Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

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al-Sarakhsī, Aḥmad ibn al-Ṭayyib

  • Peter AdamsonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_457-2


Aḥmad ibn al-Ṭayyib al-Sarakhsī (c. 835–899) was a ninth-century polymath and student of the more famous al-Kindī. He worked in a number of fields, including philosophy, geography, refined literature (adab), and scientific areas such as medicine and astrology. His writings are almost entirely lost, and it is thus unclear to what extent his philosophical output went beyond transmitting the thought of his master al-Kindī.

Greek-inspired philosophy (falsafa) in the Arabic-speaking world became widespread in the tenth century, the time of al-Fārābī and his school, as well as various forms of Neoplatonism. But the philosophical tradition began already in the ninth century with the first reception of philosophical works translated from Greek into Arabic. Even among the relatively few practitioners of falsafa during this early period, al-Sarakhsī must be seen as a lesser figure. However, his importance is difficult to judge because not a single philosophical work of his is extant in its entirety. We are thus forced to reconstruct both his life and his thought as best we can from later reports about him, which include lists of the works that made up his originally voluminous corpus. This reconstruction has been done in a series of studies by the late Franz Rosenthal (see especially Rosenthal 1943), which are the main basis for this entry.

Al-Sarakhsī was presumably born in Sarakhs in Khurasan and probably in about 835 CE. We know this with reasonable exactness because he tells us that he is 61 years old in a work he is writing for “the Caliph,” probably al-Mu‘taḍid (whose reign began in 892). We also know that he died in 899 after falling from favor in the Caliphal court in 896. This catastrophic fall from grace, which involved imprisonment, beating, and ultimately execution, seems to have resulted from a political intrigue, but the exact reasons are shrouded in uncertainty (see Rosenthal 1943: 25–34 for the conflicting reports). It may be that he had expressed religious views, for instance pro-Shīʿite sentiments, that made him an inconvenient figure to maintain at court.

Prior to his disgrace, al-Sarakhsī’s career had reached its peak with important administrative duties under al-Mu‘taḍid. He had been appointed tutor to al-Mu‘taḍid when the latter was still a young prince, much as al-Sarakhsī’s master al-Kindī had been tutor to Aḥmad, the son of the Caliph al-Mu‘taṣim (who reigned 833–842). When al-Mu‘taḍid ascended to the throne, al-Sarakhsī became a “boon companion,” and he was later given oversight over mercantile accounting (ḥisba), perhaps on the strength of having written on the subject of fraud (Rosenthal 1943: 24).

The chief intellectual event of al-Sarakhsī’s career, however, occurred earlier when he became the student of al-Kindī. As Rosenthal (1943: 17) puts it, “it is certainly no exaggeration that he owed al-Kindī very much of his scholarly achievement.” In fact, many of the titles of al-Sarakhsī’s works duplicate titles of al-Kindī’s, and we may thus speculate that al-Sarakhsī was merely a transmitter of these treatises. Unfortunately, due to lack of textual evidence, we are unable to say how much he might have reworked his material. Other titles ascribed to Sarakhsī show that he in any case tended to agree with al-Kindī’s philosophical stance. For instance, both argued against atomism and in favor of the infinite divisibility of the body.

Al-Sarakhsī is thus a member of what might be called the “Kindian tradition” (for this phrase, see Adamson 2007) and takes his place along two other first-generation associates of al-Kindī’s as an important transmitter of Kindian thought. The other two associates are Abū Zayd al-Balkhī, teacher of the well-known al-‘Āmirī, and Abū Ma‘shar, who was arguably the greatest astrologer of Islam. Astrology seems to have been a shared enthusiasm among the Kindians. Al-Sarakhsī followed al-Kindī in using astrological calculations to determine the duration of the reign of the Arabs. He also wrote a work that must have provided a philosophical rationale for the science of astrology, entitled On the Main Principles of Philosophy and the Establishment of Astrology. In this he would have been following al-Kindī and Abū Ma‘shar, though it must be said that a fragment preserved from this work (see Rosenthal 1943) strikes an un-Kindian note in saying that the Qurʾān encourages us to study the stars but without “searching out a reason or investigating into a cause.” (Perhaps this should be seen as an extraneous remark by a later transmitter.)

Another fragment that may derive from an astrological work is a remarkable discussion by al-Sarakhsī on the subject of erotic love (‘ishq) and why it manifests in a desire to kiss the beloved (see Rosenthal 1961). He explains, in a manner reminiscent of Plato’s Symposium or Phaedrus, that the lover desires a commingling of souls but is unable to achieve this and thus seeks the passageway of the beloved’s breath.

The stars also play a role in a well-known report by al-Sarakhsī, which claims to repeat al-Kindī’s account of the star-worshipping Ṣābians of Ḥarrān (see Rosenthal 1943: 41–51). This report is preserved in three different versions, the most detailed being in the Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadīm. Particularly striking is the claim that the Ṣābians followed the teaching of Aristotle. All three versions claim that the Ṣābians were influenced by the Physics. The Fihrist version then adds that they adopted Aristotelian views about demonstration, natural bodies, meteorology, the soul, and dreams. Their view about God is described as follows:

God, in their opinion, is one. No attribute can be applied to Him, and no positive statement can be made about Him, and, therefore, He does not fit into any syllogism. This opinion is in agreement with Aristotle’s opinion in the Metaphysics (Rosenthal trans.).

Although al-Sarakhsī does not identify his own views with those of the Ṣābians, it is tempting to detect here an echo of ideas that are found in the works of al-Kindī, for instance, his On First Philosophy (cf. al-Kindī’s characterization of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in his On the Quantity of Aristotle’s Books).

This raises the question of al-Sarakhsī’s attitude toward Islam. As mentioned above, unorthodox religious views may have played a role in his downfall. Some evidence suggests that he tried to integrate Islam with philosophy, which again would be a characteristically Kindian project. Not only did he quote the Qurʾān in support of astrology, but he reports ḥadīths (sayings of the Prophet) and is placed by one later author in a group of authors who fused kalām (Islamic speculative theology) with philosophy (see Rosenthal 1943: 34–35; also in the group is the somewhat later historian and philosopher Miskawayh, who has likewise been associated with the Kindian tradition).

Al-Sarakhsī also participated in an interreligious dispute regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, serving in this debate as al-Kindī’s representative (see Moosa 1972). Al-Sarakhsī’s attempted refutations never get far in the account we have, because the report is authored by a Christian who describes the event as a stunning victory by al-Sarakhsī’s opponent, the Bishop of Kaskar. Still, it is worth reading the account alongside al-Kindī’s brief refutation of the Trinity, which is extant thanks to a counter-refutation by none other than al-Farabi’s Christian student Yaḥyā ibn ‘Adī. Kindī’s refutation deploys ideas from the Aristotelian tradition, arguing that the Persons of the Trinity cannot be identified with any of the Porphyrian predicables. Similarly, al-Sarakhsī asks the Bishop whether the Persons are differentiated essentially or accidentally (neither, replies the Bishop).

Also typical of the Kindian tradition is participation in the refined Arabic literary culture of the ninth–tenth century. This culture of refinement (adab) saw its greatest exponent in a rough contemporary of al-Sarakhsī’s, al-Jāḥiẓ. Al-Sarakhsī’s own contributions to adab include a kind of mirror for princes, entitled On the Appropriate Behavior of Kings, which is probably extant (see Rosenthal 1995; on the fusion of philosophy and adab, see further Rowson 1990). He is credited with many sayings and witty remarks, which are the subject of praise and quotation by later authors.

He is also praised for the breadth of his knowledge, which took in not only the fields mentioned already but also geography and medicine. Some of his geographical notes are extant, including information he collected while on a military expedition with al-Mu‘taḍid in 884 (on this see Rosenthal 1943, 1951). In medicine we know nothing but a few fragments and titles of lost works. It is however interesting to see that the great physician and philosopher Abū Bakr al-Rāzī criticized al-Sarakhsī’s refutation of Galen on the subject of bitter foods. (Al-Sarakhsī also disputed with Galen over al-maḥall al-awwal, “first location” – the meaning is unclear.)

All of this – the openness toward explicitly Muslim theological speculation, the practice of adab and of astrology, and expertise in a wide range of disciplines – is distinctive of other members of the Kindian tradition. If more of al-Sarakhsī’s output were extant, we would have a better idea of the philosophical and cultural commitments of the Kindian intellectual heritage.



Primary Sources

  1. Rosenthal, F. (1943). Aḥmad b. aṭ-Ṭayyib as-Saraḫsī. New Haven: American Oriental Society.Google Scholar

Secondary Sources

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentLMU MunichMunichGermany