Middle Eastern Philosophy
Middle Eastern philosophy includes the various philosophies of the Middle East regions, including the Fertile Crescent, Iran, and Anatolia. Traditions include Ancient Egyptian philosophy, Babylonian philosophy, Jewish philosophy, Iranian/Persian philosophy, and Islamic philosophy.
Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion, which originated in Iran. It has a dualistic nature (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu), with an additional series of six important divine entities called the Amesha Spentas. In modern Zoroastrianism they are interpreted as aspects or emanations of Ahura Mazda (the Supreme Being), who form a heptad that is good and constructive. They are opposed to another group of seven who are evil and destructive. It is this persistent conflict between good and evil that distinguishes Zoroastrianism from monotheistic frameworks that have only one power as supreme. By requiring its adherents to have faith and belief in equally opposing powers Zoroastrianism characterizes itself as dualistic.
The teachings of Zarathustra (Zoroaster) appeared in Persia at some point during the period 1700-1800 BCE. His wisdom became the basis of the religion Zoroastrianism, and generally influenced the development of the Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian philosophy. Zarathustra was the first who treated the problem of evil in philosophical terms. He is also believed to be one of the oldest monotheists in the history of religion. He espoused an ethical philosophy based on the primacy of good thoughts (pendar-e-nik), good words (goftar-e-nik), and good deeds (kerdar-e-nik).
The works of Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism had a significant influence on Greek philosophy and Roman philosophy. Several ancient Greek writers such as Eudoxus of Cnidus and Latin writers such as Pliny the Elder praised Zoroastrian philosophy as “the most famous and most useful”. Plato learnt of Zoroastrian philosophy through Eudoxus and incorporated much of it into his own Platonic realism. In the 3rd century BC, however, Colotes accused Plato’s The Republic of plagiarizing parts of Zoroaster’s On Nature, such as the Myth of Er.
Manichaeism, founded by Mani, was influential from North Africa in the West, to China in the East. Its influence subtly continues in Western Christian thought via Saint Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity from Manichaeism, which he passionately denounced in his writings, and whose writings continue to be influential among Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox theologians. An important principle of Manichaeism was its dualistic nature.
The religious and philosophical teaching called Mazdakism, which its founder, Mazdak, regarded as a reformed and purified version of Zoroastrianism displays remarkable influences from Manichaeism as well.
Zurvanism is characterized by the element of its first principle, which is time (Zurvan), as a primordial creator. According to Zaehner, Zurvanism appears to have three schools of thought, all with classical Zurvanism as a foundation: aesthetic, materialist, and fatalistic.
Aesthetic Zurvanism—apparently not as popular as the materialistic kind—viewed Zurvan as undifferentiated time, which, under the influence of desire, divided reason (a male principle) and concupiscence (a female principle).
While Zoroaster’s Ormuzd created the universe with his thought, materialist Zurvanism challenged the concept that anything could be made out of nothing.
Fatalistic Zurvanism resulted from the doctrine of limited time with the implication that nothing could change this preordained course of the material universe and that the path of the astral bodies of the ‘heavenly sphere’ was representative of this preordained course. According to the Middle Persian work Menog-i Khrad: “Ohrmazd allotted happiness to man, but if man did not receive it, it was owing to the extortion of these planets.”
The Persian polymath Avicenna wrote almost 450 treatises on a wide range of subjects. Many philosophical works, among them The Book of Healing, have survived.
The Philosophy of Illumination founded by Sohrevardi argued that light operates at all levels and hierarchies of reality. Light produces immaterial and substantial lights, including immaterial intellects, human and animal souls and even ‘dusky substances’, such as bodies. Sohrevardi’s works display extensive developments on the basis of Zoroastrian ideas and ancient Iranian thought.
Transcendent Philosophy, developed by Sadr Shirazi, is one of two main disciplines of Islamic philosophy that is currently live and active.
Israelite/Hebrew and diaspora Jewish philosophy
Jewish philosophy includes all philosophy carried out by Jews, both within their original homeland and in the diaspora.
The origins of Babylonian philosophy, in the popular sense of the word, can be traced back to the wisdom of early Mesopotamia, which embodied certain philosophies of life, particularly ethics, in the forms of dialectic, dialogs, epic poetry, folklore, hymns, lyrics, prose, and proverbs. The reasoning and rationality of the Babylonians developed beyond empirical observation.
It is possible that Babylonian philosophy had an influence on Greek philosophy, and later Hellenistic philosophy, however the textual evidence is lacking. The undated Babylonian text Dialog of Pessimism contains similarities to the agnostic thought of the sophists, the Heraclitean doctrine of contrasts, and the dialogs of Plato, as well as a precursor to the maieutic Socratic method of Socrates and Plato. The Milesian philosopher Thales is also said to have studied philosophy in Mesopotamia.
The rise of Islam and the influence of classical Greek thought, especially Aristotle, led to the emergence of various philosophical schools of thought. Amongst them Sufism established esoteric philosophy, Mu’tazili (partly influenced by Hellenistic philosophy) reconstructed rationalism, while Ash’ari reshaped logical and rational interpretation of God, justice, destiny and the universe.
Early Islamic philosophy was influenced by (ancient) Greek philosophy, Hellenistic philosophy, Iranian philosophy, Judaism, Christianity and Indian philosophy, and in turn, Islamic philosophy had a strong influence on (medieval) Jewish philosophy, Christian philosophy/Western philosophy, Iranian philosophy and Indian philosophy, hence many consider Islamic philosophy to be both an Eastern philosophy and a Western philosophy.
Al-Mu’tazilah (المعتزلة) or Mu’tazilite is a popular theological school of philosophy during early Islam. They called themselves Ahl al-‘Adl wa al-Tawhid (“People of Justice and Monotheism”). They ascended dramatically during 8th and 9th century due to the support of intellectuals and elites. Later in the 13th century, they lost official support in favour of the rising Ash’ari school. Most of their valuable works were destroyed during the Crusades and Mongol invasion.
One of the most influential Muslim philosophers in the West was Averroes (Ibn Rushd), founder of the Averroism school of philosophy.
It is said that other influential Muslim philosophers include al-Jahiz, a pioneer of evolutionary thought and natural selection; Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen), a pioneer of phenomenology and the philosophy of science and a critic of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Aristotle’s concept of place (topos); Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, a critic of Aristotelian natural philosophy; Avicenna, a critic of Aristotelian logic; Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, a critic of Aristotelian logic and a pioneer of inductive logic; and Ibn Khaldun, considered the father of the philosophy of history and sociology and a pioneer of social philosophy. However, not very much credible evidence to support such claims is forthcoming, at least in the field of Arabic-English translation methodology, with regards to the exact sciences of semantics and hermeneutics.
Sufism (تصوف taṣawwuf) is a school of esoteric philosophy in Islam, which is based on the pursuit of spiritual truth as a definite goal to attain. To attain this supreme truth, Sufism has marked Lataif-e-Sitta (the six subtleties), Nafs, Qalb, Sirr, Ruh (spirit), Khafi and Akhfa. Apart from conventional religious practices, they also perform Muraqaba (meditation), Dhikr (Zikr or recitation), Chillakashi (asceticism) and Sama (esoteric music and dance).
- Mary Boyce: “The Origins of Zoroastrian Philosophy” in “Persian Philosophy”. Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy: Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam. Routledge, 2009.
- Jalal-e-din Ashtiyani. “Zarathushtra, Mazdayasna and Governance”.
- Whitley, C.F. (Sep 1957). “The Date and Teaching of Zarathustra”. Numen. 4 (3): 219–223. doi:10.2307/3269345.
- Alan Williams: “Later Zoroastrianism” in “Persian Philosophy”. Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy: Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam. Routledge, 2009.
- Philip G. Kreyenbroek: “Morals and Society in Zoroastrian Philosophy” in “Persian Philosophy”. Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy: Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam. Routledge, 2009.
- A. D. Nock (1929), “Studien zum antiken Synkretismus aus Iran und Griechenland by R. Reitzenstein, H. H. Schaeder, Fr. Saxl”, The Journal of Hellenic Studies49 (1), p. 111-116 .
- David N. Livingstone (2002), The Dying God: The Hidden History of Western Civilization, p. 144-145, iUniverse, ISBN0-595-23199-3.
- A. D. Nock (1929), “Studien zum antiken Synkretismus aus Iran und Griechenland by R. Reitzenstein, H. H. Schaeder, Fr. Saxl”, The Journal of Hellenic Studies49 (1), p. 111-116.
- Yarshater, Ehsan. 1983. The Cambridge history of Iran, volume 2. p.995-997
- Shaki, Mansour. 1985. The cosmogonical and cosmological teachings of Mazdak. Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce, Acta Iranica 25, Leiden, 1985, pp. 527-43.
- Kluge, Ian (2009). Some Answered Questions: A Philosophical Perspective, in Lights of Irfan, Volume 10.
- Giorgio Buccellati (1981), “Wisdom and Not: The Case of Mesopotamia”, Journal of the American Oriental Society101 (1), p. 35-47.
- Giorgio Buccellati (1981), “Wisdom and Not: The Case of Mesopotamia”, Journal of the American Oriental Society101 (1), p. 35-47 .
- Majid Fakhry (2001). Averroes: His Life, Works and Influence. Oneworld Publications. ISBN1-85168-269-4.
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