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The Mythos Of Islamic Philosophy

Standing before a jury of his peers, a bearded elderly man rebuts the crimes he stands accused of in an unfolding cascade of propositions, anecdotes and insights. Corruption of the youth and insulting the gods are the charges he addresses in an act of daring resolve. Socrates does not shy away from excoriating his peers. For one of the reputed founders of philosophy, which would traverse the globe and spread in a process of millennia, the quest for the truth indeed unsettled the deeply cherished beliefs of a society: fifth century BC Athenian democracy. Thus, philosophy as a vocation was animated by the ethos of dissent against the prevailing temple of knowledge and values. In the Apology, Plato, a student of Socrates, has his teacher utter "that the life which is unexamined is not worth living," with the irresistible spirit of questioning inspired by divine writ. Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy published in 1926 carries out a dizzying review of philosophy from Socrates to the present. But there is little or no discussion of the mythos of Islamic philosophy either as a torchbearer handing over philosophy to the West or as an authentic expression of the love of wisdom. 

Provenance of wisdom was perceived to be a Godly-revelation of sorts which found expression in the minds and speech of human beings. Such an understanding of philosophy was planted in the fertile ground of the rapidly expanding realm of the Muslim empire from the eighth century onwards. Canonisation of Islam in texts and traditions occurred alongside broader cultural interactions with the heritage of antiquity in the Near East. Greek philosophy experienced not merely a linguistic translation into an Arabo-Islamic context but also, more importantly, a religious and cultural metamorphosis. Muslims made Greek philosophy and its contradictions their own in a creative absorption. Reason and the word were variously inscribed into one another. Prophecy and revelation became objects of intense contemplation for Muslim philosophers in the meandering quest for wisdom. Ancient figures such as Aristotle and Plato, known in Arabic as Aristu and Alflatun respectively, were enlisted in this quest which sought to reconcile reason and revelation. 

However, the very notion of reason was far from alien to the ears of the early Muslims. Numerous voices raised the standard of a rationality sanctioned by revelation and affirmed in the faculty of the intellect or aql. Thus, a pre-philosophic reason found common currency within the fledgling community of the Muslim faithful. Perhaps no two groups stand out during this period in their espousal of rationality as the Mutazilites and their predecessors the Qadarites. Knowledge of ethical and moral values through the faculty of reason was wedded to the struggle for justice in society. Early Qadarites such as Ghaylun al-Dimashqi promoted rebellion against the Umayyad rulers of his time and Hasan al-Basri, claimed by different camps among later Muslims, debated the nature of free will and the recompensing moral desert of human beings following their actions. These disparate notions were soon gathered in the works of Mutazilites for whom reason was a crucial element in being human. The ninth century denizen of Basra, al-Jahiz, a prolific writer who wrote on a wide range of subjects from zoology to satire to Arabic grammar, brought the pre-Islamic world which Muslims had inherited and Islam into closer proximity in a cosmopolitan worldview. 

An elder contemporary of al-Jahiz, al-Kindi, considered to be the first of the Islamic philosophers, adapted a mix of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic notions alongside Islamic ones. Prophecy was a challenging topic of intellectual enquiry among this burgeoning cadre of philosophers. Elaborate hierarchies for the acquisition of wisdom, namely prophetic and rational, were expounded by the likes of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina aiming to bridge the gulf between Qur'anic monotheism and Hellenistic philosophy. The prophetic faculty was a link in a series of emanations characterised by a descending order from God to humanity. While prophecy and reasoning ran in parallel lines to each other, the results attained by both were similar if not identical. Neo-Platonism offered al-Farabi and Ibn Sina a language of causality to speak about prophecy in terms of a rationality capable of discovering its true essence in the polished mirror of the mind. 

Philosophy in a Muslim mould now shared the same subject matter as theology. And moreover, they duly influenced each other in approaching the big questions of the day: the adequacy of reason to discern universal truths, the causal dimension of the universe and other metaphysical concerns. Muslims were not only heirs to ways of thinking not formed in the original Islamic milieu of their faith but had begun to frame propositions in a novel way of speaking about religion in general. Although the vibrancy of thought engendered in this period introduced the worlds of the ancient Greeks and Persians and other cultures into a diverse intellectual environment, philosophy threatened to unseat the God of the Qur'an on two planes: the metaphysical claims made about the being of God and the creation of the universe; and the absolutist spirit with which these claims were made. 

No figure among his peers in the eleventh century was able to formulate a reasoned and critical response to these two dilemmas similar in precision as the Persian-born Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. A renowned scholar patronised by the rulers of the day, the Seljuk Turks in Abbasid Baghdad, al-Ghazali was adept in the various religious sciences including philosophy. His tale of spiritual crisis and journey to Sufism has been greatly discussed to be recounted here. I will reserve a few words to mention its often misunderstood implications for the study of philosophy and the exercise of reason in particular: a dry philosophic reasoning, specifically Neo-Platonist, could not quench al-Ghazali's thirst for the intimacy of a faith rooted in personal experience. Recent scholarship has only begun to straighten the slanted picture of al-Ghazali's contribution to the body of Islamic tradition. Orientalists have decried the death of reason among Muslims laying the blame firmly at the door of al-Ghazali and his Incoherence of the Philosophers. In the late nineteenth century, Ernest Renan's misrepresentation of al-Ghazali as an advocate of anti-rationalism went hand-in-hand with the equally erroneous and racist conclusion that Arabs were somewhat incapable of philosophising while it was a particular characteristic of Aryans. 

Unfortunately, while the latter has been roundly criticised, the former view has gained the semblance of scholarly respectability even in the writings of Arab writers such as the late Mohammad Abed al-Jabri, a Moroccan philosopher, in his 'Averroist' project inspired by the jurist-

philosopher Ibn Rushd (the Latin Averroes). He unequivocally condemns al-aql al-mustaqil (resigned reason) plaguing Arabo-Islamic culture. For al-Jabri, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was a purveyor of an Eastern mysticism which choked the collective instrument of reason among Muslims, particularly the Arabs, in the medieval period: from which they have never recovered until the present. 

Ebrahim Moosa in a monograph on al-Ghazali takes the wind out of the sails of these claims in a creative panoply of reflections. In contrast to the position expounded by al-Jabri and other writers, according to Moosa, the interplay of religion and philosophy stamped al-Ghazali's thought dwelling in a threshold space or dihliz leading to sharh al-sadr (expansion of the self). Self-evident data of reason, far from exiled from one's consciousness, was made of the stuff of certainty. It was underwritten by a transcendent criterion which was nonetheless utterly subjective: the subjectivity of a mystic undergoing the unveiling of the divine reality. In al-Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun's restatement of al-Ghazali's own spiritual misgivings about philosophy and his singling out for criticism the confusion of its subject matter with theology were also accompanied by the recognition of the merits of the critical nature of philosophic reasoning itself. 

And to the contrary, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr has noted, the study of philosophy or the resort to reason did not end at the point of al-Ghazali's pen or in the alleged last ditch effort to save both by Ibn Rushd in the twelfth century. How reason was conceived and its resulting inferences were scrutinised in a robust manner. Religious experience was employed to shape the psychological contours of rationality. In Muslim Spain and elsewhere, philosophy was engaged in a fruitful conversation with theology, jurisprudence and mysticism leading to the formation of multiple forms of reasoning. A single sovereign reason existing independently from the pulsating rhythms of human thought is impossible. Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl, an elder peer and a teacher of Ibn Rushd, follows the primary protagonist's journey of inward realisation to the divine as a result of outward study of nature in a desert island who uncannily arrives at the same truths of Islam. 

Ibn Rushd defended an Aristotelian position in response to al-Ghazali's critique of philosophy. He illustrated the imperatives of rationality to be in harmony with the Qur'an's essence. The Qur'an clearly sanctioned the philosophic exercise of reason using ta'wil (allegorical interpretation) in the search for the truth as contained in its passages. Some writers and scholars have emphasised the 'double truth' thesis, one for the enlightened philosophers and another for the ignorant masses, in philosophy. The writings of Ibn Rushd have fallen victim to this invidious claim thereby detracting from the principled character of his ideas in the area of his jurisprudence, which betrays a strong inclination towards rationality, and philosophic thought. And moreover, contrary to this position, Ibn Rushd was a jurist thoroughly immersed in the religious sciences of the Shari'ah and his legacy has been preserved for posterity in Bidayat al-Mujtahid. 

The scope of rationality, it can be observed, included jurisprudence in the works of another Spaniard, Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, in the pioneering conception of the maqasid al-Shari'ah (objectives of the Shari'ah). Reason meets the divine intent of the law on the ground of the text and autonomous of specific injunctions in the case of the Hanbali scholar Najm al-Tufi. Interestingly, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali can perhaps be identified as the first jurist to have introduced the exigencies of rationally-inducted objects of the Shari'ah in a comprehensive fashion without being tied to a strict analogy. 

Despite al-Ghazali's proscription of the study of philosophy, Shah Waliyullah al-Dihlawi, an eighteenth century resident of Mughal Delhi, brought philosophy alongside other religious sciences into an effervescent synthesis. Philosophy was transformed into a practical ethics of the self thereby enabling the cultivation of rationality and virtue. Additionally, Waliyullah's theory of irtifaqat (socio-economic stages), echoing Ibn Khaldun's philosophy of the rise and fall of dynasties, elaborates the evolutionary development of human culture from primitive life to civilisation. At the heart of Waliyullah's synthesis, it should be noted, lay al-Ghazali's Ihya Ulum al-Din which fused the intimacy of the experience of faith with rational observations of the world in a broader philosophy of civilisation. 

In al-Ghazali's Persia, the study of philosophy continued to flourish among Shi'ite scholars in the centuries leading up to the nineteenth century. Islamic philosophy in the hands of Mulla Sadra experienced yet another transformation away from an Aristotelian conception of static being. Change and constancy were reconciled in the attempt to present a world (nature) in a state of becoming governed by an order of constancy (supernatural). While Sunni theologians acknowledged a more circumscribed role for reason in defending the articles of faith, later Shi'a scholars, for the most part, did elevate the employment of reason in jurisprudence and the grand narrative of Islam. 

The theme of reform was raised by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani concerning the immediate reality of Muslims in a period of radical change. Philosophy provided the central pivot for the acquisition of knowledge in a modernising milieu. A conception of reason shaped by, most likely, in the Shi'ite hawza (seminary) was, in principle, capable of absorbing the not-so-alien contents of modernity. Intellectual synthesis was celebrated by al-Afghani as an integral facet, responding to Renan's arguments, among the Arabs as proof of their proclivities towards reason and science confirmed in figures such as Ibn Bajja (Avempace), Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufayl and al-Kindi. 

At the critical crossroads of the twenty-first century, the category of reason among Muslims remains contested. Muslim and Arab scholars and philosophers have worked towards resuscitating a critical method of reasoning against the backdrop of a perceived decline of their societies. Arab or Islamic philosophy, depending on the intellectual loyalties of the author, possesses a concern with the past as much as the present. Generally, a learned scholarship has taken a lead in understanding works of a rationalist nature while making their insights directly relevant to the contemporary world. The vast Arabo-Islamic heritage does indeed offer Muslims several opportunities to construct a mode of reasoning in accordance with their moral convictions, intellectual priorities and social objectives. Philosophy either in its Aristotelian guise, à la Ibn Rushd, or Sadran, taught in the Shi'ite hawza, represents merely one channel for rationality.

For traditionalist scholars like Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the venture of philosophy, changing over time and place, is entwined with Sufism and the rational is a stepping stone on the path towards irfan (gnostic knowledge). The writings of Khaled Abou El Fadl, one of the most erudite voices in current Muslim scholarship, reflect a moral urgency to engage with the Islamic sacred texts through the intellect evoking a tradition of natural law rooted in Islam. Values such as justice and beauty involve the wonder of the intellect in a dialogue with God whereby human beings are not simply reduced to the status of passive listeners in a monologue. In the mythos of Islamic philosophy, rationality has long escaped its bounds and has found fecund soil in other forms of knowledge. And although Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Khaled Abou El Fadl draw upon the scholarly heritage of Muslims in very different ways, the faculty of reason is very much alive in their writings and acutely sensitive to the notion of the divine, whether Sufi or moral.

Mohammed Moussa has been awarded his doctorate on renewal in the Islamic tradition at the University of Exeter, Exeter. He is a Muslim Institute Fellow. One of his chief interests, among many, is the Arabo-Islamic heritage as part of a broader and richer experiment called humanity.