“Inna al-insāna ushkila ʿalayhi al-insānu” —Al-Tawḥīdī
In Western popular discourses humanism and renaissance are two of the least likely concepts that can be associated with Islam. Islam is often presented as anti-humanist par excellence. Isn’t Islam the submission to the will of God and to the legal rulings of his Sharīʿa? How is it then possible to speak of humanism in the world of Islam? Ironically, a large segment of Muslims that are caught up in the messy dynamics of identity politics also appear to embrace such an attitude. Yet, a humanistic discourse has been an integral part of Muslim intellectual circles from very early in the history of Islam.
A great example of the strong presence of such a humanist ethos is the intellectual production of the tenth century CE in the central lands of Islamic civilization. A renaissance with a humanist core dominated the world of Islam within the Buyid sphere of influence (Iraq/Iran). The humanist ethos stemmed from an interplay of philosophy, religion, and human experience. The life and work of Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī (d. 1023) are a fitting symbol of this humanist ethos because they highlight a multivalent personality that raises complex questions about mankind’s place in the universe.
The use of the terms renaissance and humanism to describe an Islamic context might be controversial to some, but if we start from the definition of renaissance as the rebirth of classical learning and culture, it is highly adequate to describe the intellectual and cultural scenes and their productions within the Buyid world as a renaissance. In a thoughtful introduction to his Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam, Joel Kraemer defends his use of the two terms. For him, it is possible to liken this Islamic Renaissance to both the European Renaissance of the twelfth century and the Italian Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The resemblance to the former resides in an accentuated interest in philosophy and science while the similarity with the latter stems from a focus on individualism and secularism. It is true that the Renaissance of Islam did not seek to reproduce antiquity in art and architecture. Furthermore, important Roman contributions were missing within the Islamic sphere, including those of Cicero, Horace, and Virgil. Nevertheless, not only did the Muslim philosophers of the time celebrate classical learning, they also insisted on historically connecting the Greek legacy to the Near East in a strong fashion [i].
One might have some reservations about Kraemer’s utilization of the term secularism in describing the world of tenth-century humanists. Given its loaded modern connotations, the notion of secularism is problematic. It might even create serious misunderstandings. While the intellectual discussions and cultural output were not necessarily connected to particular religious texts or theological positions, it seems to me that for the vast majority, if not all, of those involved in the construction of knowledge in that context, religion was ubiquitously in the background. This is especially the case when one considers social organization and the general worldviews of social actors. In other words, within the frame of thought that shaped the entire mentality of the age, a secular order might have been an impossibility. However, it must also be admitted that at the individual level, there were social actors who showed indifference towards religious practice and others who seemed to do little more than pay lip service to religious belief.
As for the notion of humanism, I would argue that if we begin from a minimal definition of the term as the positioning of the human subject at the center of intellectual and cultural practice, it seems rather clear that, at least for the various elites of Buyid times, there was indeed a general concern with the human being and her well-being first and foremost. Kraemer makes a similar claim. He explains that humanism in the Italian Renaissance was wedded to literary pursuits, but at the same time it retained a strong interest in ethics. Although not part of a particular philosophical school, Renaissance humanism was characterized by “an emphasis upon the value and dignity of man; an elevation of individualism as the expression of one’s own sensations, experiences, and thoughts; and promotion of cosmopolitanism, affirming the unity and common destiny of mankind” [ii].
Kraemer adds that even though Muslim thinkers gave philosophy a more central place in their endeavor than their Italian counterparts, it cannot be denied that their pursuit of philosophy had a strong practical component. For Muslim humanists, philosophy was formative of the human mind and human character. Importantly, the literary production reflected this concern. It was connected to the concept of insāniyya. Al-Adab communicated a way of life that stemmed from `ulūm al-awā’il (the knowledge of the ancients), a common possession of mankind. In fact, in translated Hellenistic works, “adab often renders Greek paideia and has many of its nuances” [iii].
Here, I must raise another concern. Most discussions about the notion of humanism tend to be Eurocentric, including many interventions that are sympathetic to non-European cultures and civilizations. It is highly objectionable to assume that the humanism of the Italian Renaissance is the model according to which other human experiences can be described as humanist or not. By accepting this starting point, not only do we run the risk of being anachronistic, we also arbitrarily posit one historical human experience as superior to all others. Instead, I suggest that all experiences in which the human subject is at the center of intellectual and cultural practice ought to be considered in our discussions as potentially humanistic. In the case of the Buyid world of the tenth century, Mohammed Arkoun’s assessment is highly adequate and catches the dynamics of the time. About that world, Arkoun writes, “l’homme est au centre de toute la recherche philosophico-scientifique: on s’interroge sur sa destinée, ses origines, sa place dans l’univers, sa condition biologique et spirituelle la conduite adéquate à sa vocation spécifique” (“Man is at the center of all philosophico-scientific inquiry. Questions are raised about Man’s destiny, origins, place in the universe, biological and spiritual condition, and the adequate path to the fulfillment of his specific calling”) [iv].
Importantly, the tenth-century humanism of Islam was based on a complex interplay of philosophy and religion. Evidence points to the existence of strong competition between various camps on whether religious law and philosophical reasoning were compatible and about which one of the two had to take precedence. One example is the spirited debate between the Brother of Purity, al-Maqdisī, who believed that religious law was the “medicine of the sick” while philosophy was the “medicine of the healthy,” and the Sunnī al-Jarīrī, who embraced the unquestioned supremacy of religious law [v]. But so is the rejection by some philosophers of the usefulness of debating the mutakallimūn (speculative theologians) or even the non-debate between others, as when the grammarian al-Sīrāfī refused to answer the questions of the towering philosophical mind al-ʿĀmirī [vi]. The tension between religion and philosophy was also present within the same circle of scholars, as can be seen in Abū Sulaymān al-Sijistānī’s circle of study. Perhaps more tellingly, that tension can even be witnessed in the life and writings of one of the major intellectual figures of the period, Abū Ḥayyān Al-Tawḥīdī.
Professor Wadād al-Qāḍī draws a fascinating portrait of al-Tawḥīdī in her article entitled “Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī: a Sunni Voice in the Shiʿi Century,” but she overemphasizes the orthodox Sunnī part of his identity. She sees his Sunnism as a major driving force in his intellectual output and as a central element in the less than charitable way he was treated in the Shīʿī century [vii]. Maybe his Sunnism did play such a role at some level. But, the comprehensive biographical sketch that Kraemer draws in his Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam and the close look at al-Hawāmil wal-shawāmil that Arkoun presents in his monumental L’humanisme arabe au 4e/10e siècle indicate that al-Tawḥīdī carried within him a skeptical spirit, beyond the specific articulation of his views on this or that issue.
That many different streams of thought shaped al-Tawḥīdī’s worldview is evident. It is well established that he was part of the philosophical circles of both the Christian Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī and the Muslim Abū Sulaymān al-Sijistānī. In addition, Kraemer highlights that al-Tawḥīdī often wandered through the lands in the company of itinerant Ṣūfīs [viii], that he was exiled for making the case for a Ḥallajjian ḥajj ʿaqlī (pilgrimage of the mind) [ix], and that some scholars, like G. Anawati, L. Gardet, and F. Rosenthal even argued for a possible Ismāʿīlī connection [x]. Similarly, despite al-Tawḥīdī’s animosity to the mutakallimūn, Arkoun notes that, “le muʿtazilisme, comme peut-être le mysticisme, semblent avoir apporté à Tawḥīdī non pas tant une profession de foi, mais avant tout une méthode et un cadre adéquats à l’expression d’un sentiment tragique de la vie” (“Muʿtazilism, as perhaps mysticism, seem to have given al-Tawḥīdī, not so much a profession of belief, but first of all an adequate method and frame to express a tragic feeling about life”) [xi]. Arkoun’s assertion might seem odd if one were to consider al-Tawḥīdī’s scathing attack on kalām in some of his writings, like al-Muqābasāt for instance. However, it is important to remember that the Muʿtazila and their kalām shaped whole generations of Muslim thinkers, even those who were vehemently opposed to them. For example, the notion of takāfu’ al-adilla (equivalence of proofs) might have been problematic within many circles, but it still set the agenda and shaped the frame of intellectual expression. Al-Tawḥīdī’s deep existential questions to Miskawayh in his hawāmil are a witness to this state of affairs.
Al-Tawḥīdī’s life and work catch the tensions in the interplay between religion and philosophy or between revelation and human reason or between classical Greek learning and Qur’ānic teachings in the context of Buyid Baghdad and beyond. Al-Tawḥīdī’s personal experience and intellectual contribution highlight that it might be misleading to simply posit religious teachings and philosophical reasoning within a strict dichotomy, as is often done. It is perhaps more adequate to see them as partners in shaping an adab and a humanist ethos that sought to guide Man to what is good for Man, but that came up short because they came from Man. It would then not be surprising that the age under discussion here is one that featured a pronounced coincidence of piety and profanity, of spirituality and sensuality, and of esotericism and exotericism [xii].
[i] Joel L Kraemer, Humanism in the renaissance of Islam: the cultural revival during the Buyid Age (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), 3-4.
[ii] ibid, 6.
[iii] ibid, 10.
[iv] Mohammed Arkoun, “L’Humanisme arabe au IVe/Xe siècle, d’après le Kitâb al-Hawâmil wal-Šawâmil.” Studia Islamica 14 (1961): 74.
[v] Frank Griffel and Klaus Hachmeier, “Prophets as Physicians of the Soul: A Dispute About the Relationship Between Reason and Revelation Reported by al-Tawḥīdī in his Book of Delightful and Intimate Conversations (Kitāb al-Imtā‘ wa-l-mu’ānasa),” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph LXIII (2010-2011): 241-8.
[vi] Joel L Kraemer, Humanism in the renaissance of Islam: the cultural revival during the Buyid Age (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), 236.
[vii] Wadād al-Qāḍī, “Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī: a Sunni Voice in the Shiʿi Century,” in Culture and Memory in Medieval Islam: Essays in Honour of Wilfred Madelung, ed. Farhad Daftary and Josef W. Meri, 128-57 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003).
[viii] Joel L Kraemer, Humanism in the renaissance of Islam: the cultural revival during the Buyid Age (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), 220.
[ix] ibid, 214.
[x] ibid, 221.
[xi] Mohammed Arkoun, “L’Humanisme arabe au IVe/Xe siècle, d’après le Kitâb al-Hawâmil wal-Šawâmil.” Studia Islamica 14 (1961): 79.
[xii] Joel L Kraemer, Humanism in the renaissance of Islam: the cultural revival during the Buyid Age (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), 15-16.