Reclaiming the Lost Legacy of Suqrat

As the last semester drew to an end, I attended a lecture titled “Suqrat: The Muslim Socrates” delivered by the President of Zaytuna College, Berkeley, CA, Professor Hamza Yusuf. The theme of the lecture was the way Greek philosophy was received, revived, and absorbed by the Muslim civilization during the Golden Age of Islam. For me the idea that Muslim Civilization developed in close contact with other cultures and was open to foreign ideas and ways of thinking was particularly fascinating, because in many ways it seems to be where the disconnect lies between the Golden Age of Islam and many of the contemporary Muslim societies around the world. While the early Muslims were amenable to foreign philosophical ideas, many of which contrasted with the orthodox interpretations of religion, I argue that many of today’s Muslim societies have deprived themselves of those discourses by locking themselves in certain nostalgic, revisionist conceptions of the world. There is now a detachment between religion and reason, between blind faith and free thinking.

With the expansion of the Islamic empire in the seventh and eighth centuries, explained Professor Yusuf, Arabs came in close contact with the foreign peoples they conquered, assimilating their cultures, literatures, and philosophies. Following the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, the intolerance towards pagan cultures of Ancient Greece had pushed the thinkers and scholars of that time into Persia. An important center of learning emerged at Jundishapur, a royal city of the Sassanids, where the Christian and pagan scholars introduced Ancient Greek texts and translated them into Persian and Syriac languages. Once the Arabs took control of these territories, these texts were translated by eminent scholars such as Hunain bin Ishaq and incorporated into the Arabic corpus. The tolerant attitudes of the Umayyad dynasty and the patronage of their Abbasid successors encouraged the development of the extraordinary translation movement that lasted from 650 to 1000 AD. Under the Abbasids, Baghdad became a leading center of learning and institutions such as Bait ul Hikmah, or the House of Wisdom, were established. These institutions—in many ways the forerunners of modern universities—were incredibly diverse, inclusive, vibrant hubs where knowledge was created and disseminated.

Professor Yusuf outlined how following the translation of the Greek texts into Arabic, there began a trail of major Arab scholars and philosophers who further developed the ideas of the great Ancient Greek philosophers. I find this interaction between Islam and Ancient Greek philosophy particularly interesting because of the challenges posed by their inherently different natures. While Islam is a monotheistic religion, with divine revelation at the apex of its hierarchy of knowledge, ideas of Greek philosophers were not always compatible with the Muslim faith. Socrates, for example, had always shown a certain cynicism towards religion and the concepts of afterlife. His contemporaries accused him of corrupting the minds of the city’s youth and for seeking matters above the clouds and under the earth. Indeed, he was tried on charges of impiety and sentenced to death. The symbolism in his dialogues suggests a transcendence of the normative boundaries and a way of thinking which is not limited by society or religion. This way of thinking and philosophizing is incompatible with any faith which commands absolute authority and restricts its adherents to thinking within the bounds of a belief system. The Socratic way of thinking and of practicing his vision of an examined life could have been irreconcilable with the revealed word of God in orthodox, dogmatic interpretations of religion.

(A scene depicting Socrates’s execution by drinking poison, “NYC – Metropolitan Museum of Art – Death of Socrates” by wallyg licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The Muslim philosophers who studied and interpreted Socrates, however, were willing to “think outside the box” and attempted to complement religious thinking with philosophy based on logic and reason. Their understandings of religion were not based on passive acceptance but on the foundation of critical thinking and human reason. The first important philosophical interpretation of Socrates came from Al-Kindi (c.801-873 AD), who though maintaining the supremacy of revealed word of God over the philosophizing of men, tried to converge philosophy to the Islamic understandings of spiritual and metaphysical worlds. Al-Kindi argued that philosophy and divine revelation were two ways of reaching the same truth, although he maintained that in certain elements of faith, revelation must prevail for its ability to describe what reason alone cannot. Al-Kindi was deeply impressed by the way Socrates lived his life and practiced philosophy. He praised Socrates for putting the pursuit of truth and justice above all else, and for shunning the desires of the material world. This, argued Al-Kindi, was the way to maximize happiness and to lead a just life. Socrates came to be seen as a sage in Arab culture, and Al-Razi, another key philosophical figure of the era, even termed him his imam, or spiritual leader.

(A portrait of Al-Kindi by Michel Bakni licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The most sophisticated study of Socrates came from Al-Farabi (c.872-950 AD), who took a largely secular approach to the study of philosophy and was the first to systemize it with the emphasis on logic and reason. For him the question about the tension between reason and revelation had a more nuanced answer. While revelation was suitable for the layman or for providing exoteric explanations, it was not the ultimate end in itself. Reason alone could provide the esoteric explanations in the quest for truth. In a way, for him philosophy and reason came to be more important in the realization of true wisdom. He believed in what Socrates called ‘an examined life’ and is reported to have said, “one ought to seek the truth among the opinions [of the city] and among the ways of life seek the virtuous one that is truly virtuous.” He viewed the state described in Plato’s Republic as the ideal state and believed in the role of philosophers in shaping the political order of their times. He saw Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) not merely in his capacity as a sage and a prophet, but as an elightened philosopher. This suggests how Al-Farabi envisioned a society which was not governed by dogma and revelation alone, but had room for leading what Soctrates called ‘an examined life’ and where people’s views and their behavior were determined by philosophical conceptions of truth and justice.

The true significance of these developments lies in the understanding of early Muslim scholars that religious and secular understandings of knowledge are best served in their own respective domains, where they are not mutually exclusive, but function on different planes. While scientific approaches could help develop understandings of mathematical and natural scientific spheres, the metaphysical and spiritual worlds could only be unlocked via dependence on divine revelation. This was the nuance which was crucial to the development and rise of the early Muslim civilisation – while they undoubtedly had a religious undertone to their culture and society, their academic pursuits and the way the secular sphere was perceived were driven by rational, logical, mathematical understandings. This diplomatic distinction was reflected throughout the political and social structures of the time. The Caliphs exercised their power and drew legitimacy not just by reliance on religious scriptures, but also by incorporating the secular, foreign, extra-Islamic influences of the peoples they conquered. This led to the evolution of a cosmopolitan culture which attracted scholars, academics, and artisans from all over the Muslim Empire, and allowed free thinking and academic practice to flourish.

When I asked Professor Yusuf about the contrast between the early Muslim Civilisation and the many Muslim societies today, he pointed to the rise of authoritarianism in most Muslim societies. The attitudes of the political elites and the power structures in Muslim societies have rendered them incompatible with the environment of free thinking and diversity of opinion that had been the norm during the glorious days of Islam. When you extinguish the flame of free thinking and people stop living an examined life, hegemonic narratives and ideologies flourish and come to control and limit all imagination and action. This observation reminded me of my homeland, Pakistan, which is a classic case of the problem outlined by Professor Yusuf. Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country and the religious influence pervades in almost all spheres of life and is often used by authoritarian forces to legitimise their power. Our Prime Minister regularly invokes religious rhetoric for political gains, making populist promises of creating a nation based on the state of Medina. The state has been regularly ceding ground to right wing religious parties like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, who with their violent, extremist methods are gaining a stronghold in the political system. Our society seems to have lost connection with the rich heritage of early Islamic Civilisation that found a complementary accommodation between religious and secular domains. Rather than modernising and developing a rational worldview, we have been trying to restore a very limited, monolithic version of seventh century Islam.

Dogmatic and orthodox viewpoints increasingly dominate our social and political thought. Adherents to these limited interpretations of religion see science and rational thinking as an anathema to the integrity of the Islamic faith. Unlike our predecessors from the Golden Age of Islam, who openly embraced foreign ideas and integrated them into their collective wisdom, we seem to be polarising ourselves by viewing the world through an us versus them lens. We have also been entrapped by a framework of fear where all kinds of expression are censored in the name of religion. Sometime ago, a religious advisory board ordered textbook publishers not to print images of human anatomy in children’s science textbooks because they were deemed ‘immodest’. The same board confused Sir Isaac Newton for a woman and asked the publisher to photoshop a headscarf in ‘her’ picture. A film production company has been fighting a legal battle for almost two years after having their film deemed inappropriate by religious scholars. The actual reason behind this was that the film depicted a cleric sexually abusing his students. I have heard the mullah in my village’s mosque denying that Covid-19 exists and calling upon people to reject social distancing in his weekly sermons. Some even called the pandemic a wrath of God and as punishment for the ‘immodest’ way that women dress!

Many in Pakistan, and many other Muslim societies, are trying to build their entire world view on narrow, orthodox interpretations of religion. This thinking dominates our politics, education, culture, and society, leaving no room for critical and independent thinking conducive to progress and modernism. This form of religiosity which stamps out your ability to think and ask questions is not the religion which men like Al-Kindi or Al-Farabi practiced. Socrates cannot be a role model and a sage for these religiously minded people, because his way is everything which threatens their views of the world. If we are to learn from the legacy of our Golden Age, we must adopt a similar open mindedness and create spaces for freedom of thought and expression. We have to restore the supremacy of logic and reason over the hegemony of dogma. We have to challenge authoritarianism with the ability to question and change. All this can only happen in a world where we learn to perceive the religious and the secular in their own respective planes and not through the monochromatic projections of narrowly defined faith. Muslims of today must reclaim the lost legacy of Suqrat, as our predecessors had.

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