Sunday, September 30, 2018

Open to Reason? The Critical Intellectual Tradition of Islam

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a Muslim philosopher at Columbia University, has just published a short work on what it means to philosophise in Islam, tracing the intellectual history of Muslim critical engagement with texts and ideas both within and without the traditions of Islam. 

Open to Reason is a short work comprising ten chapters on contemporary philosophy that draws upon an expansive notion of what philosophy is by including Sufi and theological themes. It also engages in history for the present, to make sense of why we should study the history of philosophy not as an antiquarian enterprise but as a way to make sense of our language of the problematics and to find paths and methods of untying the knots, the aporiai of the present. 

Diagne has already written quite a bit on the modern Muslim existentialist (and arguably personalist following Henri Bergson) Muḥammad Iqbāl. His work on Iqbāl and the open society and on Iqbāl and Senghor as postcolonial deployments of Bergson have been around for a while. This present work is a translation of Comment philosopher en islam? which came out first around ten years ago. Another comparative recent work in French looks at the philosophical enterprise in Islam and Christianity, and he is also very much at the forefront of the study of African philosophy and how artistic expression can be philosophical. Peter Adamson's now famous podcast will be interviewing him soon and the series on Africana philosophy seems quite influenced by him. I'm very much looking forward to that, especially since Ousmane Kane's Beyond Timbuktu was just so very disappointing as an intellectual history. 

The chapters are broadly historical but with a clear view to understanding the central relationship between religion and philosophy, between the person and society, between the rational and the mystical, between the individual and the state among others. To an extent, I can see how it might be useful to read this in conversation with Sari Nusseibeh's recent book The Story of Reason in Islam, even while the approach is quite different, perhaps at one level that continental versus the analytic tradition, to be quite grossly simplistic about it. The first chapter begins with the passing of the Prophet (and perhaps the simple idea of the passing of unquestioning authority) and finding the role of reason in the nascent religious tradition. He sees in Muʿtazilism a desire to make sense of the cosmos, to find a universal rational grammar (as one finds in the famous debate between Ṣīrāfī and Abū Bishr on logic versus grammar), and to enthrone the God of reason. He then sees in Ashʿarism a desire to dethrone the purely rational God in favour of a spiritual and more personal deity. The key point is that the debate on reason still resonates with us today - although he does not use the language of competing rationalities and is broadly not concerned with the language of relativism either. The next chapter looks at the Ṣīrafi and Abū Bishr debate in more detail and sees a tension between the need to keep open the exigencies and possibilities of reason against a desire for closure and completion. 

The third chapter turns to Avicenna, in whom Diagne correctly in my opinion sees the first coming to age of Islamic philosophy and understanding what makes philosophy Islamic. 

As one expects, the next chapter looks at the response - although it is somewhat disappointing for Diagne to continue the narrative of a Ghazālī opposed to philosophical reasoning. But Ghazālī as a pluralist is there in his Fayṣal al-tafriqa to which he returns in the final chapter and there is a certain paradox in the philosophical rejection of a certain type of speculative metaphysics. 

He next turns to ecology and Ibn Ṭufayl and the famous question of how one might encounter truth and whether one can know philosophical and moral truths isolated from the social context of our embodiment. Ibn Rushd is used to indicate the potential obligation to philosophise and while Diagne recognises that his death does not usher in the end of philosophy, he is somewhat wrong in the old fashioned idea that philosophy only continues in the Iranian - and Shiʿi - East because it is wedded to imamology. Indeed the creativity of the poles of wujūd and walāya are central to that later Eastern tradition. But it would be wrong to ignore the persistence of traditions of rationality in the Sunni East, especially in India at the same time. But Diagne's work does demonstrate once again how it is difficult if not impossible to write a non-sectarian history.

Diagne then skips to ʿAbduh and Afghānī as an enlightenment turn back to reason, in response to refute Renan. The oblivion of what happens between Ibn Rushd and Afghānī is a problem. He sees in ʿAbduh a certain type of reformist modernity: an embrace of modernity but not as a narrowly European modernity but an alternative modernity, sees modernity as 'the daughter of Islam', and searches for a reconstruction of the meaning of religion. 

The penultimate chapter is on Iqbāl, a thinker whom he has engaged already and the final chapter on pluralism as the contemporary moment and space of Islamic philosophy open to reason and possibility, drawing upon Ghazālī and Sufi traditions of West Africa. What is perhaps disappointing is that there is little explicit explanation of what sorts of contemporary encounters Islamic philosophy needs in the present. Should one engage on the ground of the person or of existentialism? Or the analytic method? Or poesis? Or mysticism? How does one see philosophy in the modern world? He sees his book as a prompt to thinking about how one might do philosophy in the present Muslim world. However, there is a certain limitation in what is being proposed. Francophone African Muslim countries inherited the role of the teaching of philosophy in schools - not the case in the anglophone. And maybe this indicates the impossibility of the universal label of an Islamic philosophy in the present. That is precisely the point. Instead of our desire at times to find our Kant, our Wittgenstein, our Aristotle, we need to embrace a proper pluralism in which we recognise that philosophising is always made in the image of the seeker and we are different persons across the globe. History consists of the moments of understanding whence possibilities arise and which options were taken and might not have. The future of Islamic philosophy therefore will rest with Islamic philosophies. 

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