Monday August 15, 2022

The relevance of ancient wisdom

July 03, 2022

Akbar S Ahmed’s new book, ‘The Flying Man’, is a masterpiece for our times. I use this word carefully to suggest that only a master of his subject could bring the essential lessons of the great philosophers of Islam’s Golden Age to bear, in dealing with the central challenge of today: the survival of life on Earth.

Akbar begins with two famous thought experiments. One by Avicenna, the Persian philosopher of the 11th century AD, and the second, allegory of the cave by Plato, the fourth century BC Greek philosopher. Both are so relevant for our time when there is such conflict in the way we construct meaning in our lives.

Avicenna’s example consists of a blindfolded man suspended in midair. Although he would not know he had a body, yet, would still be aware of the existence of his ‘self’ or ‘soul’. Plato’s allegory of the cave, involves a group of prisoners chained in a dark cave, a fire behind them casting their shadows on the blank wall in front, at which they are staring constantly. The prisoners are led to understand that the shadows represent reality. When one of the prisoners escapes to see the world outside, he returns to try to persuade the prisoners that it is not the shadows they see, but the world outside, which is real. The prisoners hold on to their belief that the shadows are the reality so tenaciously that they threaten violence against their fellow prisoner who has returned with empirical evidence that questions their beliefs.

Both thought experiments, Akbar suggests, echo in the work of great philosophers like Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, Plato and Nietzsche. For each of them, the two allegorical examples are relevant for their pursuit of truth and light.

Yet, these two examples also reverberate in the contemporary period. As I have argued in my latest book, in the edifice of post-Enlightenment scientific knowledge there is lack of awareness of the experience of being human. The soul, or the centre of human consciousness, which is central to both ancient Greek philosophy as well as Islam, finds no place in the empiricist tradition that has dominated our modes of knowing the world since Descartes in the 17th century. I have suggested that the denial of the centre of human consciousness means alienation from what is essential to being human: compassion, justice and pursuit of truth beyond the apparent.

Akbar S Ahmed shows that, while the philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam draw their inspiration from Abrahamic religions, the great Al-Beruni also studied non-Abrahamic religions such as Hinduism. He was a polymath who mastered physics, astronomy and languages. Akbar, a distinguished anthropologist himself, recognizes Al-Beruni as the first anthropologist, a thousand years before Western ‘Indianists’ like Louis Dumont. Al-Beruni created a methodology to study caste, kinship and rites of passage in Indian society. His book, popularly known as ‘Kitab-al-Hind’, is considered the most authoritative source for the study of Indian society a thousand years ago.

Akbar suggests that an important feature of the wisdom and learning of these great philosophers was their courage and integrity. Some of them clashed with the state power of their time. I have indicated in my book that for Aristotle, various human virtues are ultimately united, so that wisdom and courage are inseparable. There is much to learn for some of Pakistan’s academics today from the great intellectual tradition they inherit. We must draw upon our courage to speak truth to power.

Akbar points out that the lives of these great scholars sometimes overlapped. Ibn-Arabi spent time with Jalal-al-Din Rumi in Damascus. Each of them suffered tribulations in their journey to truth, as each of them was fortified by a closeness to God.

Akbar paints a landscape of intellectual splendour, as he highlights the intellectuals of Muslim civilization during its Golden Era. The defining feature of the cultural environment of those times was the pursuit of knowledge unconstrained by state ideology. Learning was powered by empirical observation, experiment and most important, the intuitive imagination or the intellect. As Martin Lings the great contemporary Sufi scholar has shown, the word intellect is derived from the Latin ‘intellectus’. It means the instrument of experiencing the transcendent, or what both Muhammad Iqbal and Carl Gustav Jung called the direct apprehension of truth through love.

In a powerful concluding passage, Akbar S Ahmed identifies the threats of climate change, religious violence and genocide as the driving forces of a terrible tsunami that is drawing near from the horizon of this historic moment. Now is the time to face these grave threats to human existence by drawing upon the wisdom of the great knowledge traditions of Muslims and non-Muslims, atheists and believers. Let them all come together in compassion, knowledge and justice to face the challenges of our time.

The writer is distinguished professor at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. He can be reached at: