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The debate on Islam and secularism in Egypt

Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring, 1996 by Fauzi M. Najjar

It is safe to say that the thoroughgoing naturalism and rationalism of Averroism provided a philosophical justification for the doctrine of separation of church and state. Secularism in the West may claim Ibn Rushd as one of its philosophic exponents. It is for this very reason that his teaching has had no influence in the Muslim East. While Ibn Rushd is alive in the West, says Wahba, he is dead in the East, and where Averroism is dead, enlightenment is dead. Muslim conservatives have always been intent on "smothering the seeds of secularism" in Ibn Rushd's thought, because if these seeds germinate, they would emancipate reason, whose absence in the Muslim world is at the bottom of its backwardness, Wahba contends.(34)

Dr. Wahba is one of the pioneers in the enlightenment movement. In 1975, he edited a "Supplement on Philosophy and Science" for al-Tala'a magazine, with the first issue appearing in April of that year. It came to an abrupt end when in March 1977, President Sadat ordered the closing down of the magazine. At the time, Wahba stressed the need for a cultural revolution based on the "emancipation of reason, which is the distinctive feature of the Age of Enlightenment." The emancipation of reason, he suggested, calls for a commitment to apply reason in addressing the problems of society, just as the advanced world had done.(35)

As a contribution to the enlightenment movement in Egypt, Dr. 'Atif al-Iraqi, professor of Arabic philosophy at Cairo University, and a champion of the philosophy of Ibn Rushd, edited a volume on the Muslim philosopher, with contributions from eighteen scholars, among them Dr. Ibrahim Madkour, president of the Arabic Language Academy, Dr. Murad Wahba, and the late Father Georges Anawati. The book was published by the Committee on Philosophy and Sociology of the High Council of Culture. In it, as well as in his other writings, Iraqi stresses Ibn Rushd's rationalism, his impact on European thought and the need to rehabilitate his philosophy in the Muslim world?

Following Aristotle, Ibn Rushd gives priority to demonstrative proof (burhan), the highest form of certainty, over dialectic and rhetoric. Wisdom is inquiry into things in accordance with the rules of demonstration, he asserts. While philosophers apply demonstration, theologians use dialectical and rhetorical arguments. The principles guiding "men of demonstration" are rational and logical. Demonstration determines that we know things by their causes, and that is true knowledge. The condition for true knowledge is that conclusions necessarily follow from necessary premises or propositions, which are neither impossible nor variable. Among the theologians who deny or belittle the role of reason, al-Ghazali and the Ash'arites receive the most devastating critique by Ibn Rushd, and their arguments are dismissed as mere sophistry and contrary to human nature.(37)

Iraqi insists that only through reason and the rational method can Muslims address properly issues like enlightenment, religious extremism, heritage and modernity. He maintains that Europe progressed because it adopted Ibn Rushd as a model. In contrast, the Arabs have regressed because they followed traditional thinkers, like al-Al-Ghazali, the Ash'arites and Ibn Taymiyya, whose thought and teachings augur backwardness and descent into the abyss. Had the Arabs taken Ibn Rushd's call to science and its reasons to heart, they would have achieved greater progress in thought and culture. Unfortunately, "we are still talking about mythical and legendary beings, and things that elude the imagination." Muslims tend to mix science with religion, and, according to Iraqi, there is no relationship between philosophy (science) and Islam; all attempts to reconcile the two have failed drastically. "Woe to the Arab nation when it seeks to derive scientific theories from Quranic verses. Such an attempt is totally wrong and would cause harm to both religion and science."(38)


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