Lafif Lakhdar

You often use the term ‘decadence’ yet the historian of science Rāshid Rushdī rejects the concept of decadence in view of the fact that Islamic science continued without interruption from the 10th century until the present-day. So how do you define decadence?[1]

The Islamic world fell into decadence from the 12th century in the East and the 15th century in the Islamic West (with the fall of Granada), as the Tunisian historian Hichem Djaït holds. First of all, Islamic science in the Middle Ages was an extension of Greek scientific reflection. Experimental science only emerged in the 17th century. What was not continued was philosophy – Arab Islamic civilisation is a civilisation of a text and a culture of repetition, rather than one of the intellect. Its basic fertilising driver was the mind, which remained stillborn in its cradle. Hence the need to promote philosophy in secondary and even in preparatory education. In Tunisia philosophy is studied in the final two years of secondary education, and in Morocco in the final three years.

When religious reason was in the ascendant, a counter-dynamic tended towards unreason

The point of entry onto decadence in Greek civilisation, as it was in Arab Islamic civilisation, was the defeat of the philosophical mind – in the face of myth in the case of the first and, in the case of the second, the defeat of religious rationality. The defeat, that is, of the Islamic philosophical intellect, and of the critical mindset in the face of a literal reading of the foundational texts of the Qur’ān and the hadith at the hands of the hadith scholars whose unreason al-Tirmidhī, the student of al-Bukhārī, represented when he said:

He who undertakes an exegesis of the Qur’ān applying his opinion is mistaken, for he who interprets the Qur’ān with an opinion has committed an act of disbelief.

For him, opinion equates to the intellect.

What are these three rational trends?

They are the Mu‘tazilī religious rationality that held that Man alone was responsible for his acts; the Islamic philosophical rationality of Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) that proposed a philosophical reading of the Text; and the critical, philosophical rationality that heralded the prophethood of the mind –“for each mind is a prophet” as al-Maʽarrī put it. Of those who represented this critical thinking in Islam we may mention the medical doctor Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (Rhazes) and the one-time Muʽtazilī Ibn al-Rāwandī[2] and Abū al-ʽAlā al-Maʽarrī[3].

Al-Tirmidhī was a hadith scholar of the ninth century and the hadith party appeared in the eighth century A.D., so he did not appear in the age of decadence but rather at a time of the florescence of Islamic culture. How, then, do you explain this?

The course of history is not the product of isolated historical events. Rather, it is the product of a weft of events and society, that is, an entire historical trajectory in which two incompatible dynamics struggle with each other – a prevailing dynamic and a counter-dynamic. When the dynamic towards Mu‘tazilī religious reason was in the ascendant, a counter-dynamic tended towards unreason, as represented by the party of literalist reading. The tables were only turned at the beginning of the 12th century in the East when the dynamic towards religious unreason prevailed. I should give you an interesting anecdote of the struggle between these two dynamics in the ninth century, a time when the Mu‘tazila, philosophers, free thinkers and hadith scholars rubbed shoulders. The dynamics that came into conflict at the level of religious rationality focused on whether man had been granted free choice or was directed.

Diderot's Encyclopedia: penetrating to the élites and educated masses in Europe

The rational dynamic promoted the concept of free choice whilst the unreason dynamic supported direction. When Ibrāhīm al-Nazzām, a Mu‘tazilī scholastic, arrived in Baghdad from Basra and began giving lectures at the Al-Mansūr Mosque, one of the supporters of direction confronted him with one of the traditional questions of the time: “What is the link between the adulterer and the adulteress?” He replied: “In Basra we call it the pimp... while here you say it is God Almighty.”

Over the ruins of the early signs of reason takfīrist unreason came to dominate: “He who practices logic is an atheist”; “Logic leads to philosophy, and that which leads into disbelief is itself disbelief”. The declaring of philosophy, the bearer of the critical mind, as an act of disbelief, continues to this day. The Gulf Co-operation Council member states do not teach philosophy in secondary education, with the exception of Kuwait which introduced it in the year 2007. Morocco introduced philosophy first in 2003, while the state of philosophy in most Arab states is like that of orphans at the table of the wicked.

Here we should see symptoms of decadence. As for the continuity of mathematical exercises, these never did support any progressive route to rationality in basic social, political, economic, religious, scientific or educational institutions.

Why was the intellect defeated in both the Greek and Islamic cases?

Basically because, in both cases, the intellect failed to penetrate either the decision-making élites on a permanent basis, or the public at large, in the way that the intellect during the Enlightenment penetrated the decision-making élites in Germany, and the élites and educated masses in France. Objective circumstances account for this – the absence in both the Greek and Islamic Arab cases of a printing press. In the case of the Greeks the reciters of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the public agora triumphed over the philosophical mind; in the Islamic case preachers and hadith narrators in the mosques triumphed over the Hanafi jurisprudential school and over the philosophical and scholastic intellect of the Mu‘tazila and the philosophers, and of course over the freethinking harbingers of critical thought. The rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment emerged victorious thanks to the printing press, for which reason Hegel noted: “The press is the new morning prayer” which he began his day by reading.

The declaring of philosophy as an act of disbelief continues to this day

So it was not their books that distributed the philosophy of the Enlightenment among the public at large, so much as the press. And it is this that makes me more optimistic today about the triumph of the philosophical and scientific mind in Muslim lands, thanks to the communications revolution which has begun to penetrate into the households and heads of everyman. Here I appeal to all the media in the Arab and Muslim world, especially to satellite television and the Internet, to systematically deal with the question of Islamic reform. Indeed it is my hope that the well-to-do classes, who are conscious of the need for this reform, undertake the inauguration of satellite channels specialising in the service of religious reform by hosting debates between its proponents and opponents, so as to train and develop in their viewers a cognitive brain.

I also propose the formation of a publishing house specialising in the translation of works on religious phenomenology and the translation of European works that have already applied this science to the Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts. The purpose of this is that the culture of religious reform should be disseminated in Islamic lands, to whet the appetite of the élites and the masses for religious reform. A sensible religious media can henceforth fulfil the role of a school of religious commonsense and contribute to bringing this about.

The 1976 film The Message: part of an ongoing attack on traditional, politicised Islam

Ever since the 1970s, films such as The Message, and series such as ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-ʽAzīz, have prepared the way for the ongoing attack of traditional, politicised Islam. This is because scenarios have to date been written from the point of view of the Islam of faith, the Islam of miracles, the Islam of magic that demands of reality that it yield results that stand in conflict with its own laws, the Islam of worship of the ancestors who present them with the Islam of faith for the masses like demi-gods “like unto the stars, any one of which you follow you will be guided aright,” as the – doubtless fabricated – hadith puts it,[4] inspired as they are by divine care over everything that they say and do. This, then, is mytho-history, something which has no relation to history as it actually happened. One of the most conspicuous examples of this is ‘Umar’s commanding of the sun to delay its setting until such time as his army prevailed in battle.

I hope that this reasonable religious media offers serials and films written from the point of view of the Islam of history, that is, historical events as they actually, or most likely, happened. The history penned by our ancestors may or may not be wrong, they differ with and contradict one another and strive more often for power than faith. They are disfigured, as all of them are, by instinctive conflicts, by mutually conflicting desires and worldly ambition, and are almost devoid of any hint of religion.

Take, for instance, Ibn ʽAbbās when he was ruler over Basra and seized the funds of the Muslim Treasury and fled to Mecca. When Imam ‘Alī wrote to him demanding that he return the stolen funds to the Treasury and asked: “How will you meet God with the wealth of the Muslims on your hands?” Ibn ʽAbbās, the ‘religious authority of the Nation’, is recorded as replying: “Meeting God with their wealth on my hands is better for me that to meet Him with their blood on my hands, like you.” Inspired by the cult of the Ancestors –  those held to be immune from error and sin – Sunni scholars of all four denominations decreed that the theft of the wealth of the Muslims’ Treasury does not merit a punishment since the process of accumulating this wealth in the first place implied a suspicion of injustice. At the same time they decreed – for those who were not Ancestors – the punishment of severing the hand for the theft of a quarter of a dīnār and even, it is said, for the quarter of a dirham.

‘Uthmān’s Qur’ān: a subject of dispute among the Companions

There should be television series on the many events of this kind and on the disputes that broke out amongst the Companions concerning the collation of the Qur’ān and the burning of rival copies to that of the ‘Uthmān copy in circulation today, and they should present the viewers with some historical events such as the testimony of Ibn Masʽūd, who said concerning ‘Uthmān’s copy: “If I were Caliph I would burn his copy and preserve my own”, or the testimony of the Umayyad governor of Medina who burnt the ‘tablets’ of Hafsa the Mother of the Believers on the day she was buried, after she had forbidden ‘Uthmān to burn it along with the other copies. The dispute over the Qur’ān copies was a thorny issue, given that ‘Uthmān sent a directive out to all the provinces condemning as infidel anyone who should preserve any of the copies that had been ordered to be burnt.

There should also be series and films on the Great Sedition[5], taking as point of departure the books on The Great Fitna by Taha Hussein[6] and Hichem Djaït[7], and a series or film on the ongoing ‘sedition’ in Muslim lands, taking as point of departure the book on the Sedition penned by the French Arabist Gilles Kepel[8], which argues that imperial Islam is doomed to the struggle between external jihad and internal sedition, or series and films on Islamic Sufi martyrs such as al-Hallāj[9] and al-Suhrawardī[10]

A religion that escapes from the reins of the intellect turns into superstition and terrorism

Putting on the screen series and films such as these would be a solid step towards inaugurating a course of Islamic reform by dint of liberating the collective Islamic conscience from the psychological slavery of ancestor-worship. On this depends the success of religious reform and consequently the triumph of the rational over the irrational, of the instinct of life over the instinct of death, so that henceforth we will no longer mumble, alongside Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, the formula: “We love death as much as they love life”(‘they’ being the Jews).

What is your definition of religious rationality?

It is a religion of the intellect. The science of religious phenomenology must be presented as a torch-bearer to light the way towards producing what Kant termed ‘The religion of the intellect.’ This is also a function of the analytical mind, as demonstrated by the Mu‘tazila and the philosophers, in adapting the religious texts to the laws and demands of the intellect. A religion that escapes from the reins of the intellect turns into superstition and terrorism. This is what we are living through today in Islamic lands where, amongst other things, a schizophrenic delirium exists over the approaching end of the world and the return, in Iran, of the hidden Imam and, among the Sunnis in Palestine, the decisive battle between Christ and The Antichrist.

Read Part 2 of this article


[1] The article is taken from a discussion with Lafif Lakhdar by Nacer ben Rajab and Lahsan Ouarigh, and forms one of the essays of his comprehensive Reform of Islam project.

[2] Ibn al-Rāwandī (827-911 AD) was an early skeptic of Islam and a critic of religion in general. In his early days, he was a Muʽtazilī scholar, but after rejecting the Mu'tazilite doctrine, he became a freethinker who repudiated Islam and revealed religion. In particular he promoted the primacy of the intellect and criticised mythological elements in Islamic faith and the performance of rituals such as the Hajj and ritual purity preoccupations. None of his works have survived, but his opinions had been preserved through the citations from his critics. (Ed.)

[3] The Syrian philosopher poet Al-Maʿarrī (973-1057) was a skeptic in his beliefs and denounced superstition and dogmatism in religion. His creed was that of a philosopher and ascetic, for whom reason provides a moral guide, and virtue is its own reward. His poetical work the Luzūm mā lā yalzam (‘Supererogatory Matters’ or ‘Unnecessary Exigencies’) abounds with sceptical views, but were sufficiently couched in pious terms to shield him from the charge of heresy. Another of his works, the Risālat al-Ghufrān (‘Letter of Pardon’) in which he poet visits paradise and meets the Arab poets of the pagan period, has been compared to Dante’s Divine Comedy. (Ed.)

[4] The hadith in question runs: “My Companions are like unto the stars, any one of which you follow you will be guided aright.” (Ed.)

[5] The Great Sedition refers to a series of revolts fought against the fourth Orthodox caliph ‘Alī, and triggered by the assassination of his predecessor ‘Uthmān. It lasted for the entirety of ‘Alī’s caliphate until the accession of Muʽāwiya in 661 AD and his consolidation of dynastic rule (the Umayyad dynasty). (Ed.)

[6] Taha Hussein’s work ‘The Great Discord’ (Al-Fitna al-Kubrā) is a conscious attempt to analyse the events objectively and dispassionately, without adopting a Sunni or Shīʽī perspective, or indeed a religious perspective of any sort, for which he came under criticism from Sunni authorities. (Ed.)

[7] Hichem Djaït, La Grande Discorde, Religion et politique dans l’Islam des origines, Paris, Folio, 2008. The work sets out to trace the history of early Islam and study the links between religion and politics in the era that lasted five years in which the Islamic state tore itself apart, and which the author holds to constitute the ‘matrix’ of the Arab Muslim world. (Ed.)

[8] Gilles Kepel: Fitna, Guerre au coeur de l'Islam. In the book, the author argues that despite appearances to the contrary, the movement of Islamic jihadists is failing since, rather than waging a successful jihad against the West, the followers of Osama bin Laden have created chaos and destruction in the house of Islam, effectively a fitna that threatens the faithful with community fragmentation, disintegration and ruin. (Ed.)

[9] Mansūr al-Hallāj (c.858-922) was a Persian mystic who believed one had to go beyond the forms of religious rites to reach divine reality. His energetic attempts to share Sufi teachings with the masses led him into conflict with the authorities, who had him executed for heresy. For his desire of oneness with God, many Muslims criticized him as a ‘crypto-Christian’ for distorting the monotheistic revelation in a Christian way. His most famous work is the Kitab al-Tawasīn in which occurs the famous phrase expressing his abandonment in God: anā al-haqq (‘I am the Truth’). (Ed.)

[10] Shihāb ad-Dīn as-Suhrawardī (1155-1191 AD) was a mystic theologian and philosopher who was a leading figure of the illuminationist school of Islamic philosophy and who, Influenced by Aristotelian philosophy and Zoroastrian doctrines, attempted to reconcile traditional philosophy and mysticism. The more than 50 separate works that were attributed to him were classified into two categories: doctrinal and philosophical accounts containing commentaries on the works of Aristotle and Plato, as well as his own contribution to the illuminationist school. (Ed.)