Is islamic philosophy compatiable with western philosophy?

Iffit Qureishi: I have a question: Is islamic philosophy compatiable with western philosophy?

Sead: I am not sure if the question is the right question. It seems to me to presuppose that there is a body of teachings which stand on their own uninfluenced by other forms of life and paradigms. Islamic philosophy is a branch of philosophy in general. It is a way a approaching certain fundamental questions which preoccupy Muslims and Islam. It unfolds within a hermeneutic horizon which is not sealed off from other philosophical or non-philosophical horizons.

Philosophy has no strict method to be proud of. There are as many philosophies as there are philosophers. I really don’t know what there is in common, say, between Heidegger and Russell. They are both westerners and their philosophies are as apart from each other as they could be. In fact, there is certain animosity displayed by both philosophers to call each other’s output philosophy. Anglo-Saxon philosophy until recently was unwilling to recognize the continental philosophy as philosophy. They considered it either as a metaphysical mambo jumbo or a branch of literature.

That is one aspect. The other aspect is what is Islamic philosophy? What kind of philosophies does this term cover? Is there a unified stream of thought which could be identified as Islamic philosophy? What are its characteristics? If we mean the philosophy produced by philosophers such as Ibn Sina, Al Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Al Farabi, Al Kindi, etc., then we can only attribute the adjective Islamic because it developed under the wing of Islamic empire and at a certain historical period. This means that we qualify it as Islamic from a non-philosophical perspective, based on factors such as geography or history. The themes which we identify as common to Islamic philosophy are more or less the same as those identified in other parts of the world, roughly during the same time. This of course poses the problem of identifying a contemporary Islamic philosophy, which unfortunately, the truth must be said does not exist.

And do we mean by ’Islamic’ simply religious or do we give it a wider meaning? It is crucial I think to, first, identify the problems which Islamic philosophy raises and then to compare the approaches and the answers given with other possible western answers.

Sana Majeed: Hi everyone,

I agree with Sead in almost everything he says, and I should clarify that I have got no philosophy background. What I know is through very limited reading.

Having said that, philosophy in the ‘West’ could be similar to what is perceived as religion in ‘East’ that basically inspires rational pursuit of the unknown and forming an identity for yourself, which by no means can ever be static as the search for knowledge never ends. Some may not like this grand generalization but I am afraid I don’t know how to word it better. Like Sead said, just because the works of some philosophers took place in Muslim countries or empires does not mean that it in anyway has some other qualities.

If I am not wrong, Islamic philosophy derives support from Qur’an. That could be my personal observation.

The one thing that I disagree on is when Sead said that contemporary Islamic philosophy does not exist. I do not claim to know as much as he knows about this, but people like Iqbal, Hasan Hasni, Akbar S. Ahmed, Reza Aslan, Javed Ghamidi,Dr. Taj of MECO and other reformists within Islamic thought or Philosophy have made big contributions. I wouldn’t say it does not exist, but I do agree it is not as robust as it once was. Or perhaps it is robust, just that I am blissfully unaware of it.

Iffit Qureishi: I know nothing about philosophy. My area is social anthropology but I understand that it is crucial in trying to understand our confused state.
Ok .. why is Islamic philosophy undermined among Western academics? At the university everyone has to take 6 months of philosophy, but there is no mention of Arab philosophers contribution….
Any comment?

I agree with Sana that contemporary islamic philosophy does exist, the problem is that they are being undermined or have been hijacked by western philosophers as their own creation! (Gules focus on fatalism as an example).

Sead: Thank you very much Sana for your thoughtful reply. I think you have a point there in contrasting philosophy in the West with religion in the East. I am a bit concerned though that that may play a not very flattering role in describing the East. It has been one of the West’s prejudices against the East that the East cannot produce philosophy because it is immersed in a religious horizon of thinking. Another concern has to do with the very definition of what philosophy is. The very word philosophy, philologically, means the love of wisdom. But then that wouldn’t tell us much. Science is also love of wisdom. Analytic philosophy strove to bring philosophy closer to science and ended up reducing its role to a handmaiden of science. Philosophy was to serve science, elucidate its presupposition. With the linguistic turn philosophy’s role became to elucidate how the language functions in intersubjective communication. Pragmatism maintains that philosophy’s role is to inform us how to live a good life. Traditionally philosophy has been defined as the pursuit of truth, grand truths. The existence of God was one such truth.

I think that philosophy’s task is to remind us of the unbridgeable, liminal gap that separates a phenomenon from its various manifestations. Take Said’s thesis on orientalism for instance. My disagreement with Said, despite my unconditional admiration and support for his critical rigour, has been regarding his failure to maintain the gap open between orientalism as an intrinsically power related phenomenon and the knowledge aspect of it. It is absolutely true that orientalism was in the service of imperialism, and that it produced and reinforced a lot of nonsense and stereotypes. Gule’s article in Klassekampen is an example of that. Yet, orientalism also opened a space for the production of knowledge about the East. To draw the line between power and knowledge is an extremely difficult business. Sometimes we draw it where in fact there is no gap at all. We often misperceive (the closure as) a gap. But to refuse to draw any line at all, that is what I consider fascistic. So I think philosophers have an obligation to constantly elucidate this gap. This is also a version of the truth pursuit.

Another definition of philosophy, which is really a variation of the above-mentioned definition, is resolving the false problems. That is, showing that what we often consider to be a real problem is merely a pseudo-problem. Philosophy cannot identify the real problems. Philosophy has for example nothing to say about how to resolve the problems of capitalism, or ecological problems. It is the task of science to tell us how to go about preserving nature the best way. What philosophy can do, however, is to remind us that capitalism is not the only game in the town, that human imagination is capable of producing other, more just forms of redistribution of wealth. Philosophy can elucidate the logic behind the phenomenon of capitalism as being a contingent expression of the drive to amass wealth. There is nothing inherent about capitalism, or that it represents the end of history as Fukuyama argued, the victory of the West over the rest. These are all purely contingent phenomena. It is the role of philosophy to show that those who believe in the necessity of these phenomena are deadly wrong.

We show what ideology tries to cover, or present as inevitable is contingent; to keep in check and under scrutiny false prejudices, to open new horizons from where we can view the world and our role in it differently. A philosopher is a like a dog that constantly barks. He looks for aporias, dead ends, gaps, inconsistencies in the systems of thinking and our ways of living.

One task of Islamic philosophy for example could be to show that some expression of Islam are false, that Islam cannot be equated with the whims and desires of certain ideological groups be they Muslims or non-Muslims. Basically, a philosopher, including Islamic philosophers, has to keep nagging and asking embarrassing questions to those who would not want to hear and keep their illusions protected. In its Socratic dimension, philosophy has been about asking question, not providing solution. A philosopher’s role is to make us aware that what we hold as true is often a prejudice or an illusion and that we should be more careful when we hold or stick to our views as immutable and absolute. In this sense Islamic philosophy is basically concerned not necessarily with the same problems but the nature of Islamic philosophy is the same as that of the Western philosophy.

I agree with you Sana that Islamic philosophy’s main source is the Koran, the problems and the challenges it presents us with and the interpretations that we provide. We could perceive the Koran as a deadlock which we must solve, symbolically represent its content in our universe in a way which protects both the consistency of its message and the consistency of our post-metaphysical universe. The fusion of horizons and the way to make sense of it is what Islamic philosophy has to preoccupy itself with. It is in this sense that I maintain that Islamic philosophy doesn’t really exists. It exists, if we take it on the bases of a few meagre attempts that have been made by solitary individuals such as Iqbal for example. But even Iqbal hasn’t managed to provide us with a coherent system of thought called Islamic philosophy.

Moreover, we need institutional support for Islamic philosophy. As it is taught today, and here I would like to reply to Iffit, Islamic philosophy doesn’t exist in the Muslim world. It is taught as a history of philosophy, but not as philosophy proper which can actually contribute to our revitalising and reinvigorating of our critical faculties. Islamic philosophy has been relegated to the realm of curiosities. Middle Eastern cultures’ reception of philosophy is still negative. Contemporary Muslims seem to think that philosophy’s critical inquiries should be circumscribed so as not to question the Islamic fundaments of Muslim cultures. This is a deeply flawed attitude which we must challenge.

Why is Islamic philosophy not taught in the western philosophy departments is a question for politics to answer. Many western philosophers and others believe that they have reached the pinnacle and thus have no need for the wisdom of the East or Islam. It is a question of discrimination, and here Iffit can play a significant role in bringing to consciousness this discrimination. It has been assumed, under a false paradigm of course, that Islamic philosophy was merely a copy of the Western philosophy. This is almost idiotic, but unfortunately prevalent.

If it is true that philosophy is not completely free of the spirit of its age, Zeitgeist, and the boundaries of its culture then one must suppose that Islamic philosophy had something original to contribute from within the horizon of Islamic reason. Its authenticity, in other words, cannot be questioned without putting to doubt the whole edifice of philosophy as such. That western philosophers don’t bother to teach Islamic philosophy doesn’t show anything inherently negative, inauthentic, or not worth looking at and learning from it. It merely shows that certain prejudice in the western philosophy is so deep that hasn’t been yet put under philosophical scrutiny. It shows certain arrogance on the part of the western philosophy, i.e., that it is self-sufficient, that it doesn’t need outside sources. This state of affairs and the prevalence of this prejudice, of course, cannot be blamed entirely on the westerners. Muslims have immensely contributed to the marginalization of its role by simply taking the paradigms of the Western philosophy as being applicable to all philosophical thinking in all its various expressions.

It would be interesting, for example, to do a comparative study on Ibn Rushd’s and another western philosopher’s interpretation of Aristotle. Not just for the sake of comparison but for the sake of elucidating the principles governing the Reason behind such interpretations. Its importance lies in the fact that it makes us aware that philosophy does not have to be uniform, and that it can be authentic despite the fact, in fact, because of the fact that it is not uniform and homogenous. That Islamic reason is not obliged to slavishly follow any canon of philosophy which does not express its own concerns. In fact by the very definition of ‘inauthenticity’ is meant an attempt at philosophy that is not concerned with the problems which preoccupy its culture in a certain historical period: it is not concerned with the dilemmas which arise from its own cultural context but merely tries to imitate a certain methodology which developed in another part of the world due to its interaction with specific time-and-culture bound problems.

I am not saying that we should not make use of others’ insights into how they approach difficulties and problems they are concerned with. Of course that is a precondition to do philosophy. But to really philosophize means to be concerned with immediate problems and provide, tentatively at least, long term parallactic solutions which could be acknowledged universally. Ibn Rushd did something similar in his interpretation of Islam. The way he dealt with religion proved extremely fertile in the West. Thomas Aquinas was his pupil because he assimilated Ibn Rushd’s philosophy and in that assimilation he produced something which although inspired by Ibn Rushd was not exactly a mirror copy of his philosophy. Islamic philosophy can and should provide a new parallax from where Muslims can make sense of the issues they are concerned with.

Sorry for this long reply and maybe I have missed the whole point. Anyway, I hope it is a bit illuminating and that we can hope one day to have an authentic Islamic philosophy which is able to claim universal validity, it is philosophically challenging, analytically powerful and is worthy of emulation.


About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway.
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One Response to Is islamic philosophy compatiable with western philosophy?

  1. Tom Humes says:

    Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

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