Islamic Philosophy vs. Muslim Fanatics

Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroes)

Spiritual Sunday

Today I go into a debate in Salman Rushdie’s fantasy novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights between  two medieval Islamic theologians. The imagined debate between Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroes) and al-Ghazali illuminates much of the religious infighting we are witnessing, and not only amongst Muslims.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ibn Rushd was a 12th century philosopher who believed that God gave us Reason to understand creation. The 11th century philosopher Ghazali, on the other hand (this according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) saw God rather than natural laws as the basis of reality. In other words, the debate was set within Islam between Reason and what Rushdie regards as blind faith.

Like Rushdie, I’m in the Ibn Rushd camp. In the Episcopal Church we sometimes say that, when we enter a church, we don’t check our brain at the door. God gave us this great gift to use it. Or as the Internet Encyclopedia puts it,

Ibn Rushd strived to demonstrate that without engaging religion critically and philosophically, deeper meanings of the tradition can be lost, ultimately leading to deviant and incorrect understandings of the divine.

Of course, we must guard against the sin of pride, as John Wilmot warns us in Satyr against Reason and Mankind. We can too full of ourselves if we don’t let God guide us. (See Frankenstein.)

In his novel, jinn awaken the corpses of Ibn Rushd and Ghazli, who debate from their crypts:

“Let us think of the human race as if it were a single human being,” Ibn Rushd proposed. “A child understands nothing, and clings to faith because it lacks knowledge. The battle between reason and superstition may be seen as mankind’s long adolescence, and the triumph of reason will be its coming of age. It is not that God does not exist but that like any proud parent he awaits the day when his child can stand on its own two feet, make its own way in the world, and be free of its dependence upon him.”

“As long as you argue from God,” Ghazali replied, “as long as you feebly try to reconcile the rational and the scred, you will never defeat me. Why don’t you just admit you’re an unbeliever and we can take if from there. Observe who your descendants are, the godless scum of the West and East. Your words resonate only in the minds of kafirs [African blacks]. The followers of truth have forgotten you. The followers of truth know that it is reason and science that are the true juvenilia of the human mind. Faith is our gift from God and reason is our adolescent rebellion against it. When we are a;dult we will turn wholly to faith as we were born to do.”

“You will see, as time goes by,” said Ibn Rushd, “that in the end it will be religion that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God’s worst advocates. It may take a thousand one one years but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God’s truth.”

“There,” said Ghazali,. “Good. Now, father of many bastards, you begin to speak like the blasphemer you are.” Then he turned to matters of eschatology, which, he said, was now his preferred topic, and he spoke for a long time about the end of days, with a kind of relish that puzzled and distressed Ibn Rushd.

And further on:

For what the living call life is a worthless triviality when compared to the life to come.

There are fundamentalist Christians who also believe this, making Ibn Rushd’s puzzlement relevant to more than just Muslim. As Ibn Rushd complains to the good jinn Dunia, Ghazali

believes that God has set out to destroy his creation, slowly, enigmatically, without explanation; to confuse Man into destroying himself. Ghazali faces that prospect with equanimity, and not only because he himself is already dead. For him, life on earth is just an anteroom, or a doorway. Eternity is the real world.

It so happens that Ghazali has released a dark jinn from a bottle and told him to instill fear in humans, thereby bringing them to God:

“Teach them,” Ghazali said, “Teach them the tongue of the divine Just-Is. The instruction should be intensive, severe, even, one could say, fearsome. Remember what I told you about fear. Fear is man’s fate. Man is born afraid, of the dark, of the unknown, of strangers of failure, and of women. Fear leads him towards faith, not as a cure for fear, but as an acceptance that the fear of God is the natural and proper condition of man’s lot. Teach them to fear the improper use of words. There is no crime the Almighty finds more unforgivable.”

“I can do that,” said Zummurud the Great. “They’ll be speaking my way soon enough.”

“Not yours,” Ghazali corrected him, but only mildly. When one was dealing with a Grand Ifrit one had to make certain allowances for his vast egotism.

Zummurud will not be the last Ghazali descendant to set himself up in place of God. In fact, the terror he, in the form of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups, would horrify Ghazali:

As Ghazali would soon discover, however, sending the most potent of the dark jinn down the path of extreme violence could have results that alarmed the sender. The student soon surpassed the master.

Ibn Rushd is given one last chance for a counterargument:

The enemy is stupid. That is ground for hope. There is no originality in tyrants, and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate.

Philosophy does not get the last word in this novel, however. Though the good jinn Dunia (“the World”) once loved Ibn Rushd, in the end she opts for Geronimo the gardener, who resists the human urge to go flying off into abstractions and ideologies and finds a way to keep his feet planted on the ground. This is a metaphor that becomes literal in Rushdie’s fantasy, as, under the onslaught of the dark jinn, much of the human race suddenly find themselves floating upward.

Geronimo (originally Hieronymus in India but it becomes Americanized) helps Dunia thwart the forces of fanaticism. The jinn who fell in love with Ibn Rushd’s mind also finds that she loves humans’ love for the earth.

When I think of the earth vs. abstraction battle, I am reminded of Robert Frost’s poem about climbing birches:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

With her grounded forces, Dunia leads the charge against jinn fanatics and wins the day for humanity. This is the battle that Rushdie himself has been fighting in book after book, earning a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini for writing Satanic Verses. With his earthy, carnivalesque fiction, the Indian author refuses to fit neatly into any ideology. We read him to keep ourselves grounded.

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