1) Is Al-Kindi a fatalist? Can his position be reconciled with Islam (and if so how)? Based on his writings and teachings, the essential message of Al-Kindi (the earliest known Islamic philosopher) is that of fatalism – in essence, that our lives are conditioned in detail by a series of facts that are immutable and unchangeable. Al-Kindi’s perspective, which he outlines in his teachings, is that we can do nothing to change these circumstances and events, even when they are uncomfortable and painful to us. However, he also argues that we have the capability of joyfully affirming these circumstances and our life’s path, instead of denying or expressing regret about them. Despite the fatalist outlook of Al-Kindi, this perspective can absolutely be reconciled with Islam, which cites as man’s two basic qualities of intelligence and freedom, thanks to the concept of qadar (fate/predestination), which states that man still makes the decision – it is just that God already knows what will happen and accommodates the world in reaction to it.
The chief aspect of Al-Kindi’s sense of fatalism is God’s status as One True and Complete Agent and the Incomplete Metaphorical ‘Agent’ (22). As God was the one who created the universe from nothing, “Clearly this action is proper to God, who is the final end of every cause; for bringing beings into existence from nonbeing belongs to Him alone” (22). His status as the creator of everything naturally places him under ultimate control of those things, leaving all aspects of the universe up to His will. Unlike men, who have circumstances and attributes of the world acting on him at all times, the Creator is said to be “truly the First Cause of everything acted upon, both mediately and immediately, because He is an agent, not acted upon in any way” (23). Al-Kindi notes that this status as the First Cause permits him control over all aspects of worldly life; while men can make choices in life, God knows about these choices and compensates to achieve the desire He wants. Al-Kindi, therefore, argues that we can still technically have ‘freedom’ of a sense, as man makes the choices he makes without improper influence by God, but God simply works around these choices, ensuring fate and destiny as he would desire it.
The concepts of generation and corruption are central to Al-Kindi’s philosophy, which itself ties in to the philosopher’s concept of fatalism. According to Al-Kindi, God is the “Ruler of every ruler, an Agent of every agent, a Creator of every creator, a First of every first, and a Cause of every cause,” taking this as a given based on the tenets of his intellect, which he says will remove the ignorance in every person who uses it (2). The supremacy of God’s all-knowing, absolute knowledge and oneness is cited in the perfect order of the universe; based on seeing the “perfection of its design,” the universe is said to be an example of God’s all-knowing, all-seeing omniscience (2). The natural cause of a thing is merely a material consequence of God’s generation, of which everything is subject to corruption (4).
As Islam still promotes the idea of free will in its doctrines, the reconciliation of Al-Kindi’s fatalism with the freedom of Islam comes in the details of how he describes the mechanism of God’s absolutism. An example Al-Kindi describes is the killing of an animal by a man shooting the arrow; while the man is remotely responsible for the death of the animal by being the one to choose to shoot the arrow, the arrow itself is synonymous to God, actually bringing about the death of the living thing through the action of the arrow. To that end, God is the “One Who creates every agent” and causes all things to happen; while there is some element of choice in the actions men take, God’s determinism causes things to happen based on these choices (4).
While Al-Kindi notes the somewhat futile nature of free choice (as these choices do not defy God’s will), his central argument is to keep a positive attitude and affirm one’s life in spite of these circumstances. Al-Kindi says that the discomforts that come to us in life are part of God’s plan, but we should not feel animosity towards them: “we should not hate what is not evil” (34). When we act, we do not truly act, but are merely intermediary agents for God’s will; instead of feeling negatively about this, we must find a way to embrace it and find purpose and fulfillment in this knowledge. The best way to do this is to not attach oneself to the physical world, demonstrating temperance in order to find happiness; instead, one must trust the flow of the forces of generation and corruption in order to truly be at peace with the determinist view of the world.
2) Compare and contrast the ethical positions of Al-Kindi and Ar-Razi. How do they take different stands with respect to moderation and asceticism? What are the sources for their ethics? How do they interpret those sources differently? Comparing Al-Kindi to Ar-Razi, the two have decidedly different takes on moderation an asceticism. The two philosophers both offer that moderation and asceticism are good things – not indulging in too many material comforts being bad for the soul – but do so in different ways and for different reasons.
Al-Kindi’s take on these concepts, and his sense of ethics, is taken from Socrates and other Greek philosophers, as well as other sources. According to Al-Kindi, the true path to worldly happiness is to lower the number of worldly possessions one has to the bare minimum. Al-Kindi notes that, when we collect too many earthly belongings, we become weighed down and corrupted by the material, finite pleasures that they bring us, not really achieving true happiness. “How wretched it is for us to be deceived by the pebbles of the earth, the shells of the sea, the flowers of trees, and the chaff of plants, [all] of which is paltry [and yet] a burden to us!” (33).
God provides everything that one needs, and Al-Kindi offers the simple lives of the animals (such as whales and elephants) as examples of creatures who live purely and simply, not being weighed down by things they do not need. According to Al-Kindi, “Anyone who occupies himself with increasing his external possessions will miss out on his eternal life, his temporal life will be dreary, his illnesses will increase, and his pains will not cease” (31). His example of the boat is central to his teachings, as he shows people getting further and further way from said boat, preoccupied with material goods. These people, in doing so, lose sight of the glory of God and His hand in their lives, and corrupt their soul in the process.
Conversely, Ar-Razi derives his concepts of moderation and asceticism from Greek philosophy and the tenets of Socrates. Socrates is cited by him as the ultimate ascetic master of moderation, as he would refuse to talk to kings, refused to eat food for their taste or wear ostentatious clothing, eschewed a home and family, and did not attend plays or other public entertainment (36-37). Instead, “he confined himself to eating dry herbage, wrapping himself in a threadbare robe, and taking shelter in a barrel in the wilderness” (37). In this way, Socrates is held up as a high example of living without the kind of creature comforts that could corrupt a man’s soul and make them stray from the path, as Al-Kindi also warns. However, he also notes that Socrates gave much of this up later in life, as he had discovered that this lifestyle in and of itself was also taken too far: “At the outset of any pursuit that is desired and loved, one cannot but long for it, love it excessively, persevere in it, and hate anyone opposed to it” (37).
The interpretation of these sources is the key to discerning the differences between these two philosophers with regards to their perspectives on these issues. While Al-Kindi relies mostly on his own teachings and nature to provide examples of the advantages of moderation, Ar-Razi relies both on historical examples of important Greek figures like Socrates and the tenets of his own works to make his points. Al-Kindi cites moderation and asceticism as an absolute, as the closer you maintain moderation, the closer you get to spiritual purity. As he believes that courage, justice and wisdom are natural to ourselves and our souls, moderation and asceticism then become central facets of our ability to behave in a just and sensible way. Ar-Razi is largely on the same page, believing that choosing eternal pleasures for limited ones only brings about pain in the afterlife. Moderation is also something that gets better with practice, as it becomes second nature the more people exercise it. Al-Kindi believes moderation helps one get closer to the purity of their soul and God’s plan, whereas Ar-Razi sees it as a tradeoff between temporary pleasures in the worldly realm and eternal pleasures in heaven.
3) What is the relationship between metaphysics and ethics in Al-Kindi and Ar-Razi? Focus in particular on the relationship between materialism, corruption, and the spiritual.
Both Al-Kindi and Ar-Razi weigh in on the relationship between metaphysics and ethics, essentially using the nature of the universe to determine a moral path for Islam’s followers. Al-Kindi heavily links metaphysics to ethics in his works; metaphysics is meant to bring one closer to knowing God; to that end, to behave according to God’s will is to behave ethically and to facilitate a greater sense of oneness with God. Part of this is recognizing that all things are part of the whole, each component part being part of the aggregate of God and his eternal, divine presence. Recognizing God as the Creator and ultimate first/final cause of everything, being an active agent to all things that occur in life, ethics then becomes a binary maxim in which God’s teachings are what determines ethics and all actions that violate that covenant are unethical.
Ar-Razi’s take on corruption and metaphysics relates closely to the Five Eternals – the “Creator, Soul, Prime Matter, eternity, and void” (47). In essence, the world has been created as playground for which the soul can play and enact its pleasures in a limited environment. He notes that the Soul has a tendency to focus on material pleasures, which can allow it to be corrupted through the temptations of the material world. It is only through spirituality that this corruption can be abated, as the soul would realize that “in its own world it would have pleasures free from pain” (47). As a result, ethics must be considered a kind of spiritual medicine which brings the soul back to a state of equilibrium; by behaving ethically, the soul can have greater returns upon going back to heaven.
Materialism, corruption and the spiritual are all interrelated factors that weigh heavily on these concepts in different ways for these two philosophers. Al-Kindi, like Ar-Razi, favors the caring of the soul over the caring of the body: “The well-being of the soul and curing it from painstakes precedence over the well-being of the body and curing [the body] from its pains” (26). Caring for the body, then, can be seen as a sort of violation of the Muslim’s focus on the soul, as the spiritual concern must take priority above all others. In this way, ultimate and constant asceticism is explicitly linked to spiritual health and ethical behavior – all effort must be placed upon caring for the soul and avoiding sadness, which then prevents corruption and death of the soul.
Ar-Razi, on the other hand, links the soul to this push and pull of materialism and corruption, demonstrating the need to avoid the excesses of abstinence and indulgence – like the aforementioned Socrates example, both Socrates’ hermit-like denial of all pleasurable things and his late-in-life embrace of the indulgent were both unethical, as the proper way to live would simply be to engage in consistent moderation based on reason. Much like Al-Kindi, Ar-Razi notes that, “as long as it remained in the material world, it would never be unfettered from pain” (47). In this way, Ar-Razi’s perspective is much more lenient and contingent upon free choice and equilibrium than Al-Kindi’s absolutism with regards to the engagement of people in material goods. If this level of moderation, care for the soul, and a consistent practice of reason is carried out, people can behave ethically based on the needs of their soul.
The relationship between metaphysics and ethics is extremely tight and interconnected in the works of both philosophers. Al-Kindi and Ar-Razi note the Soul as the ultimate form of Man, which should be taken care of above all else. While Al-Kindi places a higher priority on the spiritual as the means by which the soul should be taken care of, Ar-Razi allows for a greater sense of moderation in avoiding extremes. As the former believes the soul should be protected and safeguarded at all costs from corruption and sadness, Ar-Razi believes a balanced equilibrium of pleasure and pain is the key to achieving true metaphysical peace.
McGinnis, J., & Reisman, D.C. (trans.) (2007). Classical Arabic Philosophy: An anthology of
sources. Hackett Publishing Company.