MUSLIM INTELLECTUALS PLEASE JOIN US
BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
By the very nature of their critical endeavor independent intellectuals are often at each other’s throats. Figuratively speaking, of course, for intellectuals prefer metaphors and virtual battles to mayhem and murder.
I have on previous occasions called for an intellectual rebellion or jihad against the prejudices of brute ignorance. I was tempted to place my call under the motto, “Intellectuals of the World, Unite!” But nothing seemed more incongruous to me at the time than universal intellectual integration, since each independent intellect is disposed to be at odds with the others. However, on second thought there is due cause for unison in the mental field, the project and object of our enterprise; to wit, truth. Now we might question the nature of the truth; indeed, that is the good cause of our dissension; but I think we can agree on one thing: our project is the same although our methods slightly differ.
I say “slightly differ” because of one thing intellectuals can be certain, he who seeks the truth must have his all his doors wide open for it. The intellectual keeps his mind open with doubt, but he is not dogmatically skeptical; rather he is critical, and would resort to a criterion for criticism rather than regress to the blind faith of a beast. The criteria for physics and metaphysics, the scientific methods for the natural and “supernatural” sciences, differ in their destinies, for one has the object or world in mind, and the other has the subject or self in mind as the only available avenue to the supreme being that unites subject and object; yet both still proceed with an open mind and both must strive to keep it open to be worthy of the name, “science.” Of course there is always the divisive question as to whether the metaphysical subject exists and if so whether it is a projected personal unity of consciousness of the objective world, or whether it is an impersonal substance, and so on. Yet both the physician of the body and the physician of the soul agree on the virtue of a reasonable or logical approach to the matter or spirit or both at hand. Although there are different logics or efficient mental means, they agree in throwing away error until the truth be known.
Now my monologue may be crude, but the professional professors amused by my intellectual dilettantism know very well that I struggle to unite intellects in a common pursuit no matter what their various interests may be and even in spite of their variance. For if science is to make any headway intellectuals must struggle together no matter how independent their research may be. Whatever the source of knowledge, whether from friend of foe, we should be grateful for it and share it with our colleagues. Even if we consider our competitors as strangers and enemies, then we should praise them for their virtues even more than we overlook the vices of our familiars and friends. The first great philosophical enthusiast of Islam, al-Kindi (d. ca. 866) put it this way:
“We should not be loath to value truth and acquire it from whatever source it comes, even it were to come from races distant and nations different from us. For nothing is more worthy of the seeker after truth than truth itself; and no one is disparaged through truth or belittled by it. Rather does the truth ennoble all.”
Al-Kindi’s statement is now platitudinous, but it was revolutionary in his time, an era plagued by cultural xenophobia and anti-intellectualism. Expressing gratitude for foreign intellectual contributions could and did get intellectuals killed, especially if the intellectual treatment challenged the leading authority. For example, Christian and Muslim intellectuals exchanged ideas in Damascus, capital of the Umayyad caliphate. Two scholars, Ghailan of Damascus (d. ca. 743) and Ma’bad al-Juhani (d. ca. 699) among others rejected orthodox predestination in favor of free will; it is no coincidence they were both martyred, because if the doctrine of free will were true, then a caliph would be personally responsible for his bad deeds.
The intellectual Majid Fakhry, our contemporary, wrote about al-Kindi, “the only major Islamic philosopher of pure Arab stock”:
“For al-Kindi, the search for truth, however, is an arduous task, and without the assistance of other searchers is virtually impossible. Our gratitude to our predecessors should, for that very reason, be great; they have paved the way for us and thereby made our progression towards truth so much easier. It is indeed obvious to us and to those pre-eminent in the study of philosophy among nations of foreign tongues, al-Kindi (says), that no one has been able to achieve through his own individual efforts any significant progress towards truth. Aristotle himself confirms this when he writes, as al-Kindi has paraphrased Metaphysics: ‘We ought to be grateful to the fathers of those who have imparted to us a certain measure of truth, in so far as they have been the cause of their being, and the cause of our attaining truth.'”
As we know so well, Islam was unusually tolerant of foreign knowledge and adopted and developed Greek philosophy and natural science, Indian mathematics, Persian literature; by the ninth century, nearly the entire legacy of Greek philosophy and science had been translated into Arabic. Those works were later translated into Latin and became the basis for the European renaissance. Jacques Le Goff in his Intellectuals in the Middle Ages mentions the purely Arab contribution:
“And we must not omit the purely Arab contribution (to Western culture). Arithmetic with the algebra of al-Khwarizmi – while awating the first years of the thirteenth century when Leanardo Pisano would introduce the Arabic numerals, which were actually Hindu but brought from India by the Arabs. Medicine with Rhazi – whom the Cristians called Rhazes – and above all Ibn Sina or Avicenna, whose medical encyclopedia or Canon became the inseparable companion of Western doctors. And there were the astronomers, botanists, agronomists, and especially the alchemists who provided the Latins with the feverish research for the elixir. Finally, there was philosophy, which, beginning with Aristotle, created powerful syntheses with al-Farabi and Avicenna. In addition to the works themselves, the Arabs gave the Christians words such as “number”, “zero”, and “algebra”; at the same time they gave them the vocabulary of commerce; douane [custom house], bazaar, gabelle [a tax on salt], check, etc.” (translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan)
And we must point out that the Arabs contributed the intellectual foundation of modern science, the inductive method that, as Engels and many others have noted, was introduced into England via Roger Bacon. Bacon learned Arabic and Arabic science at Oxford; he repeatedly declared that the knowledge of Arabic and Arab science was the only way to knowledge in his day. The experimental method of the Arabs was widely cultivated in Europe. That is not to say that Christian and Muslim scholars were locked in loving embrace; traditional cultures tend to consider wisdom as communal property, and if someone does not give it up it is another’s duty to “steal” it – so Christians are quoted as urging their brethren to pirate and plunder the Arab knowledge just as the Hebrew god urged Moses’ crew to grab whatever goods they could carry and make a run for it. In any event, no doubt there was a greater rapport between the intellectuals themselves than the spiritual authorities cared to preach.
Fakhry briefly mentioned a curious secret society, “Brethren of Purity” (Ikhwan al-Sufa), in his essay, a group that flourished in Basrah, Iraq, in the tenth century – other scholars date the founding at 983. I gleaned further information on this group from A History of Muslim Philosophy, edited by M.M. Sharif and from Professor Boer’s The History of Philosophy in Islam. The Brethren, unlike the anti-rationalist believers often associated Islamist freedom fighters, somewhat analogous in the West to militant fundamentalist Christians who rely on faith alone and reject rational questioning of their faith, recognized no antithesis whatsoever between philosophy and religion:
“Its eclecticism was such that it adhered unconditionally to the maxim of the absolute harmony of all truth – Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Greek or Indian. The motto of its members was ‘to shun no science, scorn no religious book, or cling fanatically to no exclusive need; since their own creed encompasses all other needs and comprehends all the sciences generally,’ as the so-called Epistles of the Brethren have put it.” (Fakhry)
Philosophical eclecticism has appeared, beginning with the Greeks, several times throughout history. In philosophy a dogmatic period is usually followed by a skeptical rebellion; when skepticism itself becomes dogmatic, refusing to recognized truth anywhere, except in its claim that there is no truth, an eclectic period responds, recognizing a little bit of truth everywhere.
Eclecticism holds that there is some truth even in erroneous knowledge, hence the task of the eclectic is to use logic to discard error and by that means distil the truth. Those who deny that eclecticism is a legitimate philosophy say their claim is logically absurd because it is tantamount to equating error with truth. Furthermore, they insist, there must be a definition of truth before one begins the search. Of course that argument is rebutted by the eclectics, who claim that the criterion for finding the truth as set by their opponents – that it must first be defined – amounts to hiding prejudices in the premises, hence they find what they are seeking by ignoring contrary evidence; they beg their questions by answering them in advance.
Wherefore we see in the Arab philosophers an early adumbration of the “inductive”, bottom-up, pragmatic approach of empirical science, in contradistinction to the top-down deductive method. The contradistinction is analogous to that of democracy and tyranny in politics. Of course the methods can work well together. A possible symbol for the articulation of the two is the prehistoric emblem of David recently adopted by the secular state of Israel. The intellectual pilgrim ascends from the base of the mountain and approaches the summit, but he also descends from time to time for air that he may confirm his ascent with a clear head. The tyrant starts at any old peak and tries to coerce the mountain to conform. Be that as it may, some scholars have associated the Brethren’s concept of ascent with Darwinism; Professor Boer says not:
“They have been represented as the Darwinists of the tenth century, but nothing could be more inappropriate. The various realms of Nature, it is true, yield according to the Encyclopedia (Epistles) an ascending and connected series; but the relation is determined not by bodily structure, but by the inner Form or Soul-Substance. The Form wanders in mystical fashion from the lower to the higher and vice versa, not in accordance with inner laws of formation, or modified to suit external conditions, but in accordance with the influence of the stars, and, in the case of Man at least, in accordance with practical and theoretical behavior. For providing a history of Evolution, the modern sense of the term was very far from the thought of the Brethren. For example they expressly insist that the horse and the elephant resemble Man more that the ape does. In fact in their system the body is a matter of quite secondary consideration; the death of the body is called the birth of the soul. The world alone is an efficient existence, which procures the body for itself.” (Boer)
Eclecticism is obviously not a one-sided denial of spiritual pursuits. For example, during the early nineteenth century the eclecticism of the French philosopher Victor Cousin gained followers throughout the world including the New England Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists were eager to select the spiritual truth wherever they found it including Oriental sources; the term “transcendentalism”, at first an epithet for unorthodox foolishness, was taken out of Kantian context and adopted to their own needs. Their version of transcendentalism was a protest against deadwood Protestantism and the Lockean rationalizations of its puritanically inclined authorities, who were predominantly Unitarians. Victor Cousin, however, like most eclectics was a moderate. He accepted the sensationalism (“sensualism”) of Locke and Condillac, but he synthesized it with the idealism of Kant and Hegel, leading Hegel to say his friend Cousin had swiped his soup. Hence Cousin’s rationalization of eclecticism was called Spiritualism. Eclecticism was attractive at that time to faithful people who wanted to be reasonable about their faith. And it was also attractive to Arab philosophers several centuries before Victor Cousin was born.
Instead of withdrawing to the woods to speculate and to write, and meeting in the chambers of a transcendentalist club in New England to discuss the subjects appearing in their periodical propaganda organs with American names such as The Dial and The Boston Quarterly, Muslim eclectics withdrew to secret societies and discuss esoteric subjects set forth in anonymous tracts such as those compiled in the still popular Encyclopedia of the Sciences of the Brethren of Purity – that encyclopedia of fifty treatises is known as Rasail Iwan al Safa (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. The Brethren met once every twelve days in their respective localities. There were rumors of partying but that sort of behavior was frowned on. A primary purpose for meetings was to cultivate sufficient wisdom in this world to build a Utopia in the next. The Brethren recruited young people because they are more docile than adults. Celibacy was encouraged; marriage was purportedly for the procreation of the race only. Furthermore, the Brethren believed members must be free to choose their own religion and to change their religion at will, providing one person did not belong to contradictory religions at the same time. Islam however was considered superior by the Arab philosophers for the same reason it is considered the highest form of monotheism by impartial students of comparative religion in the West – particularly in respect to its simplicity and singular devotion.
The Brethren of Purity believed thinking begins in the senses and continues in the mind. Since man is a microcosm of the cosmos, he may better know the cosmos by knowing himself; the only means available to know thyself is the mental faculty: the Brethren therefore were more fond of Psychology than Astrology, albeit they dearly loved both. Above all subjects they loved numbers, for they were frustrated Pythagoreans. They believed that every soul is potentially learned. Knowledge gained by the intellect from the senses must be reflected upon, confirmed by the senses, and imparted to students by learned teachers. The educational scheme proceeds with Grammar, Poetry and History, continues with Mathematics, Logic and Physics, ascends to Metaphysics, and culminates in the Godhead as the body dies and the soul is born into to the pure spiritual life.
“Praiseworthy is the free act of the soul; admirable are the actions which have proceeded from rational consideration; and lastly, obedience to the Divine World-Law is worthy of the reward of being raised to the celestial world of spheres. But this requires longing for what is above; and therefore the highest virtue is Love, which strives after union with God, the first loved one, and which is evinced even in this life in the form of religious patience and forbearance with all created beings. Such love gains in this life serenity of the soul, freedom of hear and peace with the whole world, and in the life to come ascension to Eternal Light.” Furthermore, “Our true essence is the soul, and the highest aim of our existence should be to live, with Socrates, devoted to the Intellect, and with Christ, to the Law of Love. Nevertheless the body must be properly treated and looked after in order that the soul may have time to attain its full development.” (Epistles)
Wisdom is normally obtained by the devoted student after the age of fifty, at which time the learned man does not rest on his laurels but should participate as a leader of his community. In any case, he will behave as divinely as he can:
“… love for science as added to knowledge of the essence of all beings, gained as best as one can, together with profession and public behavior in harmony with that.” (Epistles)
We cannot overstate the importance of the Arab philosophers’ insistence that religion and philosophy are not enemies. This emphasis shocked medieval European intellectuals as they translated the Arabic texts into Latin, and the controversy that ensued gradually resurrected the dignity of reason for the theologically disposed thinkers as they pored over Aristotle’s propositions that the Muslims had so carefully preserved and commented on both for and against. Arab intellectuals, as I have noted, had serious problems with the synthesis of faith and reason, or rational theology, with the caliphs and their supporters. Fakhry recapitulates the Arab philosopher’s position:
“After all, religion is not a commodity to traffic in; by setting themselves against the study of philosophy in the name of religion, the proved their added irreligiousness. Rather, philosophy is the most secure avenue to truth, and he who opposes its study is actually opposing the acquisition of the knowledge of truth, which is the primary function of religion. Hence, to brand the study of philosophy as unbelief kufr is the highest form of unbelief – nor, as the previous argument implies, downright hypocrisy.”
Fakhry concluded his particular essay with the following important remarks, after which I will conclude mine with a pointed question to all Muslims:
“…neither in the field of translation nor in commentary have contemporary Arab philosophers and scholars achieved the same pre-eminence as their ancestors during the classical period. The profound intensity and seriousness with which Greek philosophical and scientific texts were translated, studied, and commented upon by those ancestors remain unequaled in modern times. This is a great tribute to that contingent of Arab scholars who not only kept the torch of ancient learning alive during Western Europe’s darkest hours, but also pushed the frontiers further than any other nations had in antiquity since the Greeks.”
Dear Muslim intellectuals, we are forever grateful for Islam’s medieval contributions to “our” Western intellectual culture. We thank Muslim philosophers and scientists for acquainting us with the founding principles of the European renaissance, for introducing us to the humanist movement, the historical sciences, the inductive scientific method, and, most importantly, the harmony of faith and reason that shocked medieval Europe to its senses. But where are you now when we so urgently need you? Intellectuals of the World, Unite!
Majid Fakhry’s essay appears in Arabic Philosophy and the West, edited by Therese-Anne Druart, Washington: Georgetown University, 1988
A History of Muslim Philosophy, edited by M.M. Sharif, published in Karachi by the Royal Book Company, is an excellent resource, supported by ample citations.
Intellectuals in the Middle Ages by Jacques Le Goff, published by Blackwell in Cambridge. Of special interest is the chapter, ‘The Birth of the Intellectuals’
The History of Philosophy in Islam by T. J. de Boer, translated by Edward R Jones, London: Luzac, 1970, p.81 ff. ‘The Faithful Brethren of Bazra’