Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

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al-ʿĀmirī, Abū l-Ḥasan

  • Elvira WakelnigEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_30-2


The tenth-century Khurasani philosopher Abū l-Ḥasan Muḥammad b. Yūsuf al-ʿĀmirī was one of the last representatives of the philosophical tradition initiated by al-Kindī. His works show a strong influence of Greek philosophy, for example, the Book on the Afterlife (K. al-Amad ʿalā l-abad) draws heavily on Plato’s Phaedo and the Chapters on Metaphysical Topics (K. al-Fuṣūl al-Maʿālim al-ilāhīya) are, in fact, a paraphrase of parts of the Elements of Theology by the late Neoplatonist Proclus.

About al-ʿĀmirī’s life not much information is preserved. Although he is said to have lived under the patronage of certain rulers at given times, he is also pictured as an itinerant Sufi in one of al-Tawḥīdī’s accounts. At the beginning of his On the Afterlife, al-ʿĀmirī listed the titles of his 17 major works, five of which are known to be extant today. This list provides a good picture of the topics he wrote on, namely, logic, physics, psychology, metaphysics, ethics, biology and medicine, different religions, Sufism, and interpretation of the Qurʾān, as well as of dreams. However, it seems that he was primarily known as a metaphysician.

Biographical Information

Whereas al-ʿĀmirī’s date and place of birth are unknown, the exact day of his death occurring in Nishapur was apparently January 6, 992. The reason why this date has been preserved is that on the very same day, the religious scholar Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. al-Ḥusayn b. Mihrān al-Muqri’ passed away and al-ʿĀmirī was said to have saved him from hell by being his ransom.

In his early years, al-ʿĀmirī studied with Abū Zayd al-Balkhī (d. 934), a student of al-Kindī, then spent some time at the courts of various rulers, and visited Baghdad twice. In the sixties and seventies of the tenth century, he was in Rayy under the patronage of Abū l-Faḍl b. al-ʿAmīd and his son Abū l-Fatḥ b. al-ʿAmīd Dhū l-Kifāyatayn. In the entourage of the latter, al-ʿĀmirī came to Baghdad and attended the scholarly gatherings which Abū l-Fatḥ organized there. Al-Tawḥīdī reports the course of many such sessions in his various works, among them an encounter between al-ʿĀmirī and the famous grammarian Abū Saʿīd al-Sīrāfī. The latter answered the former’s question on the nature of the Arabic particle bi- in the basmala with silence.

Al-ʿĀmirī spent the last years of his life in Nishapur and Bukhara, where he was, at least temporarily, at the court of the Samanid vizier Abū l-Ḥusayn ʿUbaydallāh b. Aḥmad al-ʿUtbī, most probably benefiting from the ruler’s magnificent library.


Al-ʿĀmirī’s concept of knowledge comprises traditional religious and philosophical sciences. The importance of the religious sciences lies in their being based on divine revelation. Thus, they are able to provide answers to questions which intellect alone cannot solve, for example, what kind of acts of devotions and religious observances should be performed. As to religious sciences, al-ʿĀmirī distinguishes kalām which is attained by intellect, fiqh (law) which is perceived by intellect and sense perception, and the science of hadīth which is grasped by sense perception alone and linguistics, which functions as a tool to the former three. Correspondingly, philosophy is divided into metaphysics, mathematics, natural sciences, and logic. Only a person who has mastered the latter three sciences and proceeded to metaphysical matters can be truly called a philosopher. The history and development of Greek philosophy as such, and metaphysics in particular, are closely tied to the Qurʾānic revelation received by Luqmān and Solomon. The former is taken to be the first sage who taught Empedocles his knowledge, and the companions of the latter are said to have instructed Pythagoras in physical and metaphysical matters. Al-ʿĀmirī’s own metaphysics is founded on the Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, which he either uses in its basic form (God – Universal Intellect – Universal Soul – Nature) or in a more detailed elaboration (God – Universal Forms and Intellect – Universal Soul and Sphere of the Spheres, which may correspond to Universal Nature – Spheres and Heavenly Bodies – Beings composed of the four elements). However, it is the dichotomy between the spiritual and the bodily world which is of crucial interest to al-ʿĀmirī’s thought. Man is understood as forming a link between these two worlds as he consists of a spiritual soul and a body which is composed of the four elements. In this world, man acts as God’s representative, and in the next one, he may become an eternal adornment, if he succeeds in likening his soul to the divine by grasping the eternal intellectual forms. The human soul and body are understood as two separate substances, which are independent of each other and may therefore overcome one another. Although the soul is able to prevent the body from giving into its desires, the body can lead the soul astray and distract it from its ultimate goal, that is, its ascent to the spiritual world. Whereas the soul provides life to the body, the body enables the soul to experience good and evil and thus to discriminate between them by its own personal trial. This distinguishes men from the angels who have knowledge of the evil but no experience of it. However, as the human body constitutes a liability to the soul, God has set up the religious law by which man is guided from the lower to the upper world. Therefore, al-ʿĀmirī describes man as being religious by nature. Religious belief may be caused by one of two different powers or faculties of the human soul, either the intellective or the imaginative one. If it is by the former, true belief results, and if it is by the latter, either true or false belief may result.

Within the scope of religious belief, the problem of predestination and free will falls, which was prominent in the kalām discussions of his time and which al-ʿĀmirī tackled in two of his extant writings, the Deliverance of Mankind from the Problem of Predestination and Free Will (Inqādh al-bashar min al-jabr wa-l-qadar) and the later Determination of the Various Aspects of Predestination (al-Taqrīr li-awjuh al-taqdīr). His approach is to determine four essential causes of any given existence, namely, the four Aristotelian causes (matter, agent, form, and end) and countless accidental causes. Furthermore, matter, agent, and form are distinguished into a proximate and a remote matter, agent, and form and are, thus, twofold causes. Hence, God may always be understood as the remote agent of any human action, whereas man is the proximate cause of his actions. Thus, al-ʿĀmirī’s position turns out to be a middle one between believing in predestination, which he explains as resulting from taking into consideration only the accidental causes and human deficiency, and believing in free will, which results from focusing solely on the essential causes and the generosity of God. As to heavenly influence, which is the mean by which divine predestination is communicated to the lower world, al-ʿĀmirī explains that man is subject to this influence due to his corporeal form but may escape it with the help of his purified soul.

In addition to the configuration of the celestial spheres and bodies, magic, witchcraft, spells, talismans, and the evil eye may also have an impact on man, although they are rarely able to affect his rational soul. Contrarily, prayer may grant further reaching power over other bodies to saints and prophets, because prayer strengthens the soul’s spirituality, provides the help of the angels, and is only granted by God as an honor.

Al-ʿĀmirī’s philosophical thought does not seem to have had a strong impact on later generations. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that only seven of his writings are known to be extant today: The Book on the Afterlife (K. al-Amad ʿalā l-abad) which is influenced by Plato’s Phaedo; the Chapters on Metaphysical Topics (K. al-Fuṣūl al-Maʿālim al-ilāhīya) which are, in fact, a paraphrase of parts of Proclus’ Elements of Theology; the Deliverance of Mankind from the Problem of Predestination and Free Will (Inqādh al-bashar min al-jabr wa-l-qadar) which also discusses several kalām positions on the topic; the Determination of the Various Aspects of Predestination (al-Taqrīr li-awjuh al-taqdīr) which draws on the Aristotelian model of the sublunar world; the Vision and the Visible (al-Ibṣār wa-l-mubṣār) on sense perception in the tradition of Aristotle’s De anima; An Exposition on the Merits of Islam (al-Iʿlām bi-manāqib al-islām); and An Explanation of the Various Aspects of the Interpretation of Dreams (al-Tabṣīr li-awjuh al-taʿbīr) whose existence in a Turkish manuscript has recently come to light. The Seven Discussions between the Shaykh and al-ʿĀmirī (al-Majālis al-sabʿ bayna al-shaykh wa-l-ʿĀmirī) contain reports about philosophical exchanges in the form of questions and answers. Recently the identification of the questioner with Ibn Sīnā and of the respondent with al-ʿĀmirī has been suggested. Al-ʿĀmirī’s authorship of the Book on Happiness and its Creation in Human Life (K. al-Saʿāda wa-l-isʿād fī l-sīra al-insānīya), although often upheld, is far from being established for certain.

See Also


Primary Sources

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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Near Eastern StudiesUniversity of ViennaViennaAustria