Friday, September 23, 2011

Committed to Rational Traditions in Islam - but is that enough?

John Walbridge is one of the best scholars of Islamic philosophical traditions around and has already made major contributions to the field through his work on Suhrawardī and the illuminationist tradition in the Islamic East. This new book is an excellent example of committed scholarship with a passion for the subject and a desire to demonstrate not only that philosophical traditions have played (and need to play) a central role in the culture of the Islamic world but also that rational approaches to faith (even ones rooted in logic whose study never died out in the scholastic traditions of Islamic pedagogy) are viable and essential in the present.  It is a combative plea as the author states aimed at an educated general reader trying to make sense of Islam in the present and for the Muslim reader to recover his heritage of rationalities. But it is the scholar of the field who is the third type of reader who will probably be most dissatisfied with the final work, aware of some interesting new avenues of thought and engagement with literature but wanting to know more and to see a more complete argument. It's a bit of an academic tease and one wonders whether the author was caught between writing a popular work on the rationality of Islam and trying to bring to the fore his research on the logical traditions and school texts of the later middle period in the Islamic East. Nevertheless, this is a work in a field which is increasingly confessional – and one that one approves heartily of. We can therefore perhaps forgive the rather excruciating title of the book – which does not quite capture anyway what one finds within even if his point about caliphate representing authority and hegemony is well taken.

The book is divided into three parts. The first concerns the formation of the ‘Islamic tradition of reason’ and comprises five chapters that began with interrogating the notion of reason and mind in Islam (he prefers mind as a translation for ʿaql which requires a whole separate discussion) and examines different modalities of rationality in Islamic thought ranging from ḥadīth through to falsafa and mysticism. The second part which stands on its own and represents trends in his research over the last decade or so comprises three chapters that deal with logic and especially the remnant of the tradition in South Asia. The final section of two chapters considers trajectories of ways forward to understand why modes of rationality have ‘declined’ and what future they might have in the twenty-first century and beyond. All in all, the book represents an excellent introduction to the learned culture of Islam and expresses the proposition, as the author puts it, that ‘Islamic intellectual life has been characterized by reason in the service of a non-rational revealed code of conduct’. This in itself is an interesting way of putting it – an old idea and one which he does well to indicate its substantiation (and one with which this reviewer broadly agrees). But the scripturalist might not be terribly happy with recourse to tools beyond his textual universe, and the ‘pure rationalist’ might also be dismayed by the idea that rationality’s only recourse is to defend the non-rational (or the supra-rational). But then we can be confident that such ideal types do not exist: just as pure textual literalists and scripturalists cannot function in a coherent and consistent way, the pursuit of pure reason is a mirage: thought just like text is embedded in contexts which provide horizons of meaning and modes to come to understanding.  Walbridge is careful to state that non-rational does not mean irrational – and indeed one of the major flaws in the field of Islamic philosophy in particular is to dismiss modes of reasoning that are non-rational, whether mystical or scriptural, as ‘irrational’ nonsense.

Most of the chapters are tantalisingly short. The very first one which demonstrates the post-9/11 context in which one makes sense of this work raises the question of whether Islam is essentially non-rational and opts for an answer in the negative and a defence of a scholastic tradition of reason at the heart of scholarly pursuit in the faith, criticising along the way the common idea that (still!) persists about al-Ghazālī’s death-blow to reason in Islam – a view that is problematic given recent excellent work by Frank, Moosa, Griffel, Pourjavady, al-Akiti and others that prove clearly al-Ghazālī’s own philosophical and rational credentials.  A clear corollary of his answer is that fundamentalism and its concomitant problem of violence is a peculiarly modern problem – and it is therefore ahistorical to see such phenomena as culturally peculiar to the ‘Muslim mind’. The next chapter on the diversity of reason reads like a selective introduction to the notion of reason and rationality drawing upon a relevant philosophical literature and in a sense defines the terms that are discussed in the work. The following three chapters deal with the major modalities of rationality: the first of these examines ḥadīth epistemology and quite correctly avoids the question of the historicity of those purported narrations (as Wael Hallaq argued many years ago, the authenticity of ḥadīth is a pseudo-problem because the real issue is how we use texts and not necessarily where they come from), the second on the Fārābian falsafa tradition argues that the attempt to subordinate religion to philosophy failed and is illustrated by the complete failure of political philosophy, and the third points towards what did succeed – the mature mystical-philosophical tradition of the Islamic East that became the dominant mode of rationality (and is as such decreed by modern Arab intellectuals such as the late Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī as the triumph of unreason).  Walbridge seems to agree partly with such a critique because he locates the decline of physical sciences in Islam to the success of mysticism – but the story is more complicated as Ahmad Dallal has recently argued. The chapters that follow on logic are designed to further the centrality of modes of rationality in scholarly pursuit – but for the actual history one would look elsewhere such as Tony Street’s recent sketches or even Asad Ahmed’s more recent work on logic. The chapter on disagreement is important for the polemic as Walbridge’s argument for rationality implies the need to tolerate difference of opinion and to accept that pre-modern thinkers were actually comfortable with the idea of completing authoritative narratives of reason; the institutionalisation of this process is located by him in the madras.

The final chapters complete the argument. He implies that the decline of institutions of reason in the Islamic world have much to do with the colonial state and the ‘new reason’.  A complete intellectual history of what exactly happened to learned Islamic culture still needs to be written.  The final chapter raises a whole set of issues which are much debate in a large literature of Islam, education and modernity and discussed by the likes of Piscatori and Eickelman, Zaman, and Mahmood. The punchline is worthy of attention. Walbridge makes two points: first that any serious future of modalities of reason in Islam today and in the future will have to recognise the history and heritage of Islamic learned culture – traditional learning cannot just be jettisoned in the name of modernism or fundamentalism or even ‘ijtihād’. Second, any serious revival will probably come from the ‘West’, from America in particular, because of the experience of plurality and the opportunities that Muslims in American have at their disposal. For some time scholars have been arguing that serious Muslim intellectual revival will arise from Europe and North America. I am not so convinced. While there are interesting intellectuals in these places, it is still difficult to find figures who have an impact in the wider Muslim world. It is also quite clear that the competitive advantage of living in Dearborn as opposed to Beirut is not so great. And then one also suffers from the same differences and same problems of traditionalism, conservatism, fundamentalism and modernism in America and elsewhere. In a globalised, cosmopolitan world, Islam may indeed revive in the West as the ḥadīth indicates but one wonders what is meant by the West in the text.

God and Logic in Islam is well worth reading – especially for young Muslims. Even if one agrees with the basic proposition and many of the lines of argument, the argument is not terribly convincing or well substantiated. As indicated earlier, it is unlikely that the specialist in the field will agree with much that is in the book. But in the times in which we live it needs to be said. Increasingly, the intellectual traditions and the heritage of rationalities is being disputed, in works appearing in North America and especially in France, which deny that European rationality and institutions of science and reason owe anything to Islamic learned culture – and the ignorance that many Muslims who live in marginalised communities in Europe have of their heritage contributes to the problem. In such a context, this book is a further timely reminder that the world of Islam did make intellectual contributions and the world of the mind was respected in pursuit and defence of the faith – and was indeed one of the best ways of glorifying the divine.

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