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Avram Alpert reviews Open to Reason

Souleymane Bachir Diagne. Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with the Western Tradition. Trans. Jonathan Adjemian. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 136 pp.

Review by Avram Alpert

15 May 2019

Those looking for a brief introduction to Islamic philosophy from the 7th century CE to the present could do a lot worse than to read attentively the English translation of Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s Comment philosopher en Islam (2008). What makes the volume particularly valuable is a self-conscious theoretical reflection that is often missing in global philosophical accounts. Diagne here presents Islamic philosophy not as a codified set of beliefs to be compared with other traditions. Rather, he considers Islamic philosophy as the name given to a centuries-long conversation with respect to the Quran and hadith, in relation to certain canonical texts developed in Islamic countries, and in constant interactional dialogue with philosophers from the Mediterranean and Europe. His vision is open and dynamic and embraces both mysticism and rationalism. But this is not to say that Diagne lacks a position on the meaning of philosophizing in Islam. For him, philosophy is neither universal nor particular; neither secluded from religion nor subsumed by it; neither a slave to tradition nor unbound from it. Instead, philosophy emerges as an ongoing conversation that tarries with different conditions of human incompleteness. We always find ourselves somewhere, but that somewhere never offers the end of the human story. It is this philosophical insight into the intertwining of condition and freedom that links the readings of Islamic philosophy presented across the book.

From the opening chapter, Diagne is concerned to show that freedom is fundamental to the philosophizing that develops out of Islam. He notes that Muhammad “had forbidden the posing of questions of pure speculation . . . in a casuistry that, taking itself as its own object, disconnects itself from the very movement of life through which real questions arise” (p. 2). The prohibition against this form of speculation, as Diagne interprets it, is against thinking that attempts to foreclose the future. It is not some kind of religious edict, but a philosophical axiom: thinking must be faithful to life, and life is what happens in the movement of peoples through time and space. To philosophize in Islam is to ask fundamental questions about how human communities can and should respond to these changing conditions.

Thus in his reading of Avicenna, Diagne shows how the philosopher engages Plato in an allegorical reading of the Prophet Muhammed’s ascent. Through this cross-cultural reading, Avicenna implies that philosophy is a process toward the opening up of the mind so that it may receive a particular illumination. While for Avicenna this is a movement towards God, for Muhammad Iqbal, the twentieth-century philosopher, poet, and statesman who Diagne tells us is the “heart” of the book (p. xii), this movement is “always . . . toward more openness and the emancipation of all” (p. 97). What makes Iqbal the heart of the book is both this aspiration and how it continues the conversation of Islamic philosophy through his engagements with Bergson. Iqbal thinks the Quran and Bergson together to show that reviving, changing, and transforming based on new conditions are activities at the heart of Islamic philosophy. To insist otherwise, to claim that Islam is about a fixed condition to which one must be faithful, is in fact the height of “infidelity” (p. 92). For the only true faith is to the “movement of life” (p. 2).

This way of thinking about Islam is not meant to “oppose to European modernity an alternative Islamic modernity.” And it is equally to refuse the idea there is only “modernity” that arrives eventually everywhere (p. 77). It is to show, rather, that “modernity” names an enduring struggle for autonomy and equality that manifests differently depending on conditions. As Diagne put it in an earlier book: cultures create a “certain ‘equilibrium,’ let us say a certain ratio, between various features that can be found everywhere because together they make up the human condition. . . . Different cultures, then, will be characterized by different ratios between the same features that they combine in separate ways.”[1]

The importance of Open to Reason is the continuation of Diagne’s project to show that though universal values do not have universal appearances, it does not mean that we live without universals. It does not follow, however, that seeing those universals at work is easy or obvious. It requires acts of interpretation and translation beyond what academic philosophy usually promises. While works in global philosophy have often focused solely on the analysis of a tradition’s canonical documents, Diagne insists that the work of philosophy includes understanding how traditions are part of networks and ideas that are both conditioned by and transcendent of that tradition. To do so means tarrying as much with a conceptual understanding of cultures and traditions as a series of philosophical themes. 



[1] Souleymane Bachir Diagne, African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude (Chicago, 2011), p. 95.