Sunday, September 04, 2011

Present Day Arabic Philosophy

An interesting thought occurred to me earlier today. The medieval Arabs had been very interested in Greek philosophy, but they had always focused exclusively on the scientific or ethical but without attaching much importance to Greek political philosophy. Of course al Farabi wrote the "Virtuous City" which was basically an Arabised version of Plato's Republic, but other than that, Greek ideas of democracy and constitutional laws were quietly ignored. Whatever the reason, it stands in direct contrast to the present state of Arabic philosophers or philosophy lecturers who focus almost entirely on Western political philosophy but give very little thought to ethics and conceptions of happiness or the good life.

One reason I can think of as to why this is happening is because religion today is largely a tool used by the various Arab regimes and kingdoms to subdue the population and legitimise their rule. As a result, religion is largely depoliticised, meaning that religious 'scholars' (and I use the term very loosely) can sit back all day and give their fatwas about how long a man's hair should or shouldn't be, the best way to pray in outer space, or that Mickey Mouse should be killed. So basically religion is filling a gap on a popular and individual level, that philosophy used to occupy. Since religion is no longer of use to a supposedly secular dictatorship, it can no longer have as much influence on laws, politics and governance. Of course, this is contrary to the popular view many Arabs hold, that religion and the state in the Arab world should be separate. This explanation shows that, perhaps, the two are already separated, and that in fact the state sits on top of religion, which is now only influential on a popular and individual level.

Five hundred years ago, the political system of the caliphate, supported by religion, was considered (arrogantly) to be superior to anything a foreigner (like the Greeks) could devise. But when it came to individual happiness and morality, there was a lot of leeway and investigation. Religion did not oppose this as much as some people commonly believe. One good example I can think of is how al Ghazali's Ihya Uloom al Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences) includes, almost wholesale, the entire first section of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, as if it is al Ghazali's own view on the subject (this is in Book One, Book of Knowledge). Of course religion did clash fiercely with metaphysical arguments in philosophy, but, when it came to the ethics, the two were seen to complement each other. I think this is something quite interesting, and worth stopping over.

No comments: