Insha'allah, I will be delaying the next installment of my series on the Exodus in the Qur'an, the Bible, and History for another week or two. Today I am in the mood for a rant.
One sometimes hears sweeping claims like "philosophy is ḥarām," that philosophy is somehow incompatible with revelation, or the stereotype that philosophers wallow in discussions of abstract problems that are of no relevance to the real world. So what is the fact of the matter? Is philosophy incompatible with revelation, or with Islam?
The Qur'an does not require people to accept it's worldview without any kind of epistemic or rational justification. To do so would be to make an unreasonable demand on people. Quite the opposite in fact, the Qur'an constantly tries to persuade its audience using philosophical arguments. At the very heart of the worldview that the Qur'an argues for are philosophical issues:
- What does the concept of God entail?
- What are the reasons for believing that God exists?
- Does the universe exhibit evidence of design?
- Does the universe exhibit evidence of purpose? If so, what is that purpose?
- What is the human being? Is he simply a material entity, or something more?
- Is it possible for the human being to somehow continue to exist after death? In what sense?
- Why does evil exist? Can it be reconciled with God's existence?
- Is nature governed by precise laws, and if so, what is the source of these laws?
- Is there an afterlife? What are the reasons for believing so?
- What is the nature of knowledge, evidence, faith, and justified belief?
- How do we arrive at knowledge of religious truths?
On many of these questions—particularly what the concept of God entails, what the warrant for believing in God is, how creation functions as a reservoir of "signs" of God, and the reasons for believing in a purpose, an afterlife, and and postmortem accountability—the Qur'an gives not only philosophically rich answers, but also philosophical arguments. It is absolutely impossible to take the Qur'an seriously without doing philosophy. It constantly urges its audience to "reflect" and "contemplate" its arguments and the signs of God in the creation.
The problem then, from the Qur'an's point of view, is not with philosophy as an endeavor. The problem is when believers fail to explore the Qur'an's epistemology and philosophical arguments, fail to internalize them, fail to develop and defend them in contemporary intellectual discourse or in the context of advances of human knowledge about the universe, and fail to respond to bad philosophical reasoning with good philosophical reasoning. As C.S. Lewis once said, "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered."
It must be noted that the Qur'an does not present its arguments in the form of rigorous syllogisms. The Qur'an is extremely philosophically rich and its worldview extremely persuasive and coherent, but it usually presents its answers in implicit ways, expecting its audience to discover them through careful study and contemplation. When the Qur'an does present an argument explicitly, it tends to be very brief. This is because the Qur'an was primarily an oral composition that interacted with living audiences in a specific historical context, and at the same time it had to address audiences of various different backgrounds and levels of understanding on a universal level while being concise enough to handle.
For example, the Qur'an exhorts us to study and contemplate the creation of the universe and of life, asking us to consider whether or not it could have been the product of other than an intelligent agent. It does not give us developed arguments regarding cosmology, the fine-tuning of the universe, the origin of life and biological information, consciousness, and so on. Rather it pushes us to study these matters and carefully reflect on them, promising that they contain signs of God. Similarly, it indicates that knowledge of God comes not only through observation and logical arguments, but an intuition that is already programmed in the human being. It guides us to these evidences, but it leaves them up to us to study and reflect on. Its arguments are highly condensed or (perhaps more accurately) allusive, and they require us to unfold and develop them as we observe and contemplate.
Today there is a field that is entirely devoted to this quest: analytic philosophy of religion. In the past, Islamic tradition has had some great analytic thinkers who rigorously developed various aspects of the Qur'an's philosophy, such as Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Taymiyya, and in more modern times Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, all of them with a concern for contemporary philosophical problems that had far-reaching implications for the people of their times (and certainly later times as well).
Today, however, it is almost exclusively Christian philosophers who are doing top-notch work in analytic philosophy of religion. For example, in the last several decades Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Paul Moser, and C. Stephen Evans have produced extremely sophisticated works on how God is known intuitively through His "natural signs" and by other experiential means—an extremely Qur'anic concept. Christian philosophers have also done the same on the arguments for the existence of God based on the evidence of creation and human intuitions, and on questions such as the problem of evil and the nature of miracles. In developing these arguments they have taken into account the best criticisms by other analytic philosophers as well as (when relevant) scientists. Analytic philosophy of religion is a booming field, to which Muslims have in modern times contributed very little. The Qur'an's constant urge to reflect on God's signs has been almost completely neglected by Muslims and has been taken up almost entirely by Christian philosophers and scientists.
The result is that within the Muslim community, there are almost no up-to-date sources for addressing intellectual doubts about fundamentals of the Islamic worldview, and most Muslims are completely unaware of the advances that have been going on in the field of philosophy of religion over the last four decades. As a consequence, many people are afflicted with serious doubts about the existence of God (etc.) and have no idea how to deal with them. Some of them become atheists or agnostics, completely unaware that cogent answers to to their questions are available.
As a solution to this problem, I plan to write a book with my friend Hassan explaining the Qur'an's epistemology and arguments for the existence of God (benefiting from the insights of earlier Muslim thinkers like Ghazali and especially Ibn Rushd and Ibn Taymiyya), and how insights in science and contemporary analytic philosophy have reinvigorated these arguments with incredible power. At the same time, we will aim to answer the best and the most common (which usually tend to be among the worst) objections to the arguments, to show that they still come out very strong. The book will be a primer for doubting Muslims, Muslims interested in better understanding these questions, atheists and agnostics, and even Christians and people of other faiths who are interested. Insha'allah.
There are a few more points I wanted to make here, but my post is already long enough. I will reserve them for another post insha'allah, maybe for next week. In particular: What exactly is philosophy? Is it important for everyday life? Does this mean that just anyone should become involved in philosophy? Who is a philosophical appreciation of the Qur'an for? And what are some important guidelines?