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Tradition and Modernity in Islamic Thought

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McGill University
Islamic Studies
ISLA 210
Laila Parsons

JANUARY 18, 2012: Guest Lecturer Tradition and Modernity in Islamic Thought: Afghani and Adbuh  Is modernity something we are freed by or something we are trapped by?  In an anonymous chronicle European was used for the first time as a contrast with Islam. It also is a contrast to East and the Greek Orthodox Church. The implications of the use is that “We are Europeans” means that they are Christians, but that they are Latin Catholics rather than Greek Orthodox. These distinctions are crucial to what it means to be a European.  In a broader sense, it is a stable of European historiography that the birth of Islam creates Europe in an economic sense because the Muslim conquest of North Africa cuts off the Mediterranean from the rest of Europe and it forced European attention northwards as they couldn’t trade as easily with regions near the Mediterranean.  “Without Mohammed there would be no Charlemagne”  Muslim thinkers are moving away from the notion that Europe is an active imposer of ideas and the Muslim world is the passive receiver of ideas. Instead, they were active appropriators of European ideas.  At least at the beginning of the 19 century there were 2 important strands of thought that would influence the way European ideas would be challenged.  1. The idea that 19 century Europe was not medieval (they have achieved “modernity”). This started in the Renaissance with the idea to bypass the medieval scholastic structure of learning which has created ossified frozen thinking. European thinkers were going to go back to Greek and Roman classics. Amongst enlightenment thinkers this contrast with the medieval world became more strongly held because they thought the medieval world was stunted by religion and dogma, which was far from progress, science, philosophy, and free philosophical thinking.  There were also ideas about the universality of humankind, meant to contrast with the notion that medieval divided the world into believers and infidels by religion.  Not everyone was convinced that humankind was a universal notion, and one of the most proponent proponents of the idea of radical different between people and cultures was J. G. von Herder, who was responding to new information coming from the Americas about native Americas. He built his theories around linguistic differences (native American languages) → “Language is a grid structuring thought and molding national character.” Herder didn’t think these radical differences were unbridgeable. By not indulging in assimilation, we can bridge the radical differences, th but this message was lost as the 19 century progressed.  Herder’s idea is taken up by the new discipline of historical linguistics (W. bon Humboldt focused on this). Historical linguists grouped languages taxonomically into groups and family, and the most basic difference they found was that the Semitic language family (Hebrew and Muslim languages) and the Aryan Language Family (European language). Humboldt infers that with this there is a Semitic mind and an Aryan mind, or two different culture ways of thinking.  It was “better” to be part of an Aryan language family that a Semitic language family because Islam, held by many of these thinkers the ultimate expression of Semitic national character was so grossly disempowered in contrast to European, which was held to stem from Ancient Greece.  Ernest Renan took off from the new science of religion in an attempt to get away from sacral history. He was a populariser of this new discipline. He wrote many books and was critical of all religious traditions. In his “Averroes et l’Averroisme” and “Islam and the Sciences” he articulate these racial divisions in a clear fashion. The conclusion he draws is that rationalism, philosophy and science were never at home in Islamic civilisation because it can never free itself from its Arab origins and its Semitic voice. It is irretrievable ant-rational and dogmatic and cared more about the five points o
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