Tuesday, 16 May 2017

If you want to know about Muslim women's rights, ask Muslim women Susan Carland

Islam’s patriarchy and western feminism have said a lot. Now Muslim women who fight sexism (yes we exist) must be heard 

Sunday 7 May 2017
Published in The Guardian - Copyright - All Rights Reserved

Within minutes of arriving to collect my professionally bound thesis, I found myself on the receiving end of an unsolicited and impenetrable rant about female genital mutilation.

“What’s your paper on?” the shop owner inquired.
“It’s on Muslim women and … ,” I began, but before I could finish my sentence, he had launched into the subject.

The fact that I hadn’t even mentioned the words “fe
male genital mutilation” was irrelevant; merely saying “Muslim women” was a wide enough rabbit hole for him to dart down. My presence as a Muslim woman and my half-delivered topic were the only encouragement he needed.
That he felt authorised to deliver a lecture to me about his understanding of the allegedly sexist treatment of women in Islam, the very subject of my years-long PhD dissertation, didn’t surprise me. This was not the first time a stranger had felt entitled to raise the potential religious interference of my genitals with me.

It’s uncanny how often people try to demonstrate their concern about the alleged oppression of Muslim women by humiliating them. Even finding out the details of my research findings doesn’t seem to deter them from baldly sharing opinions.

When I was neck-deep in my doctoral research, I attended a black-tie journalism-industry dinner on a windy Sydney night. Some of Australia’s most intelligent and perceptive thinkers were in the well-dressed crowd. I had grown accustomed to answering questions about my subject. I had also grown quite used to the standard responses I received to my thesis, and habitually gave ambiguous answers to avoid them.

A well-known and popular journalist approached me and asked what I did for living. His reaction, despite belonging to a group of people usually known for their cognitive skills, was so representative that I scribbled it down on a dinner napkin as soon as he left so I would not forget a word:

Journalist: So what do you do?
Me: I’m completing my PhD.
Journalist: On?
Me: (purposefully vague) Sociology and politics.
Journalist: But what is your exact research question?
Me: (inward sigh at what was inevitably to follow, but valiantly indifferent exterior) I’m investigating the way Muslim women fight sexism within Muslim communities.
Journalist: (with widened, alarmed eyes) That’s dangerous waters!
Me: (through gritted teeth) Not really. It’s been going on for many hundreds of years, and I’ve been spoiled for choice with the number of women who have been willing to be participants in my research.
Journalist: Did they want it known what they were doing? Or did they need it kept secret?
Me: (icy frustration descends into Arctic winter) Oh, many of them were happy to be identified in my research. In fact, some were angry when I suggested giving them a pseudonym, insisting they wanted to be known for this work.
Journalist: (now completely flabbergasted) But … but, did their husbands know of their apostasy?!
Me: (choosing to ignore use of “apostasy” as eyes take on glacial sheen) Actually, many of the women listed their husbands, or another Muslim man – like their father or imam – as their greatest supporters.
Journalist: (now quite literally speechless) …

I’ve had similar exchanges — too many to count — with non-Muslims over the course of my research. Commonplace is the firm conviction that sexism against Muslim women is rife, most often coupled with the utter disbelief that women who challenge sexism could exist, let alone that there are many of them, that they are not a new phenomenon, and that Muslim men often support them in their efforts. I often wonder how people can be so comfortable presenting these attitudes directly to me, a clearly identifiable Muslim woman in a hijab. They do not appear at all uneasy in making it apparent just how bad they think life is for any and all Muslim women, and how unengaged they believe Muslim women to be in confronting the sexism they invariably face.

I have received similar, but different, reactions within some sections of various Muslim communities when they found out the focus of my research. Often I would be purposefully vague when discussing my topic with them, too. I would restrict myself to saying that I was researching “Muslim women”, and avoid highlighting the “fighting sexism” part, as there is a complicated, often suspicious attitude towards anything that may be perceived as “feminism” within Muslim communities. Or I would rush to reassure them that I was not framing this in an anti-religious perspective.
Their scepticism is perhaps an understandable reaction from a minority community that frequently feels under siege, particularly when it comes to women’s rights. I hoped the fact that my research was being carried out from within a common faith, and that it drew explicitly and deeply on the theological resources afforded by this, reassured them that I, unlike many others, was not engaging in an attack on the faith and communities they held dear.

But still certain people within the Muslim community were scornful, rolling their eyes and calling me a feminist — not as a compliment, but a warning. They saw feminism and Islam as inherently at odds.

This is the terrain in which my research into Muslim women occurred. The subject is fraught on multiple fronts; the topic of “Muslim women and sexism” is a minefield of unflappable certainty and indignation from all corners. Yet for something about which so many people are adamantly sure, I feel there is very little information from the women actually involved. It seems to me that, in the argument in which Muslim women are the battlefield, the war rages on and the angry accusations zing past their heads from all sides. The main casualty is, ironically, women’s self-determination.

Islam is arguably the most discussed religion in the west today, in both media and society, and, after terrorism, the plight of Muslim women is probably the most controversial topic of debate. I have been asked, challenged, harangued and abused about “Islam’s treatment of women” countless times in person and online. Nonetheless, there is only a small amount of published work available on the topic of Muslim women fighting sexism within Muslim communities, and much of that focuses on women who see Islam as inherently part of the problem — if not the whole problem — that Muslim women face.

The assumption is that Muslim women need to be extricated from the religion entirely before anything close to liberation or equality can be achieved.

There are limited sociological accounts of Muslim women who fight sexism from a faith-positive perspective, and only a handful of studies that investigate the theological works of some Muslim feminists. The responses to, and motivations of, these women are dealt with coincidentally, as opposed to primarily. This small pool of available resources clashes with what I know anecdotally to be happening in many Muslim communities, as well as the historical accounts of Muslim women who, from the earliest days of Islam, have been challenging the sexism they have experienced by using religious arguments.

For years now I have been speaking about issues relating to Islam, Muslims and gender to the media, both Australian and overseas. In one sense I choose this, but in another it has been chosen for me, moulded by the way others attempt to define and restrict me, more or less obliging me to respond.
It’s a common story. Jasmin Zine, a Canadian scholar, once observed that not just our actions but also our very identities are constantly being shaped by dual, competing discourses that surround us.

There’s the fundamentalist, patriarchal narrative, persistently trying to confine the social and public lives of Muslim women in line with the kind of narrow, gendered parameters that are by now so familiar. But there are also some western feminist discourses that seek to define our identities in ways that are quite neocolonial: backward, oppressed, with no hope of liberation other than to emulate whatever western notions of womanhood are on offer. This wedging chimes with my experience, and it’s a problem because, as Zine argues, both arms deny Muslim women the ability — indeed the right — to define our identities for ourselves, and especially to do so within the vast possibilities of Islam.

It is as though male Muslim scholars and non-Muslim western feminists have handed down predetermined scripts for us to live by. And it is left to those people thought not to exist — Muslim women who fight sexism — to rewrite those scenarios and reclaim our identities.

This is an edited extract from Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism by Susan Carland, out now through Melbourne University Press

Proud of being a part of this department - wonderful students - Study of Religions - University College Cork - Ireland

Monday, 15 May 2017

The Myth of the Muslim World

May 14, 2017 
Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education
Copyright, All Rights Reserved
In his influential History of the Saracen Empires, the early-18th-century British scholar Simon Ockley remarks benignly about Islam and its beliefs: "The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the hours of the Prophet have never transgressed the measure of human virtues; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion." Such views influenced Edward Gibbon and his largely favorable depiction of Islam in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Similar positive assessments of Islam continued to be found through the first quarter of the 19th century; Goethe lists the Prophet Muhammad as his third source of inspiration, after Jesus and Apollo.

But a very different view emerges in the latter half of the 19th century. More typical of European attitudes during this period was that expressed by the French philosopher Ernest Renan in his now (in)famous lecture titled "Islam and Science," delivered at the Sorbonne in 1883. Renan pilloried Islam as being opposed to reason, progress, and reform. Continuing a familiar Orientalist theme grounded in the racial theories of the period, he attributed medieval Arab advances in the sciences and philosophy to Aryan and non-Muslim (primarily Greco-Sassanian) influences.

Cemil Aydin, in his thoughtful and provocative new book The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press), explores the reasons for this sea change in fundamental European attitudes toward Muslims. His study of the historical record demonstrates that the racialization of Muslims as a homogeneous group and the construction of the "Muslim world" as a seamless whole began in this period, with the onset of Western colonization of much of what we term today the Middle East and other parts of Asia.

What is interesting is that this European project of constructing a monolithic "Muslim world" was bolstered by Muslim intellectuals themselves, who, in the same period, sought refuge in Pan-Islamism. Aydin’s exhumation of the historical record yields no evidence from before the period of colonization of a pan-Muslim consciousness arrayed against an imagined monolithic Western Christian polity. Travelers like the 14th-century North African Ibn Batutta and the 17th-century Ottoman Evliya Çelebi wrote about the cultural and linguistic diversity of Muslim lands and displayed no sense of an "abstract and globalized concept of a Muslim civilization," nor did they feel threatened by alien non-Muslim cultures. Aydin skillfully recounts the complex web of relationships that existed between and among European Christian and Muslim nations before the 19th century, in which religious affiliation played no predictable role as a unifying, rallying factor.

All of this would change during the cataclysmic political encounters between European colonizers and colonized Muslim populations. The former painted Islam as a backward ideology that, in promoting political despotism and resistance to science, had contributed to the civilizational decline of Muslims, who were now imagined as an undifferentiated collectivity. Such accusations prompted impassioned responses from Muslim intellectuals, like Muhammad 'Abduh, Syed Ahmad Khan, and Syed Ameer Ali, who challenged imputations of cultural inferiority by emphasizing the superior values and intellectual contributions of a global Islamic civilization. As Aydin remarks, "In these circumstances, civilizational conflict was the principal lens through which global history was understood." Collective amnesia wiped out memories of earlier cosmopolitan Muslim empires that had regularly interacted with "Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists; shamans; Christian Arabs, Greeks, and Armenians.

In the postcolonial world and particularly in the 21st century, the racialized European imperialist discourse of the 19th century has become transmuted into Islamophobia, while the Pan-Islamism of the same era has been succeeded by political Islam or Islamism. The assumed fault lines between the West and Islam have become only more entrenched in these new, acrimonious discourses, which, as the author shows, are in many ways the mirror image of each other: Islamophobes and radical Islamists equally embrace the narrative of civilizational difference and conflict that makes their exclusivist worldviews credible.

Yet one must ask if the idea of a unified Muslim world is totally without antecedent in the premodern era. The concept of Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) has no basis in Islamic scripture but was created by early Muslim jurists to refer to realms under Muslim control, as Aydin briefly notes. Contraposed to it was the Dar al-Harb (Abode of War), which indicated non-Muslim realms that were potentially hostile. An Abode of Peace or Security was posited by one group of jurists to refer to those non-Muslim polities that had entered into peace treaties with Muslim authorities and were therefore not considered to be hostile. But another group of jurists argued that once non-Muslim polities signed peace treaties with Muslims, they were to be considered part of the Abode of Islam. In their more capacious and cosmopolitan conceptualization of the Muslim polity, it is peaceful intent, rather than confessional faith, that signifies inclusion in the Abode of Islam. These early contestations of the meaning of belonging could have been fruitfully explored in further detail, since they have important repercussions for contemporary Muslims as they similarly negotiate parochial and cosmopolitan understandings of their collective identity.
On the whole, however, this is a carefully argued book that will provoke specialists and nonspecialists alike to revisit commonly held assumptions about the nature of relations between "Islam and the West" in the past, present, and future. As Aydin reminds us, there was nothing inevitable about the development of the clash-of-civilizations thesis made popular by academics like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis in the late 20th century, for it is in the theater "not of timeless doctrine but of contingent politics and ideas … that contemporary conflicts play out."
Aydin counsels toward the end of the book that we should study premodern history, with its messy record of shifting political allegiances in both Muslim and Christian realms — which often had nothing to do with religious identity — in order to challenge simplistic contemporary stereotypes. The current ascendancy of right-wing illiberal groups in the United States and Western Europe that demonize Islam as a common enemy of the West makes this message both timely and urgent. The author’s masterly historical survey drives home the point that, in the past, shared values and interests rather than shared religion typically allowed for the creation of alliances among people from varied backgrounds. Those are exactly the kinds of alliances that need to be forged today.
Asma Afsaruddin is a professor of Islamic studies in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington. She is the author of Contemporary Issues in Islam (Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

Friday, 21 April 2017

Paris Attack

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland
Friday 21st April 2017

The news of the shooting of policemen in Paris last night has put the city and the whole of France on alert again having suffered so many similar attacks in recent years.  It’s also a sad reminder of the events in Westminster only a few weeks ago.  And earlier this week a policeman was killed by gunmen, who opened fire at a checkpoint, near St Catherine's monastery in Egypt's south Sinai.  Located at the foot of Mount Sinai, St Catherine's is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, built in the 6th century, and a UNESCO world heritage site.  I remember reading about the monastery years ago, especially its significance to Muslim/Christian relations.  The prophet Muhammad is said to have issued a peace covenant to the monks at the monastery and to this day it is used to affirm peaceful co-existence. 

However strong a testament there is to peace there always seems to be some on the side of war.  The attack at the monastery comes just days after bombings at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt.

Tolerance can never be over emphasized in the world we live in today but I think tolerance comes from lived experience. It helps shatter stereotypes we have about each other.  Differences of opinion, faith or otherwise are always a challenge but it is appreciating them that makes for a colourful society.  These questions came up at a recent Church of Scotland event I attended where we discussed the tension between mission, belief and interfaith work in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  We often lose sight of how differences within a faith tradition are more difficult to deal with than building bridges outside.  A strong belief in anything should not demand the conversion of others, that mindset can lead to bloodshed, but accepting the challenges of doubt and the role of minorities in our lives is something that surely strengthen identities and society.

Monday, 27 March 2017

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland
Monday 27th March, 2017

I was in a discussion panel yesterday - part of a Glasgow film festival, highlighting the contributions made by minority groups.  The documentary (Poshida by Faizan Fiaz)

Watching a film has often led me to a variety of emotions, sentiments and most importantly questions.  The last time I was in Pakistan was in 1999 and from what I saw, a lot has changed.

I often use film as a teaching tool in my own contemporary Islam class to offer students an insight into places they’ve not been to. Sometimes we watch lives on film that are hidden from us in our real world.

Anything that has the power to make us rethink our understanding, can make us uncomfortable. Issues of gender and sexuality are at the forefront of Muslim concern and of many other religions too. As a society we are expanding our understanding on these issues.

The way people live their lives can challenge our different religious texts and challenge our different cultural traditions which try to present neatly the messy realities we actually live in.

May we find thoughtful paths to embrace these tensions, in the hope that we can learn to live peacefully with and appreciate all our differences.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Riz Ahmed: we will lose kids to extremism if we don't make them heroes in our stories

British Muslims are turning to extremism because they do not see themselves represented as heroes on screen, according to the actor Riz Ahmed.

In a speech at the House of Commons, Ahmed said: “When we fail to represent, people switch off. They switch off their telly, they switch off at the ballot box. They retreat to fringe narratives, which are sometimes very dangerous.

“In the mind of the Isis recruit, he’s a version of James Bond, right? Everyone thinks they’re the good guy. Have you seen some of the Isis propaganda videos? They’re cut like action movies. Where’s the counter-narrative? Where are we telling these kids that they can be heroes in our stories?”

Delivering the Channel 4 Diversity Lecture to an audience that included the Culture Minister, Matt Hancock, Ahmed recalled growing up in Wembley, north west London, with his family. “I remember when they’d be watching TV downstairs in the lounge, I’d be upstairs and all of a sudden I’d hear one of them call out, ‘Asian!’

“I’d pause my game and run downstairs just to go and look at Sanjeev Bhaskar on Goodness Gracious Me, Meera Syal in Bhaji on the Beach, Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham, Jimi Mistry in East is East.

“If you’re used to seeing yourself reflected in culture, I really want you to take a minute to understand how much it means to someone who doesn’t see themselves reflected back. Every time you see yourself in a magazine or on a billboard, TV, film, it’s a message that you matter, that you’re part of the national story, that you’re valued. You feel represented.”
Black and minority ethnic people feel alienated because so much of Britain’s “national story” is white - from the way history is taught in schools to the glut of all-white period dramas on television, said Ahmed, seen most recently in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One and the Sky Atlantic/HBO drama The Night Of.

“What people are looking for is a message that they belong. That they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and valued. They want to feel represented.

“If we don’t step up and tell a representative story, we’re going to start losing people to other stories. We’re going to start losing British teenagers so the next chapter in their lives is written by Isis in Syria. We’re going to start losing MPs like Jo Cox, who are murdered in the street because we’ve been sold a story that’s so narrow about who we are and who we’ve been and who we should be.

“In the 1930s we had a very similar situation to what we have today: political polarisation, economic disenfranchisement after a big financial crash, rising inequality, systematic scapegoating of certain minorities. What’s at stake here is whether or not we will move forwards together or whether we will leave people behind.”

Ahmed began his film career in The Road To Guantanamo and Film4’s Four Lions, and went on to critical acclaim in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Nightcrawler. His performance in The Night Of earned him a Golden Globe nomination. But like other BAME actors, including Idris Elba and David Oyelowo, he has found more opportunities in the US.

“We end up going to America to find work,” he said. “I meet producers and directors here, I think they’re being honest when they say they want to work with me but ‘we don’t have anything for you, all our stories are set in Cornwall in the 1600s’.

“It’s weird because Asians are such a big proportion of the population here. Asian doesn’t even mean people that look like me in America. When I say I’m Asian they look at me, see I’m not Chinese and think I’m crazy. But it takes American remakes of British shows to cast someone like me.”

Ahmed said the government must step in to increase representation in the creative industries, citing figures showing that only 1.5 per cent of TV drama directors are from BAME backgrounds. 

He added: “Sometimes it’s very easy to look at the screen and say, ‘Oh, look! It’s changed so much! There’s Riz, there’s Idris, there’s Michaela Cole in Chewing Gum… but these examples are often prominent because they are the exception that proves the rule.

“I’m getting on a plane to LA to attend the Star Wars premiere and I still get that second search before I get on the plane.” He had the surreal experience “of being asked for a selfie by someone who’s swabbing you for explosives”.

Ahmed said he had no political ambitions but joked that "as a Muslim socialist creative type, I can't rule out a leadership bid for UKIP. These are topsy-turvy political times."

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Islamic world did liberalise – but then came the first world war

Published in The Spectator - February 25th 2017
Copyright - All Rights Reserved

I am quite used to people smirking into their sleeves when they hear that I’ve just written a book called The Islamic Enlightenment. The really helpful wags say they expect something along the lines of The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro Agnew, which was billed as a collection of all the memorable aphorisms of the former US vice-president, and contained only blank pages.

So, the Islamic Enlightenment — good for a laugh. But we’re all familiar with the serious argument that lies behind the jests; that Islam has not been through an Enlightenment, a Reformation, or any of the other rites of passage that have formed our modernity, and that, ergo, Muslims and modernity are strangers. Not just strangers, but enemies: ever since Gutenberg revolutionised mass printing in the 1450s, pushing the West into the modern age, the Muslims have set their face against innovation. And to be fair, when you take into account the fact that it took some 400 years for movable type to come into general use in the Middle East, and that for much of this period the Ottoman authorities punished book-printing with death, is it any wonder that this bleak view of Muslim improvability has acquired the wide acceptance and legitimacy it currently enjoys?

In fact, rarely has there been a better time to test the belief — widespread in the Trump White House, among Europe’s rising populists, and the Kremlin — that Islamic society is incapable of reforming because it hates progress. Wouldn’t it be awkward if proof were adduced to show that, on the contrary, for long periods in their recent history the central and most influential lands of Islam, having been confronted by dynamic western modernity, embraced that modernity in spades and only lapsed into Islamist recalcitrance after the first world war obliterated them physically and the victorious allies tried to subjugate them politically? But this is what happened in Turkey, Egypt and Iran during the ‘long’ 19th century until 1914.

A key aspect of Islamic modernisation (in Egypt’s case only until the British invasion of 1882) was that the lands in question acted as free, independent agents. Change was not only driven by royal autocrats like Iran’s Crown Prince Abbas Mirza, who reformed the Persian military during the Napoleonic wars, but also by commoners of vision such as the Egyptian administrator and intellectual Rifaa al-Tahtawi, whose conception of progress accommodated steamships, girls’ education and linguistic reform. Another secular visionary was Ibrahim Sinasi, father of Turkish journalism, who peppered the Ottoman government of the early 1860s with impertinent advice on how to deal with Greek irredentists and poured scorn on reactionaries who opposed the introduction of gaslights in Istanbul (the same innovation had met with the same reaction in Georgian London).

Islamic society on the eve of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 had indeed been medieval in many ways, its backwardness perpetuated by despotic government, almost universal illiteracy and the clergy’s monopoly over knowledge. Now change came in a rush. The telegraph, the postal service and table manners arrived almost simultaneously, closely followed by the first polite calls for the crowned head to share power. Theatres of anatomy overturned the prophet’s injunction against cutting up corpses (‘though it may have swallowed the most precious pearl’) and there was an increase in religious scepticism; a photograph of an Istanbul medical school around the middle of the century shows a cohort of medics posing in fezzes amid ghoulish arrangements of human remains. As for the plague, quarantine and hygiene did for this mass killer as they had in Europe two centuries earlier, while slavery was first challenged by a ban on the trade itself (insisted upon by those newbie zealots the British), and ultimately condemned by the decline of the harem, shared habitat of eunuchs and concubines.

The growing integration of the sexes and the decline in polygamy among the new middle class were two manifestations of a broader feminine emancipation. Having begun the century as unlettered chattels of their menfolk, by the first world war a growing number of educated women in Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran were equipped to contribute to an emerging national life. They wrote for feminist journals, led humanitarian campaigns and — to the dismay of puritans — shed layer after layer of chaste Islamic covering.

In the early 1890s, Zainab Fawwaz, an Egyptian feminist, declared that there was nothing in Islamic law prohibiting women from ‘involvement in the occupations of men’. This in a country where only a few decades earlier efforts to found a school for midwifery had foundered on popular hostility and the school had had to be filled with Abyssinians bought from the Cairo slave market.

That Islam’s liberal moment came juddering to a halt in 1914 is a little-known tragedy. In the first decade of the 20th century, Iranian and Turkish democrats had launched revolutions establishing parliamentary systems that limited the powers of the ruler — a similar movement in favour of popular sovereignty in Egypt had been thwarted by the British occupation two decades earlier. But war laid waste to the region and the British and French chopped up much of the former Ottoman Empire into mandate-sized chunks. Egypt stayed under British supervision, while in Iran and Turkey the powers were only kept at bay by new regimes that westernised furiously along Roman lines (Mussolini was the model), not Jeffersonian ones.

One of the reasons why Islam’s liberal moment was never revived was its association with an avowedly liberal West that in fact behaved anything but liberally; this confusion of message and messenger fuelled the Muslim Brotherhood and subsequent Islamist movements, while defenders of a measured westernisation such as the secular-minded Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh were rewarded for their political independence with the hostility of the West. (In 1951 Mossadegh nationalised Iran’s British-run oil industry; the CIA and MI6 toppled him in a coup two years later.)
Now, amid the beastliness of Isis and its fellow travellers, and the tendency of a growing number of westerners to demonise not Islamism or the terrorists but Islam tout court, it seems vital to recall that hopeful century when the lands of Islam engaged lustily with modernity in the hope that something of it can be recaptured — as, indeed, it briefly looked as though it might during the Arab Spring. The alternative is to perpetuate the self-fulfilling consensus around which the Isis ideologues and our own populists unite: a story of inevitable conflict and alienation based on a historical fallacy.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

If Aquinas is a philosopher then so are the Islamic theologians

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast.

Published at Aeon.co
Copyright, All Rights Reserved

Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think people today mostly acknowledge the importance and originality of philosophy in the Islamic world. Would any scholar now say in print, as Bertrand Russell notoriously did in his History of Western Philosophy (written in 1945), that ‘Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators’? I certainly hope not. But even if we now see more clearly, we still have blindspots.

Painting: Detail from ‘The Meeting of the Theologians’ by Abd Allah Musawwir, mid-16th century. Courtesy Wikipedia

The thinkers taken seriously as ‘philosophers’ are typically the authors Russell dismissed as mere commentators, men such as al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, Avicenna, and Averroes. Though they were far from unoriginal, they were indeed enthusiasts for Aristotle and other Greek authors. Yet these were not the only intellectuals and rationalists of their time, nor did rationalism and philosophical reflection die with Averroes at the end of the 12th century, as is still often believed. Throughout Islamic history, many of the figures of interest and relevance to the historian of philosophy were not Aristotelians, but practitioners of kalām, which is usually translated as ‘theology’.

The word kalām literally means ‘word’, and here abbreviates the Arabic expression ʿilm al-kalām: ‘science of the word’. It is often contrasted to the term falsafa, which as you can probably guess was imported into Arabic as a loan-word from the Greek philosophia. When modern-day scholars draw this contrast, when they assume that kalām was non-philosophical or even anti-philosophical, they are taking their lead from the medieval tradition itself. In particular, from two self-styled ‘philosophers (falāsifa)’, al-Fārābī and Averroes. In their eyes, the ‘theologians (mutakallimūn)’ engaged in mere dialectical argumentation; whereas philosophy offers demonstrative proofs. The theologian does not ground arguments in first principles, but just defends his own favourite interpretation of scripture against rival interpretations. Averroes was scornful of the results, complaining that it can lead to violent schism. For him, only a philosopher can offer a really reliable reading of the Quran, since the philosopher knows what is true on independent grounds – that is, on the grounds of Aristotelian science.

But should we accept this sharp opposition? These Aristotelians talk as if kalām makes insufficient use of reason. But most contemporaries would have seen it as controversial precisely because it was so rationalist. Theologians often departed from the surface meaning of the Quran on rational grounds: Revelation might seem to speak of God as if He had a body, but we can rule this out by giving arguments against His corporeality. The mutakallimūn also engaged in detailed disputes over such central philosophical issues as free will, atomism and the sources of moral responsibility, and debated such technicalities as the inherence of properties in substances, or the status of non-existing objects. If history had gone differently and there had been no hard-line Aristotelians writing in Arabic, I have no doubt that historians of philosophy would consider the output of the mutakallimūn to be the ‘philosophical’ tradition of the Islamic world.

That would have made our approach to Islamic intellectual history more like our treatment of Christian medieval thought. After all, medieval philosophy classes are mostly devoted to figures who considered themselves to be ‘theologians’, such as Anselm, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t like medieval philosophy either, precisely because of its religious context. But my view is that philosophy is where you find it, and that it is narrow-minded to ignore philosophical argumentation put forward by thinkers simply because they have a religious agenda, whether that agenda grows out of Christianity (as with Aquinas), Judaism (as with Maimonides), Hinduism (as with Nyāya epistemology or Vedānta philosophy of mind), or Islam.

The refusal to appreciate the philosophical interest of kalām is especially pernicious when it comes to the period after the pivotal figure of philosophy in the Islamic world, Avicenna (he died in 1037). His impact was enormous and pervasive. So we find ‘theologians’ such as al-Ghazālī (died 1111) and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (died 1210) engaging in minute analysis of Avicenna’s arguments, accepting some aspects of the Avicennian system while finding fault with others. Al-Ghazālī is notorious for his critique of Avicenna’s metaphysics in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, but he also heaped ridicule on anyone who denied the utility of the philosophers’ logic. As for al-Rāzī, his enormous theological compendia are comparable to those written by men such as Aquinas and Scotus in Latin Christendom, filled with scholastic argumentation and even structured in terms of philosophical elements like the Aristotelian categories. The myth that philosophy somehow died out in the Islamic world around the time of Averroes (died 1198) is in part the result of assuming that such texts fall outside the remit of the history of philosophy, despite being chock-full of intricate philosophical argumentation.

All of which is not to deny that some other kalām texts would be of limited interest to the philosophically minded reader, or that the mutakallimūn did typically proceed on the basis of scriptural exegesis instead of (or in addition to) pure rational argument. Nor is this the only reason that kalām texts can frequently be frustrating to the philosopher. Al-Fārābī and Averroes were right that there was a ‘dialectical’ tendency in their theological contemporaries. Premises might go unexamined because an envisaged opponent is bound to accept them, and there is a tendency – in early kalām especially – to answer questions with verbal formulae that all parties might accept, rather than delving deeper to find a really satisfying answer. But that tendency is reduced to some extent in later kalām literature. In fact, my impression – which I offer tentatively, given the vast amount of later kalām literature that is as yet unedited, and unstudied – is that kalām becomes significantly more ‘philosophical’ as the tradition developed. In the post-Avicennan period, the situation was increasingly like what we find in late 13th-century France: the most interesting and sophisticated philosophers were the theologians.

It might seem greedy of me to ask that a wide readership come to appreciate kalām, when most self-described ‘philosophers’ in the Islamic world are still rarely studied by non-specialists. It’s not as if undergraduate students are already routinely asked to read Avicenna and Averroes, never mind their ‘theological’ contemporaries and heirs. But even if the relevant texts remain largely unstudied, it is worth spreading the news that rationalism in Islam did not die with Averroes, and that the famous partisans of philosophy in the Islamic world, like al-Fārābī, Averroes and Avicenna, had no monopoly on philosophical thinking there.

A Muslim Valentine Message

02/09/2017 10:29 am ET
Published at Huffington Post - All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Now that Valentine’s Day is upon us, let’s offer a toast to the medieval Arabs from whom Europe learned to respect and honor the feminine. What?! That religion in which women are oppressed chattel, forced to cover themselves in black, segregated from public life! We are certain of our cultural superiority, of the high values of Western civilization, assuming that there has always been something innately superior about our Judaeo-Christian heritage.

Most people are unaware of how little honor was given to the feminine in the Graeco-Roman world, in early Christianity, and in Europe during the first thousand years of the common era. The Roman world offered no moral code worthy of admiration, nor any wholesome model of marriage. Christianity looked upon marriage as a necessary evil to preserve people from sin and facilitate procreation. Nowhere in the European world was Woman honored in the way that the knights of the desert did, following their ancient code of chivalry, muruah, or manliness, which combined physical prowess, heroic generosity, loyalty, and, above all, honoring and defending women.

Titus Burckhardt in Moorish Culture of Spain writes that the European chivalry of the Middle Ages was learned from the Spanish Moors. The quintessentially Western ideal of chivalry was unknown in the Western world until it came into Europe through Islamic Spain. The Moors, as they were called, were still living according to this code, prolifically composing poems and songs honoring the Feminine. Eventually, this was adapted by the Provençal troubadours from the Arab courts in Andalusia who sang of yearning for the beloved, elevating the sensibilities of the European mind from mere sensuality to a new refinement of emotion.

In the Arab context, there was always an ambiguity about whether it was the earthly beloved or the divine beloved that was being addressed, and this ambiguity was enjoyed, offering spiritual delight to the sensuous, and perhaps some sensuous delight to the spiritually minded. It is worth noting that the veneration of the Virgin Mary began around this time. While there had long been an esoteric current associated with Mary Magdalene in southern France, where she is believed to have settled after the death of Jesus, there is at least circumstantial evidence that the honoring of Mary, mother of Jesus, to whom all the cathedrals were dedicated, had entered European consciousness during this time both from the Spanish influences of Islamic Spain, as well as from the cultural cross pollination of the Crusades.

The great Cambridge scholar, R.A. Nicholson, wrote about the impact of Arab al-furusiyyah and muruah on European chivalry: “The chivalry of the Middle Ages is, perhaps, ultimately traceable to heathen Arabia. Knight-errantry, the riding forth on horseback in search of adventures, the rescue of captive maidens, the succor rendered everywhere to women in adversity — all these were essentially Arabian ideas, as was the very name of chivalry, the connection of honorable conduct with the horse-rider, the man of noble blood, the cavalier ... But the nobility of the women is not only reflected in the heroism and devotion of the men; it stands recorded in song, in legend and in history.”

Yes, contrary to the current myth that women are entirely degraded in Islamic culture, there was once a time when the Arabs civilized Europeans. One of the greatest of Muslim theologians, a Sufi, Ibn `Arabi (d. 1240), wrote that the contemplation of God is possible, indeed enhanced, through the human form: When man contemplates the Reality in woman he beholds God.

A similar influence entered the modern world with the recent wave of translations of the great poet Rumi. In a culture that is just beginning to heal the wounds of both life-denying Puritanism and heedless hedonism, Rumi’s poetry helps us to embrace our humanness and find something profoundly sacred in this earthly life, and especially in the intimacy of human love.

There are conventions of Persian poetry that use the metaphor of the beloved in very sensual terms, and it is not surprising that readers might interpret these poems on at least two levels. While Rumi would not blame us for imagining a personal beloved, especially if the poem engenders a tender intimacy in human relationship, it is not quite what Rumi had in mind. He speaks often about the spiritual archetype of the “Lover,” and for him this was the pinnacle of human attainment.

 Through the disciplines of the spiritual path, he had discovered something very sublime; he said “there is no greater love that love with no object.”
You, ignorant of the marrow, deceived by the skin,
be aware. The Beloved is at the center of your soul.
The essence of the body is sensation and the essence of the senses is the soul.
Not until you transcend body, senses, and soul, is everything He/She (God).
(Rumi, Quatrain 322, translated by Kabir Helminski)
But such transcendence is not for everyone. And so, for this Valentine’s Day, here is a Valentine’s wish: As the Quran says, “Honor the wombs that bore you.” May all women be honored, cherished, and protected, and may we honor all honest forms of love... and all true lovers.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The legacy of Islamic philosophy Although they worked within a religious framework, many philosophers in the Islamic world were pioneers of rational thought.

–   By Peter Adamson   –

This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

What can humanists or other non-believers find to interest them in Islamic philosophy? The phrase suggests the problem. If a philosophical tradition is distinctively Islamic, it would seem the humanist can see only a target for critique. The humanist might go further and argue that “Islamic philosophy” is a contradiction in terms. Philosophy is an exercise of unbounded reason, a search for understanding on the basis of discernment rather than revelation or faith.

Arab philosopher Averroes. Detail from Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497) (photo)

Plausible though this line of thought is, I want to persuade you that it is wrong. Let’s start with the biggest    assumption, that philosophical reflection must exclude a religious context. This is clearly unsustainable. Nearly all mediaeval Christian philosophers considered themselves to be theologians. It seems pretty clear that a definition of “philosopher” that rules out Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus is a definition that is in urgent need of revision. Looking further back, many ancient thinkers worked within an explicit religious framework. This is especially obvious in late antiquity with Christians like Augustine and Boethius, but applies at least as much to pagan thinkers like Iamblichus and Proclus. And what about Plato? We don’t think of him as a “religious” thinker, but he certainly weaves religious ideas into his philosophical works. Just read the Phaedrus to see what I mean.

Yet there does seem to be something to the idea that philosophy should distance itself from religious assumptions. What could be less philosophical than accepting a certain belief as true, just because that belief is endorsed by the Bible, or some other scriptural text? Plato wouldn’t do that, we hope. Would Aquinas? Well, yes and no. Like many Christian mediaeval thinkers, he adopted a sophisticated view of the relationship between reason and faith. The natural light of reason is sufficient for the establishment of philosophical understanding, from logic to natural philosophy to the study of the soul, ethics and politics. Reason can reach even as far as God, proving his existence and many of his traits. Yes, there are other truths inaccessible to reason, such as God’s being a Trinity. But these truths, once accepted by faith, can be more fully understood using reason. Most thinkers in the mediaeval Christian world would be able to meet the humanist halfway, offering rational arguments without appeal to the Bible.

What about Islamic philosophy, or, as I prefer, “philosophy in the Islamic world”? The recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism may lead you to expect that throughout history, Muslim intellectuals have been bound to the dictates of their religion, more even than mediaeval Christians like Aquinas. This is not the case. In Latin Christendom, it was only occasionally that philosophy was practised without any explicit theological context or agenda, as, for instance, with theories of logic and language developed at the universities in the 13th and 14th century. In the Islamic world, such independent pursuit of philosophy was closer to the norm than the exception.

* * *

In the formative period of philosophy in the Islamic world – that is, up to the 12th century or so – “philosophy” was strongly associated with Greek culture. It was even called falsafa, a loan-word from the Greek philosophia. “Philosophers (falāsifa)” were pursuing a science with foreign origins, centred above all on the study of Aristotle, but drawing on numerous other sources in mathematics (e.g. Euclid), medicine (e.g. Galen), natural science (e.g. Ptolemy) and philosophy (e.g. Plotinus). For this reason “philosophy” was considered to be outside the Islamic sciences, and it was not grounded in scriptural authority. Naturally, Islamic concerns did play some role in the writings of philosophers. They might quote the Qur’an to show that their theories were in agreement with the holy book. Sometimes, one suspects that the theories themselves were engineered to fit with Islamic belief, as when the supreme oneness of God or immortality of the soul are proved by rational argument. On the other hand, the supreme oneness of God and immortality of the soul were standard topics in Greek philosophy (Plotinus insists on both), something that could hardly be overlooked by the readers of the Arabic translations. So even these doctrines were not seen as distinctively Islamic. Philosophers spent much of their effort working on logic, epistemology, natural philosophy and so on. They were handling topics with no obvious religious import and, unlike in Latin Christendom, working outside any religious institution.

These were the conditions that made it possible for some thinkers of the Islamic world to embrace a rationalism far more radical than anything we can find in Christian Europe of the same period. In particular, we see such an attitude in al-Fārābī and Averroes, who lived respectively in 10th-century Iraq and Syria and 12th-century Islamic Spain. For both, philosophy is the effort to establish truths demonstratively, which means providing unshakeable proofs based on indubitable first principles. Both saw Aristotle as a figure who had come closer than any other thinker to completing this ambitious project; the theory of demonstrative truth itself is based on his works. Aristotelian science has for both al-Fārābī and Averroes the highest possible status, with all other forms of knowledge – including religious – necessarily falling short. Which is not to say that the Qur’an is false, only that it presents truths in a non-scientific way. Religious discourse is persuasive and powerful, just right for the ordinary believer, but it does not lay out the scientific explanations for the universal truths understood by the accomplished philosopher.

One consequence of the universality of philosophy is that the truths and demonstrations it discovers are in principle open to all peoples. And not only in principle. Aristotle had used his reason to get further than anyone else in Greece, and in the Islamic world philosophy developed as an ecumenical enterprise, with Muslims, Christians and Jews meeting on the common ground of philosophy. The very Greek-Arabic translations that kicked off the falsafa traditions had mostly been made by Christian scholars, at the behest of Muslim patrons. So, especially in this early period, to engage with falsafa often meant collaborating with Christians. In the 9th century the first self-styled faylasūf of the Islamic world, al-Kindī, led a group of those Christian translators. A few generations later al-Fārābī had Christian teachers and students, one of whom, Yahyā Ibn ‘Adī, engaged in a philosophical correspondence with a Jewish interlocutor. Al-Fārābī and his colleagues emphasised that philosophical disciplines are cross-cultural in other respects too. Philosophy is not bound to any place, people or language. They liked to contrast the universal validity of logic with the parochial concerns of grammar, a burgeoning science of their day.

Hence my preference for “philosophy in the Islamic world” rather than “Islamic philosophy”: many of the thinkers in question were not Muslims, and even those who were Muslim often engaged in an inquiry that they themselves distinguished sharply from “Islamic” sciences, like Qur’anic exegesis. One should be careful not to exaggerate, though. Philosophy was indeed an ecumenical enterprise, but its tools could also be used for interfaith disputation. Al-Kindī was happy to collaborate with Christian translators, but he deployed Aristotelian logic in a short work intended to refute the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The very foreignness of philosophy made it an easy target. Some argued on behalf of the indigenous Arabic or Islamic sciences, like the grammarian al-Sīrāfī, who mocked Greek logic as pretentious and useless for parsing actual arguments and sentences. Later critics went further, issuing legal decisions condemning the practice of logic.

Another caveat is needed here: al-Fārābī and Averroes are famous, but hardly representative of philosophy in the Islamic world. Their radical rationalism and detailed engagement with Aristotle has endeared them more to today’s historians than to contemporary readers. Averroes, through Hebrew and Latin translations of his works, had a vastly greater impact on Jewish and Latin Christian readers than on his co-religionists. More typical was an irenic approach, which did not make the provocative claim that philosophical demonstration is superior to religious discourse. Instead, it was suggested that philosophical inquiry would reach the same conclusions as those set out in scripture; an independent confirmation of revealed truths.

* * *

So far I’ve been talking about self-professed philosophers. But returning to philosophy in mediaeval Latin Christendom, many thinkers from that culture whom we now treat as “philosophers” would not have used this name. They thought of themselves as theologians, or perhaps something else. Similarly, in the Islamic world many people were doing philosophy despite refusing the label of faylasūf. Perhaps the best example is al-Ghazālī, famous for a work called Incoherence of the Philosophers. In it, he tries to show the flaws in the philosophy of the falāsifa, by which he means the philosophy of Avicenna. If asked to identify al-Ghazālī’s intellectual profile, most scholars would probably say that he was a theologian (mutakallim). And though he was exceptional in many ways, he was not in this respect. Many thinkers who engaged in theology (kalām) engaged in philosophical argument, arguing back and forth over such topics as free will and the nature of knowledge.
A widespread misconception is that philosophy in the Islamic world drew to an end in the 12th century. But it’s now agreed by most experts in the field that this was not the case. The impression that philosophy died at this time, with Averroes as its last representative, can be traced to two factors. First, until recently scholars were interested almost exclusively in Arabic philosophical works that were translated into Latin, because they wanted to understand those who influenced Christian thinkers like Aquinas. Since the Latin-Arabic translation movement peaked in the 12th century, later thinkers made little impact in Europe.

Second, there really was a change in the 12th century, insofar as Avicenna (who died in 1037) now replaced Aristotle as the central philosophical figure. If one thinks of “Islamic philosophy” as engagement with Greek sources in Arabic translation, one may easily conclude that it ended in the 12th century. But this is a pretty narrow definition of philosophy. For many generations, all the way to the colonial period, there was intense engagement with the provocative and brilliant ideas of Avicenna, who reworked Aristotelian philosophy and put his own distinctive stamp upon it. His works were the subject of commentaries, critiques and summaries, works which duly received their own commentaries and critiques. Reactions ranged from enthusiastic embrace of Avicenna’s philosophy to bitter opposition. But Avicenna’s impact was enormous, greater even than Aristotle’s in the formative period, because it was felt more widely. His methods and terminology became pervasive in intellectual discourse, and set the agenda for philosopher-theologians from Egypt to Muslim India.

Avicenna was notorious for several reasons – he drank wine and thought the world was eternal. But the intellectuals of the Islamic world saw in his writings a source that could help them engage in their own independent reflections, on matters both philosophical and theological. Even the titles sometimes tell the story, as with the Mu‘tabar of the Jewish-Muslim convert Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī: it means What has Been Carefully Considered. Other thinkers, like the prolific and subtle Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, likewise revelled in their ability to weigh up arguments on all sides of an issue before passing judgement. As a whole, later Islamic theology constitutes a powerful rebuke to anyone who thinks religious thinkers are tradition-bound. Arabic speakers had a word for such uncritical acceptance of authority: taqlīd. If there is any theme that runs through the whole history of Islamic thought, it is the importance of avoiding this intellectual sin.

From an early period, we see sunnis (including such different thinkers as Abū Bakr al-Rāzī and al-Ghazālī) accusing shi‘ites of taqlīd, on the basis that shi‘ites follow the authority of an Imam, who must be descended from the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī. But the insult is not thrown only across the sunni-shi’ite divide. Philosophers complained that theologians are guilty of taqlīd, and theologians returned the favour. After all, didn’t the philosophers blindly follow Aristotle? This is not to say that one must always start from scratch. In Islamic law, the founders of the legal schools were respected even as room was left for the individual judgement of the jurist. Similarly, in philosophy and theology the views of Aristotle or al-Ash‘arī, founder of the eponymous Ash‘arite school, were admired, even revered. But no Aristotelian or Ash‘arite would be caught dead saying that they believed something simply on the say-so of an honoured predecessor. Rather, independent and honest inquiry ratified the school’s teachings, and often led to revisions or extensions of those teachings.

* * *

The negative attitude towards taqlīd continued well past the formative period. A recent book by Khaled El-Rouayheb discusses the 15th-century Moroccan theologian al-Sanūsī, who said that all Muslims have the duty to engage in independent reflection. Failing to do so is taqlīd, which for al-Sanūsī is “the root of the unbelief of the idolaters”. Few thinkers went quite this far. More typically, it was assumed that taqlīd is appropriate for the uneducated mass of humanity, who are not in a position to go beyond received opinion. Instead, they should follow the lead of the learned scholars, or avoid inquiring into matters above their level – a strikingly similar idea to the one put forward by al-Fārābī and Averroes, except that here it is experts in religious law and theology who form the intellectual elite, rather than philosophers.

One might argue that the rejection of taqlīd, and the spirit of rational inquiry that this implies, was the common thread that bound together all philosophically inclined intellectuals of the Islamic world. It was a thread that ran across historical and religious boundaries. A Jewish legal and philosophical expert like Maimonides had much in common with his contemporary and fellow Andalusian Averroes – in some ways, more than he had in common with the average Jewish believer. Of course not all learned men were so optimistic about the prospects of individual inquiry. We’ve already seen that there were sceptics about logic, and many mystics and theologians did emphasise the limitations of human reason. Then too, codified teacher-student relationships existed across the intellectual spectrum, implying a period of apprenticeship while the student’s mind was being formed. But well into the modern era, mature, mainstream theologians presented themselves as disinterested inquirers into the truth. In so doing, they were following the lead of the earlier philosophers and those influenced by them, like al-Ghazālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī. This is not to claim that these figures were somehow humanists. But it is to say that in the Islamic world, faith has very rarely been blind.