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8 September 2021

Are Islamic philosophers critical of authority?

Irreverence is a feature of Western thought, but in Islamic philosophy failing to question power is an intellectual sin.

By Peter Adamson

Whatever the phrase “medieval philosophy” calls to mind for you, I’m guessing it isn’t creative originality unbound by traditional ways of thinking. That’s something we’re more likely to associate with the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when iconoclastic thinkers from Leonardo Bruni to Baruch Spinoza shocked readers with their daring speculation, and demanded the freedom to engage in such speculation.

We tend to think this was something new in the history of philosophy. If you’re comfortable at all with the idea that medieval philosophers were already innovative and critically minded, you’ll likely imagine their independence of mind being displayed rather quietly, and probably in the course of commenting on some authoritative text like Peter Lombard’s theological treatise the Sentences, or the works of Aristotle.

This isn’t entirely wrong. Since late antiquity, commentary had indeed been a context for generating new ideas without calling attention to (or even while stoutly denying) their newness. But in medieval Latin Christendom, there was also good reason to establish a reputation for being a bold thinker. This is how one could attract students, and thus the fees paid by students.

Figures like Peter Abelard, Roger Bacon and Duns Scotus were frank in presenting themselves as brilliant innovators, even if they paid due respect to earlier authorities and tried (with mixed success) to keep their innovations within the boundaries laid down by the Church. Occasionally, they even expressed scepticism about the value of tradition, as in the often-repeated remark first found in Alain de Lille: evidence drawn from authoritative texts is like a nose made of wax, as it can be turned whichever way you like.

Yet in the medieval culture of Islam, we find more widespread disapproval towards uncritical acceptance of authority. There was even a word for this intellectual sin: taqlīd. Etymologically, it means being “bound”, as a sacrificial animal is bound by a halter. Part of what it meant to be a learned scholar, one of the ulema, was to avoid taqlīd. This made taqlīd a useful accusation to throw at one’s opponents.

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The theologian al-Ghazālī is famous for having attacked the philosopher Ibn Sīnā (Latinised as Avicenna). As a theologian, you might suppose that al-Ghazālī was an anti-intellectual who wanted his fellow Muslims to stop thinking for themselves and just obey the Word of God. In fact, he accused Ibn Sīnā and other philosophers of failing to think for themselves, by blindly following the teachings of Aristotle.

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In this case, al-Ghazālī’s criticism was wholly unjustified. Ibn Sīnā may have been guilty of several things – arrogance and wine-drinking, for example – but taqlīd was certainly not one of them. He was far from uncritical in his approach to Aristotle and other classical philosophers. To the contrary, he reworked the whole Aristotelian philosophical system, openly introducing many of his own ideas and arguments. He was not trying to place Aristotle on a pedestal, but get up on the plinth himself.

Ibn Sīnā was largely successful. It’s telling that al-Ghazālī’s criticism of Ibn Sīnā was called The Incoherence of the Philosophers, as if attacking Ibn Sīnā meant attacking philosophy (falsafa) itself. The backhanded compliment would be paid many times in the centuries to come because Ibn Sīnā did supplant Aristotle as the key philosophical reference point.

Ibn Sīnā had his adherents, and perhaps even more detractors, who generally sought to offer new answers to questions he had posed. In the 12th century alone, we can name three major thinkers who aimed to do to Ibn Sīnā what the latter had done to Aristotle: Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī, Suhrawardī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī.

The titles of these thinkers’ works alone show how self-consciously creative and critically minded they were. Abū l-Barakāt’s main philosophical treatise, for instance, is called al-Muʿtabar, meaning “what has been carefully considered”, while Suhrawardī advertised his own philosophy by presenting it as an entirely new style of thought, “Illuminationism”, and titling the definitive statement of his system The Philosophy of Illumination.

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In a pleasing historical irony, this fairly irreverent approach towards authority may itself have been learned from classical authorities. Aristotle had openly criticised his own master, Plato, famously remarking that truth is to be preferred to one’s friends. In works like On the Soul, the Physics and the Metaphysics, Aristotle begins by surveying the ideas of still earlier thinkers, diagnosing and discarding the errors of the Presocratics while selectively retaining and updating their better ideas.

Many philosophers in the Islamic world were also medical doctors, and they could find a similar attitude in that discipline’s greatest authority, Galen. This was a man who wrote a work called On My Own Opinions, and another, now mostly lost, treatise called On Demonstration, which seems to have consisted largely of criticisms aimed at predecessors who failed to provide successful proofs for their views.

The truest disciple of Galen in the Islamic world was Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, who in his aptly titled Doubts About Galen, gave the old master a dose of his own medicine, listing a large number of passages in the Galenic corpus that fell short of Galen’s pretensions to certainty and scrupulous methodology.

Faced with these examples, you might conclude that the philosophers of Islamic culture were exceptional figures, who dared to step outside the usual, hidebound customs of medieval intellectual discourse. But I don’t think this is right.

While Islamic philosophers could find precedent for an irreverent attitude in the antique literature that had been translated into Arabic, the word taqlīd itself was not imported from the Greeks. Rather, it seems to have emerged (at least with the meaning that concerns us) in the context of Islamic jurisprudence.

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The jurists who applied taqlīd were those who simply, and mechanically, applied the teachings of other jurists, especially the founder of legal schools, like al-Shāfiʿī or Ibn Ḥanbal. A jurist who did not do this was one who applied ijtihād, or personal “effort” (the word comes from the same root as jihād, which means “effort” or “struggle”). Such a jurist would think for himself, for example, by trying to apply legal principles to devise new rulings for unprecedented situations.

Mind you, neither the philosophers nor the jurists wanted to say that everyone should avoid taqlīd and rise to the challenge of ijtihād. On the contrary, it was typically thought dangerous for the common run of people, the jumhūr (similar in meaning to the Greek hoi polloi), to think for themselves. They lacked the requisite knowledge and education. One theologian said that many people are “obligated to apply taqlīd and conjecture: these are the lay people, the slaves, and many women.”

Even among highly trained jurists, it was standard to maintain allegiance to a school, with independent thinking done within the framework of that school’s teachings. But throughout the medieval period, there were outstanding thinkers among both the philosophers and the jurist-theologians, who proudly presented themselves as unbound by taqlīd. We’ve already mentioned several of them: Ibn Sīnā, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and al-Ghazālī, who in his autobiography tells of deciding as a young man that he would never be satisfied to form his beliefs on the basis of taqlīd.

All this sheds an interesting light on a frequently asked question, which is why the Islamic world never experienced something like the European Enlightenment. Of course, that’s a complicated issue. But part of the answer might simply be this: to the extent that “enlightenment” involves the emergence of intellectuals who step back from the typical views of their society, and critically evaluate prevailing religious and philosophical ideas, the Islamic world was already “enlightened” during the European Middle Ages.

Peter Adamson is professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of “Philosophy in the Islamic World” and “Al-Rāzī”, and the forthcoming “Don’t Think For Yourself: Authority and Belief in Medieval Philosophy”.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is vision fellow in public philosophy at King’s College, London and a senior research fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.