The Moderns and Contemporaries in Search for a New Paradigm
Islamic Philosophy II 17 November 2014

by Mohammed Hashas, LUISS University of Rome

The European “modern paradigm” has disrupted the reign of “sharia paradigm,” which actually started to degenerate before the rise of modern Europe. The latter only made the former’s renewal a very difficult task. For this reason, and despite various hardships, modern Islamic philosophy is still searching for a new paradigm that is both shariatic (i.e., sharia-inspired) and modern, in the sense of being critically open to the “Euro-modern paradigm,” in an attempt of overcoming its limitations. Even the philosophical projects that call for an epistemological break with sharia medieval paradigm belong to the new paradigm under construction, for the main reason that the intellectual history they deal with is religious/Islamic. Again, the label “Islamic” is still required, wanted, or not avoidable, at this historical moment of intellectual labour for renewal. This point above will be presented by first making some notes on the relation between the political and the intellectual, followed then by examples of modern-contemporary theological-philosophical projects from especially the Arab-Islamic world.

On the Intellectual and the Political

Medieval Islamic thought seems to have been much more diverse than its current counterpart, though the internal and external political forces made, and still make, a difference. Being dominant politically worldwide made the paradigm work, even though intellectual differences within were many. Islamic politics in the past adopted a particular intellectual path; they reigned within that large religious paradigm. Modern Islamic politics (in the plural), on the contrary, lag behind. The latter neither hold the past paradigm that was developed mainly from within (i.e., the sharia worldview), nor the modern one that was developed mainly without, in Europe (i.e., the modern worldview). The gap between the intellectual and the political is sharp in the vast Islamic world, the Arab world in focus. Added to this the external hegemony that has been so intrusive in the region for especially the last two centuries, the period of our concern here. These two sovereignties or powers have given reasons for intellectual preservativism to flourish, under the supervision and lead of classical religious authorities. Reference here is made to the three powers that block change in the Islamic-Arab world (internal political despotism, internal intellectual orthodoxy, and external intervention), referred to earlier in Islamic Philosophy (I).

Notwithstanding our interest in the intellectual, the political should always be born in mind. Human beings think within the polis, minimally or maximally. Abstraction comes as an attempt to raise above the simple issues on which there is political-intellectual disagreement to find oases of agreement in the upper level of thought possible. That is how we end up having philosophers and philosophies. Socio-political details impact the philosophy that grows out of it. When a philosophy is the one that causes socio-political change, the details of such a change in turn bring changes to this same philosophy, minimally or maximally. Modern Islamic philosophy is experiencing such a moment of in-betweenness. This does not necessarily mean that all philosophical ideals see realization in their moment of inception; they may have such an impact if there is a political receiver of such ideas, or if there are massive (from the masses) reception of such a line of thought. Otherwise, realizing such philosophical projects remain on the shelves of history, waiting moments of realization, which may never come in masses, and may be adopted only by few, like individual philosophers, the highly specialized elite, ordinary individuals, or a small minority within a larger society.

I remember the story of an African scholar based in the US who I met in a conference in June 2011 in Birmingham. The scholar was defending the existence of an “African philosophy.” He was especially working on postcolonial theories and literatures, and was saying that though sub-Saharan Africa suffers dire corruption and poverty, it bestows of historical cultures and also philosophy – and not mere folklore of aboriginal cultures that Western scholars can go to study for anthropological reasons. His point was that poverty and corruption of a society or societies does not mean that they have no philosophical tradition. He quoted even postcolonial dictators who had good ideas before they corrupted them in politics; readers of narrative works like The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), by Ayi Kwei Armah, or Anthills of the Savannah (1987), by Chinua Achebe, do understand the point. I understood his point, because I read the works before, but not only for that, because my point of Islamic philosophy is partly close to this of “African philosophy.” In the conference, there was another younger “African” scholar, also based in the US: his argument was that Africans, a good part of them were Muslim, as he was, have to adopt Euro-modernity, to facilitate democratization, and over-come corruption, poverty, etc. A “European” scholar in the field was there, and we discussed the issue during the break; he told me this about the young “African” scholar: “but he is giving in [to the European model]!” The idea here is that different philosophical traditions may materialize politically and succeed, as is the European model now with modernity, and may fail, as is the case with the example of the African and Arab-Islamic cases. Various conditions intervene in such a link between the two, the intellectual and the political. Most importantly of all is the “measurement” adopted in saying whether this or that philosophy is “successful.” A philosophical paradigm may be successful in many things but not in all; maybe the individual liberates himself or herself from religious tutelage but imprisons himself in rational categorization and narcissistic individualism. Or, maybe a philosophical model is more communitarian at an age when the world has become individualist; in such a case, the communitarian worldview adopts resistance to survive and claims solidarity as its main achievement, while the individualist worldview adopts adventure spirit to liberate the self from all tutelages and constraints. In between the two another tradition may try to stand, to defend both individual liberty and communitarian solidarity, a position not easy to hold if the dominant trend worldwide is either one or the other. Whatever paradigm a particular society adopts, the result of which is a life of trade-offs, prioritization of an idea over another. This process of rethinking priorities is historical. It happens after a paradigm weakens and fails. Modern Europe has been building its modern paradigm since, say, 1492 (discovery of the Americas, explorations and trade, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, industrial revolution, technological revolution, postmodernism, etc.; racism and colonialism are also part of this paradigm; the great Kant is part of it the way Heidegger is, though the latter sympathized with the Nazis).

On the Moderns and Contemporaries

Two periods can be distinguished if the time frame since 1798 is taken into account: the modern and the contemporary. To state the obvious, they are both modern, and make part of the so-called Arab-Islamic Renaissance, but the differentiation aims at separating two different periods in the intellectual history of Islamic thought of the last two centuries or so for the circumstances they face and the ideas they raise. I refer to the theologians-philosophers of each period as “early reformists,” or the “moderns,” since they were the avant- guardists encountering the modern world, and “late reformists,” or the contemporaries that have developed their reform projects in the “postcolonial” period of the 1960s. The point to be underlined here is that there has been a development from “calls for revival” to serious theological-philosophical projects from the first to the second period. If classical Islamic thought was based on the sacred text of the Quran for its development, the same can be said with the modern-contemporary Islamic thought. If Kalam tradition (Islamic theology) contributed fundamentally to the flourishing of classical Islamic philosophy, contemporary projects of re-reading the Quran and Islamic intellectual history in general builds on such a tradition, and opens it up to modern (Western) concepts and philosophy. Contemporary Islamic philosophy has in many ways renewed the kalam tradition, and has in so doing released Islamic reason from purely religious scholars that have lost touch with the other social and exact sciences; their predecessors were polymaths. That is why there is (still) a lot of metaphysics and theology in Islamic philosophy; the historical moment requires it, and so does the mind that constructs it.

Muslim “early reformists” of the modern era, like al-Tahtawi, al-Afghani, and Abduh, and al-Kawakibi, were more engaged with (1) renewal of Islamic thought within the limits of sharia prescribed laws, (2) liberation struggles against European colonialism, and later on (3) liberation struggles against the Ottomans, and the birth of Arab nationalism. Al-Tahtawi saw broad compatibility between Islam and modern values of Europe. Al-Afghani aspired for the protection of the Islamic Caliphate against divisions and colonialism; he also defended the ideas of Islamic reason against Ernest Renan’s Orientalist views that saw only Ibn Roshd as the exception in all Islamic intellectual history, and the figure worthy of intellectual (read “rational”) respect. Their intellectual exchange in 1883 is well remembered. Abduh, or the so-called neo-rationalist/neo-Mu‘tazilite, is also well-remembered for his intellectual exchange with Farah Antoine in 1902 on Ibn Roshd and separation of powers (i.e. secularism). While Abduh did not recognize such a separation and considered return to (rational) religion the answer to all problems, Antoine believed in secularism as the path to follow. Some of Abduh’s fatwas and educational reforms were progressive and influential for his time, however simple they may appear now (like the permission of banking interest and the halalization of meat slaughtered by People of the Book). Rachid Rida’s rejuvenation of the ideas of the Islamic state, without relinquish on sharia law, inspired Islamic movements like Hassan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood, and clear political Islam of Abu al-A‘la Maududi and Seyyed Qutb. The salafization, in the sense of medieval conservatism, of Islamic thought was resumed, especially with the failure of Arab nationalism to liberate the Palestinian lands.

Scholars of this period of Renaissance (nahda) could not theorize “outside” theology, nor could they so much theologize outside prescribed sharia laws; they were substantially political theologians; all they could do was to re-appropriate the tradition, give confidence in its richness, speak of its bright side that may help in modernizing from within, and open up to modern thought, through translations, borrowings, etc. They were “reformists,” “intellectuals,” “activists,” “writers,” or “academics” more than they were “original” theologians or philosophers. No need to say that not all theologians-philosophers need to be “original” to theologize-philosophize. The “early reformists” were responding to centuries-old dilapidated socio-cultural life and political realities that fell preys to colonialism. These circumstances did not allow them to go beyond sharia medieval paradigm, especially in its political manifestations. The overall modern paradigm they wanted to accommodate was not clear yet to them, or it was but their intellectual energies could not go so far as to develop profound projects that understand it critically, particularly theologically, seeing that their energies were also consumed in combating European colonialism, Ottoman dissolution, and internal cultural conservatism.

Interestingly, among early reformists that found themselves so much involved with politics in the so-called Islamic heartlands (of the Arab world) stands a philosophical call the relevance of which remains still substantial and influential. Reference is to the work of the Indo-Pakistani Muhammad Iqbal and his The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930), which may be considered the first philosophical thesis in the modern Islamic tradition that attempts opening a new path for Islamic philosophy, beyond the medieval paradigm and Euro-modern paradigm.

Not to be forgotten here, the contribution of Christian Arabs in the Renaissance is immense, especially in language revival. Butrus al-Bustani, al-Yazijis (the father and the son) and Georgy Zeidan are just examples. Their philosophical contribution would mostly focus on the ideas of secularism, Arab nationalism, and resistance. Their status as a minority made them defenders of secularism the most, at the expense of any “religious resurgence” that may deprive them of modern citizenship rights based on equality. Their intellectual attitudes cannot, however, be linked only to their status as a minority, because they were thinking beyond such a limitation; their aim was more of a civilizational-cultural revival of all Arabs for better insertion in the modern world. Costantine Zureiq, George Habash, Farah Antoine, Michel Aflaq, and Salama Moussa are examples of such voices, despite the diverse trajectories they at the end took.

At a time when Arab societies needed heroes and states, the coming of military officers to power superficially adopted Arab nationalism ideals, and realized them in their own ways, regressive ways as ongoing facts keep revealing to us (consider the cases of militarism, in the name of Arabism, of the state in Egypt from Nasser to now, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hafez al-Assad in Syria, Mu‘ammar al-Ghaddafi in Libya).

From the 1940s to especially 1967 (the Six Day War), a lot of internal and international political events took place. Arab nationalism rose and fell quickly, though its consequences still go on to date. Religious discourse became the bearer of both Arab and Islamic identity, culture, and politics. International hegemony and internal dictatorships made of religion the source of salvation for the overall masses, despite the various trends that tried to attract them (secular-liberal, nationalist, socialist, conservative, etc.). Religion has become the origin of resistance to international hegemony and internal tyranny; but most of this resistance tendencies remained imprisoned in classical socio-political and cultural paradigm. The medieval worldview was appropriated as a means of resistance of change to the extent that this resistance gradually became the equivalent of change in the minds of most resistants. Resistance became, and still is, an end in itself, instead of a means of change. The aspirations of some of the early reformists of the 19th century nahda were not pushed ahead intellectually by socio-political movements of all sides (“right” and “left”) to cause change. The impasse of the so-called Arab Spring is the consequence of this inability of all parties to enhance a cultural revolution. For the last two centuries, classical political theology has returned to the tradition, to the past, and remained there, instead of returning to the present.

However, the new paradigm that seems emerging in modern Arab-Islamic thought is that of what I refer to as late reformists, or the contemporaries. They are the generation that was shaken by the 1967 Six Day War defeat. They realized their defeat was not military but intellectual. That was how various theological-philosophical projects emerged, some of them dealing only with Western philosophy, and some others devoting themselves to revisiting the Islamic tradition to examine “what went wrong.” Broadly, the contemporaries have managed to overcome the limited scope of understanding of the early reformists. They aim at building genuine projects that show a profound understanding of (1) the Islamic tradition, (2) the socio-political and cultural challenges of the Arab-Islamic world, (3) modern philosophy, as led by the Western tradition, and (4) global affairs. Such a modern understanding of the past and present has contributed to the flourishing of various theological-philosophical projects, among which these below can be cited, and whose projects can be broadly categorized, leaving differences and similarities aside.

Some of the contemporaries have called for an epistemological break with the traditional paradigm of knowledge production, following the European model (as advocate Abdellah Laroui and Sadeq al-Azmeh). Some have opted for the rationalist-secular and Arabist aspect of the tradition in its Averroest version (like Mohamed Abed Aljabri, and Farah Antoine before him). Some have developed textualist-hermeneutist readings (like Fazlur Rahman, Hassan Hanafi, Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, Mohamed Arkoun, and Mohammed Shahrur; their methodological differences aside). Some have been more legalist in their textual readings (Abdullah An-na‘im), others sociologist (like Burhan Ghalioun), neo-rationalist (like Abdolkarim Soroush), ethicist (like Taha Abderrahmane), existentialist (like Abdel Rahman Badawi), feminist (like Fatema Mernissi and Amina Wadud), or historicist-universalist (like Abu Ya‘rib al-Marzuki), or post-modernist (like Muta‘ Safadi). This brief list is reductionist and does not honour many other interesting theological-philosophical projects from the vast Islamic world. There is no need to speak of arts, literature, poetry, and mysticism, and the philosophical paths they follow. For example, can existential philosophy be denied in the resistance poetry of Mahmoud Darwich and Samih al-Qasem? Can philosophical concepts be denied in the work of Fethulleh Gulen and his influential movement? Can ethics be denied in the philosophy (theosophy) of Seyyed Hussein Nasr?

This noted, the question whether there is an Islamic philosophy or not is beside the point. Any serious engagement with such an intellectual tradition can demonstrate the vitality and relevance of the questions it raises. Classical Islamic philosophy, theological as it may heavily be, tried to capture the whole of man, and not only parts of him. Today, it is struggling to keep the same worldview of man, and it is not easy. The new paradigm it is trying to re-construct can no longer be a copy of the medieval one. The modern man is a different man, and its deals with him as such, based on its shariatic and also modern view.

More importantly, contemporary Islamic theology-philosophy is not only Islamic. It is local, but also global – or “glocal” – because it its attempts to overcome its medieval paradigm it has engaged itself with the modern worldview critically. The modern man, religious or not, needs more than one philosophy to live, outlive and survive. The world is too much for one philosophy to capture its mysteries and solve its problems. That is why unifying the norms of defining what is philosophy or the norms of practicing it is a dangerous intellectual endeavour, because that deprives various traditions from thinking the way they want. It is true that reason is a human shared faculty that is used most in philosophizing, but time and space circumstances play strong roles in orienting how it reasons.

There is a story that goes as follows: a philosopher and a “faqir” (i.e. a hermit, a wise man) became known in their village; people liked to have them meet and exchange ideas and experiences. After two weeks of being together, they left apart. Then the philosopher was asked: so, how was it being with the mystic? He replied: he (the mystic) sees what I know. The mystic was asked the same question, and he replied: he (the philosopher) knows what I see. Between seeing and knowing, or vice versa, is a path to cross; that path is philosophic, whether you start from one or the other.

The next piece introduces an example from contemporary Islamic philosophy in which ethics, and not reason, is considered the essence of man, and thus the norm in philosophical practice. To be continued

Photo: Muhammad Abduh with Prince Muhammad Ali Effendi Tawfik