The Secondary Sources of Islamic Knowledge

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Besides being influenced by the two primary sources of the Qu’ran and the Prophetic traditions, Muslim interaction with surrounding cultures and worldviews impacted Muslims to a great extent. This openness to other cultures made Muslims more receptive to interfaith relationships, such as in al-Andalus. To be sure, the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet (PbH), Islam’s two major foundations gave the Muslims many new aspects of knowledge, philosophy, and worldview, leaving details of other conceptions open to Islamic interpretation and Islamic approaches which would flourish in the pool of these two foundations. Therefore, as in the past, also today, the traditional Muslim looks upon all of science, religious or non-religious, as “sacred,” and approaches this sacred science in a well-established background upon the major essentials. A study of the Qur’an reveals that in the various verses or Ayat one finds that it invites the believers to study the whole universe, including the earth and everything in between, and to discover the various natural phenomena and their schemes. As humanity was created with an insatiable desire for knowledge, God made adequate arrangements for him to know the hidden secrets of the universe and taught him the nature and names of all things. (2:31)

A remarkable feature of Islamic thought is that Muslims are supposed to integrate their faith with other things. From the beginning they were aware of neighboring civilizations, both religious and secular. Indeed, Muslims received and welcomed a vast store of knowledge from their predecessors in this area. For instance, they received scientific medicine from mainly Greek and Persian sources , the scientific study of astronomy from India , and astrology and physics from Greece and Egypt, especially Alexandria . Actually, the rise of Muslim thought was related to the translation of documents from these neighboring cultures. Hitti precisely notes this point:

Only after they had been exposed to the influence of Islam and other cultures did the Arabians become aware of the existing body of scientific knowledge. It was the Muslim conquest of the early centuries that established vital contact between them and the rich cultural tradition represented by Greeks, Syrians, Persians and Egyptians.

Muslims were conquerors, but they were open to learn from those they conquered. Hitti points out this early relationship:

In medicine and other sciences, in philosophy, and in art and architecture the sons of the desert had little to teach and much more to learn. It is to their credit, however, that they appreciated that fact and encouraged their subjects to preserve and promote their local traditions so long as they did not conflict with Islam.

The new Muslim orientation began through the translation of sources from other cultures. Such translation was initiated by caliph al-Mansur. An Indian traveling scholar introduced two scientific books, which al-Mansur ordered translated into Arabic.

The process of integrating knowledge among Muslims with that of neighboring cultures was sponsored from time to time by governors or religious scholars. If India supplied the first contribution in scientific study in Islam, Alexandria and Greece provided the old philosophy. Indeed, Muslim thought encountered the classical philosophical heritage through these two cities. Hitti says of this interaction in that time:

“At the time of the Arab conquest the intellectual legacy of Greece formed the most precious treasure at hand. Of all existing foreign influences the Hellenistic was the most potent.”[1]  It is important to appreciate that there is nothing necessarily arbitrary about such developments. Caliph Al-Ma’mun demonstrated his concern for Greek learning  by sending special men to Constantinople and Sicily. Then this Muslim Caliph built an academy, known as Bayt al-Hikmah, which means the House of Wisdom. Actually, it was  a complete combination of high-level education. Hitti writes of this institution: “The caliph instituonalized the learned activity by building (830) in his capital Bayt al-Hikmah,a combination of academy, library, and translation bureau.”[2]Then, thanksto this institution Muslim knowledge met the works of Hippocrates the father of medicine, Galen the supreme authority in medical science, the Greek mathematician Euclid, and Aristotle’s and Plato’s works.[3]

As science is not a value free activity, it is possible for one civilization to learn the science of another civilization, but to do that it must be able to abstract and make it its own. This means that the intellectual journey was not a temporary passion or entertainment. The early Muslim scholars were aware of a new intellectual conflict which flourished in the old intellectual or religious soil. However, they did not hesitate to be open to their knowledge and welcome foreign sources. Islamic civilization developed in this context. In that time, the growth of Muslim knowledge must also be seen in the light of the significance of the diversity of intellectual life. There was a large number of various different contributors: Persians, Syrians, Egyptians or Arabians, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, who may have saved their material from Persian, Greek, Indian, or other religious sources. For instance, as Hitti notes, Ka’b al-Ahbar (Ka’b of the rabbis) was a Yamanite Jew and he accepted Islam (652) and acted as teacher and counselor to the court of a Muslim govorner. Hitti states that: “Thus did Ka’b become the earliest authority for the Jewish-Muslim traditions. Through Ka’b, Ibn Munebbih (another Jewish author) and other Jewish converts a number of talmudic stories ultimately found their way into Muslim tradition and were incorporated with Arabic historical lore.” [1]John of Damascus also lived in this Umayyad period, wrote in Greek and knew Arabic. According to Hitti, John of Damascus was the greatest and last theologian of the Oriental Greek church.[2]It is interesting to note that this general picture of early Muslim knowledge could cover all kinds of aspects. Hitti gives these details:

Among St. John’s works is a dialogue with a ‘Saracen’ on the divinity of Christ and freedom of human will which is intended to be an apology for Christianity, a manual for guidance of Chritians in their arguments with the Muslims. John himself probably held many such debates in the presence of the caliph.[3]

In relation to this, some Islamic sects were influenced by these old cultures and traditions. For instance, in the Umayyad period there were several movements which were later challenged, but in any event contributed many perspectives on the experience of knowledge in the Islamic tradition. One of them is the Mu’tazilities, also called as the Qaderites,  who were precisely influenced by Greeks and represented “free will” of Islam. Hitti maintains that John of Damascus expilicitly influenced this religio-philosophical school, and states that, “The Qaderite was the earliest philosophical school of thought in Islam.”[1]

However, the Muslims brought with them not only their ancient heritage and culture, but methods of looking at the sublime questions of life in ways fundamentally different from that of the neighboring cultures. Historical Islam had to face the rationalism of the Greeks, the stratification of the Persian ascetics, Alexandrian or Egyptian philosophers; it had to build its unique perspective based upon the influences of other cultures.


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