(Associate Professor of Islam and Global Affairs, the University of Delaware)
Islamic intellectual culture suffers from a philosophy deficit. While there are a few philosophical thinkers in the Muslim World today none of them enjoys the rock star status that many pedestrian preachers and YouTube stalwarts enjoy. What this tells us is that people are beginning to value knowledge but are unable to distinguish between preaching and thinking.
What we need today are critical thinkers who force Muslims to think and not feel-good narratives that create comfort bubbles and inhibit thought. It is only through reading and engaging in philosophical discourses will the intellectual level of the Muslim community rise. Towards that end I want to recommend five Muslim philosophers that all Muslims must read. The purpose of this introduction is to generate enough curiosity so that people can start reading them.
One does not need to be a student or teacher of philosophy to read the works of these great philosophers. The complexity and sophistication of their work is an indication of the quality of intellectual life that prevailed in what is often referred to as the golden age of Islam. All educated Muslims should familiarize themselves with their work just to be intellectually plugged into their own heritage. One does not have to read them in the original, great if you can. Reading at least secondary sources of their works can go a long way in helping one grasp the broad intellectual contours of Islamic civilization.
Al-Farabi (872-951 AD)
Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, also known in Arabic as Al-Muallim Al-Thani, the second teacher (after Aristotle) is easily one of the greatest philosophers of the world. His contribution to both Aristotelian and Platonic thought is immeasurable and the modern age owes a great debt to this Central Asian polymath who not only preserved but developed Greek philosophy. He contributed to philosophy, mathematics, music and metaphysics, but I am partial to his work in political philosophy. His most important book on political philosophy was ārā ahl al-madīna al-fāḍila (The Views of the People of The Virtuous City).
In his Virtuous City, Al-Farabi seeks to establish a city based on justice, much like Plato’s Republic, that seeks the ultimate happiness of its citizens and is guided by the enlightened views of its philosophers. I think of Al-Farabi as the first Muslim to explicitly consider the merits of democracy. For someone who has been arguing that Islam and Democracy are compatible, it was delightful to read his views on democracy, which are very positive. Al-Farabi suggests that free societies have the potential to become virtuous societies because the good people in free societies have the freedom to pursue virtue.
Reading Al-Farabi is illuminating. He not only makes you think about a just polity, but also makes you think about thinking itself.
Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 AD)
Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali is one of the most important scholars of Islamic thought. He was a philosopher, a legal scholar and a theologian and towards the end of his life a mystical thinker in the class of Ibn Arabi. For many Muslims al-Ghazzali is the paragon of the Mujaddid, a reviver of Islam. Coming at a time when there were many disputations between philosophers and theologians, between rationalists and traditionalists and the Mystical and the orthodox, he tried to bridge these divisions. His Ihya Ulum al-Din, The Revival of Religious Sciences embarks on a massive endeavor to find a golden mean between all these diverging trends.
The mature al-Ghazzali is very interesting. After his intellectual crisis and subsequent spiritual awakening he becomes more like Sheikh Rabbani of India who balanced Shariah and Tariqah (law and mysticism). While his Ihya is important and should be read by all Islamic scholars, all Muslims who go to college should at least read Al-Ghazzali’s Kitab al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (Deliverance from Error) in which the esteemed Shaykh discusses his intellectual and spiritual doubts and his quest for truth. This one book is an entire liberal arts education in itself.
Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 AD)
Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes, has probably had a bigger impact on Western religion and philosophy than on Islamic thought. Some Muslim historians have described the modern enlightened West as the imagination of Averroes. Ibn Rushd was a remarkable thinker. He was a judge, expert in Islamic law (Maliki), a physician and a philosopher.
In his Fasl al-Maqal (The Decisive Treatise) he makes the case for philosophy and for the compatibility of science and religion, faith and reason. His Tahafat al-Tahafat(Incoherence of Incoherence) is a systematic rebuttal to Al-Ghazzali’s Tahat al-Falasifah (Incoherence of Philosophy) and a strong defense of Aristotelian philosophy. Together the two classics by Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazzali are a highlight of Islamic philosophical heritage. Muslims must read these philosophers; some of their arguments are still germane. Click link below for full article
posted by f. sheikh