Home Opinion How Can We Escape The Vicious Circle Of Poverty Of Ideas?

How Can We Escape The Vicious Circle Of Poverty Of Ideas?

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By Aziz Ali Dad


Human being is not just a name given to a biological being with a body. In fact, humans are different from other species. They are endowed with the faculty of producing ideas and leading lives in the light of those ideas.

During the course of intellectual history, the definition of ideas kept changing. For Plato, the world of ideas is immaterial and the material world is inferior or imitation. Modern philosophers define ideas as an innate concept, image or sense datum that cannot be derived from experience. Seen in this way, it appears to be something that stems from the mind. Therefore, it can be claimed that function of the mind is to produce ideas.

Ideas have emancipating power for they enable humans to overcome their existential constraints and mental aporia by imagining the world anew in the form of ideas. At the same time, ideas become iron cage if they are ossified into fixed rules and principles for subjugating populace. The very concept of discipline and rule emerged from the idea to bring order to the chaotic experiences and diverse competing human interests. Max Weber is of the view that if ideas of discipline and rule become rigid, they develop into “shells as hard as steel”. His famous categorisation of rationalised structures as the “iron cage” points to the debilitating impact of fixed ideas or dogmas on human society.

From the above discussion it can be deduced that ideas are formed by a thinking mind to form and transform human life into a beautiful one. On the other hand, when humans cease to be thinking beings, then the ideas dry up and deform life by pushing human societies into the black hole of unthought.

Now the question is: What must be done to rejuvenate the ossified mind in a society presenting a picture of wasteland where no ideas grow? The first step toward awakening the mind from its torpor of unthought is the destruction of dominant mindset and its attendant ideas.

Today, the brutal wars of modern period and gory scenes of blood and fire inform our concept of destruction. Etymologically, destruction stem from Latin destructionem. It stems from destruere, which means tear down, demolish, un-build and un-down. The main component of this word is prefix “un”, the opposite, as in undoing, unbuilding and unimagining. By fusing the syntax of the word with its semantics, we get the cue for undoing and unimagining ideas that inform our imagination.

In other words, we can reimagine our self, society and state in the world by unimagining our imaginaries be it social, religious, philosophical or political.

Socrates is one of the great teachers of undoing, as he tends to destroy the previous state of ignorance and the bad and replaces it with wisdom and good. In his dialogues Plato uses the term destruction for the process wherein the old is destroyed to create something new. Socrates in dialogue with Plato states, “If they understand how to destroy men so as to make good and sensible ones out bad and foolish ones, whether this be their own invention, or they learned from someone else a kind of death or destruction such that they can destroy a bad one and produce a good one instead:…” In a philosophical courage typical of Socrates, he offers himself to one of the discussants as an experiment for the destruction in these words, “Let him destroy me, boil me too if he likes, only let him turn me out good.”

In the context of Muslim intellectual history, the classical period of Islam witnessed destruction of received wisdom through philosophy. It was not to wipe out faith, but to expand the horizon of religion. However, with the dominance of theology after the decline of philosophy in Muslim lands, all the energies have been geared to destroy philosophy by religion while keeping managers of the sacred immune from the destructive construction of philosophy.

Imam al-Ghazali’s book Tahafut al-falasifa was devastating indictment against philosophy, where he intended to refute al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, and declared philosophers heretical on the basis of twenty issues. Ghazali’s assault proved devastating to philosophy, but it also failed to invigorate religion because instead of expanding interpretative frameworks, it trapped Islam into the dogmatic enclosure of clerics, theologians, sufis and jurists.

Ghazali himself was well versed in the philosophical ideas of his time. He used the axe of philosophy to chop down the tree of philosophy. In the case of Ghazali, his very ideas destroyed the very axe that empowered him to mount an assault against philosophy. As a result, no destruction and subsequent reconstruction has been witnessed in Muslim societies in the succeeding centuries. Instead, what emerges on the horizon of ideas is a strong anti-rationalist impulse among Muslims.

Majid Fakhry is of the view that after the devastating assault of al-Ghazali “the gap between philosophy and theology continued to widen during the next three centuries and beyond”. He identifies Ibn Hazm, Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah as the chief representatives of the Neo-Hanbalite position.

Here we can clearly see that with the closure of philosophical thinking, the process of destroying congealed ideas has come to a halt. As a result, ideas disappeared from the lands of Muslims. Although, the theme of destruction and revolt, as mentioned by Tahir Kamran, continued in mystical and poetical domains of Islam, it could not escape from the subjective state to the domain of philosophy and politics. Because of this, today we witness the unthought lovers dominating Muslim thought than the thoughtful lovers of wisdom – philosophia.

This explains intellectual poverty and paucity of ideas among Muslims. Today, the jurisprudence, theology and political Islam have converged to expel Sufism from their version of puritan Islam. It is a second purging in Islam after the elimination of philosophy from the Muslim mind.

The question is: how to escape from the vicious circle of poverty of ideas? The starting point is to expose ourselves to insecurity of uncertainties to experience and think through by unimagining the imagined, unlearning what we learnt, undoing what has been done to us, unselfing the self from the theocratic mind and deconstructing things presented to us as veritable truth and absolute knowledge. Let’s open our heart and mind to this experience and reinvent our self by unimagining, unlearning, undoing, unselfing the self from the dogmatic and close mind and deconstructing the prevalent order of mind and things. For great construction one needs great destruction. Though Dr Muhammed Iqbal tried to erect a philosophical edifice with theological mortar and poetic brick, his project was appropriated by the unquestioning mind, which reduced multiplicity of his meaning into static idea.

It seems that our mental cowardice compels us to escape from pain of thinking. Thus, we enjoy wallowing in our ignorance. Like other spheres of life, we in Pakistan tend to lead a life that is oblivious of the world of ideas. That is why the discipline of history of ideas is an alien subject in Pakistan, let alone discussing an idea with impunity. The discipline of history of ideas emerges from the intersection of philosophy and history. But in the case of Muslim societies, the twain of history and philosophy have rarely met for last seven centuries.

What will be the destiny of a mindless society that shun ideas as figments of imagination and deem them as threat to their life and hereafter? Thomas Carlyle was faced with such a situation while dining with a businessman who got tired of his ideas and retorted, “ideas, Mr. Carlyle, ideas, nothing but ideas!” Carlyle replied, “There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first.”

It is Rousseau’s novel idea of human nature and social contract that the French nobility was not ready to listen. As a result, they witnessed effacing of anachronistic mind and order of things. Muslims spent most of the second millennium in a state of unthought and antipathy to theories and ideas. If we do not mend our ways, then our sad story will be written in books bound in the skin of our ignorance in the third millennium.


The writer is a freelance columnist with interest in history of ideas. Email: [email protected]

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