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Is there room for critical thinking in Islam?

Is there room for critical thinking in Islam?
From Al Jazeera - April 6, 2018

Nothing is more satisfying than the conviction that your enemy lacks the ability to think critically. What could be more gratifying than the idea that the person you are fighting is trapped in an airlock of unreflection? It blesses your struggle, redeems your cruelty, legitimises your violence. If a definition of humanity is the ability to think for oneself, then what could be wrong with fighting the unfree?

The modern pairing of Islam with the incapacity for critical thought is a fairly old gesture - the Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz said Muslims were so fatalistic they would not even jump out of the way of carts. Over the past fifteen years, however, the internet has enabled and amplified a panoply of voices with this view.

From the digital rooftops, a thousand voices are shouting down Islam as a space inimical to any form of rational reflection: millionaire right-wingers masquerading as free-thinkers such as Bill Maher, Eton-educated "voices of the people" such as Douglas Murray, sophisticated hate-distillers such as Ann Coulter and her not-so-bright British version, Katie Hopkinseven Greek classics professors-turned-Islam experts such as Tom Holland have joined the fray.

Some of the historical acrobatics involved in this gesture are awe-inspiring. Any academic would be laughed out of the room if they suggested St Augustine was somehow complicit in the bombing of abortion clinics, or that the medieval Hohenstaufen culminated in the Third Reich, or that the Renaissance never happened. Almost on a daily basis, however, confident, context-defying lines of continuity are drawn for Islam across centuries and continents, monocausally linking the Ottomans to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), or seventh century theology to attacks on shopping malls. In these re-writings of history, contrary or problematic episodes (such as the vast contribution of the Islamic world to geometry, astronomy and the vocabulary of science in general) are not just left out - anyone even trying to mention them is mocked as a naive, idiot liberal. It's a wonderful age to be alive.

I often wonder what can be done against this collective dumbing-down of an entire faith. Patiently repeating points and examples from history - in the manner of explaining something difficult but obvious to an eight-year old child - does not seem to go very far in combatting a million views on Youtube. Raising consciousness is not enough - there almost seems to be a will not to know here, a decision to remain in the foetal warmth of a particular narrative. When a Western, best-selling public intellectual openly laughs at the idea of "Islamic inventions", and garners online 10,000 likes in doing so, it is difficult to see what benefit the provision of empirical facts can provide. Large sections of our society seem to be locked into certain fantasies about Islam and the West - and how we are going to unlock those fantasies remains as unclear as ever.

Not that scholars have given up. Irfan Ahmad's latest book, Religion As Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (2017), offers an interesting opposition to the West-and-the-rest narratives of an European Enlightenment radiating outwards from Greece and Germany into the backward corners of a darker world. Positing the Prophet Mohammed as "a critic of the Meccan social order", Ahmad constructs an alternative genealogy of the verb to critique (tanqid/naqd), one which is not by any means dismissive of Greek/pre-Islamic/Western traditions, "but which at the same time ca not be subsumed within them". It is a welcome move that intelligently and articulately condenses the work of previous scholars (Talal Asad, Gayatri Spivak, J G A Pocock) on two important points.

First of all, it demonstrates the extent to which the Enlightenment was an "ethnic project" - an ethnic project, moreover, which was in constant need of an enemy. When Kant spoke about the space of philosophy to be defined, he often alluded to the space of Europe, whose boundaries needed to be patrolled. Secondly, the tired linking of the critical with the secular - and "uncritical" with the religious - is something Ahmad's book goes on to rigorously deconstruct. Perhaps a touch controversially for some, he declares: "Against the reigning doxa, which views Islam and critique as mutually exclusive domainsI propose we begin to think of Islam as critique; indeed, Islam as permanent critique."

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