Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Urgency of Being a Progressive Muslim : Averroes In Memoriam

The Urgency of Being a Progressive Muslim

Averroes In Memoriam



By: Zuhairi Misrawi

Last December several cultural and philosophical institutions commemorated the death of an imminent Muslim philosopher, Averroes (Ibnu Rushd). The Goethe institute headquarter in Berlin-Germany also granted the Averroes award to Muhammad Arkoun who was observed to carry on Averroes’ thought in enlightening the Muslim world mainly through the historical reconstruction of religions (Alhayat, 11/12).

At the end of 1999, the Institute of Egyptian Philosophy led by Hassan Hanafi held a philosophical symposium titled, “Nine centuries commemorating Ibnu Rushd (Averroes); the pioneer of Arabic rationalism.” This symposium was visited by several thinkers from across the Arab world - Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco. The writer who coincidentally became an active participant in that symposium caught the message that Averroes had come up from his grave!

As far as the writer knows, there has never been another scientific forum discussing Averroes like this symposium. It indicates that gradually a collective awareness has emerged which appreciates progressive thought within the classical tradition. Averroes is designated as a symbol of the revival of Arabic philosophy and rationalism. He is considered as a philosopher who has developed a reasonable relation between religion and philosophy and Athif ‘Iraqi had described him as the last Arab philosopher!

The next question is this: what is the significance of commemorating Averroes for Muslims, especially Indonesian Muslims? To the writer, it has a deep significance for Averroes’ thoughts are essentially not strange to the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) circle. Most of the pesantren teach one of the most important books written by Averroes, Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtashid. For Islamic philosophical observers, Averroes is an inspiration toward the open “gate of philosophy” which has been locked tightly within Islamic tradition.


We should note a profound sorrow in the religious landscape. In 2003 several important events were a disgrace to religion, namely religious conflict, terrorism in the name of religion, religious politicization in which people are labeled as infidels in the name of religion and so on. Religion has been used by various groups to disseminate hatred and suspicion, and it is even used to sow discord within communities. Here, religion is used for momentary interest. It’s flexibility and benefits have been lost.

These facts require that the Muslim community take an important role in materializing more peaceful religious views. Progressive views illustrating Islamic ethical moral are needed. Islamic teachings should inspire the actualization of views supporting justice, equality, diversity and civilization.

Actually Averroes as a philosopher, doctor, and ulema has shown us how to be progressive Muslims. To him, a good Muslim is a Muslim who can represent the era he lives in. Therefore, his views are always refreshing for our religious insight as reflected below. Firstly, in terms of the pluralism of ijtihad (individual religious interpretation). Averroes was a religious judge (qadhi) in Seville (1169) and the head of religious judges in Cordova (1182). In his capacity as the man who had authority in religious matters, he did not automatically use that authority as the iron hand to summarize a law decisively. Instead he emphasized the urgency of ijtihad in the domain of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

Andalusia which is generally influenced by the Maliki school of thought did not automatically drive him to side with the Imam Malik School. His view, as mentioned in Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtashid, was that every fiqh matter should be observed trough the perspective of four Islamic school of thoughts: Syafi’ie, Hambali, Hanafi and Maliki. To Abid al-Jabiry (1998), Averroes actually wished to give a precious lesson that the most important thing in fiqh is to analyze the ethical moral dimension behind the law as well as the urgency of understanding ijtihad’s process. This means that each law should consider the public benefit. Will it be a benefit or a hazard? Here is the importance of a plural ijtihad which accomplishes people’s interest in general.

Second is the freedom of thought and the tradition of the critics. Averroes lived in the Dark Age and the repression of freedom of thought. At that time, philosophy was buried alive especially after the fatwa (instruction) of infidel (kafir) and confused (mutahafit) by Imam al-Ghazali in Tahafut al-falasifah. Averroes criticized several books which prohibited philosophy by writing a book, Tahafut al-Tahafut. He issued a fatwa, “the importance of thinking and philosophizing”, as written satirically in Fashl al-Maqal fi ma bayn al-Hikmah wa al-Syari’ah min al-Ittishal. To him, the position of philosophy and thought is equal to sharia. Both are brothers and roads to the truth. He added that the theological problem should not be approached textually only, but it should be approached by philosophy, through interpretation (takwil) based on demonstrative analogy (al-qiyas al-burhany). Based on that, Averroes refused to consider philosophers as infidels, since philosophy and thought are an authentic part of Islam. Muhammad Arkoun considers Averroes to be the pioneer of enlightened rationalism and faith (ra’id al-fikr al-‘aqlany wa al-iman al-mustanir), since iman (faith) does not repress freedom of thought according to Averroes.

Thirdly is the interfaith dialog. Averroes wished that philosophy could be a bridge to accept truth from the others of different religions. He wrote in Fashl al-Maqal, “If we find truth from others with different religion, we must accept and respect him. On the contrary whenever we find mistake, so we have to remind and forgive him.” He observed that religious diversity is not a barrier to build a dialog. Therefore, he read and commented upon Aristotelian philosophy which originated from outside Muslim tradition. According to Youhanna Qalta, a priest in al-Sujud church, Egypt, Averroes opened the heart of Christians to welcome other religions.

Fourthly, there is the issue of control over ruler’s policy. The important idea originated by Averroes is control over ruler’s policy. He observed that authoritarianism tended to kill collective interest. Therefore, he always opposed the caliph. Furthermore he often greeted the caliph by saying “Hi brother”. He paid a high price when subsequently he endured inquisition (mihnah fikriyyah) and was exiled by the Caliph to Lucena, an Atlantic island, in 1195. The most important of all his teachings was the need to control rulers.


It is amazing that Averroes thoughts were formulated so long ago. He was a rare and unique thinker. He still absorbed multiple meanings of Islam within the almost uniform tradition while writing under a system of absolute monarchy.

Averroes could revive the religious spirit in our recent religiosity. The awareness of ijtihad, freedom of thinking, interfaith dialog and control over public policy are growing constantly. Indeed, Averroes reminds us of the importance of being progressive Muslims, that is of being Muslims who are aware of their role in the social domain, not only in the private one.

Zuhairi Misrawi, Director of Institute of Progressive Islamic Studies (LSIP) and Coordinator of Emancipatorist Islam, P3M, Jakarta.

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