Sunday, September 6, 2009


So recently I have started reading Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" alongside reading the Quran. As you can imagine the combination of the two has left my head buzzing, sometimes with confusion and sometimes - surprisingly - with spontaneous clarity. Most often though, I have found myself tentatively grasping an idea or conception but with a nagging sensation that I did not fully understand the implications of the text. I have heard that this is common with some works, and that this should actually be expected with a religious book like the Quran. People return to it throughout their lives enriched with new experiences, and the astute seem to garner a deeper meaning from it each time - but to claim to understand it fully would be foolish. Yet it is a claim that a few make, and a distressingly large number of people believe them.

As a matter of fact, since the Quran is a divinely revealed text, it would be with much hesitation that I would accept another human's interpretation of the content (besides the Prophet, obviously). Rather, I feel it is a direct, very personal mode of instruction between Allah and mankind, and so we should endeavor to understand as much as we can of it individually. As Abdulwahab Bouhdiba said in his article 'The Concept of Man in Islam and its contribution to Philosophy and Culture': "While the revealed text remained always the focal center, the latter was enriched and appropriated by the individual believer, which explains the major statusconferred upon individual endeavor, meditation, and the resort to reason, in Moslem religion." Now that the time of prophecy has passed, it is the exercise of reason which will guide humans and keep them on the path of Islam. Of course, to use reason, you cannot be bigoted, prejudiced or aware of only one side of an issue. Therefore, in relation to Islam, the Quran, the Hadith, etc it is necessary to read what both Muslims and Non-Muslims, at present and in the past have written - but with moderation and critical evaluation. Abdul-Hafez Helmy Mohammad mentions in his 'Islam and the Origins of Contemporary Western Civilization' that the Prophet often warned his followers of making "presumptuous conclusions" and "blindly following predecessors". Muhammad (PBUH) is supposed to have said "If I order you something of your religion follow me, but if I order you something expressing my own view, I am only a human." In this context, there should be no doubt that an ordinary human's interpretation and guidance can be falliable, especially on a transcendental text, and that caution and judgment should be used when accepting other's interpretations or making your own.

Personal interpretations of religion are often viewed with stern skepticism as it is believed that it might lead to its splintering into numerous heterogenous 'faiths'. Yet in the case of Sunni Islam, the space for discourse is very limited when considering the central message of the Quran (that there is one God and Muhammad is his Prophet, etc.) and it only widens when reading the more allegorical passages. So while enlightened Ulama might be able to appreciate the layers of the Holy Book more, the basic message that the simple man comprehends is not any less in value and will not prevent him from getting Suab.

However, if we look at a earthly and voluminous work; Bertrand Russell's attempt at chronicling philosophy from before Ancient Greece down to modern times, we see how much more necessary it is to have human guidance! While it is written in a very clear and witty prose (unlike some of the Philosophers he writes about!) the ideas he covers are not always easily palatable. Guidance for the Quran can only be very limited due to its divine nature, but on the same note, guidance is required for 'The History of Western Philosophy' because of its very human nature. Here it is possible for an academic to have studied more and researched more on the philosophers and their contentions and thereby claim to have a deeper understanding of the issues. Even their basic message might be caught in a web of confusing semantics, unfamiliar social context and the passage of time. The lay reader like me would need help to get out of such a fix! Of course, philosophy is fueled by discourse and commentaries, and in some cases we only know about many ancient philosophers because of critiques of their work by their later successors. An example of this is Parmenides of Elea, most of whose work has been lost to obscurity and all that remains is a fragment of a poem and what Plato has said about him. Without standing on the shoulders of certain academic commentators it might not be possible to understand some works at all! So while judgment also needs to be exercised when reading critiques or articles on this book or one of the philosophers mentioned in it, it is possible to rely on the thoughts of some learned academics, as their opinions can be more developed than mine.

Speaking of Parmenides, this is a philosopher whose work I have been trying to come to terms with recently. BR credits him for giving the "first example in philosophy of an argument from thought & language". The central idea associated with him is that "nothing changes" and this quote summarizes BR's explanation of this:

"When you think, you think of something; when you use a name it must be the name of something. Therefore both thought and knowledge require objects outside themselves. And since you can think of a thing or speak of it ar one time as well as at another, whatever can be thought of or spoken of must exist at all times. Consequently there can be no change, since change consists in things coming into being or ceasing to be."

The concept is not as straightforward as the writing is. So I tried to write out what BR said in my own words, with the hope of understanding Parmenides better:

In summary, Parmenides believed that change was not possible, as we cannot conceive that which does not exist; the past or the future. We cannot even articulate it because to do so means that it exists in some form, and of course 'change' is when something comes into being or is lost.

We could concede that historical personages and events live on in the present through memory & recollection but what about that which is imaginary? Like a Unicorn or Hamlet? Our ideas about them are formed by what others or books say. Parmenides would say then that the 'idea' or meaning of those words would exist in some form as they mean something to us; the words remain significant.

BR goes on to contend that words have different meanings for different people. George Washington and what he did has a different implication for himself, his friends and contemporaries, us who only know him through history books and those who have never heard of him. Whatever the name means to us, it is the not the man himself, since we never knew him, but something present in memory or thought. There lies the fallacy of Parmenides' logic.

While the assertion of Parmenides would still seem true here, that George Washington now exists in the form of recollection, it is important to remember that there is a difference between what has happened and the description of what happened; the event happening and the memory of it. As we tend to gloss over these differences for practical reasons and the fact that we give a singular meaning to words, that Parmenides' logic seems to hold: that change is impossible. It is is an illusion.

I am certain that I have not been able to capture all the intricacy of his thoughts in this superficial summary, but it is a preliminary step and maybe with the passage of time and more reading I will be able to refine it. I know that this tangent on Parmenides and what I wrote earlier about the Quran is only loosely tied together by the concept that we approach philosophy and religion differently, but I write this mainly to reflect the intellectual curiosity and excitement that fills me now. I hope this continues in the academic year to come.

If a man's life can be described in terms of historical eras, then I feel that I am going through the Middle Ages - in darkness but on the brink of discoveries.