History of Humanistic and Rational Thought in the Arab world

Last Edited: 4th of May 2016

There is a rich and often overlooked tradition of humanistic thought in Arab history that this page aims to highlight. The focus here will be on the thought tradition after the rise of Islam and in particular during the time period from the 8th century to the middle of the 13th century commonly referred to as the ‘Islamic Golden Age.’ During that era many ancient books of philosophy, science and literature were translated into Arabic which paved the foundation for many great Arab thinkers to emerge. The greatest cities of the Muslim world, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba, became major centres of knowledge and the Arabic language became the language of poetry, art, literature, governance and science.

There is also much to be learned from the time period preceded Islam, however this section will focus on this particular era for a number of reasons:
1) An Islamic identity remains very significant in the Arab world today. Many of the philosophers and scientists mentioned below are names familiar to Muslims and are commonly referenced as an example of how Islam lead to prosperity; a claim which we will put into question.
2) It was due to Islam and Islamic conquests that the Arabic language spread and that the Arab-speaking world formed the way we know it today. Before Islam, there was little common culture between North Africa, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia and the other regions which
3) Arab philosophy and science from this era being translated into latin played an important role in taking Europe out of the Middle Ages and remained a primary reference for European thinkers during the renaissance

There is no doubt that religion played a major role in society at the time and that many of the great thinkers of the time identified as Muslims, however the writings of some of the greatest luminaries establish that many followed a version of Islam that’s a lot more fluid than the one we are most familiar with today while others were sceptical or blatantly critical of religion.


Translation and the influence of Greek thought

Under the Abbasid dynasty that began in the year 750, a huge emphasis was placed on promoting contact between Islamic culture and other ruling cultures and the early Muslims started mass translating Persian, Indian and Greek texts. By order of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mum (786-833) many Greek work were translated into Arabic. For the sciences this meant that Muslims were able to start adding their own discoveries in fields which included mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, zoology and geography.

This also had a huge impact on the study of humanities and how Muslim intellectuals approached the Quran. Emphasis was placed on re-interpreting Quranic text with the help of ratio and logic. Many philosophers of the time such as Al Kindi, Al Farabi and Ikhwan Al-Safa chose a rational interpretation of the text. Greek thought which was characterised by free and critical thinking assisted their insights on different themes such as metaphysics, the cosmos and social contact within society.

One of the by-products of this line of thinking was the Mu’tazalitte school of thought which originated in the end of the eighth century and placed emphasis on the idea of placing ratio (Greek for reason) first and emphasised the free will of man in contrast to those who gave more weight to divine omnipotence. The Mu’tazilite scholar Al-Jahiz (781-869) emphasised that the individual is free in his actions and places freedom of choice as the major category in the eight categories of knowledge. Politically he was active in spreading the values of justice and equality amongst Muslims, Jews and Christians. He believed that every individual should have the right to choose their own faith. Another thinker Al-Qadi Al-Jabbar emphasized the importance of justice in society. Al-Zamakhshari spoke of freedom of speech in particularly with relation to re-interpreting scripture and he often chose to focus on the metaphorical features of religious text rather than adhere to any of its literal meanings.

Notable figures

Al Farabi (870-950)


  • A logician, political scientist, a philosopher and a musician.
  • Al-Farabi was known to the Arabs as the ‘Second Master’ (after Aristotle)
  • He was heavily influenced by both Aristotlian and Neoplatonic thought
  • His philosophical legacy is huge and includes everything from works on metaphysics, epistemology and political philosophy. In his book ‘Epistle on the Intellect’ he focuses on the question of what the intellect is and discusses a large number of politiacl and ethical issues.
  • He heavily influenced Islamic philosophers who succeeded him such as Ibn Sina and major thinkers of Christian medieval Europe such as Thomas Aquinas
  • His vision of human freedom and his expression of ‘free choice’ is shared by the Mu’tazalites.


Al-Maa’rri (973-1057)


  • He was a was a blind Arab poet, philosopher and writer known for his scathing criticisms of religion and championing of rationalism. He frequently expressed his contempt of all religions and religious practices. He was particularly critical of the Pilgrimage (Hajj) which he calls “a heathen’s journey”
  • Is sometimes known as “Lucretius of the East”
  • In his collection of poems known as the Luzumiyyat, it is clear he prefers the Indian custom of cremation to the Muslim one of burial.
  • A vegan and despite being born in a family that formed part of the upper crust of society and having a significant amount of luxury he abandoned much of this in favour of a life of asceticism and refused to sell his poems.
  • His ‘Risalat Al Ghufran’ or ‘Epistle of Forgiveness’ describes a trip to the afterlife where paradise is filled with thinkers and pagan poets whereas hell is filled with religious figures. It is said to have inspired Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.
  • Great Sufi poets like Sa’adi and Omar Khayyam wrote of his influence in their work
  • In the spring of 2013, fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, beheaded his statue in Syria.
The now decapitated statue of Abul Alaa Al-Maa'rri
The now decapitated statue of Abul Alaa Al-Maa’rri in Syria

“Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
Ay, but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.
Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all:
Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.
A little doubt is better than total credulity”

“But some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.
An idle thought! There’s none to lead but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.”

“O fools, awake! The rites ye sacred hold
Are but a cheat contrived by men of old
Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust
And died in baseness-and their law is dust”

Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1037)

ibn sina

  • A philosopher and physician whose medical encyclopaedic book ‘The Canon’ was used as a medical reference in Europe for 500 years after being translated to Latin towards the end of the twelfth century
  • His family was an Ismaa’eelee (Shiite) family considered to be “severely deviant” by traditional sunni Islam.
  • Heavily influenced by the Mu’tazilah school of thought and the philosophy of Aristotle.
  • His philosophical writings greatly influenced scholasticism
  • Contrary to orthodox Islamic thought, he denied personal immortality, God’s interest in individuals and rejected the central Islamic doctrine of resurrection of the dead in flesh and blood.
  • He was declared a ‘kafir’ or an infidel by several Islamic scholars such as Ibn Qayyim al-Jowziyyah who said “He (Ibn Sina) was from the Qaraamitah Baatiniyyah [Sect], those who do not believe in a beginning (of the creation) nor an end, nor do they believe in a Lord of the creation, nor any prophet sent from Allaah, the Most High.Such deviant hypocrites (zanaadiqah) pretend to be Raafidhah, whilst they conceal pure, absolute disbelief inwardly, claiming to be descendants of the family of the Messenger (may Allaah raise his rank and grant him and his family peace). He and his family are all free of them in terms of both lineage and religion…”

Ibn Rushd or Averros (1126-1198)

ibn rushd

  • An Andalusian polymath who wrote on everything from Aristotelian and Islamic philosophy to logic, politics, music and medicine, mathematics and mechanics.
  • He argued that where religious scripture is contradicted by what philosophers such as Aristotle had revealed, scripture should be reinterpreted as allegorical and that rationalism takes priority when disagreement arises in the interpretation of Qu’ranic text
  • His commentaries on Aristotle were an important influence on European Thinkers who were in the process of rediscovering the work of the Greeks.
  • He defends the rights of servants who want to revolt against tyrannical rulers and speaks of creating opportunities for women in order to develop their capacities. “He makes strong statements on the development of women, emphasising that they are so neglected that they need more support in order to contribute positively to the development of society”
  • Religious leaders were not fans of his work and he was condemned for heresy by the Christian, the Jewish and the Islamic orthodoxy

“Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence. This is the equation”

“Its not possible that God would give us minds then give orders which conflict them”

“much of the poverty and distress of the times arises from the fact that women are kept like “domestic animals” or house plants for purposes of gratification”


Although from Persia and not strictly Arab, another worthy mention is..

Al-Razi (854 – 925 )

  • Al-Razi was a polymath, a chemist, a philosopher and an important figure in the history of medicine.
  • Originated the methodical analytical line method later used by Ibn Sina
  • He made important contributions on the diagnosis of smallpox and measles, he perfected the method of distillation to gain alcohol and wrote about the ethics of medicine.
  • He offered harsh criticism concerning religions and was particularly critical of religions that claim to have been revealed by prophetic experiences. He criticised the lack of interest among religious adherents in the rational analysis of their beliefs, and the violent reaction which takes its place.
  • He authored a number of books of religion and prophet-hood including “The Prophets’ Fraudulent Tricks” (مخارق الانبياء), “The Stratagems of Those Who Claim to Be Prophets” (حيل المتنبيين), “On the Refutation of Revealed Religions” (نقض الادیان)

On prophethood, he said: “[God] should not set some individuals over others, and there should be between them neither rivalry nor disagreement which would bring them to perdition.”

“On what ground do you deem it necessary that God should single out certain individuals [by giving them prophecy], that he should set them up above other people, that he should appoint them to be the people’s guides, and make people dependent upon them?”

It would be illogical for God to reveal himself only to a selected few. God should not set some individuals over others, and there should be between them neither rivalry nor disagreement which would bring them to perdition.”

On religion and violence: “If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed.”


One thing to note is that while some of these figure are sometimes labelled as atheists it would be more accurate to refer to them as agnostics or simply “anti-prophetic rationalists.” At the time, disputing the authenticity of the Quran, the prophet and religion in general often seemed more relevant than questioning God.

The scepticism evident in their writings do not necessarily reflect the views of the entire society at the time and does not go to say that Islamic fanaticism did not exist. While some such as Al-Razi who was the Director of the Hospital in the city and a renowned teacher and philanthropist were highly respected, others were harshly called out by their contemporaries for being heretics. One example is Al-Hallaj, a mystic writer who criticised the Islamic pilgrimage and had a very unconventional view of God and was arrested and executed in Baghdad for heresy in the year 922 for his beliefs.

Its likely that a large number of people at the time, not much unlike today, only made subtle comments against religion and did not disclose their status of belief for fear of reprisals or persecutions. Today many of those expressing similar views have to apply for asylum in another country, remain in hiding, have fatwas issued for their heads and in some cases get executed or murdered.

The struggle against religion and dogma has been going on for a long time and modern Arab Humanists are able to draw on a long legacy of free-thinkers and intellectuals in their fight for freedom of expression and rationalism.

Follow up questions

  • What were the circumstances under which humanistic views and rational thinking flourished? To what extent, if at all, can it be attributed to Islam?
  • Why was this line of thinking shut down and what caused the Arab world to decline? What caused the rise of literalist religious traditions?
  • To what extend can this decline be blamed on Al-Ghazali and other Muslim scholars who criticised contemporary philosophers and accused scientists of heresy?
  • What would the status of the Arab world today be like if rationalist thought and schools of thought such as the Mu’tazalittes were allowed to flourish?
  • How do we bring back the spirit of critical and scientific inquiry to the Arab world?

See also