Neo-platonsim and Islamic Thought

Lecture notes for your convenience

from Wikipedia

Neoplatonism (or Neo-Platonism) is a modern term used to designate a tradition of philosophy that arose in the 3rd century AD and persisted until shortly after the closing of the Platonic Academy in Athens in AD 529 by Justinian I. Neoplatonists were heavily influenced both by Plato and by the Platonic tradition that thrived during the six centuries, which separated the first of the Neoplatonists from Plato.

Neoplatonists constituted a continuous tradition of philosophers that began with Plotinus. One of the characteristic features of Plotinus’ system, which was also taken up by subsequent Neoplatonists, is the doctrine of “the One” beyond being.

For Plotinus, the first principle of reality is an utterly simple, ineffable, unknowable subsistence, which is both the creative source and the teleological end of all existing things. No name appropriate for the first principle, the most adequate names are “the One” or “the Good”. The One is so simple that it cannot even be said to exist or to be a being. Rather, the creative principle of all things is beyond being, a notion which is derived from book VI of the Republic, when, in the course of his famous analogy of the Sun, Plato says that the Good is beyond being (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας) in power and dignity…

Islamic thought and Plato/Neo-Platonism (adapted from wikipedia)

“For Muslims, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus are part of the Islamic tradition in the same manner that Abraham is regarded to be a prophet of Islam.” Arabic scholars and philosophers utilized the works of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and other Neoplatonist philosophers to evaluate, assess, and eventually adapt Neoplatonism to conform to the monotheistic constraints of Islam. Arabic scholars, like earlier Neoplatonic thinkers, read and philosophized the works of Plato and developed similar questions and conclusions. The translation and interpretation of Islamic Neo-Platonists had lasting effects on Western philosophers, affecting Descartes‘ view on the conception of being. Important figures that translated and shaped Islamic Neoplatonism were Avicenna (Ibn Sina), al-Ghazali, al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and al-Himsi.

There were three major reasons for the prominence of Neoplatonic influences in the Islamic world:

  1. Availability of Neoplatonic texts: Arabic translations and paraphrases of Neoplatonic works were readily available to Moslem scholars greatly due to the availability of the Greek copies, in part, because the Moslems came to rule over some of the more important centers of Greek civilization (Egypt and Syria).
  2. Spatial and temporal proximity: “Plotinus and other Neoplotanists lived only a few centuries before the rise of Islam, and many of them were Egyptian Greeks.”
  3. Neoplatonism’s mystical perspectives: Plotinus’ system has similar content to Islamic mysticism, like Islamic Sufism. This eased the acceptance of Neoplatonic doctrines by Islamic philosophers.

Islamic Neoplatonism differs from traditional Neoplatonism because of its incorporation of Islamic theology, most commonly through the change in definitions of the One and the First Principle. Muslim philosophers changed the Neoplatonic characteristics of the One into those attributable to God as present in Islamic scripture. Islamic philosophers used the framework of Islamic mysticism in their interpretation of Neoplatonic writings and concepts.

Parviz Morewedge* gives four suppositions about the nature of Islamic Mysticism:

The Unity of Being

“An inherent potential unity among all dimensions of world-experience.”

The Mediator Figure

“The mediation between finite man and the ultimate being.”

The Way of Salvation

“Knowledge is embedded in the path of self-realization.” Passing trials advances one through stages until transcendence.

The Language of Symbolic Allegory

“Mystical texts are often written in the allegorical language of tales.”

*See Morewedge, Parviz, Neoplatonism and Islamic Thought (1992: SUNY Press).


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