Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ibn Rushd and the harmony of philosophy and religion

I recently attended a lecture on Ibn Rushd and his attempt to harmonize philosophy and religion. It was held by my Arabic Philosophy lecturer from KCL, whose main speciality is on al Kindi, and was useful as a background for my intended dissertation this year. Ibn Rushd was writing under the shadow of a number of important figures who preceded him, mainly al Farabi, Ibn Sina and al Ghazali. Al Farabi had been dubbed the "Second Teacher" after Aristotle, who was so well known in the Arab world that he was simply referred to as "The Teacher". al Farabi had taught Ibn Sina, unquestionably the greatest Islamic philosopher and one who was self consciously original in his approaches. His logic, Avicennan logic, replaced Aristotelian logic throughout the Islamic world and his commentaries, interpretations and beliefs made a lasting effect on all Islamic and Arabic philosophers who followed him. Abi Hamed al Ghazali had written his powerful Incoherenece of the Philosophers, as a rebuttal to some of the problems which emerged in Ibn Sina and al Farabi's works and had a lasting influence on the nature of philosophic investigation by the time of Ibn Rushd. One of the main things that Ibn Rushd had been trying to do was wipe away the influence of Ibn Sina, arguing that the original Arabic texts which had been translated about Aristotle were in fact flawed and prevented a true understanding of what Aristotle had been saying, which is true. The problem is he was probably about 100 years too late. The result was that Arabic understandings of Aristotle were done through Neoplatonic lenses, colouring their interpretation of his works, Ibn Sina and al Farabi were also ardent Neoplatonists. One of Ibn Rushd's famous criticisms of al Ghazali was that he was a "mutakalim with the mutakalimun, philosopher with the philosophers and a sufi with the sufis", in his Fasl al Maqal فصل المقال paper.

Ibn Rushd argued that al Ghazali, the mutakilimun and many philosophers, were wrong in spreading malicious philosophical interpretations about religion amongst the masses العوام and this had resulted in much schism (fitna فتنة) . He argued that philosophical inquiry was not contrary to religious understanding at all but was in fact harmonious with it. It was the duty of the philosopher to interpret the Quran allegorically and use philosophy to further understand the relation of humanity with their creator. Under no circumstances however were the masses to be allowed to even think that the Quran could be understood allegorically and they were to have a strictly literal interpretation to it. A philosopher, who was allowed to do so, even if this led to some mistakes, was said to possess the ability of demonstration, which is showing why they believe something from basic, prior and true First principles. If need be, a wizened philosopher would even be able to demonstrate the proof for the existence of God, after decades of investigation and experience. For Ibn Rushd, philosophy, and indeed the interpretation of the Quran were to be exclusive to a narrow elite. Who are these elite? The philosophers. How do you know who is a philosopher? They know who they are, would be Ibn Rushd's answer. Citing Surat al Nahl from the Quran:

ادع إلى سبيل ربك بالحكمة والموعظة الحسنة وجادلهم باللتي هي أحسن
صدق الله العظيم
There are three parts to this verse which corresponded according to him, to three methods of presenting something in philosophy: rhetorically, dialectically and demonstratively. الموعظة الحسنة with good words, و جادلهم باللتي هي أحسن with dialectic, and بالحكمة with demonstration. To misuse this order at the wrong time, with the wrong people and on the wrong subject would be hugely damaging according to him. The basis for these all must be demonstration, according to him, and from this would be based dialectical acceptance and then finally rhetoric, for those of the masses who would be confused by anything more complicated.
One interesting thing that comes out of all this is how history and many misguided people today constantly champion Ibn Rushd as the champion of some form of liberalism or the standard bearer for rationalist thought, whilst al Ghazali is seen as the opposite of that. This view is simply not true and in fact it is quite the opposite. Ibn Rushd believed that the masses should be led by a super qualified elite since they did not know any better and that this knowledge of philosophy should not be readily available to them, for fear of spreading fitna. He was largely traditional in his interpretations and critical of the kind of open ended discussion and debate which was characteristic of philosophers and theologians in the heartland of the Islamic world. In a way, al Ghazali was not attacking philosophers and can be seen as someone who said "yes" with the philosophers, until a certain point when things got out of hand and he would put his foot down firmly. With regards to knowledge, al Ghazali's occasionalism was seen as restricting scientific progress, again, we find that properly interpreted, the opposite is the case, it opened doors to scientific investigation and understanding rather than closing it. Under this new understanding, a review of Arabic philosophy, Islam and their relationship and role together could be a welcome breath of fresh air to the stale dogma and prejudice which surrounds much prevalent Western enquiry into our sciences and religions.

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