Al-Kindi – The Transmission of Greek Metaphysics to Islamic Theology

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A blog post on someone of the stature of al-Kindi can scarcely do him justice; but it can serve as an introduction to this extraordinary man as well as the transmission and absorption of Greek texts into Islamic theology. It is also my hope that al-Kindi will regain his former prominence among the many other Islamic contributors to human knowledge and to astrology in particular. His cosmology is essentially simple and I believe answers to many of the on-going discussion on the nature of fate and free-will.

To understand how al-Kindi’s mind works, his study of  The religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology of India is a good place to start. He’s is infinitely curious and readily absorbs the philosophy and weighs the values of other very different nations. I have placed the complete work in two volumes in the file section. Familiarity with al-Kindi breeds content. He stands as an essential figure of the Islamic Golden Age. It was tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness that created the Age – not a rigid xenophobia.  It came about by a respect of other cultures and a willingness to work with them.

Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (ca. 800–870 CE) was the first self-identified philosopher in the Islamic and specifically Arabic tradition. His work with a group of scholars and translators, in what became known as the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, gave to the Arab world the works of Aristotle, the Neo-Platonists, and Greek mathematicians and scientists.  He did not appear to demonstrate the rigid distinctions between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy that became the bugbear of later European philosophers. This in itself was no mean feat, but Al Kindi seemed to instinctively know what was of a similar nature and what was not.. al-Kindi’s own thought was suffused with Neo-Platonism, though his main authority in philosophical matters was Aristotle.

The Semitic or Abrahamic religions are less replete with metaphysical codes, but have what is more properly called cosmological ones, when compared for example, with the seemingly endless metaphysical systems of Hinduism. This is also true when those same texts are compared to the Platonic tradition, including the sophisticated and exquisite vision written down by Plotinus. It applied as well to the philosophy of Aristotle. It was to the latter than Al-Kindi first became transfixed. The distinction between Metaphysics, Cosmology and Ontology can at times become blurred of intermingled. To invite them into Islamic thought is not for the careless or faint of heart .

Al-Kindi is often referred to as the Arab’s philosopher. As has happened to so many great minds throughout history, the investigation of the most cherished ideas had lead to suspicions of heterodoxy. The word ‘heterodoxy’ is a convenient catch-all phrase that can be leveled at those who disagree, have some doubts or simply see the nature of reality through a different lens.In this respect, the story of Al-Kindi has contemporary relevance, with particular regard to the understanding of the nature of astrology. The contemporary Traditional astrologer will feel pretty much at home in Al-Kindi’s cosmology.

The new lens of Greek Philosophy provided Al Kindi with a means by which the Theology and Cosmology of the Quran, resulted in a highly significant shift in Astrological thought. By the time of Al-Ghazali, Islamic Philosophy and with it the Golden Age of was eclipsed by a literalist pessimism that has persisted to this day. What was at one time a naturally accepted element of Islam became heavily suspect. It is important to note, however, that Al-Kindi fell short of the view that the universe must be infinite.  It could have lead to his alienation at best and a death sentence at worst, as it did in a later period for Giordano Bruno.

The deep fear of infinity has historically put restrictions on the subject. Perhaps the fear of infinity is no more than the fear that our prescribed limits might prove to be no more than mind-forged manacles, as W. Blake so keenly understood. Limits are an important element in Islam: in general more so than either of the other Abrahamic religions. In the Islamic afterlife, it is made clear that there are no limits. Lastly, I believe infinity is ‘reserved’ for God on this side of the grave.  Philosophers throughout history have always needed to be adept at avoiding stepping on theological toes.

There are no precise parallels to the non-Islamic world on this matter, but the pseudo-prophetic Savonarola lead to a very similar shift, and in fact to a rapid decline in the creativity, tolerance, syncretism and ebullient optimism of Renaissance Florence.

Even Pico della Mirandola succumbed to the dogmatic position that what isn’t a particularly privileged form of Christianity, must be the work of the Devil. I’m certain that many great thinkers were frankly terrified at the speed in which the obscure monk, Savonarola, could turn Florence into a city full of mad people with proverbial pitchforks and literal torches.

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al-ghazali

The contempt and paranoia regarding the new learning was epitomized by the en mass burning of books and works o art, including works by Michelangelo. These were considered the vanities, in the biblical sense o the word and the burning of all these things was called the bonfire of the vanities, a term that survives to this day. This episode in Western history shall forever remain a reminder of how quickly great elements of civilizations can be destroyed by supernatural fears, that even otherwise rational people can fall prey.

In Islam, as in other Middle Eastern and Asian cultures there existed a very different sense of time. It was circular or spiral, but never linear. From the Greeks and developed to a fine science was the Prime Mover – one who is not acted upon – to the participation of the Prime Mover through secondary causes. This lends itself perfectly to Astrology. It means, among other things, that the Stars can easily become the agents of Providence, without diminishing the First Cause.

This was not to be the position of Al Ghazali. There was no room in his thinking for such niceties.  There was one cause and one cause only, no secondary powers could be entertained because they amounted to shirk – the attribution of partners to Allah.

Al-Kindi’s own treatises, many of them personal letters, were addressed to the family o the Caliph, who depended on his translations just as the Medic family would rely on Marsilo Ficino. Core texts included the Theology of Aristotle and Book of Causes along with Arabic versions of Plotinus and Proclus. This textual alchemy was fomented at the political and philosophical core of Islam.

Al-Kindi’s philosophical treatises also include On First Philosophy, in which he argues that the world is not eternal and that God is a simple One. This needs to be understood in the context of an Islamic thinker attempting reconciliation with Greek philosophy. The reality of Tawheed is the first principal in Muslim belief.  It is to believe that Allah alone is the ‘Rabb’ -Creator, Provider and Sustainer (note the identical attributes within Hinduism and elsewhere). He has no partner and needs no partner. To suggest that HE does is the greatest blasphemy in Islam.

Allah alone has the power to determine destiny, and He alone is truly Self-Sufficient (As-Samad) upon whom all the creation depends, as He says: “Allah created all things and He is the Wakeel (Trustee, Disposer of affairs, Guardian) of all things. “To Him belong the keys of the Heavens and the earth. He (Allah) enlarges and restricts provisions to whomever He Wills. Surely, He has Knowledge of everything. See Surah az-Zumar (39): 62. and Surah ash-Shoorah (42): 12. The guidance of the stars is a theme repeated many times in the Qu’ran, but often dismissed as something else.

The key difference from a modern point of view is not whether or not Aristotle was a monotheist.  For all intents and purposes he was . But it would be more accurate to call him a Deist, rather than a Theist. It may seem a fine point and it doesn’t seem to have deterred al Kindi, if in fact he truly appreciated the distinction. The Primum Mobile easily translates to Creator.

al-Kindi’s work in mathematics and other sciences was impressive and became known in both the later Arabic and Latin traditions for his positions on astrology, along with Averroes.

Arab scholar working diligently in the House of Wisdom. (Artist Unknown).
Arab scholar working diligently in the House of Wisdom. (Artist Unknown).

al-Kindi’s claims for astrology commit him to the idea that a wide range of specific events can be predicted on the basis of astral causation. His doctrine of providence goes further by “implying that all events in the lower world are caused by the stars, which are carrying out the benign “command” of God. This doctrine is set out in On the Prostration of the Outermost Sphere” ( Abu Rida 1950, 244–261, Rashed and Jolivet 1998, 177–99) and On the Proximate Agent Cause of Generation and Corruption (Abu Rida 1950, 214–237).

In al-Kindi’s system and, I would suggest, in the Qu’ran itselff, the heavens are possessed of souls who freely follow God’s command so as to move in such a way that the providentially intended sublunary things and events will come about.

This, according to al-Kindi, is what the Qu’ran refers to when it says that the stars “prostrate” themselves before God. In Proximate Agent Cause, meanwhile, al-Kindi gives a more detailed account of the means by which the heavens cause things in the lower world (here he invokes friction, not rays). The most obvious effect of the stars on our world is of course the seasons, because the sun (due to its size and proximity) is the heavenly body with the most powerful effect. If there were no such heavenly causation, according to al-Kindi, the elements would never have combined at all, and the lower realm would consist of four spheres of unmixed earth, water, air and fire.

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al-Kindi’s account of astral causation and providence is typical of his philosophical method. He combines and builds on ideas from Aristotle, later Greek philosophers, as well as so-called “scientific” figures such as Ptolemy. In his work “Prostration” he provides a rational explanation of central concepts in Islam. His explanation of the meaning o the stars prostrating themselves shows a keen interest in going beyond syncretism to a more enlightened reading of the Qu’ran. Al-Kindi appears to have been certain that once his more enlightened colleagues are exposed to his presentations of Greek wisdom, they will

agree that these non-Arabic and non-Muslim texts can be used —together with “Arabic” disciplines like grammar — in the service of a more profound understanding of Islam. These are heady claims and not ones ultimately shared by Al-Ghazali and his followers. Nevertheless, there existed what could be called an Al-Kindian tradition long ater his passing.  This current flourished in the tenth century, which is most obviously represented by the first and second generations of al-Kindi’s. followers.

Musicians_and_their_instruments Topkapi Palace Museum Library, H. 2164.
Musicians and instruments Topkapi Palace Museum Library H. 2164.

al Kindi ‘s advanced contributions to Musicology seem like a natural and intrinsic progression of his cosmology.Al-Kindi’s optimism on this score was not necessarily borne out in subsequent generations. But among thinkers influenced by al-Kindi, one can discern a continuing tendency to harmonize “foreign” philosophy with the “indigenous” developments of Muslim culture. This is one feature of what might be called the “Kindian tradition,” an intellectual current that runs up through the tenth century, which is most obviously represented by first and second generation students of al-Kindi’s.

In a world off ‘what ifs’ it is clear that the position of Al Kindi and like minded philosophers would have developed into a more universally tolerant Islam and one in which the reading of the stars was not confused with the worship of them. Today, we have weather forecasts that seem to be false more often than not, but I cannot imagine any sane person considering meteorology as shirk. Reading the sign of nature is something we do all the time, from the practice off horticulture to the study of the biological origins of life and indeed the universe itself.  https://youtu.be/cse4uDqj_w8

Isra and Mi’raj in the Zubdat-al Tawarikh

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Celestial map, signs of the Zodiac and lunar mansions in the Zubdat-al Tawarikh, dedicated to the Ottoman Sultan Murad III in 1583

First and foremost, I’m fascinated that a book on the natural world is prefaced with a painting of how that world is both sustained and came into being. The visual arts and astrology have long been inseparable.  The earliest star-lore was depicted visually in Sumer and far back into the Paleolithic period. The movements of the Heavens has always been of great importance and one picture really can be worth a thousand words when it comes to explaining Cosmologies.

Today, what we call history is not prefaced with a primary reference to the mystical creation. This makes these works most intriguing because they offer us a window into a mostly forgotten, but essential cosmologies. That is because we live in what we think is a linear, largely material reality. Other cultures, including the Turks, believed that time unfolded in spirals.

Most importantly, we no longer live with the concept of divine origin. Traditional Astrology is very much aware of this reality The image contains an enormous amount of information. Most fundamentally, we have circles within circles At the centre is the source. Next, the seven planets and luminaries are shown in their orbits following the Chaldean order. Beyond the orbit of Saturn have the realm of the Fixed Stars and it appears that the artist has chosen to place the zodiac beyond the black circle.

The theme and to some extent the style was probably inspired by an earlier work the Catalan Atlas by Cresques Abraham and his son Jehuda. It’s a fine work that predates Zubdat al Tawarikh by

Cosmographical diagram od Earth personified by an astronomer holding an astrolabe center of the Universe surrounded by concentric circles representing the four elements the seven planets the spheres and their personification - mid 14th C.
The Catalan Atlas. Cosmographical diagram od Earth personified by an astronomer holding an astrolabe at the center of the Universe surrounded by concentric circles representing the four elements the seven planets the spheres and their personification – mid 14th C.

two centuries. The Catalan Atlas is fairly accurate works of geography with astrological, cosmological plates such as the one below. There is a strikingly lovely page showing the signs and zodiacs as well  It will readily be seen that the Atlas lacks the lavish illustrations, the astrological detail and the strongly mystical representation of the natural world, including the heavens, working in harmony.

The seven planets and luminaries are shown in their orbits following the Chaldean order in a spiral. Beyond the orbit of Saturn, we have the realm of the Fixed Stars and it appears that the artist has chosen to place the zodiac beyond the black circle.

What makes this a particularly fine work, is that it includes the Decans in relation to Lunar Phases as well as the twenty-eight Lunar Mansions, with Angels guarding the Four Directions.

Miniature painting of a parade of two riding-gaz veterans from umelia in front of sultanmurat-iii-from-the-surname hmayun 16th century ce
Miniature painting of a parade of two riding-gaz veterans from umelia in front of sultanmurat-iii-from-the-surname hmayun 16th century ce

Miniature painting of a parade of two riding Gazi – Veterans from Rumelia – in front of Sultan Murat III from the Surname i hümayun 16th century CE

Although the style is very much Turkish and Islamic in style, it is entirely recognizable as what has become known as the Ptolemaic Universe, The relationship between this cosmology and the Night Journey of Muhammad will become clear.

Muhamad’s Night Journey is in Sura Al Nisra of the Quran and further embellished in the Hadiths It’s controversial these days. Many modern Muslims consider this to be a literal event that occurred at a particularly time and place.  – The Prophet rides on Buraq to Jerusalem where he ascends to meet the various Prophets from what is now known as the  Dome of the Rock.

Muhammad travels the seven heavens on Buraq
Muhammad travels the seven heavens on Buraq

The mystical version has is that the Prophet rose through levels of consciousness. In either case, there is an ascent of Seven spheres, an essential theme that has repeated over and over again. In Ayat 11 we have the following exhortation “And We have made the night and day two signs, and We erased the sign of the night and made the sign of the day visible that you may seek bounty from your Lord and may know the number of years and the account [of time]. And everything We have set out in detail.”

This and other passages in the Quran support astrology as a guide to the wise. The usual context is in ‘to show the way’ which clearly refers to the use of stars in navigation but also implies other uses, such as choosing the correct time for an event,, medical diagnosis military matters and affairs of State.  If this were not the case, Islam would have had no cause to compose the type of artwork that we see here, or produce some of the finest astrologers in the Middle Ages and beyond.

The exhortations against astrology are most specifically related to attempting to know such things as the time of the last day and the resurrection. This is the prerogative of the Creator. Common fortune telling won’t find any more support in the Quran as it does in the Bible. Indeed, many sects of Christianity regard astrology as forbidden. In much of my work I have tried to show the massive difference in intent, method and applications of divination compared to the disreputable and unwise world of fortune telling.

Portrait of Humayun, posthumously painted c. 1700 He was an avid astrologer.
Portrait of Humayun, posthumously painted c. 1700 He was an avid astrologer.

Imagine for a moment that you visit your physician and she tells you that you have a serious illness and may not have long to live. That physician has just made a prognostication based on medical knowledge. This could be construed as prediction and in fact it is. When a skilled astrologer reads a chart it for many of the same reason a medical professional might be consulted. Questions about physical, spiritual and mental health can and are addressed by competent astrologers.  Likewise, you might be concerned about making a choice between two or more things. The astrologer won’t make the choice for you, but they can offer very valuable information

Likewise, you might be concerned about making a choice between two or more things. The astrologer won’t make the choice for you, but they can offer very valuable information  There is time to seed and a time to reap. One of the greatest uses of astrology are, as far as I’m concerned, is in the medical field. Knowing your humour, the strengths and weakness you have are all sound applications of  the Celestial Science. If you read scripture carefully, you will not find thes4e applications of astrology to be forbidden.

Makhzan al-Asrār by Niẓāmīمخزن الاسرار Folio 3v The Prophet on Burāq
Makhzan al-Asrār by Niẓāmīمخزن الاسرار Folio 3v The Prophet on Burāq

Above, we what is essentially the sane theme found in the previous paintings, but with a a slight twist. This Persian Sufi painting describes the Night Journey of the Prophet. This work is far more complex than first meets the eye. The painting has deteriorated, but we can still see the planets, represented anthropomorphically. The Sun and Moon are represented as disks. occupying the first and fourth sphere, as per the Chaldea order. We can also see the constellations, but they are projected in such as a way that we have the illusion of looking through the spheres. Remember that this is illustrating Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey.

Returning to the Quranic position on astrology, let’s examine a few more quotations. There is a Sura in the Quran known as Buruj, an Arabic word meaning ‘Constellation’ or ‘Zodiac sign’. Surah Buruj is the 85th Surah in the Quran. The starting of the Surah is : “I swear by the sky where there are buruj…” (i.e Allah swears by th sky where are  zodiac signs.)

“I have created buruj  [Zodiac signs] in the sky and decorated them for viewers and I have also protected them from evils…” (Surah Hizr 16)

Prophet Muhammad-Miraj Isra
Prophet Muhammad-Miraj Isra

“How great he is, who has created buruj in the sky and placed the Sun and shining Moon over there…” (Surah Furkan 61 )

In Arabic Astrology, we find that the sign Leo is named ‘Asad Buruj’. ‘Asad’ means a lion thus the Arabic name of Leo, which is represented by a lion, is ‘Asad Buruj’. Similarly, Libra is named, ‘Meejan Buruj’. The Arabic word ‘Meejan’ means a balance.

The emphasis on the creation of constellations, given the context we have, does nothing to indicate that a study of the same is somehow haram.

Finally, we can take a brief survey of some of Islam’s most esteemed astrologer. Most are surprised to find that the poet Omar Khayyam of Khorasan was an accomplished astrologer(1019-1135)  He was so accurate in his predictions that he even understood about his own death. This isn’t exactly the same as knowing the time of his death but points to a deep understanding of the art.  Many will be familiar with Sahl Ibn Bishr, Al Kindi, Ibn Arabi, Al Biruni and others.

However, I think the crown should go to Ibn Sina (980-1037) He was brilliant Muslim scientist who developed Alchemy. He was also very much devoted to astronomy and astrology, but other than his prolific philosophical works his contributions to medicine are immeasurable. His massive pharmacopeia is still in use among medical astrologers and natural healers.

This may seem trivial to some, but we have a great deal at stake worldwide. Literalist Fundamentalism is not compatible with peace and has the effect of numbing the mind. The golden age of Islam did not flourish because of  a stricter adherence to Shariah, as is commonly thought by contemporary Muslims, but because it was a period of openness, serious study of Classical antiquity and a willingness to work with people of divergent faiths and ethnicities.