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It is difficult to separate the contribution of Greek philosophy from the commentaries and adaptations of Arab philosophers. It is therefore through the work of the Arab philosophers who are best known in the West that the decisive contribution of the Greek legacy to mediaeval western philosophy can be understood, of course adapted and transformed by the Arab authors before it was passed on to the Latins.

The Muslim philosophers read and translated the Greek texts in the eighth century in the context of an examination of current philosophical problems. They did not passively absorb the Greek legacy but actively used one aspect of it or another according to particular theological problems. All the philosophers shared one characteristic: the wish to reconcile the Greek philosophical legacy and Islamic revelation. This attempt to bring together philosophy and faith explains the success of its dissemination in the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Latins fully understood the value of a selection of translations of works that enabled them to serve the Christian cause.

Certain philosophers from the Islamic world gained particular renown in the West:

Al-Kindî (800-870), who was from Iraq, is considered the founder of Muslim philosophy (falsafa). He was close to the caliphs and involved in the great translation movement. He introduced Aristotle and rationalist thought to the Muslim world, and sought above all to establish the distinction between a human science, acquired through reason, and a divine science transmitted by the prophets, at the same time affirming that the two forms of knowledge were in harmony with each other. He was the founder of Muslim rationalism and, translated into Latin as early as the twelfth century, he also introduced Aristotle into Christian thought.

Al-Razi (died 925). Although for most Muslim thinkers Islam was the basis of falsafa (philosophy in Islam), Al-Razi’s position was radically different: he rejected all revealed religion and miracles, his atheism preferring a progressive conception of knowledge: all knowledge is provisional and perfectible.

Avicenne/Ibn Sina (987-1037), known for his treatises on medicine, was considered the greatest philosopher of the eastern Islamic world. His philosophical works depend heavily on Aristotle and are also influenced by Neoplatonism. His works, translated into Latin, started to arrive in western libraries in the first third of the thirteenth century. In 1272, a number of manuscripts were bequeathed to the Sorbonne, where they were read by generations of theology students.

Averroes/Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) was an Andalusian philosopher of Islam of high renown in the West, although his thought was less influential in the Islamic world. His philosophical work was a recapitulation of all Aristotle’s thought. He wrote a commentary on the whole of Aristotle, and it was through his work that the Latins decisively placed Aristotle at the heart of Christian philosophy. Aristotle’s teaching, modified by the Arab philosophy that introduced it, entered the newly founded Christian universities in the thirteenth century. Some ideas were rejected by theologians, who thought them contrary to Christian dogma, and the opposition was sometimes fierce. This was a severe blow to Ibn Rushd’s interpretation of Aristotle’s philosophy, which nonetheless never completely disappeared since a great many universities continued to teach what was known as Latin Averroism.

For further reading

"La pensée et la religion", Youssef Seddik, EHESS, Paris

"Grands penseurs scientifiques, philosophiques et littéraires. Extraits de textes", Hamadi Benjaballah, Université de Tunis

"La philosophie arabo-musulmane et l'Occident", Alain de Libera, Collège de France

"Le cycle du savoir selon les auteurs arabes. Les influences réciproques en matière de philosophie entre le monde arabo-musulman et le monde occidental" Charles Genequand, Université de Genève

"La doctrine de la guerre d'Averroès. Humanisme, critique de l’hellénocentrisme et jihâd", Maroun Aouad, CNRS

"L'appropriation de la philosophie grecque dans la culture syriaque. L'étape syriaque dans les échanges interculturels du monde méditerranéen", Henri Hugonnard-Roche, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes

"Sur la place de la théorie dans la pratique médical. Au-delà d'Avicenne: le chaînon manquant du Moyen Age tardif ?", Emma Gannagé, Georgetown University

"Les traductions de la Rhétorique d'Aristote. Du grec au latin, en passant par l’arabe" Frederique Woerther, CNRS

"La doctrine de la connaissance sensible selon Avicenne et son influence sur la pensée latine médiévale", Meryem Sebti, CNRS

"Averroes et l'interprétation de la loi", Ali Benmakhlouf, Université Paris-Est Créteil

"Hérodote et Al Bîrûnî: la force du commun", Soumaya Mestiri, Université de Tunis

"AL'"adab" et la formation de l'homme", Makram Abbès, Ecole normale supérieure de Lyon

"La civilisation arabo-musulmane: textes croisés", Youssef Seddik, EHESS, Paris

"La connaissance de soi", Ali Benmakhlouf, Université de Paris-Est Créteil

"La sagesse selon Ibn Sina (Avicenne)", Makram Abbès, Ali Benmakhlouf, Université de Paris-Est Créteil

"Le concept de civilisation", Ali Benmaklouf, Université Paris-Est Créteil

"Le corps et l'esprit dans la philosophie arabe", Makram Abbès, Ecole normale supérieure de Lyon

"Philosophie et sciences en pays d'Islam: une cohabitation féconde", Ahmed Djebbar, Université de Lille