Ahmad Ibn Muhammad (Ibn) Miskawayh (ca.320/932-421/1030)
A contemporary of Ibn Sina and al-Biruni, Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Miskawayh was born in Rayy around 320/932. His full name was Abu Ali Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Yaqub. His name was Miskawayh, and not Ibn Miskawayh, but the Orientalists followed an inaccurate tradition and he became famous as Ibn Miskawayh.
He was a secretary and a librarian for the viziers al-Muhallabi (340-52/950-63), Abu’l Fadl (353-60/951-70) and Abu’l Fath (360-6/970-6) and finally for the Buyid Adud al-Dawla (d. 372/983). Ibn Miskawayh was part of the Arabo-Persian artistocracy of his times and frequented the circles of the most learned of representatives of Islamic intellectual tradition. This included al-Tawhidi, al-`Amiri, Ibn Sa`daan, al-Sahib ibn `Abbad, Abu Sulayman al-Mantiki, Badi` al-Zaman, Abu Bakr al-Khwarazmi and many others. He studied the works of Ibn Tabari with Ibn Kamil who was a student of the famous historian. According to Yakut, Ibn Miskawayh died on 9 Safar 421/16 Febrary 1030, at the age of 100.
Like so many other intellectuals of his time, Ibn
Miskawayh studied philosophy and history as means of investigating Truth (al-Haq).
Working in the Islamic Neoplatonic tradition, Ibn Miskawayh placed a great deal
of importance on ethics. He formulated rules for the preservation of moral
health and described ways in which the various parts of the soul can be brought
together into harmony.
Ibn Miskawayh wrote on subjects as wide as history, psychology and chemistry.
He was a fine representative of that branch of Islamic philosophy which viewed
the Greek philosophers in the light of their views on the unity and existence of
God. He also argued for Aristotle's identification of the One Creator with an
Unmoved Mover. Such a creator can only be described in terms of negative
concepts, an interesting pre-figurement of the tradition of the via negativa in
Sometimes inaccurately cited as a pre-cursor to Darwinism, Ibn Miskawayh
described emanation as a process through which the creator produces the active
intellect, the soul and the heavens without intermediaries. This was a radical
departure from the normal Neoplatonic account of emanation, then current in
Islamic philosophy, which used the notion of ‘a scale of being’ for separating
different levels of emanation.
Ibn Miskawayh's works on ethics are far more important than his works on
metaphysics. His Taharat al-a'raq (Purity of Dispositions), better known as
Tahdhib al-akhlaq (Cultivation of Morals, ed. C. Zurayk, Beirut 1967, Fr. Tr. M.
Arkoun, 1969), explains, in detail, the path to acquiring the correct balance to
morally correct actions in an organized and systematic manner.
He uses a Platonic concept of nature of soul, seen as a self-subsisting
entity or substance—in marked contrast to the Aristotelian notion—to distinguish
humans from animals and other things. The soul cannot be an accident (or
property of the body) because it has the power to distinguish between accidents
and essential concepts and is not limited to awareness of accidental things by
the senses. Rather, it can apprehend a great variety of immaterial and abstract
entities. He argues that if the soul were only an accident, it would not be able
to distinguish and discern; it would only be able to perform in the limited ways
of the physical parts of the body. The soul is not an accident, hence when we
want to concentrate upon abstract issues the body is actually an obstruction
that we must avoid if we are to make contact with intelligible reality. The
soul, then, is an immortal and independent substance that controls the body. It
has an essence opposite to that of the body, and so cannot die; it is involved
in an eternal and circular motion, replicated by the organization of the
This motion moves either upwards, towards reason and the active intellect, or
downwards towards matter. Our happiness arises through upwards movement, our
misfortunes through movement in the opposite direction. This concept argues that
unity is equivalent to perfection, while multiplicity is equivalent to a
meaningless plurality of physical objects. Expanding his concept, Ibn Miskawayh
explores the notion of justice. He distinguishes between human and divine
justice. Human justice is variable and depends upon the changing nature of
particular states and communities. The law of the state is based upon the
contingent features of the time, while the divine law specifies what is to be
done everywhere and at every time.
Ibn Miskawayh’s emphasis upon reason to guide humanity has led Mohammed
Arkoun (1969) to label him as a humanist. But this must be seen in the light of
the Islamic intellectual tradition and not in the light of European humanism.
And within the Islamic intellectual tradition, Ibn Miskawayh was strongly
criticized for his “humanism”. Al-Ghazali, for instance, seems to consider his
arguments about the religious rituals totally unacceptable. Ibn Miskawayh
considered the religious rituals in their functional aspects only; that is to
say that they help us in adapting to religious life, using the dispositions that
are natural to us, so that the rules and customs of religion are essentially
reasonable. A whole range of authorities may be consulted to help us understand
our religious duties concerning how we are to live and what we are to believe;
some of these are Islamic, while others are not. Ibn Miskawayh seems on the
whole to accord greater respect to Greek rather than specifically Islamic
authorities. Ibn Miskawayh avoided the notion of revelation to resolve
theoretical difficulties; he wanted to use only reason for all problems. It was
his elegant style, practical relevance and philosophical vigor that prolonged
his influence in the Islamic world. It is his particular emphasis on reason
alone, as well his emanation scheme, that is sometimes brought in favor of his
Ibn Miskawayh, Tahdhib al-akhlaq (Cultivation of Morals), ed. C. Zurayk
(1966), American University of Beirut Centennial Publications, Beirut; trans. C.
Zurayk (1968), The Refinement of Character, American University of Beirut,
Beirut. (A summary of Ibn Miskawayh's ethical system. This work is also known as
Taharat al-a'raq (Purity of Dispositions).)
Arkoun, M. (1961-2), 'Deux épîtres de Miskawayh' (Two Treatises of Miskawayh),
Bulletin d'Études Orientales (Institut Français de Damas) 17: 7-74. (A clear
account of Ibn Miskawayh's general metaphysics as well as his ethics.)
Arkoun, M. (1970), Contribution à l'Étude de l'humanisme arabe au IVe/Xe siècle: Miskawayh, philosophe et historien (320/325-421) = (932/936-1030) (Contribution to the Study of Arab Humanism in the 4th/10th Century: Miskawayh, Philosopher and Historian), Paris: Vrin; revised 2nd edn, 1982. (The standard exegesis of Ibn Miskawayh's contribution to philosophy and history.)
Fakhry, M. (1975), 'The Platonism of Miskawayh and its Implications for his Ethics' in Studia Islamica 43: 39-57. (A careful account of the Platonic and Neoplatonic influences on Ibn Miskawayh.)
Goodman, L. (1996), 'Friendship in Aristotle, Miskawayh and al-Ghazali' in O. Leaman (ed.) Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives, Curzon, Richmond, pp.164-91. (A range of views on friendship, and their philosophical significance explained.)
Kraemer, J. (1984), 'Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: a Preliminary Study’ in Journal of the American Oriental Society 104 (1): 135-64. (An account of Ibn Miskawayh's place in the culture of Islamic humanism.)
Leaman, O. (1996a), 'Ibn Miskawayh' in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds.) History of Islamic Philosophy, Routledge, London, pp. 252-7. (An account of the context within which Ibn Miskawayh worked and the influence of his views.)
Leaman, O. (1996b), 'Islamic Humanism in the Fourth/Tenth Century' in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds.), History of Islamic Philosophy, Routledge, London, pp.155-61. (survey of a group of thinkers including Ibn Miskawayh, al-Tawhidi and al-Sijistani.)
Leaman, O. (1996c), 'Secular Friendship and Religious Devotion' in O. Leaman (ed.) Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives, Curzon, Richmond. (account of Ibn Miskawayh's notion of friendship and a comparison with contrary views.)
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