Back to Main Page

Contact us

Islamic philosophy, modern


There are a number of major trends in modern Islamic philosophy. First, there is the challenge of the West to traditional Islamic philosophical and cultural principles and the desire to establish a form of thought which is distinctive. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, Islamic philosophers have attempted to redefine Islamic philosophy; some, such as Hasan Hanafi and Ali Mazrui, have sought to give modern Islamic philosophy a global significance and provide an agenda for world unity.

Second, there is a continuing tradition of interest in illuminationist and mystical thought, especially in Iran where the influence of Mulla Sadra and al-Suhrawardi has remained strong. The influence of the latter can be seen in the works of Henry Corbin and Seyyed Hossein Nasr; Mulla Sadra has exercised an influence over figures such as Mahdi Ha'iri Yazdi and the members of Qom School, notably Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The philosopher Abdul Soroush has introduced a number of concepts from Western philosophy into Iran.

Finally, there have been many thinkers who have adapted and employed philosophical ideas which are originally non-Islamic as part of the normal philosophical process of seeking to understand conceptual problems. This is a particularly active area, with a number of philosophers from many parts of the Islamic world investigating the relevance to Islam of concepts such as Hegelianism and existentialism. At the same time, mystical philosophy continues to exercise an important influence. Modern Islamic philosophy is thus quite diverse, employing a wide variety of techniques and approaches to its subject.

  1. Reactions to the West
  2. The Persian approach to philosophy
  3. Modern trends

1. Reactions to the West

There has been a tendency in the Islamic world since the late nineteenth century to explore the issue of the relative decline or decadence of Arabic intellectual thought and science as compared with its Western equivalent. During the Christian medieval period the Islamic world was in its cultural and political ascendancy, and was at the centre of theoretical work in both science and philosophy. However, by the nineteenth century an enormous gap had opened between the Islamic world and the West. A wide variety of explanations for this decline have since been sought.

The realization that this gap existed led to the Nahda (rebirth or renaissance) movement between 1850 and 1914. Beginning in Syria but developed largely in Egypt, the movement sought to incorporate the main achievements of modern European civilization while at the same time reviving classical Islamic culture which predated imperialism and the centuries of decadence.

The main problem facing the Nahda thinkers had was how to interpret the Islamic cultural tradition, including philosophy, in an environment dominated by the West. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad 'Abduh both argued that Islam is inherently rational and need not be abandoned in the face of the encroachment of Western forms of scientific and cultural thought. The Egyptian philosopher Mustafa 'Abd al-Raziq also argued that it is possible to demonstrate the authenticity of traditional Islamic philosophical work and its modern relevance within Islamic society. He posits an inseparable link connecting rationalism and revelation in Islam, and he defends the traditional Islamic sciences as compatible with science and rationality. In this he constitutes what might be thought of as a more conservative position than his predecessor 'Abduh, who was more dubious about the values of some of the Islamic schools of thought, in particular of Sufism (see Mystical philosophy in Islam).

Muhammad 'Abid al-Jabiri suggests that a viable Arab future can only come about through a deconstruction and critique of the reasons for the decline of the Arab world. He criticizes the dichotomy between the Islamicists, who hark back to a Golden Age in the past, and the liberal Westernizers, who praise the principles of the European Renaissance from which colonialism originated. The solution he offers is the freeing of modern Arabic thought from both the language and the theological limitations of the past. The Arab mind has become very much part and parcel of traditional ways of exploring the world, and is restricted in its potential if it remains too closely wedded to its Islamic heritage.

Fu'ad Zakariyya' argued that the Arab world declined due to its inability to historicize the past and its dependence on tradition, while Zaki Najib Mahmud brought out the importance of philosophy in taking us from the known to the unknown, and was critical of the ability of religion to interfere with this movement in thought. Hasan Hanafi presents a form of phenomenology which argues that a new concept of tawhid (divine unity) should be developed which will involve a principle of unity and equality for all people. Hanafi also throws the charge of decadence back at the West, suggesting that the West is now entering a period of decadence and will require an infusion of ideas and energy from the East. He uses the language of liberation theology, which holds that revelation is adaptable to the language of each age (see Liberation theology). The original revelation was suited to the time and place of the Prophet and not necessarily of the current world. Modern Muslims should reinterpret revelation in modern language and in accordance with present demands; fossilized conservatism is a misinterpretation of the true dynamic and dialectical spirit of Islam.

Fazlur Rahman also contends that Islamic conservatism contradicts the essence of Islam. Islam's aims are economic reform and the establishment of a just social order (see Islamic theology §6). According to the Qur'an, he argues, moral and economic decline are related events. Therefore Islamic societies should turn away from petrified conservatism and educate their children in the new technologies. Islam should not be limited to communities of the faithful, but should seek a prominent place in the new ethical and social world order.

Another movement in Islamic political philosophy depicts Muslims not as the antagonists of Western culture, but rather as being in the vanguard of the globalization of peace and social justice. The most popular thinker of this school in the USA is Malcolm X, who began his career as an isolationist minister for the Nation of Islam movement. At first he used Islam to separate African-Americans from white people, but later he preached an internationalized Islam that reaches beyond racial and national differences.

An important African thinker in this tradition is Ali Mazrui, who tries to harmonize several interdependent factors in Islamic theology with current global realities. Mazrui proposes a marriage between the Islamic monotheistic jihad (universal struggle), Islam's anti-racist and humanist agenda, and the need for global economic cooperation; he employs culture as a vehicle for social change through his integration of multiculturalism, the politics of pan-Islamicism and the need for globalism. He takes Islam to be the first Protestant revolution in Christianity. Moreover, he suggests that Islam's economic message turns monotheism from isolated spirituality to communitarian humanism - in the form of a Muslim world order among a community of faithful (umma) - through global economic cooperation, social justice and the brotherhood of all. The essence of a multicultural perspective implies the acknowledgement that cultures project their own biases onto their perceptions of other societies. In a world which demands global economic policy-making and increasing interdependency, Mazrui believes that Muslims should see their religion of 'all is Godism' as a type of globalism. His innovation (ijtihad) interprets the Islamic jihad as an agenda of global peace and justice, thereby transforming what is taken to be a negative image of Islam into a signal for economic unity and world peace.

2. The Persian approach to philosophy

The area of the Islamic world which continued most forcefully the Islamic tradition in philosophy after the decline of Peripateticism is undoubtedly Persia (see Islam, concept of philosophy in §§3-4). Interestingly, one of the most staunch advocates of the form of thought which might be called neo-Illuminationism, and which stems from the ishraqi principles of al-Suhrawardi, is Henry Corbin (1903-78), a French philosopher who worked in Iran. Corbin was active in translating and interpreting post-Avicennan Islamic philosophy with an emphasis on shi'ism, ishraqi thought and the mysticism of Ibn al-'Arabi. He posited the existence of a perennial school of philosophical wisdom, which can be detected through the recurrence of archetypal symbols such as the icon of light. Such icons exist in the works of Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi in the early twelfth century ad, and have their source in Eastern (ishraqi) traditions such as Zoroastrianism, Hermeticism and Manicheism. (The term ishraq, which signifies 'light', also means 'East' or 'Orient'.)

For Corbin, 'ishraq' designates not only a static spatial direction but a prescriptive invitation for a hermeneutic reorientation, whereby persons scrutinize their spiritual needs and points of return to archetypal origins. Corbin also discusses the role of the imagination, a faculty which exists between the senses and the intellect. While the senses perceive discrete data and the intellect categorizes, imagination is concerned with the world of archetypes ('alam at-mithal). For example, the notion of the perfect person (al-insan al-kamil) is an icon for the psychic centre. This centre signifies peace and the perfection of the self-realization process. Corbin asserts that by means of a series of epistemic states - which include revelation (kashf) and recollection (or archetypal memory) (dhikr) - one may return to the eternal origin. This process describes a cycle, thereby reasserting the Islamic theme of the unity of being (al-wahdat al-wujud).

Corbin's followers, such as Hermann Landolt, William Chittick and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, have developed his ideas in a variety of different ways. The latter is the best known contemporary Islamic philosopher. According to him, people share a spiritual component that cannot be actualized by either descriptive or pragmatic accounts of nature. Nasr's world perspective includes a normative element which integrates people in the same way as earlier religions and cosmologies (Nasr 1993). In the past, everyone considered their religion to be the true religion; today, however, we are confronted with a plurality of religions. How can a Muslim attain a workable relation with the sacred in such an environment? Nasr employs Sufism to refer to the archetypal dimensions common to all religions; it is through the realm of mysticism that different forms of spirituality meet. The contemporary world creates the need for followers of different creeds and cultures to communicate.

Islam must coexist with the Western world, but this does not imply an Islamic surrender to all the practices of Western society. Nasr's views on Western scientific progress show his dissatisfaction with many Western perspectives. Citing the ecological disasters of overpopulation and pollution, Nasr criticizes the value of Western technological advances. According to him, the fault lies in the mistaken metascientific presupposition that an innate nature exists which is disconnected from humanity and can be investigated separately and controlled. Moreover, the increasingly pervasive quantitative perspective supplied by units of measurement - like that by which the size of a building might be described - is an incomplete outlook because it does not articulate the qualitative effects of what it describes on the surrounding environment. By contrast, Nasr holds that Islamic and Eastern perspectives on science and technology are integrative and harmonious. They stress unity in their studies of nature, thereby acknowledging the long-term ecological significance of development. Unless religious and spiritual values are embedded in a technological agenda, ecological disasters as well as a general lack of a sense of meaning in life are inevitable. Western science and its technological consequences are of ecological import to modern civilization. Consequently, neither science nor technology can consider itself irrelevant to environmental ethics (see Environmental ethics). Philosophy along Neoplatonic lines should be pursued, since only this form of analysis does justice to the spiritual wholeness of humanity.

The main emphasis in recent Persian philosophy has been on the thought of Mulla Sadra and al-Suhrawardi. Islamic philosophy has moved from the madrasa (traditional school) system and became an important part of the university curriculum. One of the most interesting thinkers is Mahdi Ha'iri Yazdi, whose work on knowledge by presence ('ilm al-huduri) provides an example of the fruitful combination of ideas from Western analytical philosophy and the ishraqi tradition in order to elucidate metaphysical and epistemological problems (Ha'iri Yazdi 1992). Recent Shi'ite theologians, as students of the work of Mulla Sadra, were versed in the dialectics of time and change. 'Ali Shari'ati, another student of Corbin, is an important social thinker whose work advocates a social process of Islamization. He rejects both the Peripatetic philosophers and the mystical thinkers, claiming that the existential being of each person contains a determination formed through mutual trust and compassion between them and God as their essence. This presumption is the ground for each person's being and the very core of each subject's potential for therapeutic unity (tawhid); its purpose is justice in both the providential and the social contexts. Islamization is achieved through an existential empathy and a phenomenological assimilation of exemplary people - such as the Imam Hossein (the Prophet's grandson) or Fatima (his daughter and the wife of Imam 'Ali) - into archetypal memory. The martyrdom of 'Ali or Hossein is a paradigmatic message, not for sorrow but for the assimilation of their characters into the self. Further, Shari'ati depicts history as a dialectical process which does not exclude economic and material realities, Islam as a practical religion or people as potential agents of justice. He replaces the Platonic theory of epistemic recollection with a theory of normative archetypal recollection. One may gain normative knowledge through the archetypal recollection of a religion's most exemplary mythical figures. Religion provides social ideals, and yet it demands not a withdrawal to a secret realm but a social revolution in the everyday world.

A creative commentary on Mulla Sadra was produced by Ruhollah Khomeini, who argues that people are primarily social as well as private citizens. Thus religious teachings relate not only to the personal morality of individuals but also to their social responsibilities and political actions (see Social sciences, philosophy of). In practice, these ideas imply a theocracy that does not distinguish between politics and religion. Bringing such a dominion into existence, he claims, requires an internal revolution from the masses directed against the existing ruling class, but this revolution must be guided by the directives of the religious authorities. He modifies Islamic theology with the notion of the religious jurist-ruler's guardianship (velayat-e-faqih), whose role is to guide the community of faithful in their universal struggle (jihad). This jihad is not essentially military, but is largely educational and seeks the expansion of monotheistic (that is, Islamic) ethics (see Ethics in Islamic philosophy).

Khomeini was a member of the School of Qom, based on the college in that city, which also produced Muhammad Hossein Tabataba'i, Murtaza Mutahheri and Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, all of whom have directed their influential thought at confronting the challenge to Islamic philosophy coming from the West. It should not be thought that this is an essentially reactionary strategy, however; Misbah has encouraged many of his students to study in the West and to take seriously scientific and logical thought as practised in the West. Also, although much of Misbah's work has been on Mulla Sadra, he has been far from uncritical of the latter. In particular, he criticizes the notion of prime matter, which Mulla Sadra (§§1-2) identifies as the pure potentiality for existents. He questions the principle that a potentiality for existents exists prior to existents themselves; after all, there is nothing but existents. Misbah argues further that many relations are not truly essences. For example, in the mind-dependent realm, we may ascribe 'below' as a relation between a table and book, but this subject-directed ascription does not imply that below is an essence in the actual world.

An interesting and quite recent controversy in Persian philosophy has been that between Abdul Soroush on the one hand, and the philosophers of the school of Qom, as well as those influenced by the Corbin school, on the other. Soroush introduced a number of concepts from Western philosophy into Iran, in particular the leading ideas of Popper, Moore, Berlin and Wittgenstein. This led him to suggest that we should use a notion like that of collective reason to understand and interpret religious ideas. Collective reason is the best way of dealing with theoretical and practical problems, and is preferable to relying solely on solutions attainable through the efforts of the jurisprudents and religious authorities. Not surprisingly, this aroused the ire of the school of Qom philosophers, and their representative Sadiq Larijani engaged Soroush in a debate which largely dealt with the correct interpretation of thinkers such as Popper, Watkins and Stalnaker, and in particular Hempel's paradoxes of confirmation (see Hempel, C.G. §2). Soroush was also attacked by the Corbin circle, whose basic philosophical approach relies very much on Heidegger along with traditional Islamic philosophy, and who were quite out of sympathy with the analytical nature of Soroush's books. This controversy is interesting in that it brings out the fact that philosophers in Iran are generally familiar now not only with traditional forms of Islamic philosophy but also with the current philosophical ideas of the West. Modern philosophers do not entirely reject Western views, but neither are they completely taken over by the West; they are prepared to examine Western views with a critical sympathy.

3. Modern trends

A very vibrant area in Islamic philosophy is the history of philosophy, in particular the Greek tradition in Islamic philosophy. There exists both in the West and in the Islamic world a large number of scholars who have developed accounts of this close relationship and who continue to edit, translate and work on important texts in order to get some idea of the nature of the philosophical material which was produced in the early centuries of Islam. In addition, many philosophers in the Islamic world have adapted Western philosophy so as to make sense of the philosophical problems in which they are interested. C.A. Qadir in Pakistan developed an account of Islamic philosophy which he thought was in line with logical positivism, while 'Abd al-Rahman Badawi applied existentialism to Arab society. Zaki Najib Mahmud followed William James in presenting a pragmatic account of philosophy. Some thinkers applied particular techniques in the Islamic tradition to philosophy, so that 'Ali Sami al-Nashshar for example based his work on Ash'arite theology (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila), while Muhammad 'Aziz Lahbabi (1954) used Hegelianism to develop a theory of being which is quite unusual within the context of Islamic ontology. Hichem Djait (1986) combines Hegelianism with existentialism. He argues that only dialectical epistemology can be used to understand the modern situation of the Arab world, and that the apparent opposites of decadence/renaissance, Arab/non-Arab, orthodox/heterodox, tradition/modernity need to be transcended if we are to understand the present nature of Islamic culture. Abdallah Laroui (1976) and Muhammad Arkoun (1985) both stress the contrast between Islam and modernity, and the former advocates the adoption of Westernization as the appropriate strategy for the Islamic world. In his approach to the Qur'an, Arkoun uses the semiotic ideas current in modern French literature to argue that Islam has always been changing and developing, so that there is no point in referring to a particular constant orthodoxy.

While many of these thinkers are hostile to mysticism and its Islamic form, Sufism, there can be little doubt that the latter represents a very potent framework for a good deal of present Islamic philosophy. The tradition of Sufism presents both a way of life which avoids many of the rigidities of traditional Islam and also a complex conceptual system which enables the philosopher to develop ideas and arguments which are intellectually satisfying. Modern Islamic philosophy employs a wide variety of different techniques and approaches to the subject.

See also: 'Abduh, M.; Al-Afghani; Illuminationist philosophy; Islam, concept of philosophy in; Islamic fundamentalism; Islamic theology; Mystical philosophy in Islam

References and further reading

* Arkoun, M. (1985) La pensée arabe (Arab Thought), Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (Account of how theoretical concepts in the Arab world have changed in response to influences from the West.)

Brown, S., Collinson, D. and Wilkinson, R. (eds) (1995) Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers, London: Routledge. (Contains information on a number of modern Islamic philosophers. Relevant entries include 'Arkoun, Mohammed' (30-1), 'Corbin, Henry' (159-60), 'Hanafi, Hasan' (305-6), 'Lahbabi, Muhammad Aziz' (431), 'Nagib Mahmud, Zaki' (562), 'Nasr, Seyyed Hossein' (563-4), 'Qadir, C.A.' (641), 'Rahman, Fazlur' (645-6), and 'Yazdi, Mehdi Hairi' (859). These and many other thinkers are also discussed in Nasr and Leaman (1996).)

Corbin, H. (1993) History of Islamic Philosophy, with the collaboration of S.H. Nasr and O. Yahya, trans. P. Sherrard, London: Kegan Paul International. (Discussion of the links between Islamic philosophy and contemporary Persian thought.)

Clarke, J.H. (1993) Malcolm X: The Man and his Times, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. (Study of the Nation of Islam leader and his thought.)

* Djait, H. (1986) Europe and Islam: Cultures and Modernity, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (Discussion of how the Islamic renaissance came about through contact with the West, and how it has revived Arab culture.)

* Ha'iri Yazdi, M. (1992) The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (A combination of modern Western epistemology with illuminationist philosophy into a creative and interesting synthesis, representing the openness of modern Islamic philosophy to Western thought.)

Khomeini, R. (1981) Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations, trans. H. Algar, Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press. (An account of the theological and philosophical bases of the Shi'i notion of the Islamic state.)

* Lahbabi, M. (1954) Le personalisme musulman (Muslim Personalism), Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (The application of Hegelianism and existentialism to Islamic thought, together with the argument that the latter has to develop in accordance with changing cultural and material trends.)

* Laroui, A. (1976) The Crisis of the Arab Intelligentsia: Traditionalism or Historicism?, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (Argument for the replacing of traditional Islamic issues with Western ones, since the Islamic world needs to transcend its past to come into real contact with modernity.)

Morewedge, P. (1990) 'The Onyx Crescent: Ali A. Mazrui on the Islamic-Africa Axis', in O.H. Kokole (ed.) The Global African: A Portrait of Ali A. Mazrui, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 217-65. (On Mazrui's African-Islamic philosophy.)

Morewedge, P. (1995a) Essays in Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Mysticism, Oneonta, NY: Oneonta Philosophy Series. (Interesting account of the basic ideas of Islamic philosophy, theology and mysticism.)

Morewedge, P. (1995b) 'Theology', in J.L. Esposito (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, vol. 4, 214-24. (Description of modern theological issues, with their underlying assumptions from Islamic philosophy.)

* Nasr, S.H. (1993) The Need for a Sacred Science, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (Defence of the notion of a firm of knowledge which is thoroughly based on contact with the sacred.)

Nasr, S.H. (1996) 'Islamic Philosophical Activity in Contemporary Persia: A Survey of Activity in the 50s and 60s', in M.A. Razavi (ed.) The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia, Richmond, VA: Curzon. (Useful account of the forms of philosophical thought in Iran during this period.)

Nasr, S.H. and Leaman, O. (eds) (1996) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge. (See the section 'The Modern Islamic World', 1037-1169, in particular M. Aminrazavi, 'Persia', 1037-50; M. Suheyl Umar, 'Pakistan', 1076-80; I. Abu-Rabi', 'The Arab World', 1082-1114; M. Campanini, 'Egypt', 1115-28; Z. Moris, 'South-East Asia', 1134-40; P. Lory, 'Henry Corbin', 1149-55; S. Akhtar, 'The Possibility of a Philosophy of Islam', 1162-69. This section contains discussions of all the thinkers mentioned in this entry.)

Rahman, F. (1982) Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (A defence of modernism and the importance of independent judgment, and an emphasis on ethics as opposed to metaphysics in philosophy.)

Shari'ati, A. (1980) Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique, trans. H. Algar, Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press. (An advocate of the significance of the people of the Third World using their culture to overthrow imperialism, arguing for an Islamic state on different and more liberal principles as compared to Khomeini.)



Back to Comments On Dr. Soroush