Lack of Philosophy by Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

Advent of Islam offered a new philosophy of life pushing mankind to look at the universe with a new perspective and find his place in it. Quran offered divine wisdom that was to guide this philosophical evolution. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in his last Hajj sermon provided instruction that each generation has to ponder over it to find newer meanings that could improve their spiritual and temporal lives.

This ignited the human imagination and Muslim scholars looked at the treaties of Greek and Asian philosophers to have many perspectives for deeper understanding of the message. They translated these works into Arabic and debated on philosophical points of nature of God, existence, annihilation through death or constant decay, relation of God with universe and creation; free will and purpose of life. This gave rise to competing schools of thoughts called Mutazilites and Asharite. Mutazilite were promoters of rational thinking and considered free will as an integral part of existence granted by God. Asharite on the other hand rejected free will and considered it the domain of God to allow or reject every act. According to them it was the sovereign right of God to have mercy on an individual or not by stopping him from committing a sinful act. A man in this condition could only think good or evil but it was only by permission of God that the act would be allowed. This debate on philosophical questions filtered down to allow Muslim scholars to investigate scientific questions related to mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology.

But then something happened and the philosophical debate died out and as a consequence of it scientific discoveries also stopped in the Muslim dominated areas. What happened? Why after four centuries of advancement Muslims societies suddenly lost its intellectual vigor? Many historians have tried to tackle this question. In my view two developments, that happened simultaneously, produced this ossification of thought. First was the political development which resulted in establishment of monarchy. After Ummayad, Abbasid’s ruled for over 300 hundred years at the center of Muslim civilization and then handed the reigns over to Ottomans who ruled for another 650 years. Since the empire controlled vast area consisting of many different cultures and sects it was preferred that thought should be controlled for stability. To achieve this objective monarchs allowed dogmatization of the religion which meant that discussions on key philosophical points of Quran became rare and excessive debate was considered dangerous for the purity of the spiritual message. Champions of dogma discouraged philosophical discussion beyond a certain point. For instance it was considered blasphemous to explore the question about existence of God and was limited to the knowledge of his essence in existence.

While Muslims were falling into intellectual darkness, scholars in Europe were translating Arabic commentary of Greek philosophy and making inroads into understanding of the material world around us. These advancement resulted in industrialization which produced exponential profits that were used to colonize Muslim majority areas. This resulted in an inferiority complex and, since the struggle had a religious dimension, it was considered betrayal to be inspired by Western philosophers. It was for this reason study of Western philosophy was discouraged and even those few that dared to study tried to find faults in it rather than to learn good things from it and then build new philosophies on top of it. Any mention of Descartes, Hobbes, Bertrand Russell or Nietzsche in any discourse is sufficient to earn the label of being Western. A mention of a Hindu philosopher would be considered as a sure sign of a person being apostate.

This attitude is against the spirit of Islam and it is for this reason that Muslim majority countries are lagging behind in solving their social, economic and political problems. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) instructed us to acquire knowledge even if you have to go to China. Now were there any Muslim philosophers in China at the time of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)? It is about time we establish philosophical societies in Pakistan which explore the questions faced by our societies. Here I am not proposing that there is the complete absence of thought but that these are mostly individual and unorganized efforts rather than institutional. If there was an institutional effort at least there would be emergence of a new philosophy but there is none. There is hardly any Muslim scientist in last two hundred years that presented a ground breaking theory like Einstein or Newton.

A world that is increasingly chaotic the questions that interest me are to explore mind, body and soul. Founder of evolutionary biology Edward O Wilson suggests that science still does not know how life evolved from non-living materials. The point is that since life emerged from chemical elements that possibility has to be present in it just like any other physical property we measure through instruments. Another interesting observation was made by English philosopher Bertrand Russell that if dreams had cohesion and comprehension then it would be difficult to differentiate between real life and a dream. Our knowledge of dreams is still at an early stage because of our limited knowledge of brain as an organ. When we sleep we are almost in a state of death or hibernation. Our heartbeat is slowest and our brain is sleeping as well just like our smartphones when they are in a standby mode. In that physical state we experience something that seems real to us but it is not. This brings us to the relation of mind, which is our intellectual ability, and brain. In a state of dream brain is asleep but mind is still active. A dream is similar to something a schizophrenic patient experience in real life. He or she sees and hear things that are non-existent which is why it is considered an impairment of reality. Doctors consider it imbalance of chemicals and give medicine to regain it. When brain attains its chemical balance mind is able to re-establish its healthy consciousness. That brings us to another question what is the difference between a healthy person who is watching a dream and Schizophrenic person while he is awake. There is an ethical dimension to this question too. When a person is inflicted with mental illness can they commit sin and how to deal with it in a social context? Scientist Edward Wilson define soul as the emotional self which raises many questions. If it is a biological phenomenon then it should die with the body while from religious perspective soul is indestructible and migrates after death so it has to be more than just emotions.

When I write about these subjects it is with hope that some of you reading this piece will get inspired and take steps towards creating institutes or platforms for it. Muslim world can’t solve its problems without an intellectual awakening. It is imperative for us to overcome this hurdle.


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