Al Kindi was known in Europe as the "Philosopher of the Arabs" as some of his works were translated into Latin, but many of his three hundred Arabic treatises attributed to him have been lost. Around seventy still survive to testify to Al Kindi's genius
Abdullah Al Ma’mun, the Caliph of Baghdad, lay restless in his royal bedchamber, brooding on his deep desire to have his reign remembered as a period of enlightenment, an era of unsurpassed scholars and great philosophers. He has almost completed plans for a magnificent House of Wisdom, a centre of learning that would include a library, a translation bureau, and a school. It would be his monument, and all was in final readiness for its construction. What was it then, that disturbed him, now that his dream was about to become a reality? A nagging doubt kept him awake at night, an unanswered question prevented sleep: was his purpose truly worthy in the eyes of God?
Was it right to spread ideas, to stimulate new thoughts, to revive the wisdom of the ancients, the Greek philosophies? Should he encourage the use of reason and logic to examine a world created by God? God’s truth had been given to man by revelations of the Prophet. But suppose reason and logic led everywhere? If man could not prove the validity of supernatural mysteries did it mean that he disproved God? The Caliph fell into a troubled sleep.
As he slept, he relaxed, the tenseness of his recent nights eased by a curious dream. Aristotle, smiling reassurance, appeared to him and touched his forehead with enlightenment. “There is no conflict,” the Greek sage said. “Reason and religion are allies and not enemies.” Al Ma’mun awoke abruptly. His night visitor had disappeared, but the Caliph felt renewed confidence in his project and its value. He ordered construction of the learning centre to begin straight away.
For such a Caliph, at such a time and in such a place there could have been no more congenial philosopher than Abu Yusuf Ya’qub Al-Kindi.
Baghdad during the reign of Al-Ma’mun was perhaps the foremost cultural center in the world. Each week in the palace the Caliph held scholarly sessions for the intellectuals of Islam. There they sat around a table, listening to one another’s views, discussing their differences. One evening the self assured young philosopher Al-Kindi strode into the meeting, looked around him, and then took a seat fairly close to the Caliph. At that time, a man’s place at the table indicated his status and Al-Kindi had placed himself in position above a prominent theologian.
“How dare you sit above me?” complained the deeply affronted man. Al-Kindi shrugged.
“Because,” he replied simply, “I know what you know and you don’t know what I know.”
Al-Kindi was the first formal philosopher of Islam and the foremost philosopher of pure Arab ancestry. A devout Muslim, he felt it was his personal mission in life to try to reconcile the bitter disputes between theologians and philosophers that recurrently plagued the Arab-Islamic world. During a lifetime devoted to this cause, he learned that the role peacemaker could be a thankless one.
Al-Kindi defined the world Falsafah as “Knowledge of things as they are in reality, according to human capacity”. “Truth, he claimed, is universal and supreme, and truths of religion and philosophy are in accord.”
In an effort to placate those theologians who viewed the aims of philosophy as essentially opposed to the dictates of faith and revelation, Al-Kindi proposed that the holy scriptures be looked upon as allegories that can guide the thoughts of men of reason. He argued that revelation was intended for all men to accordance with their abilities to perceive and understand. The masses, he insisted, were given the gift of faith. The elite, the educated, were given intellect to expand upon the words of revelation by applying logic and reason.
For example, Al-Kindi pointed out, the Qur’an tells the Muslim that the sun, moon and stars, mountains, trees and beasts “offer worship” to God. This is a true statement and an inspiration to the faithful. For the unsophisticated, however, the words evoke simply a poetic image of all creation bending in prayer, and for them that is enough. But Al-Kindi suggested, the scholar can view the universal phenomenon or worship as obedience to the will of Good. The behavior of all entities, both animate and inanimate, follows laws established by the Supreme Power.
Al-Kindi’s tireless effort to make philosophy acceptable to the theologians eventually revitalized Islamic thought. But the difficulties he encountered along the way are reflected in the advice he offered to his students: “For a seeker of learning aspiring to be a philosopher,” he said, “six prerequisites are essential: a superior mind, uninterrupted passion, gracious patience, a free-from-worry heart, a competent introducer and a long time. Should one of these prerequisites be lacking, the student is bound to fail.”
In this role as court physician, Al-Kindi was apparently more prudent and less free from worry than he was in his tumultuous philosophical career. He advised his colleagues in the medical profession: “Take no risks, bearing in mind that for health there is no substitute. To the extent to which a physician like to mentioned as the restorer of a patient’s health, he should guard against being cited as its destroyer and the cause of death.”
In science, Al-Kindi did not present an embryonic and wrote a series of astrological and astronomical works. An astrologer to three Caliphs, he believed the science genuine, although he distinguished between true and false philosophers. Alchemists however, he criticized, charging them with deceptive claims and vain get-rich-quick schemes. He was the first Arab writer to form a comprehensive and systematic classification of the sciences.
His ingenuity and inventiveness as a man of letters rested on his ability to coin phrases. Otherwise, his style was rather long-winded, sprinkled with farfetched terms and idioms. He was a scholar and not a writer. He stressed the importance of using the intellect. “The intelligent man who knows God and practices good works attains the highest possible good for himself”, he said, “since those caught up by bodily pleasures could not achieve the perfect state”. In his personal affairs, he is remembered as having been “thrifty.” A contemporary, Al-Jahiz, recorded his name in his ‘Book of Misers’ written shortly before his death.
In later life, Al-Kindi fell victim to an unkind fate and to the plots of jealous rivals, three of the Caliphs that Al-Kindi served had supported philosophical thought, and under whose patronage his had prospered. The unsympathetic attitude of the fourth however, brought about the loss of popular prestige and personal fortune. The sixty-year-old Al-Kindi suffered more when two of his enemies convinced the Caliph that the philosopher was dangerous and untrustworthy. The ruler ordered the confiscation of the scholar’s personal library, known to all as Al-Kindiyah, and that Al Kindi himself to be given fifty lashes in public.
Although a friend managed to retrieve the library by subtle extortion, the public beating left a permanent mark on Al-Kindi’s spirit. He retired to his home, sad and broken.
If pride bordering on arrogance and thrift bordering on avarice can be counted against the man, they were more than offset by his brilliance of mind and his many other virtues – intellectual courage, a love of truth, an open mind, abstinence and patience. He viewed suffering and death as an inescapable part of human life and he succumbed in silence and dignity. He died around 873 at the age of seventy-two.