Secular Philosophy was brainchild of Muslim scholars

When my grandchildren ask me why I am called a "doctor," I tell them it is because I hold a PhD degree. I try to explain to them that I am not the same kind of doctor who takes care of sick people (they have probably figured that out, anyway) but that PhD means "doctor in philosophy" and, in my case, it refers to my graduate degree in the specific philosophy of engineering.

To have earned the right to use the letters PhD after my name –” this happened 33 years ago — means that I attained the top level of higher knowledge in my chosen field of engineering. It says that I not only know facts and data, but that I also creatively understand and apply the philosophy of my engineering knowledge.

Philosophy thus belongs to all of the human arts and sciences – and to our human understanding of religion. Yes, dear children, there really is an Islamic philosophy, a time-honored discipline of higher spiritual and moral knowledge which early Muslim scholars called Ilm-ul-Kalam, or the art of conversing through rational arguments, logic and reasoning.

Unfortunately, most Western universities – and sadly, too many in the Muslim world today — offer courses in Ilm-ul-Kalam only at the graduate level. While most do offer undergraduate philosophy, their courses cover only Greek and modern Western thought.

I suspect the main reason is that universities have opted to teach only materialistic philosophy, based on the thesis that God does not exist. Islamic philosophy urges exactly the opposite, using not dogma but the tools of the ancient philosophers to show there is a far greater likelihood that God does exist.

In fact, for Islamic philosophy there is no sharp distinction made between faith and so-called secular matters, whether the latter are scientifically or rationally observed: fact exists within the framework of faith, not outside it.

Thus, in seeking a rational interpretation of their faith, together with the quest for intellectual discipline and unassailable logic, most Muslim philosophers have done so within the duties of their service to Islam.

Muslim philosophers sought to formulate and then to answer the fundamental questions about God’s creation of the universe; about the nature and destiny of the human soul; and about the true existence of things seen and unseen. It has been to the enduring benefit of the West that thinkers and scholars of the earlier Islamic period preserved – and significantly contributed to — such a great philosophical heritage and, more than any others, made it available to the entire world, not just to the rich who can afford to go to university.

Down through history, the procession of Islamic philosophers is lengthy and distinguished. Some of the leading lights include: al-Kindi, who built on the work of Plato and Aristotle; al-Farabi, who modeled society after the human organism, with the heart serving as a moral and intellectually perfect sovereign; Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), whose theories on form and matter were eventually incorporated into Medieval Christian scholasticism; and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), whose inquiries into the very meaning of existence provided Europe with its greatest understanding of Aristotle. Averroes, more than any single Muslim philosopher, did most to shape modern Western thought; but all of these thinkers, and more, achieved the highest peaks of Islamic philosophy. And as is the case today in Islamic arts and sciences, those peaks still remain high even amid the broadened contemporary landscape.

Another great philosopher was Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD), who was also a poet, theologian, Sufi scholar, legal expert, and the founder of modern psychology. At the young age of 23, he was appointed to a university "chair" of Islamic studies in Baghdad. The word "chair," which we still use in academia and business today, derives from the ancient Islamic practice of giving physical chairs for professors to sit upon in early Islamic universities (then held in mosques). During their lengthy lectures, students would sit on the floor in a semi-circle around them.

While still young in his career, Al-Ghazali underwent a profound spiritual crisis. He abandoned his prestigious academic position and left Baghdad, intending to travel to Mecca. But somewhere in between those two cities he stopped striving to gain his spiritual identity through external obligations. After this life-changing pilgrimage he returned to his birthplace in the city of Tus (located in modern Iran), where he spent the remainder of his brief life writing some 70 books. So productive and respected was Al-Ghazali’s output that his peers gave him the title "Hojja-ul-Islam" — meaning a "living reference on Islam."

Many of Al-Ghazali’s books are now available in English translations, including his classic "Tahafut al-Falasifa" (or, The Incoherence of the Philosophers), in which he criticized philosophers of his time for writing to and among themselves on topics of little interest to the public, and on top of that lapsing into flawed logic as well. That particular book was quite a blow to the pride of the discipline – or perhaps a wake-up call – for it moved other Muslim giants like Ibn Bajjah (Avempace) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) to come to the defense of philosophy in their own written works.

Averroes was a pioneer in advocating the separation of philosophy and religion, and for his efforts he is considered the founding father of European secular thought.

Today, it is a certainty that some of what is Islamic is Western, and — equally important — some of what is Western is Islamic. After some fourteen centuries of cultural sharing and exchange, now more than ever, each of our great civilizations has come to depend upon the other in myriad ways; each is, indeed, a substantial part of the other.

For a planet that daily grows smaller and more interrelated, even as its population multiplies, the heritage of the Islamic world is a never-ending gift of inspiration, shared with and enhanced by all civilizations to which Muslims have contributed. Today’s generations in every land are heirs to the richness of these past achievements. May they be a cornerstone for building a future of peace and progress.

And so, dear children, now you know why a PhD – a doctorate of philosophy – is such a worthy goal on which to set your sights.