Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Greek Essence and Islamic Tolerance: Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rush'd

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Greek Essence and Islamic Tolerance: Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rush'd

Article excerpt

THE PERIOD FROM AL-FARABI to Ibn Rush'd is arguably the time of the greatest philosophical debate, ff not achievement, within Islamic thought. Whether Islamic reflection on revealed law can accept the Greek notion of essence is central to this debate and to the question of tolerance; indeed, the various positions taken with regard to essence determine the nature and limits of political tolerance. The most tolerant position is the complete political rejection of essence and religion in Al-Farabi's second-best option of democracy. Least tolerant is Al-Ghazali's religiously motivated rejection of essence. The philosophical affirmation of essence by Al-Farabi (his preferred position) and Ibn Rush'd allows for toleration of religion as an inferior but necessary way of life for most human beings. Since both Al-Farabi's democracy and his political regime based on essence achieve varying degrees of tolerance by subordinating religion, the choice is between tolerance and the superiority of religion; that is, all agree that it is not possible to reconcile the supremacy of religion with a broad political tolerance.


Al-Farabi. Al-Farabi (870-950 A.D.) consciously adopts the Greek notion of essence. It is "Greek" inasmuch as he sees Plato and Aristotle as having one philosophy, precisely because essence is that which unifies human intellects. According to Al-Farabi, the question of tolerance, like the questions of politics in general, centers on the natural differences among human beings in their ability to grasp essence. (1) Very few--only philosophers--attain essence; most people are limited to images of intelligible reality:

   Most men, either by nature or by habit, are unable to comprehend
   and cognize those things; and these are the men for whom one ought
   to represent the manner in which the principles of the beings,
   their ranks of order, the Active Intellect, and the supreme
   rulership, exist through things that are imitations of them. (2)

Since essence is one, philosophers must be in agreement with each other; since images can only be like but never be the essence, there is no one, true image, and the necessary plurality of images means that nonphilosophers can never reach the consensus of philosophers. (3) The particularity, mutability, and contingency of images can only produce an approximation of the unity rooted in the universality, immutability, and necessity of essence.

Religion, for Al-Farabi, is therefore an imitation of philosophy because it never reaches beyond images of essence; it is an imaginative depiction that can be like but never be the essential reality that the philosopher knows:

   Now when one acquires knowledge of the beings or receives
   instruction in them, if he perceives their ideas themselves with
   his intellect, and his assent to them is by means of certain
   demonstration, the science that comprises these cognitions is
   philosophy. But if they are known by imagining them through
   similitudes that imitate them, and assent to what is imagined of
   them is caused by persuasive methods, then the ancients call what
   comprises these cognitions religion. And if those intelligibles
   themselves are adopted, and persuasive methods are used, then the
   religion comprising them is called popular, generally accepted, and
   external philosophy. Therefore, according to the ancients, religion
   is an imitation of philosophy. (4)

Philosophy is one because essence is one, but religions are necessarily many because there is no one, true image. The philosopher is naturally fit to rule because he grasps both essence and images--what happiness is and what is like happiness. (5) The natural inability of the vast majority of human beings to know essences forces the philosopher not only to tolerate the existence of religions but to rule the multitude through religion. Tolerance of religion follows upon the almost universal limitation of human beings to imaginative knowledge. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.