The function of Muslim philosophy


Traditional Muslim philosophy had its inception in an atmosphere thoroughly charged with Greek ideas. These ideas were then being officially introduced into the Muslim culture through translations and commentaries with such bewildering rapidity and at such a large scale that no one could fail to be influenced by them.
Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd among other Muslim philosophers were awed by this Greek worldview and they tried, in general, to reconcile with it the principles and doctrines of Islam. They had in view the rational mode of knowledge duly recommended, or rather enjoined, by the holy Quran.
They thought if the Greeks had used logic and argumentation for the solution of various problems, there was nothing un-Islamic either about this method or about what this method logically discovered.
On the other hand, Ghazali, Ibn Taimiyya and a few others revolted against various aspects of Greek philosophy and, in some sense, also built up a reasoned position regarding their own points of view. In both these cases, the overwhelming socio-cultural context was one and the same: whether the Muslim philosophers were positively or negatively oriented towards it.
Relevant to modern times, and specifically in the Indo-Pakistan environments, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s philosophy is an attempt of the same character. He observed that just as the learned people of the earliest times of Islamic history had tried to reconcile orthodoxy with Greek philosophy, in the present age we are in need of a modern ilm-ul-kalam by which we may either refute the doctrines of modern sciences or declare them to be doubtful or show that the articles of Islamic faith are in conformity with them.
Those who are capable of the job but do not actually try their utmost to do it are sinners, all of them, surely and definitely. There is none at present who is aware of modern science and philosophy and, in spite of this awareness, does not entertain in his heart of hearts doubts about the doctrines of Islam.
Thus, according to Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, essential principles of Islam contained in the holy Quran are in conformity with the conclusions reached by the contemporary natural sciences. As the physical universe is the work of God, whereas the holy Quran is the word of God; how can there be a contradiction between the two!
‘Islam is Nature and Nature is Islam’ is the title of one of his essays, and in fact, the burden of his entire philosophy of religion. Elsewhere, he remarked that in a way God Himself holds on to naturalism: He can initially enact any laws of nature He likes, but once they are so enacted, absolutely nothing can happen against them.
Under the aegis of these and similar observations, he built up a comprehensive point of view, explaining away the so-called supernatural component in phenomena like miracles, prayers and their acceptance by God, mystic illuminations, prophetic visions, angels, paradise, hell, and so on.
This religio-philosophical thought of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan is relevant for our present purposes because it prefaced a whole chain of moorings and speculations – particularly in the Sub-continent – which, during the 20th century, consciously or unconsciously sought to interpret Islam in such a way that it stood reconciled with the current scientific fashions.
Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Khalifa Abdul Hakim, Allama Inayatullah Mashriqi, Ghulam Gilani Barq and Ghulam Ahmad Parvez have all had ample sympathies for naturalistic reason and for the conclusions of positive sciences.
Broadly speaking, there is nothing unusual in recognising and giving due weight to one’s cultural environment. How can a thinker avoid inhaling his or her own ‘climate of opinion’, just as no living person can help consuming oxygen from the air around; one environment is always seriously to be reckoned with. For that matter, contemporary Muslim thinkers justifiably are bringing out the veracity of religious phenomena in the face of certain movements in Western philosophy, like atheistic existentialism, logical positivism, dialectical materialism, psychoanalysis, and so on.
They have learned that passive resistance is not enough and that arguments must be countered with arguments alone; logic must be met with logic. It was essentially this requirement, we remember, that had compelled Asharite theologians of the seventh century to reason out their standpoint despite a strong opposition by Muslims who regarded arguing in religious matters as an innovation and a heresy.
One essential aspect of the function of Muslim philosophy has not been adequately recognised. Muslim philosophers have avowedly been Muslims first and philosophers later. To all appearances they professed the Islamic ‘point of view’ with which they claimed to look at the contemporary thought-fashions in order either to accept or reject them, but they failed sufficiently to analyse the ‘point of view’ itself.
With only a rudimentary and vague concept of meaning of the Quranic propositions, Muslim philosophers – with very few honourable exceptions – generally rush to judgement as to whether a particular idea is, or is not, in accord with the will of the holy Quran. There is seldom realisation that, before thus reacting to the ‘climate of opinion’ to which he belongs he must have a thorough understanding of his ‘local weather’, that is, his attitude which, ex-hypothesi, comprises the teachings of the holy Quran.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr very appropriately recommends that ‘contemporary Muslims’ should be realist enough to understand that they must begin their journey in whatever direction they wish to go from where they are. A famous Chinese proverb asserts the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Now this first step must necessarily be from where one is located. And that is as much true culturally and spiritually as it is physically. Wherever the Islamic world wants to go, it must begin from the reality of the Islamic tradition and from its own real, and not imagined, situation. Those who lose sight of this fact actually do not travel effectively at all. They just imagine that they are journeying.
In other words, the meaning of the holy Quran must first be understood by all Muslims who intend to philosophise. Clarity on the basic issues having been attained, Muslim philosophy, worthy of its name, could then develop as a well-grounded, well-organised school of thought and build up a metaphysics that suits its native temperament.
Incidentally, it may be objected that the concepts of ‘Muslim philosophy’ and ‘Islamic philosophy’ have been confused here, and in fact are appellations of two distinct states of affairs.
Generally, it is observed that it is properly the characteristic function of Islamic philosophy to understand and interpret the meaning of the holy Quran and to translate its descriptions into the language which the contemporary man understands. Muslim philosophy, on the other hand, would comprise the philosophical speculations of the one who is a Muslim by convention: these speculations themselves might well be nihilistic and un-Islamic in character.
This distinction, however, is not entirely justified for Muslim philosophy, in general, cannot possibly afford to be un-Islamic. If, in a particular case, it actually happens to be so, it may be the philosophy of this or that particular person or even, if one likes, the philosophy of this or that particular Muslim, but it will not be ‘Muslim philosophy’, properly speaking.
Actually, the distinction between the two concepts is only one of relative emphasis. In Islamic philosophy, the emphasis is on ‘Islam’, whereas ‘philosophy’ is secondary in significance, meaning only a sort of rational understanding. In Muslim philosophy, the characteristic terminology of philosophy in vogue at a particular period in history is visibly the dominant factor because it is in that terminology that the meaning of the holy Quran is to be expressed and conveyed to others. Due to this the traditional problem of the reconciliation between philosophy and religion is, and has been, a problem of ‘Muslim philosophy’, rather than of ‘Islamic philosophy’.
‘Muslim philosophy’ and ‘Islamic philosophy’ can be shown to be mutually fitting in another way also. A Muslim can profess his religion at two levels: either he may hold only to the ritual and moral principles enunciated by the holy Quran and thus be a good Muslim in the socially acceptable sense of the term; or he may identify himself with the essence of Islam and so interiorise the ideals set forth by the ‘Book of God’.
The second meaning can be expressed no better than by an incident relating to the holy Prophet (PBUH). When someone asked Hazrat Aisha (RA) about his moral character, she replied that his character was the holy Quran itself. Now, when a Muslim is stationed at this level, more or less, all his activities without exception will be ‘Islamic’.
Even his apparently ordinary and purely worldly behaviour will be ‘religious’ in the fullest and most genuine sense of the term. Specifically, when he speculates consistently about any matter whatsoever, his philosophy will be no less ‘Islamic philosophy’ than ‘Muslim philosophy’. It will be impossible to make a distinction between the two concepts.

Excerpted from ‘Philosophy in Pakistan’. Courtesy CRVP