Past and Present Conditions for Existence and Difference
Islamic Philosophy I 17 November 2014

by Mohammed Hashas, LUISS University of Rome

These reflections were in mind before three questions were raised recently by two scholars in Columbia University in the US. The Iranian-American international scholar Hamid Dabashi formed a question as follows: “Can non-Europeans think?” (15 January 2013, here). This was a reply, and not only so, to an earlier praise about the renowned Slavoj Zizek, in which Santiago Zabala, a research professor of philosophy at the University of Barcelona, cites philosophers from the West, China, and Brazil, and none from the broad Arab-Islamic world (here). On 12 June 2014, Hasan Azad, a young Columbia University scholar, referred to the article in his “Why are there no Muslim philosophers?” (here). In the piece he borrowed the terms “house Muslims” and “field Muslims” from Malcom X, which created an academic discussion on such a borrowing of the terms and their relevance, in Sociology of Islam Portland University mailing list. In this article, the author leaves the question open, after having claimed that “the Islamic intellectual tradition has had a long history of reading things against the grain,” by stating “I submit this is a question that will trouble some of the best minds for many years to come.” Already here, then, one notices that he implies that there “are” Muslim philosophers. But what kind of philosophers are they? This he clarifies in a follow-up question that came out on 29 June 2014 as “What is philosophy? Or is all of life but a metaphor?” (here). At the end, the author includes mysticism as a philosophical tradition, hence giving space for a large part of Islamic intellectual productions known worldwide as philosophic.  

This piece is not a direct reply to these questions but further reflections on them, with insights from the socio-intellectual history of the Islamic tradition as I understand it at this point of time and space. The point to be presented here is that philosophical questions are historical and contextual, though they appear highly abstract to be so. Various conditions impact the little details that raise questions into abstraction. By implication this means that the essence of philosophy is difference, and not agreement, categorized imagination and rationalized intuition, and not mere reason. Someone says that when two philosophers agree, one of them is not a philosopher!

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).

The various questions raised above are not new, but their relevance remains so. Historians of ideas and scholars of Islam, be they Muslim or not, have long debated whether Islamic theology (‘ilm al kalam), for example, is part of the philosophical tradition or not. Some call it “rational theology” to avoid calling it “philosophy,” so as to find space for theologians-philosophers like al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyya, who used Aristotelian logic and tried to overcome it in their theological-philosophical arguments. Some use the title philosophers only for figures that were substantially influenced by Greek philosophy, like al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Roshd. Other figures like Ibn Arabi, al-Rumi, and al-Shahrawardi are often called “theosophists” because they are troublesome figures. As to Ibn Hazm, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Bajja, they are considered the pioneering rationalists of the Maghreb and Muslim Spain, the efforts of which culminated in the work of Ibn Roshd, considered by some the most rationalist of all (as the contemporary Mohamed Abed Aljabri positions him), and by others the most mimetic of Aritotle of all (as the medievalist Ibn Sab‘in and the contemporary Taha Abderrahmane position him). Ibn Khaldun, considered the last Muslim philosopher of medieval Islam, is, for some, difficult to position because he worked as a judge, developed historiography and sociology disciplines, and ended in being an isolated Sufi.

Classical Muslim scholars were encyclopedic, or polymath. Most of them saw continuity and complementarity among the sciences and this-and-other worlds. One of them could be a physician, a mathematician, a Sufi, a linguist, and also a judge at the same time. Their understanding of sharia and its prescriptions, and life and its objectives, were not antagonistic entities. This coincided with a time when the Islamic Empires were world-dominant, which meant a strong army, and a strong economy – at least for some periods of time, to avoid essentializing and reducing Islamic history as if it were ideal and uniformist. Such socio-political conditions influenced the intellectual one. There was then no need to enter a differentiation or separation paradigm (like ulema vs. state, or reason vs. science). Even the most rationalist scholars of the Mu’tazila who might have developed such a differentiation paradigm in the Islamic worldview did not manage because the socio-political conditions were against them; they failed terribly; the fact that they were rationalist did not make them democrats or liberal in our modern understanding; however, if they dominated socio-politically, they could have become so with time – as “non-Muslim” scholars of Islam like Montgomery Watt and George Hourani observe.

The classical figures cited above, and many others, practiced philosophy according to their understanding of their tradition, at the center of which stood the religion of Islam. So, why should they not be considered philosophers? Should they reject theology – which in the Islamic tradition deals also with mundane issues like justice and ethics and not only with the divine attributes of God as is the case with Christian theology? Putting theological as well as mystic productions outside the orbit of classical Islamic philosophy is mutilating it, and depriving it of two major characteristics: its originality and its difference.

To theology and mysticism has to be added a very important science in the Islamic tradition: ‘ilm usul al fiqh, or the science of the sources of fiqh, which is not law but theories of law and jurisprudence. This science is among the most rationalist and abstract of the various sciences the Islamic tradition developed. Similar observations apply to Arabic language canonization, which was very much influenced by the Islamic worldview and the study of usul al fiqh.  Similar notes apply to the science of Quran interpretation (‘ilm tafsir al Qur’an), and the science of Hadith (‘ilm al hadith).

These sciences were impacted by sharia worldview; each developed its own rational method; and they did not need to break away with the divine to be rational. If rational methods are enough to call a tradition philosophic, I see no reason why not doing so! Should rational methods be identical to be called so? Would not that (mimicry) imply that maybe they are mimetic of each other, or that one dominates the other? Where is difference in philosophy in all this? Is not difference the way to search for Sophia and Truth? Or has philosophy become nationalized, racialized, appropriated and centrist? Only nationalist, racist, and centrist philosophers can make it so with the type of questions they raise.

As to the modern (since 1789) and contemporary (since 1960s) Muslim scholars, they have a different challenge. If their ancestors (al qudama or assalaf) enjoyed socio-economic and political conditions that broadly allowed their intellectual growth in particular and limited periods of time, the modern and contemporary Muslim scholars (al muhdathun or al khalaf) are deprived of these enjoys or conditions. Their societies have degraded into illiterate and little cultured ones for the last one thousand years; worse of all, they have fallen under European colonial powers for the last two centuries, and experienced dictatorial regimes for the last fifty years or so. Their current status quo (or the disappointing “Arab Spring”) does not augur well for the near future, unless it is looked at optimistically as a process, a labour period for socio-cultural and political “clarifications,” for a better future!

Philosophy reflects the context of the philosopher, however abstract s/he may be.  When space (geography) is colonized either by foreign powers or tyrant locals, and the time is neither traditional nor modern, scholarship cannot be but an expression of such a condition. Succinctly, contemporary Muslim scholars face three major sovereignties that block their intellectual energies: 1) the local dictatorial regimes, 2) the local traditional religious scholarship that refuses change and cultural renewal, and 3) the outside hegemonic powers that benefit from such a condition economically and culturally. This actually makes these scholars the true saviors of the dilapidated Islamic world, because they know the tradition, its strength and its weaknesses, and know the dominant West, its strength and its weaknesses. They are the philosophers of their people and their time, before they are mere philosophers. Mere philosophy is nonsense or simply non-existent; thinking for the sake of thinking is useless, especially at a globalized age when the powerful further weakens the weak, the rich further impoverishes the poor, and the cultured dominates the ignorant. Philosophy raises big questions to reach up to the small problems. Existential questions are still very relevant, but they no longer start at the global level, because the global is tainted, appropriated by the powerful; so, philosophy has to start now locally, to empower the local so that they can be able to exist and raise existential questions. Maybe there was no time in which philosophy was needed more than today, the modern globalized world. It is now that local cultures and philosophies are needed to save man and philosophy as well.  “Different philosophy” – to call it so, not to mean necessarily “resistant philosophy” – seems a must for a serious understanding of what man wants, how he should want this, and for what reason(s) or why!

Islamic societies now still live in the modern world with hybrid lenses that think through the past to catch up with the present, a present it has not contributed to, a fact which confuses its original worldview as experienced in the classical medieval (enlightened) period. They are resisting. They might be the societies that have resisted most Western modernity, at least culturally, and less so economically and politically. A culture of resistance has grown up to replace both the classical sharia model, with its diversity, and the modern model of the West. The three sovereign “blockers” of change – the three powers mentioned above – have brought about such a culture of resistance. I think that only contemporary scholars that have developed various and rich projects since the 1960s are able to unknot this dilemma and end such a culture of resistance with a culture of opening, solidarity and contribution, and not only resistance. The Islamic Left of Hassan Hanafi and Islamic liberation theology of Farid Essack may be inspiring, with updates and revisions.

Overall, what this means is that philosophies differ. They are meant to differ. They reflect the socio-political conditions of philosophers. Their abstraction aims at problematizing the small issues they start grappling with; their abstraction aims at capturing the past and the future, henceforth their aspiration for universality, which they capture minimally or maximally. It is nonsense to expect, for example, scholars in the Arab world to debate exactly similar issues as those debated by scholars in the Euro-American world; the historical periods they deal with are different; borrowing and exchange can help in mutual understanding and share the search for solutions for global issues, but that does not require them to be based on the same grounds.

There is Islamic philosophy and there are Muslim philosophers. Until now, there is no escape from the label “Islamic” in Islamic philosophy; the current historical period still requires it, and both philosophers and their people do not want to, or are unable to, avoid it for now. It is their title of difference, existence and resistance; and they have that right. Some of these philosophers have more prominence in the West than others; some of them are not known at all, or hardly known, even in Islamic studies departments; some of them are read only as scholars, reformists, progressists, or as theologians; and are not labeled philosophers. Some of them are specialized in Western philosophy, but they are hardly read or quoted by Western scholars working on the same philosophy. Some of them have developed clear and modern methodologies of reading the Islamic tradition or have developed critiques of Western modernity, but they are often read only by scholars of Islam in Islamic studies departments or Asian studies departments, and alike departments, and are hardly studied in modern philosophy departments. This is no wonder since only few works are available, for example, of the contemporary philosophers. Even scholars that are over-consumed, like Mohamed Abed Aljabri, Mohamed Arkoun, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd or Hassan Hanafi, are only minimally translated in English. Added to this, the new methodologies developed by these scholars are hardly translated into methods of research in the social sciences. Sociological and anthropological scholars of Islam writing in English or French, for instance, still use frameworks of Western scholars in the field in their study of Muslim societies and minorities; they are unable to develop sociological apparatuses based on contemporary Muslim reformists, basically because they do not have access to their full works in the languages they command, or simply because they is no intellectual will to take that step. As to classical Islamic philosophy, the works devoted to it can be listed, and mostly include the interesting endeavours of Henry Corbin, Montgommery Watt, Majid Fakhry, Seyyed Hussein Nasr, Hamid Dabashi, Oliver Leaman, besides some others like Jon McGinnis and David Reisman, Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor, and Roy Jackson.   

To say the least here, Islamic philosophy should neither be considered identical to nor alien to Greek or modern Western philosophy, since such presuppositions deprive it of the right to exist and the right to difference, if it opts for difference. First, it has established itself as an independent tradition for fifteen centuries, despite the controversies about what is and what is not philosophic in it. It has contributed to philosophy debates in both cases. Second, the socio-political and intellectual conditions that contributed to the flourishing of early Islamic philosophy are different from the current ones. It is erroneous to essentialize it or expect it to either abide by norms of a different (and dominant) philosophy. It is not philosophic to expect such a thing. The classical search for truth, and now the modern search for liberty and justice should be the norms, and not mere “intellectual judo.” Re-grounding philosophy seems a must for all traditions, for common survival, and for diversity.

(To be continued)

Image: the philosopher Ibn Rushd