An Evening of Deep Thought at the Muslim Institute

It’s becoming a little tradition with me to spend at least one summer evening a year at the Muslim Institute’s annual lecture. The event appropriately called the ‘Ibn Rushd Lecture’ and is completing its third session tonight. Held at the Arts Workers Guild in Holborn, it exudes a feel of those old intellectual circles once held in this great city of ours. No other Islamic organization can do it like the Muslim Institute.

I found myself seconded into helping out with the evening’s preparation which I gladly did. My reward was being able to hobnob with the lovely Meryl Wyn Davies and getting an unhurried handshake and a hug with the legendary Ziauddin Sardar who inquired after my scholastic developments (such as they were!). To have these two people speaking to me on such a personal level was simply astounding when I think back to my younger days admiring their work on TV. ‘Faces of Islam’ was a favourite series of mine which continues to colour my own Islamic cultural theory till today. I am aware of how that exposes my geekery, yes.

Today’s lecture was entitled ‘Between Ghazali and Ibn Rushd: Ethics, Reason and Humility’ by Professor Ebrahim Moosa. He struck me as a deeply humble man for all his knowledge but he had a way of delivering ‘stealth jokes’ and I found myself bursting out with laughter a few times throughout the evening.

Like father and son!

Like father and son!

The professor started off by warning us straight away not to fall into lazy generalizations (like Al-Ghazali was the executioner of Islamic philosophy or that Ibn Rushd was the unsung hero). That was certainly Dr Shahrour’s view. Dr Shahrour is a Quranist thinker from Syria who believes that the Muslim world went on a downward spiral because they chose to institutionalize Al-Ghazali while Europe came to its enlightenment for adopting the thinking of Ibn Rushd. The truth was far more complex, it seems.

Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was a complex personality. He was a great scholar and prolific author whose works delved into the disciplines of theology, philosophy and mysticism. His magnum opus called the Ihya Ulum Ad-deen’, as per my understanding, seemed to ‘operationalize’ Sufism. While Sufism had erstwhile been something rather theoretical, even anecdotal, with Al-Ghazali it had become an experience one could access through mundane living. This evening however, his work on refuting the Peripatetic philosophers (Greek influenced Aristotelians mostly) was highlighted. It is called ‘Tahafut al-Faylasuf’ (Refutation of the Philosophers). In this work, Al-Ghazali pronounces heresy on those whose beliefs contradicted Islamic teachings.

After the death of Al-Ghazali, came Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) who was born in Muslim Spain. He was also a stellar academic who wrote on theology, philosophy and a number of sciences. He answered Al-Ghazali’s Tahafut by reconciling faith and philosophy and answering Al-Ghazali’s accusations towards the philosophers of being heretics.

What was the outcome of this exchange? Despite the clear victory of Ibn Rushd, not least owing to the fact that Al-Ghazali was already dead, Al-Ghazali still gained the upper hand in the field of Islamic discourse. This could be due to the fact that Al-Ghazali managed to systematize what become crucial to the Sunni doctrine due to his aforementioned magnum opus. Sunnism had consolidated its power just then and became what we now know as Islam (with Shia Islam remaining a distant heterodoxy). This contributed to Al-Ghazali’s dominance in Islamic discourse since then. It was not due to the notion that Al-Ghazali killed philosophy. He didn’t. We did.

Professor Ebrahim Moosa also emphasized that both Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd were also products of their time and situations. They were both, for example, supportive of the notions that the majority of the people would not be able to understand the deeper, more allegorical understandings of the Quran. These people should just be left with the literal meanings which are less likely to confuse them. Such elitist mindsets will not help the Ummah, I don’t think.

Today, little is known of the developments of current Muslim philosophy. While Majid Fakhry’s book ‘Islamic Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism’ does note Muslim philosophers of the 20th century (like Iqbal and Tabatabai) but these philosophers, great as they were, did not move civilizations like early Muslim philosophers. They operate strictly within the bounds of Islamic thought. Rather, what we need are philosophers from the world of Islam who engage with current trends in global philosophy. Perhaps they can answer the children of Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida and provide the next steps in world philosophy.

I managed to have two questions of mine fielded to the good professor. The first was on Al-Ghazali’s notion of philosophers going against ‘Islamic teachings’. What constitutes ‘Islamic teachings’, I asked? Professor Ebrahim replied that Al-Ghazali was a scholar who was retained by the Abbasid caliphate and hence had to acknowledge the ‘official doctrines’, as it were. Fair enough, this only shows that that he’s not only fallible, we may bypass him altogether. If we choose to construct a different framework, there’s nothing to hold us back.

The second question I asked when I sneakily ‘found myself’ in the long queue for dinner for the second time. Well there was no other way to speak to Professor Ebrahim so there I was. I managed to ask him about what he thought Ex-Muslims can add to the discourse. He agreed that even their dissent can add to the discourse. This could even change of what we conceive to be the ‘Ummah’. Sadly the conversation ended there.

The only bone I have to pick with the Muslim Institute is that the Ibn Rushd lecture is only held once a year. I would have preferred quarterly or even once every sixth months. So there I was, all by myself in Holborn, walking back to the station from whence I came.

More Encounters with Unusual Muslims

Mondays are meant real downers but I was fortunate to be able to take an afternoon off last Monday since things were slowing down as summer was already here. I had made two consecutive appointments with two Muslims one would normally meet. My happy hunting ground? Appropriately enough, the Edgeware Road/Paddington area.

My first meet up was with a journalist cum political analyst. I had met this lovely young lady as co-panelist on British Muslim TV the previous week. We were very much in agreement about the subject (on whether Muslim’s identity signals like beards and hijab are appropriately placed) although we had to ‘tussle’ a little bit to get to that point. She had very kindly agreed to help me on my quest to break into mainstream reporting.

In the usual ‘Muslims Vs The West’ scenario, it is usual to see people (from either side) become fanatical in their passionate defence of their ‘side’. It was so refreshing to see that my new friend did not fall into this category. Her journalism from what I understand seemed to be about bringing the other side of the Muslim narrative to the forefront. For example, the increase in women’s representation in Muslim parliaments. Sadly, this positive journalism does not feed well into the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ type scenario. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s shambolic stories make better headlines and that’s why truth becomes secondary. I can empathise. I have been following a ‘Muslim Atheist’ for some time and am amazed that he does not even read what he himself quotes!

My friend is also very balanced as she is not afraid to criticise Muslims where appropriate. She recognises outward signs of piety as cultural signals Muslims affect in order to flex their identity. This is something which is similar to how other young people affect cultural signals from other traditions (like punk or goth). She also had very strong feminist leanings and was very critical of the patriarchal nature of (what I call) Conservative Traditional Islam.

Yet, for all her liberalism, my friend was very unwavering in her notion of what is ethically acceptable. She was very wary of what she called ‘Koombayah Islam’ (a phrase which made my coffee go the wrong way!) and how the response to Conservative Traditional Islam should not be anything goes! I may not agree on what is ‘ethically accetable’ but I do feel that one needs to be unwavering on what one believes to be right.

I was early for my second appointment so I decided to walk over to Paddington. It was not a long a walk as I had expected. I even had the time to scope out a Malaysian restaurant I used to visit but it turns out, it was closed. I think closed down for good because if it was still open, it would be open at that hour!

I was here to meet a friend I met on Facebook, Hassan. We met in a group called British Muslims for Secular Democracy where I was struck by Hassan’s description of himself as an ‘Agnostic Muslim’. I am not one of those people who balk at such terms either. I happily acknowledge that there are infinite varieties of Muslims who have infinite religious experiences. What struck about Hassan, even before we met in person, was his emphasis that his position as an agnostic Muslim was his own. He was speaking for himself, no one else. This is contrary to many I know. I highly respect this because my own approach to religion is predicated upon my subjective experience. Check out the name of this blog, if you don’t believe me.

Hassan and I met at The Victoria pub just down the road from Paddington station (see pic below). It was a lovely pub in which you can imagine George Roper and Jeffery Fourmile having one of their little quarrels in. Hassan had very kindly offered to buy me lunch which made me all the more agreeable!

Victoria Pub in Paddington

Victoria Pub in Paddington

Hassan grew in during the ‘classical’ period of British Islam. I say ‘classical’ because this was the incubation period of Muslim youth. You could read a very beautiful narrative of this period by another British Muslim who grew up during this period, Ziauddin Sardar in his book ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim’ . Hassan was not just a casual Muslim. He studied and worked in the field!

He came to his agnosticism when he found there were theological questions he could not answer. The example he mentioned was the eternity of hell. Surely a merciful god would not torture human beings eternally even for a lifetime of errors. I could attempt to answer this conundrum here but really, I would just be speculating on God’s logic myself. The fact of the matter is, this is a metaphysical issue for which no objective answer can be reached.

Hassan and I shared an alma matter which was SOAS, that place where the historical criticism school of John Wansbrough first originated. Hassan actually studied under the man himself and I studied under his prodigy, Gerald Hawting (in his final class, no less).

An interesting subject which came up and which I will be writing on in my Quranology blog is on the issue of the asmaa ul husna. The 99 names of Allah. Hassan pointed out that some of these names were not based on the Quran and some of names which can be formulated from the Quran are not there. Very interesting, I thought. He also pointed out that some names of Gods were positive sounding but not others. In the end, he concluded, that God is beyond what we try to pin him down with.

This mode of thinking also extended to the Quran itself. For Hassan, the Quran was a divine inspiration in the same way any human being can be inspired to produce something meaningful. Prophet Muhammad was inspired but he had to express this inspiration in a human language and thus wrote down the Quran. So the wording was his but the source of the wording was not, if you will. Hassan still saw the Quran as a source of wisdom but has the choice of taking that wisdom on his own terms. It was very ironic, I thought, that he and I had different metaphysical views yet when it came to the practical application of Quran, we were on the same page. To me, Prophet Muhammad was inspired to verbalize what became the Quran. They were not his words but God’s own choice of words. This is why he could not understand them in full but had to see knowledge (as Quran 20/114 tells us). Of course, this is only my belief. I have no way of objectively proving this. In any case, in terms of application, we were on the same page. The Quran to me is applicable to the Reader who must decide if he is experiencing the particular sign or not.

Time passes quickly when you’re into these deep discussions and soon Hassan had to leave. We promised to meet up again soon. I looked forward to that very much. All in all, it was a beautiful Monday and I went home glowing.