Leaving Islam




The closing sentence of the editorial merits some further comments. “In that struggle, (i.e. between “those who would make Islam barbaric and those who would keep it civilized”) the heirs of Socrates and the heirs of al-Farabi must make common cause.” These words imply that there is a similarity or equivalence between the historical journeys of Western and Islamic civilizations. But this is definitely not the case. Whereas Western civilization was formed by the appropriation and assimilation of the Greek philosophical tradition, the Roman law, and the Judeo-Christian heritage; Greek philosophy had only a passing and a minimal impact on Islam. Unfortunately, the heirs of the Muslim philosopher, al-Farabi (870-950 A.D.) have been dormant for almost an entire millennium!

This is not to deny that in the early years of the ninth century A.D., Baghdad became the center of learning and the cultural life of the Arab-Muslim Umma reached its zenith. There was a great deal of freedom for the airing of various theological and philosophical views. Both Muslim and Christian scholars participated in this movement. The impact of Greek culture was great, but according to Dr. Mahmoud, an Egyptian scholar who wrote a great deal on the subject of Arab-Islamic civilization, “only a small group of intellectual elite felt this impact; the masses in Baghdad , and throughout the vast empire, were not influenced by Hellenism.”

For example, a group of intellectuals known as Ikhwan al-Safa,” freely discussed in their letters some fundamental theological and philosophical topics. We may regard them as Muslim rationalists who sought to reconcile the tenets of Islam with Greek philosophy. With respect to the date of the Qur’an, they posited the doctrine that it was a historical record of Allah’s revelation. This did not meet with the approval of the great legal scholar, imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal who championed the doctrine that the Qur’an was uncreated, therefore eternal!  Several Caliphs who were in power at the time, sided with the rationalists, by persecuting and imprisoning Ibn Hanbal.  This event in the history of orthodox Islam is known as the “Ordeal of the Qur’an.” Later on, a new caliph sided with the orthodox view, the Imam was rehabilitated, and his teaching about the eternal nature of the Qur’an has prevailed to this day. 

The tenth century A.D. proved to be the age of the “Closing of the Muslim Mind.” The person responsible for that “closing” was Al-Ghazzali (died in 1111 A.D.) This great Muslim thinker represents a powerful reactionary force in the history of Islamic thought. His influence on the Arab-Muslim mind and culture was to freeze them in a mold that led to stagnation. In his book, Ihya’ ‘Uloom al-Deen (The Revival of Religious Knowledge), “Al-Ghazzali defined every utterance a Muslim makes and every step he must take in order to guarantee the orthodoxy of his Islam. Everything is spelled out for the Muslim: how to eat, sleep, travel, fellowship with one’s wife and child, etc. No room was left for any spontaneity in the Muslim’s life. Al-Ghazzali closed the door of philosophy on the Muslims and it has remained closed for eight hundred years!”* 

There were strong attempts early in the last century to “re-open the door of Ijtihad,” but they have all failed. And here we are, one hundred years later, the heirs of al-Farabi do not seem to be much alive or of influence in the world of Islam. On the contrary, it is the orthodoxy of   al-Ghazzali that is marching on. And whenever that I notice any attempt of some brave Arab intellectuals to champion the cause of democracy and free speech, the reactionary Salafists** rise up to silence them by speaking of the dire consequences of “kufr” (unbelief) within the Islamic Umma.  

So, I plead with Western columnists: you owe it to your readers to do better homework when writing on this very complex subject of Islam and the West.

*A quotation from the Arabic text of “The Rational & the Irrational in our Cultural Heritage” by Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud. No specific publication date is mentioned in the book; most likely   it belongs to the late 1970s.

**Salafist, an Arabic word based on the root salaf, i.e. ancestors. Salafists are those who champion a total commitment to Islamic orthodoxy as defined by the great teachers of the early years of Islam.







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