By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
13 Jul 2017
Reading Whitehead on Philosophy and Religion
To be given human state and fail to gratefully acknowledge those who have been its greatest explorers in different domains is both a moral and intellectual failure. There have been towering minds who have left behind a legacy of great insights regarding almost every important thing that concerns us and if we don’t visit their palaces of wisdom, we lose our claim to be lovers of wisdom or Hikmah. The opposite of philosopher (etymologically lover of wisdom) is not a prophet or saint or theologian but misosopher (hater of wisdom) and we have no choice to avoid philosophy but are unavoidably either good or bad philosophers. Much of Sunni Muslim world’s tragedy is that it fears philosophers and is guilty of slander (Bohtan) and unfounded opinions (Zann) about them. It assumes philosophy is threat to religion or philosophers don’t know religion in its proper manner. What a decline from the past practice when it was perceived as an ally and it was a great privilege and honour to do philosophy (philosophy and medicine were especially wedded explaining common term for both philosopher and doctor Hakeem) in the manner of the best of ancients/sages and in our seminaries and public spaces philosophy received much attention and it is the deserved prestige of the term that we today call our best religious scholar and thinkers such as Maulana Thanwi and Iqbal as Hakeem-ul-ummat. It is Whitehead amongst the few modern philosophers who may be considered almost a counterpart of Islamic sage in the Western world as he had deep engagement with religion, art and mysticism in the manner of Muslim sages. Let us try to read Whitehead today with these points in mind.
The author of a classic work Process and Reality, imposing system builder and originator of process theology, Whitehead’s essential point regarding limitations of both classical theism and pantheism and the need for panentheism has been highly influential and we see a number of most distinguished theologians including modern Sufi theologians invoking this term to describe their view of God. Whitehead’s co-authored work (with Russell) on mathematics and logic (Principia Mathematical) has been of seminal significance. His ideas on education, religion and art have been respectfully engaged with by modern scholarship. He influenced some of the most important modern thinkers of religion and philosophy including Iqbal. In the Muslim world. Muhammad Shahrur, one of the most radical modernists who championed (problematically though on certain points) revision of certain key themes of classical scholarship including inheritance law and definitions of Mu’min and Muslim, also claimed decisive influence from Whitehead.
La illaha Illallah means, for Sufi metaphysicians, that “There is no truth but Truth” and since there remains a transcendent face of the Truth forever inaccessible to language and reason, it follows that the “right view is no view” or one that unfolds in silence. It implies we have been given only partial truths at best and thus humility that contrasts with intellectual arrogance found in fundamentalists of all hues. Whitehead’s point that “There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays to the devil” underscores the same point. His great observation “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains” recalls the best of Muslim philosophers, Sufis and poets’ understanding of the place of wonder in Islamic epistemology. “Apart from God every activity is merely a passing whiff of insignificance” recalls the verse of Arab poet Labid "Behold! Everything besides Allah is vain” that the Prophet (SAW) praised. Those who find everything crystal clear, banish questions, don’t wish to acknowledge clear contradictions in their presentations, claim finality of old theological formulations and in their arrogance don’t find any need to learn from philosophers, he warns about danger of sentimentalism and says “Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions.” He also notes: “It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” For some theologians all questions are too obviously settled (and all they do is to sell answers they think they have to this or that question) to require any deep thinking in which philosophers specialize.
Whitehead’s formulation “The foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity” recalls the secret of heaven/immortality attainable here and now by attention to the present moment, the Moment, that mystics talk about. He also rejects elitism that laughs at common people for their unsophisticated minds as he states: “Some of the finest moral intuitions come to quite humble people. The visiting of lofty ideas doesn't depend on formal schooling.” Thus one might understand how come unschooled Sufi poets of Kashmir could be revered as the wisest people and today the most moral persons we find more amongst lesser educated or uneducated people than in better educated corridors like Secretariats and higher offices, private and public. Philosophy for the best of Greek and Muslim minds has been allied to ethics and a vision of the heart and has been an essential component of classics of ethics such as those of Sadi’s or Razi’s or Tusi’s.
Whitehead has argued for seminal place of beauty in life (recalling, in the Islamic tradition such figures as Allama Anwar Shah who notes in his comment on Hadeesi Jibriel that ihsan is “Husn Paida Kerden” and one of his great students explication of it in Maqalati Ihsani). To quote Whitehead “The teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty...Apart from Beauty, Truth is neither good, nor bad... Truth matters because of beauty.” And he explains why poets are important – they light up the world for us or show beauty we might otherwise miss (and thus help complementing religion). “After you understand about the sun and the stars and the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset.” He also asserts that religion will be discredited if it can’t face change/contradiction in the manner science does. Most advocates of religion fear change and fail to note what Shariati emphasized and sharp and witty Hassan Nisar keeps repeating viz. changing things for changing needs and unchanging principles for unchanging needs. Theologian need to update every moment. And it is here that we find most Muslim scholars lag behind in courage and sophistication and keep invoking, rather uncritically and in archaic idiom, now very old formulations of Al-Ashari, Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiyyah in theological issues and in repeating now, mostly, largely discredited misreadings of/misgivings about Greek and Muslim philosophers/sages. Even Shah Waliullah and Imam Kashmiri Anwar Shah were quite uncharitable towards philosophers on a problematic assumption that they advocate cut and dry rationalism and not intellection and equally problematic assumption that revelation is ignored or belittled or circumvented by them in principle. How come it is Ibn Sina the “Mulhid” whose argument for God is taught till date from centuries in Madrasa curriculum and it is a text on Fiqh (Bidayat al-Mujtahid) by another “Mulhid” Ibn Rushd that even Imam Kashmiri couldn’t resist praising and changing his opinion about the philosopher. And it is another philosopher Mulla Sadra whom he considered Muhaqqiq and highly recommended on such questions as afterlife. And who can ignore his respect for Iqbal, the sage of the East?
Whitehead prized humour and observed “I have always noticed that deeply and truly religious persons are fond of a joke, and I am suspicious of those who aren't.” And it isn’t a joke that Rumi has said that laughter, unlike anything else, straightway touches/unveils the Divine Essence. Few religious scholars have been like Imam Kashmiri capable of deploying humour in discussing weighty theological issues.
Refuting such naïve claims as those of Freud and Hawking regarding science ousting philosophy, Whitehead states “Science repudiates philosophy. In other words, it has never cared to justify its truth or explain its meaning.” And to those scientists like Weinberg who complain about pointlessness of universe, he would retort “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” Whitehead’s view of object of religion as unattainable and yet the greatest of present facts is one of the most pithy formulations of dialectic of transcendence (Tanzih) and immanence (Tasbih) for which theologians should be grateful to him.
One might read Whitehead’s Adventure of Ideas to begin with and read last few chapters of Process and Reality to get some acquaintance with the great mind and one can’t be the same person after reading him as has been remarked about great works that they permanently change/elevate our plane of consciousness. One should read a dialogue between Whiteheadean philosopher David Ray Griffith and perennialist Huston Smith (Primordial Truth and Postmodern theology) to see certain points in more critical but refreshing perspective. Whitehead said that “mysticism is a direct insight into depths as yet unspoken” and that the purpose of philosophy is not to explain away but to rationalize mysticism and this is, as L. W. Hessel notes, exactly what we see Mulla Sadra doing. Both Whitehead and Mulla Sadra see Reality as process, everything ever changing and evolving and time as real with dynamic God grounding everything. Whitehead sounds familiar to post-Sadra Muslim philosophers.
I can’t resist stating that for those who could but don’t know great minds such as Plato, Ibn Sina, Ghazzali, Sadra, Heidegger, Whitehead and Schuon is to miss the finest flowering of human consciousness and thus waste away the opportunity to cultivate great beauty of mind and soul that this life provides.