The Impulse of Freedom in Islam

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The Impulse of Freedom in Islam
The Impulse of Freedom in Islam
by John van Schaik, Christine Gruwez, and
Cilia ter Horst, with a foreword
by Abdulwahid van Bommel and
an afterword by Ibrahim Abouleish,
translated by Philip Mees.
Great Barrington: Lindisfarne Books, 2014
Review by Elaine Maria Upton
Who or what is the being of Islam? And what—beyond and beneath the surfaces shown in our contemporary mass media and in popular opinion—is the role of
Islam in the cosmic and in the earthly world in our time?
The authors of The Impulse of Freedom in Islam, all scholars of certain areas of Arabic language and culture, do
not directly ask these questions; yet, as I read this book,
these questions arise for me; and from these questions,
others follow. One such question is that of the meaning of
“free will”—a will that, for many Islamic thinkers, is set
against a background of divine omnipotence and providence.
In the Foreword, referring to what he calls “severe”
remarks Rudolf Steiner made on Islam, Abdulwahid van
Bommel writes that by Rudolf Steiner’s time “the original freedom impulse in Islam has been snowed under” (p.
15). Van Bommel observes an Islam that for fourteen centuries has undergone a process of progressively new doctrinal formulation, and in the context of this progressive
development, van Bommel would look to an “Islamic theology for the future of our children and grandchildren”
(p. 7). In the Afterword, Ibrahim Abouleish—perhaps
many readers will know him from his foundational work
in the community of Sekem in Egypt—writes of freedom
as developmentally occurring and experienced in community. For Abouleish, freedom is not, as in dominant
Western thinking, a concept of liberation from religion
and of overthrowing institutions, but rather is found in
the progressive development of human beings’, or rather,
of a human society’s relationship to Allah.
The body of the book consists of four parts, written by three different authors. The series of chapters that
make up Part I are written by John van Schaik, who in
the first of these chapters gives a brief overview of Islam
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being human
in history, noting the appearance of Mohammed against
a background of wars, of prominent Caliphs and military leaders, and of the unsettling (for some?) presence of
various gods in a polytheistic world. In the last chapter of
Part I, van Schaik describes the figure of Isa (“Jesus”), Son
of Maryam, as he appears in the Koran—not as Son of
God, not crucified, and perhaps not resurrected, although
van Schaik admits that this latter point on the Resurrection—whether it occurred, and if so, how? — has been
the subject of “furious fights over the centuries” (p. 68).
And while van Schaik boldly asserts, without elaboration,
that Mohammed, in his life, followed the Imitatio Christi
(p. 78), in Part I the relevance of Isa to Christ and to human freedom is not made clear in van Schaik’s survey of
the events in and attributes of the life of Isa.
In Part IV, the last part of
the book, van Schaik returns,
to quote and to give critique
of Rudolf Steiner’s (for some,
harsh) statements on Islam.
Steiner states that Islam—he,
according to the translation,
uses the word, “Mohammedanism”—is a religion of the
Father, wherein the Son (of God), who carries the impulse of human freedom, is missing. In the Father realm,
physical, natural laws hold sway. This gives Islam what
many see as its deterministic and fatalistic character. Yet,
van Schaik writes, “It is the academy at Gondishapur [not
Mohammedanism] that stimulated the extreme Father
God orientation” and promoted the view of “the human
being as a purely physical entity” (p. 174). Van Schaik
faults Rudolf Steiner for not saying more about how Islam had a moderating effect on the Ahrimanic influences
issuing from Gondishapur in the year of the beast and
beyond. “It is a pity that Steiner did not specify what it
was in Islam that had this tempering effect” (Ibid). Van
Schaik here overlooks what he has quoted earlier: Rudolf
Steiner’s statement that Mohammedanism itself is led by
“in a certain sense—retarding spiritual powers,” even
though these spiritual powers “still have a connection with
what has been influenced by the Christ impulse” (p. 166).
It seems to me that Rudolf Steiner is most careful with
his words, and points to the subtleties of the workings
in Mohammedanism of the “retarding spiritual powers”
and also the “spiritual powers [that are] still influenced
by the Christ impulse.” That impulse (as van Schaik also
admits) is pointed to in the presence of Isa as an aspect of
what Rudolf Steiner understands as the “Nathan Jesus”
(p. 171). It is Rudolf Steiner who makes a connection between Isa and the Nathan Jesus, and in doing this, Rudolf
Steiner has left us with an idea with which we may work.
I would also note that in Part IV, van Schaik, in his concern with critiquing Rudolf Steiner, often strays from the
book’s purported central concern—namely, the “impulse
of freedom” in Islam.
The chapters of Part II are written by Cilia ter Horst.
She writes of the promptings toward freedom in the
youthful and later grown-up life of Mohammed Abduh
(1845-1905), an Egyptian theologian who was a leader at
the University of Cairo, traveled in Europe, and eventually turned mystic, one who is said to have re-opened the
“gates of ijtihad ” so that (once again?) free interpretation
of the Koran may be practiced. In the second and last
chapter of Part II, Cilia ter Horst sets out to compare (and
contrast) the “impulse of freedom” in the life and work of
Abduh and in The Philosophy of Freedom of Rudolf Steiner. Ter Horst calls Abduh a “philosopher of freedom.” Using the term “free will,” Abduh declares
...that divine omnipotence and free will do not exclude
each other, but presume and include each other. It is
precisely the divine will and providence as laid down in
the Koran which can lead to freedom and intellectual
independence of action (p. 79).
Ter Horst then cites The Philosophy of Freedom and
writes that in that work Rudolf Steiner’s “central thesis is
that the human being is free only if he thinks out of the
spirit” (Ibid).
Thus, in ter Horst’s assessment, both Rudolf Steiner
and Abduh attribute the existence of freedom to a divine
or spiritual source—in one case the Koran, in the other
“the spirit.” However, one must inquire further to find
what this “spirit” is and whether there is a significant gap
between a particular view of spirit (i.e., spiritual activity,
the spiritual activity of thinking, where will is brought to
bear) and the teachings “laid down” in the Koran. The
various points of contrast and similarity between Abduh’s
thinking and that of Steiner in The Philosophy of Freedom
are sometimes presented in a maze of terms, and it seems
that there is a danger to understanding when one cognitive system is overly subjected to another. Yet, perhaps
some readers of this chapter may find intriguing or useful
the attempt to find in Abduh’s interpretation of the Koran similarities and contrasts to ideas in The Philosophy of
Freedom. In any case, it is significant that against a popular Western perception of Islam as “fatalistic” a thinker
such as Abduh appears, grappling with questions of human free will, divine omnipotence and omniscience.
In Part III, Christine Gruwez, whom many readers may know from her work with Manichaeism and
human encounters with evil, traces what she sees as an
“impulse of freedom” in specifically Iranian philosophy,
which, like the practice of philosophy throughout the Islamic world and unlike the practice of philosophy that
pre-dominates in the West, is a search for God, a sacred
not secular pursuit. Gruwez observes that a tension exists
in Iranian philosophical discussion between the concepts
of revelation (from an allknowing Allah) and the
human capacity for arriving at knowing, a knowing that, in turn, renders
human freedom. In Iran
this tension works particularly from what Gruwez
calls a “wound,” or intervention, two interventions in this case—one
in the being and revelation of Zarathustra, the
other, later in time, in
the human Mohammed.
Gruwez outlines several
pivotal moments in the
thinking of philosophers who became prominent in Iranian history and theology. She traces a development of
a thinking about Allah’s omnipotence and free will, to
thinking as a path of cognition that leads to the Light of
Allah (nur ala nur—“Light upon Light”) as proclaimed
in Sutra 24:35 of the Koran. Gruwez traces this development as it proceeds from Avicenna (980-1037) through
Molla Sadra (1571-1641) to Mehdi Hairi Yazdi (19231999), while she points to others along the way.
Yazdi, who studied Kant, Hegel, Russell, and Wittgenstein, as well as great Iranian philosophers—Molla
Sadra, Avicenna, and others,—is interested in the relationship between knowledge (or forms of cognition) and
freedom. Yazdi, who taught philosophy in Canada and
the U.S., first develops a theme of discursive thinking,
or “knowledge by consensus,” where the subject-object
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split, the split between cognizer and cognized, still exists.
He further develops a theme of what he calls “knowledge
by presence.” “Thinking is presence in spirit.” Presence
here is “Light upon Light,” as in the Light Sutra of the
Koran (p. 146), referred to above. “Knowledge by presence” transcends the duality of “knowledge by consensus.” “Knowledge by presence” is living in the immediacy
of truth” (p. 149). (This brings to mind Christ’s words,
“You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you
free.”) In this experience of “knowledge by presence” no
proof of truth is needed, for object is no longer seen as
external to subject. A need for proof, as in our ordinary
discursive thinking, where subject and object are split, is
a need in which we cannot find freedom or the “immediacy of truth.” Not proof, but
...a different criterion [is needed, and that] criterion is
inherent in the activity of thinking itself. [In the field of
the activity of thinking] cognizer and cognized appear
as part of one and the same field” (pp. 149-150).
They appear, then, (somewhat paradoxically?) not merely
as one, yet not separate one from the other; they appear
“as part of one and the same field.” And in this field there
is “liberation from the constraint of having to produce
proof” (p. 149, emphasis mine). This field in which they
exist together is the “activity of thinking.” “Knowing,”
then, here has a triadic character, where cognizer and cognized are brought together through a third element, “the
activity of thinking.” Thus, in thinking, a particularly
human (and divine) activity, a willing is brought to bear,
and this willed-thinking is the agent of freedom.
While Gruwez, like ter Horst, makes comparative
statements, works within categories, and also clearly refers to The Philosophy of Freedom in a way of honoring its
influence, she does not become entangled in any comparison of Yazdi’s and Steiner’s paths of cognition. Instead,
her categories seem to grow out of her own inner path of
thinking as it relates to these other writers, and relates to
her own thinking activity as it manifests in her work in
the world. Instead of overly subjecting the relationships
of Yazdi, Steiner, and others to categorical comparisons,
she remains well aware of the importance of the principle
of “individualization” (related to “I” consciousness and
the realization of freedom), and she is also aware of the
dangers of “accommodation,” where one’s desire for unity
can become an obstacle and lead one to overlook diversity
and the radical otherness of the other (p. 112).
This concern with the relationship of self and other
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being human
(a relationship that may appear in discursive thinking
as subject and object) figures largely, one may gather,
in Gruwez’s own understanding of freedom. If one is to
know self, this knowing requires seeing self in relation
to the radical other in its radicality, without which the
self would not exist (Ibid). If the two—two in the realm
of duality—self and other, cognizer and cognized, are
brought together by the third element, which is the “activity of thinking,” or the willing of thinking, that willing of thinking forms a field, a potential, for encounter, a
place for meeting the so-called “other”.
As she scans the work of Yazdi and his Iranian predecessors, and perhaps as well considers her own work
with “otherness” and the confrontation of evil, Gruwez
observes that “freedom always appears in context,” in
relationship (what Ibrahim Abouleish might call “community”, not only of human beings, but human beings’
or human society’s relationship with Allah). This view of
context, Gruwez tells us, is a key for understanding the
freedom impulse in Iranian philosophy.
This thought brings me then back to the questions
asked at the very beginning of this review: What is the true
being of Islam, and what is its role in the world today? This
book does not answer my question, nor is it meant to. Yet,
the book may help readers bring to consciousness urgent
questions about our relationships to Islam (and by implication, to other religions), and this book may give one at least
a beginning of a picture of how philosophy might contribute to our progress in contemporary deeds of freedom.
Amid current and ongoing conflicts among warring
Islamic groups and warring conflicts between the Islamic
East and the North-West, where may we, if at all, find the
true manifestation of Islam—the religion, the culture—
which has become the “other”?1 Does this manifestation
exist in the thinking of those philosophers who search for
freedom through teachings in the Koran, and in other
thinkers (those cited by Gruwez and ter Horst) who seek
conversation with Western thinkers on questions of free
will, and its relationship to knowledge—that is, of the self
1 A discussion of political and military policies among nations and tribes
is not the aim of this review, but rather the concern here is, in large part,
with the nature of human knowing and its relationship to freedom. For a
thoughtful presentation of the historical and continuing conflicts between
the Anglo-Americans with Western allies and the various Islamic groups
in Eastern nations, as well as the related Western conflict with Russia, see
Terry Boardman’s “Rhodes, Russia, and the Islamic State” in New View,
October 10, 2014 , or online []. Boardman is
a frequent contributor to New View. Thanks to William (Bill) McCormick for
calling my attention to this article.
and the relationship of so-called self and other, subject
and object, knower and known, where the need for proof,
for dominance of one over the other, fades?
Can we, peoples of the North-West (Occident) and of
the East (Islamic Orient), and people of the entire globe,
begin to discover, as in a translation of a poem by Rumi,
the field (a field of “knowing,” of wisdom) where we,
strangers, may meet? Can we, as in activity fostered by
the attentive reading of The Philosophy of Freedom, come
to a “pure thinking” wherein we are free of limiting perceptions of each other, a thinking that is practical, that
informs the willing in our individual, intuitively discovered “moral action”?
I close this review with more questions: What will be,
or is, our guiding light, the light that guides our thinking, quickens our feeling, fires our will, as in some reversal of, or mirrored, lightning?
Muslims, if I understand rightly, seek to know nur ala
nur, the “Light upon Light” of Allah. So how does the individual (or “the society,” the “community,” in Abouleish’s
words) prepare the soul—that is, “polish the mirror,” so
that this light of truth may be reflected in it? How does
“Jihad,” which, according to Avicenna and other philosophers cited in this book, means the “great inner struggle”
(pp. 82-83, 154) avoid falling into the entrapments of
“outer aggression” and war? How does the soul become
“ready to receive... intuitive capacities of cognition” and
become active, lighted by the divine (pp. 154-155)?
Christians have again and again heard the radiant announcement of the “Light of the World” in the
Gospels. And so I would ask here, how do we enter the
field, or how do we learn the way to cross over into the
macrocosm, where our perceptions become imaginations
reaching beyond the limits of body sense, geography, heredity, personality, favoritism, and antagonism? How do
the imaginations become living (inspired) conceptions,
become healing ideas in us, and lead on from there into
the capacity for “moral technique” (Steiner in The Philosophy of Freedom), or, in the words of the Gospels, become
capable of freely entering the realm of “Thy Will” in my
will—the realm of Intuition (“take up your cross and follow me”), thinking in truth, where we no longer “walk in
darkness, but have the light of life”—the light manifest,
from out of darkness, manifest through multiplicity, yet
whole and holy?
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