Academics give popular support to the idea that philosophy, as a
method and pursuit, is not a part of Islam, or that in philosophical terms, there isn’t much to say about Islam and philosophy, or rather, Islamic philosophy. The philosophical
tradition found in Islamic history, academics say, is foreign to
Islam, like an African migrant in a Russian ice field. Despite this
opinion being the academic status quo (at least in Western academia),
the opinion is buttressed by arguments that are less than persuasive.
Some academics like to point to how the Muslim philosophers were persecuted
at their time by the ruling powers. It is said that such persecution
is evidence that Muslims vigorously rejected philosophy. By the same
logic, on could say that Muslims vigorously rejected orthodoxy since many orthodox
scholars were persecuted: Al-Ghazzali’s books were burnt in public.
Ibn Al-Qayyim was chained and dragged through the streets naked. Imam
Al-Bukhari suffered immensely. A wide-reading in the scholarly
biographies will uncover that orthodox scholars suffered more
persecution that the philosophers did. Can we then say that orthodoxy is
foreign to Islam?
The argument is also contradictory. We are told that
the ruling powers were against the philosophers; yet, in the same
breath, the academics note that the ruling powers personally patronised
Muslim philosophers. Many orthodox scholars who suffered
persecution never had any patronage.
What do academics mean by philosophy? Usually they mean Falsafa,
which is the term traditionally used given to Islamic Neo-Platonism.
Some academics are more specific and define philosophy as the
continuation of the Greek heritage in the Islamic world. This
definition allows the academics to incorporate Ibn Rushd under the
definition, because he was a thorough Aristotelian and an criticiser
of Neo-Platonism. If defined the first way, the word philosophy falls
prey to the fallacy of equivocation. Falsafa is one type of
philosophy, the Neo-Platonic type.
Even if Muslims rejected the
Neo-Platonic philosophical system, it does not mean they rejected
every philosophical system. If defined the second way, the word
philosophy becomes a synonym to Euro-centrism. We are to believe that
the only philosophy is the Greek philosophy and that Arabs, much less
Persians and Asians of the Subcontinent, can never produce their own
unique philosophies that lie outside the parameters of Greek
philosophy. If we acknowledge that philosophy is neither Falsafa nor
specifically Greek-philosophy, then the claims of the academics seem
untenable. What about the Kalam philosophical system? Or the
Mu’tazilla philosophical system? Or the other lesser known but highly
significant philosophical systems found in Islamic history? Are we
supposed to turn a blind eye to them?
The distinction between philosophy and theology is evoked when trying
to show the foreignness of philosophy in Islam. The Asharites and
Mu’tazilites were not true philosophers, we are told, because they
dealt with theological apologetics. This seems hardly a valid
criticism since no one would deny that Leibniz was a philosopher or
that he was a defender of Christian faith (cf. Theodicy). A corollary
claim is made that the Asharites and Mu’tazilites assumed the
correctness of religion then engaged in dialectical sparring instead
of using unaided reason to find out the truth of religion.
This claim can hardly be sustained by any textual reference to any specialised
book on Kalam. Books specialising on Kalam use unaided reason to
explore whether religious claims are true. Of course, they always end
up with the same conclusion (i.e. religion is true), but that does not
detract from the philosophical nature of their work, in the same way
David Hume’s works always ended, predictably, by concluding religion’s
falsity. The secular definition of philosophy is hardly historical
since the vast majority of philosophers were theists and many were
ardent supporters of their respective religions. It is similar to
someone arguing that Thomas Aquinas never wrote a philosophical book
since he was a Catholic; hence, by definition, he did not use unaided
reason in any of his analysis.
Academics like to often repeat that philosophy is not indigenous to
Islam but arose due to contact with the Greek heritage. The way
philosophy started among the Greeks and how it started among the
Muslims is compared. Unlike the Muslims, Greeks engaged in philosophy as part of their own tradition. This argument conveniently turns a blind eye to the Egyptian and Indian influence in Greek philosophy. The argument also presumes a concept of pure inquiry. That is, the argument presumes that only inquiry done without reference to anything external of itself is worthy of notice. This may be an ideal to live up to, but most inquiries are instigated due to external factors. For
instance, Existentialism arose from the ruins of the World War. This
does not mean that Existentialism is not a philosophy.
Al-Ghazzali is usually cited as the man who finally killed
philosophical inquiry in the Muslim world. This citation is usually
followed by an acknowledgment that Ibn Rushd wrote a detailed critique
of Al-Ghazzali. A tension exists here that makes the argument suspect.
If the philosophical tradition was destroyed, once and for all, by
Al-Ghazzali, then how can we explain Ibn Rushd launching a full-scale
Aristotelian attack on Al-Ghazzali more than a hundred years after
Al-Ghazzali’s death? How can Al-Ghazzali have destroyed philosophical
inquiry when famous philosophers like Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Tufayl wrote
and advocated philosophy after Al-Ghazzali’s death? Moreover, since
the time of Fakhruddin Ar-Razi, Neo-Asharism adopted Ibn Sina’s
ontology and made it a basis for Ashari thought. If Al-Ghazzali had
destroyed Ibn Sina for good how can we explain the appreciation later
Neo-Asharis had for him?
A sociological argument is usually advanced when a historical one
fails. Since the time of Al-Ghazzali, the majority of Muslims had no
inclination toward philosophy. Ibn Rushd had no popular support. In
that sense, Al-Ghazzali put the nail in the coffin to philosophy. This
argument fails because it is sociological. The contents of
Al-Ghazzali’s Tahafut Al-Falasifa shows a debate that concerned the
intellectual elite. The majority of Muslims, at Al-Ghazzali’s time,
could barely comprehend let alone appreciate the sophisticated
philosophical arguments that Al-Ghazzali used against the
Neo-Platonists. In other words, the status of philosophy in Islamic
history was never determined by the majority vote.
Philosophy, as an intellectual pursuit, was always tailored to the minority; since,
philosophy is an undertaking that takes great intellectual dexterity
and subtlety. Ibn Rushd clearly explained how philosophy was inadequate
for the majority of people; since, the majority of people do not have
the lengthy training and immense ingenuity that is necessary to
journey as the philosophers do. The sociological argument fails
because it is irrelevant.
Biographers note how Ibn Rushd spent his nights in prayer. He was a
famous jurist with deep ties to the Prophetic Sunnah. He was also an
ardent philosopher. If anything, Ibn Rushd’s example is proof that
philosophy is not foreign to Islam. Yes, he may have been alone in
propagating his ideas. But which original thinker wasn’t alone at one
time or the other?