To understand the meaning of philosophy in Islam, it is best to examine the use of the terms falsafah and hikmah in various traditional sources. The term hikmah appears in several places in the Holy Koran, of which perhaps the most often cited is, "He gives wisdom (hikmah) to whom He wills, and he to whom wisdom is given" (2:269). It also appears in the hadith literature that "The acquisition of hikmah is incumbent upon you. Verily the good resides in hikmat" and according one another hadith, "Speak not of hikmah to fools" (alaika bil himkati fa-innal ghair).
After the rise of the Abbasids, the Iranian who excelled the Arabs in learning and scholarship, became associated with their empire. In fact they were the intellectual cream of that society, being greatly inclined towards philosophy, for which the Arabs had no taste. It was for this reason that during the Umayyad period in Damascus, known as the Arab national rule, the intellectual discipline like philosophy never acquired popularity. But during the Abbasid rule, because of the close association of the Iranians, the Greek philosophy acquired great currency. Thus in those days, it was the Muslim intellectuals who kept the torch of Greek philosophy burning. They realized that the old religious ideas must not be taken in their literal meaning, imparting that the mystical philosophy of esotericism owed its distinct origin to the words of Koran. The Mutazalites were in front to see Islamic teachings on the scale of philosophy. Baghdad became not only the metropolis, but also an important centre at that time.
The function of philosophy is nothing more than speculating on the beings and considering them in so far as they lead to the knowledge of the Creator. The Holy Koran exhorts man to this kind of rational consideration (i'tibar) in many a verse such as: "Consider, you who have vision." Thus al-i'tibar is a Koranic term which means something more than pure speculation or reflection (nazar). M.M. Sharif writes in "Philosophical Teachings of the Quran" (cf. "History of Muslim Philosophy", Germany, 1963, 1st vol., p. 137) that, "The Quran claims to give an exposition of universal truths with regard to these problems - an exposition couched in a language and a terminology which the people immediately addressed, the Arabs, with the intellectual background they had at the time of its revelation, could easily understand, and which the people of other lands, and other times, speaking other languages, with their own intellectual background could easily interpret. It makes free use of similitude to give a workable idea of what is incomprehensible in its essence."
According to "al-Kafi" (Tehran, 1978, p. 76) by Kulaini (d. 329/941), Jafar Sadik once said: "It is obligation on you to gain sound comprehensions of the religion of God and not to be like the rustic Bedouin Arabs, since God on the day of judgement, will neither cast even a glance at nor will He purify the deeds of a person who has developed no understanding of the religion." The Arabs with scarce means and resources at their disposal in the desert, had no tradition of speculative philosophy. They could not achieve intellectual sophistication, and therefore, they were both physically and intellectually very simple people. Islam too bore this imprint, and its teachings were comparatively simple and speculative thought having an emphasis on external observations. The situation had changed drastically during the Abbasid period. Islam was no longer a simple faith it used to be believed in the Arabian desert. It was a Semitic religion universalized to embrace non-Semitic elements. The Iranians who embraced Islam had intuitive and speculative minds, and they saw Islam with such minds. In sum, the Iranians were so more cultivated, both in education and tradition, that the ordinary Arabs were looked down upon as coarse ruffians and uncouth barbarians. Nor did the Arabs have anything special to point to in self-defence against such sneers, except their priority as a cradle within the Islam. In sum, the Arabs were only in exceptional cases mystically minded, who were generally content with the literal and the way to God along extrinsic lines had been enough for them. The cultivation of philosophical trend therefore, had been strongest among the Muslims in non-Arabs lands.
Ibn Sina writes in "al-Isharat" that, "Philosophy is the exercise of intellect, enabling man to know Being as it is in itself. It is incumbent upon man to do this by the exercise of his intellect, so that he may ennoble his soul and make it perfect, and may become a rational scientist, and get the capacity of eternal bliss in hereafter." During the time of new philosophical approach, the orthodox circles had two options open before them; either to adopt a rigid stance, or to assimilate the trend. The orthodox orbits, however, tenaciously reacted against this pattern.
It must be noted that the legacy of Greek philosophy had ended with the school of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), but it reappeared blended with Oriental thought under the name of Neo-Platonism (al-aflatuniyat al-muhdathah), propounded by Plotinus (207-270 A.D.). He was succeeded by his pupil, Porphyry (233-305), who made certain modifications. Proclus (411-485) was the last great schoolman, who had left it in a form in which it was taken up by the Muslim thinkers.
The Ismaili dawa was yet in the cradle during that period, who opted the philosophical course, and provided an ideal climate for the new philosophical tendency with the ever living role of the Imams. The Ismaili dais were well aware of the intellectual trend, who sincerely desired to creatively apply Neo-Platonism in the teachings of Islam. What is known as tawil in Ismaili jargon was nothing but the esoteric explanation of the exoteric teachings and practices of Islam. This assimilation attracted a number of eminent persons towards Ismailism. The Neo-Platonism readily found a congenial home for itself within the world of Shiism. It was for this principal cause that the orthodox theologians vehemently opposed the rational interpretation, and wrongly accused Ismailism of having suspended the operation of the Islamic Shariah. The Ismaili Imams however never allowed their followers to disregard the observance of the outward injunctions, but imparted the hidden meaning of the Koranic verses. They had nothing to do with political opportunism and remained away from its vortex and clung fast to their doctrines.