Talʽat Radwan

There are many who have promoted the scourge of conformity as something that is socially advantageous, while it actually constitutes calcification, that is, a conformity even with natural, societal or political phenomena that are harmful to mankind. It is philosophy alone that rescues mankind from this scourge.

Religious institutions, on the other hand, consistently promote this conformity, for the believer of whatever religion sees his faith as absolutely true, whereas other faiths are absolutely false. Moreover, within one religion a plurality of denominations vie with each other, each faction raising the flag of its own rightness and the error of the others.

Religious institutions consistently promote  conformity

Thus the followers of religions and of their various denominations have brought about the phenomenon of ‘psychological ghettos’ – despite the fact that they live in a single society – since they refuse to adopt a philosophical mindset founded upon the rejection of fixed certainties, and the re-examination of inherited cultural values. Nor do they consider to what extent their culture is in harmony with the concept of freedom whose pillars were set down by the philosophers on the basis of the separation between the religious belief of a person (that is, his individual freedom) and the imposition of his faith and denomination upon others. Had this separation been achieved, we would now be avoiding the current disaster of religion being crammed into politics, economy, science and literature.

The true beginning of the emergence of philosophy was the human mind’s ability to employ the quality of wonder. For it was wonder that gave birth to the love of questioning and thus set the path towards demolishing conformity. This questioning in turn generated more questions: Why did a particular event take one form and not another? Should we take from others that which suits us, or are we to close ourselves in upon ourselves? Why did ghazwa raids take place which colonised peoples and plundered their wealth? When will peace prevail amongst the nations of the world? Only the philosophical mind had the courage to pose these and other questions, since the religious mind lacks this audacity since it fears clashing with its inherited certainties. For the Muslim believes in the meaning of the Qur’ānic verse:

O ye who believe! Ask not of things which, if they were made known unto you, would trouble you [Qur’ān V,101]

Warriors of fixed certainties

This prohibition on questioning itself poses a question: what are these things which, if mankind knew them, would trouble him? Who is to decide whether they would trouble him or not? Why is the freedom to pose questions not granted mankind, indeed, given to him alone to decide whether the answer is troublesome or not? While philosophy insists upon establishing the pillars of relativism, religions work towards the establishment of absolutes. We find, for instance, in the Qur’ān the condemnation of the blind man:

Are the blind man and the sighted equal? [Qur’ān VI,50]

and the same sentiment occurs at the following:

The similitude of the two parties is as the blind and the deaf and the seer and the hearer. Are they equal in similitude? [Qur’ān XI,23]

Is the blind man equal to the seer, or is darkness equal to light? [Qur’ān XIII,16]

Whoso is blind here will be blind in the Hereafter, and yet further from the road. [Qur’ān XVII,72]

The blind man is not equal with the seer; Nor is darkness (tantamount to) light; [Qur’ān XXXV,19-20]

And the blind man and the seer are not equal, neither are those who believe and do good works (equal with) the evil-doer. [Qur’ān XL,58]

Takfīr is the weapon of a writer who relies upon religious authority

With respect to this absoluteness we find the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) adopting similar positions concerning womankind. In antiquity we have Genesis III,17: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”, and in the New Testament we have Peter I,3: “You married women, be submissive to your own husbands” and in the latest (Islamic) period (as the late Bayyūmī Qandīl termed it) we have: “men are a degree above them” [Qur’ān II,228], with one man equal to two women in bearing witness and, in matters of inheritance, “to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females” [Qur’ān IV,11]. The Muslim is empowered to obtain all that he wants from women according to the system of servitude while these latter are considered to be ‘the possession of one's right arm’, as is reported in several Qur’ānic verses:

let them marry from the believing maids whom your right hands possess [Qur’ān IV,25]

... and (the slaves) whom your right hands possess [Qur’ān IV,36]

And Allah hath favoured some of you above others in provision. Now those who are more favoured will by no means hand over their provision to those (slaves) whom their right hands possess [Qur’ān XVI,71]

And marry such of you as are solitary and the pious of your slaves and maid-servants. [Qur’ān XXIV,32]

Let your slaves and slave-girls, and those among you who have not come to the age of puberty ask your permission (before they come to your presence) [Qur’ān XXIV,58]

Do you have partners among those whom your right hands possess (i.e your slaves) to share as equals in the wealth We have bestowed on you Whom you fear as you fear each other? [Qur’ān XXX,28]

O Prophet (Muhammad SAW)! Verily, We have made lawful to you ... those (slaves) whom your right hand possesses [Qur’ān XXXIII,50]

It is not lawful for you (to marry other) women ... except those (slaves) whom your right hand possesses.[Qur’ān XXXIII,52]

Lo! the doom of their Lord is that before which none can feel secure - (28) And those who preserve their chastity (29) Save with their wives and those whom their right hands possess, for thus they are not blameworthy; [Qur’ān LXX,28-30].

And more explicitly than this in the unambiguous text:

Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property [Qur’ān IV, 34].

Ibn Rushd: a philosopher but one who was not averse to declaring others 'Unbelievers'

This text makes the assumption that mankind will remain as it is in the seven century AD, and confined to the Arab Peninsula where expenditure for the family was as a rule the responsibility of the man, whereas in other societies such as Egypt and Iran women stood alongside men in the fields, in the workshop and the factory. In the modern era – as I have witnessed myself, the woman works and spends on the family (whether due to the unemployment of her spouse or due to her superior earnings) so we therefore see that the Abrahamic faiths deal with women on the basis of an absolute position, rather than the relative position that philosophy calls for.

While the language used by the philosophers among themselves is one of objective criticism –  something which led over generations to the development of philosophical schools – the language of takfīr is the weapon of a writer who relies upon religious authority. Al-Ghazālī may be famous, in most of his works (particularly in The Incoherence of the Philosophers), for his declaring as ‘infidel’ all those who postulated the eternity of the world, yet Ibn Rushd (who is awarded in Arab culture the title of ‘enlightened philosopher’) equally resorted to declaring as ‘infidel’ those who differed with him.

Ibn Rushd   resorted to declaring as ‘infidel’ those who differed with him

This is particularly in evidence in his work Fasl al-Maqāl fīmā bayn al-Hikma wal-Sharīʻa min al-Ittisāl (‘The Decisive Treatise on the Harmony of Wisdom and the Sharīʻa’), whose very title betrays the desperation of the attempted harmony, based on an assumption that there is a relationship to be had between ‘wisdom’ (by which he means philosophy) and Islamic law. But whereas the philosopher respects pluralism and puts his faith in it, we find Ibn Rushd to be one-sided out of a strict commitment to the Islamic faith. He employed the Qur’ān-derived language of takfīr with respect to his rivals, and the following are some of his views:

He who passes judgement on things that have been created without employing the conditions of wisdom, is either a sinner or a kāfir;

If he challenges any of the principles of the Sharīʻa then he is a kāfir;

Anyone who repudiates even a single basic foundation on the purposes of the Sharīʻa is a kāfir.

Those Muslims who resorted to allegorical interpretation of some of the Qur’ānic verses he accused of Unbelief, arguing that:

If an apparent text of this kind refers to principles, anyone who interprets it allegorically is an unbeliever.[1]

The meaning of allegorical interpretation, for Ibn Rushd, was

the extension of the significance of an expression from real to meta­phorical significance.

For this reason he remarked that the scholar may entertain allegorical interpretations of the Text,

provided that the interpretation given does not lead to denial of [the] existence [of the Afterlife]. In this matter only the negation of [its] existence is unbelief, because it concerns one of the principles of religion.

For those who differed with Ibn Rushd on this matter[2], their use of the allegorical interpretation itself constitutes ‘unbelief’:

We hold that, for anyone whose duty it is to believe in the apparent meaning, allegorical interpretation is unbelief, because it leads to unbelief. Anyone of the interpretative class who discloses such [an interpretation] to him is summoning him to unbelief, and he who summons to unbelief is an unbeliever.

Behind his argument is his unilaterally held belief that ‘people in relation to the Scriptures fall into three classes’:

One class is those who are not people of interpretation at all: these are the rhetorical class. They are the overwhelming mass, for no man of sound intellect is exempted from this kind of assent.

Another class is the people of dialectical interpretation: these are the dialecticians, either by nature alone or by nature and habit.

Another class is the people of certain interpretation: these are the demonstrative class, by nature and training, by which I mean training in the art of philosophy. This interpretation ought not to be expressed to the dialectical class, let alone to the masses.

Descartes: a starting point of doubt

That is, he dismisses the general public and the dialecticians, and is tendentious towards those who believe in his views, which he terms ‘certain’. Here we see the difference between the philosopher who does not acknowledge that there is such a thing as ‘certainty’ in that his starting point is one of doubt (as Descartes and other philosophers maintained), in the same way that the dialectical method works from certitude to negation, and from negation to the negation of the negation. None of this Ibn Rushd recognizes, binding himself instead to the Islamic Sharīʻa and maintaining that ‘he who opposes the Scriptures is an Infidel.’ Yet at the same time we find him acknowledging that the founders of Islamic sects ‘declared each other to be infidels’. The reason for this is that the Muʽtazila[3] allegorically interpreted many Qur’ānic verses and hadith and expressed these interpretations to the masses,

and the Ashʽarites did the same, although they used such inter­pretations less frequently. In consequence they threw people into hatred, mutual detestation and wars, and tore the Scriptures to shreds.

Ibn Rushd goes onto deplore how the Ashʽarīs

called an unbeliever anyone who did not attain knowledge of the existence of the Glorious Creator by the methods laid down by them in their books for attaining this knowledge.

But instead of condemning this language of takfīr, he adds in the same paragraph:

But in truth it is they who are the unbelievers and in error!

Thus we see Ibn Rushd, in most of the pages of his work, accusing those who differed with him as being infidels. So I am not surprised to see him adducing sound hadith as evidence for the rightness of killing others if they fail to believe in Muhammad and his Lord, such as the following:

I have been ordered to fight people until they say “There is no god but God” and believe in me.

It was through the feeling of wonder that men first began to philosophize

I have deliberately focused on Ibn Rushd, whom the prevailing dysfunctional culture dubs ‘the great philosopher’ despite his fundamentalism and his employment of the language of takfīr, in order to bring ourselves to the conclusion that still escapes many: that is, that the Arabs have never produced a philosopher in the proper scientific meaning of the term, not even in the person of Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) whom the Arabs class as a philosopher despite his attempts to harmonise faith with philosophy (his failure being due to the sterility of the attempt). Evidence of this is the way that the Muslim religious priesthood held all philosophers to be zindīqs[4] while others, more charitably, wrote them off as ‘short sighted’.

But I think that the principle reason for the non-existence of an Arab ‘philosopher’ is the deliberate lack of concern with universal questions that conflict with the religious texts, a challenge which conversely the European philosophers did take up. For we find in ancient Greek culture a thinker such as Epicurus maintaining that philosophy is an activity that leads us to the good life by means of its intellectual arguments and evidential proofs. That is, he concentrated on the importance of ‘observation’ in the establishing of rational proof. In the view of Egyptian thinker Dr. Zakariyā Ibrāhīm:

Philosophical reflection differs greatly from religious reflection. In philosophical reflection you find nothing that is considered the subject of worship, or any area or any specific image that is sacralized.

For Descartes,

Philosophy alone sets us off from the barbarous, savage folk. The civilisation and cultural level of a people is in direct proportion to how far sound philosophizing is distributed in it. A man who lives without engaging in philosophy is like one who keeps his eyes shut, making no attempt to open them.

I believe that this metaphorical shutting of the eyes inflicts a severe anaemia upon the ability to experience the wonder that the true philosopher enjoys, and from which questions on the nature of existence become generated. Aristotle was right when he wisely remarked:

It was through the feeling of wonder that men now and at first began to philosophize.[5]


[1] Ibn Rushd goes on to state: ‘It will have become clear to you from what we have said that there are apparent texts of Scripture which it is not permitted to interpret allegorically; to do so on fundamen­tals is unbelief, on subordinate matters, heresy’. (Ed.)

[2] Ibn Rushd also argues here that ‘anyone who is not a man of learning is obliged to take these passages in their apparent meaning, and allegorical interpretation of them is for him unbelief because it leads to unbelief … The masses … who are incapable of more than rhetorical arguments, have the duty of taking these [Texts] in their apparent meaning, and they are not permitted to know such interpretations at all.’ (Ed.)

[3] See Glossary: ‘Muʽtazila’.

[4] See Glossary.

[5] Διὰ γὰρ τὸ θαυμάζειν οἱ ἄνθρωποι καὶ νῦν καὶ τὸ πρῶτον ἤρξαντο φιλοσοφεῖν:  Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 1, Part 2.