From an Existentialist to a Muslim
I’ve been asked too many times to explain how I became a Muslim. Nearly every time, I come up with something different. I don’t make anything up, but the acceptance of a religion is complicated. It involves emotions, personal history, politics, theology and philosophy and much else, too. So although here I’m focusing on the philosophical factors, don’t get the wrong impression that I arrived at Islam as a result of purely philosophical reflection.
I read my first book in philosophy when I was about eleven years old, in around 1964. It was William E Hocking’s The Types of Philosophy , which I still think is good. After reading it, I decided right then and there that I wanted to study philosophy. I was brought up a Catholic, and consternation over the teachings of the Church drove me to philosophy as much as anything did. Hocking’s idealism and mysticism seemed an appealing way to bring together faith and reason.
In high school, I became an avid reader of Søren Kierkegaard. For my sixteenth birthday, my friends gave me six or seven paperback editions of his works. I also started reading Camus and Sartre, and by the time I graduated, I considered myself to be an existentialist. Tolstoy was another hero, and I filed for conscientious objector status with my draft board as a Catholic pacifist.
Within a year after entering the State University of New York at Albany, I had switched from religious to atheistic existentialism. Sartre and Nietzsche began to loom larger than Kierkegaard. I was disappointed with the lack of a strong opposition to the Vietnam War from the Church leadership, and came to see religious belief as bad faith and an opiate for the masses. I read a bit of Marx, but found Proudhon and Kropotkin more to my liking.
During my last year as a philosophy major at Albany, I took a course on the problem of free will and determinism with Ken Stern, who had studied at Oxford and took an analytic approach to philosophy. The crisp logic and emphasis on clear thinking seemed like a breath of fresh air. I started to read everything I could find by WVO Quine, whether or not I could understand it. At the same time, I found my atheism challenged by TS Eliot. Was his religiosity just another case of bad faith? Not likely, given the profound way he faced up to what we had become in The Wasteland . I tried to keep my head clear by focusing on logic.
I began graduate study in philosophy at Rice University in 1976. When informed in my second year that there would be no graduate courses on modal logic, I invited fellow graduate students to a semester of seminars in which I would discuss the philosophical foundations of modal logic, using articles by Carnap, Church, Scott, Thomason, and others. My interest in philosophical logic motivated the writing of my PhD thesis, Matters of Substance.
I had also become interested in Aristotelian ethics, stimulated by reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue . MacIntyre’s critique of liberal modernism came at the same time that I had begun studying Islam, sparked by curiosity about the revolution in Iran, and by a number of Muslim students I encountered at Texas Southern University, where I taught philosophy from 1979 to 1989. It seemed to me that MacIntyre’s arguments could be used to make a better case for Islam than for Catholicism. MacIntyre was arguing that ethics could only make sense in the context of a tradition that would give substantive content to moral ideals and even to the standards of rationality. Catholicism, however, seemed in a state of perpetual retreat ever since the first onslaughts of modernity; and all too often, the Church seemed to be supporting vestiges of the aristocracy. Islam, on the other hand, seemed vibrant and imbued with an electrifying spirituality, and to be on the side of the oppressed.
My Iranian students introduced me to the work of Allamah Tabataba’i, Shahid Mutahhari, Ali Shari‘ati, and others, but I ran across the works of Seyyed Hossein Nasr in a used bookstore. Although I would not agree to the traditionalism advocated by Nasr, his introduction to the philosophical and mystical traditions in the Islamic world fascinated me. In esoteric Islam, I found that there was not only a variety of philosophical tendencies, such as Illuminationism, Peripateticism, and something called Hikmat al-Muta‘aliyah (transcendental wisdom), but also poetry, art, political ideas, various kinds of rational mysticism, some of which merge into the philosophical tendencies, and criticism of the superficial limitation of Islam to details of rituals and rules.
The features of esoteric Islam I found attractive were particularly prominent among Shi‘ites and Sufis. The Shi‘ites also seemed to have a long history of intense interest in social justice. The source for all these ideas turned out to be ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and first Shi‘ite Imam, (may the peace and blessings of Allah be with Muhammad and with his progeny).
So, I thought that if ever I were to become a Muslim, I should most certainly be a Shi‘ite, as the devotees of Imam ‘Ali are called. My only problem was that I didn’t believe in God. I decided to teach a course on the philosophy of religion at TSU in which I would review the claims of the major religions and at the same time, re-examine the arguments for and against the existence of God. This review of the world’s religions only intensified my interest in Islam. It seemed to harmonise themes from Judaism and Christianity with attitudes in its mysticism more commonly found in Hindu and Buddhist thought. But the philosophical evaluation of the arguments for the existence of God left me as convinced as ever that none of them were sound.
As for the arguments against the existence of God, it certainly seemed to me beyond credibility that the world should contain any sort of giant mind without a body. Then it occurred to me that the way I was thinking of God was much too limited. What I was rejecting with my atheism was not God but an idol. The Muslim philosophers and Sufis said that God was not a mind, not even a substance, but just pure unadulterated being. Even if I couldn’t prove that in addition to the beings of the world there is also Being, I couldn’t find any knock down argument against it, either. Why not? William James and the “will to believe” also gave me encouragement.
The character of Imam ‘Ali was a relentless inspiration. He was a persistent defender of the weak and oppressed, a poet, a treasury of practical wisdom, a theologian, a statesman, a paradigm of virtue, courageous, insightful, humble, faithful, patient, and he had a sense of humour. How could he have been wrong about the existence of God? I might make a jumble of the arguments, but he seemed to see the matter with such clarity as to leave no room for doubt.
Certainly emulation of such a person would be a noble thing, but such emulation would be far less than noble if there were no god, and so, God must be! These are the sorts of thoughts that occupied me until somehow the “Why not?” of doubt – of thinking that in some sense maybe it could be true that God exists – became “OK, that can be taken as true”, and then “Indeed, God is!” Then, when some American Muslims asked if I were a Muslim after Friday prayers at a mosque in Houston, I recited the Muslim confession of faith: “ Ashhaddu an la ilaha illa Allah, wa ashhaddu an Muhammadan rasul Allah .” (I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is the apostle of Allah.)
I still like the logic chopping of analytic philosophy, and its clever ways of dealing with paradoxes and quandaries. Too often, however, it seems to suffer from a lack of spirit, a lack of profundity, a lack of faith. Of course, there are exceptions; but as a rule, analytic philosophy seems to share many of the vices that pervade contemporary post-industrial society: over-reliance on technical expertise and over-specialisation, over-confidence that science can answer all the questions worth asking.
But I didn’t become a Muslim because I converted from analytic to Islamic philosophy, although I did become interested in Islamic philosophy around the time of my conversion. What seems most valuable to me in Islamic philosophy is its spirit, its retention of the idea of the philosopher as the wise man searching for truth and leading a simple life. Islam has its own special, very intense flavour of love that is especially prominent in its ‘ifran (mysticism, gnosis); and if philosophy is love of wisdom, then Islamic philosophy is the expression of this intense mystical love in its yearning for wisdom and direct understanding.
I came to Iran in 1990 and started teaching Western philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition but from my own budding new Muslim’s perspective. The first lectures I gave in Tehran have been published in the international journal published in Qom, Al-Tawåíd , starting in 1993. I began with thinkers like Plantinga and Alston for whom religious experience plays an important role. Against them, I argued that religious beliefs are neither properly basic nor justified on the basis of religious experience, and that the rationality of religious belief requires us to provide reasons for belief.
At the same time, I argued that the traditional arguments don’t work in the present intellectual atmosphere, and that what could be taken at one time as self-evident premises cannot be so taken any longer. Any satisfactory reasons that can be given to justify religious belief today must rely upon rational insight and conscience. These are sufficient to provide certainty for the believer, but they won’t convince the unbeliever who stubbornly refuses to admit the need for religious explanations where no other are available. Hence, the rationality of one’s faith is to be established not by proving its content by a logical demonstration, but by making plausible the view to which religion invites us.
Currently, I’ve been studying the writings of William Hocking, again, and finding that they still contain valuable insights that often seem to work better for Islamic than Catholic theology. Full circle.
Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen is associate professor of philosophy at the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom, Iran, and author of Islam and Religious Pluralism (Al-Hoda).