How to Cope with Self-Isolation, According to a 9th Century Islamic Philosopher
Published in 'Alif: Traditional Wisdom In Review
Most of the extant personal biographies of Al-Kindi (b. 801CE) — the renowned ‘Father of Islamic Philosophy’ of Medieval Baghdad’s Golden Age — portray him as a rather inhospitable and cold individual. According to some accounts, he embodied the avaricious landlord archetype, meticulously calculating rent increases of his tenants when they had guests to stay. He is also said to have haughtily prided himself on his ability to resist the temptation of sweet fruits in the market, after which one can imagine him retreating to a solitary corner of Bayt al-Hikmah to spend days studying the works of Aristotle in silence.
Despite these rather unflattering pictures commonly painted of him, however, it would seem that Al-Kindi did in fact foster a sensitive side. After all, he was a true polymath — not merely in his scholasticism but in all aspects of his life, as if embodying the Sophrosyne ideal of the Greek thinkers that he so devotedly consulted on philosophical matters. Sparse pieces of evidence reveal this rather understated aspect of his personality, such as some heartfelt love verses that have been attributed to him, and the subject of the following article: his epistle on how one can attain happiness, entitled ‘On Dispelling Sorrows’.
Amidst the global crisis we now find ourselves in, a reading of this text and its perspectives on how to become content could not be any more relevant. His verdict, that should come as a great delight to all those feeling miserable during this unprecedented interlude in ‘normal life’, is quite simple: happiness does not come from the external world, but from the intellectual faculties within. Unlike our sensory pleasures which come and go (in this case, our fast-paced modern society of abundant social interactions and readily available takeaway coffees), mental values such as contemplation and imagination are eternally existent. Thus, we are encouraged to cultivate our intellects; to ‘mould ourselves a character’ that is free from worldly attachment, to borrow Al-Kindi’s own lexicon. This short piece will investigate the philosophy behind this view, in the hope to illuminate these uncertain times with some Ninth Century wisdom.
The first point that Al-Kindi establishes is that the world around us — known as the Dunya in Islam — is one of transience and thus unreliability. This view is shared with Plato who emphasises the constantly fluctuating nature of physicality in The Republic, and Buddhist philosophy which postulates the metaphysical notion of Anicca; the perpetual transience (and ultimate Śūnyatā, ‘emptiness’) of all that is materially constituted. Indeed, Reza Shah-Kazemi notes that this subservient position of materiality is a crucial commonality between Islamic and Buddhist ontology (Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism, p. 82–83).
Like the Buddhists, it then follows for Al-Kindi that sadness is inevitable if we are to attach ourselves to that of this world which comes-and-goes. In contrast, however, what is held within the mind is imperishable; a key tenet of Islamic neoplatonic thought, where the intellect exists in a realm through which the essence of Divinity can permeate. Intelligible things, he says, are ‘interconnected in a constant way without moving; they can be grasped and do not frustrate’. Thus, if we wish to be freed from grief that arises out of loss, we must turn to the knowledge of Divine forms that is already present within us. His sentiment can be found echoed in the following verse of Rumi’s ‘A Just-Finishing Candle’:
‘Be with those who mix with God As honey blends with milk, and say, “Anything that comes and goes, Rises and sets, Is not what I love’
For Al-Kindi, all worldly attachment is emotionally malignant — and this encompasses not only its more extreme manifestations such as addiction, but in behavioural tendencies as subtle as the manners in which we greet and say goodbye to acquaintances. Providing a rather entertaining anecdote of ‘exalted kings’, Al-Kindi says that virtuous people:
‘[Are not to] advance towards a person, when he approaches, nor to see him off when he departs. Rather, they enjoy whatever they encounter, acting most calmly and displaying most clearly that they have no need for it’.
He regards the opposite behaviour — that is, eagerly advancing towards your acquaintances and following them upon their departure — as a sign of ‘extreme greed’; a trait that indicates attachment to that which is coming-and-going and is thus not conducive to wellness. In the spirit of the Hellenic philosophical material that Al-Kindi draws from in the treatise, ‘wellness’ (Āfiyah, in Arabic) here denotes an overall condition of bio-psychological health that is free from afflictions, including sadness. The cessation of love towards ‘sensibles’ is fundamental in the attainment of this holistically healthy state of Āfiyah.
Al-Kindi then discusses how our fallible condition, in which we are attached to these sensibles, arises in the first place. The answer, quite simply, is out of habit. For it is not in our inherent nature to be dependent on worldly things, for worldly things are separate and ‘alien’ to the essential incorporeality of the soul. Placing this in the context of the modern world, institutions such as schools and offices, coffee shops, bars and other ‘third places’, as they are termed in sociological theory—which we feel constitute ‘normal life’—are not truly normative to our natural condition. It is understandable that many feel that their absence is a loss; they are certainly beneficial to our social development and intellectual fulfilment (and I doubt that a scholar as avid as Al-Kindi would have ever denied the benefits of libraries). The crux of the matter, however, is that they are not essential. This is true on the terms of ‘essential’ as it is used in common parlance, but also in a metaphysical sense; the human soul is immaterial in its ontological essence, and thus it is not contingent on things which are material.
Al-Kindi attributes this wide misunderstanding — that our souls benefit from material commodities — to the fact that human beings have an ‘increased rational discernment’, which can give the illusion that our own a posteriori innovations are a necessity to personal fulfilment. However, invoking the teleological argument, he observes that God has provided all creatures with sufficient biological mechanisms and external resources for their survival, citing elephants as creatures thought to be the pinnacle of self-sufficiency in medieval zoology.
Humans, too, possess the same degree of absolute self-sufficiency; we were provided, for example, with food occurring in our natural environments and the anatomical instruments with which this food can be digested (though these, of course, are necessary for our physical body, rather than our soul). However, because we have the ability to create additional commodities through our mental faculties, it is often mistaken that this extends to our soul and that material innovations are essential to it, leading us to believe our lives can be improved by:
‘Having colourful food and spectacles involving animals and other things, and by painting and embellishing all the things which one sees and likewise the sounds which one hears and smells which distract him from his real interests and disturb his rest while he is in this world’
Indeed, the Holy Qur’an itself reminds us several times that this world, the Dunya — along with the belief that it is essential or necessary to our human flourishing — is a deception:
‘O mankind, indeed the promise of Allah is truth, so let not the worldly life delude you and be not deceived about Allah by the Deceiver’ (35:5).
As the very existence of our sadness demonstrates, attachment to the worldly is not only unnecessary, but psychologically harmful. Al-Kindi gives several anecdotes on this matter, the first being that of Nero, The King of Rome, who was once allegedly in possession of a large, spectacular crystal. When flaunting it to his peers one day, he encountered a philosopher to whom he asked what he thought of his prized object. The philosopher responded that ‘it shows a loss which you shall incur, and indicates a great misfortune that you shall know’, communicating the fact that in the very existence of something, there is the potentiality of nothing.
Applying this to the current situation, our understanding of what constitutes ‘normal life’ parallels the King’s crystal; a prized achievement that we perceive to constitute a ‘developed’ society, and yet one that relies on the illusion of worldly stability and is thus inherently installed within it the potential for pain. This is further encapsulated in Al-Kindi’s statement that:
‘He who is preoccupied with adorning things outside himself loses his eternal life and spoils the quality of his temporary life; he suffers from many diseases and his suffering does not wane’
Furthermore, he relates his stance to the wisdom of Socrates who, allegedly responding to the question of why he never felt sad, said:
‘Because I do not possess things which, if I lost them, would make me sad’
In his second example, Al-Kindi tells a story of a group of voyagers who encounter a remote island where they plan to settle. Upon arriving, some of them split off into the fields where they discover the rich and attractive array of flora and fauna of the new land. Seduced by the exotic fruits, they hoard as many as they can carry under the impression that they will be beneficial to the quality of their lives. To their dismay, however, they soon find that the fruit has reverted to a state of putrefaction. Yet, still convinced that the fruits are of great benefit to them, they continue bearing them — only to become weighed-down by the heavy load, completely incapable of progressing onward in their journey and creating a settlement all the while they are burdened with the rotting remains of what they initially believed to be virtuous. They even eventually acquire diseases from the noxious stench of the decaying fruits.
We can read in this fable a strong warning of the perils of material attachment; not only does it render the consequence of painful grief, but it can actually be burdensome in itself. This, perhaps, is manifesting in this drastic change that we are collectively experiencing as a society. Our yearning to revert to ‘normal life’ as we writhe in the apparent boredom of self-isolation is no more but the putrefaction of what was never sustainable in the first place. To progress and settle onto the island — the island in this case being our ‘new life’ in quarantine — we must shed the rotting fruits of what we believed were essential to our lives, and return only to what is essential to our souls.
As Al-Kindi insists from the beginning, the only way we can sustain a mindset of contentment is to base it on the intellectual faculties, which include contemplation, imagination, and a variety of mental capacities related to the Divinely-inherited powers of the human consciousness. For, if there is to be no coming-and-passing-away, then there is to be no misfortune. Issuing practical advice, Al-Kindi thus instructs that we ‘minimise our possessions’. After all, he says that all possessable things are also possessable by our neighbours, which can lead to competition and inequality which are too sources of sadness, derived from the same avoidable pain of loss.
The only thing we can truly trust and consistently seek happiness in is the intellect, which cannot be stolen by anyone because it belongs to Allah. It exists ontologically on the cusp of Divinity in itself, expressed in the Islamic doctrine of the Fitra, dwelling amongst the Platonic forms that are far richer and more beautiful than anything the perishable world or Dunya can offer. If this is not convincing, Al-Kindi makes one more point on the matter which serves as an argument in itself:
‘Improving our souls is much less ugly and expensive than what is involved in improving our bodies’
If Al-Kindi’s points could be distilled into one maxim, it would be simply that losing something is not bad, but feeling sorrowful about it certainly is. And, as difficult as it may seem, it is within our abilities to reclaim our essence — that is, the unadulterated intellectual powers of the soul — amidst this difficult time. We can engage in a vast range of imaginative pursuits, from storytelling and writing to gardening and creating our own crafts. All of these may reignite a fascination with the inherently creative nature of Divinity, and eventually God himself. This, I would argue, is something that has long been suppressed in our society of Weberian disenchantment, which may have seemed to us as spectacular as the King of Nero’s crystal and yet always contained within it the potential for grief.
Detaching ourselves to retreat into the primordial Divinity in the intellect, of course, will not be an easy task. While material dependency is merely a habit, it is indeed a deeply-ingrained one, that will undoubtedly render an initial sense of loss and grief. But, if Al-Kindi is correct, what we will achieve at the other end is genuine freedom; a shift in our attachments from the Dunya to The Divine. Until then, lest we forget:
‘Indeed, with hardship [will be] ease’ (94:6).