The Quran and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam

March 13, 2008

This is a puzzling book - one that it is not easy to make sense of. Its author knows about the Koran and about modern Western philosophy. Crudely, he is in favour of the one and against the other. Nonetheless he wants an infusion of philosophy into the Islamic tradition, which he sees as having been largely absent since solidifying of the faith a millennium ago. He suggests that Islam, being "fixated on faith" has an inherent tendency to make absolute ideas and practices that are relative.

Philosophical reflection might enrich Muslim civilisation, by supplementing (but not eroding) the Koran's "ancient religious and spiritual confidences". These remarks come from the last few paragraphs of a long book, in which we are given little insight into how this enrichment might work.

We should perhaps overlook a certain stridency that permeates the essay, because Akhtar does make forceful criticisms of post-Enlightenment secularism and of its philosophical expression. Secularism, as well as generating its own social and moral problems, places an uncritical reliance on the power of reason and of science.

Yet the esoteric doctrine of modern philosophy since the work of Descartes and Hume is that since reason is a broken reed and can, without begging the question, sustain neither common sense nor any pretensions, science has to be the only road to truth; exoterically philosophers keep quiet about this, as they launch into confident attacks on religion, traditional morality and other things the Enlightenment has supposedly delivered us from.

Here, Akhtar does have strong points to make from an interesting perspective. The problem is to understand his approach to Islam, at least conceived of as philosophical. He does, for example, tell us that Islamic thought does not recognise the problem of evil as fundamental and dismisses the difficulties over survival of death by airily telling us to assume that the concept is not "flatly incoherent". Would that philosophy were generally as easy as that.

Akhtar insists that the Koran be taken as a starting point, as a whole package, religious, moral and political, with no church-state division and in confrontation with modern secularism. He accepts the traditional Islamic account that the book was divinely dictated to Muhammad, preserved inviolate by his immediate followers and written down in pristine form about 20 years after the Prophet's death.

This raises the biggest obstacle to his project because it is well known that this tradition has come under criticism as scholars begin to apply to Islam the same methods as biblical scholars used to unravel the New Testament in the 19th century. Some even propose that the Koran as we have it dates from a century or more after Muhammad.

If true, this would obviously pose difficulties for the orthodox view of the Koran as inviolately inspired, though in doing so it might usher in a less rigid and more philosophical understanding of its doctrines.

But refusing to discuss any of this, Akhtar insists that any questioning of the traditional view in the spirit of critical history must be "inspired by envy" among those whose sacred histories cannot boast "comparable strength".

This attitude bears on Akhtar's project in a wider way. He occasionally hints that bits of the Koran may be limited by the cultural context of its writing, but it is hard to know what he concludes from this or, given that the Koran is what he believes it to be, just what room is left for philosophising about it in a significant sense.

The Quran and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam

By Shabbir Akhtar
Routledge
416pp
£80.00 and £22.99
ISBN 9780415437820 and 437837
Published 30 September 2007

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