Good Governance and the Islamic Philosophers (part 1) | Home | News and Analysis (2/21/13)

February 20, 2013

Good Governance and the Islamic Philosophers (part 2)


[This is the fifth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Good Governance in Islam: Classical and Contemporary Approaches held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Good Governance: An Overview of the Teachings of the Philosophers in the Golden Age of Islam with a Focus on Al Farabi and his Summary of Plato’s Divine Law Theory, part 2: Al-Farabi”

Dr. Charles Butterworth, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland

At the same time there were a number of jurists and theologians like al-Ghazali and ibn Taymiyyah and in the Jewish tradition like Maimum and Shem Tov who passed onto us some of the texts of al-Farabi. There are also some people in the Latin tradition. All of the figures I mentioned were translated into Latin and were the sources of Latin Christian philosophy.

Al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd are my favorites for they preserve the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition. The world we live in is a rejection, not refutation, of the ancient and medieval tradition.  The modern philosophers didn’t have a good grasp of the nuances of the medieval tradition. For these thinkers reason, not faith, predominates. There is nothing there to justify walîyat al faqih. Moderation and prudence are the hallmarks of the ruler. Knowledge is a goal, not a hallmark. Mursi’s attempt to thwart the generals strikes me as prudence. Al-Farabi reminds the philosopher of the importance of religion and law whether revealed or not. He wants to impress upon the theologian the essential role of reason. For Ibn Rushd the goal is to defend revelation by limiting its claims. The goal is to understand the Prophet and his mission. For Ibn Rushd that mission is sound practice for the community. Sound practice presupposes understanding of action and the purpose of action. He also wants to defend philosophy from unjust attacks upon it. In the final treatise he talks about the Prophet as a physician and blames the people who have turned away from the physician who can treat their ills. Ultimate happiness is a synonym for perfection. What serves that purpose? Music, eating, drinking, making money don’t meet that standard. Nor does knowledge. To subordinate religion to philosophy only makes sense if truth is one. Philosophy and religion express the same truth by different means. Figurative speech is found in scripture. There is no provision for freedom in Farabi or Averroes except as they speak of volition or choice. Yet freedom is a condition for responsible human conduct. We have to be educated in its proper use. Liberal education is to teach people how to use freedom well. We must discern the natural order and then respect it. Ta`dîb is the goal. The lawgiver is distinct from the legislator. You do this by persuasion, education or coercion. Human beings are not equal but justice requires us treating them as equal.

Plato’s Laws consists of twelve books. Al-Farabi’s commentary consists of an introduction, nine parts and a conclusion. Book ten is an outrageous discussion of pagan polytheistic theology and I think Farabi skirts that issue. Here he talks about laws not in a political context, but about laws themselves. We do not know if Farabi had access to Plato’s Laws or relied on a summary. He tells us the story of a pious ascetic who fell on the wrong side of a ruler who wanted to arrest him and execute him. The ascetic put on the clothes of an ascetic and skipped through town playing a stringed instrument to the gates of the palace announcing himself as the ascetic and is chased out of town by the palace guard. Is Farabi talking about Plato or himself?

Five lessons: Law, not religion, is presented as the means of improving people. One law is not suitable for all people. Sometimes despotism is necessary. Education is necessary and it must be linked with friendship and freedom. Provision must be made for justice.

There are two identical summaries of the teaching of the ancients speak only of building character, nothing about opinions.  Then a negative portrayal of mutakallimûm who are winning to distort things to win the day on a verbal a battle. Kitâb al-millat begins with a strange definition of millat as opinions and practices set for a community by its first ruler, and says something about what looks like jurisprudence but nothing about kalam. Political science guided by philosophy has a ruler who understands all things and orders the city in accord with divine order.

Discussant: Mahmoud Ay9ub

Is the ruler Prophet or an imam.  If a prophet, there is none after Muhammad; and if an imam, which one?

Butterworth:  Alfarabi seeks to be neither a prophet nor an imam.  Nor does he speak to Shi’i concerns.  It would be better to refer to him as he was known in his day and afterwards, namely, as “the second teacher” (al-mu’allim al-thani) – second after Aristotle, who still remains the master of those who know.

Discussant: Yahya Michot

But later Shia used his works for their purposes.  What is the purpose of the leader?

Butterworth:  To bring the people to achieve or attain happiness.

General Discussion

Did reason predominate over the faith in the West because of philosophy or other key factors? Is there a connection between Greek logic and the notion of the inimitability of the Qur’an?

Butterworth:  With respect to happiness, the task is to identify the most important thing – that for which it is worth doing everything else.  The base pleasures are not the most important thing, nor wealth, nor – with all due apologies to Mssrs. Obama and Romney – political power.  The philosophers say happiness depends upon knowledge of the whole. Hayy, who had attained such knowledge on his own, failed to show the people whom he addressed what this link was.  The Latin-Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages were primarily theologians; they used reasoning and philosophical inquiry to buttress their faith positions.  It is only with the rejection – rejection, not refutation – of Aristotle (Plato was, for some reason, less important) in the late 15th and early 16th centuries that reason – along with the rejection of religious piety – comes to dominate in the West.  I am thinking of Bacon, Machiavelli, and Descartes, but could include others.  All of these thinkers cast doubt upon providence, divine or natural.  That quarrel – sometimes called the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns – continues in one way or another until today.

Hayy’s failure is like Plato’s failure at Syracuse.  As Muslims, we believe all faith is the summit of rationality and there is no conflict between the two.

Butterworth:  The lack of conflict between the two is not self-evident, and the relationship between the two has to be worked out on an ongoing basis.  Consider, for example, the practical lesson in the Surah called `Abasa (he frowned).

There is a hadith of the Prophet saying, “My Lord show me things as they are.”  Perhaps philosophy is a contemplation of higher things.  Remember the story of the encounter between Ibn Rushd and Ibn al-‘Arabi:  Ibn al-‘Arabi comes to visit Ibn Rushd.  When they meet, Ibn Rushd says to Ibn al-‘Arabi “Na’m?” (“Yes?”), and Ibn al-‘Arabi replies “Na’m.”  Then a moment later, he says “La’, wa bain al-ithnayn tatawwur al-anfus” (“No, and between the two, the souls fly away”).  Ibn Rushd was crestfallen at this response, for it was a rebuke to his pursuit of reason.  Aristotle and Plato were not polytheists.

Butterworth:  Yes the story of the encounter between Ibn Rushd, the famous rationalist, and Ibn al-‘Arabi, the promising young religious scholar, is most interesting.  However, I interpret Ibn Rushd’s reaction to Ibn al-‘Arabi’s change of response differently:  Ibn Rushd is crestfallen because this young man had shown so much promise, but clearly in the end had not yet gained the proper appreciated of reason’s importance.  Any teacher would be crestfallen given such a response.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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