Is there room for critical thinking in Islam?

To be Muslim is not to be politically asleep, but rather to be in a permanent state of critique.

Reuters Islam
The critical tradition of Islam might well be compared with a city which is under attack on two fronts - from without, and from within, writes Almond [Reuters]

Nothing is more satisfying than the conviction that your enemy lacks the ability to think critically. What could be more gratifying than the idea that the person you are fighting is trapped in an airlock of unreflection? It blesses your struggle, redeems your cruelty, legitimises your violence. If a definition of humanity is the ability to think for oneself, then what could be wrong with fighting the unfree?

The modern pairing of Islam with the incapacity for critical thought is a fairly old gesture – the Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz said Muslims were so fatalistic they wouldn’t even jump out of the way of carts. Over the past fifteen years, however, the internet has enabled and amplified a panoply of voices with this view.

From the digital rooftops, a thousand voices are shouting down Islam as a space inimical to any form of rational reflection: millionaire right-wingers masquerading as free-thinkers such as Bill Maher, Eton-educated “voices of the people” such as Douglas Murray, sophisticated hate-distillers such as Ann Coulter and her not-so-bright British version, Katie Hopkins … even Greek classics professors-turned-Islam experts such as Tom Holland have joined the fray.

Some of the historical acrobatics involved in this gesture are awe-inspiring. Any academic would be laughed out of the room if they suggested St Augustine was somehow complicit in the bombing of abortion clinics, or that the medieval Hohenstaufen culminated in the Third Reich, or that the Renaissance never happened. Almost on a daily basis, however, confident, context-defying lines of continuity are drawn for Islam across centuries and continents, monocausally linking the Ottomans to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), or seventh century theology to attacks on shopping malls. In these re-writings of history, contrary or problematic episodes (such as the vast contribution of the Islamic world to geometry, astronomy and the vocabulary of science in general) are not just left out – anyone even trying to mention them is mocked as a naive, idiot liberal. It’s a wonderful age to be alive.

I often wonder what can be done against this collective dumbing-down of an entire faith. Patiently repeating points and examples from history – in the manner of explaining something difficult but obvious to an eight-year old child – does not seem to go very far in combatting a million views on Youtube. Raising consciousness is not enough – there almost seems to be a will not to know here, a decision to remain in the foetal warmth of a particular narrative. When a Western, best-selling public intellectual openly laughs at the idea of “Islamic inventions”, and garners online 10,000 likes in doing so, it is difficult to see what benefit the provision of empirical facts can provide. Large sections of our society seem to be locked into certain fantasies about Islam and the West – and how we are going to unlock those fantasies remains as unclear as ever.

Not that scholars have given up. Irfan Ahmad’s latest book, Religion As Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (2017), offers an interesting opposition to the West-and-the-rest narratives of an European Enlightenment radiating outwards from Greece and Germany into the backward corners of a darker world. Positing the Prophet Mohammed as “a critic of the Meccan social order”, Ahmad constructs an alternative genealogy of the verb to critique (tanqid/naqd), one which is not by any means dismissive of Greek/pre-Islamic/Western traditions, “but which at the same time can’t be subsumed within them”. It is a welcome move that intelligently and articulately condenses the work of previous scholars (Talal Asad, Gayatri Spivak, J G A Pocock) on two important points.

First of all, it demonstrates the extent to which the Enlightenment was an “ethnic project” – an ethnic project, moreover, which was in constant need of an enemy. When Kant spoke about the space of philosophy to be defined, he often alluded to the space of Europe, whose boundaries needed to be patrolled. Secondly, the tired linking of the critical with the secular – and “uncritical” with the religious – is something Ahmad’s book goes on to rigorously deconstruct. Perhaps a touch controversially for some, he declares: “Against the reigning doxa, which views Islam and critique as mutually exclusive domains … I propose we begin to think of Islam as critique; indeed, Islam as permanent critique.” 

To be Muslim, in other words, is not to be politically asleep, or passively receptive to a divine will, but rather to be in a permanent state of critique. Not everyone will be politically comfortable with some of the choices Ahmad has as examples of this critical tradition (Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, is given a central chapter), but the gesture he makes – developing an alternative genealogy of critical thought in the Urdu Islamicate traditions of South Asia – is a valuable one.

To be fair, there is another aspect to this issue we have not yet touched upon. The critical tradition of Islam might well be compared with a city which is under attack on two fronts – from without, and from within. In addition to a certain relentless Western reduction of Islam to an unreflective cult, there are those within the Muslim world would wholly reject some of its most famous philosophers and critical thinkers as un-Islamic. The late Shahab Ahmed’s monograph What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (2015), in this respect, stands interestingly alongside Irfan Ahmad’s book as a parallel attempt to re-define the parameters of the Islamic world – and, implicitly, its relationship to both the Western and the secular. Although Shahab Ahmed’s focus on activities such as wine drinking lends it a different tone from Religion As Critique, both books share a frustration with narrow definitions of the Islamic tradition. In Shahab Ahmed’s case, this is a desire to expand the idea of being Islamic well beyond the “putative centrality” of jurisprudence which most convention seems to define the religion by; in Irfan Ahmad’s book, a similar belief in the value of everyday experience – “the practice … of the nonscholarly and commoners” as Ahmad puts it – is given as much weight as the pronouncements of the ulema in deciding what an Islamic critical tradition might be.

These debates will go on. In closing, it might be worth ending with the words an Arab philosopher wrote in the city of Damascus, just over 800 years ago. Words which demonstrate (if you’ll forgive my anachronism) a remarkable pre-psychological awareness of the extent to which we personally construct the God we worship:

“… you will see no one who worships an unmade God, since man creates in himself that which he worships and judges. When a person sees something of the [divine] Real, he never sees anything but himself.”

The writer is Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), and the extracts are two lines taken from his Futuhat, written at some point during the 1220s. Of course I am ripping these words out of context, and yet the sentiment they express – the God we pray to always reflects us, even comes out of us, in some way or another – is a suspicion to be found across Jewish and Christian traditions too (Maimonides, Meister Eckhart). Eight hundred years ago, a keen epistemological querying of religious experience was already at work. Admittedly, the goal of this querying was not a secular demolition of God, but a purer experience of the divine; not the exposure of God as a psychological illusion, but a clearer demarcation between what we imagine God to be, and the thing that lies beyond it. Some might call this a deferred critical thinking: critical thought put to the ultimate service of the uncritical. It’s a fair charge – people are entitled to their opinion. But there must be something valuable in trying to remember that lines like these were being written in Damascus, and Cairo, and Cordoba, centuries before Gramsci, Marx and Descartes. And certainly 800 years before Youtube.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.