"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Maimonides, al-Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Khaldun, Alfonso X

Notes and reflections on Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence by Zachary Karabell

This chapter - Philosopher's Dream - introduced me to several noteworthy thinkers and their ideas about God and man and the separation between the two.  It started off with Moses Maimonides and how his family left Cordoba when that region fell under the rule of the Almohads who were not as tolerant of nonMuslims as the previous rulers had been.  I rather liked that the author said Maimonides "had only scorn for those who preferred to play the victim."   He realized the world "was not kind" and it was "foolish...to expect otherwise."  He also thought it was foolish "to bow one's head and accept punishment and oppression. God had given man ingenuity and choice, and thus the tools to survive and thrive."  (pg. 138)

At this point the author tells us the Maimonides family converted to Islam, but such false conversions in Spain were common depending on who was ruling and persecuting whom.  (When the Christians took power, many Muslims "converted" to Christianity.  The author refers to an Arabic practice called taqiyya which was a "prudent form of faking it.")  Maimonides "had no patience for those who took a purist line and advocated martyrdom and death rather than survival." If survival meant a nominal conversion to Islam, so be it.

The author then shares about Abu Hamid al-Ghazali not because he was in Spain, but of his attempt in Baghdad "to resolve the split between philosophy and theology." He was born before Maimonides, but both men were thinkers and Ghazali "was as essential to the evolution of Muslim theology as Thomas Aquinas was to the development of Catholicism" and "his brilliance was to synthesize science, philosophy, mysticism, and law." He was OK with mysticism as long as it was within the bounds of the Quran and tradition.  The same with reason and intellect.   The Quran and tradition of Muhammad were the top priority. The sad part is that when Ghazali died, Muslims "sanctified" him to the extent that the door to interpreting the true meaning of the Quran and tradition of Muhammad stopped. The questions al-Ghazali asked ceased to be asked, debate was discouraged and "Islamic law and theology became more rigid."  (pg. 141)

Next the author mentioned Ibn Arabi who "attempted to close the gap" between God and man. Why, he wondered, "was there such a distance between God and his creation?"  He consulted and "drew on centuries of Jewish, Greek, Christian and Muslim learning to arrive at a unique conclusion: man's separation from God was a product not of God but of man's limited ability to perceive the truth."   The fact was.. this gap was all an illusion and we were as close to God as two can be without being one.  "Man is God's way of seeing himself and God's way of knowing himself."  We were God's mirrors!  (pg. 143)

About these men and a few others mentioned the author writes: "they deployed their intellect and channeled their passion not to attack but to illuminate. They walked the path of love and compassion, and served as guides to seekers trying to find their way to God."  (pg. 143)

An odd thing though is that Maimonides "was a seeker who rejected the notion that all are created equal."  While Islamic and Jewish mystics believed all people could have an intimate relationship with God if they were "willing to walk the long and arduous road," they also had ideas of "elitism, which said that the world is inherently corrupt and that the true path is open only to those pure and wise enough to take it." He believed that there "were truths that the masses could grasp and messages that any common man could hear and that there were truths accessible only to the learned, the wise, and the religious."

As a result of these ideas, for Judaism there was "an increasing disengagement from society." For Islam it was "a growing unwillingness to engage new ideas" which resulted in most turning to orthodoxy, the minority toward mysticism and "Muslim culture in the Arab world slowly began to wither."  (pg. 145)

The second topic of this chapter dealt with the gradual decline of Muslim power in Spain.  Historian Ibn Khaldun noted a pattern that when the Muslim tribes were cohesive and disciplined in the desert Islam spread as Muslims brought down two "formidable adversaries -- the Byzantines and the Persians." However as the empire grew and piety began to fade, the rulers became "soft and corrupt."  This "decay" would be punished by God with the Muslims being defeated.  Apparently this is what Ibn Khaldun saw happening in Spain.  So as this chapter ends, Christians are now back in control of Spain. Initially they treated the People of the Book (now Muslims and Jews) fairly and "recognized the Muslims of Andalusia as a worthy adversary....Christian writers simultaneously condemned Islam and praised Muslims."  (pg. 151)

Alfonso X used a variety of  people to help him in his quest "to preserve the heritage of the Iberian Peninsula, ... [yet] establish the superiority of Christianity."  Sadly as the Christians became more powerful, they started treating Jews and Muslims with intolerance. It was convert or leave.

"What we are left with, then, is two very different histories.  One is of a Muslim Spain that with notable exceptions rested on a foundation of coexistence and cooperation between the three faiths.  The other is a Christian Spain that with few exceptions thrived because of a crusading ideology that rejected Muslims and Jews."  When the Ottomans took over the last Christian empire in the Near East and the once great city of Constantinople fell, "it reinforced a belief, already prevalent in the Christian West, that Muslims were the enemy."  (pg. 157)


Suroor said...

"The sad part is that when Ghazali died, Muslims "sanctified" him to the extent that the door to interpreting the true meaning of the Quran and tradition of Muhammad stopped. The questions al-Ghazali asked ceased to be asked, debate was discouraged and "Islamic law and theology became more rigid." (pg. 141)"

Ghazali was very much against women. His 18 or 19 points about how women should behave are an eye opener and after reading those I wondered how Muslim women even tolerate reading about him!

Susanne said...

Hmmmm, I'm sure it was a patriarchal and such as most men were back then. I think Muslims should never have set what HE did in stone then. Or do you think they have not and moved on from his rather poor view of women?

Suroor said...

"I'm sure it was a patriarchal and such as most men were back then."

Certainly! But then most men weren't *scholars* either. Ghazzali seemed to know everything about Islam and should have known the damage his words could create. Like another once said "with great power comes great responsibility" :D

I think Muslims have moved on, or maybe they don't know about this aspect of Ghazzali's teachings and beliefs.

Susanne said...

Thanks for the additional info! :)

alex said...

It's totally ridiculous to say Ghazali was against women i dont know from where people are getting these things.Ghazali is one of the intellectuals who encouraged rational thought and said dont follow religion blindly. Unfortunately Ghazali is often misunderstood in the west but if you read St.Thomas Aquinas was heavily influenced by averreos but also ghazali

Susanne said...

Thanks for speaking up for Ghazali with your perspective!