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By: Martin Nick

  In every issue, Al Shidagah magazine features a review of the life and deeds of at least one significant historical leader from the Muslim realm. More than once, we have presented the biographies of prominent Islamic philosophers. Interestingly, although Muslim and influential throughout the Arab lands, these great men were arguably never of Arab descent. For this reason, in the present issue of our magazine, we decided to present to you the greatest true Arab philosopher - Al Kindi.


A Short Biography

  Ya’qub ibn Ishaq As Sabah Al Kindi, or better known simply as Al Kindi, has earned himself the title “The Philosopher of the Arabs”. As mentioned above, this is due to the fact that he was the greatest philosopher of true Arab descent. Although some sources claim otherwise, most agree on his family’s noble Arab origins (as opposed to him having a Persian descent, for example). As his name suggest, Al Kindi was a descendant of the so–called Royal Kindah tribe which came northwards from the south of Arabia. The Royal Kindah represented a number of united tribes which saw the peak of their power in the 6th century AD. Although less prominent after the arrival of Islam, the Al Kindah managed to keep their high status in Muslim society.

  Al Kindi was born around the year 800 in Al Kufa, present day Iraq, about 170 km south of Baghdad and 10 km northeast of Najaf. At that time, Al Kufa was a flourishing city. The first Arab armies to occupy the city came in 638. About a century later, the Abbasids made Al Kufa the temporary capital of their empire while Baghdad was being built. This is when the town grew into a prominent cultural center, creating the right atmosphere for, among other things, making of the Kufic script – the earliest alphabet of the Arabic language. It was in this stimulating cultural setting that Al Kindi grew and lived.  He found support from the ruling caliphs Al Mamun (813 – 833 BC) and Al Mutasim (833 – 842 BC) who were fond of helping ambitious scholars. In his work, Al Kindi was mainly interested in philosophical thought from Greece, as well as a multitude of disciplines such as medicinal treatments, astrology, mathematics, the making of steel weapons, and others. By most accounts, Al Kindi is mentioned as the author of 241 books on philosophic and other subjects during his life.

Al Kindi’s work and life - a detailed account

  Al Kindi’s father occupied a prominent official position in the court of Haroon Al Rashid as the governor of Al Kufa. This helped young Al Kindi get access to sources of information and manuscripts that were not open to the public, which allowed him to build up his scholarly knowledge. Soon enough, Al Kindi felt confident to move to Baghdad to take his studies to a higher level. In Baghdad, his enthusiasm and dedication to philosophy and the sciences elevated him in the eyes of the learned societies. This is when the caliph Al Mamun first heard about Al Kindi.

  Coincidentally, the caliph was preparing a grand project he called the “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad. With it, Al Mamun envisioned to create a kind of a university where, among other disciplines, Byzantine Greek philosophical and other scripts were to be translated. As this undertaking suggests, Al Mamun was very supportive of scholarship and acquisition of knowledge. After meeting with Al Kindi, the caliph soon appointed him to the House of Wisdom together with such people as the great mathematicians Al Khwarizmi and the Banu Musa brothers. In the House of Wisdom, Al Kindi devoted a great deal of his time to the translation of Byzantine Greek philosophical works. Some sources dispute whether he himself was able to do the translation. In any case, however, all accounts agree that he was supervising the translation, acting as a kind of general editor. In addition, Al Kindi reviewed and wrote analyses on many Byzantine Greek philosophers. It seems that he was most strongly inspired by the works of the great philosopher Aristotle. His philosophical commentaries also show borrowings from Plato and Proclus as well as others upon which he built his own theories and interpretations.

  Al Kindi gladly took part in other projects of Al Mamun. One such project that deserves mention is the grand observatories Al Mamun built from where Al Kindi could study the stars and compare what he saw to the Byzantine Greek manuscripts.

  When Caliph Al Mamun died in 833, his brother Al Mutasim took over. Familiar with his work, dedication, and honesty, caliph Al Mutasim appointed Al Kindi as the personal coach to his son Ahmad. As tutor of Ahmad, Al Kindi was still able to follow his scholarly pursuit in different sciences. In chemistry, for example, contrary to popular belief in alchemical practices, he contested the notion that gold could be manufactured from base metal combinations. This was a revolutionary view for its time implying that chemical reactions cannot possibly be used to transform one element into another.

  Al Kindi was also interested in the study of physics where was particularly fascinated in geometrical optics, although he was influenced by current scientific trends and confused the theory of light and the theory of vision. Nevertheless, he was successful in formulating the theory of parallels. He looked into the prospect of having pairs of straight lines in a plane which are non-parallel and non-intersecting at the same time. He wrote several manuscripts with his findings on the subject, which he later compiled into books.

  Closely related to geometry and astronomy, the science of mathematics was another subject that interested Al Kindi. His findings in arithmetic and spherical geometry resulted in four books on the subject. Al Kindi is also credited with contributions to the Arabic system of numerals (which for the most part was formulated by Al Khwarizmi).

  Al Kindi also made important contributions in medicine. His most significant gift to the development of this science was his systematic classification of the dosage to be given to patients. In one of his books, he presented precisely the correct dose for each medication used at the time, which helped standardize the preparation of recipes.

  A keen student of arithmetic, Al-Kindi is the author of many works on the subject. Some of these analyzed the Hindu numerical system, the relationship of space and time (which he asserted were finite), the accord of numerical combinations, relative quantities, and the calculation of proportions.

  In music, Al Kindi found a scientific approach as well. His aim was to find a logical explanation to the peculiarities of sound arrangement. He observed how harmony is produced by the arrangement of specific notes. He noticed that each note carries a precise pitch and that those notes with a very high or a very low pitch do not fit in a harmonious manner. As a result, he found it necessary to produce a manuscript explaining how to establish pitch. Further, Al Kindi explained that the overall harmony is a result of the rate of recurrence of the notes. Perhaps most revolutionary for its time, Al Kindi found out that we hear sounds because of the sound waves generated. These, he observed, travel through the air and reach our ear-drums.

  In philosophy, a recurring theme in Al Kindi was his belief that orthodox Islam is not in conflict with philosophy as a whole. Indeed, he produced many arguments in favor of the congruent relationship that can exist between philosophy and Islam. However, this earned Al Kindi some enemies in the learned societies, the Banu Musa brothers and the astrologer Abu Ma'shar in particular.

  Another philosophical paper, which is more popular by its Latin title “De Intellectu”, deserves mention. In it, Al Kindi shows influence from Aristotle in the discussion of the two kinds of intellect. He called these “the passive intellect, which is a receptive power, and the active intellect, which abstracts objects that can be known intellectually.” In the treatise, Al Kindi goes on to explain the notion of abstraction and the origin of universals using Aristotle, and to some extent Plato, to build upon and justify his own findings. Thus, he formulates the active intellect as the “intelligence;” in other words a psychic stuff independent of the soul. This so called “intelligence” influences the passive intellect and in a way enables it from a dormant state to the achievement of knowledge. Regarding the “universals,” Al Kindi says they are the result of the effect of the active intellect, in other words the intelligence, upon the passive intellect.

  Never tiring of scientific pursuit, Al Kindi also produced a multitude of miscellaneous manuscripts on different subjects ranging from his views on alchemy and precious stones to the astronomical path that the planets follow. Much of this labor is now lost in history. We know of it only through referring sources, many of them in Latin, who hint at Al Kindi’s breakthrough findings, inventions, and observations. Although it is uncertain how close to the originals the translations were, scholars have been able to infer that the essence of Al Kindi’s texts has been sustained. The total number of books that Al Kindi wrote is believed to be 241. They can be classified in this descending manner: 32 on geometry, 22 on medicine, 22 on philosophy, 16 on astronomy, 12 on physics, 11 on arithmetic, 7 on music, 5 on psychology and the rest on miscellaneous topics. Of those translated into Latin, the main books are Al Mosiqa, Mad-o-Jazr, Risalah Dar Tanjim, Ikhtiyarat Al Ayyam, Ilahyat Al Aristu, and Aduiyah Muraqaba.

  Al Kindi died in 873 AD. His work lived on and had a far-reaching effect on philosophical thought and scientific methods throughout Asia and Europe. His Latin translations influenced many scholars in the Medieval Europe and beyond, earning him the title “The Philosopher of the Arabs.”


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