This is a part of a series on various Muslim theologians and historians and legal theorists. The author will continue his Taha series, and other topics of Islamic history, culture, and theology on his substack. You may find him on Twitter @sukhanihadatha.
Author’s Note: This essay is only intended to draw broad brushstrokes over the life-story of Taha Abderrahmane and his spellbinding journey of tajdīd, and not meant to exhaustively cover any one of his phalanx of projects.
The Amazigh Mujaddid from El-Jadida, Morocco
Muslims are plunging into a post-Ummah (mā baʿd al-ummah); in fact, we Muslims are close to becoming a non-Ummah.
Muslims have taken up endeavors in modernity, believing it would advantage us, only to be ultimately crushed by it.
There is no savior from the storm of globalization save Waḥy
There is nothing more harmful to philosophy than a thought shrouding all others, not out of evidence (burhān), but through physical might (sulṭān), political or economic. For this will only yield poverty, then stagnation, then mimicry, then extinction.
Struggling for freedom without struggling for God will lead, with certainty, to omitting freedom. Rather, it will result in freedom’s opposite.
We are in our Islamic civilization and history like we are in the world, there is no choice (to do without it) nor separation.
— from various writings of Taha
لا عاصم اليوم من طوفان العولمة إلا سفينة الوحي
فإيمان المسلم إيمان ملكوتي بحق
طلب الحرية بغير طلب الله، يؤول حتماً إلى نسيان الحرية، بل إلى طلب نقيضها
ألإنسان الذي لا تكون له نظرة جمالية إلى الأشياء في نفسه وفي أفقه، لا أظن أنه يكون إنساناً كاملاً
لقد أنزل الإسلام، بموجب الحديث الشريف :”إنما الأعمـال بالنيات”، القيم القلبية مكانة رفيعة؛ وتأتــي على رأس هذه القيم ثلاث : “القصد” و”الصدق” و”الإخـلاص”؛ وقد استطاع بفضلها أن يتوسع في العمل الديني بما يجعله يشمل ما لم يكن معدوداً فيه، فيصبح ما ليس عبادة عبادة وما ليس قُربة قُــربة.”
نحن في التراث كما نحن في العالم لا اختيار لنا معه ولا انفصال عنه
المُقلِّدة، الذين جعلوا مقاليد عقولهم بأيدي غيرهم من المفكرين، لا يطلبون الحق كما يزعمون، وإنما يطلبون الحيلة في نصرة ما يعتقدون
لا عدل إلا فيما أمرنا به الله سبحانه فعدل الله في أمره، وعدل الإنسان في طاعته
مالم يزل ظلم الإنسان لحقوق ربه، لا يزول ظلم غيره له، ولا ظلمه لغيره
المسار الحداثي الصحيح هو الابتداء بتحديث الأخلاق، يليه تحديث الأفكار، ثم تحديث المؤسسات فتحديث الآلات! فبدون مجاهدة للنفس، لا حرية للتفكير، وبدون هذه الحرية لا روح علمية، وبدون هذه الروح لا قدرة على الإدارة ولا على الاختراع
اللغة هي المحل الذي يتشكل فيه القول الفلسفي، ولا تشكّل لهذا القول بغير تأثر بمحله اللغوي؛ ولما كانت الألسن التي وُضع بها القول الفلسفي متعددة، جاز أن تختلف المضامين الفلسفية باختلاف الألسن التي تنقلها
الدين يوسع مدركات العقل، إذ بفضل الدين بات العقل قادرا على أن يدرك نهاية التجريد، متمثلة في تصور ذات ينزع عنها جميع الخصائص المادية، مهما دق وصفها وخفي أمرها، وبات أيضا قادرا على أن يدرك نهاية الكمال، متجلية في ذات علية ليس كمثلها شي
In the late 1940’s — amid the death-sentences of Partition and the mortifying exile of Palestinians from Jaffa and Haifa — along the coast of the Atlantic ocean, with rock formations evocative of Boston Harbor, a Moroccan Sufi-jurist drove his son to a solitary zāwiyah, or a spiritual settlement of a Sufi brotherhood. The father sat his son, no more than six years old, in front of a Sufi elder, an explosion of azure-blue geometric designs and filigree gazing at them, explaining to the spiritual guide that his son was struggling to read, and, indeed, spell basic Arabic. Would his son remain illiterate over the course of his life? With the French having secured their control of Morocco, and the flags of Liberté firmly stationed on Moroccan soil, what would his son’s life reveal if he could not read or write Arabic? Will the child then simply study French? The shaykh smiled, coursing his hand through the child’s hair, reciting an Arabic prayer: You wish for your child to read and write? He will soon read and learn. By the permission of God. Sa’yaqraʾ wa sayatʿallam bi ʾidhn allah.
This child would be Taha Abderrahmane, a Moroccan Amazigh philosopher-theologian (Amāzighya al-Quḥ, purely Amazigh as one student put it), whose fifty-year-long career has covered almost every domain of Islamic and Western intellectual life, before and after modernity, and whose project has emerged as a novel path forward amid the ashes of the Western-Islamic intellectual encounter, producing a vision that has pulled the modern Muslim mind from mimicry of Western thought to a reckoning with their turāth, or civilizational heritage, in a fashion consistent with their epistemic and ethical values, succeeding (and in many ways replacing) the projects of all modern Muslim thinkers who preceded him: whether Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din Afghani, Abul Ala Mawdudi, Hassan Hanafi, Mohammed Abed al-Jabiri, Taqi al-Nabhani, Amin Islahi, Ali Shariati, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, Abd al-Wahhab al-Masīrī, and so many others.
His title amongst Arab philosophers is al-Faylasūf al-Mujaddid, the Philosopher-Revivalist, and Khalīfah al-Ghazālī, the successor to Ghazālī.
come, Muslims, and listen to this epistle
hear this epistle, listen, listen!
yei payām sun, yei payām sun
Taha’s oeuvre runs to almost thirty books, and dozens of essays, covering philosophy, theology, ethics, Arabic grammar, Greek etymology, Islamic law, logic, linguistics, pragmatics, economics, Islamic and legal western philosophy, and reckonings with thinkers that range from Ghazālī, Kant, Rousseau, Martha Nussbaum, Lockferry, Emile Durkheim, Ibn ʿĀshūr, Rāzī, Shāṭibī, Shāh Walīullāh, Abū Rāghib al-Isfahānī, John Rawls, UChicago economist Milton Friedman, the Ottoman-Turkish intellectual Said Nursi. What does it mean to glance at a life so vast and rich in thought and intellectual grit, in eye-popping Arabic? How may we cover the life of a scholar electing to resist the epistemic storm of modernity and exhale a total Islamic philosophical system, able to withstand critique from Western philosophers, ancient, classic, or modern, through the tradition of Islam, despite an enshrouding amount of pressure to surrender intellectually to the West, as so many Muslims had championed, from the moments that Robert Clive raised the flag of England, or her corporations, over Bengal, in 1765?
Diving into Taha’s works is like sauntering into a Muslim poetry event on the East Coast: you simply don’t know whom you’ll encounter. At one moment you’ll be reading of a Princeton logician when Ibn Taymiyyah crops up; Rousseau’s civic contractualism when Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Futūḥāt appears; seeing Taha’s notes on John Rawls’ veil of ignorance where you’ll be ambushed by names of Ibn Rushd and ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrāni; Tafsīr of sūrahal-Aḥzāb by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and Ibn ʿĀshūr when you’ll be mobbed by dialogue with Kant and Lockferry. It may read as a haunting of dead theologians or epiphanies of the highest order.
if you can’t develop medicine for the pain of the Ka’bah
then you have nothing
“Spiritual experience is a core feature of my life, and whenever I confront any physical phenomenon I seek the spiritual values that underscore it,” writes Taha Abderrahmane, or Abderrahmane— his first name being Abderrahmane, but French academic convention has many readers write his first name as Taha. He was born in the coastal town of El-Jadida, just south of Casablanca, in Morocco, in a culture that was “phenomenally North African in its expression of culture and Islam.” I visited Taha’s childhood home some months back: walking through the snakelike avenues of the Atlantic-coastal city in Morocco is like meandering through a Mughal-insulated palace: the breeze of the ocean wafts through like a flurry of arrows, with kids darting across streets to the shoreline, dancing in the water, their mothers’ careful eyes surveying them. It was briefly ruled by the Portuguese, and contains a mallāḥ. The walls are vastly sandstone and orange, with rows of rocks stacked on top of each other, on a pathway jutting from the old city into the wildly blue ocean.
El-Jadida, and Morocco, was at that moment simmering under French colonial rule, with Taha noting how this was to play a profound role in unraveling his spiritual and discursive education. Taha’s father was a Mālikī Faqīh, and implacably devoted to the remarkably unique Islamic civilization that Maghreb— Islamic Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania— had cultivated over a millennium, undivided by Gibraltar, generating scholars like Ibn al-ʿArabī, Ibn Khaldūn, Ibn Ḥazm, Qāḍī Abū Bakr Ibn ʿArabī, Aḥmad Zarrūq, Abū Bakr Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī, et al. The épistémai (s. episteme) of this culture and ethos were rooted in a longstanding prosperous approach to the instruction of Arabic, Taṣawwuf, and Mālikī law.
In Taha’s retelling of his childhood, he describes the tensions boiling from French colonialism in Moroccan life. “French colonialism shaped so much of our society, wa lahu taʾthur kabīr.” Taha’s father was barred from teaching in a traditional Madrasa, as the French had shuttered traditional institutions (perhaps learning from the British, where they allowed Indian Madrasas to remain open, only then to face a rebellion after Indian Ḥanafī Muftīs ordered Muslims to declare mutiny against Queen Victoria) and established a French-controlled Madrasah al-Aʿyān, or school of the Nobles, seeking to brand a new class of ʿUlemāʾ that would beat the drums of the French Empire (as with the Tsarist reforms of Madrasas in Bukhara). Taha’s father refused.
Taha’s father, surreptitiously, and in blanched defiance, opened a small Madrasa in the back of his home (El-Jadida), instructing the local kids of his township in Arabic grammar, Quranic recitation, and Mālikī law— staples of North African education for a millennium. Taha, in his retelling, emphasizes the import of this primary education, that grammar texts like al-Ajrūmiyyah and Alfiyyah were not grammar books but manuals of self-fashioning. Consequential was Taha’s father’s stress on tarbiyah, or spiritual cultivation, knitted together with Arabic and Quranic education— grounded in a tradition of Taṣawwuf, inter alia. Taha’s publications offer whiffs of his father’s’s tarbiyah, as we will soon see.
Taha’s idyllic disposition led him to poetry in the early-to-mid sixties, reciting at various symposiums as a teenager, in Casablanca and Rabat, evoking Muhammad Iqbal’s wondrous journey with poetry and philosophy through Sialkot and Lahore. During those days, the Kuttāb al-Maghrebī al-Adabī, or the Maghrebi Literary Association, would offer competitions where poets would submit their work, and if selected, they would be admitted into the association, holding symposiums and publishing and editing journals. Taha says: “I penned a lengthy qaṣīḍah (muṭawwalah), and the poem being well-received, I was invited to join, becoming the youngest member of the society.”
Taha noted once that poetry and philosophy are painfully intertwined— and that one will ceaselessly lead to the other. That truth is no more evident in the Mathnawī of Mawlānā Rūmī, and Farīduddīn Aṭṭār of Nishapur, who both chose poetry as the genre in which to present their philosophy. Poetry and philosophy deal with language in its most elemental shape, seeking to drive language where no previous poet or philosopher had succeeded. Poetry unravels the beauty of emotion and philosophy deals with the ether of truth, and so the meeting of both should not strike anyone as overwrought. “The first speech of humans was poetry,” Taha says, “and poetry leads to interaction with all of creation.”
ز شعر دلکش اقبال میتوان در یافت که درس فلسفه میداد و عاشقی ورزید how we discerned from Iqbal’s heart-alluring poetry Iqbal lectured in philosophy, fleeing to Love!
Taha would have flourished as a poet, sitting perhaps in the same twentieth-century Arab canon as Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, and Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, if not for, well, the most shattering event of the latter twentieth century. One day, in either Casablanca or Rabat, Taha, pen and notebook in hand, presumably for poetry-composition, sat down in a mahogany-tabled cafe. In the Arab cafe of the sixties, there was one radio by which all would crowd around for important news, the fumes of cigarettes and coffee spiraling in the atmosphere. The Six-Day War was raging between Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Syria, and as Egyptian newspaper clippings reveal, the Egyptian government had misled the Arab & Muslim public that Egyptian forces were advancing against positions of the Israeli army across Sinai. The truth was the complete reverse: the entire Egyptian air force had been eradicated in a single day by Israel, capturing the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, and the West Bank.
Taha settled himself down, ordering qahwah and breakfast, when, suddenly, someone turned up the radio and the voice of the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser burst on the airwaves. Although the Moroccan monarchy felt heightening pressure from Nasser’s patronage of Arab socialist movements in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and others, no one could escape Nasser’s ostensible charisma in the fifties and sixties. Once, on a taxi from Jerusalem to Nablus, a Palestinian taxi driver, named Jamal, told me that he and his cousins and friends were all named Jamal, simply out of enchantment with Gamal Abdel Nasser. Standing in front of chock-full stadiums, auditoriums, concert halls, squares – really anything that held a crowd – Nasser would deliver lengthy speeches, promoting a Pan-Arabist socialist vision, of seeking to reclaim Arab dignity, of which he said “could never be recovered” without Palestine. On that day, on a Moroccan radio, in Nasser’s halting, yet this time with a somewhat trembling voice, Nasser announced the shattering defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan to Israel, concluding with a grave proclamation: I resign from all official positions and political roles. He took responsibility for the defeat, to the tears of Egyptians on the streets (and Taha in the cafe). The year was 1967. Taha was twenty-three years old. Jerusalem was no longer a Muslim city, her walls exiled.
أتنحى تماما و نهائيا من كل منصب رسمي وأي دور سياسي — Gamal Abdel Nasser, in his resignation speech, after the ‘67 war with Israel
When engaging with Taha’s biography, my ustādh, during discussion of the defeat and Taha’s jarring switch to philosophy, said, “The tremors of that loss would do that to anyone.”
Taha was disturbed, shocked, grieved, devastated, tormented, petrified, harrowed (of how to translate Taha’s feelings here, I am unsure) by multiple Muslim nations, with training and supplies from countries like Pakistan and Yemen, confronting the defeat of the ‘67 War, and one that would continue to haunt him. In his own words he says: How could our Ummah, notwithstanding her history and triumphs, undergo a loss as mortifying as this? Taha’s whole life, or rather, the life of Islam, flashed before him, and he suddenly changed gears on his scholarly pursuits, redirecting himself to logic and philosophy— “The War of 1967 was an unprecedented spur in my study of logic,” he said. Taha is one of Nasser’s many casualties (or triumphs) of overweening hope and unfaithful promises.
A reckoning after reckoning emerged for Taha: What is at the root of the Western ʿaql? Their intellect? From where does it originate? Why is the ʿaql of the Muslim subdued by it? How can we sharpen our ʿaql to deal with this gap? Taha would devote the next sixty years of his life to studying and writing and critiquing Western philosophical dialectic and logic, “so that we may have the capacity (qādirīn) to level the field.”
Allah, your mercy bristles among non-Muslims but when your thunder strikes, only Muslims suffer now you no longer favor us, you don’t grace us Allah, if Tawḥīd halts in the world, who is but to blame but yourself? we are disgraced, reviled, exiled Allah, what? will Muslims not receive any love for dying in your name, the lovers visited and snatched the promise of tomorrow Muslims love you more than their own souls why do you eye us with such wrath! — Muhammad Iqbal
Taha journeyed to Sorbonne University, in the heart of Paris, where he spent nearly half a decade, matriculating into their philosophy program, the 1967 defeat still stinging him. He notes he would sometimes devote 18 hours a day to studying, poring through Western philosophy from Aristotle to Lockferry, in French, German, and English. He earned a PhD, writing two dissertations. One was entitled “Language and Philosophy: A Study of the Linguistic Structures of Ontology” and another “Essai sur les logiques des raisonnements argumentatifs et naturels” or “Essay on the Logic of Reasoning Argumentatives.” He explored the debate between two Abbasid-era intellectuals: the Christian logician Mattā (Matthew) Ibn Yūnus and al-Sirāfī on the eternal question of whether logic precedes grammar, or if grammar emerges from logic. (The result being that if grammar was preceded by logic then the Greek tradition was futile for Muslims, and that Aristotelian logic had really nothing special to offer Arabic that it did not already contain.) Taha translated it into French in a published volume, and it foreshadows the next decades of Taha’s work on philosophy, language, and theology. Mattā ibn Yūnus had argued that logic is purely mathematical, like a balance by which one can distinguish sound speech and logical truth from its counterpart. Sirāfī shot back by saying if Greek is the invention of the Greeks, according to the symbols and conventions of the Greek language, why would Indians and Arabs make Greeks the judge to rule what is wrong and true? Mattā responded:
Mattā: This follows because Logic is the discussion of accidents apprehended by the reason, and ideas comprehended thereby, and the investigation of thoughts that occur, and notions that enter the mind; now in matters apprehended by the intellect all men are alike, as for example four and four are eight with all nations, and so on.
Sirāfī: If what is sought by reason and expressed by words with all their various divisions and diverse paths could be reduced to the obviousness of the proposition ” Four and four make eight,” there would be no difference of opinion, but immediate agreement. But this is not so. Your example is misleading, and it is usual with you to mislead in that way. But let us drop this also. If the accidents that are apprehended by the intellect and the notions that are comprehended can only be attained by language, which embraces nouns, verbs, and particles, is not knowledge of language indispensable?
Sirāfī: Consequently you are inviting us, not to study Logic, but to learn the Greek language. Now you do not know Greek yourself; how, then, can you ask us to study a language of which you are not master ? A language too that has perished long since, whose speakers are dead, and those extinct who used to converse in it, and understand each other’s intentions by its inflexions. True, you translate from the Syriac: but what do you say of ideas that are misrepresented by transference from Greek to another language? (with slight edits from Margoliouth’s translation)
In the course of his study at Sorbonne, Taha mentions an incident where, from the vantage-point of his dorm room, he saw protestors crowding in the main avenues of Sorbonne. This would come to be the May 1968 uprising, where thousands of leftists and students rose up in protest, even occupying Sorbonne at one nerve-wracking point. Hundreds were injured and gas refineries were shut down. Taha was a keen observer to these political and social developments and what it spelled for the legacy of the Western world— noting that his own emotions were mixed. Although, per his own admission, he spilled a water bucket on a police officer from his dorm, during the protests, he felt that the revolution lacked a spiritually compelling foundation. A rūḥ-based revolution must precede a political and social one, and this misapplication of reform, he believed, stemmed from the West sloughing off spirituality from their philosophy.
Taha moved back to Morocco, settling in Rabat, where he took up a post teaching philosophy at Sultan Mohammed V University in Rabat. Morocco was then in a tug-of-war between Salafism and militant leftist thought— in the center of it all ruled King Hassan II, who had survived an attempt on his life by revolutionary officers, inspired by Nasser’s overthrow of the Egyptian monarch. In this climate lived the leftist-secular thought of intellectuals like Mohammad ʿĀbed al-Jābirī and Mohammad Arkoun (from an academic chair in Paris) battling the Salafism floating on airwaves from preachers like Ibn Uthaymeen and Bin Baaz. King Hassan II spurned both, inviting traditional Sunni scholars like Said Ramadan al-Bouti to visit Morocco, in a bid to highlight Morocco as a Sufi-Sunni country. In an annual event with much fanfare to the eyes and nose (the smoky oud is evident even in grainy video footage), the King hosted the Mawlid, pillorying the Salafi view that the Mawlid is polytheistic and the secular belief that religious ritual holds no purpose in a modern, progressive society, least of all the birth-celebration of a prophet (even if the most supreme of all Prophets, ʿalayhi al-ṣalāt wa al-salām).
I have labored to develop a philosophical system for Muslims and Arabs whereby they might seed creativity in their own thought and culture. And so that they do not feel the need to import Western philosophical ideas without a critical eye. Muslims and Arabs have grafted Western ideas into their own culture, without considering what might their own traditions and ethical systems open to the world(s). The aim being so that we may create a universal Islamic philosophy.
Finding a starting point for Taha’s work is akin to selecting a tree in a rainforest and sticking with it as the genesis of the forest. This is so due to the breadth of Taha’s work— ontology, epistemology, ethics, linguistics, pragmatics, Uṣūl al-Fiqh, theology, classical, post-classical, antique, or modern. And when one dives into Taha’s books, the modern Muslim reader (or a Hyderabadi madrasa-graduate like myself) is gripped, I would argue, by the same feeling of studying Iqbal and Shāh Walīullāh: the enormity of Taha’s thought, his sweeping gaze over all of Islamic knowledge, his reckonings with Western thought, his creativity in addressing modernity, and his world-shattering pain for what has befallen the postcolonial world spurred the same feeling as when I first read Iqbal’s Shikwa, those many years ago in a South African medrese.
Taha’s project centers on trusteeship: that humans (and not just Muslims) are entrusted by Allah with an amānah— Taha influenced by the verse in the Quran:
إنا عرضنا الأمانة على السماوات والأرض والجبال فأبين أن يحملنها وأشفقن منها وحملها الإنسان إنه كان ظلوما جهولا الأحزاب :72
We offered the cosmic trust to the Heavens! To the earth! To the mountains! Yet they all refused to carry it, and trembled from it, but humans embraced the trust. In truth, humans are colossally oppressive, ignorant.
For Taha, this verse contains enough cosmic, and ethical, content as a departure point from Western intellectual thought. The notion that Muslims are entrusted, in a primordial act, cuts through the seams of the Kantian reasoning that ethical behavior may not proceed from revelation but through a priori truths of the highest good (summa bonum)— for the reason that our Fitrah is a repository of this memory of the covenant. Kant posits that ethical behavior precedes religious revelation, as happiness is when “the state of a rational being in the world in the whole of whose existence everything goes according to his wish and will.” This happiness can only proceed from a rational being who understands that he lives in a society of other rational beings. In other words, in order for humans to promote the highest good, they must acknowledge each other as rational persons— as legislators— and thus formulate laws that are consistent with this highest good, based on reason and reasoning: “the Kingdom of Ends.” And this highest good can only be produced when this good is reasoned out by a society of rational persons, as anything else— religion, violence, political realism— would simply lead to further violence and/or contradiction. We, Kant maintains, must respect their chosen decisions in life, because rationality dictates that a reasoning human will conclude that his decision will only be considered when he acknowledges others’ right to reason and decide their fate.
As Aqil Azme has shown in his wonderful article on Kant and Taha, Taha argues, from Suʾāl al-Akhlāq, or The Question of Ethics, and Al-Mafāhim al-Akhlāqiyya, or Ethical Concepts, that Kant had shrouded his ethical concepts in religious revelation. Kant cannot conclude his moral project without the ethics of an Abrahamic religion (Protestant Christianity), and through his genius, had drawn a curtain over the religious genesis of his ideas, so Taha argued. As per Azme’s distillation:
- Kant had derived his concept of “reason” from “faith”
- “Human Will” from “Divine Will”
- “The Unconditional Goodness of the Will” from “The Unconditional Goodness of God”
- “Categorical Imperative” from the “Divine Command”
- “Impartiality” from “Transcendence”
- “Respect for Law” from “Love of God”
- “Summa Bonum or Highest Good” from “Divine Reward (Thawāb)”
- “Kingdom of Ends” from “Heaven”
Taha further tears apart Kant’s formulation of ethics, as a secular gesture, par excellence, to advocate a secular society without acknowledging the revelational element that underlies it, while religion still has much to offer the world (this is drawn from Hallaq’s and Azme’s presentation of Taha).
In a Kantian sketch (tashkīl), ethics is drawn from reason alone, whereas for religious ethics it is produced by divine law; In religious ethics it is compulsory to obey God’s law, whereas in Kantian schema one must obey reasoned-out human law; in religious ethics one gains moral worth from obeying God’s laws, whereas in Kantian ethics one is suffused with worth from surrendering to human law.
In a final stroke, Taha shows how, in Kantian ethics, the human must be impartial when legislating— in religious law God is transcendent from all human reason (although this would be an Ashʿarī sketch; the Māturīdīs would vehemently disagree). Taha said: “Kant made religion subordinate to ethics, whereas the truth is that ethics is subordinate to religion and religion descends to unveil a canon of values bristling inside humans.”
Taha believes that our religious ethics are primarily rooted in the notion of entrustment, which he entitles “I’timān” (إئتمان), on the irregular verb scale no. VIII of the word amānah. Islamic ethics, and those religions preceding it, whether of Ibrāhīm, Mūsā, or ʿĪsā, may joy shade them in Barzakh, finds its origin in how Allah has entrusted humans to worship Him alone, and this act informs the sweep of ethics in Islam. Connecting our hearts to the sovereign of hearts (what Mawlānā Rūmī calls Sulṭān-i Dil) increases us in moral worth, contra to Locke and Kant and Hume’s advancing of what constitutes moral worth.
In the opening pages of Rūḥ al-Dīn, Taha goes to great pains to show why the ghayb, the unseen, the unheard, the veiled, sits at the heart of Islamic cosmology. No articulation of ethics can emerge without fully untangling the ghayb within our world. It is then little wonder that, Taha suggests, Allah begins sūrah al-Baqarah with:
That is a book— with no uncertainty— a guidance for the Muttaqīn, those who have brought conviction in the ghayb.— Quran [2:2-3]
No human can escape or capture the ghayb; it encircles us. He gives an example of someone standing before the Ka’bah. He would be unable to encompass all directions at once; standing on one side of the quadrilateral, he would miss the other (which would be a form of the ghayb to them); standing on top would elide the underneath; standing inside would omit the outside, and so forth. Sure, one might be able to utilize technology to construct an image of the underside of the Ka’bah, but, Taha suggests, that is not direct vision, similar to how kashf is not a direct vision into the unseen but a processed glimpse of it. In a similar fashion, we humans live with ghayb all around us, be it the presence of angels, or the life-force of nature, the howling of violets and bluejays: but you cannot understand their praise, Allah says in the Quran. This is not to say anything about how the institution of reason is itself a ghayb.
Taha illustrates this to show that, in an Islamic worldview, Muslims have life in a vertical relationship (ʿamūdī) with God and the angels, whereas in Enlightenment modernity, it is only horizontal (ufuqī). This verticality allows humans to experience, beatifically, the hierarchy of the ʿālamīn. Taha, employing this strategy, explains that all humans must reckon with the life-force of the ghayb, or as Iqbal said: Zindah Rūd, in order to expand (tawsīʿ) their horizons in thought, whether in the heart or the ʿaql, or their philosophy.
The Arab socialist philosopher Mohammad ʿĀbed al-Jābirī.
Mohammad ʿĀbed al-Jābirī hailed from Oujda, a region in Morocco that shares a border with Algeria, from a family that was hardly well-heeled. He studied his way up from an impoverished family, earning a PhD in philosophy, and writing books in French, Arabic, and German. Mas’alat al-Huwiyya: al-ʿUrūba wa-al-Islām wa-al-Gharb, or The Issue of Identity: Arabism, Islam, and the West, was widely read in intellectual circles. His project is extensive, and as Wael Hallaq once mentioned, his reading of the Islamic and Western traditions was “encyclopedic.” But, laments Hallaq, Jābirī suffered from the absence of a rooted methodology, a manhaj, that is: a sophisticated way by which to approach the tradition. Talal Asad’s and the Deobandi polymath Mawlānā Manāẓir Aḥsan al-Jīlānī’s dialectics on a notion of discursive tradition, in English and Urdu, evoke this element, in which the ‘tradition’ (ar: turāth) stands at the epicenter of concentric circles by which each circle, in ordered fashion, self refers to another circle surrounding it. (The diagram of Aḥmad Sirhindī’s Waḥdat al-Shuhūd is helpful, additionally, in understanding the geometry of this relationship.)
In the 80’s and 90’s, amid invasions of Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iran, the thought of Jābirī influenced a wide variety of Asian and African intellectuals— Christian, Muslim, secular atheist, secular Muslim, leftist, traditional, who were resisting despotic Arab rule and Western imperialism. Because of Jābiri’s ability to read Arabic texts expansively (his books will leap from Ibn Khaldun to Hegel to Fārābī in a single breath), his arguments were bewitchingly compelling to many Arab leftists looking for a way to escape Western thought but maintain their secular and Marxist commitments to resisting Western hegemony. Although Taha and the secular-socialist philosopher Mohammad ʿĀbed al-Jābirī overlapped in Rabat at Sultan Mohammed V University, there is very little evidence that they ever collaborated or even chatted, except for a single moment in the 90’s when they co-presented a conference. Jābirī proposed that Taṣawwuf had penetrated Islamic rational thought; ʿAqlāniyyah, being a foreign “Persian” element, had seeped into a rational-based Islam. Jābirī was demonstrably suspicious and critical of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī and his synthesis of traditional sciences with Sufism, and suggested, as many Orientalists before him, that Ghazālī had ambushed, hounded, and robbed Islam of its true rationalist spirit.
Of course, Jābirī, as a result, began to lionize Ibn Rushd (again, as Orientalists before him), the Andalusian philosopher-jurist who launched a scathing assault on Ghazālī in his Incoherence of the Incoherence, and labored to maintain Aristotle’s and Fārābī’s stature in the Ummah as unmatched sages and thinkers, seeking to prove the eternality of the universe. Moreover, he saw Ibn Khaldūn, the mythic North African jurist, historian, sociologist, and ethicist, as part of this realm, who contested the Persian Sufism— what Jābirī calls ʿIrfāniyyah— and sought to steer Islam into an Aristotelian frame of knowledge. Jābirī has written a whole monograph on Ibn Rushd, the Muslim champion of Aristotle, par excellence. He additionally argued that there is a universal reason in Greek philosophy, taking his influence from Continental philosophers, especially Descartes, that Europe had made good on the trajectory of Greek universal reason.
In the epilogue of Buʾs al-Dahrāniyyah, or the Misery of the Seculars, Taha laments that his own people and peers (employing the term banū jildah, or sons of the skin) have miserably imported systems of thought without ever asking: What are our values as Muslims? What are our values as a civilization? Did Allah reveal the Quran so we may simply consume the values of other nations without extending our own? Taha addresses Jābirī’s bracketing Ghāzālī as “foreign” to Islam, instead arguing that Taṣawwuf is what makes Islamic civilization remarkably singular. Moreover, Jābirī, as Samuel Kigar says in his “Arguing Against the Archive,” fails to understand that demonstration relates to the mind and illumination revolves around the heart.
if you won’t surrender yourself to Allah
at least surrender yourself to yourself!
Taha’s assault unravels Jābirī’s articulation of the tradition, especially in his al-Lisān wa al-Mīzān, a remarkably abstruse book where he dives into the ethera of logic in Islamic and western intellectual history, and where he addresses Jābirī by name. (He also mentions that publishing the book was a nightmare because of the recondite ideas and his plunging into the epistemai of logic, expressing his proverbial critique of Arab publishers, inna ashadd al-nās ʿaẓāban yawm al-qiyāmah al-nāshirīn, recalling a Bukhārī Ḥadīth on form-makers). Jābirī believed that Muslim intellectuals betrayed this reason and were, as a result, beholden to grammar, “that thought of the bedouins.” Jābirī targets the Arab bedouins as the prima causa for the “stultifying” of thought, as grammarians first create categories, and since our theologians (like al-Shāfiʿī) learned from them, Islamic-Arab thought is handcuffed by roaming nomads, and left with poor categories of thought, they are unable to arrive where Europe did. As you may imagine, Jābirī sees Sirāfī’s victory over Mattā as a loss for Islamic rationality– whereas Taha holds the opposite.
Jābirī, in his We and the Tradition (Naḥnu wa al-Turāth), mentions how, by adopting an Averroean world-view, Muslims can yield a European modernity in their nations— particularly insofar as Marxist and Kantian epistemic approaches may help put Muslims back on the map (lit. and fig.), Jābirī reading the sociology of the moment in the 80’s and 90’s and the Muslim intellectual yearning for socialist regimes, no matter the defeats of the Pan-Arabists or the Baʿthists, sought to provide a reasoned-out formulation for Muslim thinkers and activists to change the world through socialism. In line with Muslim socialist thinkers across the Muslim world like Hassan Hanafi and Michel Aflaq, Jābirī argued for Muslims to break with their tradition, and excavate an Arab-rationalist domain of knowledge that would allow Muslims to transcend Fiqh, Taṣawwuf, Kalām, Tafsīr— basically any science that could not align with Aristotle’s philosophy.
Taha was forthcoming in his engagement with secular Arab philosophers, and left no soil unwatered in advancing a critique of Jābirī and other thinkers like Adonis and Arkoun and Hanafi (Why are Muslims are criticized for doing taqlīd of Ghazālī? Just to do taqlīd of Aristotle?). In perhaps a separate piece, I will spell out Taha’s critique of them more extensively. But it remains that many Moroccan and Arab philosophers have turned to Taha in the aftermath of his critique, purely on a basis of philosophy and modal logic, escaping from the secular methods of Jābirī, Hanafi, Arkoun, Aflāq, Adonis.
We must remember that in the aftermath of thinkers like Jābirī and Arkoun, in Morocco, many bright Moroccan students took their arguments on the centrality of reason in Islam as nostalgically important from Jābirī: i.e., had Muslims turned to Ibn Rushd and Fārābī, they would’ve had the fortune to churn out a European modernity: opera halls, neoclassical Greek architecture, Kafka, Beethoven, jets, genres of medicine and engineering, refrigerators, paper currency, cinema halls. Reading Jābirī’s Naḥnu wa al-Turāth, you are struck by how cravenly bitter Jābirī is about the postclassical Ummah advantaging Rāzī and Taftāzānī over Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā. But Taha proposes that it was the Millat-i Bayẓā’s incredible fortune to do so. Had the Ummah followed Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā, Muslims would be stripped of their cosmic, waḥy-based akhlāq. Intellectuals of the Ummah who resisted Ibn Rushd’s approach to cosmology and philosophy ensured the epistemic priority of waḥy over an Enlightenment conflict between ʿaql and revelation, allowing our intellect to not be bound by Aristotelian boundaries.
In an article on Said Nursi, Taha writes of Said Nursi’s journey from taqlīd to creativity, but highlighting how they both are pointedly uncomfortable with how classical Muslims described Greek philosophy as ḥikmah, or wisdom, as the translator, likely the Abbasid Christian Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, overlaid the Quranic word to a meaning it contradicted, both in scope and philosophical limitations. They both target Ibn Rushd in his Faṣ al-Maqāl for allowing Aristotelian thought to be ferried in as ḥikmah. For Taha and Nursi, ḥikmah, as mentioned in the Quran, is decidedly not Hellenistic philosophy.
by the gaze of the Sufi, what worth is the grandeur of Alexander? sufism is the lord of all lords listen, listen, to my epistle you have hope from idols, but none from Allah? tell me! what could be uglier heresy? come, listen, listen! — Muhammad Iqbal
Many Muslim intellectuals have viewed Taṣawwuf with no role to play in challenging modernity— how could miracles and awrād combat, or even weather the onslaught of Western intellectual assaults? Iqbal, in Persian, laments how he knocked at the door of the Faqīh and the Sufi, warning that European colonial forces were invading the Ka’bah. Iqbal then burnishes his critique: the jurist and the Sufi simply lilted their hands and prayed: Yā Rabb Āqibat Khayr. Oh Rabb, let our end be in goodness.
Both Taha and Iqbal are not satisfied with this approach— they seem to suggest that the exalted Prophet ﷺ could have simply sat through the Battle of Badr, praying. But he drew battle lines, while also making duʿāʾ, ʿalayhis ṣalātu wa al-salām.
Taha, in the final chapter of his Suʾāl al-Akhlāq, mentions how postcolonial Muslims have not taken mysticism, or Taṣawwuf, as a serious enterprise of rationality, exiling it to the realm of superstition. Furthermore, in their revival or awakening (nahḍah or iḥyā’, Taha preferring the second word), Muslims and Arabs only limited themselves to political or economic revival without concern for their rūḥānī elevation, a topic he takes up with more detail in his Rūḥ al-Dīn. He ties this with introductory meditations on the positionality of modernity today for the Ummah, which we will deal with in two separate salvos, one cultural and the other epistemic.
Taha laments that Muslims have only understood Sufism in light of supernatural acts, or miracles. “The purpose of Sufism is not miracles,” Taha said, “but to cultivate an affectively intimate relationship with Allah.” Taha, beginning where Iqbal left off, then puts Taṣawwuf as his base for a spellbinding, dazzling critique of modernity, Salafiyyah, and Wilāyah al-Faqīh, three ideologies that have arrested the ascension of the Ummah, per Taha in in his books on politics, namely Thughūr al-Murābaṭah and Rūḥ al-Dīn.
During Taha’s journey into the limitations of the intellect, he became convinced that the ʿaql that Islamic intellectuals cultivated was vastly superior to the one unleashed in modernity. Why? In a letter by the Mughal Naqshbandī saint Mirzā Maẓhar Jān-i Jānān to a disciple, somewhat anticipating British modernity in India, he hints that our ʿaql is unable to be confined– not that it doesn’t exist but that it surpasses the limits penned down by philosophers. Taha’s re-discovery of this, and exceedingly luminous articulation of it, stands above any of his predecessors. That key Ṣūfīs of the Ummah were also logicians should not escape anyone’s analysis of the turāth.
In one of the most damning (and daunting) reckonings with Greek intellectual civilization over the past two-thousand years, Taha seeks to address the position of ʿaql, or reason-intellect, like al-Ghazālī and al-Rāzī before him. Taha divides intellect (ʿaqlāniyyah) into three types: the first is al-ʿaql al-mujarrad, or the abstract intellect, that is devoid of religious revelation. Kant exemplifies this intellect, where religion is subordinated to secular ethics, and this would be the rational mind that subordinates religion to ethics, and shrouds its genesis. The second type is al-ʿaql al-musaddad, or that intellect that enjoys nourishing from religious revelation, but is only concerned with religion insofar as the material world is important, and doesn’t understand the underlying purpose and mysteries of waḥy. The third and final type is al-ʿaql al-muʾayyad, or that intellect which is expanded from the abstract to include religious revelation and sets its sights on gaining proximity to Allah, i.e., the human being as a trustee, carrying the ethical values to subordinate the universe to the command of Allah, as the sustainer and nourisher and lover of us and all of creation. This is where Taṣawwuf begins, and Taha, as a disciple of the Boutchīchī Qādirī silsilah, through ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, sees Taṣawwuf and Western philosophy as seeking the same reality: truth. But Taṣawwuf, as the highest expression of Islam, as the Naqshbandis of Mughal India taught us, in the form of Qāḍī Thanāullāh Pānipattī, Mirzā Maẓhar Jān-i Jānān, and Aḥmad Sirhindī, expands the limits of the ʿaql to new horizons unfound in other religions, and especially within Western modernity, through al-ʿamal al-ḥayy, living action. Sufism, then, becomes the final frontier against Western modernity, postmodernity, extramodernity, and adjacent-modernities– by which it can marshal all of her values to outline a loftier form of life that this world is trembling for. Iqbal once said: maqām-i dhikr rūmī o ʿaṭṭār/ maqām-i fikr bū ʿālī ṣīnā, the station of dhikr is Rūmī and ʿAṭṭār, the station of thought is Bū ʿAlī Sīnā.
The third type of intellect, crystallized in Taṣawwuf, unleashes the Muslim ʿaql past the intellect of Kant and Ibn Rushd, making man āyātī and malakūtī. For what are we but but muʾtamanīn ʿalā anfusinā wa ʿalā ghayrinā, or trustees over ourselves and others? What is this entrustment but deposited within our fiṭrah, our fort that contains memories of the azalī, or pre-eternal world? And how best to access the world but through the highest form of al-ʿaql al-muʾayyad, the aided intellect, where the ʿamal and ʾīmān defined and stressed in the Quran than becomes the final destination by which inductive or abductive logic cannot confidently arrive. For Taha, classical and Western logic provide no ultimate truth, and are contained within the broader category of Ḥijājiyyā (argumentative & demonstrative reasoning). Taha seriously considered the thought of Ibn Rushd– which is to say, should Muslim have simply adopted Ibn Rushd in order to match the West? Or have Muslims spurred an intellect loftier than what Kant and Hegel championed?
O breeze convey my salām to the orchards of Weimar in Germany! — Muhammad Iqbal
Muslims, confronting the storm of modernity, surrendered their entire tradition and discursivity, without ever understanding what they were importing. (It is topical to note that Iqbal made some form of this critique in his Persian Masnavīs, Asrār-i Khudī and the Jāvednāma, a hundred years ago). Muslims, because of the “civilizational march,” and utterly mesmerized, felt they needed to catch up, and wholesale adopted the materiality of the West, neglecting the moral values that have animated Islam since the descent of the waḥy to the muqaddas Prophet ﷺ, and hoping Casablanca and Tunis would transform into Paris and Nice. If Muslims do not arm themselves with their spiritual values through their turāth— a vertical ray towards the ghayb— then they will be dragged along towards technological death, “lacking in moral fortification.”
Further, Muslims must not look towards Western modernity (technological, political, economic) as an ideal— Western modernity has been painfully stripped of ethics, morals: life-giving, heart-giving forces. Even more brutally, they see ethics as a sign of “technological backwardness.” We may see this with nuclear proliferation, or genetic manipulation, or social platforms whose only drive is to keep the user fettered to the app. What would a revelation-based approach to technology unravel? How would a technology rooted in Taha’s project of morals elevate and reform the modern human?
sit by a Dervish no blanket, ask him to reveal the mystery of your heart listen, listen — Muhammad Iqbal
Reading Taha in this landscape is reminiscent of poring through Ghazālī’s Tahāfut and Iqtiṣāḍ or Rāzī’s al-Maṭālib or Shāh Walīullāh’s al-Tafhīmāt: the meta-concepts (like al-Nafs al-Nāṭiqah and nasamah for Shāh Walīullāḥ) employed and the new coinage that bristles becomes overwhelming at times: for instance, in his Rūḥ al-Dīn he undertakes a semantic dance with the Arabic noun wujūd, unsatisfied that the word, despite its millennium-long history within Islamic intellectual thought, can sustain a defense against modern philosophers, and ferries it into new forms. Inwijād, from w-j-d, on the scale of infiʿāl, differs from normative wujūd, in that the connection between the soul and the body is determined by the seen world (al-ʿālam al-mashhud). Tawājud on the scale of tafāul, means the rūḥ-separation from the seen world, and is determined by the unseen world, ʿālam al-ghayb. “So, it becomes evident that humans exist in multiple realms at once: he is munwajid in the seen world, and mutawājid in the unseen world. In the first he is blended with his soul, while at the same time ascending to the unseen, in the second.” The holy Prophet ﷺ said: Prayer is the ascension of the believer (al-ṣalāh miʿrāj al-muʾmin).
سمجھ سکتا نہیں اس راز کو سینا اور فاراربی
how could Sīnā and Fārābī ever grasp this secret?
Taha argues that Greek civilization is ḥadārah al-qawl, or civilization of the word, logos, and Enlightenment Europe is ḥadārah al-tanqīd, or a civilization of critique, but Islam is ḥadārah al-akhlāq, or civilization of ethics— by this he doesn’t mean notions of virtue ethics or consequentialist ethics or Thomistic or deterministic ethics, but waḥy, breathed into the luminous heart of the Prophet ﷺ upon the wings of Jibrā’īl, a canon of determined values (maʿānī mushakkaṣah). Preclassical Greece and postclassical Europe suffer from a duality of a problématique— the first is that they believed ʿaql was a body, a substance (ayn), whereas Taha and Sufis before him had rightly termed it to be an ʿarad, or an accident (like movement or time). Taha proposes that there is no difference between seeing with our eyes and cognitive thought, both are processes and not substances. Elevating a process over a substance would be a foolish move to any practitioner of logic, Taymiyyan or Aristotelian. Taha then argues that thought is rooted in the heart, and not the mind, as eyesight’s source (masdar) is the eye, or hearing in the ear.
Taha is not partisan to any one camp of Islamic civilization, and furnishes his disagreement with arguments from both Ibn Rushd and Ibn Taymiyyah, arguing, in his Fiqh al-Falsafah and al-Lisān wa al-Mizān, that since ʿaql is a process, its variation and forms are almost limitless, employing the term (takāthur). This multiplicity of ʿaql is precisely why it cannot be the foundation of any moral or political system (who is to define which instance of it is the true form of it, whether collectively or epochally?), but it is subordinate to a higher form of values, tābiʿ and matbūʿ.
“Why would it then be problematic to argue that īmān is internal reason and ʿaql is external reason? Or that ʿaql is external faith and īmān is internal faith?,” writes Taha near the end of his Suʾāl al-Akhlāq. He is, indeed, alluding to the verse in the Quran: Lahum qulūb lā yaʿqilūn bihā. They have hearts that cannot reason. How, then, Taha says, could Kant’s A Critique of Pure Reason ever come close to grappling with the waḥy of the holy Prophet ﷺ?
May limitless blessings be upon our lord Muḥammad, the sovereign of Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Today, yā Mawlāy, I would like to touch upon Akhlāq (Prophetic ethics). Akhlāq are not simply a segment of our religion, but they constitute the entirety of our religion. And I wish to turn your attention to the supreme ethic in Islam, alas it is Raḥmah! Allah says: Say (O Prophet ﷺ!) invoke Allah or invoke Raḥmān!
Yā Mawlāy, we live in a world stricken, submerged by modernity. But modernity is an elusive term, yā mawlāy. There is political modernity, economic modernity, technological modernity, religious modernity. Yā Mawlāy, as a western philosopher put it, there are no ethics in modernity (lā akhlāqa li al-ḥadāthah). So, here is Raḥmah within our turāth. Our turāth, yā Mawlāy, it’s like a mother to us. It mothers us home. And as the Prophet ﷺ said: the motherly relationships hang suspended on the Throne of God. Whoever cuts off his mother cuts himself off from mercy. Inasmuch as we slough ourselves from our turāth, our Islamic civilization, we exile ourselves from mercy, from Allah.
So Taha spoke in front of King Mohammad VI, in a Ramadan special on television, in the early aughts, on a raised platform (takht-i muʿallā), facing dozens of West and North African ʿulemā’. He lectured on the various iterations of modernity, and its central feature, namely, the exiling of tradition— what Talal Asad calls “secularity” in his Formations of the Secular. “Tradition is the accumulation of ethics and moral values,” Taha averred, unvarnished. The onslaught of modernity, with its surge of information, has led man into vagrancy (shurūd). This homelessness has resulted in the modern human existing in cosmic exile. It would not be a stretch to say that Qais, more popularly known as Majnūn, resembles the modern Muslim, wandering, howling in the desert, crawling with dust, hoping for a glance from Laila. (The mythic Indo-Persian poet Mirzā Ghālib would argue that Majnūn had much more meaning in his life than the modern man.)
While in Rabat, Morocco, a summer and a half ago, seeking to schedule a meeting with Taha in his hometown, I stopped by the university at which he spent nearly forty years professoring and at which he is a Professor Emeritus: Sultan Mohammed V University. The security guard was a Moroccan no older than twenty-five. He very graciously allowed me to tour the campus, the classrooms, the library, and some of the archives, on a sunlight-drenched August day. While walking back he asked me where I was from. I told him I was originally Hyderabadi, but born and raised in America. I asked him why he loved America. He said: Bas Baḥibbahā. I just love it. America is amazing. Have you visited, I asked. He said, lā, but I will one day, inshāʿallāh.
The word for modernity in Arabic is ḥadāthah, its cognates being ḥadīth and taḥdīth. It originally meant the first ripples or a recent event— ابتداء الأمر, in premodern Arabic its relationship to Ḥadīth, as Ibn Fāris says in his Maqāyīs al-Lughah, is that speech (ḥādīth) is named so because every statement or every word that issues forth is fresh with the successive or preceding one. For Arabs living under colonial rule, the aftermath of modernity was primally shocking, in that any moment of Europe was “recent,” young, and full of vitality. That is to say, in any given instance of European culture, politics, or art, it would be constantly self-renewing when juxtaposed with Arab culture, which would now be a symbol of incessant obsoleteness. In Urdu, the term employed for modernity was Jadīdiyyat, or new-ness, going further to emphasize the novelty of Europe; in Persian, Iranians and Afghans relinquished any battle with it taxonomically and imported the French word modernité, whereas the Turks took the French word and added the abstract Turkic suffix, lık, producing modernlik and çağdaşlık, which means to incessantly be new or contemporary. In fact, on the very first day of my graduate program, I met a Turkish student named çağdaş— selam, everyone, my name is modern. Every moment, item, affair, object, subject is new and contemporary if it belongs to Euro-America.
After colonialism, or within it, it came to signify the totality of European modernity, everything that France, England, and Germany exhibited to the world. More significantly, it symbolized a break, a rupture, with the “tradition”— as the Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong once wrote, “a blaze, a flash, a reckoning”— the repository of values that preceded the Enlightenment. The earliest instance I could trace modernity is from the Erbil-born Shāfʿī Ḥadīth critic Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ, who uses the term in relation to narrators in his canonical al-Muqaddimah of Ḥadīth theory.
Taha wrote two entire texts employing the term, entitled Rūḥ al-Ḥadāthah and Muqāwamah al-Ḥadāthah, The Spirit of Modernity and Challenging Modernity, unleashing critiques on the application of modernity. “All humans are the entitled to the spirit of modernity.” He makes a distinction between the theory of modernity and its application (wāqiʿ) He says, drawing from Kant’s writings on modernity and Enlightenment, that modernity possesses three foundational principles: rushd, criticism, universality (rushd,, tanqīd, shumūl). The first foundation, maturity, demands independence in thought. Muslims have the cosmic right to maintain independence in their culture and philosophy from Western forms of life. No genuine Islamic modernity (al-Ḥadāthah al-Islāmiyyah) may develop unless this independence is achieved. The next pillar of maturity is creativity, allowing for a renewal of latent spiritual values across and through our turāth, whether in Shāh Walīullāh or ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī. Criticism– the second condition– must take place for an Islamic modernity, as Muslims may not be free to demonstrate their creativity if criticism does not arise from them– i.e., they must disclose and demonstrate to the world what Islam offers, through unveiling what the present modernity lacks, in all spheres of life. Western modernity places natural science as the “ultimate arbiter for all social, political, and economic development.” Criticism of the errors of Western approaches to knowledge and their application of it– a critique of their philosophy and episemai– will precede any mobilization for creativity, showcasing Islamic values as ones that may develop the world to one that is aligned with the fīṭrah, and leading them to the highest forms of life that our trusteeship permits.
The final condition of an Islamic modernity is universalization, or once Muslims achieve their modernity, they should have the courage to peacefully share it with the world, in the same way Muslim countries are right now suffering from the totems of Western modernity. This would happen through dialogue and a meta-form of munāẓarah: there can be no dialogue without society, no society without humans, no humans without ethics, no ethics without trusteeship. I may also mention that Hallaq harshly critiqued Taha for his approach to modernity, arguing that there was no need to follow Kant in his definitions of modernity. Taha responded, stating that Muslims are intoxicated by modernity (sukārā al-ḥadāthah), and thus felt to employ the same Kantian genealogy of modernity in order to spur a more critical investigation for their current condition.
Any critique of modernity, as Taha rightly inducts, must first begin with differentiation. Shāh Walīullāh, in his understudied al-Budūr al-Bāzighah, after bracketing a typology of prophets– their ontological qualities of shāhādah, ḥikmah, of which the holy prophets Mūsā and Muṣṭafā embody most– he mentions the Peripatetics (mashāʾīn) never fully grasped these prophetic attributes, and the nature of them, distinguishing them from Aristotle and Socrates, ontologically. This point of difference– waḥy and ṣifāt–must be stressed in any future sketch of modernity for Muslims.
Countries like Algeria and Turkey committed themselves to a modernity that was without critique, whether that was manifested in leftist values, or a German materialistic ideology– other nations like Pakistan and Iran championed their founding on an Islamic foundation, but no paradigmatic or thoughtful approach was undertaken on how to approach their own modernity, i.e., what is unique about waḥy that may blaze an alternate path, where notions of elderly care are not compromised for individual liberty, where Quranic verses may influence architectural designs, where ethics is heightened through practice, al-ʿamal al-ḥayy, where the political destiny of Muslims does not have to be modeled on Alexander Hamilton or James Madison or Thomas Paine, where our state of nature is not seen as a violent wilderness, but a fortified home, where our contract is not a social one but a cosmic one to the sovereign of our hearts and His prophets. We may wonder for the future what an Islamic modernity might spell for the world, where creativity, critique, and a civilizational ethic define their political, economic, social, artistic, and international life– not just for Muslims, but for all of the creation, raḥmah li al-ʿālamīn.
We (Muslims) want to be free (aḥrār) in our philosophy.
In the opening pages of Ḥaqq al-ʿArabī fi al-Ikhtilāf al-Falsafī or The Right of the Arab to Disagree in Philosophy, Taha charts the arc of philosophy as progressing from Socrates and Aristotle. Philosophy began by faḥṣ, or inquiry, in the Hellenistic universe, seeking to analyze knowledge within the limits of rationality. It was then transformed by Enlightenment philosophers into Critique or Naqd— this development, Taha argues, is crystallized by Kant, where the purpose is ifḥām al-muḥāwir, or prevailing over the opponent— vastly disparate to the objectives of Munāẓarah— and where the limits of the intellect are interrogated, an epistemology of epistemology. However, Taha disagrees with the Greek approach, and avers that philosophy is neither posing questions nor critiquing, but rather being questioned (al-masʾūliyyah). Reading Muslim intellectuals like Shāh Walīullāh, Rāzī, and Aḥmad Sirhindī, one realizes that premodern Muslim thinkers worked within this framework of epistemic ordering in how they fleshed out kalām, manṭiq, falsafah, and taṣawwuf.
Taha continues that no human is allowed to impose a limitless roster of questions on an interlocutor without assuming they will respond, and this interrogation must constitute not only the arguments comprising it but the interrogator’s (what we in ʿilm al-Munāẓarah call the sāʾil) own praxis. Thus, every interrogator is first a respondent before an interrogator, begging self-questions like: What am I asking? Of what am I asking? Why is it appropriate that my defendant should respond? What should be his appropriate answer? And whom should he answer to? So, Taha says, every philosopher asks because he will be asked. It should not surprise any reader that Taha is applying the sūrah al-Anbiyā verse to critiquing philosophy— (Allah will not be asked what He does, but they will be asked of what they do.)
Thus, Taha concludes, the new Muslim philosopher does not need to explore every philosophical problem that others probe (simply because others are analyzing it), nor do they need to necessarily unravel old consensuses, simply out of taqlīd al-gharb. Rather, the Muslim philosopher, on the premise of being-asked, will be able to open new horizons of philosophy, departing from rehashing debates in Western academies due to the fact that Western philosophers are discussing a topic. We remember the socialism trend in the Muslim world during the seventies and eighties, where Muslims endeavored to untangle these debates, without exploring alternative philosophical trajectories that might have been generated had these same thinkers approached their challenges in a philosophically unique way. Debates on socialism have largely come to a close in the Muslim world, with liberal and neoliberal materia replacing it— again, because of its relevance in the West— and Muslim think-tanks, universities, and governmental policies are arriving at the same conclusions as their Western counterparts– their debates on socialism largely irrelevant. The same cycle repeated. This is not ibdāʿ, or creativity, to Taha, or philosophy, for that matter.
Moreover, with great gusto, Taha says two premises have gripped the Muslim/Arab mind when they write philosophy: singularity of thought and practical reality. Before, philosophers had to deal with a diversity of cultures and systems in order to legislate a philosophy that was shared across peoples (Hume, for example); now because of the dominance of a philosophical thought, the Muslim philosopher must seek to resist philosophical hegemony. Why? By virtue (sin) of the fact that modern philosophical thought has prevailed in Muslim lands because of colonialism, and not due to any novelty of enterprise.
“There is nothing more harmful to philosophy than a thought shrouding all others, not out of evidence (burhān), but through physical might (sulṭān), political or economic. For this will only yield poverty, then stagnation, then mimicry, then extinction. We have so much pressure from Western thinkers to adopt their ideas, lā ḥawla wa lā quwwah lanā maʿahā, and neither do we have the power or strength to resist it, for they have locked the doors to any possible choice(of disagreement). How could we then perform the philosophy of being-asked if the doors are shut?”
Taha concludes the discussion with: what is modern philosophy but a culture of Western thinkers? Even more devastating, any historical Muslim thinker in the academy is only relevant insofar as they have contributed to Western genealogies of thought. What higher evidence of this than the absurd lack of attention to canonical figures like Shāh Walīullāh and Abū Muʿīn al-Nasafī and their their utter refusal to submit to prevailing Hellenistic trends, carving out paths that were not beholden to Aristotelian epistemai?
Exploring the second premise of practical reality, Taha states that this is a premise shrouded in political nature, and “political domination is more dangerous to philosophy” than anything else, by light of the fact that if politics dictates philosophy, with all of its conditions and directions, then it will lead it to “certain death” (al-mawt al-maḥtūm). Philosophy means freedom, and politics requires submitting to reality, snatching volition from the intellectual and philosopher. And what is philosophy but based on volition? And how can change come about save by free will? And if politics lords over philosophy, how would we be able to contest its conditions? And doesn’t political reality mutate (al-wāqiʿ yataghayyar)? The modern philosophical adage “It cannot be more creative than what was/is” means “the current reality is of the level of necessity.” So, “practical reality” is meant to be “the necessary reality,” without permitting us to contest it, when we know the root of philosophy is debate, and no point can be accepted without solid proof. For Muslims to do philosophy and build upon the ashes of the past centuries, they must make their departure point colossally different from how it is currently practiced, in order for them to unearth ideas and conclusions creatively. The classical Muslim thinker (and in no measure all of them), because of the ontological spurring of creativity offered by waḥy, then approaches falsafah in radical alterity, unbeholden to taqlīd of other civilizations, without isolating them.
if that German philosopher were to live in this era
then Iqbal would teach him Allah’s grandeur (maqām-i kibriyā)
As any philosophy lecturer will admit in an introductory class, philosophy has crystallized as various experiences: the Continental school, the Frankfurt school, the American and British experience, and so forth. “And it is no secret that philosophers themselves have self-attributed in a national or ethnic way, and historians of philosophy have surrendered to their categorization.” Hellenistic philosophers have distilled philosophy into two elements: the one-ness of human nature and the one-ness of intellect. They have argued for the singularity of philosophy by these two premises. Taha again fiercely contests this ordering: even if we were to accept the one-ness of nature, that does not equate to one-ness of intellect. For, as stated above, intellect is not a substance (jawhar) but an act or process, and it shifts based on its atmospheric and social demands. Similarly, even if we were to accept the one-ness of intellect, its effects are various, and it would be absurd to believe that all their effects are united in the world, considering their various applications and circumstances.
Muslims received philosophy as a melange of various civilizational convictions and experiences (as we learn from Muhammad Iqbal in his dissertation, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, who famously argued that Persian skeptical thought spurred the likes of Jurjānī and Suharwardī), and there is little doubt, Taha stresses, that certain philosophical tenets would agree with Islamic philosophy, as Taftāzānī, Nasafī, Māturīdī, and Rāzī taught us, but that scarcely means that Greek or Western philosophy should be or is a universal philosophy (falsafah kawniyyah). He later details the journey of the reception (talaqqī) of philosophy in the Abbasid universe, and says that when Muslims encountered philosophy, they saw philosophy as a human discourse, just as they saw the Quran as a divine discourse. “So if the Quran has its foundation on a message from the unseen and demands conviction, philosophical discourse has its foundation on rational exploration and demands critique. And the exceptional feature of rational analysis is inference, induction, deduction, reasoning, demonstration (istidlāl).”
As Taha’s student, and a famous logician in his own right, Dr. Hamw Naqqari explains, Istidlāl is when you seek a proof for your argument, or search for weaknesses in your opponent’s evidence through analogy or induction (as any medrese student may remember Mullā Jīwan’s section on Qiyās or Marghīnānī’s fortifying of Ḥanafī positions). Taha states that Istidlāl has multiple degrees, its highest being burhān, and Muslims are the first ones, through burhān, who made philosophy universal, showing the world how philosophy may transcend culture, space, and time, by demonstrative proof (burhān and istidlāl). However, he is not convinced that Greek philosophy holds any form of higher truth, insofar as any other civilization, taking from the subject of his dissertation, Al-Sīrāfī, who, when interrogated by Mattā about the uniqueness of Greek thought and their dedication to philosophy, retorted that “Are the Greeks infallible or is it that God allow some to excel in some sciences over others?”
“No (historical) Muslim intellectual has paradigmatically submitted to the philosophy of the Greeks and their burhān more than Abu’l Walīd Ibn Rushd (al-ḥafīd), who held the belief that no thought could compare to it, and that the philosophy that Ibn Sīnā and Fārābī transmitted was the essential meaning of the Greek experience, and thus it should remain the way it is (i.e., without critique).” Taha is hardly satisfied with this state of affairs, and springs forth an excavation in more devastating terms: Philosophy today is simply a product of Euro-America, and ever since Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, European philosophy has masqueraded as global philosophy by the violence of colonialism. Shrouded in this philosophical blitzkrieg is the claim that European philosophy is unique (farīd). Europeans are the only ones who spurred philosophy in the modern world, and if anyone challenges them, they retort that what they are confronting is “not really philosophy,” whereas what is the aim of Māturīdī theology and European philosophy but to arrive at truth (baḥth ʿan al-ḥaqīqah)?
Taha, quoting Heidegger in his Was ist das-die Philosophie, says that European philosophers did not even attempt to conceal their chauvinism towards philosophy: “European-Western philosophy, circulating on tongues of people, is, in truth, a matter of fact.” Edmund Husserl, German mathematician and logician, said that the “crises and the thought of Europe” signal a creative, singular, and interactive life of Europe… and this spiritual sketch for Europe distinguishes philosophical thought in the history of Europe, for in our history is something singular that all of mankind feels, and, without looking at any localized needs, begins to promote our (philosophy).”
Succeeding this volume is al-Ḥaqq al-Islāmī fī al-Ikhtilāf al-Fikrī, the Islamic Right to Disagree in Intellectual Thought, Taha naming it after his daughter, Islam (who passed away a few months ago), after she was diagnosed with a debilitating illness. In a foreword to the book, he addresses his daughter and says: I named you Islam, because it is the most pleasing name to me after the name of Allah and his Prophet ﷺ. From your very first days, I was stunned by how your life was marked by the ripples of Fiṭrah, living your life with utter wonder and astonishment for her creator. Taha’s life-project becomes even more clear, as one intending to explain how a Muslim should respond amid an onslaught of cultural and political assaults. Taha, in his want of taxonomies, breaks down the act of philosophy for Muslims and non-Muslims– as Muslims we view the world with al-naẓar al-malakūtī, where we seek the underlying value of each natural phenomenon as an expression of divine majesty. Taha is of course alluding to the many verses in sūrah al-Rūm, where Allah begins a series of verses with: and from his signs, wa-min āyātihi. Our purpose is immeasurably different than a secular philosopher, who views the world with al-naẓar al-mulkī. This vision simply seeks the materiality of each natural act. Where the Muslim will see the rain as a result of precipitation, and a cause of Allah’s name of al-muḥyī, or the life-giver, in an aftermath of fertilizing crops, that is, sustenance, and cooling the scorching of the sun– all as a manifestation of Allah’s mercy. Taha has in mind critique of both Spinoza and Hegel here– especially Spinoza’s claims of God and nature uniting as one. The mulkī and malakūtī must harmonize in the Muslim subjectivity, in order for what Taha sees as the command of the verse in sūrah ʾĀl-i ‘Imrān: “You are the most lofty of nations, commanding excellence and proscribing evil.” The demand of this verse, Taha argues, is that Muslims share their values with the world, in a manner that is confident and impregnable. Taha says herein lies the difference between a mujtamaʿ and an ummah, or a society and the ummah. The Ummah is united by qiyam (s. qīymah), or lofty values, the same values by which the Prophet ﷺ is a master of, whereas a society shares in race or other mundane notions of citizenship.
This tablīgh is vastly different from what we deem as dialogue, transcending it as an enterprise that occludes the possibility of dialogue for the sake of dialogue. In a denunciation of a religious conference and declaration, Toward a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration, drafted by the Swiss theologian Hans Kung, in the aim of cultivating a universal ethics, addressing the many crises plaguing our current moment: environmental (biodiversity loss and pollution), economic (poverty and starvation), political (polarization), and social (lack of justice and familial chaos). This report influenced a number of succeeding documents: Unesco’s Universal Ethics Project, The Declaration of Human Rights and Responsibilities, and the Universal Declaration of Global Ethic.
It should surprise no one that Taha was dissolutely dissatisfied with the report, even though it received Muslim signatures, prominently from the Hyderabadi scholar Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah and the Iranian Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The document advocates for a global ethic that may be accepted by all religions, a commitment to a culture of non-violence, a culture of equal rights for all, a culture of economic solidarity, and the need for a transformation of our consciousness. Taha felt this report contained minimal contribution from Islam, as a world religion, and a religion that may offer a canon of values that would be wildly transformative.
That modern-day goals of cultivating a cosmopolitan and a multi-cultural society is largely meaningless, bereft of any positive contributions from religions, despite the world’s urgency to draw from Islam, creatively. Taha says that the document’s decision to enumerate their first clause as engendering dialogue and peace between religions is trauma from European wars between Catholics and Protestants; secondly their commitment of affirming the code’s in a religious origin is insufficient; it must be religiously grounded, so as to adequately treat the various crises shaping the world and her inhabitants. The values of solidarity and tolerance cannot be achieved unless a proper place for religion is afforded in the world– for the purpose of religion is to guide humanity and perfect them. The aim of religion is not, Taha maintains, to create a shoddy summary of them that then dispatches with religion– further, a global ethic should be able to elevate humans towards ethical progress, curing the human condition of its shattering dilemmas. Global human rights discourse, and these documents, affirm their belief in an “Absolute Reality,” but none of them offer any path of achieving proximity towards this reality– how then could the drafters claim any purported religious origin? Moreover, their omission of even the name of God– a reality that Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Taosim, Sikhism, Christianity all acknowledge?– is supremely telling as it is hardly distinguishable from any secular discourse on ethics. The neglect of emphasis on religious practice and prayer also showcases the ingenuiness to seriously cull from religions– as it directly contradicts the document’s goal to elevate humans. Religions champion practice as a singular way by which to reform humans, and if the drafters claim they are concerned about the transformation of the modern subject through religion, then how can that be possible without ʿamal? That “cerebral reflection” is given priority over living religious practice, and that spirituality may be arrived at by “positive thinking,” is reflective of the commitments to secularity by the theologians of this document.
Taha unravels the consequences of these theologians who drafted the document and argues that a secular parliament is more forthcoming and more useful than the document. In secularity, truth is multiple and fluid, the rule of reason, religion may not infringe on others, religion may nor organize social life, but reason may– in sum, Taha argues, a secular document would be more genuine as all of the above values would free them of the charge of subjectivism, absolutism, and irrationalism. A gathering of theologians promoting religious dialogue and multiculturalism yet landing on the same shore as a secular enterprise is deeply concerning. Taha diagnoses the impetus between the many statements of the theologian, like “There will be no peace in the world unless there is peace among religions” and “There will be no peace in the world unless there is dialogue between religions,” as the drive for world peace. Taha, in his training as a logician, breaks down the first statement’s premise as religion is the barrier to world peace; that the element in the world which drives away peace is religion itself, such that if religion were removed, world peace would be achieved. The belief that the root of all violence is religion underwrites almost every political, social, economic enterprise in the world, whether in parliaments, congresses, judiciaries, drafting of constitutions, human rights directives, and so forth. Taha says even if we grant this premise, this would only apply to some religions or the extremist impulse in certain religions, like the Hundred Years War between Catholics and Protestants. Moreover it denies that perpetrators of violence are motivated for ulterior motives, making religion the victim, as if they are with religion itself, weaponizing religion as a justification for their violent and political ends. Establishing these two points, Taha says then the premise that world peace is dependent on religions meeting in dialogue is false– this is further bolstered by the fact that religion today is largely a subjective experience, with no power over political or social values of nations.
Perhaps the most incisive component of the argument is that the document proposes a minimum level of ethics, as Kung sought to promote an ethic (“binding values and fixed standards common to all”) that was rooted in all religions. It follows then, Taha concludes, that the ethical components of this project will be less than those values which may be found in the least compelling of religions. All religions have the right to be seen as a religion, but that doesn’t mean that all religions are equal, in terms of their moral values, worth, principles, and their project for human elevation. Not giving priority to one religion or another compels one to slip into logical confusion: it would mean the abandonment of any objectivity, let alone a measuring of truth between religions. One religion, necessario, must be loftier than another. For if one did believe that all religions were one, it would mean all their contradicting beliefs, views and theories would be true at the same time– one would be living in logical contradiction (either God is one and alone, or He is part of a trinity– two cannot be true at the same time), and it would be effectively denying the truth of all of them, “as there would be no reason to believe in one or another, nor even to believe in religion at all.”
In the document’s erasure of faith as a world-transforming value, and its advancement of the notion that ethical progress is the same in all religions, it has demonstrated its devastating inability to not only show how religion may offer something new to the world, it also abandoned the goal of the drafters to elevate humans. Furthermore, despite the document’s goal to cultivate “respect between all religions” it would’ve done its duty to convince atheists and seculars to respect religion– their absence is “strongly highlighted” by the widespread mockery of prophets (peace unto them) and the “defamation of certain religions,” in the same way religions are pushed into a corner to embrace secular human rights discourse. Faith should have been the first directive of the document, as it is the element that can seriously, and pragmatically, attend to the physical and metaphysical confusion that plagues our world, and it is only the value that may treat the malaise of disrespect and violence bristling within the modern man. Had this been achieved, Taha avers, “we would have been closer to legislating an international law” that may yet proscribe all forms of violence.
The global ethic propounded was then written to appease atheists and seculars, Taha forcefully states, and that no possibility of world peace can be achieved with a superfluous approach to global ethics.
Taha concludes with a set of dictates and core ideas on which any universal global ethic may aspire to by first asking: is ethical progress the same in all religions or is it heightened in one? Does every religion have the same effect on its practitioner? What is every religion’s ordering of values? And, finally, what are the standards by which a religion may be judged?
Four values, were they present, would offer an entirely new vision of humans and guide them along the goal alleged by Kung in his Global Ethic– the most important being ethical progress. Ethical progress will cultivate not only toleration (which is the lowest level of human acceptance) but mutual knowledge (taʿāruf) of each other– who feels more respected than whey they feel known? All religions must be evaluated in terms of how they elevate humans to their highest moral values, as only moral values can yield world peace. If a religion were to achieve the loftiest position of ethical values then it would be entitled to globalizing their values, and serving as the standard of that global ethic. These four standards are, quoting Taha almost verbatim: 1) Symmetry between religiosity and acquisition of ethical values 2) Ethical goals (Such a religion must have a more expansive set of ethical directives than that of another religion) 3) Widening the realm of ethics (Such a religion must be capable of broadening the field of ethics in a manner unlike any other religion has done) 4) Progressive ethical development: “Such a religion should have appeared at a historical stage of ethical development wherein there is a successive inheritance of the ethical heritage of a preceding religion. This standard stems from the universal character of ethics adopted by the Declaration, and which assumes one continuous ethical history for humanity.”
It follows that the nations of this world have passed through numerous ethical epochs, and that any succeeding epoch represents an advance over the preceding epoch, by virtue of a principle of a historical accumulation of ethical principles over time.
Evaluating all religions, we will arrive at a “binary,” i.e., one category of religions will have some of them, and another will fulfill all of them. To Taha, Islam is the only religion that not only fulfills these conditions, but also perfects them, as there is a complete congruence between ethical values and religious practice. Islam’s high priority of practical ethics, as its nature as the epochal completion of previous religions, is firmly expressed in the prophetic report: “I have been only dispatched to perfect ethics.” That Imām al-Bukhārī opens his Jāmiʿ with a chapter entitled Kaif Kāna Badʾ Waḥy ilā Rasūlillāḥ, How did revelation pour into the Prophet, with the report Actions are judged by their intentions, is proof that Muslims’ concern for practical ethics has marked their intellectual endeavors.
Every practice, somatic or cognitive, is prescribed for the heightening of ethical behavior. This perfection of ethics, contained within waḥy, is manifested through “augmentation,” i.e., by creating a ladder-like relationship in each value: sincerity is ideal, but sincerity in sincerity is further stressed. Ethical perfection is further realized through “discovery” or the connections between each value– it is forbidden to harm one’s self, and the prohibition of harming others stems from the injunction of not harming one’s self. Moreover, this sort of harm is not just human-related, but extends to all of creation (it is forbidden to enter an empty Masjid with garlic-breath because of the harm to angels)– associating partners with Allah is seen as a form of violence in the world, as said in sūrah Maryam: They say Allah has taken a son! You have appeared with a grave statement. The heavens are nigh to ripping open (by the violence of this statement). Moreover, the expansion of ethics to new, and unprecedented, realms and reams by which humans may conduct themselves with ethical materia– the enterprise of iftāʿ and fatāwā are legislated for this exact purpose.
Shatteringly, Taha concludes his discussion with a history lesson: Islam is the final religion, and, thus, contains all of the ethics of previously revealed religions– this blossoming of tawhidic values within Islam positions Islam as the only, and singular, religion to underwrite global ethic by which to judge all moral values and constitutions, and cultivate a better, honest, open, spiritual, and ethical world– in the same way liberal modalities underscore any experience in the Muslim world, on any point of the diagram. I am reminded of when the East India Trading Company began to replace Mughal Ḥanafī judges in Bengal and North India, ordering for Hindus to frequent Brahman Pandits and Sikhs their gurus and Muslims their Muftis for any legal dispute, leaving a Shīʿī outraged, and he arguing the only form of ethics and law in this land is the Ḥanafī doctrine, for both Hindus and Muslims.
If I were to categorize Taha between two Muslim thinkers, I would position him between Ibn al-ʿArabī and Ibn Taymiyya, and it is his genius that synthesized two disparate figures within one philosophical system. (I would situate Iqbal between Mirzā ʿAbd al-Qādir Bēdil and Shāh Walīullāh.) Taha does not seek to use Ibn al-ʿArabī to negate the Sharīʿah, as the Mughal ḥurūfī wazīr Abul Faḍl sought, nor does he bludgeon Muslims with Ibn Taymiyyah through the his fatāwā. In a letter to a disciple in Mughal Delhi, Walīullah enumerated the incredibly high stature of Ibn Taymiyyah, and that one or two idiosyncrasies of a thinker does not entitle one to being exorcized from the intellectual tradition– for why, Shāh Walīullāh asks, would we then overlook Ibn alʿArabī and not Ibn Taymiyyah? It is a misfortune that Walīullah, living on the cusp of the British takeover of India, never encountered Ibn Taymiyya’s Kitāb al-Radd al-Manṭiqiiyīn, published first in Hyderabad, by Mawlānā Shiblī Noʿmānī, as Walīullāh may have provided a logical scaffolding for South Asian Muslims, through him, amid the British Raj. And more importantly, as Iqbal mentioned in a lecture in Hyderabad in the 1930’s, let no one sustain the belief that Muslims uncritically adopted Aristotelian logic– Ibn Taymiyyah is a mammoth proof for otherwise. And it remains that Taha and Walīullāh heightened Ibn Taymiyyah to modalities unseen before in the Ummah.
Taha, in books and lectures, has stressed how crucial the study of logic served for his intellectual journey. That he penned his dissertation on the philosophy of logic is evidence enough. If the West was able to dominate the Muslim world for so long, surely, there must be something unique about the mysteries of their philosophical underpinnings?
Curiously, Taha is more Taymiyyan in his approach to Manṭiq than Ghazālian, arguing that Ghazālī took Aristotelian logic to be a given order of natural law, whereas “I do not see logic of that category.” Suyūṭī summarized Ibn Taymiyya’s critique of the logicians, including Ghazālī in their ranks, especially his point that: “Whoever doesn’t know logic has no knowledge.” Further Ibn Taymiyyah pilloried that standard mutakallimūn view that reasoning is confined to qiyās, istiqrāʾ, and tamthīl, for the undeniable reason that istidlāl is innumerable, and limiting it to three is nonsensical. Ibn Taymiyyah argues that the Sharīʿah is ʿaqlī, and adding it as a separate category is a tautology. The ʿaql of the Sharīʿah is linked to ʿamal, as ʿaql is a process of the heart, and, as a result, bound within the fiṭrah. (It is tough to say whether Taha outlined his critique of Kant’s position on the ʿaql as a substance through Ibn Taymiyyah or arrived at this conclusion on his own.) The ʿaql of the Sharīʿah is then the base for istidlāl, and contains two forms of reasoning that normal istidlāl does not, namely, al-istiqlāl and al-ittifāq. The former is attached to a truthful person and a proper proof, whereas normal istidlāl may contain a premise that is based on falsehood. The latter is rooted on the notion that the ʿaql of the Sharīʿah is consistent internally, whereas normative istidlāl is confused in its epistemic order and production of knowledge.
This is crucial to mention, because if all logic and ʿaql are the same, then surely Muslims should simply mimic Kantian and Hegelian rationality, in order to compete with Western modernity, to level the field– which is precisely what the plurality of Muslim states have labored to do for a hundred years. But Taha’s six-decade long study of logic has proven that Muslim premodern ʿAql, between Aḥmad Sirhindī and Shāh Walīullāh, has so much more to offer, and is two degrees higher than the modern intellect– had we been able to provide as much to emerging Muslim political leaders during the birthing of their nations, had we fulfilled our roles as critics of the non-ethical systems engulfing our world, and had we leveraged our tradition in creative ways, reading the moment and heavens, the direction of our countries could have revealed a life so much more promising.
Taha, in Fiqh al-Falsafah, holds that the Salafiyyah have misrepresented Ibn Taymiyyah to the world, and, as a result, have ignored his intellectual contributions in defining an independent and creative Islamic philosophy. As Taha is supremely concerned with, what he calls al-ʿamal al-ḥayy, we can see why he abandons Aristotelian logic, in favor of a living, praxis-based tradition of ethics and life. He draws up a fantastic hierarchy of proofs: 1) Ḥijājī (argumentative) 2) Burhānī (Demonstrative)– these consist of where the proof must be explicit, in the first type, or where premises are concealed, as in the second type. These both are symbolized as ʿaqlāniyyah ʿībāriyyah, expressive rationality, best represented by Ibn Rushd. The second type is ʿaqlāniyyah ishāriyyah, or allusive rationality, which works with metaphorical speech, recalling his fascination with poetry and metaphors, and indeed the ummah’s strong concerns with poetry throughout the millennium– best symbolized by al-Shaykh al-Akbar, Ibn al-ʿArabī.
In a triumvirate series, entitled Dīn al-Ḥayā’, Taha outlines his relationship with the names of Allah, following Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and Ibn al-ʿArabī (in their Sharḥ Asmā Allah al-Ḥusnā), saying:
I used to have conviction in the grandeur of the Asmā al-Ḥusnā, and with my yaqīn, my conception did not transcend them being divine attributes– so my Imān was that of a Muqallid, except that ethical tarbiyah had made me interact with it, not analytically, but as a Ẓakir–as one who remembers Allah, and makes Duah with those gorgeous names. It then became evident to me that what a wide gulf exists between analyzing the gorgeous names and acting it as a ẓākir, as the abstract intellect distances you from those names, while living, and action-based, dhikr increases you in intimacy of those names, to where you don’t even know the meanings of the names!
al-ʿĀqil takfīh al-ishārah—
A year and a half ago, as I was searching for the childhood of Taha Abderrahmane, enlisting the help of middle-aged Moroccan men, to locate Taha’s home amid a smattering of hundreds of residences. My guide led me through the breeze-wafted city, stopping to ask every store-and-stand owner, salam, do you know Taha Abderrahmane’shome? Finally, a Moroccan worker told us he knew. As he led me, with a picture in hand, streets curving behind us, I tried to materialize some of his writings in my head as we approached his home. Inching towards the destination, I spotted the name “Taha” engraved on a home located near the end of the alleway, meditating on Taha and his early studies of ʾAjrūmiyyah and Quranic Tajwīd, and when he returned home, in 1967, haunted by the weeping loss of Jerusalem, and his life of tajdīd succeeding those tremors. A neighbor let me up to the roof, to view the backyard, droopy trees decorating the tiny garden, and where Taha would have rocked back and forth to ḥifdh of the Quran, as only a boy– how Taha once told Wael Hallaq, saying his first name was not Taha, but Abderrahmane, and he preferred being called Abderrahmane, as “I feel closer to the mercy of Allah.”
In the early 20th century, as the Indo-Persian poet Muhammad Iqbal delivered his world-shattering, heaven-shattering Shikwa, most Muslims knew they were experiencing some form of grief on their loss as the sovereigns of meaning-making for the world. Idol-assemblies are howling with laughter that Muslims have left/ how overjoyed they are to see the Kaʿbah’s guardians depart. If Iqbal’s Shikwa was an expression of grief of Muslims to Allah, and the subsequent Jawāb was a project of reconstruction (as was the rest of his 11,000 lyrics of poetry), we can read the entirety of Taha’s oeuvre as a Shikwa, in prose, for the inability by Muslims to value-make in this world. Taha’s grief on the loss of Palestine spurred a civilizational project that stands unmatched among Muslim thinkers in the past two-hundred years. Iqbal witnessed the fall of Damascus, Jerusalem, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and the importation of Western modernity real-time– the rhythms of their two lives should not come as a surprise (Taha provides much praise for Iqbal at various point in his texts, and especially in his Suʾāl al-Akhlāq), in their singular goal to seek answers for what all Muslims feel:
How did this happen to us? What can we do to rectify this? Why are we being punished for this? Where did it all go wrong?
I was no more than six years old, in a burgeoning suburb in northern California, when my father would collect me and my four siblings to read the Tablīghī Jamāʿat totems of Muntakhab Aḥādīth, Ḥayāt al-Ṣaḥabah, and Faḍāʾil-i Aʿmāl, almost every night, alternating between the texts, in which the ripples of these same questions raged, with very limited answers abounding. If only I knew, at that age, that someone was working on the answer, across the Atlantic, in a coastal city in Morocco.
oh Allah, was it that we abandoned you?
or was it that we abandoned the Arab prophet ﷺ?
About the Author: Mullā Saaleh Baseer completed his Dars-i Niẓāmī in South Africa, and earned his bachelor’s in History from Columbia University. He is co-terminally completing his iftā at Darul Qasim College, and a master’s at the University of Chicago, in Mughal political-legal History.
Author’s Acknowledgements: I would like to limitlessly thank Dr. Choukri Heddouchi of Darul Qasim College, who gifted me the skillset to access the elusive works of Taha Abderrahmane, painstakingly guiding me through parts of his Rūh al-Dīn, Suʾāl al-Akhlāq, and his articles on Said Nursi, his letter to Hallaq, while also delineating the Moroccan intellectual climate which birthed Taha, and offering his singular insights in unraveling the Arabic neologisms of Taha. Gratitude is also expressed to Mariam Elnozahy, who led me to the gates of this city and many others, years ago, when I was a fresh out-of-Madrasa undergraduate— without her mentorship this essay would scarcely be penned, and impossible. All providence is from Allah, who willed these interactions for ʿālam al-arwāḥ and ʿālam al-shahādah.
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