Stoicism and Islam

Al-Kindi’s Device for Dispelling Sorrows

Donald J. Robertson
Mar 16 · 15 min read

I will describe what I hope will be suffiŽcient for you, and may God protect you from all worries. — Al-Kindi

Public domain. Wikmedia Commons, modified.

People often ask me whether there’s any relationship between Stoic philosophy and Islam. Islam probably shares some common themes with Stoicism, as do certain strands in Jewish and Christian thought. There may also be subtle indirect influences, which are hard to trace. However, scholars believe that the writings of arab Muslim scholar Al-Kindi may provide the best example of a more direct link between Islam and Stoicism.

The Stoic school was founded in Athens in 301 BC by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium. It was always associated with Athens. However, from around the 2nd century BC interest in Stoicism began to grip Rome. We’re told of the last famous Stoic of antiquity, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius:

He conducted many negotiations with kings, and ratified peace with all the kings and satraps of Persia when they came to meet him. He was exceedingly beloved by all the eastern provinces, and on many, indeed, he left the imprint of philosophy. While in Egypt he conducted himself like a private citizen and a philosopher at all the stadia, temples, and in fact everywhere. — Historia Augusta

The Roman provinces being referred to here were probably Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Cappadocia. Marcus appears to have visited some of the major cities in these regions while touring the eastern empire around 176 AD.

Indeed, during the five intervening centuries, while the Stoic school flourished, many of its most important teachers actually came from the near east, particularly the area surrounding the cities of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey, but also Seleucia and Babylon in modern-day Iraq, Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon, and Alexandria in Egypt. We might potentially find traces of Stoic thought, therefore, among later Islamic thinkers who were born or studied philosophy at the centres of learning in these regions.

The Muslim scholar Al-Kindi has been called “The Father of Arab Philosophy”, although he was actually more of a polymath than simply a philosopher. Al-Kindi was born in Kufa in 801 AD, near the city of Baghdad where he later lived and studied. A thousand years before his time, in the 2nd century BC, two important Stoic philosophers, Diogenes of Babylon and his student, Apollodorus of Seleucia, hailed from this region. Another one of Diogenes’ students, Archedemus of Tarsus, reputedly travelled from Athens to Babylon to found a Stoic school there. It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, to discover traces of Stoic thought in Al-Kindi’s writings. He was a prolific author and famous for helping to preserve Greek thought by introducing it to the arab world. Indeed, although he’s generally more associated with the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, one of his texts does show clear evidence of having been influenced by Stoic philosophy.

The Device for Dispelling Sorrows

The text is a consolatio type letter offering Stoic-sounding philosophical advice on overcoming life’s sorrows. He says that remedy requires diagnosis and so he begins, in typical Socratic fashion, with a definition. “Sorrow” here refers to emotional pain caused by failing to obtain what we desire, or losing what we love. This concept that emotional distress is a consequence of desire seems to be derived from the Stoic definition below, although the two aren’t identical. The early Stoics taught that desire and fear are the primary irrational emotions or passions:

Pleasure and pain supervene on these, pleasure when we achieve what we desired or escape what we were afraid of, pain when we miss achieving what we desired or meet with what we were afraid of. — Stobaeus

We find this basic premise throughout the main surviving works of Stoicism, especially The Discourses of Epictetus.

Indeed, Al-Kindi sounds very much like Epictetus when he proceeds to emphasize that this definition, of desire as the cause of sorrow, should prompt us to ask to what extent it’s possible for someone to free himself from such desires.

For it is not possible for anyone to attain all that he desires or to be safe from losing all things loved. — Al-Kindi

He concludes that loss is inevitable because nothing material is permanent, everything changes, and permanence only exists in the intellectual realm of ideas. Following Plato, Al-Kindi’s solution is therefore to love only the eternal realm of intellectual things, synonymous with the Mind of God, where nothing changes, and loss is therefore inconceivable. Eternal things are, by definition, not transitory.

As for sensory possessions, sensory objects of love and sensory desires, they are available to everyone and attainable by any hand. It is not possible to safeguard against their decay, extinction and change. — Al-Kindi

What brings consolation, in the material realm, becomes a source of sorrow when it inevitably changes and is lost, as nothing lasts forever. All material things perish eventually. When we desire material things we act as though we wish they could be grasped forever. However, this is against their very nature so we are inevitably frustrated. “Thus he who desires transitory things,” Al-Kindi concludes, “and that his acquisitions and loved objects be of them will be unhappy.”

We must learn to transpose our desires from the realm of perishable material things to the eternal realm of the divine, grasped spiritually and intellectually, as Plato would say. We should enjoy, and be grateful for, material things when they are presented to our senses, but not crave them when they’re absent. “We should not regret what we have missed”, in other words, “and should seek among sensory things only what is accessible.”

Like the Stoics, Al-Kindi, compares this inner state to true kingship. This is the noble attitude of a king: “they enjoy everything that is a present object of observation to them with the Žfirmest action, and with the clearest indication of not needing it.” By contrast, the mean-spirited crave with eager anticipation the coming of every material blessing and bid farewell to every departing one with painful sorrow. The small-minded lack gratitude and acceptance, and can neither receive nor let go of good fortune wisely. We should rather “make ourselves, by means of good habit, content with every situation so as to be always happy.”

People, he says, go to great lengths, even enduring painful medical procedures, to look after the health of their bodies. We should therefore be more willing to endure hardship for the sake of our own minds or souls. Our soul is our true nature, he says, the body merely its instrument. In language, again reminiscent of Epictetus, he says that we should train ourselves to master our desires, building habits, beginning with small things and then progressing “from the smallest to the largest issues.”

The first psychological strategy he recommends consists in dividing our sorrows into two categories, depending on whether they originate in our own actions or the actions of others. Again, this is like Stoicism but slightly different. The Stoics typically employed this general strategy of dividing things into two broad categories, for simple decision-making. Most famously, although this is not the only example, the Handbook of Epictetus begins by advising us to distinguish between things that are “up to us” and things that are not.

Al-Kindi goes on to say regarding the forms of suffering caused by our own actions that we should simply stop doing them. Nobody truly desires to suffer and we therefore involve ourselves in the contradiction of desiring something that we don’t really desire when our own actions are the main source of our sorrow. However, if the cause of our suffering has to do with the actions of another we should ask ourselves whether resolving it is up to us or not. If it is up to us then we should resolve it. If it is something that is up to another person then, at the very least, we should not allow ourselves to be sad in anticipation, before the event happens, because the other person may still resolve what is upsetting us. Moreover, we should remember that time heals all wounds: “Every sorrow is necessarily dispelled by solace in some period of time if the sorrowful one does not die from the sorrow or at the beginning of the sorrow.”

We must remember that wallowing in misery is unnatural and wrong. The wise take measures where possible to remedy their unhappiness.

And we should not accept being miserable when we are able to be happy. One of the good devices for this is to remember the things that saddened us, which we have long forgotten, and the things that saddened others, whose sorrows and their solace from them we have witnessed, and to compare what saddens us with what saddened us in the past, and the things that sadden which we have witnessed, and the manner in which they ended with solace. — Al-Kindi

In order to console ourselves, as Al-Kindi puts it, we should look upon the suffering of others and remind ourselves that it the problems that afflict us are among the common lot of mankind. He illustrates this point with a story about Alexander the Great asking his mother, Olympias, to commemorate his death by inviting only those who have not been afflicted by disaster to attend a feast. When the day came, not a single person arrived, and so she exclaimed:

Oh Alexander! How much your end looks like your beginning! You desired to console me for the disaster of losing you with the perfect condolence, since I am not the Žfirst to suffer disasters and I am not singled out by them from any other human being. — Al-Kindi

Everything we have ever lost, Al-Kindi says, has been lost in the past by many other people. All of them, basically, if they survived, found a way to move on. Even events that seem catastrophic, such as the loss of a child, have been endured by millions of people in the past.

Al-Kindi repeatedly stresses that such sorrow comes from convention rather than nature and as such it could be felt otherwise. The wealthy experience it as catastrophic when they lose their fortune but millions of people have lived in far greater poverty with contentment, never having known anything else.

To desire that misfortune never happens would require desiring that things never change. However, existence requires cycles of generation and decay, the universe is change, so to desire an end to this would be to desire non-existence. If we want to experience life we have to be willing to recognize that change is natural, in other words, and accept the possibility of external misfortune.

The notion that all material things, including our own lives, should be viewed loans, from God or Nature, rather than true possessions, is a recurring theme in Stoicism. We find the same idea expressed here in relation to Islam.

We also should bear in mind that all that we have of common possessions is a borrowing from a lender, the Creator of the possessions, great be His praise, Who may reclaim His loan whenever He wishes and give it to anyone He wishes. — Al-Kindi

If we view things as our possessions, Al-Kindi says, we are bound to feel as though when God “takes it from us by the hands of the enemies that He is harming us”. However, to resent the return of that which has been loaned is petty and indeed, he says, contrary to the virtue of justice. He even says that resenting the fact that our possessions have been siezed by enemies is “silly and childish” because they are as though “messengers” of God, the lender, and it makes no difference when or by whom a loan is recalled. We should rather be grateful for having received it in the first place. The lender reclaims externals, which Al-Kindi calls the sort of things other people share with us. We should therefore also be grateful that he leaves us with that which is most important and valuable in life, our own intellect.

Al-Kindi says that fools entangle themselves in an “outrageous contradiction” because they hate the suffering that comes from the loss of material things, from which it follows that they should seek not to possess them. Yet they also feel sorrow about never having possessed the same things. So their desire to avoid the pain of loss, combined with their hatred of never possessing material things, condemns them to suffering forever.

It is related about the Athenian Socrates that it was said to him: ‘Why is it that you are not sorrowful?’ He responded: ‘Because I do not possess anything for the loss of which I will be sorrowful.’ — Al-Kindi

Al-Kindi contrasts this with a story about the Emperor Nero and his mentor the Stoic philosopher Seneca. It was said that someone gave Nero the exquisite present of a “uniquely crafted, precious, crystal dome”, in the presence of Seneca. Nero was delighted by the object and by how impressed those around him were with its beauty. So he turned to Seneca and asked him what he had to say about it. Seneca replied “I say that it reveals poverty in you and indicates a great disaster will befall you.” Nero, puzzled by this, asked him what he meant. Seneca explained that if Nero were to lose the precious gift then it would be hopeless for him ever to replace it, which highlights his poverty in that regard. He added, moreover, that if it became damaged or Nero lost it he would inevitably experience that as a great disaster.

We’re told that events unfolded precisely as the Stoic had predicted. When Spring came, Nero went to picnic on some nearby islands and ordered that the dome should be brought along with the rest of his baggage. The boat on which it was being carried sank, though, and the dome was lost forever. Everyone around Nero then reacted as though a great catastrophe had befallen him, just as Seneca knew they would. Nero was desperate to replace it but died before he could ever find another one.

“Accordingly”, Al-Kindi adds, “we say: He who desires that his disasters be reduced has to reduce his possessions of the things that are out of his hands”, i.e., he has to be willing to let go of external things. Presumably speaking of a pithos, a huge ceramic storage container of the kind that Diogenes the Cynic reputedly slept in, he writes:

It has further been said about the wise Socrates that one day he was staying in a broken jar in the camp where they were. An artist was present when Socrates said among other things: ‘We ought not to own so as not to be sorrowful.’ The artist then asked him what if the jar he was sitting in breaks? Socrates replied: ‘If the jar breaks, the place will not.’ What the philosopher said is true, because for everything lost there is a replacement. — Al-Kindi

Al-Kindi says that one who is preoccupied with increasing his external possessions, “will not gain eternal life; his temporal life will be disturbed, his illnesses will increase, and his pains will not cease.”

The Allegory of the Boat

In this ephemeral world, situations are changeable, images are deceiving, and its ends disprove its beginnings — one who trusts is disappointed, and we should feel sorry for those who are dazzled by it. Al-Kindi now elaborates at great length on an allegory that appears to derive from the Stoic Epictetus, who wrote:

As on a voyage when the vessel has reached a port, if you go out to get water, it is an amusement by the way to pick up a shell fish or some bulb, but your thoughts ought to be directed to the ship, and you ought to be constantly watching if the captain should call, and then you must throw away all those things, that you may not be bound and pitched into the ship like sheep: so in life also, if there be given to you instead of a little bulb and a shell a wife and child, there will be nothing to prevent (you from taking them). But if the captain should call, run to the ship, and leave all those things without regard to them. But if you are old, do not even go far from the ship, lest when you are called you make default. — Epictetus, Encheiridion

Al-Kindi says that we resemble those who have boarded a boat heading for their homeland but have disembarked somewhere for a temporary stop. Some return to the boat when ready, without delay, and thus they get to claim the best seats for the remainder of the journey. These are the first type of person.

Others, a second type of person, lingered to survey the beautiful scenery, enjoying pleasant meadows, the scent of flowers, and the sight of trees laden with fruits, while listening to the glorious birdsong. They looked over pretty stones on the land, with bright colours and attractive patterns, and pretty shells with unfamiliar shapes. They could see all of this without straying very far. When they returned to the boat, though, others had already taken the best seats.

A third type of person, busied themselves gathering up the pretty stones and shells and picking the fruit from the nearby trees, and the flowers. They didn’t stray far either but when it was time to leave they returned burdened by the load they had gathered. They were like slaves or servants of the stones and shells, deceived by their beauty, and weighed down by them. The fruits and flowers too would spoil before long. Again, they found that others had taken the best seats on the boat already, and they were left with the cramped and uncomfortable corners of the boat. Moreover, their burden of stones, shells, flowers, and fruits, became a nuisance to them on the remainder of the journey, preventing them from being comfortable. Worse, they were forced to spend the rest of the voyage guarding their new possessions and protecting them from being damaged. Most of their leisure time was now spent worrying about these things, not being able to leave them alone — they found their souls clinging to them. In addition, these possessions caused them much sadness whenever they lost them or they became damaged.

Then come the fourth type of person. They left the boat and went far away into the meadows and thickets. They were too busy picking up pretty stones, shells, and flowers. They wandered deep into the bushes, distracted by their desire to get the best fruits from the trees. They forgot about the boat, the journey they were meant to be making to their homeland, and the sorrow that would result from their own actions. They exposed themselves to successive fears, in fact, fleeing predatory beasts, crawling snakes, terrifying noises, and scratching their faces and the rest of their bodies against hanging branches and cutting their feet on thorns. They became stuck in mud, and spoiled their clothes, struggling for a long time to make their way through the woods.

When the captain called for them to return, as the boat was ready to put to sea, some of them stumbled back onboard laden with their new possessions, as we’ve mentioned. They were the last to find seats, so ended up in the most uncomfortable quarters, and suffered considerably during the voyage, becoming more vulnerable to sickness as a result. However, others who had strayed into the thickets didn’t even hear the captain’s call. The boat sailed without them, leaving them behind on island, deserted and alone in a dangerous foreign land instead of taking them home. Some were preyed upon by wild beasts, some became ensnared by trifling pleasures, some became stuck in quicksand, others were bitten by the snakes. They died there, abandoned rotting cadavers, their limbs torn apart horribly.

Those who made it to the ship with the things they’d scavenged from the island had been deceived into thinking they were worth the trouble. They ended up throwing them into the sea because the flowers soon wilted, the fruits rotted, the shining colours of the stones faded when the seawater dried from their surfaces, and the pretty seashells crumbled and began to smell putrid. These things became a nuisance during the journey and they ended up discarding them and returning empty-handed despite the trouble they took over them. Some became sick during the journey because of their discomfort and because their belongings turned bad. They died before reaching their homeland. However, those who didn’t linger too long on the island returned quickly, found comfortable seats for the journey, and arrived at their destination in good health.

Al-Kindi makes it clear that this story is meant to provide an allegory for “our passing from this world to the ‘world of truth’ and an example of the conditions of all who pass through this world.”

Conclusion

Al-Kindi also concludes by saying some very Stoic-sounding things. We should learn the true nature of evil, that it resides in our own moral errors, and thereby transpose our aversion from external things onto the vicius dispositions of our own soul.

We should bear in mind that we should not hate what is not bad; rather we ought to hate the thing that is bad. If this is Ž fixed in our mind, our capability is increased thereby to dispel sensory sorrows. We think that there is nothing worse than death, though death is not bad; fearing death is bad. As for death, it is the completion of our nature; for if there were no death there would be no human beings existing at all. — Al-Kindi

The saying that death is not bad, but rather our fear of death is bad, is classic Stoicism. This is true more generally: our own passions, such as fear and anger, do us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid or about which we’re angry. The notion that death is natural, and should therefore be viewed with relative indifference, is a recurring theme in Stoicism, particularly in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

So, oh laudable brother, keep these pieces of advice as a permanent model for yourself and you will be saved from the injuries of sorrow and through them will arrive at the best home, the abode of permanence and the dwelling place of the righteous. — Al-Kindi

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Writer and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019)

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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