Al-Kindi – “Father of Arab Philosophy”

Lighthouses and doors of the mosque of Kufa.
Lighthouses and doors of the mosque of Kufa. ID 40136640 © Rasoul Ali |

Abu Yūsuf  Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāqaṣ-Ṣabbāḥ al-Kindīwas an Arabian Muslim polymath who achieved prominence across fields ranging from music to medicine. Al-Kindi was the first of the Islamic peripatetic philosophers, and is hailed as the “father of Arab philosophy”.

A native of Kufa, he rose to eminence in the House of Wisdom, and several Abbasid Caliphs appointed him to oversee the translation of scientific and philosophical treatises from Greek into Arabic.

His knowledge of “the philosophy of the ancients” (as Hellenistic philosophy was known in Muslim scholarship) influenced him profoundly, as he compiled, adapted and developed Hellenistic and Peripatetic philosophy in the Muslim world.

He subsequently wrote multitudes of his own treatises on subjects ranging from metaphysics to optics as well as such practical topics as perfumes, swords and mirrors.

As a mathematician, al-Kindi was instrumental in introducing Indian numerals to the Islamic world, and subsequently exporting the Arabic numerals to the Christian world, along with Al-Khwarizmi.

Al-Kindi was also one of the forerunners of modern cryptographer. Written on the basis of earlier research  by Al-Khalil (717–786), Al-Kindi’s book entitled Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages gave rise to the birth of cryptanalysis and introduced several new methods of breaking ciphers, notably frequency analysis.Using his mathematical and medical expertise, he was able to develop a scale that would allow doctors to determine the strength of medication they prescribed.

The central theme recurring throughout al-Kindi’s philosophical writings is the intimate connection between philosophy and other “orthodox” Islamic sciences, particularly theology. And many of his works deal with subjects that theology had an immediate interest in. These include the nature of God, the soul and prophetic knowledge.

But despite his role in helping Muslim intellectuals access philosophy of other cultures, his own philosophical writings were largely eclipsed by those of al-Farabi and very few of his texts are available for modern scholars to examine.

Al-Kindi wrote at least two hundred and sixty books, contributing heavily to geometry (thirty-two books), medicine and philosophy (twenty-two books each), logic (nine books), and physics (twelve books).

Although most of his books have been lost over the centuries, a small number have survived in the form of Latin translations by Gerard of Cremona, and others have been rediscovered in Arabic manuscripts; most importantly, twenty-four of his lost works were located in the mid-twentieth century in a Turkish library.

Al-Kindi was a master of many different areas of thought and was one of the most highly esteemed Islamic philosophers of his time. His influence in the fields of physics, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and music were profound and withstood the test of time. Ibn al-Nadim in his al-Fihrist praised Al-Kindi and his work stating:

The best man of his time, unique in his knowledge of all the ancient sciences. He is called the Philosopher of the Arabs. His books deal with different sciences, such as logic, philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy etc. We have connected him with the natural philosophers because of his prominence in Science.

Al-Kindi’s major contribution was his establishment of philosophy in the Islamic world and his efforts in trying to harmonize the philosophical investigation along with the Islamic theology and creed. The philosophical texts which were translated under his supervision would become the standard texts in the Islamic world for centuries to come, even after his influence has been overshadowed by later Philosophers.

Al-Kindi also achieved prominence on a European level. Several of his books got translated into Latin influencing western authors like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon. The Italian Renaissance scholar Geralomo Cardano (1501–1575) considered him as one of the twelve greatest minds.

In 873, al-Kindi died in Baghdad during the reign of al-Mu’tamid (r. 870–892).