The Doctrinal Development of Islam


Not unlike the history of doctrinal development in the Catholic Church, the possibility of doctrinal development within the Islam has been studied, discussed and whether or not such development remained consistent with Islamic teachings. regarding some assertions of philosophy which, to some, appeared to contradict Islamic teachings.


Various Islamic thinkers assert that there can be no such development. Others who think it possible find it difficult.  A related issue is how to deal with situations and issues not specifically treated in the Islamic sacred writings.  Historian George Hourani proclaimed, “The great question . . . is whether a Muslim is ever authorized to decide issues that go beyond scriptures and tradition.” (Kurtz 240).

Since the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., in many cases, the resolution of these issues has not been simply a theoretical exercise.  Not unlike the treatment of some found to be heretics by the Catholic Church and by some who later founded protesting denominations, some who have published or taught what was perceived to be unorthodox or Islamic heresy have been exiled or worse.  Many orthodox Muslims believed “that any ‘new opinion’ (bida’ah) that deviated from official teaching should be banished, and its authors could be put to death” (Sodibjo 83).

This article will include a survey of Islamic thinkers who grappled with the possibility of doctrinal development with Islam.

 AL-KINDI (801 A.D. – 870 A.D.)

Al-Kindi started an Islamic school of philosophy based on the teachings of Aristotle as interpreted by Alexandrian Neo-Platonists (Nasr 643).  He was interested in theology, philosophy, natural science, and their interrelations.  Al-Kindi tried to reconcile the Islamic religion with some conclusions of philosophy.  He believed truth could be found in many sources—not exclusively in the Islamic scriptures. Moreover, Al-Kindi claimed that truth from various sources could not be in conflict.  “Also like later thinkers he was intensely interested in the harmony between philosophy and religion, although the path he trod was not pursued by his successors” (Nasr 643).

Al-Kindi’s view of the relation between religious truth, philosophic truth, and scientific truth echoed a doctrine of a group of Islamic thinkers known as the Mu’tazilities, namely that “… philosophy and religion, or the rational truth and the revealed truth, not only do not conflict with each other but, in fact, lend support to each other and are basically identical” (Rahman 220).

AL-FARABI (875 A.D. – 950 A.D.)

According to Rosenthal, “Al-Farabi has been described as “among the greatest Muslim philosophers” (The Muqaddimah, 374) and as “most famous” (The Muqaddimah, 401).  He is considered by some to be the founder of Islamic philosophy. In fact, Al-Farabi is known by the following appellations: “second Aristotle;” a “genius;” “father of science among Muslims;” and “founder of political philosophy in Islam” (Nasr 644).

Al-Farabi’s extensive and voluminous work primarily sought to reconcile the teachings of different philosophies with each other (e.g. Platonism and Aristotelianism) and with the doctrines of Islam. Al-Farabi put forth the following:

  1. There should be one religion in the world.
  2. Any particular religion is a symbolic expression of the one religion.
  3. Not every system of beliefs qualifies as a “religion,” an expression of the one religion (some so-called “religions” are harmful).
  4. Several different religions are equal in their religious value.
  5. Muhammed was the paradigm of a real prophet (one whose teachings are universal and successful in history) (Rahman 220 – 221).

It is easy to see how those who preach an orthodox Islam would (and eventually did) find fault with Al-Farabi’s relativism regarding the value of other religions.  His assertions that philosophy should have the highest value and that religious law (revelation and shari’a) should be subordinate to philosophy (Rahman 220) would also be rejected by later Muslim thinkers and teachers.

 AVICENNA (980 A.D. – 1037 A.D.)

According to Anthony Flew, “More is known about Avicenna than another Muslim philosopher since he took the unusual step of dictating his autobiography to one of his students.” (A Dictionary of Philosophy, 33).  Many consider Avicenna to be the most important and original Islamic thinker.  He posited that all being is divisible into necessary being (God) and contingent being (creation and creatures).  This position depended on Avicenna’s “distinction between essence and existence” (Rahman 221)—a reworking of Aristotelian metaphysics.  These distinctions were in accord with the Islamic religion’s tenet that God and the world were different realities (Rahman 222).

Avicenna, accepting a world entirely dependent on God, harmonized religion and philosophy. Since the finding of religion and of philosophy do not contradict one another on this crucial point but are not identical either. Instead, religion and philosophy run parallel to one another. (Rahman 222). Along with these innovative views, Avicenna also rejected the theory of the resurrection of the body and saw shari’a (religious law) as a symbol of a higher truth.  It is not surprising that later orthodox Muslims rejected Avicenna’s works.

AL-GHAZALI (1058 A.D. – 1111 A.D)

Al-Ghazali made significant attacks on the positions of both Al-Farabi and Avicenna, Nasar stated (Islamic Conception of Life, 648). So much so that some scholars consider Al-Ghazali as “the most influential figure in Islamic intellectual history” (Islamic Conception of Life, 648).  The impetus Al-Ghazali gave to Islamic orthodoxy can be felt today around the world. On an intellectual level, he tried to elevate religious truth as the highest truth and on a practical level he tried to have Islamic Sofism (a mystical fundamentalist approach to Islam) enforced as the official religion.

Al-Ghazali championed the use of reason and logic, but he believed human reason had inherent limitations and was incapable of comprehending the whole truth. For him, the fullness of truth included religious truth. Al-Ghazali purported such truth was beyond human ken.

Al-Ghazali’s work, primarily his Incoherence of the Philosophers, virtually ended philosophy as an intellectual pursuit in the Arab world (Nasr 648).

 AVERROES (1126 A.D. – 1198 A.D.)

Averroes was the Islamic champion of philosophy.  “Through his eyes, the West came to know Aristotle” (Nasr 649).  He rejected Avicenna’s distinction between essence and existence. He accepted the theory of eternal creation. His book The Incoherence of the Incoherence defended philosophy against Al-Ghazali’s attacks (Flew 33).

Averroes’s solution to apparent conflicts between philosophical conclusions and scriptural statements was that not everything in the scriptures was meant literally.  “When the literal meaning of Quranic verses appeared to contradict the truths to which philosophers arrived by the exercise of reason, those verses needed to be interpreted metaphorically” (Hourani 175).  This was not a “double truth” theory (Nasr 644), but a “one truth” theory in which science, religion (revelation) and philosophy all provided different “modes of access” to truth (MacClintock 223).  For Averroes, “demonstrative truth and scriptural truth cannot conflict (Sodibjo 84).

Averroes went further than the “one truth” theory. He concluded that the Islamic religion and scriptures require the practice of philosophy. For Averroes,  only certain gifted intellectuals were capable of and should engage in allegorical interpretation of the scriptures; and such gifted ones need not be Muslim!(Sodibjo 86)

IBN-KHALDUN (1332 A.D. – 1406 A.D.).

Ibn-Khaldun is accorded the title of the father of the philosophy of history by many scholars.  His classic of the philosophy of history, The Muqaddimah, presents many truths about living in a society with an organized government that transcend time and serve as a correct description of many nations today. Many ills of city life he describes are the same in cities around the world today.  His commentary on the philosophers shows the effects of the religious orthodoxy that held sway in post-Averroistic Islamic thinking.  In discussing philosophy in general, Ibn-Khaldun asserted that philosophy, astrology, and alchemy are “much cultivated in the cities” and that the “harm they can do to religion is great” (Rosenthal 398).  The reference to “cities” is meant as a denigration of something that has developed in an urban, as opposed to a pure, truly-Islamic rural lifestyle.

Ibn-Khaldun finds nothing of value in the work of the philosophers:  “It should be known that the (opinion) the (philosophers) hold is wrong in all its aspects” (Rosenthal 401).  He opposed philosophers who reasoned that human thinking could go no further in a pursuit of truth than what sensual perception and science could teach. According to Ibn-Khaldun, divine revelation allowed the human mind to know spiritual truth. For him, philosophy failed to provide answers to many questions which were answered by the scriptures. Furthermore, Ibn-Khaldun believed philosophy contained “pernicious aspects” harmful to an unprepared student (Rosenthal 405).


In modern times there have been efforts to again consider the early Islamic philosophers and the questions that puzzled them.  As one scholar has asked rhetorically “Is it possible, today, to pick up where Ibn Rushd left off eight hundred years ago. .?” (Abousenna 108).


At this moment there is a heated debate within the Catholic Church about the limits, if any, to doctrinal development. Others call some such asserted developments doctrinal destruction. One key in this discussion is something recognized by several Islamic thinkers, something accepted throughout the Church’s history, but which some in the Church today deny: there is one truth, and there can only be one truth.

Works Cited

Flew, Anthony. A Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Gramercy Books    1979.

Houani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples.  New York: Warner Books, 1991.

Kurtz, Paul. “Free Inquiry and Islamic Philosophy: The Significance   of George Hourani.” Averroes and the Enlightenment. Wahba and Abousenna, eds. New York: Prometheus Books, 1996.

MacClintock, Stuart. “Averroes.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.    Vol. 1, pp. 220-223. ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. “Islamic Conception of Life.”   Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. Vol. 2, pp. 638-  652. New York: Scribner’s, 1973.

Rahman, Fazlur. “Islamic Philosophy.”  The Encyclopedia of     Philosophy. Vol. 4, pp. 219-224. ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Rosenthal, Franz. translator. The Muqaddimah. Ibn-Khaldun. New   Jersey: Princeton. Princeton University Press 1967.

Sodibjo, Iman. “Understanding Religion: The Contribution of Ibn Rushd.”  Averroes and the Enlightenment. Wahba and  Abousenna, eds. New York: Prometheus Books, 1996.

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