Monthly Archives: March 2014

Asem al-Fouli on the misconceptions of the Egyptian secularists (Part 1)

Asem al-Fouli on the misconceptions of the Egyptian secularists (Part 1)

First appeared in Arabic on

– Secularists have not studied our intellectual heritage. They assume that what the popes of Rome did must also be what the scholars of Baghdad thought.

Philosophy is not a specific line of thinking; what we have are multiple conflicting and contradictory philosophies, all claiming to be the result of the clever use of the mind.

-Islamists are using methods of emotional appeal to win votes and gain power, and this is a threat to the future of the nation.

Salafi scholars are not against philosophy in terms of a product of reason, but they resist a certain kind of philosophy, whose ideas conflicted with the tenets of Islam

Dr. Fouad Zakaria does not know that logic is taught at Al-Azhar, and Abu Hamid Ghazali used his learning and knowledge of logic, to refute the ideas of the Greek philosophers and their work

I met some young people whom I know socially, who were secular in thinking. However this did not lead any loss of any respect I may have had to their devotion to the issues facing the nation. Like all Egyptians who meet together these days, we have been talking about the general situation in Egypt, but I was amazed by one thing: their acceptance of the exclusion of Islamists from the political arena. I knew them as liberals who declare their allegiance to pluralism and the right to individuals to be different, however they defended a position which held that Islamic thought is “irrational” and unfit to solve contemporary problems. Islamists are in fact using the emotions of Muslims to gain votes and access to power, and this is a threat to the future of the nation.

I kept trying to explain the foundations of rationality of the Islamic project as a prelude to talking about what it does presents for us to discussed before going on to reject it outright. But the more enthusiastic among them wanted to silence me, saying it was useless to try to convince them, because as far as they were concerned, history proves that Islam was against rationality [!!]. They would not believe my claims because they said history has refuted them.  They saw that if Islamists came to power again, they would not allow free discussion. So it was natural for me to try to discover the origin of this idea, before I answered them, and I found that most of them had been influenced by intellectuals with a superficial understanding of Islamic thought, whilst some of them referred directly to the book of the late Fouad Zakaria , “The Islamic awakening in the balance of the mind .”

That our intellectual heritage is far from rational

This writer has a special appreciation of Zakaria, as a Marxist thinker, and a philosophy professor who through his writings contributed to his understanding of the foundations of objective thinking. I cannot claim that he is a superficial thinker who does not pay careful attention to what he writes. So I went back to the book which was written some quarter of a century ago, and found that he did actually say in some of its chapters that our intellectual heritage was far from rational, based on what he saw as the rejection of philosophy by Salafi scholars and their campaign against it. So I have written this brief study for the benefit of those who believe Zakaria and his claim in regard to the truth of the position of the Salafis, and for those who enter into discussions with such thoughtful elements among the young, whom I met. As we know, philosophical thought does not enter into the education of many of the youth of the Islamic movement, influenced as they are by the erroneous idea that Islam is against philosophy. I hope that it becomes clear to the reader of this study that Salafi scholars are not against philosophy, although they were against a particular philosophy which contradicted the tenets of Islam, and this opposition was absolutely and completely based on reason. Some of them adopted the philosophical approach itself to refute the arguments of the Greeks which influenced Muslim intellectuals from the second Hijri century onwards. Some of them came to refute the value of the Greek approach itself as a tool for correct thinking. This was based not just on the arguments of the Greek philosophers and their opposition to the beliefs of the Muslims, but on consideration of the nature of reason itself.

We shall begin by reviewing a few paragraphs from Zakaria’s book “The Islamic awakening in the balance of the mind”, which promoted most of the popular ideas held by secularists in regard to their objections to our intellectual heritage. Zakaria’s knowledge and position in philosophical circles gives his views more weight than those of authors of nonfiction or politics, when it comes to readers generally. I wish to show how this important philosophy professor fell to making judgments on the cultural heritage of his nation, without really making an effort to understand it. Although I believe he was not deliberately trying to deceive, he nevertheless studied the relationship of the Catholic Church to reason in Europe, and thought that all religions had to follow in the same pattern. This is the only thing I can think of to excuse the error of a professor from whose writings I have otherwise benefited greatly.

The Islamic awakeninginthe mind ofDr.FouadZakaria

Zakaria writes in his book that:

“… the biggest reason for the opposition between philosophy and religion… is not the type of ideas advocated by both parties , but their manner of thinking… it isn’t a conflict about content or substance, but about the approach to it, and boils down to the fact that whilst the philosophical approach is critical, the religious approach is fideist. While philosophy wants to discuss all assumptions, and does not recognize what doesn’t stand the rigid test of logic, the principle of submission is essential to religious faith, and the ultimate goal of that faith is to lead one to accept belief without debate , in fact the idea of debate  doesn’t arise in the first place… ” p. 151

And if you ever thought that our history was replete with many Islamic rational intellectuals, Zakaria tells you that:

“… if some thinkers have sought to deny faith and its basic beliefs, and base themselves on rational and logical proofs .. .. they were closer to the clerics than to the philosophers given that these proofs were not rationalist from beginning to end, but were grounded for their crucial stages in the acceptance of certain religious assumptions , which are then elaborated through rational inference…” p 151.

Neither Zakaria nor anyone else, give us an example of what one of those crucial stages might have been which could not be surmounted by rational proof, such that we are made of necessity to resort to religious assumptions for this purpose. If he had presented one case – one case only – where our reasoning had failed us and left us to employ religious assumptions, then we could believe him and that his pronouncements might have been the result of a study of Islamic thought. Whilst they cannot actually do that, we have to insist that what is being conveyed is the critique of religious thought and Christian ideas by western philosophers, which are projected uncritically onto Islam.

Logic and belief

Zakaria writes further:

“… whilst the cleric insists that logic has no place in faith, he does not say so in rejection of logic as such. Indeed he may accept the logic and logical reasoning, to use them in other areas. What he intends is to hold true to the original sense of the word “faith”, in terms of submission and confirmation where there is no place for analysis or scrutiny… ” p 152.

We do not know here what the source might be from which Zakaria derives that this is the original meaning of the faith of Muslims. He then goes on to say:

“…  the cleric, even if he agrees to the principle of a discussion, does not permit it to pass certain limits, or to stretch to include basic beliefs… “, p 153.

Once again: do we find this in Islam? Do we have more basic beliefs than the existence of God and the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him)? If these basic beliefs are beyond what we can expect to discuss rationally, what are these things about which we do not accept rational discussion?

Scepticism in regard the principle of logical reasoning

According to Zakaria, we are working on:

“… questioning the principle of reasoning itself, a principle upon which scientific approaches are grounded, on the basis that it leads to the destabilization of religious belief and to undermining of faith… in a revival of the old slogan ” whoever uses logic turns atheistic ” … and logic as realized by the human mind since ancient times is a tool , or a particular way of thinking , based on rational argument and correct inductive reasoning that persuades. Thus what leads to heresy according to this slogan is not a set of views or theories advocated by the philosophers who use logic, but it is the method of thinking rationally and logically which they abide by. So what the slogan says is that, in fact, that if you use your mind and if you think things out consistently, this makes you a heretic…”, p 159

This is not an innocent statement, for I do not believe that Zakaria did not know that logic was a discipline taught at Al-Azhar. However the slogan he brings up which was actually proclaimed by Abu Amr ibn al -Salah was in reaction to certain circumstances, which we shall be discussing in this paper. Others much more well-known than ibn al-Salah, such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali author of the “The Revival of the Religious Sciences”, learned and taught logic and used it to refute the propositions of the Greek philosophers and what issued from their thought. Meanwhile, those who refused to use Aristotle’s formal logic – such as ibn Taymiyya – did not reject him because of this business about heresy, but because they saw it as a useless and superficial tool, and preferred to use other rational tools to give us different sublime rational ways of thinking. After them by many centuries, Francis Bacon began the new modality of the European experimental scientific method in Europe which rejected the logic of Aristotle.

Zakaria concludes his talk about philosophy and Islam with a demand which deserves comment. He says:

” All that is required to achieve a fertile combination of philosophical and religious thought is for the philosopher to feel that he is not exposed to intimidation or terror or the charge of unbelief…” p. 176

But who is it who has prevented the philosopher as such from expressing his thoughts? If the philosopher said anything conflicting with religion – or if likewise some saw what he said as such – does the philosopher have immunity to prevent others from opposing his opinion? He always has the possibility of proving that he expresses himself consistently with religion if he only could establish proof of that. But assume that the philosopher wanted to reject the proofs of the Book and the Sunna, ignoring all the evidence adduced by Muslims to prove their authenticity, simply on the basis that his mind did not accept what was said there. Then we shall say to him that for Muslims, this would resemble someone who does not want to recognize the rotation of the earth because the mind cannot imagine it. He is free then to do what he wants for there is truly no compulsion in religion, however, a spade should be called a spade.

Muslims and rational thinking

Where could they have come up with this idea? The idea that the mind is systematic and organised may seem to be strange to Islamic thought, although a casual glance through the Qur’an has us take note almost immediately of its commands and appeals based on acts of reading, thinking, reasoning, argumentation, forethought and consideration propagates through the book from beginning to end, in both Medinan and Meccan verses , and is repeated in the verses which addresses infringement,  demanding evidence, argument and debate of the best kind, based on methods of induction that depend of what results are to be extracted. So the Quran never raises beliefs as matters to be submitted to shorn of evidence, thus obliging people to convert simply based on the authority of the sacred text. Rather they are always substantiated by evidence. Could the problem be – whether the mind represents a problem for us – in the way that our scholars have approached these texts?

When the theologians organised their books they listed the rational proofs regarding the existence of God as they found them in the Qur’an, and quoted the Qur’anic verses that supporting each proof. So we find verses in support of the proof of creation and others in evidence of necessity, sufficient cause, provision and invention… etc: verses which provide us with this evidence in a wonderful way, pleasing to the mind of the thinker, the sense of the writer and the sentiment of the artist. And when our jurists began legislating for the eduction of necessity, sufficient cause, provision and invention, they considered that all of the practical rules are reasoned from their causes, and that these rules depended on their reasons whether present or actually absent, and laid down such rational rules for jurisprudential eduction within the discipline of the principles of jurisprudence, a strict rational approach that our culture should be proud of. So where did that idea come from, then?…The idea that it might occur to Muslims that a place still has to found for reason in Islam?

It would seem that there no problem in the relationship between religious thinking and rational thinking as far Muslims are concerned. But since our Westernized intellectuals believe that they know how to resolve the problem, they should really have to find it, before seeking to resolve it.

The origin of the distinction between religious thinking and rational thinking

The story began in Europe in the early Renaissance, when people began to do systematic scientific research on the problems of nature. This led to discoveries which contradicted many things held by the church as facts. This pushed people to think about everything that the church said, and they found that their minds could not accept many of the perceptions about existence, about life and about the human being. But who could tell the monster that he had red eyes? So they concocted this notion about two realities, a spiritual reality and a rational philosophical reality, and they claimed that these are two separate truths – do not ask how they are both true. It was all just a dodge to avoid conflict from the superficial aspect between the result of rational thought and the demands of their faith, where each had its own field and they did not intersect. All that these thinkers wanted was the ability to proclaim different ideas and perceptions about the same things that concerned the Church, whilst avoiding confrontation.

The Church failed to justify the majority of its beliefs

The Church, for its part, was finally compelled to accept this situation, which was not of its own making. It had failed to justify most of its beliefs, among them its most important beliefs, and the proof of the truth of these beliefs could be disregarded on the basis that they were not subject to observation and experimentation, nor to investigation and analysis. But what about the claims of the Church in matters of natural physical law, such as their saying that the earth was at the center of the universe and that the sun and all the heavenly bodies revolve around it, on the grounds that to say otherwise would violate religion? The Church initially tried to suppress thinkers and scholars to deal with this problem. With growing scientific research and in the face of the rational movement, together with the continuous findings of natural science which contradicted the tales of the Bible, the Church was compelled in the end to recognize the right of people to use reason, provided they do not do so in religion. They claimed that the mind cannot be up to knowing God, who can only be known though the heart and through love, in virtue of the light God shines in the human heart that allows him to believe.

The one and only truth

On the other hand, at no time did Muslim Scholars have a problem with rational investigation. Mawdoudi,  God’s mercy  be on him, who is attacked by secularists because of his well-known concept of “al-hakimiyya”, declares in his book “Islam in the face of the challenge of civilization” that:

“It is not possible to use this book [the Qur’an] and to stay on the straight path and avoid the errors in faith and work, except on the basis of that very thing on which religion was built from the first day, in other words : science and reason…”,

and a thousand years before him, Abu Hamid Ghazali wrote:

“Law is reason from the outside, and reason from within is law, the two are mutually reinforcing , and united”.

He goes even further when he says:

“In regard to the certain conclusions that we deduce from principles that are certain, if you are otherwise told its opposite as some tale about the greatest of God’s creations, even if their purpose is reasonable to a degree, and even if it were an honest prophetic report, we should cut the reporter off as a liar or interpret what we hear from him, since the possibility of its being an the honest truth does not occur to us… however convincing rationally…”

(It is important to pay attention to this last condition “however convincing rationally”). Could Ghazali have given us this astonishing opinion unless the principles of Islam were clear in that it was impossible that God could have revealed to us such as would violate the certainties of the mind that He gave us? Our position was clear from the beginning and throughout: there is nothing but one truth created by the one God , and what we feel with our senses and understand with our minds or receive through revelation, all must be correspondingly true as an expression of this one fact.

The conflict between the scholars of Sharīʿa and the philosophers

But Islamic history is replete with tales of struggles that happened between the jurists – the Sharīʿa  scholars – and the philosophers, when philosophy for our Westernised intellectuals was synonymous with rationalism, and Zakaria among others inferred from this that those scholars were against rational thinking. In this study we have tried to make it clear that those scholars were not against philosophical thinking in itself, but against some of the conclusions that were reached by those thinkers, who became notorious as “the philosophers”. The scholars did not try to refute the work of those philosophers because resulted from the use of reason, they wanted to disprove it because they saw in it a misuse of reason. But let’s start with the point about philosophy being synonymous with rational thinking.

The philosophy of contemporary philosophers

We will not try to offer a definition of philosophy, as the philosophers themselves have not agreed on a single definition of it. We see them rather talking about all the different areas covered by the philosophy, in a very general sense, as in this quote:

“Philosophy is a complete consideration which embraces all aspects of human activity in thought and behaviour… and the sciences stands at specialties and do not go beyond them… So existence and life in all its aspects, and man all the variety of his activities cannot hope to be the subject of science or one of the sciences…” ,

or :

“All science works within the scope of a particular field and determines for itself a set of laws and results which is guarantees, but any one science doesn’t take into account of the link between its results and those reached by others in order to draw a general picture. We can liken this to a case where each science focuses on a particular type of tree, while none take care of the forest as a whole. “

Just as they did not agree on a definition, they did not agree on the goal of philosophy. Some believe that “philosophy enables us to explore the ultimate goals of humanity, and motivate us to engage in their realisation”. It is human position-taking in regard to the world, the times and society, accommodating all human aspects. Whilst in contrast to this wide all-encompassing goal, we find on the other hand logical positivism refusing for philosophy the right “to build for itself doctrines or thought formats of its own, but only be limited to the task of logical analysis of all forms of human thought, leaving to science task of interpreting the universe, establishing knowledge from the analysis of empirical results only, where as a result philosophy plays second fiddle to scientific research”. Between these two opposing extremes every philosopher decides where he stands.

So every philosopher decides the ambit within which he will operate. He is limited by this demarcation as to the the topics that can addressed. But of course, he chooses what he thinks is important, or what he finds fulfilling depending on his inclinations. The preferences of philosophers, their temperaments and the nature of the times in which they live, not only affect their choice of subject matter, but also affect the way in which they treat these topics. It is not surprising, then, that these factors affect the personal and subjective results the philosopher arrives at.

Philosophical activity: clever rational exercises

Salah Qansuh tells us that we will not find something specific called “philosophy “, so we are obliged to engage with many philosophies, all different from each other. Perhaps for the number of the philosophers with whose work we deal, however , the majority would be reluctant to have their philosophies labeled as a set of loose assumptions held together by certain subjective ideas, and they would insist that they are establishing facts and expressing the truth. Qansuh advises us here:

 “… not to recognise what they claim as their doctrine’s attainment of certain knowledge, because we know today about many of their grave errors, besides what was manifested as their iniquities controversy and dispute raged between them”.

Francis Bacon said this much earlier more dramatically:

all the received [philosophical] systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion” [XLIV,APHORISMS, BOOK ONE, Novum Organum]

This does not mean, of course, that I wish to throw aside all philosophical work. On the contrary, I consider it an important aspect of what supplied human thought, it’s just that I would like it not to exceed its true importance.  Philosophical works are clever mental exercises mentality which may have been useful, but philosophy is not synonymous with the mind: it’s the mind mixed with other things, besides which we have many philosophies, not just one. You can reject Marxist philosophy, for example, without having to be an enemy of philosophy , or to object to utilitarian philosophy (pragmatism ) because you see another philosophy as more convincing. So why should the rejection by Muslim scholars of Greek philosophy be a rejection of all philosophical thinking?

I shall show in the next installment of this study, the most important ideas from the philosophy of the Greeks which emerged in the Muslim community after being translated into Arabic from the second century Hijri onwards. I shall then show in the third installment the general position of our scholars in respect of these ideas, to clarify that they did not object to philosophizing as a mental activity, but rather that they objected to the arguments of the Greeks, which had rejected the beliefs of the Muslims, and that their opposition followed a full discussion of these arguments. Meanwhile their refutation was a rational refutation, and some of it used the logic of Aristotle. The fourth installment will concentrate on the objection in regard to the value of the Aristotle’s formal logic, which defended the method of induction, and which was founded by the later experimental approach to modern scientific research.