Episode 19: Islamic Philosophy

Question: Mohamed Islam: What about Islamic Philosophy? Is there an Islamic Philosophical School of Thought? If so what is its foundation, roots and origin?

Answer: Abdel Wahab El Messeri: There is a school of orientalists that believe that Muslim Philosophers were highly derivative, dependent on Greek Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. They further postulate that these authors were misrepresented by the Muslim Philosophers. This would be right if they assigned themselves the task of interpreting Aristotle and Plato. This is not the case. Their Islamic societies faced certain problems, and they tried to answer these questions. They used all sources available to them.

MI: If we imagine early Islam with its own complete sources of reference: The Quran and Hadith, at what point in time was it deemed necessary to search outside sources ( e.g. Aristotle ) for enlightenment?

AWM: As soon as Muslims expanded outside Arabia they came into contact with very sophisticated cultures and civilizations. Here complicated philosophical questions were asked. There was a strong agnostic tradition. In Lebanon and Syria there was a very sophisticated Christian philosophy. Many converts asked questions about free will, predestination, and the nature and attributes of God. Muslim experts were thus confronted by new converts who were looking for answers to such questions from the very beginning. Kalam (Islamic Scholastic Theology) was started to try to give answers and develop a general philosophical outlook. A general Islamic World outlook developed, and from this outlook questions were answered. To generate answers to these specific questions faced by Muslims during their daily life.

MI: How did Aristotle begin to be considered?

AWM: Towards the end of the Umayyad Period Greek was still the common language. But translations of the Greek Texts to the Syriac language was occurring, including works by Aristotle. Once Islam came many of these Syriac texts were obtained by Muslim Scholars and translated to Arabic. By the end of the Umayyad to beginning of the Abassid Period Aristotelian ideas were commonly discussed amongst Muslim Scholars.

MI: What are the major philosophical themes?

AWM: The idea of free will versus predetermination. Does free will limit Gods will? If everything is predetermined can man be punished by a just God? The answers to these questions were the bases for divergence of opinions and branching off of schools of thought. E.g.

  1. Mu’tazilites: argued for free will. God control general aspects. Specific human acts occur by free choice/will.
  2. Kharijites: Argued for absolute freedom of man.
  3. Predetermination: There were still those who believed that Gods will determined every thing.

MI: What were the sources of these differences?

AWM: Partial reading of the Quran. The Quran is a very complex text. If you take only certain verses of sections in isolation, it may lead to misinterpretation. E.g. God is Just and Merciful is a paradoxical statement. Partial outlook lead to paradoxical interpretations. With full study and an intelligent synthesis many of these differences could have been resolved very easily.

MI: Were there forums for discussing these issues?

AWM: The mosque was always the focal center of Islamic life. The Schools (madressa) were at the mosque. The Ulama gave discourses at the mosque. People traveled around expounding and exchanging their ideas. There was a great deal of traffic in the Islamic world.

MI: Were Muslim Scholars the main transmitters of Greek Thought to the West?

AWM: This is believed by many scholars. The interesting thing is that the West took Averroes as an interpreter of Greek thought only, and did not see him in the Islamic Context. They call him a materialist. They see him as a commentator only. His own Islamic Philosophy is ignored and not recognised.

MI: What questions are Muslim Philosophers of today addressing?

AWM: In general we cannot talk about professional philosophers in the traditional sense anymore. There is always a social or other component. The secular philosophers now are also Sociologist, or Anthropologists, or Social Reformers. The same is true of Islamic Philosophers.

  1. Sheik Qaradawi writes about Fiqh . He is one of the leading Mujtahids. Writes about philosophy and program for social reform. He has a book: Fiqh Awlawiyah: Fiqh of Priorities. He interprets Islam in light of modern priorities.
  2. Mr. Abu Sukr has a philosophy of his own. He has applied that to Muslim attitude to women, ideas of love. He argues that for a man to love a woman is essential in Islam, but it must stay within the moral and religious norms.
  3. Tariq al Bishri: Writes about his view of history enlightened by Islamic Philosophical outlook.
  4. Many write on secularism, but implicit in their view is an Islamic Philosophy and Islamic World Outlook.

MI: How does the Muslim perceive the world? What is the ‘Islamic World Outlook’?

AWM: The essence is the belief in the Oneness of God. World Outlook usually revolves around 3 elements. In Islam these are:

  1. God is Transcendental and One.
  2. Man is Created by God and has a transcendental nature. Man is dignified. He is made the center of the Universe. He is not completely part of nature.
  3. Nature has been created for a purpose and is blessed with meaning. (compare with secular concept: Nature is purposeless) Man is seen as the viceroy ( touglifa ) of God in nature. To take good care of it for himself and future generations, and for the animals and plants in it.

MI: How does differ from the non-Islamic World Outlook?

AWM: The non-Islamic Outlook does not provide man with a handle. Man is either superhuman, who has to conquer the world, or he is natural man, a subhuman. Never fully human in the Islamic sense of the word. 


Conversations on Islam