Return to Al-Andalus by Ziauddin Sardar

A young surgeon seeks new techniques to relieve the suffering of his patients. He is a rationalist familiar with the latest advances in science. But his rationalism is severely tested when he meets a libertine steeped in ancient religious beliefs and haunted by the memory of his dead father.

In The Burial Chamber, a meticulously researched dark thriller by Jeremy Cox, the entanglement between rationality and magic, dreams, talismans and ancient dogma is played out against the background of scientific advances in a nineteenth-century
London of lunatic asylums, gentlemen’s clubs and rowdy meetings at the Royal Society.

In one particularly gripping scene set at the Royal Society, where the surgeon has been invited to present a paper, theories and cures for mental illness are heatedly discussed. It is acknowledged that the religious theories attributing insanity to the influence of Satan, as well as existing theories of medical treatment such as ‘the purging of the bowels, blistering, and mortification of the extremities have not always proved effective’; although ‘blood-letting and the emptying of the stomach through vomiting can still have a beneficial effect’. The discussion moves on to a new ‘moral therapy’ which emphasises ‘kindness and patience in [the] treatment of inmates’.

A stalwart of the Royal Society explains, ‘I consider the mind to be an immortal, immaterial substance identical to the human soul, and therefore lunacy cannot be a disease of the mind. It has to be that of the brain. As such, it will be medical advances that bring about an understanding of insanity and new medical treatments for it in its various forms. Erasmus Darwin’s rotating chair, for example. The chair spins the patient around at great speed so as to rearrange the contents of the brain into their right positions. The treatment also has the added benefit of bringing about subsequent vomiting’.

Al-Ghazzali, the Muslim theologian and jurist, considered the Muslim society of his time to be so deeply afflicted with social sickness, ‘an epidemic among the multitude’ as he calls it, as to be virtually insane. The only cure was a ‘moral therapy’, a heavy dose of religious devotion and piety. Religion, it seems, was not unlike Erasmus Darwin’s rotating chair: it would spin those persistently ‘straying from the clear truth’, those insistent ‘upon fostering evil’ and ‘flattering ignorance’, at great speed, thus rearranging their brains into pious order, while, as an added benefit, forcing them to spew out their heresies. All of those who are lured by ‘the Satan’, he tells us in The Book of Knowledge, ‘see good as evil and evil as good, so that the science of religion has disappeared and the torch of true faith has been extinguished all over the world’.

Al-Ghazzali’s invective is directed at the vast majority of Muslims he saw and interacted with; although one suspects he would regard contemporary Muslim societies with equal contempt. But he was especially concerned with a particular ‘class of men’ who are largely missing from contemporary Muslim societies. These men have ‘greater intelligence and insight’, ‘have abandoned all the religious duties Islam imposes on its followers’, ‘defy the injunction of the Sacred Law’, and ‘indulge in diverse speculations’.

These people, al-Ghazzali squawks, hold ‘irresponsible views’, have ‘perverted minds’, and ‘must be branded with diabolical perversity and stupid contumacy’. They are ‘the heretics of our time’.

Just who are these men denounced so emphatically as heretics, good only for the gallows, by al-Ghazzali? They are men inspired by the ‘intellectual power’ of ‘Socrates, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle’. They are philosophers. Like al-Kindi (801-873), who introduced Indian numerals to the Muslim world, and wrote on everything from astronomy to music. Like al-Farabi (872-951), the author of The Perfect City and The Book of Music, who explored the relationship between logic and grammar and was so humble that he spent his last days working as a gardener. Like ibn Sina (980-1037) whose numerous scientific works are a wonder to behold and whose Canon of Medicine was a standard text for eight centuries. And like ibn Rushd, the philosopher and all round polymath from Cordoba whose works fuelled the first European renaissance. The very people who laid the foundations of the Muslim civilisation, the beacons of thought and learning whose names are intrinsically linked to ‘the Golden Age of Islam’.

What incensed al-Ghazzali so much? His criticism of philosophers comes in two parts. First, he accuses Muslim philosophers of taking a rather uncritical attitude to ‘ancient masters’. The works of Plato and Aristotle are regarded as ‘unquestionable’, and their mathematics, logic and deductive methods are seen as ‘the most profound’ and used to repudiate ‘the authority of religious law’ and deny ‘the positive contents of historical religions’. Second, and this is what really troubles him, their beliefs – or aqidah – are not correct. It is the sort of accusation that conservative Wahhabis, extremist Salafis, and militant Talibanis routinely throw at all those who disagree with them. But al-Ghazzali, a Professor at the Nazamia Academy in Baghdad, was far more sophisticated: using their own rhetoric and method, he took the battle to the philosophers themselves.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers is an angry book. It is full of the sort of name-calling and livid asides not usually associated with a work of philosophy. In the preface, al-Ghazzali tries to defend the practice of offering prayer during an eclipse on the authority of a tradition of the Prophet. The philosophers explained the solar and lunar eclipse in scientific terms, as a natural phenomenon; and rejected the idea of praying during an eclipse. Al-Ghazzali acknowledges that ‘these things have been established by astronomical and mathematical evidence which leaves no room for doubt’. Nevertheless, since the Prophet declared that ‘when you see an eclipse you must seek refuge in the contemplation of God and in prayer’, the eclipse prayer is obligatory. Then we move on to twenty ‘theories’ of the philosophers, such as their doctrine of the eternity of the world, their alleged denial of Divine attributes, and their belief in the impossibility of departure from the natural course of events. Al-Ghazzali sets out to demolish these theories one by one. Thirteen theories are found to be problematic. On three points (the assertion that the world is everlasting, the denial that God knows the particulars, and the denial of bodily resurrection in the Hereafter) he judges the philosophers to be totally outside Islam, kaffirs (infidels) to boot. The other theories and assertions are seen as heretical.

Now, I know that I am dealing with a scholar regarded by many as the most influential person in the history of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad. In certain circles, criticism of al-Ghazzali is seen almost as a blasphemy, releasing an automatic defence mechanism. And it is particularly difficult for someone like me who grew up revering ‘The Proof of Islam’, as al-Ghazzali is sometimes called. But, forced to take a leaf from al-Ghazzali’s book, ‘I am no longer obliged to remain silent’.

By any intellectual standards, The Incoherence of the Philosophers is not a ‘major assault’ on philosophy, as it is commonly depicted, but a poor polemic, and an insulting one too. Al-Ghazzali states the positions of the philosophers reasonably well, but his counter arguments are trite and often quite irrational. A couple of examples should suffice. The philosophers argued that the movement of heavenly bodies is due either to (1) the intrinsic nature of these bodies, such as the downward movement of a stone, which is an unconscious act; or (2) to an outside force that moves the body, which will be conscious of the movement. Al-Ghazzali counters with three arguments. First, ‘the movement of Heaven may be supposed to be the result of the constraint exercised by another body which wills its movement, and causes it to revolve perpetually. This motive body may be neither a round body nor a circumference. So it will not be a heavenly body at all’. Second, the heavenly bodies move by the will of God. Third, the heavenly bodies are specifically designed to possess the attribute of movement. And these arguments, asserts al-Ghazzali, cannot be disproved! To the philosopher’s assertion that angels are ‘immaterial beings’ which do not exist in space or act upon bodies, and should be understood in an allegorical or metaphorical sense, al-Ghazzali replies: ‘How will you disprove one who says God enables the Prophet to know the Hidden Things?’ Or deny that ‘he who has a dream comes to know the hidden things, because God, or one of his angels, enables him to know them’. This is not philosophy but the notions of men, as a natural philosopher in The Burial Chamber tells the young surgeon who ‘strenuously avoided keeping an open mind on matters of science’ out of fear that their dogma and ‘reputation would be undermined if they took it seriously’.

It has to be said that al-Ghazzali is big on the supernatural, an area he calls ‘subsidiary sciences’. He quite likes the fact that the philosophers promote inquiry into physical sciences such as mathematics, physics, astronomy, and botany, but he is not too happy with their concept of causality, the assertion that every cause must have an effect. More than that, he is enraged at the fact that the philosophers laugh at the suggestion that the Prophet split the moon (the philosophers dismissed the tradition as a fabrication), their denial that Moses’ rod literally turned into a serpent (the philosophers argued that this is an allegory of the refutation of the doubts of the unbelievers by the Divine proof manifested at the hands of Moses), and their refusal to believe in resurrection after death (the philosophers argued that the resurrection is a symbolic reference to death arising from ignorance and life emerging from knowledge).

Not everything can be explained by cause and effect, al-Ghazzali argued; and it is the job of ‘subsidiary sciences’ to explain things which exist beyond the domain of rationality. The reader is generously provided with a list of these ‘subsidiary sciences’, including astrology, dream interpretation, ‘the talismanic art’, ‘the art of magic’, alchemy, and ‘physiognomy’ – which ‘infers moral character from physical appearance’ (this science would no doubt locate me in an amoral universe). The list, including ‘physiognomy’, is a perfect echo of the dark supernatural world conjured up in The Burial Chamber. Incidentally, in The Book of Knowledge, al-Ghazzali describes these ‘sciences’ as ‘blameworthy’, real but not worthy of study by believers. But in the Incoherence he defends them aggressively – with bizarre consequences.

The al-Ghazzali that emerges from the Incoherence is a literalist, anti-rational scholar who is keen to cast a critical eye on philosophy yet eager to accept dogma and belief, including miracles and irrational sayings uncritically attributed to the Prophet. His main goal is to show that such metaphysical doctrines as the world having a Creator, that two gods are impossible, or that the soul is a self-subsistent entity, cannot be proved by reason. But he gets carried away and jettisons reason and ‘intellectual inquiry’ altogether from religion. The inductive leap to rejecting scientific inquiry per se is only natural: ‘let us give up the inquiry concerning “why” and “how much” and “what”. For these things are beyond the power of men’.

Given his vast oeuvre, it would be wrong to judge al-Ghazzali on a single work. In his study Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, Ebrahim Moosa gives us a different al-Ghazzali.  Moosa argues that al-Ghazzali wanted to augment as well as reinterpret religion by using the Aristotelian notion of poiesis (shiriya in Arabic), that is, the construction of something relatively but not radically new by means of poetics. ‘He constructed’, writes Moosa, ‘a narrative by weaving a plethora of ideas and insights into a coherent but profoundly refigured whole’, and thus ‘demonstrated that thoughts and ideas are not given, but made and constructed. At the same time, he elucidated a cosmology for Muslim thought that simultaneously imitated what came before it and innovated and provided something additional, some of what might be: the conditions of possibility’. Moosa presents al-Ghazzali as a modern, even postmodern thinker – and one is always convinced by Moosa’s erudite analysis. Certainly the al-Ghazzali of theological works such as The Revival of Religious Knowledge, The Alchemy of Happiness and Jewels of the Quran, appears to be a different category of scholar.

The al-Ghazzali of the Incoherence, however,is overwhelmed by his anger, and this had a genuine cause.  Philosophy, or falsifa as it was called, as shaped by Muslims appeared as positively dangerous to theology. And this danger was both physical as well as metaphysical. Theologians were persecuted in Baghdad for not being rational enough, particularly during the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun’s (786-833) reign. The Minha, the ‘testing’ or ‘trial’, introduced by al-Mamun to force theologians to justify their positions on rational grounds, led to an inquisition and the incarceration of the noted theologian and jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855), founder of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. During the days of al-Ghazzali, study of the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet was in decline; and men of learning preferred philosophy to theology. ‘The people of that time went so far’, writes the thirteen century historian Marrakhushi in his History of the Maghreb, ‘as to condemn as an unbeliever anyone who appears to be entering upon the sciences of theology’ which were seen as ‘vile’. Hatred of theology and its theories was the norm. During his own lifetime, the works of al-Ghazzali were banned in the Maghreb and Andalusia. The Berber Almoravids, who controlled large parts of Spain and the Maghreb, did not take kindly to his theology. The Almoravid ruler Ali ibn Yusuf (r.1106-1142) ordered his books ‘to be burnt, and issued severe threats of execution and confiscation of property against anyone found in possession of any of them; and these orders were strictly enforced’.

While al-Ghazzali’s anger is understandable and his theological works demand a certain respect, we should not be carried away by his reputation. ‘Conflicting forces’, as Moosa argues, ‘pushed and pulled him in different directions’, and he found himself engaging ‘with more than one intellectual and cultural tradition’, as was the norm during his period. But there was no ‘in-between-ness’ about him, as Moosa suggests. As we learn from his autobiography, Deliverance from Error, al-Ghazzali moved from one extreme to another in his own life: from being a total sceptic to an enthusiast believer who emphatically declared ‘reason is false’. He supported the fanatic Almoravids even though they banned his books! And there is just too much piety and uncritical acceptance of dogma in his work for an inquiring mind to take.

For ‘in-between-ness’ we have to look at the object and subject of al-Ghazzali’s wrath, and in particular at Ibn Rushd, who took it upon himself to reply to the Incoherence. Al-Ghazzali lovers often dismiss ibn Rushd as not very spiritual and too enthralled to the Greek masters. Moosa illustrates this well. Having built up al-Ghazzali as a postmodern deity, he takes a swipe at ibn Rushd. The Andalusian philosopher ‘mocked al-Ghazzali as a man of all seasons, a theologian with the theologians, a mystic with the Sufis, and a philosopher with the philosophers’, he says. Such ‘infantine geniality’ says more about Ibn Rushd than ‘the target of criticism’. If, Moosa goes on to say, ibn Rushd ‘had looked inwards, he might have acknowledged that a commitment to formalism and an uncritical response to Aristotelianism can be limiting’. Apparently al-Ghazzali is a ‘frontier thinker’ while ibn Rushd is ‘intransigent’.

Given Moosa’s accusations, it would be worth making a quick comparison of the two thinkers. Al-Ghazzali’s position is that only correct dogma can save believers, and philosophy and rational inquiry have no place in Islamic theology. His God is so omnipotent that He leaves no room for human agency; everything can be explained by miraculous intervention. Ibn Rushd argues that the Qur’an itself urges us to pursue rational deductions, to ‘look into’, ‘consider’ and ‘reflect on’ (2:29; 7:14) the wonders of creation as a means to understand God as Creator. Philosophy and science are thus central to all Islamic pursuits. If it turns out that rational inquiry was not conducted by Muslims but by the ancients (that is, the Greeks), then it is incumbent upon Muslims to embrace their thought and learning. Al-Ghazzali wants to instil fear of God and hell in his readers; ibn Rushd argues that a society is free when no one acts out of fear of God or hell, or out of desire for reward in paradise, but for the love of God and humanity. Al-Ghazzali freely uses hadith (authentic and weak, as well as quite irrational) and the sayings of sages and saints to make his arguments. Ibn Rushd unapologetically scrutinises the traditional sources with a critical and rational eye. Both were jurists. In his legal text, al-Ghazzali denounces most allegorical interpretations as kufr (disbelief). Ibn Rushd on the other hand sees such literalism as anathema. (To describe the author of The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer, which is as full of insight and wisdom on ritual and spiritual matters as anything al-Ghazzali has to offer, as someone incapable of looking ‘inwards’ is a stretch of imagination too far). Moreover, al-Ghazzali was a misogynist who compared women to ten kinds of animals, all of which except one, the sheep, were nasty. Ibn Rushd, on the other hand, believed that women were prescribed the same ultimate goals as men, that there is no question of men being superior to women. It is men who consider women as animals to be domesticated, or as plants which are sought for their fruit. These are traditions made by men to serve their own ends, and they have nothing to do with Islam. 

The difference between the two scholars is also illustrated in ibn Rushd’s reply to al-Ghazzali in his Incoherence of Incoherence. There is no long preface throwing abuse and scorn at theologians in general or al-Ghazzali in particular. The book opens with a very brief and clear statement of purpose, which is to prove that The Incoherence of the Philosophers ‘has not reached the degree of evidence and of truth’. Ibn Rushd refers to al-Ghazzali by name, and respectfully calls him Sheikh. Then it is down to business: al-Ghazzali’s arguments are torn to shreds systematically and thoroughly in a series of sixteen ‘discussions’. As Nazry Bahrawi writes in his contribution to this volume of Critical Muslim, ‘first, ibn Rushd argues that God’s knowledge could not be categorised as “universal” and “specific” since these are human conceptions. Given that God is not a corporeal entity like humans, His perception of knowledge differs from ours. Ibn Rushd posits that we are shackled by the limits of human understanding to comprehend, much less categorise, Godly knowledge. Second, ibn Rushd argues that human conduct could not be categorised as being either fully free or fully determined. Rather, it is a bit of both. Humanity is free to choose, but this choice is also one determined by external forces operating in tandem. Juxtaposing human will to God’s will, ibn Rushd argues that humans act to fulfil their desires because these change over time. God simply acts because His eternal nature means that He is not bounded by time – past, present or future. In this sense, human desire becomes one of those extenuating “external” factors dictating an individual’s choice’.

But demolishing the Incoherence was a relatively easy task for ibn Rushd. A more challenging duty was critiquing Muslim Neoplatonist philosophers, specially al-Farabi and ibn Sina. Here, ibn Rushd restores the agency to ordinary believers that both al-Ghazzali and Neoplatonism had denied. Bahrawi again: ‘ibn Rushd’s middle position between al-Ghazali and ibn Sina allows for the doctrine of freewill to exist without denying God’s omniscience. In other words, humanity is an active agent in Islam, and not a passive, predetermined one. It is also this recognition of human agency that leads ibn Rushd to the rejection of a key component of Islamic Neoplatonism – the emanation theory. For ibn Rushd, the idea that humanity is a ‘by-product’ of the First Being, as ibn Sina and al-Farabi uphold, contradicts human agency. To subscribe to the emanation theory, ibn Rushd argues, is to deprive all actual entities of any active powers, and to deny the principle of causality’.

When ibn Rushd referred to al-Ghazzali as ‘a man of all seasons’, he was actually pointing to his shifting, changing positions – a relativistic, postmodern stance, if you like, which Moosa would argue for. As ibn Rushd points out, ‘al-Ghazzali says in The Jewels of the Qur’an that what he wrote in TheIncoherence was merely dialectical argument, but that the truth is to be found in his other book, entitled What Is Concealed From the Unworthy’. But then he changes his mind again about the nature of truth in The Niche of Lights. And in his autobiography, Deliverance from Error, he argues that certainty in ‘knowledge arises by means of withdrawal (from the world) and reflection only’. He reiterates this position in The Alchemy of Happiness. So what is one to believe: where is knowledge finally located? Al-Ghazzali’s ‘confusion and muddling’ and his ‘doubtful and perplexing arguments’, writes ibn Rushd, ‘drove many people away from both philosophy and religion’.

Ibn Rushd tries to bring philosophy and religion together in On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, written in a persuasive style for the educated public. Written from the point of view of a jurist, it explores whether philosophy and logic are permitted or prohibited by the Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophet, and Islamic law. Ibn Rushd argues that philosophy is nothing more than teleological study of the world. In as far as the Qur’an encourages a scientific, teleological study of the world, it encourages philosophy, which means reason and logic have to be amongst the tools required to study scripture and shape Islamic law. Revealed truths, he argues further, are true ‘in the religious realm’, and those of the world in ‘in the philosophic realm’, but there is no contradiction between them: ‘We the Muslim community know definitely that demonstrative study does not lead to conclusions conflicting with what Scripture has given us’. When apparent contradictions arise, it is the function of philosophy to reconcile the contradictions. For ibn Rushd, the method for reconciling these apparent contradictions is allegorical and metaphorical interpretation of the Qur’an in such a manner that the inner meaning of Quranic verses are seen to agree with observed and demonstrative truth. 

Unlike al-Ghazzali, ibn Rushd was a product of a pluralistic, multi-religious society: al-Andalus. Muslims arrived in Hispania, as it was then known, during the early eighth century. They settled in a region that, as Robin Yassin-Kassab notes, ‘had already been rich, and religiously and ethnically diverse’. It was not, as Gonzalez-Ferrin points out, ‘the empty or uncultivated land that appears in the Arabic chronicles’, written at least a century and a half after the event. Hispania had an established tradition of Hellenic scholarship, art, law, and of questioning imperial authority. ‘Hispania became al-Andalus after an extended struggle of different heretical trends, substantive problems in the transition of the Visigoth kingdom, and a long andcontinual process of questioning Imperial Centralism as Rome shifted to Constantinople’. Moreover, Islam did not appear in Hispania as a result of a miraculous and bloody invasion; another ‘worthless myth, a bare creationist concoction, devoid of historical proof’, created by Muslim scholars and later expanded by European Orientalists. Rather, there was a long period of gestation that lead to the progressive formation and change of the name: ‘al-Andalus, a phonetic transformation of Atlantis, located by Plato in the Lost Paradise in the western lands where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic Ocean. Between the fourth and sixth centuries, several commentaries were produced on Plato’s main writings, generating that Hellenic cultural movement called the Neo-Platonism, wherein we find the origins of the transformation: Atlantis > Adalandis > Al-Andalus’. The Muslims who arrived and settled in al-Andalus did not declare followers of other religions as kaffirs and infidels – a tendency, by the way, al-Ghazzali demonstrates amply – but, writes Yassin-Kassab, ‘intermarried with the locals and bred with their slaves, who were very often Slavs, eastern Europeans captured in eastern European wars to be traded around Europe and the Mediterranean. Soon most of the Muslim population consisted of the offspring of these mixed marriages, and of large numbers of converts’.

It was in this society of ‘mixed marriages’, Christian, Jews and Muslims, that Abd Al-Rahman, the founder of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain (756-1031), escaping the massacre of his clan in Damascus, established the first great Western city of Islam: Cordoba. Its international fame rested on one hundred and thirteen thousand homes, twenty-one suburbs, seventy libraries and numerous bookshops, mosques and glorious palaces. It inspired awe and admiration because it was a heaven for thinkers, philosophers, musicians, and writers. In Al-Andalus, ibn Rushd rubbed shoulders with revolutionary thinkers like ibn Tufayl; scientists such as Abbas ibn Firnás (810-887), the Andalusian Leonardo, who invented and manufactured many instruments, including a flying machine, using which he crash landed on Cordoba’s main street; feminist intellectuals such as ibn Hazm, the author of the love manual The Ring of the Dove, which contains surprisingly vivid anecdotes; brilliant musicians and fashion icons like Ziryab, whose achievements are described by Cherif Abderrahman Jah in his article; as well as artists, poets, architects, and mystics of the calibre of ibn Arabi.

But al-Andalus is not a place and time dominated solely by men. Women were more active in this period of Islamic history than in any other, enjoying freedom of movement in the public sphere and reaching high levels of accomplishment. Consider the Umayyad princess Walladah, daughter of a Cordoban Caliph, who played host to poets and artists in her Cordoba home, often engaging in poetic contests. Beautiful, gracious in speech, and never married – an ‘emancipated woman’ by any definition – she declared: ‘By God, I am suited to great things, and proudly I walk, with head aloft’. Or al-Arudiyyah, who learned grammar and philology from her patron and soon surpassed him. Or Hafsah bint al-Hajja al-Rukuniya, whose beauty and elegance impressed the ruler of Granada, but she chose to be with a fellow poet; or the slave al-Abbadiyyah, a writer of prose and poetry who spoke several languages and eventually married the ruler of Seville. ‘But women in Muslim Spain’, writes Brad Bullock, ‘were not just poets and artists, but also scientists and philosophers. And they were not just a handful but numerous – and during their time they were as famous as their male counterparts’. Indeed, women from diverse backgrounds were so prominent in public life that it was taken for granted that they could be leaders of men. The only question was whether they could be Prophets as well. Ibn Hazm tells us it is ‘an issue on which we know of no debate except here in Cordoba and in our time’. The opinion of people, ibn Hazm says, is divided into three: those who deny that women can be Prophets and claim that it would be an innovation (bida) too far, those who argue that Prophethood is possible for women, and athird group who are too confused or afraid to take part in the discussion and abstain. Ibn Hazm himself had no doubt. After looking at various theological issues, and examining the arguments of the objectors, he states his conclusion emphatically: ‘wefind no proof for those who claim that Prophethood is impossible for women’. He points out that there are many women prophets in the Qur’an, including Mary, mother of Prophet Isa (Jesus), and Sarah, the mother of Isaac. The overall argument is that there is no limit to what women can do and achieve. For Bullock, ‘the women of al-Andalus provide a vision of the way forward’. The spirit of al-Andalus, he argues, ‘demands an unprecedented and urgent commitment by the ummah to empower women’.

The learning and thought of al-Andalus was not all ‘Islamic’; al-Andalus was also home to the Jewish Sephardic community. What happened to Muslims, writes Gonzalez-Ferrin, also‘happened with another Hellenic journey from the Garden of the Hesperides to Separad > Sefarad, the Hebrew equivalent of al-Andalus’. Cordoba, Granada, Toledo and other cities had thriving communities of Arab Jews who participated in and shaped the thought and learning that emanated from al-Andalus. It was in al-Andalus that thinkers and writers of the calibre of Moses Maimonides, one of the foremost Rabbinical scholars and philosophers, who shaped the thirteen principles of Jewish faith; Ibn Gabirol, the philosopher and poet who left an indelible mark on Hebrew literary heritage; and Judah Alharizi, the philosopher who composed Tahkemoni, written in Hebrew in a well-known Arabic literary genre of rhymed prose, flourished. The output of the Andalusian Jewish poets alone, writes David Shasha, would fill several libraries. But what is really unique about the Jewish thinkers and writers of Andalusia is their synthesis of the spiritual values of monotheistic religion with philosophy and science to produce a humanistic notion of religion. Jewish religious humanism, Shasha suggests, ‘sought to understand the commands of God by making use of the intellectual resources of the human mind in all its workings. It combined sublime faith with rigorous scholastic analysis’. It affirmed the primacy of universal love and charity, recognised the need for tradition, but allowed ‘for diversity of worship and a respect for the values of pluralism’.

It was against this background that ibn Rushd and ibn Tufayl became bosom pals. Ibn Tufayl introduced ibn Rushd, who had little sympathy with his friend’s mystical leanings, to the Almohad Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf (r. 1163-84). The Caliph, a man of learning with a passion for philosophy, was ibn Tufayl’s patron, who, in turn, was the Caliph’s chief physician. The two spent a lot of time together discussing the finer points of philosophy. Abu Yaqub was also an avid collector of books and learned men. His court was brimming with thinkers, writers and poets who openly argued and critiqued each other and the Caliph. When Ibn Tufayl brought ibn Rushd into the circle, the Caliph immediately commissioned him to write a commentary on Aristotle. That commission, and the subsequent patronage by Abu Yaqub,  as George Hourani notes in his truly brilliant introduction to On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, ‘had far reaching consequences in the history of thought, for it gave a new boost to philosophy in Islam at a time when it could bear fruit in Jewish and Christian circles, in Spain and the rest of Europe’. It enabled ibn Rushd not only to take on al-Ghazzali but also to reformulate Islamic philosophy.

Abu Yaqub’s patronage also permitted Ibn Tufayl to write Hayy ibn Yaqzan (‘Alive, Son of Awake’), a philosophical novel of profound significance. The protagonist Hayy is spontaneously generated on an isolated desert island. He is adopted by a gazelle, learns survival skills, and after the death of his ‘mother’, on whom he performs an autopsy, sets out on the road to scientific and self-discovery. Through his observations and deductions, Hayy finally reaches the ultimate truths and realises that there is a Creator. There are two significant points about Hayy. The first is widely recognised: ibn Tufayl argues that reason is a powerful tool for understanding and shaping the world, and offers us an evolutionary take both on humanity as well as on human thought and development. The second is somewhat neglected: ibn Tufayl is more than aware of the limitations of reason, despite al-Ghazzali’s erroneous allegations. For a major aim of the book is to show that reason alone is not enough to experience the Divine. Indeed, ibn Tufayl insists that even the conceptualisation of the Divine is not possible through reason and mundane experience. When Hayy reaches the final stages of his philosophical journey, he realises that he cannot gain an understanding of the supernatural by studying the material world. There is also a jibe at al-Ghazzali here. The Baghdadi professor had identified the heart, in line with Sufi tradition, as the part which is receptive to the Divine unveilings, the place where God is experienced. Ibn Tufayl dismisses this notion. Rather, ibn Tufayl suggests that the experience of the Divine is spread across the human body; and to describe this experience is misguided and impossible. Our words just cannot do it justice. All attempts at such description lead straight to the authoritative version: the theology of orthodoxy, based on heresy and superficial constructions. Instead, ibn Tufayl proposes an alternative: spiritual development is a journey that individuals take for themselves. Having brought the reader to a level of understanding of the world and purpose of life in which words no longer suffice, ibn Tufayl declares: now you are on your own, the teacher can’t help you, the Sheikh can only give you false directions. From here you have to take the next steps yourself to experience what I have experienced in my immersion in the Divine. Once again, al-Ghazzali ends up looking rather lame.

The legacy of ibn Tufayl and ibn Rushd had a profound impact on Europe. As Gonzalez-Ferrin argues, it shaped the original Renaissance. Ibn Rushd produced a whole school of philosophy, Averroism; and his works became widely available at universities throughout Europe, and were responsible for the development of scholasticism, which examined Christian doctrines through the lens of reason and intellectual analysis. Indeed, he ‘reached such a level of prominence in Europe that his translations were forbidden in thirteenth century Paris, where he was accused of promoting free-thinking’. The 1671 Latin translation of Hayy under the tile The Self-Taught Philosopher caused a sensation. As Bahrawi notes, it became the foundational text for British empiricism. John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was greatly influenced by Hayy; Locke’s first draft of the Essay was completed in the same year his friend Edward Pococke finished and published the English translation of Hayy. It went on to influence a string of influential philosophers and writers, including BaruchSpinoza, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Daniel Defoe.

While Europe embraced Andalusian philosophers and writers, the story in the Muslim world was somewhat different. The reasons for the evaporation of learning, philosophy and critical thought, and hence the decline of Muslim civilisations, are many and diverse. It probably has something to do with the so-called closure of ‘the gates of Ijtihad’, which basically outlawed reason. While no one actually closed the gates, it came to be treated, as Sadakat Kadri suggests in his Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law, ‘as a historical fact rather than a poetically pleasing way of saying that jurists were no longer as good as they used to be’. A lack of patrons like Caliph Abu Yaqub also meant that the support that philosophers and free thinkers needed was just not there. In the later stages, the colonisation of the Muslim world no doubt contributed a great deal to the malaise. But there is little doubt that al-Ghazzali made a major contribution to the downward spiral of Muslim civilisation. It was not the Incoherence itself, which as I have argued, is simply not a work of enough power to dethrone philosophy, and was probably read only by a select few. Rather, it was the aura built up around the book, within a context of an anti-philosophy hysteria whipped up by theologians, that did the most damage. Even before al-Ghazzali there were efforts to outlaw philosophy, most nobly by the Abbasid Caliph Abdul Qadir (d.1031), who issued a famous decree in 1017-18 requiring the philosophers ‘to repent’ and ordering his subjects to dissociate themselves from ‘the counter to Islam’ ideas of philosophers. Al-Ghazzali became the epicentre of an anti-rationalist storm. He succeeded in resurrecting ‘the science of religion’ but in the process his arrogant dismissal of philosophy confined the Muslim civilisation to The Burial Chamber, the earthly representation of the Hereafter, a place full of talismanic artefacts, where the walls are illustrated with magical texts, and where the living start foaming at the mouth and become completely irrational.

The true extent of al-Ghazzali’s influence is well illustrated by C Snouck Hurgronje, who spent a considerable time in Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century. Hurgronje found that only the works of al-Ghazzali were taught in Mecca to students who came from all over the world. The Revival of the Religious Sciences was the main text; it was memorised by students parrot fashion. Other texts ‘were more or less excerpts or compilations from the works of Ghazzali’. Not ‘one new word’ was to be heard anywhere. Philosophy was totally forbidden. ‘The industrious students’, Hurgronje writes, only understood that the philosophers ‘were stupid pigheads who held human reason to be the measure of truth – a terrible superstition’. The professors openly mocked and ridiculed philosophers like ibn Rushd, ibn Tufayl and ibn Sina: ‘I have seen a smile of mocking astonishment pass over the faces of all students present when the professor told them how the ignorant heathens who opposed Muhammad, had, like the philosophers, believed in human reason, and the professor smiled too with a shrug of his shoulder’. 

After its initial love affair with ibn Rushd and ibn Tufayl, Europe became just as unjust to the legacy of al-Andalus. The fall of Granada in 1492’, Merryl Wyn Davies says in her ‘Last Word’, ‘is a clear and precise historic moment’: ‘the time the life blood of plurality was drained from European consciousness’. As the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sealed the final end of Muslim rule, Europe ‘discovered’ the Americas and used their wealth to dominate the eastern sea routes and kick start its imperial adventure. But it was not just the Muslims who were expelled from al-Andalus; Jews too were driven out. 

Those who were left behind were forced to convert to Christianity. The converts, known as Moriscos (‘little Moors’), writes Martin Carr, ‘were often depicted as inherently backward, inferior and uncivilised. And there was always the suspicion that Moriscos were not ‘good and faithful Christians’. On 7 November 1567, King Philip II of Spain issued a royal decree ordering the Moriscos of Granada ‘to cease speaking or writing in Arabic and learn Castilian and destroy all Arabic books and texts’. Public baths were to be demolished, Morisco songs, dances and musical instruments were banned, and Morisco householders had to leave their doors open on Fridays and Christian festivals so that their religious observance could be monitored. Morisco men and women who persisted in wearing Moorish clothing were to be fined, flogged or deported. ‘In a stroke, Philip II issued what amounted to a charter for the complete eradication of Morisco culture from Granada, which demanded that the Moriscos disappear as a distinct and recognizable group’.

The Moriscos entrusted an elder of the community, Fernando Nuñez Muley, to plead with the authorities and defend their cause. According to Carr, Nuñez Muley’s Memorandum for the President of the Royal Audiencia and Chancery Court of the City and Kingdom of Granada is one of the key historical documents of sixteenth century Spain. Not everything, Nuñez Muley argued in the Memorandum, that goes under the rubric of Islam is actually Islamic. There is a distinction between cultural traditions and religious practices. He insisted that ‘Morisco dances were a folkloric rather than a religious custom that was anathema to pious Muslims; that the clothes worn by Granadan Moriscos were merely a form of regional costume without religious significance; that Arabic had “no direct relationship whatsoever to the Muslim faith”’. Moreover, Morisco women did not cover their heads for illicit romantic liaisons, but out of modesty; neither were bathhouses of religious significance or had anything to do with ritual ablution, but only there for the purpose of health and hygiene. Despite the Memorandum the decree was enforced, leading to a Morisco rebellion. It provided yet another excuse for religious cleansing: the Moriscos too were banished from Spain. ‘In the space of five years, nearly 350,000 men, women and children were expelled from Spain in what was then the largest forced population transfer in European history’.

Indeed, Europe in general, and Spain in particular, has constantly been expelling al-Andalus from the continent as well as from history. As Gema Martin-Muñoz notes, ‘ideological positioning has marked the interpretation of Andalusian history’. The Enlightenment historians saw al-Andalus either as a part of the history of progress, ‘an uninterrupted progression until the triumph of reason’, or as an exotic ingredient of the Romantic vision. Romanticism and Orientalism fashioned their own version of a stereotypical al-Andalus that happened to be in Europe but was firmly outside European history. The Spanish nationalists, on the other hand, sought to link ‘real Spain’ with ‘Western Christianity to avoid sharing her destiny with Muslims’ and to ‘establish a continuity of national essence, defined by rules of religion, language and race (Christianity, Latinate, Hispanic)’. An example of the nationalist tendency is provided by the orientalist Francisco Javier Simonet (1829-1897): his 1903 The History of the Mozarabs demonstrates ‘a great hostility toward the presence on the Iberian Peninsula of Islam, to which he attributes persecution, violence and evil’. Martin-Muñoz discusses the output of a number of Spanish Arabists, who negated Muslim contribution, presented al-Andalus as an outsider, and emphasised the ideas of ‘Europeanness’ of Spain. In more recent times, when eight centuries of Islamic presence and experience in the Iberian peninsula cannot be ignored and written off, a new answer was found: a ‘Muslim Spain’ and a ‘Spanish Islam’was created that isolated al-Andalus ‘completely from its global Arabic and Islamic context’. The works of old and new Orientalists and nationalists have inspired, writes Martin-Muñoz, ‘a good part of the historical interpretation of Spanish education in the twentieth century’.

As a consequence, al-Andalus is ‘hardly mentioned’ in the secondary school curriculum in Spain,  Jordi Serra del Pino tells us. ‘Instead, we were regaled with the exploits of the Reconquista, which, we were taught, forged modern Spain’. As in Mecca, where nothing mattered except religious doctrine, Reconquista is taught ‘as dogma and its main actors, the Catholic Monarchs’ projected ‘as legendary characters’. Indeed, the Reconquista is presented as ‘a spiritual endeavour’. Everything good in Spain, the students are told, comes from the Reconquista; the previous history, the time of al-Andalus, is dark and evil; ‘hence, the need to wipe out any traits, features, remains, history and heritage of al-Andalus’. So, it is hardly surprising, writes Serra del Pino, that ‘I grew up knowing little about al-Andalus; even worse, what I thought I knew was largely propaganda’.

Serra del Pino suggests that Spain is now engaged in a Reconquista 2.0. The old Reconquista imagery is being resurrected: the fierce El Cid is now being projected on billboards as a hero of Spain and Queen Isabella is depicted in a new television series as a modern woman, a feminist, spiritual mother of Spain. There is a drive to force Castile and its language on everyone, to homogenise the state, and purge Spain of its linguistic and ethnic diversity. Reconquista 2.0, argues Serra del Pino, is aimed at subduing Catalan and other autonomous regions of Spain. Andalusia, one of the least advanced and prosperous regions, suffers from ‘an archaic property distribution that concentrates great portions of territories into the hands of a few landlords’, and has already ‘become one of the most subsidized European regions’. Furthermore, ‘the rich Andalusian cultural heritage has been reduced to banal folklore for the consumption of tourists: the bullfighter, the flamenco guitarist and dancer have become global references for Spain, perverting the deep meaning and relevance these cultural forms had for Andalusia. Andalusians are told they are good at looking after the tourists and entertaining them with flamenco, great at parties, but not very good at working hard’.

Serra del Pino’s sentiments are shared by Carr, who refers to the 2006 statement of former Spanish president José Maria Aznar comparing al-Qaeda to the eighth century Muslim ‘occupation’ of Spain, and Gonzalez-Ferrin, who describes expulsion as Spain’s ‘endemic sport that has continued to the twentieth century’. But al-Andalus stubbornly persists, to use the words of Yassin-Kassab, ‘as the jasmin in the air’. It is the future that Serra del Pino envisages for his beloved Catalan as well as for Spain.

The spring shoots of a re-emerging al-Andalus are most evident amongst the young of Andalusia, fighting to recover their heritage, culture, and historic identity; and the Spanish converts that Marvine Howe meets in her travels across Iberia. A few positive steps towards ‘normalization’ have been taken in recent times, she writes, and one can now find a host of well-established Muslim communities throughout the region. There is a small community of ‘old Muslims,’ people of Moroccan descent, who inhabit the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco. But the first Muslims to venture back to Iberia, centuries after it had been ethnically and spiritually cleansed, were university students who arrived from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Seen as ‘pioneers’, they have worked hard to build their communities. Howe introduces us to a host of Spanish Muslims: converts, the well settled, and new arrivals. Individuals like the late Mansur Escudero, who ran the Islamic Junta; Abdel Rahman Essaadi, a Moroccan professor of Arabic; and Braima Djalo, a 35-year-old shopkeeper who fled his native Guinea-Bissau, sailed through perilous seas in a fragile fishing boat, only to be detained on arrival. Howe relates some heart-warming stories of Muslims who overcame tremendous odds to make a home for themselves in Spain. She sees ‘a new solidarity’ emerging ‘among Muslims in Spain, more cooperation between the main communities, the Moroccans and Pakistanis and the Spanish converts’. There is more confidence, more political involvement, and more eagerness to ‘to show a public face, heedless of emerging anti-Muslim attitudes’.

The anti-Muslim sentiments of Spain and Europe are a product, Gonzalez-Ferrin tells us, of amnesia: ‘the forgetfulness of having been something more, something else’. Both Europe and Islam were something more, something greater than the European constructions of al-Andalus ‘as an operetta set on an Orientalist stage’, something more profound than the anti-rational ‘cosmology’ of post-al-Ghazzali Islam. They can come together and become whole if they reclaim their mutual histories – and return to al-Andalus.

In their re-imaging of the celebrated Cordoba Mosque, Zara Amjad and Gulzar Haider show us how the past can be remade to heal our present and to build a more viable and pluralistic future. Built in 785 by Prince Abd ar-Rahman I, the founder of the Umayyad Caliphate of Spain, the Mosque is located on the southern edge of the city on the banks of river Guadalquivir. Its most iconic feature is a forest of colonnade which makes the space inside appear weightless and creates a sense of infinity. The Mosque was consecrated as a Cathedral in 1236, and a Renaissance Cathedral was built within the Mosque in 1523. The Cathedral destroyed the harmony of the Mosque, 63 pillars had to be moved to locate it exactly in the centre, and the Mosque which was originally flooded with light became exceptionally dark. The Cordoba Mosque now functions largely as a tourist site, although there is a Sunday service. Muslims are forbidden from praying inside.

Amjad and Haider begin by ‘re-locating the Renaissance Cathedral to its metaphorically equal place across the river. The Cathedral is moved stone by stone so that it can continue to function but now has a more clear identity, with an opportunity to reflect on itself and focus on the previously occupied Mosque across the river’. The re-located Cathedral leaves a huge void in the centre of the structure. The natural conservative Muslim tendency would be to rebuild it as a Mosque. But Amjad and Haider redesign the interior as a pluralistic sacred space for all religions. The void is turned into ‘a new altar that employs spiritual signs and religious symbols of all religions and is an ode to light, sound, and water’, a pool ‘mandala’ replaces the dome of the Cathedral and collects rain water which is recirculated back to the river, a series of Pilasters in place of the columns of the Cathedral serve as the memory of the Cathedral, and an arcade of glass columns serves as reminders of the Mosque columns. There is also a carved courtyard, steel columns that are left open to the sky, ramps that take you down in the carved spaces around the courtyard, a library under the floor of the mosque, and an underground tunnel that opens onto the river to let in the breeze and the music of the wind. The minaret is turned into four residences named after Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, the thirteen century Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (who, by the way, was inspired by and sided with al-Ghazzali against ibn Rushd), and the Subcontinental philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal, whose poem ‘Mosque of Cordoba’ still reverberates throughout India and Pakistan. Pavillions dedicated to different world religions are built on the small islands on the river Guadalquivir: ‘each pavilion will show the essence of the religion it is representing in context with nature; together they will provide a space for the common goal of our different spiritual traditions – a symbolic journey from a place of one individual differentiated religion to a place, the Inhabited Void, the Courtyard, that is for all’.

Like the Cordoba Mosque, al-Andalus too can be reimagined and relocated, liberated ‘from the wounds of history’, and infused, as Amjad and Haider assert, with ‘the essence of life’ so that pluralism and humane futures flourish. ‘Al-Andalus is not merely a past time’, says Gonzalez-Ferrin. ‘It is also a time present, a component, and an essential ingredient of all our histories’.

The legacy of al-Andalus belongs to us all.


CM06: Reclaiming al-Andalus (Hurst, London, 2013)

The quotations from al-Ghazzali are from his The Book of Knowledge, translated by Nabih Amin Faris (Ashraf, Lahore, 1962), p1-2; and The Incoherence of the Philosophers, translated by Sabih Ahmad Kamali (Pakistan Philosophical Congress, Lahore, 1963), p1-3; 163-167, 176, 181, and 88. Others books mentioned by al-Ghazzali are widely available in translations of various qualities. There are several translations of Ibn Rushd’s The Incoherence of the Incoherence but the best is by Simon van Den Bergh (Luzac, London, 1954, combined two volumes). Similarly there are a number of translations of On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy but George F Hourani (E J W Gibb Memorial Trust, Cambridge, 1961) cannot be surpassed. My quote from the historian Marrakushi is taken from him, p8; the quote from Hourani himself is from p11. Volume 1 of The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer, translated by Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee is published by Garnet (Reading, 1994). Simon Ockley’s 1708 translation of Hayy ibn Yaqzan can be downloaded from here:

Ibn Hazm’s quotes on prophethood of women are from his al-Fisal fi al-Milal wa-al-Ahwa'i wa-al-Nihal, which can be downloaded from:

A J Arberry’s translation of Ibn Hazm’s The Ring of Dove can be downloaded from:

See also A G Chejne, Ibn Hazm (Kazi Publications, Chicago, 1982); Majid Fakhry Averroes, Ibn Rushd: His Life, Work and Influence (OneWorld, Oxford, 2001); W Montgomery Watt, Muslim Intellectual: A Study of Al-Ghazzali (Edinburgh University Press, 1963); Iysa A Bello, The Medieval Islamic Controversy Between Philosophy and Orthodoxy (Brill, Leiden, 1989); Salman H Bashier, The Story of Islamic Philosophy: Ibn Tufayl, ibn al-Arabi and Others on the Limits Between Naturalism and Traditionalism (State University of New York Press, 2011); and Peter Adamson, In the Age of Averroes: Arabic Philosophy in the Sixth/Telfth Century (The Warburg Institute, London, 2011), which contains an illuminating essay of Hayy.

The quotes from Ebrahim Moosa’s Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2005) are from p38 and p39; Sadakat Kadri, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law (The Bodley Head, London, 2012) p87; and C Snouck Hurgronje, Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century (Brill, Leiden, 2007) p210 and p217.

Jeremy Cox’s The Burial Chamber (Stroud Green Book, London, 2012, £8.99) can be downloaded as kindle version for 77p.