Islamic Studies Islamic Philosophy
Oliver Leaman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0060


The term “Islamic philosophy” is in itself controversial, since there are many ways of identifying the discipline. It is difficult to argue that Islamic philosophy can be carried out only by Muslims, as there were many Christians and Jews who were definitely committed to many of the techniques and principles of Islamic philosophy without being Muslims. There are some who prefer the label “Arabic” because this was certainly the scholarly language of the Islamic world during the classical period, and most Islamic philosophy was written in it, but it can be misleading to suggest that most of the philosophers were Arabs, when, in fact, the reverse was the case. A very high proportion of Islamic philosophers were and continue to be from the Persian cultural world, broadly defined. It is awkward to label Islamic philosophy Arabic philosophy, given that much of it does not take place in Arabic at all, but in any language that Muslims work in, including English. These issues may seem to be merely about language, but often they are about a lot more; the nature of the enterprise as a whole is often regarded as rather problematic in the sense that many think that Islam does not need philosophy, and philosophy does not need Islam. However, there are three main kinds of classical Islamic philosophy. There is falsafa, philosophy in the Peripatetic (mashshaʾi) tradition that models itself very much on Greek thought and a broader notion of rationality. Then there is ishraqi or illuminationist thought that distinguishes itself from falsafa and uses the concept of light as its chief conceptual device. Finally, there is mystical or Sufi thought that understands “philosophy” to be an essentially religious inquiry and one that accounts for personal religious experience.


Although these movements often are distinct from each other, many Islamic philosophers pursued them in tandem, arguing that they were each appropriate for a different level of theoretical work. So, for example, Greek-style philosophy works by emphasizing the significance of reason, which can be seen as limited by contrast with religious experience, significant for Sufi philosophy. Sufism can be taken to represent a more advanced form of philosophical thought. Falsafa grew in the AH 3rd/9th CE century, when Greek works started to be translated into Arabic and resulted in a commitment to logic and rationality as a means of understanding theoretical issues, even those coming from religion. A reaction was soon to come in the forms of ishraqi thought, which criticized the Greek notion of rationality, and, in particular, the definition, arguing that this was itself a little-understood notion and so one that served poorly to ground a whole scientific inquiry. The Illuminationists replace the subject/object language of falsafa with a language of light and dark, where the truth and reality of the world impresses itself on us by its vividness and relative degrees of luminosity. The founder of this school of thought was al-Suhrawardi (Nasr 1976), and it has been very much pursued in the Persian cultural world up to today (Walbridge 1992). Finally, Sufism and the attempt to see philosophy as essentially a spiritual enterprise has also survived well up to the present day, while the tradition of falsafa largely came to an end in the Arabic cultural world with the death of Ibn Rushd in AH 595/1198 CE, although the modern Islamic renaissance, the Nahdah, does often regard Ibn Rushd as its intellectual forebear. Today, philosophy of every variety is pursued within the Islamic world (Smart 2008), and especially within the Persian part, while within Arabic culture it has never really regained its status enjoyed in the early centuries of Islam.

  • Adamson, Peter, and Richard C. Taylor, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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    Account of some of the main aspects of Islamic philosophy, with a concentration on the Peripatetic tradition.

  • Corbin, Henry. History of Islamic Philosophy. Translated by Liadain Sherrard and Philip Sherrard. London: Kegan Paul, 1993.

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    One of the first treatments of the discipline to give appropriate status to Shiʿi and ishraqi thought, which has the major role in the book. This book also presents an argument for the significance of the Persian contribution to Islamic philosophy.

  • Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

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    The best known account of the history of the discipline. Clear and well organized, and often reprinted.

  • Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʿAbbasid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th Centuries). New York: Routledge, 1998.

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    An account of the links between Greek and Arabic culture, including a detailed analysis of the translation movement.

  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn ʿArabi. New York: Caravan Books, 1976.

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    One of the best accounts of three important thinkers, which reproduces nicely many of their main arguments.

  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Oliver Leaman, eds. History of Islamic Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

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    Many of the major scholars in the discipline have written individual chapters on their specialty. An appropriate concentration on the Persian contribution to Islamic philosophy.

  • Smart, Ninian. World Philosophies. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2008.

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    A solid account of the history of Islamic philosophy and a good bibliography.

  • Walbridge, John. The Science of Mystic Lights: Qutb al-Din Shirazi and the Illuminationist Tradition of Islamic Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

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    Clear and accessible account of some of the basic principles of ishraqi thought. A perspicuous description of how parts of the system are interconnected.

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