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


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.



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.

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