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Meditations on the Idea of Conversion, Dawah and Legacy of Muslim Philosophers

By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

8 Jun 2018

If we examine sermons and activism of major missionary religions calling for adopting respective religions and even people within different sects of one religion calling for adopting respective sects, how do we choose? The fact remains that in more than 99% cases one is already convinced about the truth of one’s religion and remains in the faith of one’s ancestors/immediate environment. It is often assumed that we are to choose between true and false or this or that religion/sect/school at the cost of hell and that gives urgency to such a question for at least a miniscule fraction of people. How do philosophers in general and Muslim philosophers in particular engage with such calls? Let us explore with more specific reference to one of the greatest Muslim philosopher-sages Al-Farabi.

      Al-Farabi’s legacy may be invoked in engaging with the phenomenon of missionary spirit of Islam that has two aspects: Dawah work and Jihad. Dawah work is aimed at preaching the word and Jihad at removing the obstacles that prevent human response to the Divine Call and thus thwart full realization of potential for happiness or knowledge/gnosis. As Dawah work requires bearing witness to the Truth today in an age singularly known for confusion of tongues or proliferation of ideologies and conflicting narratives and relativism, it becomes rather tricky to present the truth of the Absolute to a vast disbelieving modernity.

      In Islam one is converted by proper use of intelligence or what is demanded is proper use of intelligence and I don’t think anyone can fail to appreciate reasonableness of the demand. God holds us accountable for our attitude to our own theomorphic nature. We have the right and duty to pursue happiness or ideally unalloyed joy and if we squander this right or duty we fail in the task of being human. Proper use of Aql leads to Tawhid/unity of the Real. So every thinking person is converted by using philosophical acumen in the broad sense of the term.

Only those established in knowledge or Ulama fear God, the Quran declares. Who are Ulama? What is knowledge in Islam? Isn’t it inclusive of what goes by the name of intellectual or what one may loosely call philosophical disciplines as well? How can we ignore or reject Al-Farabi’s claim, elaborated and more eloquently argued by Ibn Rushd, that philosophers, as the people of demonstration, have the primary claim to the class of true knowers or truly knowledgeable on whom the title of Aalim applies?

Who is best capable of interpreting the Prophet’s word? Philosophers, according to both Al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd. Shah Waliullah and Ismail Shaheed have clarified that sages – Hukama – are best qualified in this task. (Disagreement may be identifying a particular person as Hakeem though the basic agreement over what is Hikmah and what makes one Hakeem is evident in Islamic tradition.

The question who is a Hakeem Suhrawardi and his commentator Mulla Sadra illuminate while as some exoteric exegetes obfuscate like none else.) Are not the greatest names in Muslim history largely classifiable as philosophers or philosophical theologians? Sufis have been pre-eminently claiming the qualification as Urafa, as knowers. We know that the notion of Hikmah has both prophetic and philosophical connotations. The Prophet is described as teacher of Hikmah and given the position adopted by Muslim philosophers as enunciators of Hikmah; we can safely assert that philosophy and prophecy are allies. Indeed, “Muslim historians, from al-Shahrastani in the twelfth century to Qutb-al-Din Ashkivari in the seventeenth, take the view that the wisdom of the 'Greek sages' was itself also derived from the 'Cave of the lights of prophecy'.”

      If we can claim for philosophers as sages a pre-eminent place that has been reserved to scholars (theologian-jurist) and saints in popular Muslim imagination we can take a great leap forward for facing multiple challenges that Muslim community has been facing. Is the huge project on preaching Islam to the world that is preoccupying thousands of Muslim scholars and activists viable in absence of serious engagement with (post)modern philosophical or critical discourse? If a sizeable number of educated youth and ex-Muslims are expressing their reservations about theological cum juristic corpus for its supposed failure to convince on rational grounds, how can Dawah workers avoid appropriating Muslim philosophers who have used an idiom that communicates much better to modern secular audience?

 To just give one example: Al-Farabi talks about seeking happiness  at individual level and cooperating for the same at social level as the problem of man and proceeds to explain time tested contemplative and ethical teaching handed from ancients through Plato and what Suhrawardi calls “the light of the cave of prophecy.”

      Today Dawah work needs philosophical approach, at least in certain parts of the world or certain sections of addressees. If one doubts this it means one is living in medieval age and has not heard of Nietzsche or Heidegger or Freud or Derrida.

      Why thinking or Tafakkur is needed to understand scripture is lucidly answered by Mulla Sadra thus: “The Quranic revelation is the light which enables one to see. It is like the sun which casts light lavishly. Philosophical intelligence is the eye that sees this light and without this light one cannot see anything. If one closes one’s eyes, that is, if one pretends to pass by philosophical intelligence, this light itself will not be seen because there will not be any eyes to see it.”

      One needs to note an important qualification while seeking to appropriate Al-Farabi for Dawah work. Instead of being interested in formal conversion – like Sufis in general who practised sharing their love and wisdom and people getting attracted to them and as a result landed in Islam – but inviting people through various means to work for virtuous state or at least their perfection or happiness, both this worldly and eschatological.

The task of the philosopher or Sufi is midwifery – letting the treasure in us unfold rather than seek a convert to some ideological construct or narrative. His call for justice and ethic centric life would remind one of a Derrida or Levinas rather than any firebrand evangelist or intoxicated assassin or modern sermonizer. His commitment to Islam would be somewhat like that of Schuon who was more interested in Sophia perennis he thought expressing the esoteric/metaphysical core of Islam as of other traditions and addressing the world as a sage rather than a sectarian preacher or in the name of piety or some political ideology.

One could point out that the most brilliant minds in recent history have been converted or reverted at the hands of sages like Isa Nuruddin who didn’t seek to convert as such. Some Sufis did and some didn’t insist on formal conversion before consenting to guiding someone. God chooses whomsoever he wills. Ultimately conversion/reversion is about choosing the other/God over the self, Spirit/Akhirat centric life over ego/Nafs/world centric one. Who can claim he has chosen Islam or converted truly in this sense? Let us first convert ourselves and then we will understand what it entails for the other. Conversion need not be approached in all or none terms. We ever seek to deepen – or disengage with – our conversion to other views, faiths, loves. One is not really converted, one is reverted to what one is or has been idealizing or nurturing in one’s depths.

      All of us seek to spread the good news we know; we are all interested in advising people to seek what we consider to be the best book, best food, best university, best philosopher and so forth. Every philosopher has thus sought to convince others and thus to “convert.” So it is natural for man to invite others even if not overtly to what one’s religion or advocate why one’s path helps better.

This explains how one can be a religious pluralist – not call bad names of others’ gods, suspend judgment regarding any particular persons’ fate till the Last Day, respect freedom of choice of others to choose even hell for themselves, refuse to claim to scan hearts, see God as the intended object of worship of every worshipper – in the proper sense and still be active on Dawah front.

On sum we don’t find the world abandoning any major religion en masse for any other or theists becoming atheists or vice versa or Muslims/non Muslims exchanging beliefs in such numbers as to depopulate the world although there have been hope of skewing it in favour of one or the other religion amongst many believers of different missionary religions. There is even a debate between sects of a religion regarding exact shape of things at end times as Jesus/Mahdi conquers the world.

It is interesting to see almost constant to and fro traffic of believers and nonbelievers, of Muslims and Christians and Buddhists. One may sum up philosophical basis of conversion idea in the statement that man is a quest for orientation to the vision of the Good and the Beautiful and the True and as such whatever he perceives/believes to be the perfect image of them will be the object offered for others to consider.

It remains to be seen whether saints/sages ultimately offer us different things or different and complementary images/packaging of the One Truth/Beauty/Goodness/Joy. A vast majority of scholars today think that the latter is the case. If one thinks differently, one is welcome to put forward arguments. Nothing is more unscholarly than to claim to be the spokesperson of God/ Prophets when we know God has chosen not to explicitly endorse any particular candidate to exclusively fight election (for a seat in Paradise) in His name or on His ticket. Or at least we are surrounded by different advocates of God/Prophets inviting us to different – at least seemingly so – versions of Truth.