AL-‘KINDI (Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, Latin Alkindus—the first of the eminent Arab philosophers, a natural scientist, b. 800 in Kufa (Iran), d. 873 in Baghdad.
He lived and worked first in Basra and then in Baghdad. Al-Kindi was primarily an encyclopedist whose work was to introduce to the Arab world the heritage of Greek culture in philosophy, astronomy, arithmetic, geometry, mathematics, physics, optics, logic, meteorology, psychology, politics, and music. He is one of a small group of Moslem learned men who made their own contribution to the heritage received from the Greeks. Although he was primarily interested in the natural sciences, he is called the “philosopher of the Arabs” since unlike later Islamic philosophers he was of Arab descent.
Al-Kindi was one of the first Arab thinkers to draw on the heritage of Greek philosophy. He became acquainted with Greek philosophy in early Arabic translations and probably knew neither the Greek nor the Syriac language. The Khalif al-Ma‘mun (813–833) was interested in promoting the development of Arab science and philosophy and in 832 established a school in Baghdad called the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-hikma), where the works of Greek authors were translated on a grand scale. Al-Kindi became interested in the school and was especially interested in the works of Plato and Aristotle (for example, he recommended that Aristotle’s Metaphysics be translated). He initiated the translation of several works from Greek, including the Theology of Aristotle, a work ascribed to Aristotle but in reality a paraphrase of Porphyry on excerpts of Plotinus’ Enneades. That text had an important influence on Arab thought.
Al-Kindi’s biographers mention over 200 titles of his works, but most of these have perished. Only a few manuscripts were preserved (around 10 percent of them) and are published to this day. Al-Kindi’s best-known treatise is his work on metaphysics, Fi al-falsafah al-ula (On first philosophy); in the treatise Fi hudud al-ashya’ wu-rusumiha (On definitions and descriptions of things), al-Kindi presents the foundations of his philosophy; the work Fi wahdaniya allah wa tunahiy jirm al-‘alam (On the unity of Allah and the limited nature of the body of the universe) is devoted to the question of God’s nature.
Mediaeval Europe knew only of a few fragments of his work, mostly from works on the natural sciences and mathematics, which were translated into Latin in the twelfth century by Gerard of Cremona. These works include: De intellectu, De somno et visione, De quinque essentiis, and Liber introductorius in artem logicae demonstrationis. Some of his ideas, especially that mathematics is the starting point in cultivating knowledge, influenced R. Grosseteste and R. Bacon. Until 1950 when Abu Ridah published 14 of al-Kind’s treatises, mostly on philosophical problems, the chief source of knowledge about al-Kindi as a philosohper was his work De quinque essentiis.
Among his writings explicitly devoted to philosophy, his treatise De intellectu has a special place. Al-Kindi followed Aristotle and distinguished between two intellects as man’s faculties of knowledge (the passive intellect which is a receptive power, and the active intellect which abstracts objects that can be known intellectually). Then he discusses the problem of abstraction and the origin of universals. As is characteristic of al-Kindi, he draws here upon the philosophies of both Aristotle and Plato. Al-Kindi conceives of the active intellect as the Intelligence, namely a spiritual substance separate from man’s soul. The Intelligence acts upon man’s passive intellect and causes it to be actualized, to pass from potency to the act of knowledge. The universals are the fruit of the influence of the separate active intellect, namely the Intelligence, upon man’s passive intellect. This is al-Kindi’s approach to a solution first introduced by Alexander of Aphrodisia, that there is only one active intellect common to all men. Arab philosophy thus was influenced by this position from its inception.
According to al-Kindi, every substance is defined by matter, form, motion, time, and place. The most important element of being is matter (not form, as Aristotle taught). Al-Kindi understands matter as the foundation of all changes and the first raw material. Form is understood in two ways: primarily it defines a genus; it is also the reason for the distinctness or separateness of beings and marks the accidents proper to a being. Al-Kindi lists six kinds of motion, which is a change occurring in a being. Following Aristotle, he also teaches that time is internally connected with motion. Time is the measure of motion and place is the surface that envelopes a body. However, in al-Kindi’s system neither matter nor time are infinite, but each has a beginning and end.
Al-Kindi’s philosophy differs from the Greek philosophical tradition because it defends the truth of faith that the world was created ex nihilo. He argues that since the world was created, it has a beginning and must have a cause. This cause is God. In al-Kindi’s conception, creation is connected with neo-Platonic emanation. God creates the first sphere of heaven in one moment, and other beings proceed by emanation from this first sphere.
The published works of Al-Kindi include the following: Rasa‘il Al-Kindi al-falsafiyyah ed. M. A. Abu Ridah (I–II, K 1954); Fi-al falsafah al-ula, ed. and trans. A. L. Ivry (Al-Kindi’s Metaphysics: A Translation of Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi’s Treatise “On First Philosophy”, Albany 1974); Risalah fi al-hilah li-daf al-ahzan, ed. and trans. H. Hitter and R. Walzer (Uno scritto morale inedito di Al-Kindi, in: Memorie della Reale Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, seria VI, 8 (1938) 1, 47–62); Fi hudud al-ashya’ wu-rusumiha, ed. M. A. Abu Ridah (in: Rasa’il Al-Kindi al-faslafiyyah, K 1953; in Cinq épîtres, P 1976).
M. Moosa, Al-Kindi’s Role in the Transmission of Greek Knowledge to the Arabs, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society 15 (1967), 3–18; J. Jolivet, L’intellect selon Al-Kindi, Lei 1971; F. A. Shamsi, The Question of the World’s Eternity in Al-Kindi’s Book of Metaphysics, Hamdard Islamicus 12 (1989) 3, 49–69; J. Jolivet, Al-Kindi et Aristote, in: Penser avec Aristotle, Ts 1991, 801–803; R. Ramón Geurrero, La recepción árabe del “De Anima” de Aristoteles: Al-Kindi y Al-Farabi, Ma 1992; T. A. Druart, Al-Kindi’s Ethics, RMet 47 (1993–1994) 2, 329–357; F. Klein-Franke, Al-Kindi, in: History of Islamic Philosophy, Lo 1996, I 165–177.
Lech Szyndler, Reet Otsason