“Philosophy Isn’t Uniquely European”, Diagne Argues that Islam and Critical Thinking Aren’t Contradictions

On the occasion of the publication of the Dutch translation of Diagne’s ‘Comment philosopher en islam?’ (French for How to Philosophize in Islam?) the university of Antwerp organized a lecture on this book by the author. This an account of this lecture, that was held on 15 march 2017, with some personal reflections. [1]

The Poverty of Philosophy in the Muslim World

In his book How to Philosophize in Islam? [2], Souleymane Bachir Diagne challenges the view that philosophy and Islam are incompatible. The Senegalese philosopher highlights the open and skeptical tradition that exists within Islamic thinking and wants to cherish and strengthen it. According to him, the concept of Islamic philosophy is not at all an oxymoron. From very early on Muslims felt the need to philosophize and should keep doing so in order to keep in touch with their own dynamical and intellectual tradition.

But it was the poverty of philosophy in the contemporary Islamic world that brought Diagne to become an expert in Islamic philosophy himself. Although 95% of the population in Senegal is Muslim, like Diagne himself, he was unable to find academic specialists on this topic. Initially his interest laid within the fields of logic and the philosophy of science, but the need of experts in Islamic philosophy brought the Senegalese professor to become the expert on which he himself had been waiting for several decades.

The Philosophy Within Religion: Free Will and the Essence of God

After this short biographical note, which is important because he uses it to draw attention to the poor state of expertise in Islamic philosophy in the Muslim world, Diagne comes to the order of the day. He starts with a question: Where did the first encounter between philosophy and Islam take place? According to Diagne, the Islamic texts and ideas themselves already forced the early Muslims to reflect on philosophical questions, even before they came in contact with Greek philosophy. He gives us two examples. The first example is the problem of free will and predestination. It is actually a problem that has to do with two attributes of God: His omnipotence and His righteousness. If people are free to act as they like, then it seems that you are limiting the power of God, since in that case God doesn’t have any control over the actions of humans. If you, on the contrary, say that God is also responsible for the deeds of all human beings, then you are questioning God’s righteousness, since He is going to punish people for the sins He made them commit.

A second problem that was raised had to do with the essence of God. What is the relation between the unity and indivisibility and eternity of God and His attributes? If you ascribe a will to God, then this seems to imply that the nature of God is changeable. Since this means that in one moment of time, God didn’t want the creation of the world and humanity and in another moment of time God’s will changed and He decided to create the world and humanity.

The Encounter with Greek Philosophy

As a result of the expansion of the Muslim empire, Islam came into contact with Hellenistic culture and Greek thought. There were two different kinds of reactions in response to this encounter with Greek philosophy. One was dismissive, the other was one of openness . The reasoning behind the dismissive position is understandable and makes sense within the logic of a revealed truth. Why should one be interested in the wisdom of a pagan people that didn’t have any revelation? This position could be religiously justified, but it has to be noted that this is not something typical Islamic. Such an attitude was also present within Judaism and Christianity, since they all share the idea of a revealed truth.

The other position was one of opening oneself up for what the other tradition had to offer. It has to be noted that philosophy in that time was far much broader than it is today. Philosophy also encompassed such disciplines as mathematics and astronomy. This position believed that the achievements of ‘the Other’ (Greek philosophy) were able to shed led light on the received wisdom of the own group (Islamic revelation). Diagne cited the famous hadith that  urges us to “Seek knowledge even if it was in China”. We could also add surah 49:13 of the Quran, in which we are being told that we were made into “nations and tribes, that ye may know each other not that ye may despise (each other)” (Yusuf Ali translation).

It was in this context that the translations of Greek texts started. The first translations were not directly translated from Greek but from Syriac to Arabic and were done by Nestorian Christians. It was only later that Muslims became active translators themselves – this already shows the fundamental interculturality and diversity that characterizes the philosophical project as a whole and helped Muslims to build one of the greatest civilizations of the world.

Under the influence of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun, who advocated for a rationalistic theology and actively promoted the translations of Greek texts, Muslim philosophy flourished. Political power was behind the spirit of openness and the search for knowledge in the 9th century. The choice was thus not only an intellectual one, but also a political one. It was in this time that Muslims really appropriated Greek philosophy and started to produce original philosophy themselves. Thinkers like Al-Kindi did more than translating or just reproducing Greek philosophy, they also enriched it with their own insights and in this way contributed to an ongoing tradition. Nevertheless the tension between philosophy and revelation was never solved.

The Grammarian and the Logician

One example that, according to Diagne, revealed the ongoing tension between revelation and philosophy, is the debate between Abu Sa’ied Al-Sirafi and Abu Bishr Matta in 932 at the court of a vizier. Al-Sirafi was an Islamic theologian and grammarian of the Arabic language, Abu Bishr Matta was a Christian philosopher a translator of Aristotle‘s work and an expert in Aristotelian logic. According to Diagne, this debate illustrates the tension between on the one hand the pluralism of philosophy and on the other hand those who wanted to protect the purity of the language and the revealed truth.

The translations of Greek thought had an impact on the Arabic language, they changed it. In Aristotelian logic for example the canonical form of  a  proposition is  “x is f”. For example “Socrates is white”. This is more than only a logical claim, it is also an ontological claim. It identifies a substratum that itself is unchanged (in this case Socrates) on which accidental properties can change (in this case the whiteness of Socrates).  The verb ‘to be’ functions here as a copula that links a subject (Socrates) with a predicate (whiteness). But this form is not so easily transferred into Arabic. In Arabic the verb ‘to be’ doesn’t have the function as a copula from itself. This made the translation of Greek texts very difficult and illustrates the point that translating Greek philosophy had a profound influence on language. If something as basic as the canonical form of the proposition already required skillful ingenuity to transfer it into Arabic, one can have an impression of what the translation of Greek texts could do.

Because of this, Al-Sirafi considered Greek philosophy as a danger for the purity of the own language and tradition and was therefore hostile towards philosophy. Since making use of Greek philosophy required a transformation of the Arabic language this would mean estrangement of the language in which God had revealed Himself and thus alienation of the divine revelation itself.  Nevertheless he also made an interesting philosophical point himself: Philosophers claim to speak the ‘universal logos’ but maybe Aristotle didn’t really discover the universal logical categories but was what he did only the explication of the logical categories of the Greek language. This was an idea that would only emerge again more than thousand years later in the work of the French linguist Émile Benveniste.

Al-Ghazali: The Frenemy of Philosophy

The second illustration that Diagne gives us as an example of the unsolved tension between philosophy and revelation is the figure of Muhammad Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali has a prominent place within the collective memory of Muslims and has been bestowed with titles such as ‘Hujjat al-Islam’ (‘The Proof of Islam’). The Senegalese professor tells us that Al-Ghazali lived in turbulent times, in which the Islamic world, not unlike ours, was plagued with sectarian violence. Because of this the Seljukian caliphate acted harshly against transgression of her shafistic and asharite orthodoxy.

It was in this context that vizier Nizam Al-Mulk appointed Al-Ghazali to a prestigious professorate at the Nizamiyyah to defend their orthodoxy against the different ‘heresies’. Al-Ghazali is a key figure in Diagne’s narrative because he embodies the double and contradictory attitude towards philosophy that is so characteristic of the Islamic tradition. On the one hand he presented himself as the greatest enemy of the ‘falasifa’ by declaring them heretics. On the other hand he made use of philosophical  (neo-platonic) concepts, methods and questions in his own thought. This is why Diagne has dedicated two chapters in his book to Al-Ghazali. One that discusses Al-Ghazali as the enemy of philosophy and another that presents him as one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle-Ages.

Diagne tells us that Al-Ghazali went through a great transformation in his life. At one point he doubted everything. He asked questions like ‘What is knowledge?’, ‘When can we know that we know something?’ and ‘Is it actually possible to know anything at all?’. According to Diagne Al-Ghazali anticipated Descartes’s Meditationes de prima philosophia (Latin for Meditations on First Philosophy)  by making use of methodological skepticism to go trough different stages of doubt, at one point questioning the very existence of our empirical reality. But unlike Descartes he didn’t arrive at the certainty of deductive reason, his mediations resulted in faith in a supra-rational faculty of ‘intuition’ and the rejection of philosophy.

Sometimes Al-Ghazali is presented as the one who dealt Islamic philosophy the deathblow. But according to Diagne this is incredible. How could a single person – no matter how high he was placed – put a stop to an entire intellectual endeavour? Let us not forget that one of the greatest Islamic philosophers ever had still to come: Ibn Rushd. But maybe we should conceive of Ibn Rushd as the swansong of a dying tradition? It is true, Diagne claims, that Islamic philosophy since the 13th century was in decline. But even this claim has to be qualified since Islamic philosophy continued to thrive in the Shia world – you have for example the highly original philosophy of Mulla Sadra.

Colonialism and Islamic-Reformism

The final stage of Islamic philosophy is that of colonialism and the Islamic response of Islamic-reformism. According to Diagne, colonialism functioned as a wake-up call for the Islamic intelligentsia. Thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal [3], Al-Afgani and Abdel Raziq gave expression to the sentiment of longing to return to the dynamical openness that was so characteristic of the Islamic Golden Age. They felt the need to philosophize again, according to the Islamic-reformists something very drastic had indeed happened with Islamic culture. With the decline of Islamic philosophy, Islamic culture had lost her contact with, what Diagne calls, her “principle of movement”. The only way to come in contact again with her own tradition is by opening oneself up again for philosophical reflection that characterized Islam’s own blossoming.  According to Diagne this is the movement that is still going on today.

In this story the Islamic world is much more than a passive middleman which preserved and passed Greek philosophy along for the Europeans. It produced original philosophy that enriched the philosophical project and so helped to shape European modern philosophy.

The Unifying Dialogue of the Philosophical Tradition

Diagne concludes by stating that not only Muslims have to start philosophizing again, but that Western universities should also strengthen the narrative about how Islamic philosophy was constitutive for modern and contemporary philosophy. Islamic philosophy is an integral part of the philosophical tradition as a whole. According to him, we have to get away from the Eurocentric Hegelian paradigm that presents philosophy as an uniquely and exclusive European undertaking. In this view the story that is been told is that of a ‘Greek miracle’ with the birth of philosophy, the child is then adopted by the Romans who raise it until the scholastic tradition takes custody of it in European the Middle-Ages, and finally the child comes to maturity in the European modernity. Diagne counters this narrative by stating that Europeans and Muslims share the common heritage of Greek philosophy. In this story the Islamic world is much more than a passive middleman which preserved and passed Greek philosophy along for the Europeans. It produced original philosophy that enriched the philosophical project and so helped to shape European modern philosophy.

I think that the power of this inclusive narrative in this polarizing times is very clear. It undermines the dominant discourse in which ‘Islam’ is fundamentally at odds with ‘the West’ and that hence living together with Muslims is impossible. Instead the Islamic civilization is an interlocutor which through her intellectual exchange with the West has helped to shape European thinking. It is possible to continue the dialogue that the West and Islam through the ages have had with each other, on condition that both are willing to acknowledge the common ground that exists between them. ‘The Muslim(a)’ has to acknowledge that philosophy is not something alien to his/her tradition and that the ability to change, openness and critic contributed to her own greatness. And the European from his side has to acknowledge that the Islamic tradition has contributed to the insights that brought its own greatness in the modernity and that hence the Muslim(a) is more than a passive hearer who has to listen to the wisdom which Europeans through the ages have gathered.

If Al-Ghazali is the embodiment of the dual and contradictory attitude towards ‘falsafa’ in Islam, than Diagne is the embodiment of the reconciling and inclusive narrative he brings us. He is an African Muslim who studied philosophy in France and now teaches in the USA. In his own course of life he represents the culturally transcending nature of the intellectual undertaking in which he is partaking, namely philosophy. With his story of philosophy as a common and intercultural project, Diagne may be able to steer between on the one hand the Scylla of Eurocentric modernity that presents itself as the centre of all civilization in which the other is reduced to an passive listener about whom is spoken but isn’t allowed to speak about itself and on the other hand the Charybdis of (the not less European) post modernity that has the risk of falling into incommensurability in which different cultures are no longer able to say anything meaningful to each other and the only solution is absolute cultural segregation, isolation and quietism. But in the hands of Diagne philosophy becomes again an ongoing dialogue which transcends national, cultural and religious borders.

And isn’t philosophy in the first place always dialogue? Isn’t this why Plato’s dialogues, which are fundamental for the philosophical tradition, are so paradigmatic for philosophy?

[1] This is a personal account of this lecture, any mistakes are my own and not professor Diagne’s responsibility. Writing an account of a lecture is always an interpretative undertaking and it’s certainty possible that I partly or completely misunderstood his message. Any misrepresentations of Diagne’s narrative are not intended but a result of my fallibility that is not canceled out, even when I, to the greatest and sincerely guided effort, do my best to understand someone else’s story.
[2] For the French original: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Comment philosopher en islam? (Paris: Éditions du Panama, 2008). For the Dutch translation: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Filosoferen in de islam?, trans. Pol van de Wiel (Nijmegen: Uitgeverij Vantilt, 2016).
[3] Diagne has written a book about Iqbal: Souleymane Bachir Diagne,  Islam et société ouverte : la fidélité et le mouvement dans la philosophie d’Iqbal Islam et société ouverte : la fidélité et le mouvement dans la philosophie d’Iqbal (Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2001). This book was translated to English: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Islam and the Open Society: Fidelity and Movement in the Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal, trans. by Melissa McMahon (Dakar: Codesria, 2010).

This article is written by Louis Mosar, who studies Philosophy at the KU Leuven.