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
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,
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