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Back to the Old Quarrel: Philosophy vs Religion

RABAT—Philosophy is not under attack in Morocco, its prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane stated publicly on January 19. The unusual declaration was an official intervention in a debate over the role and value of philosophy, and its compatibility with religious faith.

It started when someone noticed a passage describing philosophy as “a product of human thought that is contrary to Islam” in the “Faith and Philosophy” section of a newly revised high school religious studies textbook. The passage explicitly contrasted philosophy with Islamic doctrine, showing them as two distinct ways of answering the great questions of life.

In late December, the Moroccan Association of Philosophy Teachers held sit-in demonstrations at several high schools, protesting the inclusion of this description of philosophy and condemning an intolerant, extremist view of their discipline.

The debate that is taking place in Morocco today stretches back, in some form, for centuries.

The textbook also noted that “many Muslim scholars have taken violent positions against philosophy,” and cited the 13th century Iraqi scholar Salah al-Shahrazuri, who wrote that “philosophy is the essence of degeneracy. It is a field of confusion and errancy, springing from perversion and blasphemy.”

The textbook is one of many that have recently been revised following instructions by Morocco’s king, Mohamed VI, to reform the religious studies curricula to remove content that could encourage discrimination or extremism.

The Moroccan Ministry of Education has defended the new textbook, arguing that the controversy “totally obfuscates the deep changes that have taken place in the Islamic education curriculum.” A Ministry of Education official told the French newspaper Le Monde that the passages were included as “an object of reflection,” not as “doctrinal instruction.”

The statement from Benkirane—who heads Morocco’s leading Islamist Party—noted that 29 textbooks have been revised, but the debate has focused on one sentence in one book. He also argued the passage was intended to illustrate and offer for debate the extremist thinking of its author.

Benkirane has said in the past that Morocco “doesn’t need poets or philosophers”—expressing a common view of these disciplines as a waste of time, if not a bad influence. Philosophy is understood in some quarters to encourage “doubt,” a loaded term that has connotations of religious disbelief and subversion.

Philosophy professors have joined the discussion.

Noureddine Affaya, a professor of aesthetics and philosophy at Rabat’s University  Mohammed V, told the press that while Morocco is witnessing “an intellectual closure caused by the strategies of political Islam,” the reform of the religious curriculum was a “laudable” effort.

Ali Benmakhlouf, a Moroccan philosopher who teaches at the University of Paris Est Creteil, argued in a recent editorial that the passage in question should stimulate debate, as long as the teacher takes the right approach, encouraging students to question the medieval scholar’s absolute dismissal of philosophy.

While the textbook’s defenders have all emphasized the importance of understanding the context of al-Shahrazuri’s quote attacking philosophy, none have focused on the passage that poses a clear dichotomy between philosophical knowledge and Islamic belief.

The study of modern western philosophy was introduced under the French protectorate in Morocco, but the discipline was almost entirely phased out in the 1970s, when King Hassan II repressed leftist student movements and empowered conservative and religious forces. It has since become part of the curriculum again. Moroccan high schools teach three years of philosophy, and university philosophy departments have been re-established or expanded.

Benmakhlouf also noted that for several decades there has been a renewed interest in philosophy in Morocco, both in terms of enrollment in philosophy programs at universities and in the number of public events.

Last fall the French Cultural Institute and Morocco’s National Library in Rabat hosted the third “Night of the Philosophers,” an event in which Benmakhlouf and other philosophers debated questions of ethics, religion and the environment before a large audience.

In 2013, Moroccan university students started the “philosophy in the street” initiative, which encourages young people to gather for public discussions of philosophical questions. However, a recent gathering it held near the University of Marrakesh was treated as an unlicensed demonstration and was roughly broken up by police.

The Islamic world has its own renowned philosophers, such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes in the West). The latter, who lived in Cordoba and Marrakesh in the 12th century, was a polymath who wrote extensive commentaries on Plato and especially Aristotle. It was these commentaries that contributed to the rediscovery of the Greek philosophers, whose works had become almost unknown in the West.

When the Persian scholar Al-Ghazali attacked Greek philosophy as full of contradictions and antithetical to Islam’s teachings in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Ibn Rushd wrote a treatise in its defense entitled The Incoherence of the Incoherence. After falling out of favor with the Moroccan Sultan Moulay Yacoub, Ibn Rushd was banished from Marrakesh and his books were burned. He remains a controversial and compelling figure, symbolic to many of a lost legacy of reconciling rational inquiry with religious faith.

One of these is Driss Ksikes, a well-known Moroccan writer and scholar. Ksikes’ newly published novel Au detroit d’Averroes (“In the Straits of Averroes”) tells the story of a philosophy professor in Casablanca who tries with uncertain success to explain and spread Ibn Rushd’s ideas on a radio program he hosts—one lonely voice trying to bring back one largely forgotten one.

With the debate about philosophy and Islam currently occupying the news pages, it is timely that Ksikes’ novel reminds us that this “incompatibility” argument has been raging for centuries.


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