modern Islamic philosophy

   There has been for the last couple of centuries a lively philosophical atmosphere in the Islamic world, and every variety of philosophy has found supporters somewhere. The place to start when thinking about modern Islamic philosophy is the Rebirth or Renaissance (nahda) movement which started in Syria, became established in Egypt, and from there spread out through the Arab world, and beyond. The nahda movement tried to defend Islam’s continuing relevance in the modern world, and encourage the Islamic world to embrace modernity. The major thinkers were al-Tahtawi, al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh, who in different ways set out to institutionalize modernity in the Islamic world by giving it a religious rationale.
   There have been some recurrent themes in modern Arab philosophy. One is the relationship Islamic philosophy should have with western philosophy. Also, some Arab thinkers use philosophy to try to make sense of what they see as the leading intellectual issues of the time. Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri, a Moroccan philosopher, is critical of much traditional Islamic thought, arguing that we need to form a clear view of the reasons for the decline of the Arab world, something of a theme in much Arab philosophy. He criticizes the nahda for reintroducing the Peripatetic thinkers into philosophy, since they were nothing more than employers of foreign ideas in their work. We should not use traditional Islamic ideas either, he argues, but rather deconstruct that heritage. He attacks in particular what he takes to be wrong with Arab culture – the worship of words, the desire for authority, both human and divine, and the idea that anything can happen. The result is that language comes to replace reality, power replaces freedom and there is a lack of con- fidence in the causal nature of the world in favor of a reliance on arbitrary action. Al-Jabiri makes the perceptive remark that the failure of Islamic philosophy in the sense of falsafa to continue for long is due to its failure to reflect on its own, i.e. Arab, history, since it is so Greekorientated that it can only reflect on Greek culture, something of which it is not a part. Western philosophy, by contrast, has constantly meditated on its own history and has not been frightened to challenge and discard what it did not like. The way forward involves trying to recapture the spirit of Ibn Rushd in particular, and incorporate his thought into the practical organization of society. Other thinkers are far more critical of Ibn Rushd in particular and take an entirely different view of the past. Islamism, for example, argues that we need to return to the original period of the Prophet and the early Islamic state if we are to construct an appropriate political philosophy.
   Philosophy has continued very vigorously in the Persian cultural world, and has moved out of the theological school, the madrasa, into the university. Compared to the Arab world, where philosophy for a long time came under some suspicion from the religious authorities, it has had a much more constant presence in Iran, perhaps reflecting the much more favorable attitude that Shi‘ism tended to adopt towards philosophy as compared with Sunni culture. Mehdi Ha’iri Yazdi develops a theory of knowledge by presence, a form of knowledge which is incorrigible and which grounds our other knowledge claims, using ideas from both ishraqi thinkers like al-Suhrawardi, and the modern philosopher Wittgenstein. Another Iranian thinker, ‘Ali Shariati, develops a view of the human being as having God at its essence while maintaining the scope to determine its own form of existence. The notion of unity (tawhid) he regards as therapeutic, to establish both personal and political justice and harmony. He interprets the main figures of Shi‘ite Islam as models for us not only morally but also to bring about progressive social and political ideals. Seyyed Hossein Nasr uses Sufism to argue for a new attitude to the natural world, one that regards it as exemplifying the divine and for which we are put in charge by God. We then have a responsibility not to abuse it, and science is not an amoral activity, but something that involves unlocking the secrets of a world created by God and for which we have responsibility. It is worth pointing out also that within the Islamic world today philosophy is pursued as it is everywhere else, often with no reference to religion at all. However, there are many interesting attempts to combine Islam with philosophical thought in order to throw light on both areas of thought and life.
   See ‘Abduh, Muhammad; al-Afghani; Iqbal, Muhammad; Islamism; Nasr, Seyyed Hossein
   Further reading: Cooper et al. 2000; Hahn et al. 2001; Ha’iri Yazdi 1992; Hourani 1983; al-Jabiri 1999; Rahman 1982

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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