Lahouari AddiThe Crisis of Muslim Religious DiscourseThe Necessary Shift from Plato to Kant (Routledge, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Lahouari Addi (LA): I wrote this book to remind the reader that in non-secularized societies, or in societies where secularization is under way, the cultural representations through which the world is perceived are fueled by theology deemed to be the source of moral and knowledge. Theology is basically an intellectual activity resting on a metaphysics that gives meaning to existence. Plato is the philosopher who provided medieval Abrahamic theology with the foundation of the rational intellectual reasoning. Indeed, Augustin and al Ash’ari were both influenced by Plato’s cosmology. As far as religious belief is concerned, Plato’s philosophy mixes faith with reason and vice versa. Theology is knowledge and the theologians in Islam are called ulemas, meaning people who possess science (al ‘ilm). The intolerance of medieval Catholicism and contemporary Islam does not come from the Bible or the Qur’an; it comes from the Platonician metaphysics in which faith is science and science is faith. Whenever religion claims to be the source of science or to be the science, the evolution of human thought is doomed to stagnation.

Muslim theology accepts natural sciences but is defiant towards philosophy and social sciences. Ali Abderrazek, trained in Al Azhar, was discharged from his functions for writing a book in which he showed that the Muslim state, after the prophet, has a political and not a religious legitimacy. Taha Hussein was attacked for his profane conceptions on Muslim culture. Many decades later, Hamid Abou Zeyd was victim of the same religious intolerance. The weakness of social sciences, including philosophy and sociology, in the Muslim world has its origin in the hegemonic character of the religious discourse. One of the difficulties in the religious debate is to make people accept that the current theology is only an interpretation of the Qur’an. Muslim theology has been sacralized and, being sacralized, it became prisoner of the past culture.

I wrote this book to show that the current theology is an outdated interpretation of the Qur’an. A modern interpretation will show that the Qur’an does not oppose philosophy and knowledge on society, and also does not oppose the freedom of consciousness and gender equality. We need to bear in mind that Muslim theology was formed between the seventh and eleventh centuries on the basis of the knowledge of that time. This theology is outdated and the Muslim world needs a new theology consistent with the progress made by human thought since the twelfth century.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LA: By the eleventh to twelfth centuries, three predominant intellectual currents were present in the field of religious thought: the orthodox, the philosophers, and the Sufis. These three currents are implicitly or explicitly Platonicians. The orthodox are Platonicians without being aware of it; the philosophers claim overtly to be Platonicians; as far as the Sufis, they elevated Plato to the rank of a prophet of Islam, al hanif, and formed what is called the Neo-Platonician Islam. The philosophers were silenced by al Ghazali’s book, Tahafut al Falasifa. The Sufis were under pressure but they were accepted by the orthodox under the condition that they did not blur the frontier between the divine and the human. The emergence of the colonial and the postcolonial nation-state weakened the Sufi brotherhood, while the orthodox ulemas adjusted easily to the new political environment. The anthropologist Ernest Gellner built a problematic according to which the ideology of orthodox ulemas is consistent with the model of the nation-state, while the ideology of the Sufis is not. The new historical circumstances helped the orthodox to defeat the Sufis who were also challenged by the nationalist ideology. But Gellner made a mistake by assuming that the ulemas are consistent with political modernity, dismissing the Sufis who, according to him, had disappeared. In the third chapter of my book, entitled “From Sufism to Islamism,” I put forward the idea that Sufism’s social energy was captured by political Islam. Ironically, political Islam is a secularized Sufism. The Sufi tries to reach the ideal society through spirituality; the Islamist tries to reach the same goal through politics, willing to transform shari’a into a law enforced by the state. The Sufi does not care about state power while the Islamist would like to take over state power to bring back society to the pious trail. Political Islam borrows its ideal from Sufism, its religious ideology from the Nahda, and its violence from revolutionary Arab nationalism. History is fraught with memory.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LA: This book connects to my previous book through the same question I am asking as an intellectual: why the Arab world failed to build a modern culture? My previous work dealt with the Arab nationalism that failed to modernize culture and society as promised (see my book Radical Arab Nationalism and Political Islam, Georgetown University Press, 2017). It stressed on political and economic factors. In the new book I put forward the assumption that religious reform was overlooked by the postcolonial state. The extension of the school system contributed to enhance the influence of orthodoxy and of medieval theology. Yet the nationalists claimed to implement the program of the Nahda reformist movement, led by Mohamed Abdu. The most important chapter of my new book, chapter four, is entitled “Mohamed Abdu or the failure of the epistemic transition.” Abdu is the most important religious intellectual of modern Muslim world. He attempted to change religious discourse and culture but he failed to create a new theology consistent with modernity. He did not reach his objective because, although he adopted European positivism in regard to natural sciences, he rejected implicitly the modern philosophy born with Descartes and Kant. Abdu acknowledged Galileo’s discoveries while being faithful to the old Greek metaphysics. The consequence is that he had a double filiation: the nationalists and the Salafists. Abdu is at the origin of Arab nationalism and political Islam. His inconsistency is that he was at the same time Galilean (modern) and Platonician (medieval). Modernity is the shift from Plato to Kant, as I put it in the subtitle of my new book.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LA: This book is aimed firstly for Muslims who, on the one hand, are attracted by modernity and, on the other hand, are still attached to the old religious discourse inherited from the past. This discourse is just an interpretation of the Qur’an. It is an interpretation of Islam-for-oneself and not Islam-in-itself. I borrowed these two concepts from Kant whose philosophy indicates that religion-in-itself is known only by an omniscient God. In light of Kant’s philosophy, the Qur’an takes a more human and spiritual dimension. The Qur’an through a Platonician reading is based on practical reason of the Middle Age. Practical reason changes with history. Reading the past theologians today gives the feeling of reading the works of children  as the Iraqi thinker Ali Ouardi put it. Indeed, our consciousness is not theirs. The Qur’an through Kantian reading is based on consciousness, a founding concept of modernity. My book is a contribution to the battle for tolerance in Muslim societies, to the extent that neither al Ash’ari, nor al Ghazali, let alone Ibn Taymiyya knew the true Islam as they suggested. We are humans and our interpretation of religion is influenced by our subjectivity, our culture, and our history.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LA: I am working on a book addressing Muslim ethics. My assumption is that we need to grasp the difference between shari’a and fiqh. The first is an ideal of justice and the second is a legal culture. In Kant’s words, shari’a would be the noumenon and fiqh the phenomenon. Fiqh has been built on the basis of practical reason of the eighth and ninth centuries. Yet practical reason changes over time. Human history is an endless evolution of the phenomenon towards the noumenon. Shari’a is an ideal of justice that will never be reached because humankind has a moral deficit that prevents men from being perfect. For centuries, the Sufi attempted to be a perfect man, to be what Ibn ‘Arabi calls the insane al-kamil, a holy man. He failed because if a man becomes perfectly moral, he would not be a man anymore. In my future book I would like to show that Muslim societies should build a modern law as fair as possible inspired by shari’a, yet also aware that shari’a is a divine, ideal set of ethics out of reach of humankind.

J: Does your problematic apply to both Sunni and Shiite Islam? 

LA: Neo-Platonician metaphysics had more influence in Shiite Islam, starting with Suhrawardi, for whom Plato deserved to be elevated at the rank of the prophets Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed. He has been sentenced to death by the orthodox. He inspired the theosophy school of Ispahan. According to the Islamologist Henry Corbin, Persian Islam kept alive Plato’s philosophy, blended with a Zoroastrian past. For him, Iran is more protected from secularization because the Platonician Avicenna had more influence than the Aristotelician Ibn Roshd. I do not share this view. History does not deal with essence; it deals with cultures that are doomed to change.


Excerpt from the book (from the Preface to the English edition, pp. VI-VII)

The debate over Islam is sensitive in societies facing secularization welcomed by some and feared by others. The confrontation is visible at all levels of Muslim societies, sometimes triggering passion and violence. The role of scholars is to bring serenity by referring to knowledge provided by human sciences, such as philosophy, history, sociology, etc. To achieve this objective, the epistemic battle has to be won by convincing as many people as possible that the religious belief is also a social fact addressed by human sciences. Leaving knowledge on religious belief to religious men leads religion being cut off from its historical environment and its cultural and anthropological dimensions. The ulema have the monopoly over religious knowledge assumed to be superior to profane knowledge. The latter had to be validated by the former. This situation prevented the creation of knowledge on man and society. Ibn Rushd, the most famous of Aristotle’s disciples, and Ibn Khaldoun, precursor of modern sociology, had no influence on Muslim culture and did not have intellectual posterity. The absence of profane knowledge in Muslim societies created a void filled up by orientalists. Even though it bears ideological orientations, orientalism brought factual knowledge pertaining to the intellectual past of Muslim civilization by overcoming the epistemological obstacle built by repetitive commentaries of theology. Muslim theology lost its originality when it started to sacralize the works of the founding fathers instead of enriching them. The dismissal of Ibn Rushd, for whom the revelation does not contradict reason and vice versa, and the victory of Ibn Taymiyya, for whom logic leads towards atheism (mane tamantaqa tazandaqa) contributed to the making of a discourse built on the confusion between the sacred and the opinion on the sacred.

As medieval theologians, the ulema did not understand that the sacred text needs profane knowledge to renew its interpretation following historical evolution. Humankind did not stop creating knowledge after the divine revelation. In endless progression, knowledge helps to better understand the spiritual need of man. The sacred text does not explain itself; it is explained by philosophy and by knowledge on man and society. Human sciences are not in competition with theology which needs them to open to society and its historical evolution. From this vantage, Kant’s contribution in philosophy, Ibn Khaldoun’s, Durkheim’s and Weber’s in sociology shed light on the relation between man and the sacred. When Kant writes that man is an end in himself, he helps to avoid religious alienation. When he writes that science is unable to demonstrate the existence or the inexistence of God, he does not despise the belief in God. He only says that science is limited and its subject is different from the subject of religious ethics. Pure reason, as means of science, and practical reason, as instrument of ethics, do not have the same theoretical vocation. The separation between the two reasons is not meant to dismiss religious values. Kant writes: “It is morally necessary to admit the existence of God” (Groundworks of the Metaphysics of Morals). It is because the two reasons have been conflated that medieval Christianity collapsed and Muslim religious discourse cut itself off from historical reality.

This book addresses the crisis of the Muslim religious discourse that was, up until the 19th century, consistent sociologically with traditional society and philosophically with the Platonic perception of human existence. Despite the fact he was not formally acknowledged by orthodoxy, Plato is the philosopher who has had the most influence on Muslim culture. His conception of life has been adopted by the élite and, through Sufism, by millions of believers eager to get in touch with the supra-sensible. The ulema were opposed to this utopia but they had to deal with it. They reached an agreement with the Sufis thanks to al Ghazali who surrendered himself to the neo-platonist mystic. Ibn ‘Arabi, the Sufi master, was called Ibn Flatoun (Plato’s son). Suhrawardi who inspired theosophy and Shiite gnosis, was sentenced to death for considering Plato to be a prophet like Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Shedding light on the past intellectual debates that opposed different currents of thought, and on the metaphysics they refer to, could be useful in overcoming the medieval interpretation in which the religious discourse is trapped. This book wants to address this task.

April 21st 2021, Rockville, Maryland