Brief Remarks on Islam, History, Philosophy, and European Triumphalism

by Ahab Bdaiwi

Medieval studies is undergoing something of a resurgence. Philosophy in particular—traditionally understood as the pursuit of wisdom and highbrow reflections on the cosmos and human nature—is grabbing the headlines. Placing philosophy on the pedestal of human achievement—past and present—is natural. Since time immemorial great empires and civilisations of bygone centuries took to philosophy to project power, exhibit prestige, and showcase their commitment to elevated intellectual life and wisdom. The alliance between philosophy and empire was not merely a meeting of utility and opportunity but formed the bedrock of identity construction and historical memory in Europe and elsewhere. The idea that sapient societies who fostered philosophical learning were racially superior to uncouth savages beguiled by irrational mysticism and occult practices is standard leitmotif in the medieval historical writings of authors later to be identified as European. Such contemptuous imaginations of the other on the part of “western” writers continued unabated well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the nineteenth century, when Europe was gripped by powerful tides of nationalism, and well into the early decades of the twentieth, the study of the medieval period was invoked to imagine what Europe was really about, and who Europeans were. In other words, the study of the medieval period, or the Middle Ages, was unavoidably bound with sentiments motivated chiefly by nationalism. Historians of philosophy such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Heinrich Ritter, Albert Stöckl , Maurice de Wulf, Bernhard Geyer, Etienne Gilson, Norman Kretzman, and John Marenbon, imagined Europe as the bastion of Enlightenment rationality, the primary mode of highbrow knowledge production, and the natural, fertile ground of philosophical thinking.

Almost without fail, the standard textbooks on the medieval European thought—an all-encompassing term in general parlance but describes philosophical and intellectual traditions and discourses in academic nomenclature—will start with such towering thinkers as the deeply reflective Saint Augustine (died in 430 AD) followed by the Roman Senator (among his role being magister officiorum) and perfectly lucid Boethius (died in 526 AD). What follows next is typical—even until the present. The next philosopher in line after Boethius is almost always Thomas Aquinas, the immensely influential catholic theologian and philosopher who died approximately 800 years later (in 1274 AD). But how do the historical sources and avid champions of European intellectualism explain away the interregnum that saw eight centuries of philosophical inactivity? A proviso is in order before we consider the typical rejoinders. The intended takeaway point is not to lend credence to the inactivity thesis (which is is not without criticism) but to operate, hypothetically and momentarily, through the optics of European self-imaginations.

Speaking in 1883 at the Sorbonne, Ernest Renan, the versatile French thinker and influential voice in nineteenth century debates on nationalism and identity, delivered a scathing lecture that was suffused with brittle triumphalism and lapses of racist diction that surpasses the right-wing tropes of today. Renan subjects his audience to endless harangues about the chasm between Islam and rational discourse and the inability of Islam to offer something worthwhile in the philosophical conversations of the medieval past and yesteryear. Islam, we are told, is à mille lieues de tout ce qui peut s’appeler rationalisme ou science. And while Muslim societies took stock of science and philosophy for a few centuries during the period when dogmatism felled Europe, the truth of the matter is, according to Renan, Greek philosophy and science in the hands of Muslims is an historical accident that has more to do with European failure to preserve and guard its own Hellenistic heritage than Muslim motivations to pursue knowledge beyond the confines of scriptural epistemology:

Ah ! si les Byzantins avaient voulu être gardiens moins jaloux des trésors qu’à ce moment ils ne lisaient guère ; si, dès le huitième ou le neuvième siècle, il y avait eu des Bessarion et des Lascaris ! On n’aurait pas eu besoin de ce détour étrange qui fit que la science grecque nous arriva au douzième siècle, en passant par la Syrie, par Bagdad, par Cordoue, par Tolède. Mais cette espèce de providence secrète qui fait que, quand le flambeau de l’esprit humain va s’éteindre entre les mains d’un peuple, un autre se trouve là pour le relever et le rallumer, donna une valeur de premier ordre à l’œuvre, sans cela obscure, de ces pauvres Syriens, de ces filsoufpersécutés, de ces Harraniens que leur incrédulité mettait au ban de l’humanité d’alors. Ce fut par ces traductions arabes des ouvrages de science et de philosophie grecque que l’Europe reçut le ferment de tradition antique nécessaire à l’éclosion de son génie.

More recently in the later decades of the twentieth century, suppositions that Islam is essentially an unphilosophical tradition defined primarily by its recalcitrant attitude towards the embrace of rationality found expression in the works of such academics as Professor Sir Hamilton Rosskeen Gibb (d. 1971), former Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford. Gibb’s writings on Islam echo the unmistakable imprint of European triumphalists who cast aspersions on Muslim intellectualism wherever it is found. Describing the views of his teacher, Gibb, Professor Muhsin Mahdi, the late Iraqi historian and philosopher wrote:

There was also a more general problem that had to be faced: whether the study of Islamic philosophy or of the philosophic sciences that flourished in Islamic civilization is a legitimate subject for Islamic studies at all. Gibb did not believe it was, not out of ignorance but out of firm conviction. That is, to be a Muslim meant for him not to be philosophic or rational in this sense, and to be philosophic or rational in this sense meant for him not to be a Muslim, but something else, perhaps a misguided Muslim or even an 'infidel'.

How does history judge the claim that Islam far removed from philosophy and philosophical thinking? In his letter response to Renan, the renowned Muslim theologian and philosopher Jamal al-Din al-Afghani notes that when Muslims inherited the Greek philosophical and scientific corpora they transformed and acclimated it through re-conceptualisations, re-imaginations, re-evaluations, re-formulations, and re-considerations grounded in their attachment to the Muslim views of the cosmos and religious scriptures. In other words, over the centuries, from Avicenna (d. 1037) to Mulla Sadra (1635) and Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i (d. 1981) Muslim philosophers took to Greek philosophy as the basis for the creation of a new philosophical tradition conceived in Arabic, situated within the Islamic ethos, inspired by Greek and Persian thinking, and respondent to Muslim scriptural invitations to become reflective believers.

The Muslim philosophical tradition received by Europe in the twelfth century carried much more than Arabic renderings of the likes of Aristotle and his famous expositor Alexander of Aphrodisias. The introduction of Arabic philosophy into Latin Europe led to the transformation of almost all philosophical disciplines. The influence is particularly dominant in metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, psychology, and philosophy of language. To recall one of many examples, in 1255, when the statutes of the University of Paris arts faculty declared all known works of Aristotle mandatory reading for students—they presented the Arabic Aristotle along with accompanying Arabic commentaries of Muslim philosophers such Ibn Rushd, or Averroes in Latin.

Among right-wing groups especially the alt-right there is a renewed appreciation for the symbolic importance of medieval studies and triumphant epochal moments in history that matter greatly to proponents of white supremacy. Europe, we are to believe, was built on the efforts and intellectual ingenuity of white men. History, however, tells a different story. In the medieval past when Europe was discovering and learning anew the wisdom and learning of late antiquity it did so through the filter of Islam and Arabic thought—an irksome factoid many nowadays try to gloss over.

Ahab Bdaiwi is an intellectual historian and assistant professor at Leiden University. His research interests include medieval and modern Islamic history, religion and philosophy in late antiquity, Arabic and Persian manuscript studies, and theology.