On “Modern Islamic Philosophy”

images-3What one may call “modern Islamic philosophy” is not continuation of traditional Islamic philosophy, but rather scattered intellectual activities resulted from translating some of the Western philosophy discussions into Islamic languages. However, if by Modern Islamic philosophy one means the traditional Islamic philosophers who manage to continue doing philosophy until the modern time, their philosophy, generally speaking, has no connection with the modern world. Or the practitioners of traditional philosophy, so far, were not able to give a convincing account for the usefulness and competent of traditional philosophy mostly not due to the limitations of traditional philosophy, but because of the traditional philosophers’ limited understanding of modern philosophy. To make the traditional philosophy relevant to the modern world, one needs first to show learning from ancient philosophers is possible and desirable. Second one needs to show that what we can exactly learn from ancients that modern thinking cannot teach us, and third show the limitation of the modern thinking. These kinds of philosophers have not yet emerged in the Islamic world, and they are the philosophers of future. Since it requires arduous intellectual labor and wisdom that will only come into existence gradually.

Even though philosophy continued in Persianate world after the death of Averroes; however, it has been a marginal intellectual activity among Persian thinkers who consider philosophy as a kind of intellectual ornament. From the traditional philosophers who lived in the modern time, we can name Jalal Ashtiyani as one of the Mulla Sadra’s scholastics commenter, Allameh Hossein Tabataba’i, and Mehdi Ha’iri Yazdi whose philosophy is mostly continuation of the Ishraqi School and Mulla Sadra’s philosophy. From the modern philosophers, one can mention the influential Iranian thinker Adul Karim Sourosh, who studied analytic chemistry in England. In the Arab world, one may name al-Jabri, Muhhamad Arkon, Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, Aziz al-Azmeh all educated in the Western universities.

The lack of a living continuous tradition in Islamic world makes the possibility of modern Islamic philosophy unlikely. By tradition, I do not mean a religious tradition, but a living intellectual frame of reference for philosophical thinking that makes creative thinking and new questions possible. Comparing to Europe, where a continuous living tradition of philosophical thinking exists, the modern philosophy came into existence from within the European philosophical thinking. However, it does not mean that European did not engage in dialogue with other cultures. Averroes’s philosophy caused more heated debate in the Christian Middle Ages than in the Islamic world. In fact, the traditional thinking has collapse in Muslim countries perhaps since four century ago due to its contact with modernity and its. The symptoms of the collapse of tradition are enormous and can be seen both on theoretical level and practical level. On the theoretical level, the traditional Islamic philosophy lags the problems with which the Islamic civilization is dealing since four century ago.[1] In fact, Muslims were not able to produce world-class thinkers like Ibn Sina, Averroes or Mulla Sadra since four century ago.

In fact, many attempts by modernists, such as Said Jamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammad Abdu, Rashid Reza to modernize Islamic tradition have failed. For instance, Said Qutb as the founder father of some extreme groups is a product of modernizing attempts. Said Qutb neither has the intellectual depth of Abdu nor has the keen instinct of diagnosing of Afghani or Reza.

The modernists failed to fulfill their promises, which was reconciling Islam with modernity. Maybe one of the reasons of their failure is abandoning the tradition and pretending that it never has been existed. The result of abandoning the tradition has been the emergence of modern extreme tendencies that claim they are rooted in the tradition while they have no firm understanding of the tradition either. These extreme reactionary groups, advocating a return to the past while their attitude toward the past is selective, and it is merely to morph tradition into political ideologies, have had catastrophic consequences. Abandoning the tradition is neither possible nor desirable. At the same time, the path to return to the past is closed. However, the reasonable attitude toward the traditional philosophy is laying down the theoretical foundations that make learning from it possible.


[1] Poverty and sociopolitical problems in Muslim countries are the symptoms of a broader crisis. This crisis can be identified as a civilizational crisis that has happened by a break with tradition. Muslims can neither return to their past nor they can find a place in the modern world. This state of intellectual void and suspension and confusion has given birth to emergence of “solutions” and treatments that were more fatal than diseases.


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