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Mar 26, 2024

The Importance of Being Earnest about Islamic Philosophy

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Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The George Washington University

Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a renowned scholar of Islam and professor of religion.

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Hamza Yusuf

Zaytuna College

Hamza Yusuf is a leading proponent of classical learning in Islam and president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California.

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The Importance of Being Earnest about Islamic Philosophy

Akhlaq I Nasiri

Page from Akhlāq-i Nāṣirī (thirteenth century) / Wikimedia Commons

The following is an edited transcript of a recorded conversation between Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Hamza Yusuf in late October 2023. The two scholars, who have known each other for decades, discussed traditional Islamic philosophy and metaphysics and how people not grounded in them risk jeopardizing a profound intellectual heritage that can contribute, on its own terms, to modern society.

Hamza Yusuf: I was recently at a conference on a panel where I met somebody and asked them what they did. They said they were a philosopher, and I was tempted to say, You mean like Socrates? People throw around the word philosopher quite glibly, but you really are a philosopher—one of those rare people that God has blessed with great intellect, but also creative insight. You’ve been privileged with the time to think deeply about the perennial existential problems that plague our species, but also the problems of the time, the great issues that each time brings with it. You’re probably familiar with the Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who says that nihilism is a perennial problem.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Yes.

HY: Nihilism doesn’t go away; it reemerges and challenges the human being. But you’re a historian of science and a philosopher of science, so I want to ask you some questions. For starters, how relevant is E. A. Burtt’s book, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science?

SHN: It was a classical book written many decades ago. A very good book.

HY: One of the things he talks about is that premodern people took for granted the mind’s correspondence with the external world.

SHN: Yes.

HY: So epistemology was not really a problem for them. Then he makes this argument that the central concern of modern philosophy is epistemology because philosophers have this post-Kantian view that reality is just a subjective phenomenon.

He says, “For modern metaphysics, at least beginning with the work of [George] Berkeley and [Gottfried Wilhelm] Leibniz, has another and more significant connecting thread than that of its epistemological interest; it is in large part a series of unsuccessful protests against this new view of the relation of man to nature.”

Then he says, and this is what interests me:

Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, James, Bergson—all are united in one earnest attempt, the attempt to reinstate man with his high spiritual claims in a place of importance in the cosmic scheme. The constant renewal of these attempts and their constant failure widely and thoroughly to convince men, reveals how powerful a grip the view they were attacking was winning over people’s minds, and now, perhaps even more than in any previous generation, we find philosophers who are eager above all things to be intellectually honest, ready to give up the struggle as settled and surrender the field.

You’re one of the people who refuses to “surrender the field.” I want to hear some of your thoughts about that.

SHN: In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful. This problem, of course, has been discussed for a long time. The reason, I think, that people like Berkeley and Hegel and the whole cluster of people you mentioned, who were idealists in the Western philosophical sense and who tried to revive metaphysics, were not completely successful is that authentic metaphysics was not really available to them. Metaphysics as a branch of philosophy must not be confused with metaphysics as a supreme science of reality. They gained only a partial understanding of the nature of things. For example, the Berkeley idealism is really based on the rejection of one of the two elements of Cartesian bifurcation, the world between res extensa and res cogitans.

[Is reality] in the mind or in extension? And so they reject extension. But that bifurcation itself is false. Since Descartes, people in the West have not really examined deeply the false bifurcation, the dualism, which underlies all of Western thought.

But in the late nineteenth century, a few metaphysicians, people like Franz von Baader in Germany, began to question that bifurcation in earnest. And today, my friend Wolfgang Smith, who lives in the same state as you, California, and who is a remarkable physicist and traditional philosopher, has written some wonderful, wonderful things on the falsehood of this and why quantum mechanics—which is so successful in predicting microevents—has no philosophy because it’s trying to cling to this Cartesian bifurcation, and it doesn’t work.

So you and I, as people who are devoted to the Islamic metaphysical tradition, should cling to our own tradition and not be fooled by the pseudoproblem. To solve the Western problem is to present the falsehood of the very premises which cause those problems. That’s why I don’t write extensive histories of Western thought. In one of my books, Religion and the Order of Nature, I deal with all the different false schools of philosophy of nature, but usually I try to go to the root, which is what happened in the seventeenth century.

This Cartesian bifurcation is totally false and against everything that Ibn Sīnā and Suhrawardī and Mullā Śadrā and Ghazālī and all of the great thinkers of Islam said.

HY: Yes, the West did not have access to a sound tradition because their tradition had already become ossified, and the Catholic tradition, which did have a great metaphysical tradition, was not really producing the type of intellects that the medieval period produced. But the Muslims also had problems. First, in our tradition outside of the Iranian school, in the Sunni tradition—with a few exceptions like the Kurdish and Indo-Pakistani traditions but largely in the Arab world—for some reason, philosophy really died out and material logic was almost completely removed from the logical training. So we have a severance of the tradition. How do you restore that?

SHN: It’s a very good question. If you had asked me this fifty years ago, my answer would have been very different. This is one of the fields in which, fortunately, since the time of Ibrahim Madkour and the famous Egyptian philosopher scholars of the 1940s and ’50s, there’s been a greater awareness in the Arab world, especially Egypt, which is the heart of the Arab world, of the importance of the resuscitation of the philosophical tradition. That tradition existed during the Fatimid period and somewhat later in Egypt, which gradually became divided, partly into the new kalam, which is philosophical kalam from Ghazālī on, and partly into philosophical Sufism. A distinct philosophical school disappears from the Arab world, except in Iraq under Shia influence, but putting Iraq aside, all the major centers of Arabic learning disappear.

Many Arabs now realize the importance of reviving that. They tried to in the 1890s, when the first conference on Arabic was organized by parliaments in Belgium; they tried to raise Arab nationalism as the flag. Reviving Islamic thought in a contemporary Arabic context is being done to some extent; even in Egypt, with the dictatorship that’s going on there, six or seven of my books have recently come out in Arabic. There is tremendous new interest in Ibrahim Madkour, Abdel Rahman Badawi, and all the famous Egyptian philosophers, even later ones. A lot of students are doing their doctoral theses on Movlazadeh, which was unheard of fifty years ago. This later Islamic philosophy—which has its home in Persia and to some extent in the Pakistani subcontinent, where the Islamic element is deeply under the influence of Persian things, and to some extent in Turkey—is gradually becoming fully recognized as part of the heritage of Egyptians, the heritage of Tunisians, and others. Because the Islamic world is one world: I can’t say what’s Egyptian is not my heritage, or what’s Persian is not Egyptians’ heritage. You know that fully well; I don’t need to go over that.

So, fortunately, I think we’re beginning to get a new generation of Arabs, despite the fact that there are these American universities that indoctrinate the children of the rich in every Arab country practically, and despite the fact that Muslim families send their children to missionary schools. Despite all of that, there’s a rise of a new class, really, of young Muslim thinkers who are thinkers in the sense that they have clear philosophical ideas but are rooted actually in their own tradition. And I’m very, very optimistic.

HY: You were one of the few people, certainly, one of the few voices that contributed to this revival.

SHN: I had a humble role, but Allah prepared me for this. I was born in the Persian philosophical tradition, then I studied in the West for so many years, where I had great scholars, and then went back to Persia and again studied. So I had training in both the Islamic-Persian philosophical tradition and the Western tradition.

HY: Which leads me to a really important question. You know my father was a student of philosophy, and he was a professor of philosophy. So I was exposed early on to Western philosophy. How important do you think it is for our young scholars to be studying Western philosophy in addition to rediscovering our own tradition? As you know, studying both traditions is such a formidable endeavor. How important is it for our young scholars to understand the Western trajectory—from the pre-Socratics to the great Hellenistic period, to the medieval scholastics phenomenon that was followed by Descartes, and Hume’s abandonment of that tradition, and then Kant, who kind of attempts to revive metaphysics and yet deals a death blow to Western metaphysics?

SHN: It’s a very good question. I’ve dealt with this several times, but I need to repeat it here: we have to know the West in every way. Our philosophers have to know Western philosophy, but like a living human being knows something external on the basis of what is within himself. There has to be a subject first. What do I mean by that? I mean the Muslims who study the West have to be Muslims first who then study the West—but not drown in it. We have scholars who study Western philosophy, but they’re swallowed up by the whale. They’re not studying from the point of view of Islamic philosophy; rather they become tenth-rate Western philosophers. We have a lot of those. We don’t need those. We need people who are rooted in the Islamic philosophical, metaphysical, Sufi, kalam tradition, the whole intellectual tradition of Islam—and who from that point of view study the West.

We are trying to emulate the West, even in how we pick up our fork at lunch. But the Western people, they studied Islamic philosophy from the Western point of view until Henry Corbin came along and tried to be more balanced. All of the books of Western philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Sufism by Westerners—they’re written from the Western point of view. Why do we have this inferiority complex? We who are modernists in the Islamic world, who are trying to emulate the West, why don’t we emulate the West on this point? I’m also studying the Western Islamic point of view. And that’s what we have to teach the younger generation. Even here, in exile for several decades in Washington, I have a lot of students in the Islamic world who come, and that’s the one thing I always teach them. I’ll say, You’re here in a major Western university, yes, and you have to learn the West, but you have to learn it from an Islamic point of view, not from a Western point of view. Try to be authentic and rooted.

Like you, an excellent Arabist. If you forgot your English, you could not render service to the Arabic at Zaytuna College. You’re effective because your English is so good; then you learn the Arabic and become a great Arabic scholar. Especially with thought: thinking is even more important than language.

HY: Right.

SHN: With thought, you have to have a matrix of thinking. Trying to learn from the West from the point of view of the West itself means the death of a culture; the colonial period had this effect on Muslim people, as well as on Hindus and Africans, the whole non-Western people. But things began to crack in the West, before the First World War, at the height of Western civilization, which thought it was such a great civilization.

Alĥamdulillāh, our Islamic civilization is not dead. A lot of it is weakened, ossified, forgotten in some places, but it never died. And inshallah, intellectually, we’re going to see a revival.

HY: Inshallah. You know, that’s part of Zaytuna’s mandate: attempting to understand two civilizations. We want our students to look at Western civilization through the lens of a Muslim worldview.

SHN: Exactly.

HY: But what I see happening, very often, because we’re not deeply rooted in our own tradition, is the seduction that Western thought has. Let me give you a good example of that. There’s this attempt to reframe kalam, philosophical kalam, through the lens of analytic philosophy. That’s partly because Western foundations give grants toward this research, and a lot of Western philosophers are analytic. But that’s a dead end as far as I’m concerned.

SHN: Absolutely. There’re giving money to wrong things. If you do that, we’re not going to get anywhere. What we need is to strengthen our own educational system—within the Islamic world or at a place like Zaytuna; Islamic institutions can be anywhere—starting with a deeply grounded training in our own tradition, language, history, thought, and of course religion. Especially those who are drawn to intellectual matters, to Islamic thought, Islamic philosophy, philosophy in the vastest sense of the term, have to know, what would Ibn Sīnā say about Hume?

People have written that Hume borrowed from Ghazālī because he used the same example of cotton in the fire, which cannot be by accident. I accept that. And we have to learn the tremendous influence of Islamic thought on the West. But only to discover Western thought itself is the dead end. We have to know it, but we also have to know that it’s not something to emulate. It’s something to understand, something to come to terms with, something to criticize, something not to be afraid of. And if there’s something to learn from it, alĥamdulillāh, fine. For example, analytical philosophy is terrible, but it has one thing very similar to Islamic philosophy. When I was studying traditional Islamic philosophy in Persia, with great masters, the first thing was clarity in the definitions of terms, whereas in modern Western philosophy, terms are very unclear. So analytical philosophy from that point of view is exactly what we were saying, but with different ends in view, because analytical philosophy is antimetaphysical, whereas you study Mullā Śadrā to be able to ultimately know God, or Suhrawardī, or anybody like that.

HY: Right.

SHN: All my colleagues here at the university are analytical philosophers. I mentioned clarity of language. I come from a tradition that starts philosophy with definitions that are always very precise. Islamic philosophy is like modern physics, not like modern philosophy, Western philosophy. When you say proton, in atomic physics, it has a definite definition. In Islamic philosophy, when you say al-jawhar, al-¢arađ, al-ĥarakah, whatever it is, it has precise meaning. Although you may translate ¢illah as “cause” in English, it’s fuzzy; whereas in Arabic, there’s great clarity. When I was studying traditional philosophy, the teacher would say we first must consult ahl al-iśţilāĥ (the experts who provide definitions for terms), to know the words, the iśţilāĥāt, the expressions. After that you learn Islamic philosophy.

HY: Right.

SHN: We don’t have to say to our students, Look, ahl al-iśţilāĥ are right because some philosopher in the University of London is saying it’s right. I’m against that. That inferiority complex we have in the Islamic world, in which Goethe was translated into Persian and became famous. They say Goethe was great because he wrote in German, and the Germans said that Goethe was great. Now this kind of argument that we use all the time in the Islamic world, we travel wide enough in the Arab world, the rest of the Islamic world is like that. We have to get over that. We have to have self-confidence.

HY: Yes.

SHN: And I’m already at the end of my time. I want to really pray for you and praise what you’re doing at Zaytuna. It’s a very, very important experiment in this country and already has some success. Try to not be afraid. Be more traditional. Don’t be too dispersed.