al-Tawhidi, Abu Hayyan


al-Tawhidi, Abu Hayyan
(d. 414/1023)
   One of the towering figures of Islamic humanism, al-Tawhidi was a student of both Yahya ibnAdi and Abu Sulayman Muhammad al- Sijistani. He earned his living as a scribe and secretary and was one of the most famous courtiers in the cultural renaissance of fourth/tenth-century Baghdad. His bestknown work – which preserves the flavor of those heady times – is Pleasure and Conviviality (al-Imtawa almu’anasa), a kind of philosophical Arabian Nights which recounts the intellectual soirees of his then-beneficiary, Ibn Sa‘dan. Al-Tawhidi’s main philosophical work is Borrowed Lights (al-Muqabasat), which provides much insight into the ideas circulating in his teacher al-Sijistani’s influential majilis at that time. In addition to numerous other technical and popular works, he engaged in a correspondence with Miskawayh, collected under the title Rambling and Comprehensive Questions (al-Hawamil wa al-shawamil). Al-Tawhidi’s philosophy often hews closely to the views of al-Sijistani, wedding a Neoplatonic cosmology to Platonic psychology and Aristotelian ethics. Like other thinkers in his philosophical lineage (typically traced back to al-Farabi), he links the attainment of knowledge with salvation and happiness.
   Despite his familiarity with the adab tradition of social refinement and ethical perfectionism, al-Tawhidi was by most accounts a flawed and difficult man. Moving among the innermost circles of the famous, the powerful and the learned, he is said to have been a gossip, a fault-finder, a tactless guest and something of a political naïf. However, he was cognizant of his own shortcomings and did encounter numerous obstacles and disappointments in the course of his career which probably hardened his instinctive pessimism into spite and bitterness. Like al- ‘Amiri, he had a strong mystical bent, and in his old age he retreated to the Sufi center of al-Shiraz, where he burned all his books in an expression of piety. Despite al- Tawhidi’s many great contributions to the Islamic intellectual tradition, his life was not a particularly happy one and he died a disappointed man. One might say that his personal character and political fortunes were intimately bound up with the mood of his philosophical humanism. Muhammad Arkoun characterizes him as the ‘indignant humanist’ (as compared to Miskawayh, the ‘serene’ humanist), and Joel Kraemer elegantly sums up the tenor of al-Tawhidi’s thought and life when he remarks that ‘His humanism was not a joyful celebration of man’s grandeur but a sober acceptance of man’s ambiguity.’
   See adab; humanism; Ibn ‘Adi; Miskawayh; al-Sijistani, Abu Sulayman Muhammad
   Further reading: Kraemer 1986a/93, 1986b; Netton 1992/99

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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