Why Platonic Philosophy can help us Understand Islam

It is without a doubt that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is one of the most thought-provoking and fascinating parables ever told. It is intriguing to the extent that many have devoted their entire careers, if not lives, to trying to fully grasp its true essence and meaning. The Allegory of the Cave has infinite interpretations, which have added to its beauty over time, creating multiple platforms for discussion, debate and abysmal philosophical analysis. This short tale by Plato not only depicts the journey of a ‘prisoner’ out of a dark cave and into the world of the Good, rather; it illustrates a story concerning the soul, the importance of knowledge and the true meaning of liberation.
It is only when one has closely read and analyzed ‘The Republic‘ by Plato that he/she is able to summarize the three ways through which a person is able to make the celebrated turn. It this turn that transforms the person from being a regular individual who lives in the world of shadows and is preoccupied with non-concrete things, into a philosopher; a person who has experienced what lies outside the cave and is able to see “the true light of the Good.” According to Plato’s Republic, the three ways are: divine intervention or ‘divine irruption’ into the human dimension, education of the individual through the muses and gymnastics (which is supervised by the philosophers) and what is known as ‘dialectic’.

The Allegory of the Cave can be categorized as an example of divine irruption, the first of the three above-mentioned methods. The motive for such an assumption lies in the wording of the allegory itself narrated by Socrates. Socrates begins his renowned narration by instructing Glaucon to imagine a cave. In this imaginary cave, Socrates speaks of prisoners who have been firmly tied up and chained since their childhood, all facing the same direction: “Imagine further that since childhood the cave dwellers have had their legs and necks shackled so as to be confined to the same spot. They are further constrained by blinders that prevent them from turning their heads; they can see only directly in front of them.” (Plato, 209) What this description suggests is that the only reality, the only thing that the prisoners are familiar with, are the shadows that are projected on the cave’s wall. Everything else is obscure and unknown to them.

Hence, the person who pursues true education and seeks knowledge, continuously clarifying his doubts, will be able to attain the title of a philosopher if he strives to do so.

It is when Socrates mentions to Glaucon that one of the prisoners is freed that we sense an interference from the divine, a greater source of power that commands the liberation of the prisoner: “One prisoner is freed from his shackles. He is suddenly compelled to stand up, turn around, walk and look toward the light.” (Plato, 210) The language used in the previously cited phrase, particularly the words freed and compelled suggest the external intercession of an unmentioned player. The phrases: “Again, let him be compelled to look directly at the light” and “then let him be dragged up by force” both reiterate the interference of an external force”. What can be inferred from this extended metaphor is that it is only with the presence of a divine player, that the ordinary person can make the turn towards the light of the good. One can also interpret the allegory of the cave as being a justification for the proper transformation of the soul once it has been provided the precise sort of education. Hence, the person who pursues true education and seeks knowledge, continuously clarifying his doubts, will be able to attain the title of a philosopher if he strives to do so.
When the ‘chosen prisoner’ is released and let out to the real world, his eyes gradually begin to adjust to the new environment that surrounds him. He instantaneously apprehends that everything that was once familiar to him i.e. the shadows, are in truth, factions and obscurities compared to what is actually existent—what is truer than reality as we know it. But, when the possibility of the prisoner returning back to the cave is presented to Glaucon, it is agreed that he will be mocked and ridiculed on his claim of seeing a ‘truer world’ than the world of shadows. The reason for this is that the other prisoners, who have never experienced life outside the cave, will find it impossible to believe a different insight on reality than the one they have known during the course of their lives: the faded shadows on the wall.

The Similarity of Plato’s Cave and the Story of the Prophet

One must closely encapsulate the allegory of the cave on its own terms before making any comparisons and associations that could further enhance one’s own understanding of this legendary fable. It was almost impossible for me to avoid connecting the Allegory of the Cave, and the ascent of ‘the chosen prisoner’, to the period of revelation in Prophet Muhammad’s life—peace and blessings be upon him. It was during the Holy month of Ramadan when God communicated with the Prophet Muhammad, who was retreating in a cave, through archangel Gabriel. A noticeable similarity between Plato’s allegory and the story of Muhammad’s first revelation in Islam lies in the first verse, or first word to be more precise, that was revealed to Muhammad by Gabriel:
“Read in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, who created—created man out of a mere clot of congealed blood. Read! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful, He who taught [the use of] the pen. He taught man that which he knew not.” (Qur’an, Surat Al-`Alaq 96:1-5)

The allegory of the cave depicts the elevation process of one’s mind by education through the ascent of the ‘chosen prisoner’ to witness the true world of reality.

Why We Need to Educate Ourselves

Education. Education is one of the most prominent parallels that can be found in both of the two accounts. It is with knowledge that one is able to transcend towards a higher class—that of philosophers. The allegory of the cave depicts the elevation process of one’s mind by education through the ascent of the ‘chosen prisoner’ to witness the true world of reality. Similarly, the first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad —read— stresses the importance of seeking knowledge and uplifting one’s intellectual capacity to the next domain. Henceforth, education is framed as a marvelous gift, whether it was through Plato’s thought (which is eventually sourced to the Creator), or directly from God through Gabriel, it is agreed upon that it holds great power and ability to transform what is ordinary to being extraordinary.

The Prophet Mohammed as the Liberated Man in Plato’s Allegoy

Apart from education, there are several other similarities between Muhammad’s experience with revelation and what is styled by Plato in the Allegory of the Cave. One main resemblance is the flow of events in each of the two accounts; the idea of a ‘chosen prisoner’ by a divine power, the adjustment that was required by the prisoner to his new surroundings, and then, the anticipated mockery that awaited the prisoner upon his return to the cave. All of these instants that Plato depicted in the fable narrated by his teacher, Socrates, can be found in the account of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation.

Upon his sudden encounter with the archangel, Muhammad was unable to familiarize with what was happening around him and he hurried out of Cave Hira’a and down Jabal Al Nour (Mountain of Light). Gabriel then called out to Prophet Muhammad, seeing that he was running away from him, saying: “O Muhammad! You are the Messenger of Allah and I am Angel Gabriel.” Upon hearing this, the Prophet Muhammad stopped, and at that moment in time, anywhere he turned his head to he saw Gabriel. (Al Banna, 26) What we can infer from this is that Muhammad was specifically chosen by God to see the light of the Good and experience the real truth, this is similar to the prisoner who was liberated from his shackles and was compelled to ascent outside of the cave; it was he who was chosen out of all the others.

To conclude, the two versions that have been analyzed in this essay aim to further develop and bridge the gap between Platonic philosophy and one of the most significant stories in Islam. The Allegory of the Cave is not limited to philosophical aspects of the human life, rather; it can be extended further to religious and spiritual traits of our lives. In Islamic view; God is the source of all the Good in our world, He is the One that grants each of us His due of light and goodness: “God wishes to purify you completely…to lead you out of darkness into light”.

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