Is Islamic Thought Western? 10 Theses on 'Western Philosophy'

Is Islamic Thought Western? 10 Theses on 'Western Philosophy'

Western philosophy is today taught worldwide to students of all levels as follows. It sets off in 5th–3th century BC Athens: the ‘classical Greek’ philosophy of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus. And it culminates in 17th–19th century Germany, France and England: the ‘modern European’ philosophy of Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche or Frege. The 2 millennia in the middle (ages) of this lineage are typically reduced to a marginal note about Latin philosophy. On the margin of that margin, some Hebrew and Arabic sources might be mentioned. Persian sources are not mentioned, being obviously Eastern.

Such an introduction to philosophy or Western intellectual history is not self-evidently accurate or neutral. It has a particular structure, based on the East-West binary which Edward Said famously described as colonial Orientalism. It has a genealogy, which Peter K. J. Park traces to new Eurocentric historiographies arising in the German Enlightenment. And it has particular consequences, which Hamid Dabashi summarises with a simple question: Can Non-Europeans Think? For it implies that only Euro-American philosophers, as the true and direct inheritors of original Greek rationality, can offer legitimate methods of thinking within our contemporary intellectual community; that they have a monopoly on ‘the West’ and ‘philosophy’ properly so-called. This renders all thinking not based in this recent North-Atlantic tradition foreign, antiquated and irrational, that is, invalid by definition.

I offer 10 propositions based on researching the problematic role of Islamic philosophy in this narrative of Western philosophy. The first 5 concern the narrative’s structure and consequences. The latter 5 propose its subversion.

1) Centering ‘Western philosophy’ on modern European thought depends on its binary opposition over ‘Eastern religion’, which subsumes all premodern (antiquated) and non-European (foreign) thought. Modern and European are synonyms: all African and Asian thinkers are antiquated, and all ancient and mediaeval thinkers are foreign. Duns Scotus and Xiong Shili are equally religious and irrational. Only modern European thought is philosophical, which means abstracted from its religious context into a neutral, secular, universally valid rationality. Here, the East-West binary is a religion-philosophy binary.

2) Classical Greek thought has been torn from its Eastern Mediterranean context as the only ancient source of Western philosophy. Classical is reduced to proto-modern, Greek to proto-European. The work of Socrates and his disciples is purged of any religious dimensions, of any Persian or African roots, into a blueprint for secular rationality. Because apparently more mystical, the significance of later (Neoplatonic and Orthodox) Greek thought is downplayed.

3) Jewish and finally even Christian thought has been marginalised as unphilosophical and non-Western. While the Western tradition may be called Judeo-Christian, it is not taught so in philosophy. Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin thought is vastly underrepresented. The Bible is no longer a valid source for philosophising. Canonical modern European thinkers are seen as overcoming their Jewish, Catholic or Protestant religious background, and instead introduced by their (British, French or German) nationality. Our religious traditions are suspect partly for their non-European, Middle Eastern roots. Judea seems the opposite of Greece: the source of a Semitic infection of the supposedly Roman/Germanic mind of modern Europe. This ironically turns Christian thought from colonising to colonised, obscuring its role as the direct religious basis of secular thought.

4) Islamic thought is the (Middle) Eastern religious tradition most starkly contrasted with Western philosophy, even in serving as its temporary ‘babysitter’ in the so-called Islamic golden age. Between translating arguments from Greek to Arabic and ‘back’ to Latin, Arabs such as Averroes and Avicenna preserved the legacy of the original Greek golden age while it was ‘lost’ in the dark age of mediaeval Christendom – only to ‘return’ it to inaugurate the European golden age while themselves sinking into an ongoing Islamic dark age. But these Muslims were clearly incapable of developing arguments in their own directions. Rather, later Islamic thought represents the final version of Semitic irrationality, superseding Christian thought as the global enemy of secular philosophy.

5) Reversing the supremacy of (modern European) Western philosophy over (Islamic) Eastern religion only intensifies their asymmetrical opposition. Many anti-secular traditionalists, counter-Enlightenment romantics, and anti-colonial critics have recast modern European thought not as the liberating perfection, but the alienating corruption of tradition. And many have sought an antidote in non-Western wisdom, finding Islam ready to hand. But this antagonism to Western rationality precisely confirms it as a hegemonic centre that really has overcome the East. Anti-Western arguments obey a Eurocentric logic.

6) Instead we may reclaim Western philosophy as our broader, Greco-Judaic and Islamo-Christian tradition. The ancient Greek sources of Platonism, Aristotelianism, etc. are not the isolated direct forebears of modern European philosophy. Rather, they arise with Jewish philosophy from a broader Mediterranean context. It is the Greco-Judaic relation that inspired millennia of intellectual development in this Western part of Afro-Eurasia, converging on a second, ongoing relation: between Christian and Islamic philosophies.

7) We may fully include so-called Middle Eastern religious thought by calling it Middle Western. The Middle West represents the entire Mediterranean religio-philosophical tradition, undivided. It includes the Latin West but begins as far East as Persia, the homeland of its central figure Ibn Sina, who revised most earlier Greco-Judaic traditions and impacted most later Islamo-Christian ones. The North Atlantic is no longer the vantage point from which Western philosophy gazes eastward.

8) We may decenter modern European thought by calling it Far Western. The Far West represents post-Cartesian and post-Kantian philosophy, as only one late North-Atlantic development of the Mediterranean tradition. It has gone very far indeed by assuming a secularised universality. But even with all its global triumphs and catastrophes, this Euro-American philosophy is but a peculiar expression of the ongoing Islamo-Christian movement.

9) We may highlight live alternatives to modern European philosophy by embracing multiple modernities. The rise of the Far West did not really exhaust and overshadow the Middle West. Our entire rich tradition continues today, still actively developing in multiple directions simultaneously: modern Maghrebi philosophy, modern Russian philosophy, etc. It lives on around the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, in our streets, libraries and schools. We need only to stop polarising it. Instead, we take on the difficult task of learning multiple Western rationalities, relatively irreconcilable yet also inseparable to each other.

10) Intercultural Western philosophy may yet provide a basis for a global history of philosophy, fully including Sino-Indic Eastern philosophy and more. Once we see the continuous Western tradition as full of internal difference, on every historical and geographical dimension, it is easier to see its external continuity with different traditions. Mediterranean philosophies share roots and directions with Indo-Pacific and South-Atlantic philosophies, sustained for millennia by Persian and Egyptian connections and radically reorganised by North-Atlantic colonialism. Our own thought unfolds in a global context; figures as distant as Dara Shikoh and Fanon help make sense of the philosophical West today.

These propositions are preliminary, meant to stimulate further questioning. The necessary theory and practice still lies ahead. Some of the challenges it entails will likely remain irreducible: the intellectual competition between Christian and Islamic theologies, the epistemic hegemony of Euro-American technological science, or the academic embarrassments of a (post-)colonial political order. My primary motivation for putting these forward is educational: to start reclaiming our (Western philosophical) canon – which we do need for beginning to think together – in its proper wealth and significance.

*Albert Ferkl holds a BA and MA in Global and Comparative Philosophy from Leiden University