Why Muslim scholars need to work on revival of Philosophy

Story by  Amir Suhail Wani | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 01-04-2024
Muslims praying
Muslims praying


Amir Suhail Wani

Philosophy, which is nowadays identified as rubble of confusion and arcane concepts was seen classically as the purification of soul and intellect. “Philosophy is training for dying”, said Socrates. Both in antiquity and in classical times, philosophy was seen as a sacred and spiritual pursuit, but the scene has changed in the last few centuries. Muslims, after their contact with the Greek and Indian world, produced translations of philosophy, thereby fostering a rational and philosophical temperament in the Muslim lands. Thus Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi, Al-Razi, Ibn-Sina, Ibn-Rushd, Ibn-Bajjah, and others became pioneers of learning and enlightenment and later played the role of conduits by which the Greek legacy reached the West.

Philosophers were indeed given a tough time by Muslim scholastics and orthodox scholarship, but they continued to light up the lamps of learning and emphasized the role of reason and intellect in decoding and deciphering the subtleties and complexities of revelation and the teachings of the Prophet. The contact with Greek philosophy and the masters of Greek thought, Aristotle in particular, inspired Muslim philosophers to seek rational grounds for their own beliefs in God, Revelation, Prophethood, and other allied phenomena of religious and metaphysical import. This exercise led to the flowering and flourishing of the tradition of rationalism in Islam guided by the light of revelation, which produced an eclectic contribution in the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and other domains. 

However, the rise of orthodoxy, vacillating political support and the perception that reason and revelation are opposed to one another, saw a decline of philosophy in the Muslim world. Al–Ghazali, who, after his forays into many disciples caused a death blow to the Muslim speculative thought by his works like “The Incoherence of Philosophers” and his overall anti-philosophical posture. 

Though, there were sporadic efforts and an odd man of genius rose to reclaim in the Muslim lands the right that legitimately belonged to philosophy but their voices were muzzled; they were deemed outside the pale of normative paradigm. 

Do Muslims, therefore need revival of philosophy in Muslim lands?

Philosophy is essential to understanding the subtleties and finer teachings of scripture and provides the means using which to reconcile reason with revelation. Thus in Christendom, we see figures like Augustine, Aquinas, and others and in Judaism one comes across Spinoza and Maimonides who took great pains to explicate the teachings of revelation in the light of reason and vice versa. In the Indian tradition itself, one has the examples of Vasubandhu, Sankara, Ramanujan, and others who took upon themselves the task of providing philosophical foundations to the religious structure. Note we have used the phrase “Philosophical foundations” and not “rational foundations” because there are scholars and schools of thought that hold the opinion that the existence of God and any talk about him lies beyond the ken of our prevalent rationalistic episteme. 

Maulana Al Ghazali, Muslim philosopher

The term “philosophical foundation” is a comparatively vast one leaving open ample scope for intuition, inspiration, revelation, and other modes of religious knowledge. We agree that God is a mystery and the highest and most sublime response to this mystery is one of silence and awe – the response typified by mystics and Gnostics across cultures. But this acceptance of mystery doesn’t deprive the philosophy of its purgatory and preparatory role in buoying the matters of religious and metaphysical import. Thus philosophy and its allied activities like epistemology, ethics and aesthetics not only help us to better understand the religious phenomenon and scriptural hermeneutics, but this training provides us with the necessary tools and techniques that are required to grasp the essence and essentials of religion.

In the absence of philosophical training – and by philosophical training we mean the Catholicism of mind and the ability to see and judge facts and phenomena in their context, one often falls prey to non-issues and becomes so much engrossed in the trivial affairs that the major issues and ultimate concerns are either downplayed or ignored to total neglect. Philosophy is the eye-piece that enables us to scan the entire field of religious activity in an objective and analytic spirit. It takes us beyond the narrow and harmful perspectives of chauvinism and enables us to better understand and appreciate the religious domains beyond the religion we profess. 

Without philosophy, it’s not possible to study theology, theodicy, theogony (study of Greek Gods), soteriology, (Study of theories of salvation) hermeneutics, and ecumenical theology, all of which are indispensable in any construction and understanding of religion. The questions of time and eternity, essence and attributes, grace and salvation, which are pivotal to religion, become highly implausible in the absence of philosophy proper. 

The issues Muslim philosophers, scholastics, and theologians were required to engage with were as diverse and varied as the diversity inherent to life and the universe. However, diversity was pegged around a few central issues like the Quran, Godhead, Prophethood, morality, and the posthumous states of the human soul. The first generation of Muslims lovingly remembered as companions (Sahaba) were driven by the impulse of faith in its simplest possible form and this catalyzed their instruments of action and volition. 

The summum bonum ahead of them was to overturn the exploitative, malicious, barbaric, and outmoded social structure with a fresh, life-giving, and equitable system of Islam. Theirs was thus an era of faith in action where they had not yet entered the sophistication and complexities intrinsic to the discourse and dialogue on faith. Their activity, driven by a vision, left them with little time to get lured by the scholastic and philosophic underpinnings and implications of the world order, they were so anxious to see in action. 

It was only towards the closure of confrontations between Ali and Muawwiya that a group of people – known as Khwarjis made their appearance. Though the group rose in response to issues of practical import, they inevitably opened the valves of intellectualization of faith and in so doing initiated the debates that were later to become the cornerstone of Islamic theological discourse. The militant piety celebrated and taught by Khwarjis paved the way for the emergence of Mur’jis who tried to mitigate the Khwarjite tendency of labeling people as heretics and apostates and running with swords over their necks. 

Mur’jis emphasised the postponement of moral judgment and ethical evaluation of people – something which was erstwhile glorified by Khwarjites. For Mur’jis, it was enough to enunciate faith in God, and no value judgment was supposed to be passed on the ethics of morality of anybody declaring himself as Muslim – For these issues rested with God. The Murjaite doctrine of postponement of judgment backfired and loosened moral standards to such depths that the doctrine ultimately became an ideological and intellectual instrument for Ummayads to justify their tyranny and wholesale oppression.

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Civilizations keep evolving. The Islamic/Muslim interaction with people of other civilizations exposed them to fresh thoughts and via Syraic, Zoroastrian, Indian, and other ports, a stream of thought started flowing into the Muslim ideological mainland. Thus rose the need to revisit and reinterpret Islamic thought in the light of these currents of thoughts. The simple faith that had sprung from the deserts of Arabia now started assuming intellectual and rational dimensions of unforeseen order.