Searching for the Truth; Philosophy in Islam

If one could roam around 9th century Baghdad, one could hear a phrase that would bring a headache to many present-day devoted Muslims. “The ink of a scholar is more important than the blood of a martyr“. How come those words derived from the collective memory of the prophet’s teachings fell out of prominence in the years to come and when did seeking the truth though philosophy became irrelevant?

While Roman Empire fractured and philosophical thought fell into disfavour, the Arabic empire appeared taking the lead. Baghdad, a city with an important legacy from the Persian and Hellenistic times, was a hub of scholars translating and commenting with great passion on the works of their Greek predecessors. Aristotelian thought mesmerized Arab intellectuals, every passage of his work was dissected and analysed. As the Arabs overwhelmed vast lands in Asia, it was imperative to strike a balance between past ideas and the Islamic teachings. Destroying everything against Islam was a clean but inconvenient way; therefore conciliation by means of scholarship was attempted first. Scholars embarked on a journey of validating Islamic teachings using philosophy.

Al-Farabi explained platonic and aristotelian ideas by trying to make peace between their contrasting teachings. Al-Kindi attempted another peace operation by arguing that the fulfilment of the prophecy was not mutually exclusive to the search for knowledge through other means. Of course the whole truth emerged from the holy texts, but people could still reach conclusions for simple matters through philosophy and reason, leaving the difficult ones to the prophet.

Two centuries of honouring the classics passed, then Avicenna turns up to disagree with Aristotle, reignite the flame of philosophy and mark a new era in the approach of Arab scholars. Avicenna, in his attempt to reconcile philosophy with Islam, argued that body is separate from mind with the thought experiment of the floating man. This disassociation facilitates the concept of death in Islam as separation from the body, whose master is none other than the soul itself. At the same time, the ability of the floating man to be self-aware without any sensory proof of the matter meant that the soul is immortal and could exist devoid of a fleshly vessel. Islam teaches that while the mind is in control, the body is equally important and such a contradiction hurts the faith. We can see that during the attempt to adjust classical philosophy to Islam, the shortcomings of Islam itself should be discussed.

In the following centuries, knowledge was saturated in the Arabic world. There was no need to focus on the classics anymore because of the amount of texts that were discussed already. The Arabic literature was wide enough to be a source by itself. Al-Ghazali saw the effect of the surrounding teachings to the beliefs of the masses, and wondered about the origins of faith. After years of contemplation, he came to the conclusion that human reasoning is flawed and that the only way to the truth is through faith. Philosophy was not bad per se, but humans are often erroneous and their conclusions through philosophy were wrong and in contrast to the religious truth. Only he who believes can experience the truth and then describe the effects of that truth through reason. Causal effects in nature all emerge from the truth of the god. Discarding reason as a standalone means to the truth, discards the core existence of philosophy. As such, the old philosophers and the Greeks should be abandoned and focus should return to religious texts.

Accepting without doubting formed a crack on the glass for Arabic philosophy, until Averroes tried to glue it back together when he opposed al-Ghazali. Reason is not second to faith; both of them are paths to the same truth. Faith is the digested, simplified version to be fed to the uninterested masses. The educated elite can argue and arrive to the truth through reason, but without upsetting the faith of the masses with doubts that they won’t comprehend. The interpretation of the Quran should be done not literally, but by those who have substantial knowledge to do so. Here lies a major pitfall, in that if the faith is not complete and apparent, then it is not the true faith. Regardless of Averroes’ arguments, al-Ghazali’s scepticism affected his peers. Averroes’ rebuttals from the edge of the empire in spanish Andalusia could not reach on time the centres of thought in the east. His work fascinated Christian and Jewish scholars, but was unable to shut down the concerns of Muslim religious leaders.

Propagation of philosophy works in tandem with how education was provided in the Arabic “Golden Age”. The Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad offered a philosopher-friendly environment and the House of Wisdom was a valuable source of knowledge from inside or outside the Arabic world. However, when the Mongols sieged the city, most of this precious knowledge was destroyed, along with its annihilated population. Baghdad lost its grace as cultural centre and even though the city managed to economically recover, a great blow was dealt to scientific progress. When peace is in danger, culture and philosophy fade to the background. With the lack of institutionalised education, independent scholars could work only under the patronage of leaders. When patronage stopped, their work was suppressed as well. Religious colleges, a predecessor of universities, allowed research for a couple of centuries more, but the inherent focus towards theology overshadowed philosophy. Nonetheless, sciences that did not tamper directly with the form of god and the meaning of human life, such as astronomy and medicine continued to prosper. In this regard, sciences continued to progress until the 16th century.

We should also keep in mind, how geographical reasons affected the evolution of Islamic faith. Three different monotheistic religions where present in the Middle East, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In order for Islam to maintain its status it was imperative to strive to keep the faith “clean” and true. Similarly to the other religions who suffered from arguing sects, Sunni and Shia branches of Islam were at odds with each other. The orthodox Muslim leaders deemed philosophy as a cause of doubt in the minds of the believers, a doubt that could stain the faith and only promote divisions. For this reason, they tried to undermine philosophy and shifted research from existential exploration to practical applications such as mathematics and law. In the end, holy revelation was superior to any other form of knowledge, correct and complete, and should be kept as it is.

It is a law of nature that energy follows the path of the least resistance. The vastness of the Arabic empire and the harsh conditions a large portion of it made it hard to follow the rough way of doubt and philosophy. The promising option of faith is there in all its glory, the single god devoid of the human attributes of the past gods, a trans-dimensional being of absolute power that provided absolute truth. If we consider the five pillars of the Islamic faith, none of them requires any mental exercise apart from the declaration of faith. The individual and social aspect of a person is one and the same with the religious aspect. Trying to separate religion from any other aspect of life is a sin. In comparison to Christianity, critical thinking and free will are not of importance in Islam. There is no need to search for the truth elsewhere, as the prophet and his followers provided it in the holy texts.

If we look at the Quran and the Hadith, the teachings are quite straightforward. Would the God’s teaching be indeed godly if it needed support from reason? Certainly not. If the goal of philosophy is to validate the holy teachings, then it is redundant because the teachings are validated through faith. Here comes the goal of exploring the reasons behind the phenomena in the world. But it is already argued that the human brain is incapable of understanding metaphysic phenomena. The last objective would be to reach wisdom through learning and challenging ideas. However, this goal too becomes obsolete, due to the fact that wisdom can be achieved through god-wariness and sincerity, according to the holy scripts. If the goals of philosophy are discarded, then there is no meaning in promoting it.

In retrospect, although Arabic thought started to decline after the 11th century, it still managed to assist humanity with scientific marvels in various fields. The decline in the East was replaced by the rise in the West, which was based on the translations and findings of the Arab scholars. Even though Arabic philosophy didn’t prosper in the long term, its approach towards truth and reconciliation with faith may have shaped the way of thinking of medieval Christian scholars and assisted the enlightenment in the years to come.

[The above text was written as an assignment for the class of “Western Thought”]

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