Secularism and Enlightenment in Islamic Countries

By Kurtz, Paul | Free Inquiry, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Secularism and Enlightenment in Islamic Countries

Kurtz, Paul, Free Inquiry

The Cairo Conference: A Hopeful Sign

An historic conference was held in Cairo, Egypt, from December 5 to 8, 1994. It brought together Muslim and secularist scholars to debate for the first time the ideals of the Enlightenment and secularism. The conference was organized by Professor Mourad Wahba of Cairo University, and the editors of FREE INQUIRY magazine worked closely with him. It took several years of hard work. We were aware that the term secularisrn is anathema to many in the Islamic world.

The conference was sponsored by the Afro-Asian Philosophy Association (founded by Professor Wahba); the Egyptian government; the League of Arab States; and the Federation of International Societies of Philosophy (the leading international philosophical organization); among other groups. Participants arrived from Islamic countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, Turkey, India, Iran, and Indonesia, and from the Western countries of Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, and the United States.

Three editors of FREE INQUIRY - myself, Vern L. Bullough, and Timothy J. Madigan - attended, as did Rob Tielman and Matt Cherry of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. When we informed our relatives and friends of our intention to visit Egypt, we were invariably warned not to do so because of the danger of attack foreigners faced. Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman has even brought Egyptian terrorism to the United States. Some six hundred people have been killed by fundamentalists in Egypt in the past three years. Moreover, at the time of conference, Egypt's Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, had been stabbed in the streets of Cairo and was still hospitalized.

The Cairo conference was to be held near the Olympic stadium, where President Anwar Sadat had been assassinated by extremists in 1981. Nevertheless, we found fears for our personal safety to be unwarranted: our hosts were congenial, the venue was safe, and the atmosphere cordial. The immediate purpose of the conference, entitled "Averroes and Enlightenment," was to celebrate the approaching 800th anniversary of the death of Averroes (Arab name Ibn Rushd). This was the first of many commemorations to be held throughout the world.

Averroes is considered to be one of Islam's greatest philosophers. He was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1126 and died in 1198. He lived through a period of great cultural and philosophical ferment in Spain, then a pluralistic society in which three religious traditions - Islamic, Christian, and Judaic - peacefully coexisted. The Islamic world from the eighth to twelfth centuries experienced considerable intellectual creativity and it preserved many of the classical philosophical writings, which had been lost to Christianized Europe.

Averrots devoted himself to translating Aristotle into Arabic and commenting on his long-forgotten writings. His interpretations of Aristotle as a naturalistic, indeed humanistic, philosopher were in sharp contrast to the theological outlook that dominated large sectors of the world at that time. Averroes argued for the autonomy of philosophical reason and science. He accepted Aristotle's view of the active intellect, which denied the existence of personal immortality; and instead of focusing on salvation, he argued that reason can contribute to the good life and must have priority over faith.

Averroes's books were ordered to be burned by his caliph in response to fundamentalist criticisms of them (though Averroes regained official favor just before his death). His influence waned in the Islamic world in subsequent centuries for he was thought to be dangerous to the faith. However, his work had a strong influence on Jewish scholars who translated his writings into Hebrew and especially on Latin scholars in Europe between 1200 and 1600, where his writings were translated into Latin and widely read, for example, by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris.

At first banned because they seemed to contradict the Catholic faith, Averroes's books had a profound impact in the West. …

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