Have you ever wondered whether your father and mother are real? Maybe they are just projections of your mind. Have you ever thought about the nature of the connection between your mind and your body? In fact, does the mind (as we usually conceive of it) even exist?
These are some of the questions which philosophers have debated about in history. Philosophers also touch on questions related to the existence of God, the unseen world, the reality of Prophethood, the nature of religious morality and more. These topics come under the heading of “Philosophy of Religion”.
Philosophers can range from being theists to being agnostics to being atheists. The convictions or lack thereof of such philosophers is reflected in their writings. Therefore, it is important to arm Muslims, especially the youth, with tactics and techniques which will allow them to deal with ideas which go contrary to Islamic teachings in an effective manner. Not every idea in philosophy succeeds at the test of the Quran and Sunnah.
In this article, the following tactics shall be discussed in a chronological manner: the Authority of Allah, the function of the Quran as a judge between truth and falsehood, the Suspension Mindset, intellectual humility, and intellectual greatness.
Allah is an Authority. This former phrase can be interpreted in more than one way. It could mean that Allah has legislative authority, which is true. He gets to decide what laws govern human beings and what laws govern the larger universe. It could also mean that Allah is an intellectual authority, which is also true. First, let’s focus on the intellectual authority of Allah.
Does Allah know all there is to know? Yes. Past, present and future? Yes. Isn’t Allah the Most Wise? Right again.
“…and He is Knowing of all things.” [Sûrah Al-Baqarah, 2:29]
“And indeed, [O Muhammad], you receive the Qur’an from one Wise and Knowing.” [Sûrah Al-Naml, 27:6]
Since Allah is the Most Knowledgeable and the Most Wise, He is the best intellectual authority you can refer to. He can tell you everything necessary to know about morality, reality, the purpose of life, and the destiny of humankind; He can also decisively solve philosophical disputes.
As a Muslim, one will encounter ideas in philosophy which are contrary to Islamic teachings. At that juncture, one has to refer back to the intellectual authority of Allah. If Allah agrees with the philosopher, you can accept that idea. If Allah disagrees, that idea has to be rejected.
Here is an example. Suppose a philosopher says that the world is eternal, meaning that it had no beginning and will have no end. This idea runs contrary to Islamic teachings:
[All] praise is [due] to Allah, Creator of the heavens and the earth, [who] made the angels messengers having wings, two or three or four. He increases in creation what He wills. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent. [Sûrah Al-Fâṭir, 35:1]
At this point, one has to reject the idea that the world is eternal. Allah created the world in time so it cannot be eternal.
Here, a reader may offer an objection: why am I rejecting human reason in favor of revelation?
This objection can be answered in multiple ways. One of them is that human reason has validated the truthfulness of everything revealed by Allah, whether in the Quran or Sunnah. Human reason validates the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). However, the Quran and Sunnah have not validated every conclusion arrived at by human reason. This means that in the event of a contradiction between human reason and revelation, the revelation is to be followed. Taking revelation seriously can help us perfect our human reason.
Another consideration is that Allah is the Most Knowledgeable and the Most Wise. This means Allah is always correct while a philosopher can make errors. If it seems to us that a philosopher is correct, perhaps we need to study Allah’s revelation in more detail.
The second point, which is closely related to the first one, is understanding and using the Quran itself.
One of the functions of the Quran is that it is the Criterion [al–furqân]. It judges between truth and falsehood. What the Quran verifies is true, while what the Quran criticises is false:
“Blessed is He who sent down the Criterion upon His Servant that he may be to the worlds a warner” [Sûrah Al-Furqân, 25:1]
This function of the Quran cannot be underestimated. We should look closely into the Quran to judge the correctness of the ideas, values and opinions we come across.
A third technique necessary for approaching philosophy is called the Suspension Mindset. This technique is to be used to deal with those particular philosophical ideas whose truth or falsehood is not obvious to you. But if it is obvious to you that an idea is wrong or right, this technique is not relevant and should not be applied.
The Suspension Mindset means to neither believe nor disbelieve in a philosophical idea whose truth or falsehood is not clear to you. The wisdom behind this is that you don’t want to believe in an idea if it is false, and you don’t want to disbelieve in an idea because it might be right. Therefore, we have to suspend judgement on an idea’s correctness if its correctness is ambiguous.
Would you be surprised to know that this technique was actually taught by Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ)? In a hadith which is very important in relation to interfaith discussion and debates with Jews and Christians, he (ﷺ) said:
Narrated Abu Hurayrah (RA) : The People of the Book used to recite the Torah in Hebrew and explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “Do not believe the People of the Book and do not disbelieve them; rather, Say: ‘We believe in Allah and that which has been sent down to us and that which has been sent down to Ibrâhîm (Abraham), Ismâ’îl (Ishmael), Ishâq (Isaac), Ya‘qûb (Jacob), and to Al-Asbât (the twelve sons of Ya‘qûb (Jacob)), and that which has been given to Mûsâ (Moses) and ‘Isa (Jesus), and that which has been given to the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we have submitted (in islam)’ [Sûrah Al-Baqarah 2:136].” (Saḥîḥ Al-Bukhârî, 4485)
A fourth tip which should be kept in mind when studying philosophy is intellectual humility.
Human beings are not all equally talented thinkers. Some are less talented in rational thinking than others. This means it is quite possible that you may be unable to understand the work of a certain philosopher.
“…..We raise in degrees whom We will, but over every possessor of knowledge is one [more] knowing.” [Sûrah Yûsuf, 12:76]
Also, —and this is a very important point— human knowledge is limited. This means we cannot claim to know all wisdom or knowledge there is to know. We cannot even claim to have a lot of knowledge. An example follows
Suppose that a person becomes a highly accomplished surgeon. He has a lot of knowledge of surgery. But what about other fields of knowledge? The surgeon will have not have knowledge of journalism, graphic designing, philosophy, military tactics, sociology, history, finance, etc. No matter how knowledgeable each of us will become, our ignorance will most likely supersede our amount of knowledge. This is a gem to remember.
The last point to remember is intellectual greatness.
Many Muslims may be familiar with Imam Al-Ghazali. Many Muslims may also be familiar with the work of Mr. Ahmed Deedat. Both of these people served a great role in the defence and propagation of Islam.
In order to become intellectually great like these people, it is quite erroneous to assume that directly copying their logical arguments will make you successful. Times have changed. New problems have emerged. And for new problems, old answers may not always work. They may work sometimes, but not always.
The real lessons we should take from Imam al-Ghazali and Mr. Deedat are their creativity, their ingenuity, their unpredictability. Today, we have new problems like Scientism and New Atheism to deal with. Who will give creative and ingenious answers to these modern problems? There it is. There lies intellectual greatness.
Imam al-Ghazali gave beautiful replies to false philosophical arguments. Mr. Deedat gave bold and charismatic responses to Christian polemics. In order for their legacy to continue, we need the same boldness and creativity.
As an ending point, this article is not an exhaustive list of advice for a Muslim who wants to cautiously study philosophy. If you are planning on studying philosophy in detail and measuring it up against Islamic knowledge, it would be a good idea to have the regular guidance of a religious scholar who can guide you in confusing issues.