The Islamic Tradition: Philosophy in the Margins

The oft-repeated definition of philosophy is the love of wisdom. However, in Martin Heidegger’s 1955 public lecture, published as, What is Philosophy?, he traces the word, philosophy, to its Greek roots and claims that its Greek form (philosophia) means path. On this path of Greek origins are two parallel paths, which alternatively cross and separate into individual parallel paths. Such crossing and separation is the story of the Islamic intellectual tradition and the Western intellectual tradition. Nevertheless, Martin Heidegger asserts, “The statement that philosophy is in its nature Greek says nothing more than that the West and Europe, and only these (my emphasis), are in their innermost course of their history, originally ‘philosophical’” (1). This emphasized segment of the quote is not only patently historically false, but a sign of European arrogance. The Islamic tradition is just as philosophical as its European Christian and Jewish counterparts, if not more so.

The common definition of philosophy – the love of wisdom –  along with Martin Heidegger’s meditation on philosophy leave much to be desired. Philosophy, at its best and most universal, is the task of dialectical (the art of investigating or discussing the truth of ideas), discursive, and reflective thinking, which sometimes leads to the production of knowledge, but always progresses towards Truth, regardless if Truth is actually obtained by the questioner. The Islamic intellectual and philosophical tradition, according to Dr. Hossein Ziai,

…grew out of the desire by learned members of the community to uphold the authority of Islamic revelation against arguments increasingly posed by members of the many divergent peoples who were living in lands united by the conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries (2).

Islamic philosophy finds its naissance in Islamic theology, not too dissimilar from the Catholic tradition at its intellectual apex with Thomas Aquinas. However, unlike other theological-philosophical traditions and after intense theological and philosophical debates over the first three centuries of the Islamic era, the Islamic tradition maintained limits and parameters so that philosophy could not irresponsibly speculate itself into apostasy or irrelevance. It is in the sacred sciences of Islam, like that of ‘ilm al-tafsīr, ‘ilm al-taṣawwuf, and ‘aqīdah, that we discover the true philosophical nature of the Islamic tradition as a whole.

Philosophy exists in the sacred sciences of Islam. This claim may seem contentious, especially for those who take a literalist and puritanical approach to Islam. The literalist approach like that of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab, which revels in sanctimony and distorts accepted practices with the Islamic tradition, is in stark contrast to tradition. The philosophical nature of the sacred sciences, like interpretation of the Qur’an or theology, is real. According to philosopher and professor, Oliver Leaman,

Within the Qur’an and the other sources of the religion there exists a great deal of material which is highly philosophical in the sense that it raises theoretical issues which explicitly call for a rational response…the original Islamic sciences, the study of the Qur’an, the traditions, grammar, jurisprudence and theology are highly rational in structure (3).

It is apparent that Islam has inherent philosophical elements within in its sacred sciences and traditions.

An example of this symmetry of philosophical elements found in the sacred sciences of Islam is in the subject of Quranic interpretation, tafsīr. One example of how tafsīr uses philosophy and mirrors the philosophy of interpretation (hermeneutics), is in its methodologies and categorization, particularly in the category of ta’wil or allegorical interpretation. Mystics, known as Sūfīs, like Sahl b. ‘Abd-Allah al-Tustarī, related these allegorical interpretations. In his Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘azīm, al-Tustarī breaks down the levels of meaning, and thereby truth based on the level and nature of the esoteric truth from God. Annabel and Ali Keeler quote in their introduction to their translation of al-Tustarī:

Every verse of the Qurʾān has four senses: an outward (ẓāhir) and an inward sense (bāṭin), a limit (ḥadd) and a point of transcendency (maṭlaʿ). The outward sense is the recitation and the inward sense is the understanding (fahm) of the verse; the limit defines what is lawful and unlawful, and the point of transcendency is the heart’s place of elevation (ishrāf) [from which it beholds] the intended meaning, as an understanding from God, Mighty and Majestic is He (fiqhan min Allāh ʿazza wa jalla). The outward knowledge [of the Qurʾān] is a knowledge [accessible to the] generality (ʿāmm); whereas the understanding of its inner meanings and its intended meaning is [for] a select few (khāṣṣ)… (4)

These levels of meaning and explication need further examination. The ẓāhir or apparent meaning of a Quranic verse (āyah) is typically the clearest and obvious understanding of a verse. An example of this is al-Tustarī’s explanation of the Quranic verse (42:7), “…that you may warn [the people] of the mother of cities, and those around it…”(5), which he says, “In its outward meaning, it [the mother of cities] refers to Mecca…” (6). The esoteric meaning of verse 7, chapter 42 of the Qur’an according to al-Tustarī, “In its inner meaning it refers to the heart, while those around it refer to the bodily members (jawāriḥ). Therefore warn them, that they might safeguard their hearts and bodily members from delighting in acts of disobedience and following [their] lusts” (7). Next, an example of limit (ḥadd) finds its best understanding in the axiomatic principle that nothing can overturn or transgress the centrality of the Qur’an and its edicts, and the collection of sayings (hadith) and lived traditions (sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad. A jurist, mystic, philosopher, or lay Muslim can neither abrogate nor supersede these two foundational sources of Divine knowledge. The final level of meaning espoused by al-Tustarī is transcendency (maṭlaʿ), explained aptly in his commentary on Qur’an 7:46,

The People of the Heights are the people of gnosis (maʿrifa). God, Exalted is He, said …who know each by their mark [7:47]. Their standing is due to the honor (sharaf) they enjoy in the two abodes and with the inhabitants of both, and the two angels know them. Likewise [God] enabled them to see into (ashrafahum) the secrets of His servants and their states in this world (8).

Transcendency is in both its apparent and its metaphorical meaning in al-Tustarī’s comment, further demonstrating the layered nature of his tafsīr.

This explication of the levels of meaning apparent in understanding the Qur’an finds its modern homologue in the likes of the French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur. In Richard E. Palmer’s text, Hermeneutics, he summarizes Ricoeur’s philosophy of interpretation,

For hermeneutics has to do with symbolic texts which have multiple meanings; they may constitute a semantic unity which has…a fully coherent surface meaning and at the same time a deeper significance. Hermeneutics is the system by which the deeper meaning significance is revealed beneath the manifest content (9).

Ricoeur states in The Conflict of Interpretations, “The justification of hermeneutics can be radical only if one seeks in the very nature of reflective thought the principle of a logic of double meaning. This logic is then no longer a formal logic but a transcendental logic” (10). This transcendental logic derived from the logic of double meaning is analogous to al-Tustarī’s sense of external and internal meaning found within the Qur’an. Based on this understanding of interpretation, one can clearly apprehend the apparent coherence and similitude between Ricoeur’s hermeneutics and ‘ilm al-tafsīr. This comparison fuels greater examination of the shared teleology of both philosophical-theological disciplines.

Another sacred science that utilizes philosophy is ‘ilm al-taṣawwuf or mysticism (11). This sacred science focuses on the seeker of knowledge (al-ṭālib bi’l-‘ilm) and his experiential quest for knowledge (ma’rifa) and understanding (fahm) of the Divine. This body of knowledge is disseminated in two manners. First, a master-teacher that is an expert in the esoteric sacred science of mysticism (‘ilm al-taṣawwuf) and in exoteric sacred science of jurisprudence (fiqh) directly teaches the modality of taṣawwuf. Usually this master-teacher (shaykh) belongs to a sacred path or approach (ṭarīqa) that typically takes on the name of its original progenitor, like the ṭarīqa Tijāniyya of Shaykh Ahmed al-Tijānī. Secondly, there is another modality of taṣawwuf known as the purification of the self (tazkiyat al-nafs), which is more of a general application of taṣawwuf that does not necessitate adherence to a ṭarīqa (order/path). However, it too emphasizes cleansing the heart (qalb) and the self (nafs) of impurities and sin. Both aspects of taṣawwuf implement similar remedies for curing their spiritual ailments and elevating their spiritual station (maqām).

The sacred science of taṣawwuf correlates with several philosophical disciplines like metaphysics, philosophy of psychology, and phenomenology. The semblances between phenomenology and taṣawwuf are often uncanny. The concept of bracketing (epoché) is one such parallel, which was proposed by German philosopher and progenitor of phenomenology (the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness) Edmund Husserl,

Instead of focusing on the normal objects of our acts, be they physical objects, actions, persons or general features that many objects can have in common, one reflects on the structures of one’s own consciousness, and studies the noemata, the features that make one’s consciousness be consciousness of those objects (12).

This suspension and withdrawal is a necessary precondition within ‘ilm al- taṣawwuf. The student of knowledge (mūrīd) must suspend their rational and logical faculties at times to fully experience the Divine. Another example of the parallels between phenomenology and taṣawwuf is Shaykh Ahmed al-Tijānī’s waking vision of the Prophet Muhammad. In these visions, the shaykh had several conversations with the Prophet Muhammad and obtained his license (ijazah) to create his own ṭarīqa, which detailed several litanies to be recited by initiates and teachers within this path, as well as ethical obligations required of those followers. The ultra-rationalist and the religious literalist would contend that such visions are not possible, missing the giveness (how readily available an object of analysis is) of experience: what appears to us and how. Such critics miss the act and process of faith itself. Belief is not simply a set of logical syllogisms with valid premises and sound conclusions, but rather a realization – at times aided by rational thought, but not consistently – that reason, of the positivistic and scientific sort, is ill-equipped to fully grasp Divine experiences. It cannot explain in totality what an experience is, let alone a human or Divine one. A leap of faith, as Søren Kierkegaard intimated in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript: the internal dialectical movement of the soul or spirit within Man that pushes him to the indescribable presence and experience of God (13).

The twin theological sciences of creed (‘aqīdah) and speculative/dialectical theology (kalām) further affirm such parallelism. The subject of creed (‘aqīdah) encompasses the tenets of the religion and the nature of God (Allāh). The philosophical aspect of creed (‘aqīdah) is mostly found in the explication of the nature of God (Allāh). For example, in The Creed of Imam al-Ṭaḥāwī, the imam states, “God is one, without partner. Nothing is like Him. Nothing debilitates Him. No deity exists save Him. He is preexistent without origin, eternal without end. He neither perishes nor ceases to exist” (14). Later theologians like Imam Muhammad b. Yūsuf al-Sanūsī, further elaborate the aforementioned points concerning the nature of God made by Imam al-Ṭaḥāwī. In Imam al-Sanūsī’s seminal theological work, The Foundational Proofs (Umm al-Barāhīn), he begins with types of rational judgments (concerning the nature of God): the necessary, impossible, and possible. Imam al-Sanūsī states, “The necessary is that whose non-existence the mind cannot conceive; the impossible is that whose existence the mind cannot conceive; and the possible is that whose existence and non-existence the mind can [equally] conceive” (15). These fundamentals of ‘aqīdah mirror similar patterns found within the Western tradition of philosophy, particularly in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle clearly states the objective of his inquiry: “We are seeking the principles and the causes of the things that are, and obviously of them qua Being” (16). He elaborates to describe Being on several occasions, its potentiality and actuality, the is-ness of Being and the accidents of Being, its predicates, which are incidental to the object of analysis. Aristotelian metaphysics served as an important guide for Muslim intellectuals during the rise of the Islamic intellectual tradition in places like Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo, Damascus, Fez, and Toledo.

Clearly, the Islamic tradition has an abundance of academic and spiritual knowledge and sciences. Heidegger’s claim of exclusivity of Christian Europe being the only “philosophical” tradition is false. Islamic philosophy and tradition is Western. The richness of the Islamic tradition is an asset and should be utilized by contemporary Muslims to revive the philosophical nature of the sacred sciences within Islam and apply it to our modern condition. Perhaps, with greater spiritual and intellectual rigor, the Islamic tradition will come to see its glorious past as a means to enlighten its future path for the worldwide community of Muslims (al-ummah) and Islam as a whole.


  1. Martin Heidegger, What is Philosophy?, trans. William Kluback and Jean T. Wilde (Albany: NCUP, inc., 1956), 31.
  2. Tim Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 55.
  3. Oliver Leaman, Islamic Philosophy: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 15.
  4. Sahl b. ‘Abd-Allāh al-Tustarī, Great Commentaries on the Holy Qur’ān, trans. Annabel Keeler and Ali Keeler (Amman: Royal Aal-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2011), xxviii.
  5. Ibid., xxvii.
  6. Ibid., 180.
  7. Ibid., 180.
  8. Ibid., 73.
  9. Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969), 43-44.
  10. Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 18-19.
  11. Oliver Leaman, Islamic Philosophy: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 71.
  12. Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa, ed., A Companion to Epistemology, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1993), 118.
  13. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Kierkegaard 1974) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 90.
  14. The Creed of Imam al-aḥāwī, trans. Hamza Yusuf (Berkeley: Zaytuna College, 2007), 48.
  15. Shaykh Sa’id Foudah, A Refined Explanation of The Sanusi Creed: The Foundational Proofs, trans. Suraqah Abdul-Aziz (Rotterdam: Sunni Publications, 2013), 35.
  16. Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 2001), 778.

About the author: Andrew is a Sufi philosopher and historian. He was born, he lives, he will die. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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