Hajji Abdullah Drury –
As Muslims around the world and across New Zealand grapple with increasingly complex socio-political questions this Ramadan, we might spare a thought for Islamic conceptualisations of Philosophy, a subject that is often overlooked but underwrites much of what we believe and think daily.
Three years ago, Dr Safet Bektovic, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for European Islamic Thought at the University of Copenhagen wrote an excellent essay entitled, ‘Post-modern Islamic philosophy : Challenges and Perspectives’ in the British journal ‘Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.’
He discussed the contributions of Al Farabi (872-950), Al Ghazali (1058-1111), Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406), but also modern names like Arkoun (1928-2010), Soroush (1945- ), Muhammad Naquib Al Attas (1931- ) and Amina Wadud (1952- ).
Dr Bektovic argued forcefully that Islamic philosophy or ‘Falsafa,’ either historical or contemporary, could not be properly examined independently of political and theological discourse. The big questions of early Islam are still being asked; the limits of human knowledge for example, the relationship between the divine and the human, the relationship between Falsafa, Kalam and Fiqh and the role of political philosophy.
Early Islamic philosophy developed after the death of the Prophet Mohammed and was shaped specifically by Muslim contact with the ancient civilisations of the Middle East and their philosophical traditions over the eighth to ninth centuries CE.
It must be noted the relationship was not entirely benign or exclusively philosophical – it did not unfold in a political or ideological vacuum.
On the contrary, Dr Bektovic reminds readers that this evolution in thought was intimately associated with domestic Muslim discussions concerning the correct interpretation of Islam, the Quran and Sunnah, and the correct polity.
For example when the Umayyad dynasty adopted the title Khilifat Allah (viceroy of God) rather than the traditional Khalifat Rasul Allah (Viceroy of the Messenger of God) they were actively advancing the idea of predestination in order to protect their regime from any type of criticism.
In contrast, the political opposition articulated a theory of Free Will to censure and condemn Umayyad rule. All were concerned with the question of human cognitive abilities and with the problem of defining the relationship between the divine and the human, the relation between religious truth and existence.
Therefore, whilst a significant number of early Muslim philosophers were disposed to align themselves with either the political or governing elite or with dogmatic religious circles, particularly during the “classical” period of Islam, a minority opposed the established systems of thought.
Throughout the past 1400 years the attitudes of Muslims towards philosophy have been divided between an adoration of philosophy as the key imperative scientific discipline and a near total repudiation as a basically alien element to Islam.
Philosophy, understood as a critical reflection that questions all established interpretations and systems (including religious), is sometimes viewed as a threat to conservative or sectarian notions of Islamic orthodoxy and to the Sharia.
Consequently, as Dr Bektovic writes persuasively, for many Muslims, even Islamic philosophy “is a problematic and, at best, superfluous discipline.”
Ibn Hanbal (780-855) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) for example were equally sceptical of both the rationalism of philosophy and of the esoteric mystical Sufi explanations, arguing “that the Holy Quran is clear and self-evident and thus in no need of any philosophical interpretation.”
Generally most Muslim societies have not experienced the process of secularisation as in Western societies, but modernity (particularly the special challenges of modern education) has been highly influential in shifting Muslim views of society and education itself.
Serious post-colonial educational reforms within Muslim societies following independence have been characterised by ideological power struggles between Muslims who desire to introduce new methods inspired by Western and humanistic sciences, and those who believed that the simplest solution was to return to some kind of “classical” system and to re-Islamise society.
Concept of Democracy
Modern Muslim philosophers are focused on two differing kinds of conundra.
Firstly, there are general theoretical and philosophical questions such as broad issues of epistemology and of the relationship between philosophy and religion.
Secondly, there are queries more specific to Muslims and Islam such as the exact interpretation of Sharia, the boundaries of Islamic ethics and even the correct standpoint towards democracy.
Some Muslim scholars contend a dynamic interpretation of ‘Ijtihad’ is urgently needed, one that encompasses an ongoing desire for more innovative thinking in responding to the various challenges of Western culture.
Others propose breaking with traditional, religiously based perceptions of society entirely. The point of departure for all these reflections is a re-assessment of the key terms within Islam – particularly ‘Khilafa,’ ‘Umma’ and ‘Sharia,’ which express direct overt political implications.
Hajji Abdullah Drury is the author of ‘Islam in New Zealand.’ He lives in Hamilton. He had quoted ‘A Heritage of East and West; The Writings of Imam Camil Avdic (2006) as a source of reference for the above article.