The Islamic religion permitted a break with the tribal thought, and this qualitative leap gave birth to the Arabic-Persian Falsafa. Al-Fârâbî was the first prominent figure of this intellectual and cultural movement; he paved the way to Avicenna and Averroes.
It is not a surprise that it was through the question of “thought” that the Falsafa went in direction of materialism. The reason for that is easy to understand: Aristotle did build an idealist system of understanding the world. But as he put a “first motor” permitting the world to exist, then what was the relationship between the thought of the humans and this first motor?
This question, called the question of the “intellect”, was the burning question in Aristotelianism, and the Falsafa takes his identity in the will of answering this question in a particular way: the “intellect” was considered to exist outside the humans, that were re-discovering reality, and not “possessing” it. The thoughts of the humans were mirrors of the reality, but bad mirrors sometimes, which made philosophy necessary.
Whereas dialectical materialism explains that the world can be understood, the Falsafa at its beginning sees truth as a “light” emanating from the first motor, and this light might be not seen correctly. Al-Fârâbî is the major thinker of this.
He plays here an important role, as he is the first to make a criticism of idealism. Avicenna will continue his move and Averroes will finish its perspective. Spinoza could then grasp this and make God disappear of the system.
So, what was the thought of Al-Fârâbî? He took the idealistic system, which considered the world as merely “one”, as theorized by Plotinus. There was a big “one”, absolutely beautiful and solely turned in its own direction. But it emanates so much goodness that it creates the material world, where we live. Our task here is to refuse matter and to go back to the “one” (and only).
Al-Fârâbî changed this system. He understood that this conception was conform to Plato's teaching, but not to Aristotle's lesson. For this reason, he kept the “one”, but made a hierarchy: the “one” gives birth to the “intellect”, then there is the “soul”, then the “material”. All of these were not on the same level, as “shadows” of the “one”. They existed, but one above/under the other.
This was really near or quite the same as Aristotle's thought. And this looks like nothing at all. But connected to Islam, it plays a central role for the Falsafa.
Islam was indeed influenced by the Ash'arite school, following Abū al-Hasan al-Ash'arī (874 – 936). Al-Ash'arī is a very important figure of Islam ; his major work is the the Kitab al-luma (The luminous book).
The central point is the concept of “acquisition”: humans have no “free will”, they made the acquisition of what God gave them, and have to obey to the “essence” given to them. They can refuse, but then they act against their own nature.
Here is what says Al-Ash'arī:
“We hold that there is no creator except Allah, and that the acts of human beings are created and decreed by Allah, as He said, 'Allah has created you and what you do' [37.96]; and we also hold that human beings are unable to create anything but are themselves created; as He said: 'Is there any creator other than Allah?' [35.3]; and: 'Those to whom they call apart from Allah created nothing and are themselves created' [16.20]; and: 'Is He who creates as he who does not create?' [16.17]; and: 'Or were they created from nothing, or are they creators?' [52.35]. This thought occurs frequently in the Book of Allah [i.e., the Qu'ran].”
The Ash'arite school was influenced by the Mu'tazili school from Basra and Baghdad, which promoted reason and was influenced by Aristotle. It went always further away, and its major thinker became al-Ghazzālī (1058–1111), principal attacker of the Falsafa and that made Islam refusing philosophy.
But before this step made by al-Ghazzālī against the Falsafa, there were space for Al-Fârâbî to combine Aristotelianism (with Plato's influence, through Plotinus) with the Ash'arite concept of “acquisition”.
And so, human “intellect” was an acquisition permitted by imaginative faculty. It is a conception which is sort of parallel to the dialectical materialism's conception of thought as a reflect of reality.
Al-Fârâbî explains so:
“Every idea comes from sense-experience according to the adage: "There is nothing in the intellect that has not first been in the senses." The mind is like a smooth tablet on which nothing is written. It is the senses that do all the writing on it. The senses are five: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Each of these has a proper sensible thing for its object. In every sensation the sense receives the form or species of sensible things without the matter, just as wax receives the form of a seal without any of the matter of it.”
Humans do not “think” outside of reality, and when they think it is automatically connected to reality, through the “intellect” created by the “one” which irradiates the intellect of the humans (which is, because of this, an acquisition).
Al-Fârâbî says that:
“The active intellect shines a kind of light upon the passive, by which the passive becomes actual, (aql bilfil) and the intelligible in potentiality becomes intelligible in act. Furthermore, the active intellect is a separate substance, which, by lighting up the phantasms, makes them to be actually intelligible.”
Human beings are like computers connecting themselves, in a natural manner, to the Internet, which give them informations (which the “eternal” Internet always keep). They “take informations”, they do not create, they “compile”:
“The sensations we have once experienced are not utterly dead. They can reappear in the form of images. The power by which we revive a past sensible experience without the aid of any physical stimulus is called imagination (el-motakhayilah).
The power by which we combine and divide images is called the cogitative (el-mofakarah). If we were limited merely to the experience of our actual sensations, we would have only the present, and with it there would be no intellectual life at all. But fortunately we are endowed with the power of calling back a former experience, and this is called memory (el-hafizah- el-zakirah).”
And in a really interesting manner, Al-Fârâbî explains prophetology though acquired intellect. The “prophet” is someone understanding reality because his thought reflects it in a really high manner.
It is impossible not to think of the concept of thought in dialectical materialism, which understanding was permitted notably by Gonzalo.
When Al-Fârâbî explains that knowledge is “clairvoyance [kahanat] in divine matters”, it is easy to understand if we think that “divine matters” are in fact the reality.
At the end of the process of the Falsafa, when the active God becomes a mere (passive) prime motor, then “intellect” will be a simple reflect of reality – of Nature.