Influence of Greek-Hellenistic Philosophy on Islam

During the Hellenistic period, Greece exerted significant cultural influence in Western Asia, North Africa, and Europe. At the same time, its philosophy underwent a radical shift from a predominantly Greek product to an eclectic and cosmopolitan cultural movement in which Greek ideologies and other religious elements amalgamated. Among religions that got immersed in the amalgamation was Islam. Islam philosophers drew ideas from Greek schools of thought which would later make significant contributions to reforms in Islamic thought and theology.

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            The first reactions to Greek-Hellenistic philosophy among Islam philosophers were very diverse. Some dismissed it on the grounds of its foreign and pagan characteristics while others simply rejected it for being superfluous and pernicious. However, rationalist theologians of Islam who had been influenced by dialectic and methods of discourse espoused by Muslim philosophers praised Greek philosophy, considering it as a form of liberation from blind imitation and constrains of dogma. Al-Kindi, who is labelled as one of the most outstanding Islamic figures of the ninth and tenth centuries, argued that the goals of Greek philosophy were more or less compatible with those of religion. Another figure of the same era, Al-Razi viewed philosophy as the highest expression of one’s intellectual ambitions and the most honorable achievement that noble people could attain. These and more similar rational approaches led to the adoption of Greek philosophy in the Islam world.

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            Practical acceptance of Greek philosophy in the Islam community began with the rise of Neoplatonism which essentially represented the final summation of major currents in Greek philosophy, Pythagoreanism, Aristotelianism, Platonism, and Stoicism. Precisely, Neoplatonism resulted in the infusion of mystical and oriental religious spirit. Greek philosophy, Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, Platonism and Aristotelianism. The first phase of transmitting Greek learning into Islamic territories involved translation of theological treatises and logical texts into Syriac. Examples of translated documents were the Aristotle’s Categories, Isagog of Porphyry, Prior Analyt ics, and De interpretation. Nevertheless, the Syriacs were restricted from translating further documents for theological reasons. Greek philosophical texts were later translated to Arabic (Pines).

            The first renowned logician and system-builder of Islam was Al-Farabi. He commented and paraphrased Aristotle’s Organon books along with the Poetics and the Rhetoric’s, which formed a chunk of the Organon in the tradition of the Syriacs-Arabic community (Peters). Al-Farabi also wrote various treatises on logical analysis (Fakhry). He openly embraced Aristotelian logic as opposed to the Arabic Grammarians who were part of the group that had dismissed Greek philosophy as superfluous and pernicious. In a series of his writings, Al-Farabi established a foundation for Arab-Islamic Neoplatonism which hardly influenced Islam in a great way but which inspired subsequent writers on subjects of political philosophy (Walzer). An outstanding Islamic Platonist was Abu Bakr al-Razi. He expressed an intense veneration for Plato and his ideologies.

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            Muslim philosophers were also largely influenced by pre-Socratic philosophy. Among those who were profoundly influenced were those of the Mutazilite School. They considered Plato’s influence as ‘divine’ and Aristotle as ‘first teacher’. Another philosopher of the Hellenistic period, Plotinus swayed Muslim schools of thought by extending Platonism. Precisely, he conferred a mystical dimension on Platonism, rendering it compatible with monotheism. According to Plotinus, ideas were architypes of objects that existed. Therefore, the invisible being was everywhere and from him came about the mind, soul, and matter – the three hypostases of the God-head. The invisible One was essentially manifested in multiple appearances but the multiplicity tended to re-assimilate into oneness by means of the concept of love.

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            The ideologies of Plotinus spread to Syria and parts of Egypt, and especially to Alexandria which was then a landmark center of the Hellenistic period. Greek philosophy, which had some aspects of Christianity, continued to penetrate Muslim territories. Plato’s works were translated first into Syriac, Aramaic, and later Arabic. Initially, Muslim scholars were mostly involved in the translation and interpretation of Greek-Hellenistic woks, hence their philosophy was hardly original. Even so, as years passed, translated works provoked reactions and expansion of thought, leading to generation of new Islamic philosophy.     

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In conclusion, the growth of Islamic civilization relied on Greek heritage. Initially, strictly orthodox Sunni did not welcome philosophic thought. Traditionalist Islamic thinkers deemed philosophy as “foreign science,’ labelling it as heresy. However, some rational Islamic thinkers developed views that were unorthodox and, consequently, welcomed the concept of reason and ultimately the Greek School of thought. The story of Islamic rejection and acceptance of Greek philosophy represents the tension between reason and revelation. It is evident that the espousal of Greek philosophy in the Islamic world ultimately led to some form of influence on the Islamic world.

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