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 philosophy.

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 heavens.

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 supposed “Darwinism”.


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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