In most historical accounts, humanism arose during the European renaissance. New scholarship is shedding light on a prior Islamic form of humanism.
- What does it mean to be a humanist? According to the scholars who speak in the video, is humanism only about being a seeker of knowledge, or also about humane acts?
- What evidence of al-Kamil’s humanism does the video present?
- How is humanism defined in our own times?
- Who were some famous humanists of the European Renaissance?
- A word with a similar meaning to that of Renaissance humanists in Arabic is “Hakim,” meaning a person of wisdom and accomplishment. Two famous Islamic humanists were Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Rhazes (al-Razi). Research these two figures and evaluate the claim that they were humanists.
- How do you think humanism relates to religious faith?
The lesson examines common historical definitions of humanism and explores whether they should be applied beyond traditional Western culture. Students also explore contemporary meanings of the term vs. historical ones. Using several examples from Islamic history, students explore the application of humanism’s characteristics to al-Malik al-Kamil and two famous Muslim scholars, al-Razi (Latinized as Rhazes) and Ibn Rushd (Latinized as Averroes).
Medieval and Contemporary Humanism
Q: What is humanism in Western and Islamic culture?
Can it only be defined as a Renaissance movement that was identified and named by historians during the 19th century? That was defined as an outlook attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural concerns. This outlook was distinguished from a medieval, scholastic, sacred and otherworldly outlook, and marked the 15th century beginning of modern European thought.
In Islam, humanism is a balance of otherworldly and worldly concerns. If the goal of life is to improve life on earth and achieve heavenly salvation with God, this can only be achieved by means of carrying out the individual’s duties and responsibilities in this world, not merely through worship.
The spread of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula brought early Muslims in contact with the great civilizations of the Mediterranean such as the Greek and Roman, but also Persia, and India, and even contacts across the Silk Roads to China. During these early centuries of Islamic rule, Muslims formed a small minority, while Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Hindus lived and exchanged ideas with Muslims. Travel, urban growth, prosperity and the exchange of ideas and languages brought about the movement to translate all kinds of knowledge and literature into Arabic. By the time of the Abbasid rulers after 750, translations bore fruit not only in the sciences, but in a burst of cultural life in literature and the arts, law and history and many other fields. Al-Jahiz, a Muslim teacher and intellectual, expressed a humanist outlook on this knowledge: “Did we not possess the books of the Ancients in which their wonderful wisdom is immortalized and in which the manifold lessons of history are dealt with, so that the past lives before our eyes—did we not have access to the riches of their experience which would otherwise have been barred to us, our share in wisdom would be immeasurably smaller, and our means of attaining a true perspective most meager.” Institutions such as libraries, schools, and later colleges sprang up over the following centuries, and patronage of arts and sciences spread widely, even after the breakup of the Abbasid Empire into many parts. Travel, prosperity and competition among royal courts spread learning and the arts far and wide.
An Islamic outlook during this period was not focused solely on the afterlife. The concept of the public benefit and seeking justice in this world’s affairs was a central idea in Islamic law as it was then developing. This emphasis on human welfare, and the awakening to the capacity of human beings to learn the secrets of nature—without negating the idea that God created the world—can be called a humanist movement. The Muslim scientists, literary figures and philosophers were multi-faceted scholars called hakim (wise men) in the Islamic tradition. For example, Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna), was a philosopher, physician and astronomer who also wrote on the subjects of alchemy, geography, geology, psychology, theology, logic, mathematics, physics and education. Other famous scholars such as Al-Razi (Rhazes), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), al-Farabi (Alpharabius) and many others studied and made scientific advances in many fields.
While the term humanist is usually associated with the European Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, that movement, which was named during the 19th century—grew out of the engagement of European thinkers with the works in philosophy by Muslim scholars like those named above. The opening to Greek philosophy came about through translations from Greek into Arabic made in the 8th and 9th centuries, translated from Arabic into Latin in the 12th century in Spain and Sicily, and carried into European learning circles and expanding universities. This turning toward a human perspective alive with possibilities, and away from a fatalistic focus on the afterlife, characterizes humanism wherever it has taken root. It is part of the heritage of human civilization.
Contemporary Definitions of Humanism
The American Humanist Association provides several definitions by prominent authors. “Humanists stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek rational ways of solving human problems.”
Q: In what ways was the encounter between St. Francis and al-Kamil a humanist experience? How were these values reflected in the encounter? After watching the video, make a chart of two columns, one headed by al-Kamil, and the other headed by St. Francis. In the rows under each, write keywords that relate to definitions of humanism.
Q: What do the commentators in the video say about humanism as it relates to this encounter?
Q: What would you include in a personal definition of humanism?
Q: In what ways is humanism important to our own society? Is it essential that humanism exclude religious perspectives in favor of secular rationalism, or is there room for both? In view of the encounter between St. Francis and al-Kamil, what common ground can we find to support humanism today? Make another chart with two columns that lists humanist values from the definitions above in the left column, and in the right, list ways in which these values can be applied to specific social issues in the secular and religious spheres of interaction today.
 Nakosteen, History of Islamic Origins of Western Education, A.D. 800–1350 (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1978), p. 13.
 See lesson plans 9, 11, and 13 on the 12th-century Renaissance in Spain at http://www.islamicspain.tv/For-Teachers/LessonPlans.htm.