The Isagoge of Athīr al-Dīn al-Abharī (al-Risālat al-Athīriyya): A Classical Primer for Logic and Islamic Philosophy

Porphyry and his Isagoge

Porphyry (234-305 C.E.) who was also known as Furfuryus in Arabic sources, was born to a Phoenician family in the city of Tyre; which later became known as Ṣūr and is located in Southern Lebanon. His birth name was Malchus which means “king” in Semitic languages. It is said that he was given the name Porphyrius when he was in Athens, which means “one who wears purple” as an allusion to the meaning of his name by making reference to the purple colors that were worn by royalty. Other accounts have stated that he received the name Basilieus which is a Latinized version of his name, also meaning “king,” and that the name “Porphyrius” refers to his connection to Tyre which is known as the city of purple.[1]

Porphyry traveled to Athens to study with Longinus (213-273 C.E.) and then later to Rome to become a foremost student of the Neoplatonist, Plotinus (204/5 – 270 C.E.). History would later recognize Porphyry through his extensive works recording the philosophy of his teacher Plotinus in the Enneads. The thought of Plotinus who otherwise, conveyed his teachings orally was preserved through his student Porphyry.  Plotinus became considered by 19th century historians as the founder of what they categorized as “Neoplatonism” which was a philosophical movement that reintegrated Plato’s teachings particularly his emphasis on the reality of forms in the metaphysical realm in response to the Hellenic schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism which evolved after Aristotle and whose focus on the corporeal was criticized for being superficial. Later, al-Kindī formed an essential bridge through which the works of Plotinus were transmitted into Arabic philosophical writings.[2] The works of Plotinus also become influential to the Islamic thinker al-Suhrawardī (1154/548-1191/587) who adopted the emanationist ideas of Neoplatonic thought into his philosophy of illumination.

In addition to recording the philosophy of Plotinus, Poryphyry authored a number of texts some of which are no longer extant while others remain in part such as, Life of Plotinus, Life of Pythagoras, Letter to Marcella, and On Abstinence from Eating Food from Animals.[3] One of the more well-known of these was his Isagoge which is a short treatise introducing Aristotle’s six books known as the Organon. Some have said that it was actually just an introduction to Aristotle’s book Categories. However, others have argued that the more likely purpose of this introduction was to introduce a student beginning in logic to the works of Aristotle, whose first work happens to be the Categories. Thus, we can say that the Isagoge is an introduction to Aristotle’s first book of the Organon with the purpose of introducing the student to the entire corpus of the Organon itself.

To further clarify, the works of Aristotle are many and his set of works known as the Organon were given much attention for its use as a “tool,” as the word “organon” is used in Greek, to enable clear analytical thinking. The six books known in Aristotelian logic as the Organon are: 1) Categories 2) De Interpretatione 3) Prior Analytics 4) Posterior Analytics 5) Topics 6) Sophistical Refutations. Later commentators in the Western tradition have added the following three books to the Organon: 7) Rhetoric 8) Poetics 9) Porphyry’s Isagoge. Later in the Islamic philosophical tradition, when al-Farābī expanded upon the works of Aristotle in his Arabic commentaries, he prioritized the books of the Organon according to the following schema: 1) al-Madkhal (Isagoge) 2) al-Maqūlāt (Categories) 3) al-ʿIbāra (De Interpretatione) 4) al-Qiyās (Prior Analytics) 5) al-Burhān (Posterior Analytics) 6) al-Jadal (Topics) 7) Kitāb al-ikma (Sophistical Refutations) 8) al-Khiṭāba (Rhetoric) 9) al-Shiʿr (Poetics).

Athīr al-Dīn al-Abharī and His Isagoge

There are various accounts of the origins and birthplace of Athīr al-Dīn al-Mufaḍḍal b. ʿUmar al-Samarqandī al-Abharī (d. 663/1265). It is said that al-Abharī began his studies in the city of Mosul before moving to Khurasan and Baghdad. He was a student of the school of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210) and a contemporary of other prominent philosophers and theologians such as Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūṣī (d. 672/1274). His introduction to logic known as either al-Abharī’s Isagoge or Risālat al-athīriyya became a foundational logic text taught in Ottoman madrasas for centuries along with his primer on Islamic philosophy, Hidāyat al-ikma. The importance of these two works in Muslim educational networks established al-Abharī’s renown as a scholar.

In addition, al-Abharī’s Isagoge became a text upon which many commentaries were written by later Muslim thinkers. Among the most well-known commentaries are the Fawāʿid al-Fanariyya written by Mulla Fanārī (d. 834/1451) who was the first Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire and the renowned Cairene scholar Zakariyya Muḥammad al-Anṣārī’s (d. 926/1519) al-Maṭlaʿ sharḥ al-īsāghūjī.  The Isagoge was also versified by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Akhḍarī (d. 983/1575) in his Sullam al-munawraq fi-l-manṭiq, which became a prevalent source in North African and Maliki contexts.[4] Al-Abharī’s Isagoge was first published in European languages when it was translated in 1625 by P. Thomas Novariensis into Latin with the title Isagoge. Edwin Calverley later published an English translation of the Isagoge in the Duncan Black Macdonald Memorial Volume published in 1933.[5]

Al-Abharī adopted the school of philosophical theology propagated by his teacher Fakhr al-Dīn al-Razī who benefitted from Abū Ḥamid al-Ghazālī’s (d. 504/1111) methodology of engaging Avicennan peripatetic philosophy with the theology of the classical (al-mutaqaddimūn)Ashʿarī school. The intellectual developments of the century between al-Ghazālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī transformed the intellectual history of Islam by ushering in the phase of philosophical theology and what became known as the post-classical (al-mutaʾakhkhirūn) school of Ashʿarī kalām.

Al-Razī built upon al-Ghazālī’s foundations by restructuring Ashʿarī theology in his books to substantively engage and incorporate the major questions examined by philosophers. He did this while refraining from polemical discourse and utilizing a level of rigor in rational debate that placed Ashʿarī theology onto an equal intellectual footing with Avicennan philosophers in a way that was not seen in earlier Ashʿarī theology texts. As a result, it can be said that both later Sunni theology and philosophy transformed where Ashʿarī theology became philosophized and Avicennan philosophy was significantly reshaped under the framework of mainstream theological discourse.

The Razian school of thought became prevalent in various centers of learning throughout Ilkhānid and Timurid era Sunni Iran and Transoxiana before eventually becoming the foundation from which the Ottoman Islamic intellectual tradition of theology, philosophy, and Islamic law developed. Patronage of Islamic educational institutions and thinkers during the Ottoman era led to the continued flourishing of Ashʿarī and Maturidi philosophical theology during this time. In fact, we see a movement among Ottoman theologians to bring the post-classical Ashʿarī and Māturidī schools closer to each other.

An early example of this approach that predates this period can be found in the writings of the Ashʿarī theologian, al-Taftazānī’s commentary on the Māturidī creed of Najm al-Dīn al-Nasafī (d. 537/1132). Later commentators on Taftazānī’s Shar al-ʿaqāʾid noted that they could not distinguish whether he was commenting on al-Nasafī’s text from an Ashʿarī or Māturidī perspective due to his ability to weave the schools together in common matters. The Shar al-ʿaqāʾid later became a foundational theology text that was studied in various networks of madrasas from vast regions throughout Ottoman lands to various networks of learning throughout pre-colonial Muslim India in the following centuries.

The expanse of Ottoman lands and the length of their dominance as a world power ensured that their endowed scholastic networks which excelled in the rational sciences (al-ʿaqliyyāt), cultivated the continued development of Islamic philosophy, logic, and theology (kalām) as foundational to Islamic education. Through the establishment of the Razian model of rational discourse and the philosophy of debate (al-bath wa al-munāẓara) in this era, we also see a new level of lively dialogue and exchange between Sunni and Shia thinkers based in the Ottoman and Safavid scholastic networks. A discourse with a more reconciliatory tone between Ottoman Sunni and Safavid Shia theologians emerges where substantial overlap and commonalities on matters related to philosophy and metaphysics enabled a common platform of discussion and debate between the two streams of thought through modes of rational discourse rather than polemics.

Examples of this are seen in the many commentaries on the Shia scholar Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūṣī’s Tajrīd al-ʿaqāʾid by prominent Sunni scholars such as, Shams al-Dīn al-Iṣfahānī (d. 749/1349) and Sayyid Sharīf al-Jurjānī (d. 816/1413), whose works are later incorporated into the Ottoman educational systems and elaborated on through the many commentaries on these commentaries. Sunni commentaries on al-Ṭūṣī’s discussion of metaphysics and philosophy becomes a bridge of constructive dialogue between Sunni and Shia thinkers during the Ottoman era while al-Iṣfahānī’s debate with al-Ṭūṣī in his Tasdīd al-qawāʿid fī sharḥ tajrīd al-ʿaqāʾid on religious and political leadership (al-imāma) becomes a foundational section of the text studied in the Ottoman madrasa curriculum that shapes a distinctive Sunni perspective on this topic.

Meanwhile, a major criticism of Razian Islamic philosophical theology came from a segment of the Maghribi school of Ashʿarī thelogians such as, al-Tilimsānī and al-Sanūsī, who were sharply critical of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Razī’s incorporation of philosophy into books of theology. Sharaf al-Dīn al-Tilimsānī (d. 658/1259) is known for his sharp criticism of al-Rāzī in his commentary on al-Rāzī’s Maʿālim fī uṣūl al-dīn while another the great Maghribi theologian, Muhammad b. Yūsuf al-Sanūsī (d. 890/1495), is known to have forbidden beginners from reading al-Bayḍāwī’s (d. 685/1286) texts, who was another great theologian that followed the precedent set by al-Rāzī.

While the Maghribi school maintained the Juwaynian model of theology by preserving the school of the “mutaqaddimīn” or early Ashʿarite theologians, they lacked the same strength as other learning centers due to the absence of patronage of Muslim scholastic institutions after the fall of al-Andalus and the lack of geographic centrality to Muslim intellectual developments that were often dominated by the prosperous economic centers on the Silk Route.

Thus, the various theologians that build upon Rāzī’s thinking such as al-Bayḍāwī, Aḍuḍ al-Dīn al-Ījī (d. 756/1355), al-Taftazānī, Sayyid Sharif al-Jurjānī (d. 816/1413), Sirāj al-Dīn Urmawī (d. 682/1283), Taşkӧprüzade (d. 968/1561), Ismail Gelenbevi (d. 1205/1791) and countless others lay the backbone for the post-classical school of Ashʿarite theology that ensured Muslim engagement with philosophy continued from the fourteenth century through the eighteenth century. The lacuna in the study of the breadth of Ottoman philosophers and theologians in the Western academy has often led to a neglect of Islamic philosophy and rationalism as it manifests within the Sunni framework following Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s methodology.

Al-Abharī is, of course, one of the earliest followers of al-Rāzī’s thought whose most famed works; the Isagoge and the Hidāyat al-Ḥikma, played a significant role in establishing the Razian model of argumentation, philosophy, and theology. Both of these texts became two primers on logic and philosophy studied in a vast network of educational institutions after his time. Other works composed by al-Abharī include are: 1) Tanzīl al-afkār fī taʿdīl al-asrār 2) Kashf al-ḥaqāʾiq fī taʾkhīr al-daqāʾiq 3) Risālat al-Bākhira fī maqālāt al-ẓāhira 4) Kitāb al-maṭāliʿ 5) Kitāb bayān al-asrār 6) Talkhīṣ al-ḥaqāʾiq 7) Zubdat al-asrār 8) Tahdhīb al-nukat 9) Risāla fī fasād al-abḥāth allatī waḍaʿahā mubriz al-jadaliyyīn 9) Risāla mushtamila ʿalā thamāni ʿashara masʾalatin fī al-kalām. In addition to these works, al-Abharī also has a number of works in astronomy and geometry. Most al-Abharī’s works are not yet published and are available as manuscripts in archival libraries.[6]

Is Abharī’s Isagoge a Version of Porphyry’s Isagoge?

In the millennium between Porphyry’s Isagoge and al-Abharī’s Isagoge the genre of the “madkhal,” “introduction,” or “isagoge” to logic evolved into a new form in its Islamic context. After Byzantium’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, the study of philosophy was suppressed in ways that it had not been before due to the skepticism that many medieval Christian leaders had of the study of ancient philosophy. The works of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, were not simply limited to Byzantine lands but had also taken root in the East from the time of Alexander the Great who sought to bring Hellenic education with its texts, through the gates of Babylon and through Central Asian regions of the Bactrians.

As a result, regions like Baghdad and Samarqand became new centers for the study of ancient philosophy where Muslim attitudes towards Greek philosophy were much more diverse and different beliefs were both tolerated and openly debated. Greek philosophy was first translated into Arabic through Arabic speaking Christian populations in Syria and Iraq. Arab Christians such as Matta b. Yūnus (d. 329/940) and Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī (d. 364/974) were teachers of al-Kindī (d. 259/873) and al-Farābī (d. 338/950) in the field of ancient philosophy. As philosophy became rooted in the Arabic language among Muslim thinkers, it is important to note that Muslim philosophers that came later did not simply preserve Greek philosophical texts in Arabic but rather engaged them and produced literature that substantively developed these ideas further. Ancient philosophy and Islamic thought merged to form a distinctly Islamic philosophical system that enriched the wisdom it inherited. Muslim philosophers debated, critiqued, and developed the ideas they encountered in attempting to reconcile ancient philosophy with Islamic monotheism. It would be Avicenna however, who became the unprecedented genius of Greek philosophical tradition whose contribution would permanently reshape philosophy rooted in Platonic and Aristotelean thought to its new form. In the Islamic world, ancient philosophy becomes known through Avicenna and later Muslim theologians engage, debate, and critique Avicenna as they formulate answers to theological questions raised by ancient philosophy preserved and transformed by the Avicennan model. 

Returning to the question as to whether al-Abharī’s Isagoge is a translation of Porphyry’s Isagoge, the simple answer is that it is not. Al-Abharī inherited an intellectual lineage of philosophical scholarship that both engaged and transformed Greek philosophy into Islamic philosophical theology. This was discussed earlier at length in our presentation of the Razian school and its impact in shifting approaches to theology and philosophy in mainstream Islamic scholarship. Although, both Porphyry’s Isagoge and al-Abharī’s Isagoge have the same title, by al-Abharī’s time, Muslim philosophical theologians significantly redefined words and concepts inherited from ancient philosophy on their own terms and in their own contexts.

Thus, the similarity in the title is more incidental rather than indicating that one is a translation of another. A preliminary examination of the contents of both works makes this amply clear. Porphyry’s Isagoge is entirely dedicated to outlining the about the five predicables or quinque voces, which are the ways in which things can be classified. Porphyry lists these five predicables as: species, difference, genus, property, and accident.

While Al-Abharī, on the other hand, does begin his Isagoge with a discussion of how we give meaning to objects, he spends relatively little time on any of the predicables compared to the rest of his treatise in which he focuses on how to form propositions and make sound arguments. Thus, the common error of assuming the Arabic Isagoge authored by al-Abharī is the same as the Isagoge of Porphyry is easily clarified by a preliminary comparison of the contents of each. We see that al-Abharī also follows the trajectory of the Avicennan structure of outlining logic in his Isagoge through dividing sections of the into those of concepts (taṣawwurāt) and assents (taṣdīqāt). This is also a divergence from the Aristotelian organization of logic and demonstrates al-Abharī’s stream of thought as one which has evolved from the time of Porphyry’s work. A more detailed discussion of concepts and assents is to come.

What is logic and why study it?

The word “logic” is derived from the Greek root word logos which has the meanings of “reason” or “word.” When philosophy found its way into Arabic, logic became translated as manṭiq which is derived from the root “nṭq” which means to speak. An underlying premise in the field of logic is that understanding how sound arguments are made is foundational to speaking clearly and articulating one’s claims persuasively. In the context of Islamic studies, the study of logic is essential for a sophisticated understanding of theology (kalām) and Islamic legal methodology (uṣūl al-fiqh). Much of the arguments for the existence of God, theodicy, and discussions regarding divine attributes would be unintelligible without a basic ability to think clearly. Similarly, the format of Islamic legal methodology also heavily relies on the shared reasoning skills and methods established in the study of logic.[7]

            Logic analyzes the way in which knowledge is implanted into our minds. If information is either pre-established or axiomatic, what are the ways in which we describe this type of knowledge? How can pre-established concepts (taṣawwurāt) be categorized into different groups? What is it that makes us perceive one object as being distinct from another? When arriving at knowledge through a process of rational reasoning, logic asks the question what is the process of using these pre-established concepts as building blocks to make connections among them (taṣawwurāt) that result in what we call a syllogism? What kinds of information do syllogisms lead to and what makes them valid or invalid? All of this is what is examined in the study of logic. Al-Abharī covers the foundations of these questions in his Isagoge.

Thus, the objective (ghāya) of studying logic is to analyze how we know what we think we know in order to avoid flawed reasoning which may lead to faulty conclusions. This has been considered especially relevant to specialists of Islamic studies because a significant proportion of materials in classical texts, especially that of theology and fiqh are based upon a methodology of logical reasoning to derive conclusions. Logic was considered both a tool through which Islamic texts can be understood and analyzed as well as an art form that disciplines the mind through balanced thinking. It is for this reason that so many Islamic texts on logic have titles that include terms such as “balance” (mīzān), “art” (fann), and measurement, (miʿyār)”such as: “ʿilm al-mīzān (the Science of Balance)”, “Fann al-mīzān (the Art of Balance), “lisān al-mīzān (the language of balance),” “mīzān al-ʿuqūl” (balance of the minds), “miʿyār al-ʿilm” (measurement of knowledge), and “al-qitāṣ al-mustaqīm” (the Just Balance.”[8] Indeed, it is also for this reason that historically, the study of logic has been an integral element of the curriculum of Islamic knowledge mastered in pre-modern religious educational networks throughout the Muslim world.

[1] See Jonathan Barnes, “Porphyry: Introduction,” (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2003), pp. ix-x, for this latter claim.

[2] This is despite the case that al-Kindī had limited access to the complete works of Plotinus and throughout his work, he refers to Plotinus as “Aristotle.”


[4] Abdulkuddüs Bingӧl, “Īsāgūcī”, in Islam Ansiklopedisi, vol. 22, pp. 488-489.

[5] G. C. Anawati, “Abharī, Aṯīr-al-dīn,” in Encyclopædia Iranica, I/2, pp. 216-217; E. Calverly, D. B. Macdonald Memorial Volume, Princeton, 1933, pp. 75-85.

[6] Abdulkuddüs Bingӧl, “Ebheri, Esirüddin”, in Islam Ansiklopedisi, vol. 10, pp. 75-76.

[7] Ibrahim Emiroğlu, “Mantık,” in Islam Ansiklopedisi, vol. 28, pp. 18-28.

[8] This list of sample titles is derived from Ibrahim Emiroğlu’s list in: “Mantık,” in Islam Ansiklopedisi, vol. 28, p. 19. 

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