Beware, the following journey is not for the faint of heart.
Want to understand Muslim philosophy but feel daunted by the very concept? No matter! In this article, we will briefly discuss all that you, a beginner at philosophy, need to know about philosophers from the East, their various contributions to the philosophic arena and the significance of their ideas.
When you think of philosophy, your untrained mind comes up with certain, iconic names instead of concepts or ideas; philosophers who had a great impact on how people perceived the world. You may be thinking in terms of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc. and while these people left an indelible mark behind after their demise, it is important to acknowledge that most of our understanding of philosophy comes from the greatest minds of Western civilization.
While all of us are at least, vaguely familiar with the contribution of the East in terms of science, medicine, math, and mechanics, what some of us rarely know, is how Eastern philosophers shaped the thinking of Muslim society in their times.
It’s also important to note that the philosophy of Muslims from the East is not called Islamic philosophy because religion does not approve of the questioning of certain pre-established notions and can therefore not be aligned with the premise on which philosophers operate. Besides Islamic philosophy has another name which is a better fit, called theosophy. More shall be discussed about it later on.
Muslim philosophers can be divided into three broad factions, each with their own paradigms and ideas. We have the traditionalists on one side; those who claimed that the kala’am should be the source from where all knowledge should be derived. The kala’am in this scenario refers to primary readings such as the Holy Quran, the traditions of the Prophet and Ahadith. Since these are the most authentic, they should be referred to when finding the answers for important philosophic problems. The traditionalists challenged those who said that there should be no such study since the Prophet and his followers did not discuss these philosophic problems which meant that they probably had no significance in the grand scheme of things. Al-Ashari is a noted traditionalist who wrote many texts to support his argument against the anti-philosophic faction.
The other paradigm and perhaps the most shocking (for the time period, remember, this emerged somewhere around the seventh century) was that of rationalism. Those who agreed with the rationalists came to be known as the Mutazilites. The Mutazilites strongly believed in free will and denied fate, asserting that mankind is fully responsible for their actions. They also put forward some truly interesting questions about God’s attributes, the creation of this world and the Holy Quran – these we shall address some other times.
Since the Mutazilites fully believed in adopting the Greek method of philosophy to turn Islam into a more humanistic religion, they were regarded as heretics and many were executed on charges of blasphemy.
The third paradigm was that of Sufism, a concept that has eluded some for centuries – we shall discuss this too, perhaps some other time since like rationalism, we cannot do justice to its ideas in some five sentences.
If you would like to know more about Muslim philosophy, head over to your nearest library or search for authentic reading material translated into English and Urdu for your ease. Next time, we’ll discuss each of these paradigms in detail, focusing especially on why the rationalist paradigm failed even though it was the only purely philosophic aspect of Muslim philosophy. Stay tuned!