In the years between 1967 and 1973, when I was studying towards a degree in law and a Masters in general and comparative law, I acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. Later, while teaching at universities abroad, I set out to develop a wider knowledge of the subject. My readings took me beyond the circle of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence to those of the Shiites (the most important of which is the Ithna’ashariyya or Imammeya), and the four main doctrines of the Khawarij (the most important of which is the Abadeya school prevalent in a small region of Algeria and in most of the Sultanate of Oman), as well as to other schools, such as the eponymous Al-Tabri and Al-Laith interpretations. Nor did my readings stop there. I found myself exploring other worlds closely linked to the field of Islamic jurisprudence, the most important being the doctrine of the Mutakallimun, or dialectical theologians, and delving deeply into the philosophical teachings of the Mutazalites and the Ash’arites. There was also the world of the Bateneyites in the history of Islam, to which I was introduced by a close friend, Dr. Mahmoud Ismail, whose writings on the thinking of the Khawarij, the Qarametta and of what he calls the other ‘secret sects’ of Islam served as one of my primary sources while studying the history of Islamic jurisprudence.
In the course of a journey extending for over twenty years, I developed a strong aversion for those I call “worshippers of the word” and “prisoners of tradition”, and a profound admiration for the proponents of reason, most notably, of course, Ibn Rushd (Averoess), whose championship of the primacy of reason was adopted by Europe and rejected by the Muslim world. Europe’s gain was our loss: in turning our backs on Ibn Rushd, we lost a historic opportunity for development. A close reading of all Ibn Taymeya’s works, as well as the works of his disciples, from Ibn Qaiym Al-Juzeya to Mohamed bin Abdul Wahab at the end of the eighteenth century, only deepened my aversion towards this trend and my admiration for the Mu’tazalites, who emphasized human responsibility in matters of religion, and for liberal thinkers who chose the path of reason over that of dogma, like Ibn Sinna (Avicenna), Al-Farabi and the leading exponent of this school, Ibn Rushd.
When I compare some of the works of Al-Ghazali (Algazel), like “The Revival of the Religious Sciences” (Ihya’ Ulum ad-Din), “The Criterion of Knowledge” (Mi’yar al-‘Elm), “The Criterion of Work” (Mi’yar al-‘Amal), “Salvation From Perdition” (Al-Monqeth Men al’Dallal), “The Essence of Orthodoxy” (Al-Mustafsah Men Elm al-Osoul) and the “Incoherence of the Philosophers” (Tahafut al-Falasifah), which are distinctly lacking in rationality, with the writings of Ibn Rushd, in which rationality reigns supreme, I am amazed that the battle waged between the exponents of these two distinct schools ten centuries ago should have ended up in a clear victory for Al-Ghazali and a crushing defeat for Ibn Rushd. Nowhere is the difference in the approach of the two men more evident than in their defining works: Al-Ghazali’s “The Incoherence of the Philosophers” and Ibn Rushd’s “The Incoherence of the Incoherence.” I was also amazed at how historians of Islamic thought concealed the fact that Al-Ghazali was unfailingly supportive of despotic rulers, contrary to Ibn Rushd, who was a constant source of irritation for despots determined to keep their subjects in a state of intellectual inertia, thereby guaranteeing the perpetuation of the status quo and their continued unchallenged authority. For an active mind is the source of questions and questions lead to accountability and, as an enlightened friend put it, questions have eyes and answers are blind!
I spent years trying to understand why the Muslims had chosen to follow the line advocated by Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, the proponent of orthodoxy and tradition for whom knowledge meant only knowledge of religion and who cancelled the role of the mind altogether by denying the possibility of acquiring knowledge through intuition, over the line advocated by Ibn Rushd, who upheld the primacy of reason and sowed the seeds of a renaissance we chose not to reap. Why were Al-Ghazali’s ideas so readily accepted while Ibn Rushd’s were rejected? I believe the answer to this paradox can be summed up in one word: despotism. At a time despotism in our part of the world was at its height, it is not surprising that Muslim rulers should have found Al-Ghazali’s ideas more appealing than those of Ibn Rushd. The orthodox line was also more appealing to their subjects who, under the yoke of tyranny, found it safer and less demanding to go along with the views of those who required nothing more from them than a suspension of their critical faculties. In Europe, where the forces of enlightenment were locked in a confrontation with the clericalism that stifled intellectual initiative and rational thought, despotism was in retreat. This explains why, in the thirteenth century, a prestigious centre of learning like the University of Paris supported the ideas of the Arab Muslim Ibn Rushd over those of the European Christian Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic philosopher famous for his two-swords doctrine.
Meanwhile, the Muslim world continued to be ruled by despots who brooked no challenge to their authority and an equally despotic religious establishment which decried the use of reason and demanded blind adherence to the authority of tradition. Closely linked as to methods, motivations and goals, these two factors created an atmosphere that was inimical to the unhindered pursuit of knowledge. Still, things were not only either black or white. True, the Muslims lost a historic opportunity to use Ibn Rushd’s ideas as a springboard that could have placed them on a path similar to the one which took Europe from the obscurantist thinking of the thirteenth century to the vigorous intellectual climate which encourages debate, free thinking, general freedoms and creativity in literature, art and science. But it is also true that Muslims have known two “Islams”, as it were, one that can be described as the Turkish-Egyptian model and one as the Bedouin model. While the former cannot claim to have attained the level of enlightenment, progressive thinking and freedom that characterizes the ideas of Ibn Rushd, it was nevertheless a gentle and tolerant Islam that could and did coexist with others. Indeed, non-Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed more protection that any other minority living anywhere else in the world at the time. Under the Ottomans, Christians of the Levant and Jews in Arab countries lived in conditions very similar to the ones in which the Muslim subjects of the empire were living. Even when they were persecuted by certain rulers, like Al-Hakem bi Amr Allah, it was part of a general policy that made no distinction between non-Muslims and Muslims. Although this model of Islam can in no way be described as secular, it adopted an enlightened approach to religion, dealing with it as a system of spiritual beliefs rather than as a system that ruled all aspects of life and governed the affairs of society.
Meanwhile, an altogether different model of Islam was taking shape among geographically isolated communities living far from coastlines and hence from exposure to the outside world. Their insularity provided an ideal breeding ground for the ideas of Ibn Taymema, Ibn Qaym Al-Juzeya and, towards the end of the eighteenth century, those of Mohamed bin Abdul Wahab. A collision between the two models of Islam was inevitable, and, in the second decade of the nineteenth century, they confronted one another on the field of battle. Under the command of Mohamed Ali’s son, Tousson, then of his other son, Ibrahim, arguably the greatest of the Egyptian ruler’s sons, the Egyptian army, and with it, the more enlightened Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam, emerged victorious.
But the winds of change were blowing throughout the region, and the years that followed were not kind to Turkey and Egypt. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I brought an end to Turkey’s ascendancy, while Egypt’s influence receded as its economy and educational system declined. Meanwhile, the proponents of the model of Islam which demanded a strict adherence to the letter of scripture and slammed the door shut in the face of rationality, suddenly found themselves in control of vast wealth unprecedented in history. This gave them an enormous edge over their moderate rivals and allowed them to extend their influence into the traditional strongholds of the Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam, where they waged a systematic campaign to co-opt establishment personalities and institutions. The success of this campaign found its most salient expression in the emergence of fanatical movements like the Taliban, who interpreted the doctrines of religion on the basis of tradition alone and imposed a scholastic, doctrinal brand of Islam that left no room for the exercise of reason. This sorry state of affairs could have been avoided if the majority of Muslims had supported Ibn Rushd or if conditions had not forced the retreat of the Turkish-Egyptian model.
In numerous lectures I gave in Europe and America, I tried to familiarize people with what I call Egyptian Islam which, until the nineteen forties, stood as a unique example of tolerance and flexibility. Noted for its acceptance of the Other, it was not pathologically obsessed with the fine print of scripture. While recognizing the divine character of the prophetically revealed laws, it also recognized that some of their provisions were formulated in the context of a different time, place and circumstances. Thus divinity was reserved for religion and did not extend to how mortals understood or chose to interpret its strictures. It was tacitly understood that there is a subjective dimension to the interpretation of any text, and that interpretation is necessarily coloured by the interpreter’s cultural formation, knowledge and intellectual abilities.
The voices now raised in the West in general and in the United States in particular to warn against the menace of “militant Islam” would do well to ask themselves a number of important questions:
- Who shut their eyes for many years to a general climate which allowed the militant model of Islam to spread unchecked and forced the civilized, humanistic Turkish-Egyptian model to retreat in disarray as economic conditions and educational institutions declined, leaving the way open to an invasion by the militant model? Who turned a blind eye to these developments for close on thirty years and are today bemoaning the way things have turned out?
- Who in the nineteen fifties and perhaps even earlier invented the dangerous game of using political Islam to create a strategic balance with socialism? (In the seventies, Egypt played the same game with disastrous consequences.)
- Has the West only now realized that there is no room for freedom, democracy, human rights, women’s rights or civil rights in the militant model of Islam? Did it really believe this model to be a shining example of these noble humanistic values in the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties?
- Why is the dossier of the honeymoon between the United States and the Afghan mujahedeen not being opened? Or, for that matter, the chapter of the close links which political Islam in pre-revolutionary Iran enjoyed with the West, particularly France? And, before that, the relations between political Islam in Egypt and Britain, the occupying power at the time, particularly during the two terms of the Mohamed Mahmoud government (1928 and 1938)?
The critical mind, which is the pride of civilized humanity, imposes an obligation on all of us to answer those questions. It also requires all parties to assume a share of the responsibility for what happened and is continuing to happen. It requires us, further, to look closely into the two models of Islam referred to in this article and ask ourselves which is more capable of joining the march of civilization and living in harmony with the requirements of the age, without abandoning the positive features of our cultural specificity. Is it the model engendered by the school of traditionalists, victims of their geographical isolation behind high sand dunes, or the moderate, tolerant, liberal Turkish-Egyptian model? Better still, could we adopt the enlightened model of Ibn Rushd, which helped Western civilization move out of the Dark Ages into the Enlightenment at a time we chose to adopt the thinking of his opponents, thereby allowing ourselves to fall prey to a culture which favours superstition, myths, ignorance and a rabid militancy over education, work, development and brotherhood?