Islamic Studies Miskawayh
Ufuk Topkara
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0246


Miskawayh (b. 932–d. 1030) was a formative Islamic philosopher in the 10th century. He is known for his work both as a historian and a philosopher (see Arkoun 1982, cited under Miskawayh’s Influence). Although his extant writings indicate that his work is less distinguished than that of his contemporary Ibn Sina (Leaman 2003, under Miskawayh’s Influence), he remains one of the most important thinkers of his time, and he contributed a great deal to the philosophical debate. He was first trained as secretary, and later served as librarian and in various other positions for a number of Buyid rulers, both in Rayy and Baghdad, which was one of the most important centers of learning during the Abbasid period (750–1258 CE). Grounded in the classical Arabic literary culture of adab and Greek philosophy, Miskawayh was one of the prominent proponents of harmonizing not only the various trends within Greek ancient philosophy, but also the whole enterprise within Islamic culture and tradition (Marcotte 2011, under Happiness). Although Miskawayh is said to have pursued studies in many sciences, his extant writings mainly cover the fields of philosophy, philosophical theology, and history. He is believed to be the first in Islamic civilization to write a systematic ethico-philosophical treatise, entitled The Refinement of Character (Tahḏīb al-Aḫlāq), drawing heavily from ancient Greek philosophy and Islamic tradition. Numerous references to Plato, Aristotle, and Galen, among others, underline the eclectic character of his ethics. While it is deeply influenced by Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea, it employs a Platonizing interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy. However, Miskawayh is merely a transmitter of ancient Greek philosophy, as shown by both his critical survey of the material available to him and his own contributions. Miskawayh is considered to be very close to the Neoplatonist tradition, employing extensively the materials that were produced in the circle of al-Kindi. The latter is not only the most important predecessor of Miskawayh’s philosophy, he remains highly influential throughout his writings, evident in the fact that Miskawayh refers to al-Kindi several times by name. In contrast to al-Kindi, though, Miskawayh doesn’t shy away from defending Neoplatonic positions with new arguments, in some cases openly embracing the intellectual consequences (Adamson 2007, under Metaphysics/Philosophical Theology). Finally, Miskawayh was certainly aware and influenced by the Baghdad school of peripatetics, to which the Aristotelian influence on his writings can be traced back, as it is evident in both The Refinement of Character (Tahḏīb al-Aḫlāq) and The Smaller Book of Triumph (Kitāb al-Fawz al-aṣghar) (Wakelnig 2014, under Translations). He personally refers to Hasan Ibn Suwar, a disciple of Yahya Ibn ʿAdi (Fakhry, 1991, cited under Ethics).


Born in Rayy (close to today’s Tehran), Miskawayh’s family was of Persian origin, and the name initially may have been Miskuya. The assumption that he may have converted from Zoroastrism to Islam has ceased, assuming that his forefathers might have done so. While a number of works list his name as Ibn Miskawayh, it is by now established that he was referred to as Miskawayh only (Arkoun 1965 and Wakelnig 2011, both cited under Miskawayh’s Influence). Miskawayh lived in a period of violent turmoil, when the political order of the Abbasid reign was challenged as never before. Even though Abbasid caliphs formerly remained in charge, the real political power was executed by a number of small tribal leaders, such as the Buyids. The Buyid (or Buwayhid) family were Shiʿa, which alienated them from significant sections of the population they ruled over, resulting periodically in violent clashes between the sects in Baghdad. Miskawayh reflects on these tensions, without making his own convictions explicit. Although his writings don’t provide a clear indication, it is assumed that he was an Imami Shiʿa. Miskawayh was in contact with a number of prominent philosophers of his time, namely Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, Abu Suleyman al-Sijistani al-Mantiqi, Hasan Ibn Suwar, Abu l-Hasan al-ʿAmiri and Ibn Sina (Wakelnig 2011, under Miskawayh’s Influence). Some of those contemporaries list a number of Miskawayh’s works in their own writing. Al-Sijistani, for instance, speaks about Miskawayh in his Ṣiwān al-Ḥikma, al-Thaʿalibi does so in Yatīmat al-Dahr fī Maḥāsin Ahl al-‘Aṣr, and al-Tawhidi in his al-Imtāʿ or his Mathālib. Miskawayh reportedly died in Isfahan (modern-day Iran), at nearly one hundred years of age.

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