Why are there no Muslim philosophers?

Are Muslim academics playing the role of ‘house Muslims’?

Seyyed Hossein Nasr is among the Muslim World's prominent contemporary philosophers [Reuters]

“Why are there no Muslim philosophers?” Sudipta Kaviraj posed this question to me while I was studying some critical Western texts of philosophy in the fall of 2009 with him. Although this is a complicated question – which I do not take at face value, given that Kaviraj is himself an important postcolonial thinker – it does point to a significant failure of Muslim thinkers to engage their own intellectual tradition, together with the Western tradition of thought.

At the same time, Kaviraj’s question relates to another crucial question raised more recently by Hamid Dabashi: “Can non-Europeans think?” In his article, Dabashi highlights how non-European thought – Muslim thought for our present purposes – is cast by the academia. The problem now is not whether Muslims can or cannot think, but how their thought needs to be reshaped according to Western “styles” of thinking for it to be deemed “philosophy” by Western academics, and not something closer to mythology.

On one level the question “Why are there no Muslim philosophers?” is an absurd one. Hamid Dabashi and Walter Mignolo, both major thinkers in their own right, mention the names of a number of Muslim philosophers (Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Azmi Bishara, Sadeq Jalal Al-Azm, Fawwaz Traboulsi, Abdallah Laroui, Abdolkarim Soroush, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr). Wael Hallaq – himself also a very important thinker – has added to that list in his own commentary on the relation of politics and knowledge (Muhammad Arkoun, M Abed al-Jabiri, Ali Harb, Hasan Hanafi, and Muhammad Shahrur). 

Muslim thought and Western academia

Lately, I have been pondering a set of questions. I posed them in a few academic forums, all with a decent Muslim representation, but I have yet to receive any satisfactory responses. My questions are: To what extent can Muslims think as Muslims within academia without being deemed too Muslim, and to what extent must their thought be made to conform to Western paradigms of thought?

That is, in order to be accepted within the academia, the writings of Muslim academics must not be identifiable as Islamic thought, but just more expressions of “academic objectivity”. Put differently, if the primary role of the academy is to inculcate obedience to the state, and if Muslims must make their thought conform to the strictures of the academy, are they then reproducing Western power/knowledge given that, as Michel Foucault has taught us, knowledge and power are intertwined?

The way I posed my initial question was whether Muslims within the academy are “house Muslims” or “field Muslims”.

I would like to remind the reader that one of the major endeavours of the British in India (which was the exemplary colonial project) was to educate Indians according to modern, Western knowledge in order to create subjects that were more pliant and welcoming of British rule. One of the dreams of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), who played a major role in introducing Western education to India, was that Indians would ultimately educate other Indians in Western subjects.

This dream is now a reality to an extent that was perhaps never imagined by Macaulay and his peers. Indians – Muslims and otherwise – and non-Westerners the world over, are taught Western subjects by non-Westerners themselves. This is certainly also the case within the academy where, given the history of Orientalism, Islamic Studies is just another Western subject.

I mentioned earlier that I have yet to receive any satisfactory responses to my questions. The fact is some of the responses I did receive have bordered on the hostile, which, looking back now, perhaps makes sense. The way I posed my initial question was whether Muslims within the academy are “house Muslims” or “field Muslims”. I was of course drawing on Malcolm X’s powerful metaphor of the “house negroes” versus “field negroes”, and the role played by the former during the civil rights movement in the US in appeasing white authorities over the concerns of the African American population.

Of course, I do not see “black” and “Muslim” as separate categories. They are very much intertwined. Malcolm X’s autobiography resonates with me (a non-Black Muslim) more strongly than any other text of resistance of the last 50 years. Another, earlier text that has equal force is Frantz Fanon’s inimitable Black Skin, White Masks.

Yet, some of the responses I received insisted that my metaphor was unacceptable because of “the difference” between African American and Muslim experiences. I wonder if some of the hostility was due to my problematisation of the role of Muslims within the academy? I was bringing into question their very bread and butter, after all. My concern is with highlighting any inadvertent contribution to the post-9/11 racialised binary of “extremist” versus “moderate” that is being constructed by Euro-American discourse regarding Muslims the world over, and which has been writ large and wide.

‘House Muslims’

As Euro-American public discourse seeks to identify and promote “moderate” Muslims over “extremists”, I am asking how Muslim academics themselves contribute to this politicised geopolitical narrative by trying to identify “moderate Muslims and Islam” over other forms of Islam, which are more varied and variegated than anyone could ever imagine. My argument is that by characterising Muslims according to such a “racialised binary”, as critical race theorist David Tyrer describes it, Muslim academics are playing the role of “house Muslims”.

The Islamic intellectual tradition has had a long history of reading things against the grain.

But the focus of the conversation I had unsuccessfully tried to initiate was repeatedly lost. One person suggested I was indulging in “pseudo-intellectualism”, a charge that normally does not warrant a response, as it is often made to stop a discussion short without addressing the substantive question posed. She or he (the person chose to remain anonymous) argued that one of the advantages that Muslims had was they “refused” to think within colonial paradigms, and that is the advantage that Muslims still have. (It is not clear to me over whom Muslims have or had “the advantage”).

My point is that through the implementation of Western education in the colonies, Western knowledge became knowledge itself. It replaced the countless ways of “knowing” that existed side-by-side in premodern times. Therefore, the idea that any of us can, and somehow do, think outside of Western education, is a fanciful one.

The virtual pushback that I experienced (all the discussions were on online forums) reminds me how, by contrast, Muslims historically always made room for people to question and challenge the status quo. The Islamic intellectual tradition has had a long history of reading things against the grain. The idea being, there is always more than one, or even a few, ways of reading texts or circumstances. Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), known as the “greatest teacher” by those who admire his work – and his influence has been enormous in the Muslim world – was also, paradoxically, considered by many to be a heretic.

He famously argued that Pharoah – the archetypal self-idolater of the Quranic and Biblical narratives – was a monotheist. Ghazali (1058-1111), another extremely influential figure in Islamic thought, contended that one should learn monotheism from Satan. A vital intellectual tradition has the ability to produce such paradoxical and intellectually challenging figures.

Without such open and free intellectual discussion, no tradition can claim philosophical vibrancy. The status quo must always be open to reexamination. And the status quo for Muslims, as far as their larger contribution to the world of ideas, has been a pitiable one for too long.

So why are there no Muslim philosophers? I submit this is a question that will trouble some of the best minds for many years to come. 

Hasan Azad is a doctoral candidate specialising in Islamic Studies at Columbia University.