Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A letter to an Egyptian Liberal "Thinker"...

An article titled "The Prisons of the Arab Mind" on the website of the so-called Reform Party of Syria, by a man called Tarek Haggy, bears a striking resemblance to an angry exchange I had with a man called Elie Hajj on the Creative Syria website. Mr Haggy calls himself an 'Egyptian liberal intellectual'. At the time, my comments pointing out the fallacious, if not downright mallicious, intent behind Mr Hajj's comments were subjected to scathing criticism. Good. If people thought Mr Hajj's comments, or Mr "Haggy's" for that matter, are a good idea, they deserve every irreverant remark and insult under the sun. For those not interested, my response to Mr. Tarek Haggy's article. To date I have not received a response from him.

I write to you with regards to your article "The Prisons of the Arab Mind" which was published on the website of the "Syrian Reform Party". Whilst I respect that your professional experience as chairman for a large multinational oil company as well as your life experience would qualify you for many things, I believe after reading your articles that politics and in particular what you refer to as "the Arab mindset" is not one of them. I have neither the time, nor the inclination, to detract from the major part of your article, which a reasonably studious undergraduate student of the Middle East would quickly pick apart. However, as I do have a particular interest in Islamic philosophy and history, I will focus instead on pointing out the fallacies upon which you build your narrative.

Firstly with regards to Kant, the concept of transcendental idealism is one which humanity itself may never have grasped. This is because the human mind is imprinted from birth with the "grid reference" of time and space, as such, it would be impossible for us to grasp a reality which lies beyond such reference points. This, Kant calls the noumenal world. Please note that you criticise Ghazali for this very position when you say that he did not believe "the human mind capable of grasping the Truth as ordained by God". This is exactly what Kant was referring to. Now I find it hard to believe, based on your flimsy use of this term, that you have understood (on the assumption that you have even read) Kant's writings on this term. But it might be a thought to actually know what a philosopher is talking about before using his nomenclature in future articles that you pen. In addition, it is tragic that you are ignorant of the nuances in thought between men such as Ibn Hanbal and Abdul Wahab, and between what they believed and what the Prophet Muhammad taught. That subtlety has been butchered in order for the subject matter to fit nicely into your categorisation. Especially when you tie this all in with Saudi Arabia, ironically a key ally of your sponsor, the United States of America. My main problem in your article lies with the great injury that you have done to the Iberian peripatetics, tying them with the Mutazilites. Ibn Rushd, if you had bothered to read his thought, was trying to revive a pure Aristotelianism, rather than the neoplatonist interpretation that had become prevalent in the Byzantine and later Islamic worlds. Neoplatonism is a 1000 year effort to reconcile the philosophy of Plato with Aristotle on one scale, and the contrary positions of Aristotle with himself on another, the result, coming from Plotinus in Alexandria, was neoplatonism, which was taken as "the" way to interpret Aristotle. Had you bothered to read the Decisive Treatise, you would have seen that Averroes was in fact *against* the spread of philosophy to those who were incapable of grasping the truths it brought. Effectively his position would be something we'd recognise as "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing", an adage which is painfully poignant the more I read your article. Anybody who was to break this rule should, as Averroes put it, be executed. Hardly the shining beacon of liberal rational thought that you put him out to be - not that I am condemning him, but I understand his context and his philosophical contributions, something which, sadly, you do not. The Mutazila, apart from the disastrous Mihna that they imposed on the Islamic world, were kalam theologians, not philosophers. Their use of kalam put an emphasis on reason but in a nuance that again you have either not bothered acquainting yourself with or just willfully ignored. It is the Mutazila who are the origin of the Asharites, who had broken off with the Mutazila due to differences and inconsistencies in Mutazila thought and in fact al Ghazali is an Ashaarite himself. So your category is firstly incorrect to lump the Mutazila with the falasifa on one side and al Ghazali on the other. Secondly, it is not the Mutazila, but mainly Avicenna, the most important figure in Islamic philosophy, who Ghazali criticised, and in specific on three areas. The eternity of the world, the reincarnation on the day of judgement and with regards to God knowing particulars. All other philosophy and science was not a problem. Also, Avicenna had in fact fused the thought of the falasifa and the kalam people (this includes Mutazila don't forget) and made what he thought a solution to the divide. So Ghazali did not just criticise Avicenna, but also the kalam theologians for what he saw were errors in their positions. What Ghazali did was in fact demonstrate that Avicenna's theory was not airtight and that there are problems. Again, you appear to have neither read Avicenna's work on the necessary existent, nor have you read Ghazali's tahafut, maqasid or miyar al ilm, any one of which would have given you a more coherent understanding of the history of Islamic philosophy. You will also be amazed to know that the inheritors of Avicennan logic and philosophy, as well as kalam (who included the Mutazila), are the Sunni and Shia theologians who use arguments which were criticised, and also built upon by Ghazali. Ghazali's Asharism changed during his life, and whilst he devoted himself to being a Sufi, the new theological interpretation he fused with philosophy would form the bedrock and incubator for Avicennan thought. If you want an example of this, read something about Imam Khomeini, Mullah Sadra or Suhrawardi...Ghazali was called Hujat al Islam by both the Sunnah and the Shia because of the strength of his writings and the acceptance of his criticisms as valid. It is unfortunate that I must say this, but you are a living embodiment of the adage, "grey hair does not a wise man make". Your article is factually incorrect, racist, and wilfully misrepresentative of the facts.




Arima said...

Whilst his article is shamefully factually inaccurate, I would say he does have several very important themes that should not be overlooked (outside the content of his article)

1- chain weighing the Arab mindset down and preventing it from joining the march of human progress is the regressive, medieval, Bedouin understanding of religion: well I would certainly say he has a point here, especially in recent years and especially in countries like Egypt where people are excessively religious in as much as they carry out the rituals with great zeal and yet they have little understanding of the basics/ general ethics of Islam. islam is essentially a religion which promotes excellent manners and morals and compassion for one's fellow man...on an average day one would be exauhsted to count the number of times that a supposedly pious person goes against all these. Moreover, many 'religious' observances are purely tradition rather than based on real religious edicts- I do admit this seems to be more the case in Egypt than in the Levant but I guess Mr Haggy is speaking from his own experience.

2- Haggy refers to a "cultural climate which has encouraged the spread of tribal values, including such negative values as individualism (instead of tolerance) and insularity (instead of open-mindedness)"....would you not say he has a point here...again from my own experience I believe that this is most true in Egypt than any other Arab country. In your response to his article you do not refer to this "second chain" so I am supposing you are (to some extent) in agreement?

3-His final point I do completely disagree fact I have seen many Arab religious, educational and cultural organisations calling for change, alongside the fact most often they are on the frontier of such change but it is a long battle and one that requires support from the rest of the world and for this change to occur from the bottom doesn't work just to send a media representative or social organisation into a small village and demand that people change their ways- and in response to his claim that it is all just an Arab "mindset that considers the call for progress and modernity a call to accept a cultural invasion and the loss of cultural specificity" i'd say this mindset exists in every culture...just take the American South, Australian outback, French farmers or the UK independence party ;-)

So just to recap...Haggy's argument is essentially flawed if we are to evaluate it in terms of his background knowledge which confuses many historical issues together but he does bring up several excellent points.

Maysaloon said...

Hi Arima,
Thanks for bringing my attention to that. I don't think anybody could deny that there are problems in our part of the world and in the way people apply faith, but like you said the factual inaccuracies, as well as in my opinion his overall motives, make him extremely suspect. The points are excellent in themselves, but recognising them does not require a great deal of insight so I would reserve giving him credit for that! :)

Arima said...

Well certainly the points he raises are not anything that hasn't been mentioned before or indeed can be noted by even the most ignorant passer by...I just wanted to cool your wrath :)

Maysaloon said...

Thank you dear Arima :)