Muslims Do not Need Philosophy


(List of contents: Islam and wisdom are twins; Evidence from the Qur’anic chapter “al-Isra’”; Evidence from the Qur’anic chapter “Luqman”; Wisdom is not philosophy; The case of Socrates; Philosophy was and remained anti-religious; Muslims and the hazardous nature of philosophy; Muslims do not need philosophy and are better off without it; The unflattering views of philosophy held by al-Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun, al-Dhahabi and al-Zamakhshari)

Wisdom is generally understood to mean a comprehensive body of knowledge that, when applied, leads to a wide range of experiences. This blend of knowledge and experiences, in turn, helps in making appropriate decisions and judgments in virtually all circumstances.

Wisdom is multitiered. It encompasses both theory and practice, relating as much to the personal as social aspects of life. In other words, wisdom is life, and life is wisdom. Neither can be fully actualized without the other. Wisdom is life’s elan vital, and life a locus where wisdom resides and thrives.

Fakhruddin al-Razi defined wisdom as “knowing the truth for its own sake and knowing what is good in order to act upon it. Standing as the foundational principle of Islam, tawhid (monotheism or Oneness of Allah) represents the first part (of wisdom), with all other Islamic teachings designed to foster goodness and steer individuals towards righteousness while preventing them from straying.”

Wisdom is called “hikmah” in Arabic. Related to it are the words “hakama”, “hukumah”, “hukm” and “tahakkama”, which mean “to decide and to rule”, “government”, “decision and judgment” and “to be in command or control” respectively. It follows that wisdom (hikmah) is connotative of possessing the ability, means, right and authority to prevail over, direct, govern, influence and sway the proceedings of life.

Islam and wisdom are twins

It doesn't take the exceptional intelligence of a genius to see that Islam is all about wisdom. As an all-inclusive worldview and a system of life rooted in comprehensive excellence - including spirituality, morality, metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, social organization, law and political order – Islam aims not only to enlighten and guide to the absolute truth, but also to make people live that truth to the fullest and in the end become integral segments thereof.

This means that in addition to being life itself, wisdom is also associable with the truth. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. The triad of the truth, wisdom and life connotes the quintessence of Islam and everything that carries the adjective “Islamic.”

Needless to say, Muslims should all strive to be 'seekers and lovers of wisdom' and endeavor to be as “wise” as they can. This is a reflection of true faith, while the opposite signifies a lack of religious devotion.

The profound connection between Islam and wisdom can be compared to a pair of twins who complement each other perfectly, with Islam serving as the guiding light that illuminates the path to wisdom. Together, they form a symbiotic relationship that nurtures the soul and enriches the mind, leading individuals towards a more enlightened and fulfilling existence.

That being the case, the Prophet’s Sunnah (life paradigm), and the Sunnah of earlier prophets, the Qur’an calls “hikmah” (wisdom). This clearly demonstrates how wide-ranging the concept is and how closely linked to the truth it is.

Which is to say, the knowledge, wisdom, guidance and ways of life of prophets were the best. As the epitomes of the truth revealed to them, they were the wisest human beings, qualifying them to be the ultimate teachers of humanity. Their “hikmah” was handed, revealed and taught, not developed. It was the greatest gift of the Creator to His creation.

The Qur’an says for example: “And Allah has revealed to you (O Muhammad) the Book and wisdom (hikmah) and has taught you that which you did not know. And ever has the favor of Allah upon you been great” (al-Nisa’ 113).

It is likewise said about Prophet Dawud (David): “And Allah gave him power and wisdom (hikmah) and taught him whatever (else) He willed” (al-Baqarah 251).

And about Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus): “And He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom (hikmah), and the Torah and the Gospel” (Alu ‘Imran 48).

Evidence from the Qur’anic chapter “al-Isra’”

Due to this, when in the Qur’anic chapter “al-Isra’,” verses 22-38, Almighty Allah enumerated the core teachings of Islam, it was concluded in the subsequent verse (verse 39) that those core teachings exemplified nothing but wisdom, which is real, pragmatic and revealed, rather than abstract, unrealistic and acquired. Allah says: “That is from what your Lord has revealed to you, (O Muhammad), of wisdom (hikmah). And, (O mankind), do not make (as equal) with Allah another deity, lest you be thrown into Hell, blamed and banished” (al-Isra’ 39).

The core teachings pointed out in the said verses as illustrations of wisdom are as follows: do not associate with Allah any other god (verse 22); do not worship anybody or anything except Allah (verse 23); show kindness to parents (verse 23); be righteous and sincere (verse 25); give the relative his right, and also the poor and the traveler (verse 26); do not squander your wealth in the manner of a spendthrift, for the squanderers are brothers of the devils (verses 26 and 27); speak to the needy a gentle word (verse 28); spend wealth neither niggardly nor wastefully (verse 29); it is only Allah who extends provision for whom He wills and restricts it, “He is ever, concerning His servants, Acquainted and Seeing” (verse 30); do not kill your children for fear of poverty (verse 31); do not approach unlawful sexual intercourse, for “it is ever an immorality and is evil as a way” (verse 32); do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden, except for just cause (verse 33); whoever is killed unjustly is helped by the Islamic law (verse 33); do not exceed limits in the matter of taking life justifiably (verse 33); do not approach the property of an orphan, except in the way that is best (verse 34); fulfil every covenant (engagement or promise) (verse 34); give full measure when you measure, and weigh with an even (true) balance (verse 35); do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge (verse 36); the hearing, the sight and the heart - about all those people will be questioned (verse 36); do not walk upon the earth exultantly (verse 37).

In his commentary (tafsir) of the Qur’an titled “Mafatih al-Ghayb” (“Keys to the Unseen”) or “al-Tafsir al-Kabir” (“the Monumental Commentary”), Fakhruddin al-Razi catalogued as many as twenty-five commandments enshrined in the above verses of the al-Isra’ chapter. To him, those commandments embody the true meaning of wisdom, encapsulating its essence.

They are thus both transcendent and immutable. For that reason did the Prophet’s companion Abdullah b. ‘Abbas preach that the same commandments, in their capacity as the unsurpassable pearls of wisdom, were given to Prophet Musa (Moses) as well and were featured in the content of his tablets.

Supporting his argument, Abdullah b. ‘Abbas quoted the following words of Allah – the All- wise, the Origin of all existential wisdom, and the Source of wisdom given not just to Prophets Musa and Muhammad, but also to all prophets and all the genuinely wise men and women: “And We ordained laws for him (Prophet Musa) in the tablets in all matters, both commanding and explaining all things” (al-A’raf 145).

Evidence from the Qur’anic chapter “Luqman”

Similarly, in the Qur’anic chapter “Luqman,” Allah reveals that He had given a person named Luqman wisdom (hikmah). As a threshold of all wisdom, Luqman was asked – both as a sign of appreciation and demonstration of the given wisdom – to be grateful to Allah, the Source and Giver of all wisdom: “Show (your) gratitude to Allah. Any who is (so) grateful does so to the profit of his own soul: but if any is ungrateful, verily Allah is free of all wants, worthy of all praise” (Luqman 12).

Now wise, Luqman is said to have counseled his son, displaying the extent of his given wisdom. He told the son not to associate anything with Allah, for “indeed, association with him is great injustice” (verse 13); that Allah is Subtle, understanding the finest mysteries, and is All-acquainted, so much so that “if wrong should be the weight of a mustard seed and should be within a rock or (anywhere) in the heavens or in the earth, Allah will bring it forth” (verse 16); that he must establish prayer, enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and be patient over whatever befell him – “surely, (all) that is of the matters (requiring) determination” (verse 17); that he must not turn his cheek in contempt towards people and must not walk through the earth exultantly – “indeed, Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful” (verse 18); that he should be moderate in his pace and should lower his voice – “indeed, the most disagreeable of sounds is the voice of donkeys” (verse 19).

Wisdom is not philosophy

It is often said that philosophy - as a systematic and critical study of reality, knowledge and morality, starting by asking life’s fundamental questions, or an evolved system of beliefs and values – is synonymous with the pursuit of wisdom. Yet, its essence lies in the cultivation of wisdom.

No wonder then that the word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom.” However, it must be emphasized that the purported wisdom of philosophy (sophia) has nothing to do with the wisdom (hikmah) of Islam. The two are starkly different, despite the ongoing efforts of many individuals to bridge the gap, demonstrating repeatedly that the two poles, in actual fact, are fundamentally incompatible.

That was the main reason why, after realizing that the concept of philosophy had no equal in the authentic Islamic consciousness as well as scholarship, the word “philosophy” was simply adopted as such. Hence, in Arabic it has been rendered, and rightly so, as “falsafah.” Trying to find philosophy’s equal inside the ethos of the Arabic language would have proven erroneous and misleading. Justice would thus have been done neither to philosophy nor Islamic thought.

When philosophy emerged as a full-fledged system of thought, whether in Ancient Greece or earlier, it emerged as a challenger to religion. Restless and curious minds became dissatisfied with the limitations – yet sterility - of their religious beliefs and practices. The main objective was to push religions to the sidelines, and ideally outshine them altogether.

Which was understandable, given that the truth was never the civilizational forte of societies in the past. People were increasingly becoming disillusioned with the polished and meticulously orchestrated lies (forms of falsehood). Rebelling and enduring hardships in exchange for freedom from artificial constructs - while at the same time being filled with limitless optimism and hope - was preferable to being stifled by the false sense of security provided by structured indoctrination and manipulation.

The case of Socrates

This inherent rebellious nature of philosophy against established religions and traditional beliefs was perhaps best exemplified by Socrates, who was executed for his unconventional philosophical ideas. Socrates knew he had to sacrifice himself for his ideals and the future.

The altars of freedom and philosophy waited for the purpose. He had to become a martyr of righteousness, innocence and the embryonic principles of philosophy. He had to win, but the sacrifice of his own self was needed to ensure the definitive victory.

On account of this did Socrates display remarkable courage and integrity, still refusing to flee the prison when he could, and avoid his execution. Consistent with Socrates’ model, escaping would have implied cowardice. It would have signified running away from problems, yet from a battlefield, a situation whereby nobody has ever covered himself in glory.

When accused that he was corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates confidently countered that he was reforming them. He was their savior. No counsel or guidance of his was to harm the youth. Socrates asked who and how, actually, corrupted the youth? He knew it was not him. The answer was obvious: the established politicization and even “desacralization” of religion and the “corrupt religionization” of corrupt politics.

In passing, there are some plausible theories that suggest that Socrates might have been a prophet, whose legacy and reputation, nevertheless, have been distorted just like the legacies and reputations of the majority of prophets. His life story and teachings share many similarities with those of other prophets who came before and after him (kindly see my article “Was Socrates a Prophet?”.)

Philosophy was and remained anti-religious

Ever since its inception, philosophy has consistently defied religion and has been determined to create its own framework for understanding and living life. It never changed, always directing a suspicious or openly antagonistic gaze towards the realms of religion. Rare attempts at compromise and appeasement were just a facade, much like a publicity stunt. Utterly peaceful coexistence was never on the agenda.

The latest victim was Judeo-Christianity. Nonetheless, this was not merely a victory for philosophy. It rather meant the climax of the conflict, with the victory considered the most crucial and potentially ultimate. The imprints and overall vibe of the triumph were apparent across the social, cultural and intellectual movements, such as the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and later modernism and postmodernism. Those movements were born out of philosophy, harboring, as one would expect, a deep-seated disdain, often bordering on out-and-out bitterness and hostility, towards religion, tradition and olden times in general.

It is no surprise, therefore, that in this modern Western-driven civilization - which is based on the worldviews of scientism, agnosticism, materialism and nihilism as the net products of the centuries-old philosophizing processes - there is a dwindling acceptance of religions and any spiritual or moral beliefs derived from them.

The undisputed dominance of philosophy signaled the demise of religion, confirming a longstanding Muslim theory that an increase in philosophy results in a decrease in religion, and vice versa. The fact that modern civilization has antireligion written all over it does not bode well for the future of both religion and civilization.

Muslims and the hazardous nature of philosophy

That philosophy in its role as a challenger to religion and its surrogate is dangerous cannot be denied. This is especially so nowadays after the worth and efficacy of almost all religions have been abolished and buried under the rubble of collective nihilism. Standing alone as the sole survivor of the ungodly civilizational march of the (post)modern man, defying essentially everything - including itself – philosophy has morphed into an exclusivist ideology.

Yet, it has turned itself into a religion par excellence, whereby divinities have been either humanized or completely disposed of, and man, clad in his domineering relativism, skepticism and hedonism, has been deified and, as such, placed on a pedestal and literally worshiped.

Consequently, educational institutions have been converted into temples, philosophers (and to some extent all the thinkers and scholars of the same ilk serving as subordinate servants) into prophets and their treatises into revelations.

People, particularly young men and women, continue to gravitate towards the alleged hubs of educational brilliance, whose principles, aspirations and objectives are grounded in the ideals of philosophy. Their special identities have been defined exclusively by philosophical doctrines and have been cast in their clubby molds.

Those people’s journeys are akin to sacred pilgrimages during which on the altars of “rationality” and “wisdom” and in the name of education, enlightenment and advancement, they sacrifice their spirituality, morality and even bona fide humanness.

It is owing to all this – plus the impious origins and evolutionary trajectory of philosophy–that Muslims should be wary of philosophy and its honeyed words, which denote nothing but a poisoned chalice. Our (un)civilizational reality is evidence that philosophy's rise coincides with religions decline, and the more humans are revered, the less God is honored.

Locked in a perpetual war of attrition, philosophy and religion just cannot live in harmony. The domain of existence seems to be too small for such a possibility. Indeed, the Creator-creation and Master-servant dynamics cannot be muddled in any manner or degree.

In point of fact, Muslims do not need – nor did they ever need – philosophy. Answers to all fundamental questions raised by philosophy and its fraternity Muslims had the privilege of enjoying through the inexhaustible layers of revelation in the form of the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah (a life pattern designated as hikmah or wisdom).

Anything beyond this heavenly outlined scope is superfluous. It is either unwarranted and excessive, or unlawful.

Hence, Almighty Allah informs us in the Qur’an - which is the ultimate Guidance and absolute Criterion for humanity – that nothing has been neglected in the Book (al-An’am 38), that He has sent down to the Prophet the Book as an exposition of all things, and a guidance and a mercy and good tidings for those who have surrendered to Allah (have become Muslims) (al-Nahl 89), and that whoever follows His guidance will neither go astray in the world nor suffer in the Hereafter (Ta Ha 123).

Allah also asks: “Do you (people) know better than Allah?” (al-Baqarah 140), and “Who is more true in word than Allah? (al-Nisa’ 87).

As for the pursuits of contemplation, meditation, scientific exploration, creative and critical thinking, which philosophy ostensibly personifies and fervently promotes, not even those should beguile and unsettle the Muslim consciousness. The reason for that is the actuality that Islam is all about contemplation, thinking, learning, investigation and creativity. Such themes abound in the content of the Qur’an and practices of the Prophet.

Muslims do not need philosophy and are better off without it

Muslims certainly do not need chaotic philosophy and bewildered philosophers to teach them what life and its wisdom are. Nor do they need their inconsistent, erratic and plainly wide of the mark ideas as a replacement for the revealed knowledge and authentic wisdom of the Creator and Lord of the universe. It is safe to say that there is no single philosophical claim that all philosophers agree on. Seemingly, there is no cost or accountability attached to anything.

The enterprise of love-of-wisdom is to be transported from the realm of abstract theorizing to that of concrete realities, enhancing human creativity-cum-preparedness to conquer the pressing challenges of civilization-building. Life needs to be cognized, appreciated and lived, rather than fantasized about. There is no time for seeking the unfindable, and trying to fathom the unfathomable and appreciate the inappreciable.

The evolution of philosophy has moved from the prospect of loving wisdom to the calamity of distorting and abusing wisdom.

It is unfair that hundreds of generations have passed without comprehending the basics of life, let alone indulging in and benefiting from them. How many more generations must come and go before the dismal situation improves? Isn't there a red line? Isn’t there Agnus Dei (sacrificial lamb)?

That said, it is really intriguing to ponder what entices a great many Muslims to embrace the proposition of philosophy, resulting in them relegating their Islam to a secondary position.
What makes them go from the sublime to the ridiculous? Indeed, as things stand, philosophy is similar to a looming disaster on the horizon.

The life of a believer is to read, contemplate, understand and act upon the signs (ayat) that have been revealed in the Qur’an, and the signs (ayat) in the universe that have been created and whose task is to complement the former. A believer’s mission revolves around finding, embracing and living the truth, which is manifested in the signs of the Qur’an first and in the signs of creation second. As far as Islam is concerned, the most profound wisdom is to comprehend the two and amalgamate them into a proficient thinking and behavioral paradigm.

Islam is a faith that values both reason and revelation, seeing them as interconnected and essential for a complete understanding. While realizing one is contingent upon realizing the other, conflicts between them are incomprehensible. There is nothing in Islam that can be duly accomplished on the basis of blind faith, myopia and ignorance. These are the allies of Satan, symbolizing gateways to nonbelief. They spell the onset of all cynicism and vice.

Aligned with revelation, reason is powerful, but on its own, it is weak and vulnerable. Did not Allah say – by way of illustration - that we should not just believe (affirm and accept as true), but also know that there is no god except Him (Muhammad 19), know that Allah created and sustains life (al-Hadid 17), and know that the life of this world is temporary and not worthy of undue attention and reverence (al-Hadid 20)? Allah is emphatic that “We have made clear to you the signs (ayat); perhaps you will understand” (al-Hadid 17).

Allah also said that “in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs (ayat) for those of understanding (people of reason)” (Alu ‘Imran 190).

One of the attributes of true believers is to “contemplate the wonders of creation in the heavens and the earth” and to arrive at such wise conclusions as would induce the believers to declare: “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You (above such a thing); then protect us from the punishment of the Fire” (Alu ‘Imran 191).

In short, Muslims should avoid philosophy and its numerous derivatives. They will be better Muslims without it. There is no intellectual or scientific craving that Islam cannot fulfill, be it in the theoretical or practical sense. Historically, many Muslim minds were drawn to the deceptive veneer and into the pitfalls of philosophy, but none emerged unharmed. Some yet drowned in the ocean of the suffocating flaws of philosophy.

Beyond doubt, the little benefit of philosophy pales in comparison to the much harm it causes. It is imperative that we remain acutely aware of the grander scope that is at stake and not allow it to slip from our focus. Combining the two Islamic readings: the reading of the Qur’an as the compendium of the revealed signs (the revealed Book or al-qur’an al-tadwini) and the reading of the universe as the repository of the created signs (the created “Book” or “al-qur’an” al-takwini), will certainly suffice.

The unflattering views of philosophy held by al-Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun, al-Dhahabi and al-Zamakhshari

That is why in his “Deliverance from Error” and “The Incoherence of the Philosophers” Abu Hamid al-Ghazali heavily criticized as much Greek philosophy as its counterpart in the Muslim world. The latter failed to disengage itself from the former. To al-Ghazali, the entire universe of philosophy was “a tangled mass of phrases full of contradictions and mistakes, and incapable of deceiving, I will not say a critical mind, but even the common crowd.”

The most problematic field was that of metaphysics. According to al-Ghazali, the sum total of philosophers’ errors in that field “can be reduced to twenty propositions: three of them are irreligious, and the other seventeen heretical.” Thus, al-Ghazali concluded, the majority of Muslim philosophers were either impious or outright unbelievers, in that their viewpoint sharply diverged from the unambiguous teachings of Islam: “We should therefore consider them all (all philosophers) as unbelievers, as well as the so-called Muslim philosophers.”

Frankly speaking, philosophy was never part of the mainstream Muslim religious and rational thought. Being persistently at odds with the message of Islam, philosophy needed some bizarrely turbulent circumstances and the iron fist of some equally misguided rulers to rise and gain prominence. As an abnormal thing, Muslim philosophy could only thrive in a set of abnormal conditions. Only Allah knows how many honest and rightly-guided Muslim theologians, jurists and general scholars had to suffer one way or another because of those abnormal conditions, abnormal individuals and their abnormal ideas.

What made Muslim philosophy and Muslim philosophers famous was the West and its project of colonization of the Muslim mind. Which was understandable, inasmuch as the legacy of Muslim philosophy proved more beneficial to the future of the West and its imperialist civilization than to Islam and the potential revival of its own civilization. While Muslim philosophy was used for revitalizing Western civilization, it also worked as a powerful tool in alienating the Muslim mind and sedating the soul. Indeed, were it not for the West, Muslim philosophy would have been reduced to a tiny footnote in Islamic civilization.

Echoing the mainstream Muslim attitude towards philosophy in the 14 th and early 15 th centuries, Ibn Khaldun wrote in his “Muqaddimah” that the harm philosophy can do to religion was great. Reckoning, among other things, that “the essences and conditions of the whole of existence can be perceived by mental speculation and intellectual reasoning,” and that “the articles of faith are established as correct through intellectual speculation and not through tradition, because they belong among the intellectual perceptions,” the Muslim philosophers led by Ibn Sina and al-Farabi – Ibn Khaldun deduced – were wrong in all aspects of their especially metaphysical, moral and epistemological thought.

The Muslim philosophers were all led astray, as a result of which Ibn Khaldun concluded his discussion of philosophy titled “A Refutation of Philosophy; the Corruption of the Students of Philosophy” as follows: “Allah gives success and guidance to the truth. We would not be persons who are guided aright, had Allah not guided us.” Ibn Khaldun was clear about the source of guidance and truth, emphasizing that without Allah's guidance, there are no other alternatives. Philosophy does not offer assurances of guidance, truth, or happiness. The providence of Allah is the only way.

Also, Shamsuddin al-Dhahabi, a leading historian and hadith scholar in the 14 th century, said in his encyclopedia of biographical history “The Lives of Noble Figures”, which is among most authoritative in Islamic scholarship, that al-Farabi – who was widely known as “second teacher or master" with Aristotle as the first - composed numerous works. However, according to al-Dhahabi, seeking guidance from those works could only lead to confusion and misguidance.

Al-Dhahabi noted that al-Farabi's most notable student was Ibn Sina, highlighting that Ibn Sina, like his teacher, had aspects of thought that were deemed unacceptable. Al-Dhahabi, obviously agreeing with al-Ghazali, pointed out that both philosophers were considered nonbelievers by the latter. Al-Dhahabi’s words, after stating the above, say it all: “All gratitude is due to Allah for (His) Islam and the Sunnah (of the Prophet).”

In conclusion, there is no system or philosophy that is more in love with wisdom than Islam.

However, that wisdom is not what philosophy tries to espouse. There is no wisdom without the guidance of the Qur’an and the life model of the Prophet. The foundational basis of wisdom must be the idea of tawhid (the Oneness of Allah). Due to that, the Qur’anic exposition of wisdom (hikmah) both in the “al-Isra’” and “Luqman” chapters starts with a mention of tawhid and the importance of not associating anyone or anything with Allah.

Moreover, the “al-Isra” chapter also concludes its exposition in a similar fashion, interleaving the discussion of wisdom with two allusions to tawhid. This suggests that wisdom, originating from tawhid, also relies on it for validation and acceptance. Tawhid is absolute and supreme; wisdom is derivative and conditional.

Perhaps al-Zamakhshari’s words in his tafsir (commentary) of the verse 39 in the “al-Isra’” chapter recaps the whole sentiment. He said that tawhid is the crown and proprietor of all wisdom. Without tawhid, a person’s wisdom and knowledge will not benefit him even if he was superior to all the wise men, and was able to touch the sky (highest levels of existence) with his head (his intelligence). Al-Zamakhshari inferred: “The books of wisdom do not serve philosophers any purpose, and they are farther from the religion of Allah than livestock.”

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