On September 15-20, 2002, Hillsdale College held a seminar on the topic, "How to Think About Islam." Nine guest speakers, both Islamic and non-Islamic, and several faculty members offered divergent views on several questions: Does the radical form of Islam behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, represent true Islam? or is it an aberration? Is Islamic doctrine compatible with religious pluralism and constitutional democracy? How are we to think of Islam in the context of the war against terrorism?
The following remarks are excerpted or adapted from presentations at this seminar.
A few months ago, following a speaking tour in Jordan, I was escorted by a United States Embassy liaison to the Amman airport to catch a 3:15 a.m. flight to Paris and thence to the United States. There we were confronted with extensive lines of white-robed Arabs returning from the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This led me to think how striking it is that nearly all great civilizations revolve around a pilgrimage.
One cannot think of Christianity without pilgrimage. From the time pilgrims stealthily approached the tomb of St. Peter on Vatican hill in the first century A.D. to pray for his intercession, to the thousands of places of pilgrimage that have become a Christian leitmotif to the present day, pilgrimage has been a central institution in Christianity. The Jews’ exodus in the desert was a pilgrimage. In India, Hindus go to the Ganges. In Buddhist cultures, there are many local pilgrimages. The Japanese travel to the shrines of their ancestors.
A pilgrimage is an ingrained metaphor for travelling through life toward the permanent and the true. It is a path toward unity with God. It is a discovery. Recall the Magi who came from the East for the Epiphany of the Lord. Nowadays, the politically correct term for Columbus’s discovery of the New World is “the encounter.” It is as if the Indians were on a quest to find a passage to the West and happened to bump into Columbus. No, it was the energy of the Christian West that drove Columbus to exploration and discovery. It was his own pilgrimage. In another sense, all philosophy—and all art that pertains to human experience—is part of the pilgrimage of man.
There are, of course, enemies of the pilgrim. Tyrants do all they can to prevent men and women from freely seeking the truth. Fatalists say there is nothing to discover—that everything is predetermined. Cynics say there is nothing to discover because there is no truth. And certain legalists—the Pharisees who confronted Jesus, for example—would constrain man with a set of unyielding rules that prevent personal voyages of discovery.
Al-Farabi and Islamic Philosophy
The Islamic philosopher al-Farabi spent his long life in a pilgrimage of the mind. He traveled through the Greeks, particularly Plato and Aristotle, through Islamic theology, through the law, music, politics and religious devotion to develop a theory of the intellect, of faith, and of politics that is one of the great contributions to the history of philosophy. He exercised enormous influence on Avicenna (980-1037), who in turn inspired Averroes (1126-1198) and Maimonides (1135-1204), and through Avicenna and Averroes, al-Farabi opened the doors of classical philosophy to St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), who perhaps created the greatest synthesis of philosophy and faith the world has ever known. Al-Farabi and his successors gave Jewish and Christian philosophy the impetus to drive both of those civilizations to unimagined heights. But his ultimate fate within Islamic culture was different.
Al-Farabi was born around 870 and came to Baghdad as a young man, probably because his father had gained a position at the court of the Caliph. He studied philosophy under Christian thinkers and translators patronized by the Caliph, began writing when he was about 50 years old, and produced works that at the same time defended philosophy and provided a comprehensive system of political and social thought. He and his work were at the cusp of the pilgrimage of Islamic civilization. Yes, civilizations—including our own—are themselves in a pilgrimage, successful if they defend the quest for truth, unsuccessful if they impede it.
Al-Farabi held that the end of life was happiness, in the Greek sense of eudaimonia. Happiness for him consisted in achieving theoretical, not practical, perfection. One achieves theoretical perfection by merging with or contemplating something that he called the Active Intellect, which emanates from God. However, one does not achieve theoretical perfection by lonely contemplation. One does so only in a community, in which individuals assist one another in their progress toward perfection. And such a community needs a founder, one whose human intellect can intuitively join with the Active Intellect. In other words, a prophet. So for al-Farabi, Muhammad becomes a kind of philosopher-king.
While philosophy in al-Farabi’s time was given a free hand by Islamic political authorities, there were other parties and systems of thought that competed, debated and strove to become the dominant voice of Islam. These philosophical and theological parties arose in reaction to the ongoing contest between Sunni and Shi’a Islam for political dominance within the empire.
One group, the Murji’tes, became the advocates of toleration and equality within Islam. They counseled peace to the warring parties, recognized non-Arab Muslims as equal to Arabs, accepted even sinning Muslims as members of the faith, and emphasized faith over works as the means to salvation. They were not enamored of the law.
A second party, the Mu’tazilites, championed the role of reason within Islam. Reason, the Mu’tazilites taught, could ascertain the truth even without the aid of revelation. Good and evil could be known by all men. But because of the weakness of the human will, revelation was necessary to confirm to man what was truly good and provide man with rules of behavior that unaided reason could not apprehend. Nonetheless, reason directs the understanding of revelation. These Mu’tazilites were close to what the Scholastics became in Christianity.
A third group, the Kharijites, was the enemy of all. The Kharijites held that any person who strayed from the perfect practice of Islam was, ipso facto, an apostate, subject to being killed with impunity. Any leader who did not hold true to the principles of Islam was likewise illegitimate and should be overthrown and killed. The Kharijites were never fully unified in command or tactics. But true to their beliefs, they committed frightful massacres on Muslims whom they believed no longer practiced the faith.
It took two centuries of warfare before the Kharijites were effectively suppressed and rejected by the other Islamic traditions. In their war against the Kharijites, both Sunni and Shi’a Islam confirmed the principles of tolerance, intellectual inquiry and open debate. The defeat of the Kharijites permitted the Islamic pilgrimage to continue apace. Today, radical Islamists replicate that ancient and despised sect.
Of all the parties, the Mu’tazilites rose to political dominance. Under the Caliph al-Mamun, who ruled from 813 to 833, Mu’tazilism became the official theology of the empire and classical learning bloomed. But a fourth party was coalescing—the party of legalism—and in another century it would supplant the Mu’tazilites.
The Rise of Islamic Legalism
Legal Islam was itself the product of a dramatic clash of ideas among three parties. The first were the qadis—not the religious judges as they later came to be, but administrative agents of the Caliph. The qadis sought to help the Caliph rule over his people, of whom a majority were Christians and Persians, and they adapted much of Byzantine and Persian law to effectuate this rule. Along with the qadis arose an intellectual elite of legal scholars, who developed schools of law. These schools, in turn, created new solutions to legal problems, incorporating much local law into their jurisprudence. During the first two centuries of Islam, the qadis and the schools of law created a dynamic legal system, the likes of which had not been seen since Rome and would not be seen for another thousand years in Europe. They were opposed, however, by a third group—the pietists—who wanted the empire to adopt Koranic norms.
In debates, the schools of law claimed that their rules had been sanctioned by traditions deriving from great legal thinkers or even from companions of the Prophet. The pietists countered with traditions that they claimed derived from the Prophet himself. Thousands of traditions were fabricated to support these opposing positions. The debate was ultimately resolved around the year 800 by a great legal thinker, ash-Shafi’i, who conceded that the traditions of the Prophet would be accepted as the major authoritative source of the law. Pietists, legal schools and qadis now merged into one party, the legalists, led by the ulama, an elite group of legal thinkers. So during the 9th century, while Mu’tazilism was recognized as the dominant party, legalists concretized the law’s provisions and became effective in their opposition to the Mu’tazilites. In al-Farabi’s lifetime, then, Mu’tazilism lost its position of dominance. Legalism brought the creative period of Islamic legal development to a close and defined the religion primarily in terms of a permanent, divinely sanctioned law.
In 932, al-Farabi witnessed a debate between a Christian logician and a Muslim theologian that made him realize which way the winds were blowing. The Muslim theologian, a defender of tradition, won the contest over the philosopher in the eyes of the intellectuals of the day. Seeing what was happening, al-Farabi went out of his way to make the law a permanent fixture in his conception of the polity. He argued that the philosophical solution and the legal solution were not at odds in creating a polity that conduced to man’s happiness. He was not entirely successful in squaring the circle. Scholars have noted many self-contradictory passages in his writing. One explanation is that al-Farabi intentionally wrote ambiguously in order to screen his opinions from what he knew would be serious opposition from the growing party of legalists.
Slowly over the next two centuries, the door to philosophical inquiry within Islamic civilization began to close. Avicenna was countered by al-Ghazali, who combined his involvement in mystical Sufism with his faith in the literal word of God to mount a major attack on the capacity of reason. God has no purpose that man can reason to, said al-Ghazali. God works His will however He wishes, and His acts are beyond philosophical or ethical understanding. Later, Averroes was met by Ibn Taymiyya, who attacked philosophy with as much vigor as al-Ghazali.
In 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and put a physical end to the centers of learning. Soon thereafter arose the Ottomans. Their autocratic method of rule, their alliance with the ulama, and their successful conquests made the law and territory a central part of Islam’s self-understanding. The civilization’s pilgrimage, its quest for understanding and truth, became stalled for centuries. To renew itself, Islam must resume its pilgrimage. All the world will be better for it.