Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

2011 Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund

Political Philosophy, Arabic

  • Charles E. Butterworth
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9729-4_410


Political philosophy, the attempt to replace opinion about political affairs by knowledge, arises in the medieval Arabic–Islamic tradition of the Middle East with al-Fārābī (870–950) and ends with Averroes (1126–1198). Two important figures precede al-Fārābī – al-Kindī (Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kindī, died 866) and al-Razī (Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī, 864–925), but neither engages in political philosophy. Al-Kindī, acclaimed “the philosopher of the Arabs,” was renowned for his excursions into Greek, Persian, and Indian wisdom and for his detailed knowledge of astronomy. Although some of his writings contain the germs of a political teaching, he is primarily interested in ethics and accepts the milieu in which we live as a fixed variable, something not worth trying to alter. Al-Razī sees the philosophic life as “making oneself similar to God… to the extent possible for a human being” and prescribes for human conduct with that goal in mind. He discerns that one who aspires to philosophy must focus on things such as gaining a livelihood, acquisition, expenditure, and seeking rulership, but goes no further. That is, he never investigates how ethics, household management, and political rule are related or even what they comprise and contents himself with speaking of political rule in ethical terms.

Moreover, as the following narrative reveals, Arabic political philosophy does not develop in a unilinear fashion. There is a dialogue of sorts between those who contribute to it, in that later philosophers refer to their predecessors explicitly as well as indirectly. And there is constant tension about the relationship between reason and revelation, with some thinkers almost blurring the two while others keep them firmly distinct. Finally, although there is a brief flicker of the philosophic flame coming back to life with Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406), it is all too short-lived.

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Primary Sources

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles E. Butterworth
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Government and PoliticsUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA