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Series 45 - Episode 4

In Our Time: Al-Kindi

Thursday 28 June 2012, 18:00

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the Arab philosopher Al-Kindi. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

al kindi


The range of al-Kindi was almost limitless, it seems. After the programme I was reminded by one of the contributors that we had not discussed his masterly work on the making of swords. Another contributor piped up with regret about the omission of his equally masterly pamphlet on coitus, and how men, properly attended to by drugs and herbs, could defy gravity in a long life.

Out then into the outrageous sunshine of London, as if trying to make up for the torrents of rain and somehow to balance the rage of floods in the North to which I am headed this afternoon. It's the Queen's London at the moment. She's taken over. Nobody seems to mind a bit, except occasional persons on four wheels.

I was in Green Park yesterday and in preparation for the opening of the memorial to Bomber Command - a very large memorial which has occasioned some controversy because of its size - I was lured by the sound of music and a lovely choir singing over this finest royal park. They were rehearsing a concert for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. There's something about rehearsals of music that is often more attractive, I think, than the actual performance. The stopping and starting. The empty seats. The informality of the dress. The feeling that you're getting a free concert!

And on past the tumult of people feeding the best-fed ducks in the Western world, across towards Westminster Abbey, and I took to the road because the pavements were so crowded that it would have been as if I were running directly into the All Blacks' scrum just to make the extra yard or two. The idea of the crocodile has died. People, especially crowds of young people, walk mob-handed like medieval armies, occupying all the pavement that there is.

Into the Lords, where the discussion was on the future of English cathedrals. Some fine speeches on a fine subject. Whatever your religion, I think, there are so many layers of interest and richness of history and thought, of skill and definitions of beauty inside these cathedrals, that the efforts now being strenuously made to keep them in good repair is exemplary.

As I sit in the lobby of the Lords and dictate this, I can hear the Lancaster bomber going over Green Park and dropping poppies. The Queen will be there. Slowly the Union Flags are being replaced by the flags of all nations - the Olympic flags - but it's still the Queen's city at the moment and she's taken it without a single voice of dissent.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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    Comment number 1.

    I thought this programme showed IOT at its best:a beautiful balance and harmony between Melvyn and the experts,with true curiosity driving the whole thing along and no disruptive interchanges.Al-Kindi ,the 1st Arab philosopher,like Al-Farabi,harmonized Greek philosophy with Arabic thinking,he combined the thoughts of Aristotle and Neo-platonism.His idea of the soul being imprisoned in the body,influenced his theory of knowledge:perception by the senses(particulars)and knowledge through the intellect(universals).Knowledge based upon sensations is unstable, based as it is upon particulars;philosophy is based upon insight gained from universal concepts,for which the intellect is more qualified.He believed there was only one active intellect for all humanity,and that every human soul was moved and informed by this separated active intellect. Al-Kindi would be criticized for extolling the "intellect" as being the most immanent creation in proximity to God, which was commonly held to be the position of the angels.

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    Comment number 2.

    I do not know how the Arab philosophers rated as original thinkers,but if for nothing else Al-Kindi should be admired for saying to fellow Muslims who decried the translation of Ancient Greek philosophy into Islamic culture:"We ought not to be embarrassed of appreciating the truth and of obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. Nothing should be dearer to the seeker of truth than the truth itself, and there is no deterioration of the truth, nor belittling either of one who speaks it or conveys it." We know of the underlying conflict between religion and philosophy as the Islamic Empire passed from Arab supremacy to the religion of Islam.

    The translation movement’s return of knowledge to its source in Iran/Iraq was generally ignored and sometimes attacked by the more conservative forces in Islamic religion and society.Al-Kindi’s thought always reflected an eclectic tendency to reconcile different philosophies. Kindī also created an Islamic idiom, showing how Greek ideas could be adapted into the Islamic metaphysical framework, without detriment to either. Despite these efforts, however, Kindī clashed with contemporary Islamic theologians, who often viewed the Greek sciences and philosophy with suspicion.

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    Comment number 3.

    The Theory of the Magical Arts, the second most important work of al-Kindi, has even stronger Neoplatonic elements. It describes a celestial harmony based on an emanation of light and being from God. Each part of the universe reflects the order of the whole.He saw the universe as an architectonic whole,not as something to be observed piecemeal todiscover causality.He founded the belief of mathematics being the basis of science. His strategy of presentation was to combine observation with the Euclidean “axiomatic method” of rational demonstration, Although not the most famous thinker in Islamic philosophy, al-Kindi began a movement of great importance in both European and Islamic civilizations. Much of what was to become standard Arabic philosophical vocabulary originated with al-Kindi.He was a transmitter,commentator and interpreter who attempted to present, and supplement past philosophies as parts of an essentially unified tradition that would make for a viable philosophy in Islamic society.


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