Contemporary Islamic Philosophy: Calling for an Islamic Ethical Model

He’s a Moroccan philosopher and theologian, has been named as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world, and is perhaps best known for his approach to Islamic ethics that is both humanistic and contemporary. Taha Abdurrahman has won the Moroccan Book Prize twice, and is also the recipient of the ISESCO Prize for Islamic Philosophy, winning the latter in 2006.

Brief Biography

Born in 1944 Morocco’s port city of Al Jadida, Abdurrahman studied first at the Muhammad V University in Casablanca before moving to Paris to complete his studies at the Sorbonne. For his first PhD, his thesis was entitled, “Language and Philosophy: a treatise on the linguistic structure of existence study”, while his second PhD, coming in 1985, looked at the study of argumentation and its methods. As well as speaking the customary Arabic, French and English, Abdurrahman is also gifted with German, Latin and Ancient Greek.

Abdurrahman taught at his alma mater in Casablanca from 1970 through to his retirement in 2005, as a Professor of Philosophy, specialising in language and logic. Since his retirement, he has remained active within various academic roles, such as holding the presidency of “The Wisdom Forum for Thinkers and Researchers”, as well as publishing numerous books including “Post-Secularism: A critique of the separation between ethics and religion” and “Modernity and Resistance”.

Key Ideas

Abdurrahman’s work has been at the forefront of contemporary Islamic thought, challenging Western presumptions about knowledge and its applications, as well as arguing for the need for Muslims to reinvigorate their academic disciplines, and bring something organically Islamic to the table. He has taken a particular focus on ethics and the need for Muslims to come forward with an ethical model that is relevant to the present day.

Central to Abdurrahman’s work, is the need for Muslims to use their own sources and own tradition, albeit in a fresh way, to come forward with their own intellectual developments. What we have become prisoner to, and Abdurrahman is by no means the only Muslim thinker to argue this, is the ideas of modernism and development that have come from the West. While he does critique these, perhaps this is not as important as his recognition that they are coming from the West, and so are more fitting for the West. Abdurrahman goes as far as proposing that Muslims develop new terminologies to describe the phenomena that are being discussed, rather than borrowing those that have been coined by Western thinkers.

Abdurrahman is critical of the almost infallible status that has been afforded to reason, stemming from the enlightenment and subsequent manifestations of secularism. While reason is a valuable source, thinkers like Abdurrahman believe that it has its limits, a position that some ardent secularists would greatly dispute. Reason and logic have an important role to play in the search for truth, and both are found strongly within his work, but he also allows for other forms of truth. Abdurrahman challenges the presupposition of many modern thinkers that religions are not to be trusted as sources in general, and specifically sources for morality or ethics.

It is important to note that thinkers from outside of the Islamic tradition also challenge the idea that reason is the be-all and end-all of those seeking truth. Indeed, the legendary philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote of “the supersensible”, i.e. things which cannot be known by our senses, yet underlie all things that we can know. More recently, renowned philosopher Jürgen Habermas was devoted energy critiquing reason as has been understood by those who have moved forward with the philosophy of the Enlightenment.  Most recently, Alasdair Macintyre offered a strong challenge to the ethics that have stemmed from the Enlightenment, and called for a return to Aristotelian or Thomist ethics, either of which allow for the importance of revelation in the creation of moral codes. On one hand, it is important to note that it is not only Muslim thinkers who are walking down these paths of inquiry. On the other, reaching for “Western” thinkers in order to back up the position of Abdurrahman might represent exactly the kind of thinking he is challenging.

Importance of His Work

While there is a discussion about whether or not colonialism has finished, or evolved into neo-colonialism, or perhaps disappeared altogether, what seems uncontroversial is the idea that the minds of many individuals, communities, institutions, and even nations, remain colonised. One way that this manifests is in the insistence in the need to copy the colonising power, passively wilting to the idea that what their practice must be the best practice. A measure of an idea or practice is how well it stands up to investigation, factoring in both the scientific and the spiritual. Abdurrahman’s call for an Islamic ethics, drawn from Islamic sources and tradition, and assessed using Islamic frames of reference, is important. As well as reversing a void in ethics that is clearly evident within much of the Muslim world, the act of doing this in a way that is organic to Islam is significant. Breaking from the dependency on “Western” modes of thought is a crucial aspect to decolonising our psychological realities. His work has provided an alternative means of moving forward, using our biggest resource as a way to find new solutions to contemporary problems that are facing Muslims, and the wider world, today. His challenge of dependency on reason is not new, and finds supporters outside of the Islamic tradition. This challenge to the limits of reason is crucially not a dismissal of it altogether. Reason has an important role to play, but it is not the exclusive source of truth. Within his work, we find an intellectual self-assurance that stems from a trust in his tradition, and a trust in his ability to use it to devise new ways of thinking.

Written by Tamim Mobayed

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Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.