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Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī

Frank Griffel
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī

(c. 1085–c. 1165)

was an influential philosopher, physician, and a convert from Judaism to Islam. He is the author of al-Kitāb al-Muʿtabar fī l-ḥikma (The Carefully Considered Book on Philosophy), a comprehensive compendium of the philosophical sciences. In it he develops a philosophical method that implicitly rejects the claim of demonstration (burhān), made by earlier philosophers such as al-Fārābī (d. 950/51) and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1037), and replaces it with a method he calls “careful consideration” (iʿtibār) where the arguments of different philosophers and different schools are weighed against each other. This method had a considerable influence on the development of novel techniques in philosophy, particularly by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210), and through him on the tradition of post-classical philosophy in Islam.

Abū l-Barakāt Ḥibatullāh ibn ʿEli ibn Malkā al-Baghdādī was born around 1085 in the town of Balad on the Iraqi countryside. This was either the Balad on the Tigris, thirty miles (fifty kilometers) north of Mosul, or a town with the same name close to Samarra, thirty miles (fifty kilometers) north of Baghdad. During his childhood or teenage years, he moved to Baghdad where he studied medicine and the ancient sciences (including philosophy) with Abū l-Ḥasan Saʿīd ibn Hibatallāh (d. 1101). The latter refused to educate Jews and first rejected Abū l-Barakāt. The student’s diligence, devotion, and acumen, however, prompted Abū l-Ḥasan Saʿīd to change his mind. Following his education, Abū l-Barakāt worked as a physician at various Seljuk courts in Iraq and Western Iran. The first sultan whom he served was Muḥammad Tapar ibn Malikshāh (r. 1105–1118), continuing with his Seljuk successors in Isfahan and Hamadan. Soon after, he worked at the caliphal court in Baghdad; first under al-Mustarshid (r. 1118–1135), and then under al-Muqtaḍī (r. 1136–1160). In 1149 he was called to the deathbed of the Zengid ruler Sayf al-Dīn Ghāzī I (r. 1146–1149) in Mosul and in 1152 to that of the Seljuk Masʿūd ibn Muḥammad Tapar (r. 1134–1152) in Isfahan. Both passed away despite the physician’s good efforts. Late in his life, Abū l-Barakāt became blind as an effect of leprosy or elephantiasis (judhām). He died in Baghdad during the reign of the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Mustanjid (r. 1160–1170).

Abū l-Barakāt began his philosophical career as a Jew and he composed a Judeo-Arabic commentary on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes as well as a lost commentary on Genesis. He also had Jewish students, among them Isaac Ibn Ezra, the son of the famous Jewish philosopher Abraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1167), who had come from al-Andalus to study with him. In the Ecclesiastes commentary, which Abū l-Barakāt completed around 1143, he shows a great interest in subjects such as theodicy or divine predestination (al-qadar wa-l-qaḍāʾ), which were discussed among Muslim theologians (mutakallimūn) and Aristotelian philosophers (falāsifah) alike. Two decades earlier, when he was in his mid-thirties, Abū l-Barakāt was already known for the critical positions he had developed toward the widely acknowledged teachings of Ibn Sīnā in philosophy. Al-Baghdādī’s biographers, for instance, report how the local ruler of Yazd in Iran defended his philosophy against the critique of the Avicennian philosopher, mathematician, and poet ʿUmar Khayyām, an event that must have happened before the latter’s death in 1123 or 1124. In a book that can be dated to 1137–1141, the Muʿtazilite mutakallim Ibn al-Malāḥimī (d. 1141) mentions Abū l-Barakāt as the most eminent philosopher among the Jews.

There are various contradictory reports about Abū l-Barakāt’s conversion from Judaism to Islam. It must have happened after the completion of his Ecclesiastes commentary around 1143, but before his short epistle on the evidence in Muslim revelation for the non-material character of the intellect (Ṣaḥīḥ adillat al-naql fī māhiyyat al-ʿaql, edited in al-Ṭayyib, “Un traité d’Abū l-Barakāt”), which was written in or before 1157. The most convincing account of his conversion locates the event at the court of the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Muqtaḍī. Abū l-Barakāt may have been motivated by the anti-Jewish attitude of some courtiers who refused to honor his position and his accomplishments. He apparently negotiated with the caliph on a legal strategy that allowed him to pass his wealth to his two daughters even though they remained in the Jewish faith. After his conversion, Abū l-Barakāt became known for his anti-Jewish polemic, yet he also continued to be revered by the Jewish community in Baghdad.

Al-Baghdādī’s al-Kitāb al-Muʿtabar reflects teachings that he developed over a longer period throughout his career and that he dictated to a group of his students. The book may have been available as early as 1144—which is the reported date of the earliest extant copy—but was definitely accessible around 1155, when one of al-Baghdādī’s biographers claims to have written a commentary upon it, which unfortunately is lost. It is unclear whether the available manuscript copies represent earlier and later recensions of the book. An edition published in 1938–1939 in Hyderabad produces a homogenous text and has been reprinted numerous times. The book is religiously neutral and excludes eulogies or any references to particular religions.

Al-Kitāb al-Muʿtabar follows the division of earlier philosophical compendia and falls into three parts—logic, the natural sciences, and metaphysics—where each part is further divided in accord with the books of the Aristotelian corpus. The logic, for instance, contains eight “treatises” (maqālāt) that represent the eight books of Aristotle’s Organon as it was studied in the Orient (including Rhetoric and Poetics), whereas the part on the natural sciences is divided in six “portions” (ajzāʾ), among them Physics (al-Samāʿ al-ṭabīʿī), On the Heaven and the Earth (as-Samāʾ wa-l-ʿālam), and On the Soul (al-Nafs). The last part of the book on ilāhiyyāt (metaphysics and philosophical theology) is divided in two treatises that are not given distinct titles. The first offers a comprehensive outline of metaphysics, whereas the second discusses certain problematic issues in that discipline such as the world’s pre-eternity, divine determination, or the dispute between hylomorphism and atomism.

In the introduction to al-Kitāb al-Muʿtabar, Abū l-Barakāt presents a view of the history of philosophy where knowledge was initially transmitted orally from teacher to students. Later, when the number of philosophers (ḥukamāʾ) dwindled and textual transmission became necessary, philosophy suffered from ambiguities and misunderstandings, a situation that worsened once its texts were translated from one language to another. By the time of Abū l-Barakāt, philosophy had been so much corrupted that he set himself the task of reconstructing its original teachings. He does so by, firstly, collecting all arguments and positions that circulate with regard to a certain subject and, secondly, by comparing their convincing forces relative to one another. Abū l-Barakāt implicitly rejects the claim of Ibn Sīnā and al-Fārābī that through the Aristotelian method of demonstration (Greek apodeixis, Arab. burhān) philosophy established indubitable knowledge in metaphysics. He suggests—as al-Ghazālī did before him—that some of the falāsifah’s teachings are mere rephrasings of information that comes from earlier divine revelations. Abū l-Barakāt promises his readers that his “careful consideration” (iʿtibār) of arguments will not be influenced by the fame and the regard of the philosophers who are associated with them. Rather, the goal of his book is to find the true position (al-ḥaqq) among those that circulate, unaffected by the status of those who put them forward.

While Abū l-Barakāt writes at a time when Avicennism, meaning the philosophical system of Ibn Sīnā, was the dominant direction of Arabic and Islamic philosophy, his method of iʿtibār leads to a certain independence from Ibn Sīnā, particularly when it comes to his psychology and cosmology. Abū l-Barakāt, for instance, rejects the division of the soul into different inner faculties and, based on an argument about the unity of self-consciousness, argues that the human soul (nafs) is indivisible. This leads to a series of highly original teachings in human psychology, among them his position that there is no single human species but many different human species, to the extent that individuals can be their own species and have quiddities (singl. māhīyah) that are distinct from those of other humans. This, claims Abū l-Barakāt, explains the drastic differences that we find among humans when it comes to their rational capacities. Like Ibn Sīnā, however, Abū l-Barakāt maintains that human souls are connected to celestial souls. He assumes that every human species, and maybe every human individual, has a connection to one particular celestial object, which is the cause of the human soul(s). The celestial souls that cause the existence of human souls are most likely connected to the vast number of fixed stars, some of them invisible to us.

Many of Abū l-Barakāt’s objections against Avicennian teachings were triggered by skeptical arguments that were available to him in earlier philosophical literature. Abū l-Barakāt, for instance, follows al-Bīrūnī (d. c.1050) in his opposition to the Aristotelian position about the impossibility of a vacuum within this world. Here and at many other places, Abū l-Barakāt gives full consideration to positions and arguments that come from Muslim theological literature (kalām) and he does not shy away from siding with them. Abū l-Barakāt’s inclusion of kalām arguments in a book devoted to the philosophical tradition is a reaction to al-Ghazālī’s Precipitance of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifah) which, by confronting Avicennian positions with skeptical objections developed in kalām, created a level playing field between the two traditions of kalām and falsafah. Although he never mentions the name of al-Ghazālī in al-Kitāb al-Muʿtabar, Abū l-Barakāt is strongly influenced by his criticism of Avicennian philosophy, most importantly his major complaint that Ibn Sīnā’s teachings in metaphysics are not demonstratively proven. Abū l-Barakāt’s method of “careful consideration” should be understood as a response to al-Ghazālī’s criticism of falsafah. It grounds philosophical knowledge in a dialectical rather than demonstrative method of arguing.

Abū l-Barakāt’s turn away from apodeixis toward dialectical techniques marks a major development in the history of Arabic and Islamic philosophy and it ushers in a new way of engaging with philosophy in Islam, namely post-classical philosophy. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, who was heavily influenced by Abū l-Barakāt’s al-Kitāb al-Muʿtabar, further refined and developed this method and turned it into a foundation of his critical engagement with Ibn Sīnā that will influence almost every Muslim philosopher after him.


  • Baghdādī, Abū l-Barakāt, al-. al-Kitāb al-Muʿtabar fī l-ḥikma (The Carefully Considered Book on Philosophy). 3 parts. Hyderabad, India: Jamʿiyyat Dāʾirat al-Maʿārif al-ʿUthmāniyya, 1938–1939. Reprint, Byblos, Lebanon: Dār wa-Maktabat Bībliyyūn, 2007.
  • Davidson, Herbert A. Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, on Intellect: Their Cosmologies, Theories of the Active Intellect, and Theories of the Human Intellect. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Griffel, Frank. “Between al-Ghazālī and Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī: The Dialectical Turn in the Philosophy of Iraq and Iran During the 6th/12th Century.” In In the Age of Averroes: Arabic Philosophy in the Sixth/Twelfth Century, edited by Peter Adamson, pp. 45–75. London: The Warburg Institute, University of London, and Turin: Aragno Editore, 2011.
  • Kaukua, Jari. “Self, Agent, Soul: Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī’s Critical Reception of Avicennian Psychology.” In Subjectivity and Selfhood in Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy, edited by Jari Kaukua and Tomas Ekenberg, pp. 75–89. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2016.
  • Lammer, Andreas. “Two Sixth/Twelfth-Century Hardliners on Creation and Divine Eternity: al-Šahrastānī and Abū l-Barakāt al-Baġdādī on God’s Priority over the World. In Islamic Philosophy from the 12th to the 14th Century, edited by Abdelkader Al Ghouz, pp. 233–278. Göttingen, Germany: V&R unipress, Bonn University Press, 2018.
  • Pines, Shlomo. Collected Works of Shlomo Pines. Vol. 1: Studies in Abu’l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī, Physics and Metaphysics. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1979.
  • Ṭayyib, Ahmad, al-. “Un traité d’Abū l-Barakāt al-Baġdādī sur l’intellect.” Annales Islamologiques 16 (1980): 127–47.
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