The Ibn Rushd Syndrome: In Search of Rational Muslim

This is a short summary of an academic paper that I wrote in 2009 (very early during my graduate school career). Before I settled on my dissertation topic I was reading widely about Islamic philosophy and theology. Researching the topic and writing this paper was an immensely rewarding experience where I learned a lot but also realized I barely scratched the surface.

Central to discourses surrounding Islam are two types of “Islam”: on the one hand, there is the Islam that is incompatible with “Western” values and norms. And on the other hand, there is the Islam that shares many principles associated with Western ideas. This is hardly a new debate. However for complicated historical and geopolitical reasons we often times hear these debates both in the media and in academic circle regarding irrational Islam instead of irrational Hindiusm/Buddishm/pick your tradition here. How to re-contextualise these debates? I don’t purport to provide a clean solution here but jotting down some notes to understand the complicated history of Islam and rationality. My hope is that this will help someone to digest the dichotomies (Islam versus reason) better.

I start with the prominent Muslim scholar from Cordoba Abū al-Walīd Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd (d. 1198) or widely known by his Latinized name — Averroes who is often mentioned as the epitome of Islamic rationalism. Conversely, the works of Abū Hamid al-Ghazālī (1058–1111) is presented as diametrically opposite to Ibn Rushd’s rationalism and considered today the orthodox root for the dogmatic and fundamentalist closure of Islam. This binary construction of Islam and Modernity (or Islam and Rationality to be more precise) is still a potent conductor for variety of discourses surrounding civilisation, democracy, freedom, secularism, equality to name a few. The role of “Rational Muslim” (also known as Liberal/Moderate Muslim) often times becomes a moment of contention within these debates.

I term this quest to discover and understand the rational Muslim the “Ibn Rushd Syndrome” in honour of the great scholar and to highlight the history of rationalism in Islam and the controversy surrounding it. The particularities of this syndrome, which is prevalent among both Muslims and non-Muslims, involve excessive, anachronistic and ahistorical emphasis on rationality. This emphasis on rationality appraises more than fourteen centuries of Islamic (and Arabic) scholarships within the dichotomous framework of “Traditionalism” and “Rationalism” (Khalil 2006). Recent violent actions and reactions by Muslims (for instance, the Rushdie affair, the Danish Cartoon controversy, and of course 9/11) have been analysed through this lens arguing that the demise of free thinking in Islam came to an end as Ibn Rushd’s books were burning in Cordoba and thus ignoring Ibn Rushd’s philosophy is at the root of such irrational reactions in recent times.

By Monfredo de Monte Imperiali — Monfredo de Monte Imperiali “Liber de herbis”, 14th century. Reproduction in “Inventions et decouvertes au Moyen-Age”, Samuel Sadaune, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3691675

Some of these points were already raised by scholars like Dmitri Gutas (2002) and Sherman Jackson (2002) in the context of philosophy and theology, critics of Orientalism in the context of representation of Islam (Edward Said; also see Daniel Varisco’s Reading Orientalism).

In the history of modern Islamic intellectual trends thus Ibn Rushd becomes a critical milestone and we see this syndrome play out again and again. For instance, in 19th century Egypt several Islamic and Arab modernists tried to revive his ideas by pointing out his contribution to European secular modernity and thus arguing for Islamic Enlightenment. Statements such as a) Ibn Rushd’s idea played an important role in European Enlightenment or b) with the death blow to philosophy by al-Ghazālī and after the death of Ibn Rushd Islamic intellectual culture ended and hasn’t been revived since then (1198!) or c) Islam needs to go back to the “golden age” (as some Salafi and Wahabi leaning reformists would argue) are all recognisable features of “Ibn Rushd Syndrome”.

If we look at the history of Islamic intellectual thought, it is far from a dichotomy between rationalism and non-rationalism and the notion of rationalism is not entirely separable from the dialectics of rationalism and irrationalism. As modernity is the rupture that supposedly created the Islam and the West fissure, reason and rationality becomes a focal point in all of these viewpoints. Whereas Ibn Rushd does not always appear in such discussions, he sometime peaks over shoulders of others and his shadow and legacy are definitely there. The problem with such syndrome is that it puts Ibn Rushd on the side of modernity and rationality where mere rejection of his ideas becomes associated with anti-modern and irrational dogmatism. Can we identify the the futility and complexity of trying to find that evasive rational Muslim? I say yes if we critically examine the history of rationalism in Islamic thought. This requires an attempt to understand Islamic intellectual history without the ideological and political baggage.

Theology and Philosophy: From Traditionalism to Rationalism?

In order to fully understand the different dimensions of Islamic thought, it is important to highlight debates that came about around the same time when total process of consolidation and canonisation of Qu’ran and Hadith was happening. Due to methodological, ideological and ontological differences that emerged during canonisation and translation processes (Gutas 2002), different schools and tendencies appeared. There were also development going on in Arabic grammar (Leaman 1988), logic (Bäck 2008) and rhetoric (Borrowman 2008). Beside these there were tremendous intellectual development started to culminate in different branches of science and mathematics (Rashed 2008). The scholars involved in these processes were not just religious scholars but also judges, mathematicians and physicians.

In general, when scholars are referring to “Islamic Rationalism” or “Rationalism” in Islam usually they refer to the discipline of theology or kalam and philosophy or falsafa. In the context of kalam most interesting interpretation of rationalism was by Mu‘taziltes who emerged in early eight and ninth century Iraq and Iran (Mikhail 2005; Vasalou 2008). Their understanding of rationality was contextualised in the discussion of ethics and morality. They held that moral values have an objective existence that can be known by independent human reason, which was different from the voluntarism espoused by Ash‘araite school and other “Traditionalists” such as Hanbalite jurists. Early Islamic Neoplatonists and peripatetic scholars are also put into this category. For them morality was a concern but their primary focus was about more abstract issues such as nature of God, order of beings, simply put “philosophising”. This trend in philosophy in Islam was introduced by translations of Greek texts into Arabic from the eight century and onwards. The term falsafa was coined at this time borrowing from Greek philosophia. Al-Kindi (801–873 CE) defines falsafa as “the knowledge of the reality of things within man’s possibility, because the philosopher’s end in his theoretical knowledge is to gain truth and in his practical knowledge to behave in accordance with truth” (Nasr 1973:64). Compared to the origin of falsafa, origin of kalam is more complicated. Scholars identified both outside influence (such as Greek, Persian, Jewish, and Indian) and internal developments.

Question of logic (al-mantiq) which generally is considered a tool used by scholars who were influenced by Greek thought is a important aspect in these debates. Modern scholars do not agree on whether majority of the Muslim scholars were opposed to logic or not. There is no disagreement that when Greek ideas such as logic first entered the Islamic world it was “treated by many thinkers with suspicion as a foreign interloper” (Leaman 2000:17). Ignaz Goldziher was the first of the modern writers to talk about Muslim oppositions to logic. He underlines that logic was already condemned by a scholar as early as Jafar al-Saddiq, the seventh Shiite imam (Ali 2008). However, Goldziher’s argument, also supported by Makdisi (1962) that is opposition to logic was already manifest in the 8th century and increased in intensity in the 13th and 14th centuries, has been questioned and challenged by El-Rouyaheb (2004) who argues by looking at Sunni scholars between 1500 and 1800, that usage of logic was an important aspect of the education of a Muslim scholar in the eighteenth century in the Maghrib, Egypt, and Turkey. Not only that these scholars were studying logic but also constantly referring to earlier authorities from 12th and 14th centuries when, according to Goldziher, logic was supposedly considered religiously forbidden. The debate goes on. For example, Mufti Ali (2008) provides more support for Goldziher’s argument, by looking at the work of al-Suyūtī:

On the basis of my analysis of four works composed by al-Suyūtī, I argue that hostility to logic was a predominant feature of Sunni scholarship, especially during the 13th,14th, and 15th centuries. Logic was condemned by distinguished Sunni scholars in Valencia, Fez, Aleppo, Iraq, and Mecca, but especially in Egypt and Syria. This conclusion confirms Goldziher’s argument that resistance to logic started already in the 2nd/8th century and increased in the 13th and 14th centuries; and disconfirms al-Rouayheb’s argument that opposition to logic was never predominant among Muslim Sunni scholars (Ali 2008b:18).

These debates highlight the complexity of arguing against or for usage of logic and rationalistic methods in general. As mentioned earlier, Mu‘taziltes were known for their rationalist methods. However, they, like the “Traditionalist”, were also opposed of logic:

“The hostile attitude of the traditionalists towards logic was represented by the fact that when al- Ghazālī adopted Aristotelian logic in his legal theory, he was criticized severely by a number of prominent figures…The rejection of the mutakallimun of Aristotelian logic was reflected by their conviction that it contained certain metaphysical premises, which were substantially against the teaching of the Koran, and certain physical premises, which could not be accepted whatsoever by the Muslims (Ali 2008:18).”

There is no doubt that opposition to logic was a contentious issue, however, logic was opposed by different scholars for variety of different reasons. The point I want to emphasize here is that whether by not using rationalist methods necessarily put the “Traditionalists”, such as Hanbalite jurists, in a non-rationalistic group. The answer is just not that simple. This does not mean that there weren’t debates concerning the usage of rationalistic methods and total rejection of such methods by variety of scholars. Ultimately, the brief historical complexity outlined above point out that at the end, we are talking about adherence to particular methods and tools –whether it is Aristotelianism, logic or qiyas — and such adherence or rejection does not necessarily provide any clear platform to argue for total acceptance or abandonment of rationalistic methods. As we have seen, rationality for a legal jurist possibly had a different connotation than for Neo-platonic philosopher or for a Sufi mystic.

Demise of Freethinking

“What is the link between this short history of free thinking in Islam and current violent reactions to challenges? It is, in fact, in the demise of free thinking that one sees the birth of blind faith; and when faith is based solely on imitating the past meticulously, uncritically and passionately, that faith breeds ignorance and the mind of the faithful stagnates to become a repository of outdated facts and information. The mind loses its creativity and vibrancy. Not only stagnation rules the Muslim mind but even the dogma that is entrenched in it finds its very survival threatened when challenges emerge from outside its cocoon. Without any internal stimulus to act creatively and unable to confront new challenges, the mind reacts with emotional outbursts and violence. This indeed is the tragedy of the Muslim world. How did the Muslim community get to this situation?” Ameer Ali (2007)

Although there are some truths to the above comment but given the complexity of rationalism in the history of Islamic thought, the answer has to be in the negative that there isn’t any straightforward connection between “short history of free thinking” and “current violent reactions to challenges”. This is not to deny that within certain aspects of Islamic society, dogmatism and ignorance run free, nor to deny social and political upheavals caused by the end of Ottoman empire and European colonialism. And of course, the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity of Muslims even during the times of Ibn Rushd. These are complex historical events that defy simplistic causations and correlations. In this section, I look at some specific comments regarding “demise of free thinking” and highlight inherent problems with such arguments.

Let me highlight few points here. First, “short history of free thinking in Islam”. To begin with, it is not at all clear what do we mean when we say “freethinking”? Is philosophy as practiced by al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd can be called freethinking? Is “freethinking” always based on science, reason, and logic and not influenced by authority, tradition, and revelation? In that sense, Ibn Rushd’s philosophical methods were not just influenced by tradition and authority of the Qur’an but also the tradition and authority of Greek thought as well. Is philosophy as understood by Ibn Rushd (“reflection upon beings”), then, always “free”? On the other hand, Rationalist theologians such as Mu‘tazilite, automatically becomes an example of freethinking, even though they are “theologians” whose ultimate goal is to show the truth of the revelation. Thus, if we just look at Mu‘tazilites and Ibn Rushd, it is in a way short history. However, as noted in the paper, the complex contour of Islamic intellectual thought, beyond Ibn Rushd and Mu‘tazilite, it is very problematic to find just one short trend of “free thinking” or rationalistic practices.

Second, the question of “anti-philosohpical” orthodoxy as mentioned in this comment: “Averroes was a latecomer and he was probably the last of the rational thinkers in Medieval Islam. Thereafter it was the anti-philosophic orthodoxy that reigned supreme in the Muslim world” (Ali 2007) is problematic. There is no doubt Ibn Rushd was a late comer but he definitely was not the last of the rationalist thinkers or philosophers in Medieval Islam, even if we understand rationality in an instrumental sense without the complexity of the word aql (Gutas 2002).

So, then what about orthodoxy? It begs the question what orthodoxy or in a more Foucaldian sense, how? Often times talking about Islamic orthodoxy, it is overlooked that there are sufficient intra-religious debates and discourses. Other than the scriptural authority of Quran, Islam has no central authority which lays down certain obligatory guidelines regarding belief. With the exception of the prophetical epoch (622–632), the opinion of a religious scholar or jurist was and is never considered to be more or less orthodox than that of any other. Despite the lack of such an official institution and the fact that the identity of a Muslim rather finds its expression in rites and practices, there nevertheless exist certain commonly accepted doctrines used to define the state of being Muslim. But that does not mean in popular discourses people do not entail to certain notion of orthodoxy but with a closer look such orthodoxy fails to be the orthodoxy.

Also we need to understand the “social construction of Orthodoxy” that is orthodoxy is a process that needs to find a place in the society to be accepted as orthodoxy:

“This is a way two-way process: ideas can reconfigure […] relations and institutions, but the social context also actively receives ideas and promotes, channels and/or suppresses them. Thus the history of orthodoxy cannot be simple history of ideas, but a history of how, in particular situations, claims to truth to be enshrined in social practices, such as rituals, and in institutions, such as the “community of scholars” (El Shamsy: 97).

Similar arguments regarding demise of freethinking have been provided in regard to Islamic jurisprudence by modern scholars in the form that the gate of Ijtihad (independent interpretation) was closed in 9th century. Wael B Hallaq, an authority in Islamic jurisprudence, in his seminal 1984 article, Was The Gate of Ijtihad Closed?, shows that the gate of Ijtihad “was not closed in theory or practice”. By outlining the historical complexity of Islamic legal thought, he showed that ijtihad was indispensable in legal theory because it constituted the only means by which jurists were able to reach the judicial judgments decreed by God. In order to regulate the practice of ijtihad a set of conditions were required to be met by any jurist who wished to embark on such activity.

While talking about “demise of free thinking”, thus, Mu‘tazilite, Ibn Rushd, and of end of Ijtihad are often mentioned under the same breath. Here we are talking about different methodologies, different historical, geographical, political and cultural contexts that spans more than 300 years from 8th CE to 1198 (when Ibn Rushd died). This is not to imply that there aren’t any historical connections, however, these connections are fraught with multiple understanding of the world and notion of reason, rationality. Therefore, without understanding the historical complexity, associating “demise of free thought” in Islam to “failure of Enlightenment” is highly problematic and such simplification is what I am objecting here and labeling as “Ibn Rushd Syndrome”. Compare of the classical ages, the output and innovative thought in Islam might be scant, however, that does not lead to “closing of the Muslim mind”.

One can point to recent resurgence of religiously motivated violence often identified as “Islamist” or “Fundamentalist” as example of dogmatism or “demise of free thinking”. Indeed, there is no denial of politically motivated usage of Islam for the cause of violence. And dogmatism is certainly not the sole property of Islam. However, most importantly, the issue here is the oversimplification of the trajectory of Islam and the assumed fixed relationship between religion and politics:

“…both the Western and Muslim worlds it makes no sense to talk about a singular, culturally defined relationship between religion and politics: The two spheres overlap and penetrate each other in historically contingent ways. The borderlines between them are fluid and constantly contested and a blueprint for their separation simply does not exist. Focusing on the formation of modern states, it is therefore more appropriate to talk about the different historical paths of the institutional autonomization of politics from society” (Jung 2007).

Therefore, within the broader discourse regarding Islam and West which has been problematized in variety of ways, discourse of Islam and rationality occupies a prominent place. My aim here was to show the breadth and depth of debates within Islam since the classical period by focusing on some historical developments.

Conclusion: From Rushd to Rushdie:

“Is it not time to raise the banner of Averroes to carry it forward? Is it not time to say that, in our own era, his ideas suit everyone, the beggar as well as the prince?” -Salman Rushdie, Le Monde , 16 Oct, 1997.

Sometime “the active ingredient of both nightmare and fairy tale is the same” — David Niberberg, Islam and the West: Two Dialectical Fantasies.

Thus we come to our conclusion — from burning books of Ibn Rushd to Salman Rushdie, an 800 years saga of the demise of free thinking and rationalist discourses? Or are we trying to find ways to understand different historical trajectories of different types of modernity beside European Enlightenment?

Here, somewhat polemically, I coined the term “Ibn Rushd Syndrome” to point out that simple, homogeneous discourse surrounding Islam and rationality both by Muslims and non-Muslims and both in positive and negative sense are problematic. As I have tried to show that nuanced understanding of rationalism complicates our deliberations on Islam and rationalism. Recognizing the historical trajectories, varieties of distortions, and multiplicity of interpretations thus make it an enormous task to come up with a single understanding of Islamic rationalism. Therefore, to proclaim the demise of such rationalism and free thinking is problematic. My intention is to summon the name of Ibn Rushd to understand our current geopolitical situation in particularly the polemics surrounding reason, rationality, and religion. By accentuating the historical specificity of rationalism in Islam thus brings out the understanding that “reason, rationality, and philosophisizing is always involved some sort of “universal core problems” in a particular, ethnocentric, contextual understanding of such problems: “…philosophy was not born solely or originally in Greece, nor can it be taken as the prototype of philosophical discourse” (Dussel 2009:505).

Thus if we look at “Western Philosophy” or history of “Rationalism” in Europe, we can see that these ideas came from diverse places and traditions, culminating to what we now know as “modernity”. Thus, “raising the banner of Averroes” should not be taken as triumph of reason over religion, or falsafa over kalam. It needs to be taken as a clue to understand that the pursuit of knowledge is always present in all civilizations and traditions in a variety of different forms, using variety of different methods be it gnosis or logic. And so are present dialogue, debates, and disagreements within and among cultures and traditions. This is hardly a new phenomenon. The cure of Ibn Rushd Syndrome, thus, is to understand such historical complexities and beware of our simplified notions of history.

Data Architect@Distributed System of Scientific Collections (https://dissco.eu). PhD in Sociology. Bachelor's in Math and CS from the University of Illinois.