Good Governance and the Islamic Philosophers (part 1)


[This is the fourth 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 1: Philosophers Within the Arabic-Islamic Tradition”

Dr. Charles Butterworth, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland

I will focus on eight individuals on this tradition: al-Kindi, al-Ghazi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Bajah, Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Khaldun.

There is no political philosophy in Abu Yusuf Ya`qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi. He is concerned with self-mastery. Some passengers aboard a luxury ship for a cruise  stop at an island where people pursue those things that interest them. There is a single call to return to the ship. Some passengers do not make it back. Many others return with a lot of extra baggage they have collected that serves as a burden to themselves and their seatmates. The moral, not  to burden ourselves wih nonessentials is clear, but other things are not. Who is it that makes the call to the ship? The Prophet? God? The voyage goes on.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi was criticized for being too obsessed with Socrates and not enough like him. His concern was with avoiding extremes. What is interesting is his interest with politics and how he deals with human beings, like a flock of sheep, as tools to advance the tools of the polity. There is no thought to educating them to what is the good, only using them to preserve or advance the regime.

We know that Abu Nar Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalagh al-Farabi was born beyond the Oxus, but we don’t know where. He ended up in Haran as a young man coming under the influence of some Nestorian Christians there. Learning in the West has never been easy. At some point a school in Alexandria opened focusing on Plato and Aristotle. That school too fell on hard times, but Christian prelates imbued with the learning made their way east as far as Haran. After he studied with the Nestorians, he made his way to Baghdad where a school of learning had developed focused on philosophy. Another school focused on grammar and a debate broke out. The philosophers did not do their homework, and the grammarians won. In Kitâb al-Harûf (The Book of Letters), al-Farabi attempts to pick up the pieces and put them back in place. Al-Farabi argues carefully and indirectly that the only way we human beings can understand the world is through reason. In part, he tries to force the reader to understand what is going on. From him, we learn the most about the world politics from Plato and Aristotle. When he cites them, however, it is almost impossible to recognize the source text. He uses the word millat to refer to religion, which he says is synonymous with dîn, but nowhere in his text does the word Islam or the name of the Prophet Muhammad arise, with the exception of a very strange treatise called “The Magnificent Invocation” in which he speaks of Islam and mentions Muhammad, but it is hard to see where he is going with this, although it has been used by those who want to see al-Farabi as a Shia advocate.

Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina seeks to understand how a human being comes to have a prophetic understanding and then tries to use that understanding to teach how to have a virtuous life, including its political aspect. A whole school of learning grew up around his writings especially in Farsi.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya ibn al-Saigh (ibn Bajjah)’s book has the strange title Governance of the Solitary. The book seems to be about ethics.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Tufayl al-Qaysi, al-Saigh’s successor, says harsh things about ibn Bajjah, whom he thinks failed to live up to his great promise. In his preface to Hayy ibn Yaqzan he seem to be firmly in the camp of ibn SIna and al-Ghazali, but when we get to the actual story his protagonist is either created by spontaneous generation or the son of a princess who married a commoner. He seems to leave the decision to you but later he mentions the basket in which Hayy is set afloat. Hayy teaches himself through induction the natural sciences without ever having learned how to speak. A man named Absal leaves the mainland seeking solitude. Absal eventually teaches Hayy Arabic and takes him back to the mainland to give the people a correct understanding of religion. Hayy attempts to teach the people but he fails miserably and they decide to go back to the desert island. The point is that to teach people you need more than the truth, you need rhetoric. Ibn Tufayl has another major credit to his life. He introduces Ibn Rushd to the world of commentary.

Abu Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd has written at least one and sometimes three commentaries on almost every work of Aristotle. He was trying to bring together reason, revelation, and practice to show how one leads to the other. When you seek to sacrifice a lamb, as long as the knife is sharp, it doesn’t matter whether it is made in Greece or Mecca.

Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun teaches us the importance of getting history right.

Discussant: Yahya Michot

I would have spoken more about Abu Bakr Ar-Razi and the Ikhwan al-Safa and tried to show why there is such an interest in political philosophy in the tenth century.  I think it was a response to the failure of the Abbasid caliphate.  It is considered a fiasco of the Islamic model of the political organization of philosophy. Alrazi’s book The Proofs of Prophecy, now available in English, is a must-read; it details the reasons for his clash with the other Razi.  It is interesting that the one book Ibn Rushd did not comment on is Aristotle’s Politics, which had not been translated into Arabic, and was forced to comment on the Republic of Plato instead.  Al-Ghazali was the best student of Ibn Sina; even the Ihya Ulum ad-Din is a spiritual implementation of Ibn Sina.  He didn’t write on politics, however, because people didn’t believe in politics, but in individual salvation.  Even with Ibn Tufayl the failure of Hayy to convert the community of Absal symbolizes the withdrawal of philosophers leaving the religious community to the theologians and Sufis.  I consider Ibn Rushd a turning back to Aristotle in a last ditch effort to save the Muslim world that fails.  Even when you try to refute Ibn Sina, you are still influenced by his ideas.  Suhrawadi did the same.  You can hear people invokingwajib al-wajûd  (the Necessitator of existence) even in popular prayers.

Discussant: Mahmoud Ayoub

I would look at the philosophers form a different vantage point. The purpose of philosophy is to find happiness.  Al-Kindi demonstrated that you can be a philosopher and a good Muslim.  Whether A-Ffarabi was a philosopher in the Hamdani court is debatable but his Madina al-Fadila, in some ways based on Plato’s Republic, is his own search for how to find a happy life.  Looking at life as a fairy tale begins with Plato himself.  Ibn Sina wrote on metaphysics but also, in his last work (al-Tanbihat wa al-Isharat), he deals with physics, metaphysics, and mysticism.  Absal and Hayy return to the island not because they think the mainlanders are going to Hell, but because philosophy and religion in the end have a harmony that appears later in Ibn Rushd.  What the religious live by, the philosophers seek to understand.  In my view, the most productive philosophical mistake was attributing to Aristotle the work of Plotinus, imagining a harmony between the works of Plato and Aristotle.  Philosophy in Islam, at least in the East, grew up in what the Sunnis saw as heretical milieus.  No doubt Farabi had Shia tendencies and Ibn Sina knows about the Ikhwan as-Safa.  I think Alfred North Whitehead is right that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato.

Butterworth:  I tried to talk about political philosophy.  As I pointed out, neither Alkindi nor Alrazi has a political teaching; they focus instead on personal ethics and think only in passing about the political community.  Others, perhaps those more interested in mysticism, can attempt to explain the Ikhwan al-Safa.

For me, the working definition of philosophy is that it is an attempt to replace opinion with knowledge.  The philosophers did not try to reform Islam, but rather to think about the big questions:  what is the best regime, what are the characteristics the best ruler should have, and what is prophecy.  As we learn from Plato’s Republic, philosophers must be forced to participate in the community, even in the best community to which they owe their solid training in philosophy.  Beware of those who rush to participate in politics – that is the message.

Plato’s  Republic is not the same as Aristotle’s Politics, to be sure.  But for Ibn Rushd’s purpose, it is a good substitution.  With respect to the notion of wajib al-wajûd, we learn much from Ibn Maimun; in his Guide of the Perplexed, he identifies God as wajib al-wajûd and thus as incorporeal.  That is a hard lesson for most people to learn.

With respect to the merits of Ibn Sina, I am most persuaded by Ibn Rushd who referred to him not by name but as dhalika ar-rajul (“that man”) because of the harm he had done to philosophy.

With all due respect, there is no double truth teaching among the philosophers.  They insist on truth being one and upon the need for us to use our intellect to understand revelation.  If there seems to be a contradiction, we have misunderstood something.  Our goal as scholars is to cut through all the old half-truths and ill-formed opinions about the history of philosophy and about the purported influences on this or that philosopher in order to get at the teaching of each one, to discover for ourselves what that teaching means.

General Discussion

What practical consequences do these philosophers have for us in dealing with the big issues of peace, etc. today.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad:  Tom Lehrer defined a philosopher as someone who gives advice to people who are happier than he is.

Butterworth:  Philosophers do not give us answers; they teach us how to think about these questions.  For me, reason is not `aql (“intellect”), but natq; it is the process of thinking through.  Although it is by no means the dominant opinion, a number of Alfarabi scholars today deny a neo-Platonic influence on him. When you read Kitab al-Siyasa al-Madaniyya, you see right away that there is no way Alfarabi can embrace the cosmology he presents there.  The full title of The Virtuous City, namely, Principles of the Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City (Mabadi’ Ara’ Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila) makes clear that it is a primer on how to get people to think, not a statement of how things are.

Did these people use the word siyâsa to mean politics?

Butterworth:  Siyasa is the word for politics, but we still have a problem understanding what these words mean.  For Abdol Karem Soroush, siyasa is a bridle you put on a horse.  True, but you guide a horse rather than force it.  You want to strengthen right desires and weaken other ones.

What is the title of Al-Kindi’s lost book?  I’ve heard people say Al-Farabi’s treatise, The Magnificent Invocation, was an apologetic work to save himself from being branded as a heretic.

Butterworth: The title of Al=Kindi’s treatise – it is not lost – is “Treatise on the Device for Driving Away Sorrows”; it has recently been translated into English by a student of Michael Marmura. My take on what happened after the 14th c. is that philosophical inquiry was replaced by theosophy and mysticism.  My good friend Hussain Ziai, may his soul rest in peace, has brought many of these works to light; he always insisted that they were treatises on philosophy.   But we could never persuade each other one way or the other.  The major scholarly question today is to learn what happened – that is, what writings were produced – between the time of Ibn Khaldun’s death (early 15th century) and the advent of al-Afghani in the early 19th century.

Ibn Taymiyyah has long commentaries on these figures among others.  Why did philosophy survive without philosophers?  We had a conjunction between kalam and philosophers and then philosophers fond no sponsors.  It is practiced in other milieus, madrassas, observatories, etc.  The writings of arabi, ar-Razi or at-Tusi are full of philosophy, but Orientalists are ready to study Aquinas as a philosopher even though he is a theologian but not our philosophers.

Butterworth:  It sounds to me as though you are saying that we should read Muslim jurists and theologians rather than Christian ones, but that does not solve our fundamental problem:  how to understand Arabic-Islamic philosophy through the ages.

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

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