While preparing my review of Peter Adamson’s book on al-Kindī, the first Arabic philosopher (9th century CE), I share with you a quote that Adamson cites. It is the sort of quote the variations of which you will quickly find online if you search for al-Kindi quotes.
“We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, from wherever it comes. Even if it should come from far‐flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth, nor is the truth demeaned or diminished by the one who states or conveys it; no one is demeaned by the truth, rather all are ennobled by it.”al-Kindī (in P. Adamson), On First Philosophy §II.4 (AR 103, RJ 13)
In the proper spirit of a truth-seeking and wisdom-loving thinker (philosopher), these words ennoble their author, as he indicates. However, while there have been many philosophers with similar sentiments before al-Kindī, notably in ancient Greece, I always find it very interesting to understand the particular context of the expressed idea a little better. Why did al-Kindī feel he had to say this? Why did he want to write it down in one of his most important philosophical works (“On First Philosophy”)?
The answer has to do with the prevailing attitude towards philosophy as a discipline among al-Kindī’s Muslim contemporaries. Specifically, philosophy was viewed as a foreign discipline, an imported one (from Greece), not coming from within the Islamic tradition. It was this foreign status that made many doubt the relevance of philosophy for Islamic thought. This is interesting. It means that al-Kindī’s quote is meant not just to express his own philosophical commitments, but also to promote and defend philosophy as a valuable body of knowledge despite its foreign, imported status.
Note that this is not yet the defence of philosophy against or as opposed to various strands of rational theology. For this latter dispute to be possible at all, philosophy first needs to be accepted and integrated both into the Arabic language and the Islamic intellectual tradition. That was the goal of al-Kindī. He was a philosopher and a public relations manager for philosophy in Arabic.