by Mehol K. Sadain
At this age, the notion of philosophical inquiry into Islam appears to be irrelevant, and the possibility that it can significantly affect Muslim life seemingly remote. Islam, just like the other two Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity, appears to be already dogmatically entrenched among their adherents to even allow a hint of speculative intrusion into its major precepts. Its two main sources, the Noble Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) are divinely revealed and inspired, respectively; hence, no amount of philosophical discourse is expected to ever change their tenets, and applicability to the Muslim ummah.
Yet, Islamic history tells us that philosophy or falasafa to the Arabs, indeed played a major role in the development of Muslim intellectualism, and bridged Greek classical thought with the European Renaissance over the dark abyss of the Middle Ages. In short, Islamic philosophy has been functional after all. On account of this role, one realizes that the intransigent Islam that many presently perceive, actually demonstrated intellectual malleability during the flowering of Islamic civilization in the Umayyad and Abbasid Dynasties. For it was during those times that Islamic philosophers of the caliber of Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi (Alfarab), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Al-Ghazzali (Algazel); Ibn Bajjah (Avempace) and Ibn Khaldun, to name a few, demonstrated their mental skills at guided inquiry and speculation.
Herein rests the significance of Islamic Philosophy to Islam’s historical past, its ambivalent present and expectant future. A serious and diligent study of the glorious past of Islam and its interplay with philosophical concepts are the keys in unlocking the dynamic scholasticism that once held sway in the courts of the Caliphs, later to be repressed by the morbid fear of bidaah (innovation) and the “closing of the doors of Ijtihad” or juridical inquiry. If Islamic law has to develop by unceasing jurisprudential improvements and consensus, so must Islamic philosophy, in contemporary times. Just as Islamic law should actively evolve to meet the needs of contemporary Muslim society, so must Islamic philosophy. All these are to be accomplished within the stable foundations of Islamic faith and tradition.
It cannot be denied that any attempt to fuse philosophy and theology will always encounter difficulties due to differing methodologies. Philosophers hold that one must accept the possibility of truth from any source and to follow the argumentation wherever it would lead. Religion on the other hand has a set of basic and absolute dogmas that are held to be indisputable. Islam, however, wrestled with the inherent contradictions between theology and philosophy and to a certain extent, achieved modest success in the birthing of a speculative type of Islam that adopted a different perspective on a series of significant metaphysical queries on the nature of God, Revelation and Prophecy, and the never-ending debates on predestination and free will.
The clash of group doctrines is particularly seen in the contrasting viewpoints and metaphysical beliefs of the Mutazilites and the Asharites. While the former rejected the doctrine of predestination, arguing that the ascription of salvation to the decision of Allah robs man of incentive to virtue, hence man should have power over his own acts; the latter defended that all events in the universe, including human actions are indeed caused by Allah, hence, man’s decisions are subsumed within God’s Supreme Will. Man, however, through his choice of action, acquires responsibility for such action. With respect to divine revelation, the Mutazilites believed that the Noble Qur’an, even if considered Kalamullah (Words of Allah), is not eternal because if it were so, then there will be two eternals and the Qur’an becomes another God. The Asharites countered that the Qur’an as Kalam ul-Llah is indeed eternal as emanations from Allah and is not to be considered separate and apart from the Divine Entity. What is not eternal are the visible words of the Qur’an as written and recited by man.
The individual philosophers likewise presented varying viewpoints on subjects that came under their scrutiny. Hence, while Ibn Sina presented a view of the universe as consisting of necessary events (with the exception of Allah) under the Theory of Causality and Necessity; Al Farabi posited that creation is a process of emanation, a reality that is continuously flowing from a Perfect Source, hence the world was not created at one particular time, but is a work in constant progress. This view accounts for the phenomenon of change and flux in the modern world.
The great Muslim Philosopher-Theologian-Jurist-Mystic Al Ghazali, who successfully fused different and contrasting disciplines in his works and teachings once said that “while philosophy may be rejected (by Muslims), logic as a conceptual tool should be retained.” Ghazali was of course referring to a rejection of philosophical concepts that contradict basic Islamic teachings as contained in the Qur’an, and the utilization of philosophical tools to unearth the truth in the scriptural teachings.
This view was adopted by most Muslim Philosophers, relying on the Qur’anic injunctions for man to use his mind and “to see” (raaytu) the divine plan and the true nature of Allah’s creation. For in the Muslim Philosopher’s mind, falasafa is a means and not an end. The end is the understanding of Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala, and the means to achieve this is the proper use of philosophical analysis.
Herein therefore reposes the elevating and purifying effect of Islamic philosophy: A Tazkiyah of the Aql or Purification of the Mind. Just as a Muslim must purify himself to merit the Presence of Allah during prayer, so must he purify his mind to deserve Allah’s intellectual gifts of divine and esoteric ilm or knowledge. The Muslim philosophers took the methodology of the Greek Hellenistic thinkers and turned it into an instrument to elevate the individual spirit to the Universal Soul, the man to his God.
When Islamic philosophy emerged from its classical cocoon, it was championed by the likes of Al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Iqbal, Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutub and Abul ala Maududi, who in varying stages espoused the idea of modernizing the Muslim mind so that the Muslim society can be freed from the fetters of Western control. The more radical thinkers like Al-Banna and Qutub went on to say that if repression becomes intolerable for the practice of the faith, then it is justified to raise in arms against, and overthrow, the entrenched power. Most of them envisioned that the struggle will end in the re-establishment of the One Ummah, One Khilafah ideal, which contemporary radical elements have opportunistically arrogated unto themselves, and used to justify their extremist means.
The emphasis on self-defense and the renewal of Islam as reactions to western colonialism, mutated into militancy, and later extremism among the ranks of some conservative Muslims. This twin phenomenon of militancy and extremism led to a rethinking of the option of jihad fi sabilillah (struggle in the way of Allah), and a re-interpretation of jihad as an indispensable duty that is fardhu ayn (individual obligation) instead of fardhu kifayah (communal obligation). Present manifestations of violence intermittently occur, which the West has irresponsibly and unfortunately lumped together as terrorism, in the process demonizing Islam. The militant movements of Jamaatu l-Islamiyya, Ikhwanu l-Muslimeen, Al-Qaida and Haraqatu l-Islamiya have turned into convenient examples of the extreme consequence of Islamic philosophy’s political response to Western domination and aggression.
The ultimate question, “Where now, Islamic Philosophy?” should equally apply to the Muslim individual and community, and interest Muslim intellectuals seeking to highlight the moderate Muslim majority against the radicalized extreme minority. Perhaps, the next stage of Islamic Philosophy in the present era of digital culture, transnational relations and a narrowing of the geographical distance between races and countries, should be the search for a universal Islamic socio-political philosophy of moderation and value renewal.
It should be a philosophy that emphasizes normative values instead of the anachronistic realities of the times of revelations. It should also be a philosophy that seeks to inculcate these values in today’s Muslim societies; for these values, just like the words of Allah that ordained them, persist through time, and are not mere manifestations of the evolution of societies. Finally, it is a philosophy that will truly herald the Qur’anic reference to the Muslim Ummah as the Ummatan Wasatan or the Community of the Middle Means. MKS