindi’s legacy persisted as a distinct school highly 

esteemed by professional scholars: mathematicians, astronomers, 
physicians, and within the secretarial class in government 
administration and courts. It was transformed into literature and 
became part of the Islamic-Hellenic synthesis central to the classical 
canon of Adab which furnished the basis for a rationalist ethics of 
knowledge and virtue. 

Al-Kindi’s scientific studies provided arguments for the harmonious 
co-existence of rational and religious sciences—not only for Islam, but 
for all divinely revealed Faiths. D. Gutas states that the Kindi Circle 
“developed an overarching vision of the unity and interrelatedness of 
all knowledge and its research along verifiable and rational lines.” 
Without the achievements of this ‘philosopher of the Arabs’ who brought 
reason into the orbit of revelation, and because of al-Kindi’s 
systematisation and Arabisation of philosophic language, his great 
successors al-FARABI and IBN SINA would have been unable to express 
their ideas. If the ‘Kindi Circle’ and their continuators had not created 
the language of Arabic-Islamic rationalism, then Europe and the 
Muslim world from the Middle Ages until today would not have found a 
common language in assigning names to the principles of Being and 
understanding human epistemic faculties. He spearheaded the first 
truly international ecumenist movement known in history. 


Further Reading: 

Rasa’il al-Kindi al-Falsatiyah, ed. Abu Ridah (2 vols., Cairo: 1950 & 1953). 

Gerhard Endress, “The Circle of al-Kindi: Early Arabic Translations from the Greek and the Rise 
of Islamic Philosophy,” in G. Endress & R. Kruk, eds., The Ancient Tradition in Christian and 
Islamic Hellenism |for H. J. Drossaart Lulofs] (Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1997) pp. 43—76. 

F. W. Zimmermann, “The Origins of the So-Called Theology of Aristotle,” in Pseudo-Aristotle in 
the Middle Ages, ed. J. Kraye et al. (London : Warburg Institute, 1986) pp. 110-240. 

L. Gari, “Arabic Treatises on Environmental Pollution up to the End of the Thirteenth Century,” 
Environment and History v. 8 /4 (2002) pp. 475-488. 

Peter Adamson, A/-Kindi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).