Classical Islamic philosophy has broadly been a philosophy of reconciliation between reason and revelation. It has tried to differentiate itself from Greek – and now Western philosophy – but it does not seem to have established some other norm than reason as the key to philosophy. Even what is called rational theology, theosophy, and Sufism have all used reason to empower revelation. Yet, some voices of contemporary Islamic philosophy – very few in fact - are trying to re-ground philosophy and its practice, by making ethics, and not reason, the essence of man and philosophy. This view will be presented gradually into three complementary pieces and steps (Islamic Philosophy I, II, III).
Philosophy and Religion
The last two centuries (since 1798) have witnessed a lively intellectual revival in Islamic thought, a fact that has impacted all sectors of life, without, at the same time, forming a clear line of thought or a “new paradigm” that overcomes the malaise of either/or, modernity or traditionalism, change or conservatism. Medieval Islam managed to construct a dominant and prosperous “sharia paradigm” for some centuries, a paradigm in which reason and revelation generally worked together. This paradigm was especially enforced politically, and that is how it rooted itself in Islamic history, and medieval history in general.
The previous two pieces (Islamic Philosophy I and II) presented some reflections on the past and present conditions and themes of Islamic thought, philosophy in focus. The present piece, based on two forthcoming papers, introduces a voice that aims at regrounding (i.e. reconstructing) not only Islamic philosophy but philosophy in general, and the way philosophers pose philosophical questions. It sketches out some major aspects of the project of Taha Abderrahmane (b. 1944, Morocco), a leading logician and ethicist in the Arab-Islamic world.
What was his offense? He had not directly rebelled against or attacked the government. But he did something much more far-reaching: he claimed the right of the free interpretation of scriptures (not arbitrary, but free and responsible interpretation).
Massimo Rosati died suddenly after suffering a stroke. He was not yet 45 years old. “Reset” has lost a friend and a tireless co-worker, with his ideas, his blog and the projects we shared. His death was completely unexpected, and the suddenness of this break in friendly and productive contacts, in working relations, is unbelievable and painful. Until just a short moment ago there were the normal and trivial efforts made to find a suitable date for a conference on “Religion and the web”, or to plan a series of seminars and a book on religion as a “war and peace” factor.
The question raised by the paper is: can democracy be religious and, if so, how? Can religious faith be reconciled with modern democratic political institutions? The paper takes its departure from the biblical admonition to believers to be "the salt of the earth" – a phrase that militates against both world dominion and world denial. In its long history, Islam (like Christianity) has been sorely tempted by the lure of worldly power and domination. Nor is this temptation entirely a matter of the past (witness the rise of the Christian Right and of "political Islam" in our time). Focusing on contemporary Iran, the paper makes a constitutional proposal which would strengthen the democratic character of the Iranian Republic without canceling religious faith. If adopted, the proposal would re-invigorate the "salt" of Muslim faith thus enabling believers to live up to the Qur'anic summons for freedoms, justice and service in the world.*
“It seems today that the acceptance of secularism within the Muslim world is extremely far away. It is as if, on the basis of deeply-held convictions, Muslim society were demanding a form of not exactly theocracy, but certainly a ‘moralisation’ of public life.” So says Abdou Filali-Ansary, director of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations at the University of Aga Khan, London. The director and founder of the Moroccan literary review ‘Prologues,’ Filali-Ansary is also the author of a number of works on the reformist tradition within the Islamic world, including L’Islam est-il hostile à la laïcité? (2002) and Réformer l’Islam? - Une introduction aux débats contemporains (2003). He recently spoke at ResetDoc's Istanbul Seminars 2011 (19-23 May).
Abu Zayd instead wished to return to the Koran all the potentiality of its contents, not only normative but also ethical, social, theological, narrative, artistic contents, etc. Once the revelation had started, the Koran became part of history; it was secularized. This is a process that involves the entire cosmos. It is rather those who read the text only as a system of eternal rules, set beyond time and space, as a sense deprived of meaning, who have “mummified” the Koran, losing the qualities of the authentic Word of God answering humankind’s most intimate needs.
Nasr is the very up to date descendant of the long line of courageous, bold, outspoken and critical Arab intellectuals, dating back to Qassim Amin from the end of the 19th century, who adopted and vehemently defended the most enlightened, progressive and advanced positions of their times on the major issues vexing Arab and Muslim societies to this very moment, such as progress, renewal, development, education, women’s emancipation, secularism, democracy, human rights, heritage, Islam, modernity, science, rationality and so on.
During the Nineties, in Algeria, together with a number of friends I found courage and support in a book entitled “Naqd al Khitab al Dini” (Critique of the Religious Discourse), written by Nasr Abu Zayd, an Egyptian intellectual who was a professor at Cairo university. I was lucky enough to meet him in Rome in December 2005 and gave him a copy of a novel I had written, “Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio” [A clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio] , in the Arabic version. He called me the next day to pay his compliments. He had read it in just one night!
Within the framework of the in-depth analysis that Reset devotes to the subject of liberal Islam, we wish to present an interview with the Egyptian thinker Abu Zayd, who is one of the most respected and influential Muslim reformists. Abu Zayd explains that, contrary to widespread belief, within the Muslim world there are many reformists and organisations that spread the principles of liberalism, equality, democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, however, the West appears not to acknowledge this and instead of contributing to strengthen these tendencies, it tends to emphasise Islam’s negative aspects and, in particular, its links with terrorism. The problem – continued Abu Zayd – does not lie in Islam or in the Koran, but rather in the stubbornness that characterises extremists in interpreting the Holy Book in a rigid and literal manner, without allowing for any kind of critical debate. Applying hermeneutics to the Koran would instead facilitates its understanding and a more current interpretation, opening the way to a modernisation of the text without corrupting its sacredness.
Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid upheld the belief that the Koran is a book passed down through oral communication and one destined to poetic recitation. He was a believer and, as a Muslim, accusations of apostasy offended him profoundly. Should the conquering of democracy ever be achieved in the entire Muslim world, the history that will be written will have to linger at length on this small man with his frail health.