Elements of Islamic and Jewish Medieval Political Thought

I. Introduction: Alfarabi’s Legacy

Aristotle remained outside of philosophical and religious discourse during most of the medieval period in the West, until, as we address in Chapter 4, he was rediscovered in Aquinas’s time. How did Aristotle and classical Greek thought, including Plato, once again become central to Western thought after so long an absence? The rediscovery of Plato and Aristotle in the Western medieval world was made possible by Islamic culture. As early as the ninth century, the study of Greek contributions in science and philosophy were brought into Islamic society through the monetary support of several Islamic political authorities.1 And as Islamic society made its way through North Africa and Spain it brought along its intellectual and religious culture, including Greek philosophy.

However, within the Islamic medieval world itself, philosophy faced difficulties surviving. Philosophy, with its origins in Greek culture, often was viewed as a foreign intrusion into Islamic societies and thus was resented by religious leaders in the Muslim world. Many Islamic religious leaders thought Islamic approaches to discovering truth should be followed on all occasions. Those who held this view argued that Islamic sources could best provide an understanding of the structure of nature as well as how to construct a good society based on interpretations of Islamic law in local circumstances?

Of course, in classical Greek philosophy, issues such as the structure of nature and the way to achieve a good society were approached from the perspective of reason, and religious arguments had little place. But in Islamic societies, the Koran, the Muslim holy book, as well as the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers, gave clear answers to vexing questions. As Oliver Leaman says, from the standpoint of Islamic religious leaders, the information from these sources provides “unambiguous answers to the important questions concerning how people ought to live, how the world was created, what sort of state should be constructed, which types of behaviour are valid and which wicked, and so on.”3

Further, Islam was buttressed by a history of mysticism, which permitted particular individuals with special qualities to claim a direct understanding of God. In the face of this prospect, it was natural that many Islamic religious leaders thought that philosophy was unnecessary. Islamic philosophers disagreed, and to support their arguments, they invoked the name of Aristotle. For Islamic religious leaders, however, if Aristotle, a non-Muslim, could evoke truth without Islam, what, then, would be the value of Islam?4 And, thus, Islamic religious leaders often argued against philosophy’s methods, suggesting that these methods produce not only flawed reasoning but also wrong-headed conclusions. In contrast, Islamic philosophers persisted in believing that their methods were the best path to truth.5

Despite these complaints from Islamic religious leaders, Greek philosophy had a strong foothold in Islamic societies. The Islamic philosopher who played a substantial role in furthering the study of Greek philosophy in Islamic culture was Alfarabi (870-950 CE).6 Charles Butterworth says that “it is now generally conceded that Alfarabi deserves to be recognized as the one who first introduced political philosophy into Islamic culture and that Avicenna . . . and Averroes all take their bearings from him as much as from Plato and Aristotle.”7

Of Turkish descent, Alfarabi became known in Baghdad as a principal authority on philosophy and logic.8 He lived during a time of political and social instability. Yet, despite this circumstance, strong support continued during Alfarabi’s time for studying Greek philosophy. Indeed, Miriam Galston says that he was part of a period that could be called the “renaissance of Islam.” Baghdad had a rich cultural life punctuated by public debates among opposing schools of thought on such subjects as logic and grammar. There were also vigorous discussions as to whether religious writings should be understood literally or were to be interpreted by the methods of philosophy. In addition, Baghdad was a center for philosophers who worked to translate and to comment on the writings of Aristotle, as well as other Greek thinkers. In this setting, Alfarabi had a productive career, during which he wrote on Aristotle’s ethics, physics, and metaphysics. He also wrote a commentary on Plato’s Laws, and he prepared summaries of both Aristotle’s and Plato’s political thoughts.9

Alfarabi, as Galston says, thought that “religion is an imitation of philosophy.”10 Alfarabi believed that religion and philosophy both seek to know answers to similar questions, but that philosophy provides a superior account of knowledge than does religion.11 Nonetheless, religion must not be discounted in importance. For Alfarabi, the truths of philosophy are well beyond the grasp of ordinary people to comprehend. But these truths can still be conveyed through religious concepts and symbolism.12

A central concern in this chapter is to explain the place of political philosophy in medieval Islamic and Jewish thought. To do so, it is necessary to discuss what we mean by reasoning, the chief function of philosophy. Reasoning is composed of two essential activities. In the first place, reasoning requires us to define the basic assumptions and definitions that are the starting points and building blocks of an argument. Further, once these assumptions are determined, the next question pertains to their accuracy. Indeed, a large part of philosophical analysis involves questioning the validity of basic assumptions by determining if evidence can support them.

Secondly, there is the question of the argument’s form. In this regard, it is essential to see if the conclusions of an argument follow logically from the argument’s basic assumptions and definitions. The form of the argument thus starts with assumptions X and Y and then moves from them logically to conclusion Z. For instance, in religious arguments, the basic starting point is often the assumption that God exists. The conclusions are what follow logically from that assumption. Once one posits a definition of God and describes God’s characteristics, for instance (as we see in Maimonides), the rational ends God makes necessary, then logic is used to construct a fuller, more comprehensive vision of the world that is built from these assumptions.

Political philosophers embrace the techniques of philosophy throughout discussions of political, religious, or ethical matters. Overall, political philosophy, employing well-grounded assumptions and flawless logic, seeks to construct visions that define approaches to enhancing the best prospects of human life. A dominant vision in the works we discuss in this chapter embraces the enterprises of classical Greek thinkers such as Plato and Ar istotle. In this regard, a main concern of political philosophy is to build communities that satisfy humankind’s need for a happy and contented life thr ough a society that teaches moral virtue to its citizens. Moral virtue orients individuals to restrain desires in ways that make possible respect for the common good, as embodied in the laws of a community.

Further, the different writers we discuss in this chapter use political philosophy to define the proper relationship between faith and reason. In this regard, the Islamic and Jewish traditions highlighted in this chapter did for Islamic and Jewish thought what Aquinas did for the Christian tradition, as we discuss in Chapter 4. And in doing so, it is necessary to create a secure place for philosophy in society. Moreover, from the standpoint of the main theme of this book, creating a place in society for philosophy helps to pave the way for civil society in future generations. For, to sustain philosophy - and the intellectual inquiry it demands -a space that makes possible toleration and mutual respect for diverse ideas and ways of life is necessary. And that space is called a civil society.

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