Averroes is not the answer

The narrative of Ed Husain’s Spectator article (below) on the supposed decline of Islamic philosophy into a “Dark Age” after Al Ghazali keeps reappearing in the popular press, but has been discredited in academia for some time. Rightly so, as it is both misleading and dangerous. For example, the doctrines which Al Ghazali defended included the notion that the universe had a beginning and will have an end, denied by Avicenna on the basis of Aristotelian empiricism. That this should much later be approved by the same empirical methods only goes to show their limits. Empirical rather than a priori reasoning has been used not only for medical and technological advances, but also to justify slavery, sexual inequality, racialism, social Darwinism and eugenics. 

No stupid fideist, Al Ghazali made (albeit unacknowledged) use of Platonic reasoning to oppose what he saw as the wedge the followers of Aristotle were driving between faith and reason. The mediaeval Church was as condemnatory as mediaeval Islam of the “Averroism” which threatened to accelerate that divide. Yet while Christendom veered down an ever more Aristotelian path, a Platonic revival in the Islamic world gave birth to sophisticated and beautiful schools of thought including the Illuminationists and the Akbarian tradition, each quite mainstream in their insistence that the life of faith grounds reasons rather than opposing it. Islamic fundamentalism does not date from Al Ghazali, but is rather a late 19th century response to Western imperialism, particularly in Egypt. 

To many traditional Muslims and Christians, the fruits of the European Enlightenment’s decoupling of science from religion are ambivalent. For all its goods, there is much in European secular society that the more conservatively minded throughout the world are loath to import or to emulate. Perhaps Mr Husain has found that some of those whose disaffection with the West extends to a murderous degree are swayed by appeals to Averroes, but these are unlikely to affect any broader positive cultural change. To tell Muslims that their only worthwhile thinkers are those who resemble 18th-century European empiricists appears condescending. But worse, it blinds the West to our own flaws – and to the possibilities which philosophical developments from outside Europe might offer for peaceable critical reflection.

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