Philosophy for the Muslim philosopher is understood in a general sense to mean the attempt to answer the fundamental questions associated with existence, the mind, morals, and knowledge.
Philosophy is forbidden because it approaches religion through merely rational arguments, such as in Ancient Greek (e.g. Hellenistic) or Western Enlightenment thought, on the basis of which accepts or rejects aspects of the Islamic tradition, and, in doing so, religion becomes the subject of human desires and un-Godly thinking.
These two opposing statements have been deliberately juxtaposed to highlight a symptom of the intellectual malady that has afflicted some sections of our community. One of the greatest challenges that we face is finding scholarship that has an understanding of the Islamic source texts (the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions) and combines it with the aptitude to use them in addressing real life issues. For example, when a scholar attempts to understand the ethics or the Islamic legality of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), not only must s/he understand the process of IVF, but s/he also needs to have the scholastic tools to understand and apply Shari’ principles to this very modern case; absence of either would result in a skewed ethics/verdict.
A similar situation occurs when some Islamic scholars address the topic of philosophy. During the Islamic medieval period, some scholars, from the various schools of thought and creed, postulated that the use of Hellenistic philosophy on theological issues would lead people astray. In a butchered attempt to echo this narrative, some scholars today make the same point regarding contemporary philosophy, that is, wherever the term ‘philosophy’ pops up.
The logical fallacy should be glaringly obvious here. It occurs when two things are incorrectly equated simply because they share a common ground. Technically, the fallacy is committed when the middle term happens to be shared in at least one of the premises. For example: (1) The dog needs oxygen to survive; (2) John needs oxygen to survive; and (3) Therefore, the dog is John.
Just because the dog and John both require oxygen to survive (the common ground), it does not follow that the dog is John. Far more would be required to make that logical link. Similarly, some argue that since Hellenistic philosophy was disparaged by notable medieval scholars, contemporary philosophy must also be forbidden. But clearly, just because they’re both described as philosophy doesn’t mean that they are the same.
When some scholars claim that Hellenistic philosophy is forbidden they often fail to provide compelling reasons. Was it the use of complex language? Was the thinking too speculative that it violated revelatory constraints? Or was there a particular aspect of Hellenistic philosophy which was problematic? On perusing Islamic intellectual history, it is easy to find that the issue was the adoption of philosophical assumptions that could not be traced or reconciled with the strong inferences made by the Islamic source texts, this problematic approach is often referred to as ‘blameworthy kalam.’ However, beyond sharing a name, neither is contemporary philosophy the same, nor is it a specific subject; it merely describes a systematic method to thinking about important issues. There are many lively debates on consciousness, the role of reason, the nature of reality, causality, morality and ethics, and the list can go on and on. People offer many competing positions, and of course some will agree with Islamic perspectives and some may not. But, Hellenistic philosophy of the Islamic medieval period is simply not analogous with contemporary philosophy.
The word philosophy linguistically means ‘the love of wisdom.’ Practically, it refers to thinking deeply about things, and Muslims are continually encouraged to ponder and reflect on the world around them. As a matter of fact, it is a neglected act of worship. The Qur’an mentions the word ‘mind’ or ‘reasoning’ (in different forms) over 48 times, and refers to ‘people of intellect/understanding’ over 15 times, and this is not to mention commands to ‘reflect,’ ‘ponder’ and ‘contemplate.’
This is not to say that philosophical reasoning is to be taken as an end, but rather to use it as a way to gain greater insight or to awaken the truth that already exists within our innate nature or the empirical world around us. Not to mention, experiential and spiritual truths are not always discovered by philosophical thinking alone.
Nevertheless, today, there is a desperate need to encourage thinking and philosophical reasoning. When our students are being bombarded with skepticism, atheism and all the other ‘-isms,’ they need to acquire and develop the intellectual and spiritual tools to address them. Saying philosophy is forbidden will, and has, disenfranchised many young people, and in some cases it is pushing them away from Islam altogether. It is irresponsible to tell university students to keep away from philosophy when it is used in almost every sphere of learning, not to mention the constant bombardment of the Islamic tradition by proponents of other philosophies. Without the necessary intellectual grounding, their minds may end up defeated, knowledge of philosophy will help build their defences.
However, an important piece of advice I would give is that before embarking on an intellectual journey one must have a minimum level of spiritual grounding (connection with God), and a basic yet essential understanding of the Islamic creed—as well as a relationship with nuanced and intellectually astute Islamic scholars. Finally, when one philosophizes they must premise the arguments and positions in the strong inferences in the Islamic source texts. Once these things are in place, engaging in this area only increases one’s faith. What brings me to this conclusion? I have recently completed a postgraduate degree in philosophy. During most lectures and seminar group sessions I came to the conclusion that God and Islam were the missing links to solving the problems that we discussed.
Philosophy today cannot be reduced to nor defined by the blameworthy philosophical assumptions of the Islamic medieval period. Let us not commit the fallacy of simply equating things with shared terms as automatically being one and the same. Instead, we should realise that nuanced philosophical reasoning would go a long way to help deal with the complex intellectual challenges of the modern world.