AY: In the name of Allah, the most Beneficient and most Merciful, and the most abundant praise and blessings on His beloved Messenger, our Master Mohammed ﷺ. I really appreciate you speaking with me for QAWWAM. One of the things that impressed me a lot when listening to you or reading some of your work, is that you don’t shy away from the Hellenic philosophical legacy that has made up a big part of Islamic academic study since the Middle Ages. Sadly, when it comes to the study of practical Islam and jurisprudence in the modern day we see, predominantly, the camp in Islamic education that denies and attempts to banish any philosophical connection Muslims may have to the Greeks (or going as far as casting claims of heresy on thirteen centuries of Islamic science & civilization) — how would you sum up this legacy to the lay Muslim whose been too skeptical to appreciate it?

HS: In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate, and blessings and peace be upon our Holy Prophet Muhammad, master of the first and the last. I have responded to this in my little book The Metacritique of Kant and the Possibility of Metaphysics, where I say:

It is a matter of the greatest urgency that we divest ourselves of the modernist, and enormously spiritually immature genetic fallacy which alone guides our all too ubiquitous aversion to ‘Platonic’, ‘Neoplatonic’ (or any of the many other ‘foreign’) sources of wisdom, that do not accord with our empiricist biases; for we know that ‘wisdom is the lost property of the believer’, and we possess, in revelation, the supreme statement of the unification of the superinstantial and the instantial, of being and knowing, and of the hierarchy of manifestation, in “And there is no thing, but that We possess its treasuries, and We do not cause it to descend except in a measure that is known” (Qur’an 15:21). The Qur’an itself is showing us, and it shows us in many other of its sacred verses, that metaphysics is not merely possible. It is actual. “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within their own selves, until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth” (Qur’an 41:53).

It is a strange irony that five hundred years ago, we were far more open-minded in this regard than we are today. This comes at the worst possible time, in that we presently languish in an age in which closed-mindedness only puts us in an incredibly weak and subservient position. Of course, I do not mean ‘open-mindedness’ as a vague, sentimental secular ‘value’. Rather, when you look at the work of the likes of Molla Jāmī, Taşköprüzade, Shāh Waliullah, Bahr al-ʿUlūm Farangī Mahallī, Abū Thanāʾ al-Ālūsī, Emir Abdelkader — I could provide any number of alternative lists of sages of the same or even greater stature — you see a complete lack of exclusionary dogmatism; they were solely interested in the question of whether a doctrine corresponded to reality, or not, and whether it contributed to the overall nuance of our philosophical account of reality. It was not really of interest to them to become fixated on the particular historical moment that a philosophical position arose. This is why they freely quote ‘non-Islamic’ sources. This is precisely because of how self-confident they were in affirming that the Islamic revelation provides the ultimate criterion for judging the truth of any statement, the only criterion we will ever need! They had real ʿayn al-yaqīn. And ironically, this is precisely the opposite of how the paranoid and weak-faithed moderns amongst us interpret the phenomenon of the use of ‘foreign’ sources by these sages! I have always found this very strange. I am fortunate to have been brought up in a family environment and community of certainty, spiritually and intellectually, concerning the absolute primacy and truth of Islam. As a child, I lived for some time in Jordan and Morocco, as well as in the Dār al-Islām community in New Mexico, and as a fourteen-year-old, I studied traditionally in Damascus and Halab, Syria. However, I was raised primarily in Cambridge in the UK, and was relentlessly exposed there to the whole gamut of secular and atheistic philosophies. Nonetheless, I am blessed to have never known anything other than that deep certainty. Shaykh Abdalqadir’s original Darqawi group of converts to Islam, arising from the teachings of Shaykh Muhammad Ibn al-Habib, was exemplary in the way that it embodied this understanding of Islam as utterly transformative, radically liberating, and as preserving the sole complete and pristine, experiential truth. Any philosophy that I encounter is always subject to that criterion and pales in comparison to that Muhammadan light! So, I have never felt threatened by philosophy in the baffling way that one now sees in so many amongst us. To the contrary, I have only ever been amazed to see how often traditional philosophies concord with the truth revealed by the Qur’an and Hadith. This should in fact be no real surprise; the Source of all truth is One. It is startling to me how those who commit the genetic fallacy so often betray thereby their uncertainty and weakness of faith!

Allah willed for the first extensive rational systematizations of the nature of existence to unfold in the Greek world. He alone knows the hidden wisdom in that. For my part, I am almost completely uninterested in the ‘Greekness’ of it all. I am however, interested in the commensurability of different accounts of the nature of the world and existence. I don’t ‘believe in’ Soul, Nature, and Intellect, for example, in the Platonic account, but I am interested in the commensurability of these accounts to the Akbarian account rooted in the

Islamic revelation. This notion of commensurability is very important. This passage from an as-of-yet-unpublished article of mine explains what I mean by the word:

‘Of course, on the view that all philosophical systems are entirely discreet, fundamentally isolated perspectival phenomena, only coherent according to the stipulations of their self-definitional structures, philosophical notions are not commensurate, and beneficial exegesis must therefore exclude comparative philosophical analysis except in verifiable cases of direct linear influence, for no sufficiently neutral interpretive criteria exist that could justify such comparative activity. I hold, however (as, presumably, must anyone who considers the comparative endeavor a philosophically fruitful one), that despite possibly disparate modes of expression, and regardless of great disparities in historical epoch and taxonomical exigencies pertaining to the various philosophical schools of thought, philosophical notions are fundamentally commensurate, and philosophical views may validly be subsumed under the same, objective broad categories. Although linear historical influence is often the vehicle of the commensurability or even identity of philosophical concepts, via direct transmission from one thinker to another, fundamentally commensurate philosophical concepts may also be independently discovered by philosophers irrespective of linear historical influence.’

It is a simple fact (although not widely known) that the transmission of ‘Greek’ philosophy to the Muslim world was extremely incomplete and un-pristine. Much of what we took for Aristotle was actually Plotinus or Proclus, and their works reached us in a very confused, heavily truncated form in which much key terminology had been changed because of the influence of the very last period of Neoplatonism, fully crystalising only after the 6th century closure of the Academy by Justinian, with its obsession with a very over-enthusiastic and unrealistic form of ‘harmonisation’ of Plato and Aristotle that even John Philoponus thought had gone way too far, and that did not reflect the approach of the previous Platonic tradition, which was highly anti-Aristotelian in most ways. Of course, this lost heritage, only uncovered fully at the Renaissance, does not in any way give us knowledge of reality beyond the fullness of the Islamic revelation. On the other hand, some of its highly developed rational apparatuses, rooted in an exemplarist metaphysics, can help us provide a rational account of that truth which certainly supplements and in most ways improves upon our often Avicenna-dominated, heavily Peripateticised philosophical heritage. Few traditional theologians from the Ottoman, Mughal, or other Islamic epochs would have had any problem with this move! Were they to have had these new texts available to them, they would get straight to work determining which parts could be of use, and of course, identifying those that were not. That is all that I am trying to do. Of course, there is no doubt at all that the Athenian civilization that Socrates encountered had many morally and theologically dissolute elements. But surely the fact that Socrates was put to death for ‘denying the gods’ cannot be devoid of significance? And we can say for certain that the knee-jerk reaction against ‘Greek’ philosophy we see from so many Muslims today, jars terribly with the picture of Socrates and Plato as sagacious monotheists that was painted by the majority of the ʿulamāʾ of our tradition prior to modernity.

AY: To add onto that, I recently finished your great, short work Hierarchy and Freedom — One of the arguments, for example, against peering into anything philosophical is that it’s a path to Mutazilite-style heresy and “modernizing” of Islam, i.e. being severed from the spiritual aspects of Islam and seeing everything from a hyper-rationalist point of view. Yet, something amazing you showed was that this wasn’t necessarily true, in fact as you’ve investigated in the book the Platonic view of hierarchy and human independence can fit quite snugly in an Islamic paradigm and goes diametrically against the real culprit of hyper-rationality and killing of the spiritual, which is liberal post-enlightenment thought. Was this a direct aim of yours in the book as well, or did it come about naturally as a consequence of the subject at hand?

HS: Absolutely. I use ‘Platonic’ in a very broad sense. It refers to the philosophical methodology that synthesizes the spiritual awareness and intuition resultant (as a largely necessary, but certainly not sufficient condition) from spiritual purification on the one hand, with rational deduction and sense experience on the other, as opposed to the broad Peripatetic methodology, which almost entirely excludes the contribution of experiential knowledge and purification. In this sense, and not in the sense of linear historical influence, Imām al-Ghazālī, for example, is a ‘Platonist’, in his account of freedom in terms of the Platonic tripartite soul and spiritual purification (see for example, Mīzān al-ʿAmal), as well as in his account of the existence of multiple superordinate and subordinate degrees pertaining to essences instantiated in this world (say, the Sun), which represent as it were ‘shadows’ of exemplary beings (in the case of the Sun, an Archangel — see his Mishkāt al-Anwār). Look, we are very paranoid and reactionary nowadays and we don’t read carefully. We don’t understand our own tradition and we don’t understand the ‘foreign’ traditions we are rejecting either. It’s sad.

AY: Hierarchy and Freedom also reminded me of another work by Ernst Junger, someone I mentioned to you before we conducted this interview, who wrote an essay in 1951 called The Forest Passage. Junger was a committed Nietzchean who was radicalized by the carnage of the First World War and took a rightist approach against the National Socialists of his time, making him quite the obscure figure by today’s standards. However, in this work of his, I found a practical approach to much of the philosophical underpinnings that are present in yours, in the face of the tyrannical regimes of his time where the individual man is forced to rebel against modernity by ascending spiritually through their fear of death and subjugation. Allow me to quote a passage from it:

“Theologians of today must be prepared to deal with people as they are today— above all with people who do not live in sheltered reserves or other low-pressure zones. A man stands before them who has emptied his chalice of suffering and doubt, a man formed far more by nihilism than by the church— ignoring for the moment how much nihilism is concealed in the church itself. Typically, this person will be little developed ethically or spiritually, however eloquent he may be in convincing platitudes. He will be alert, intelligent, active, skeptical, inartistic, a natural-born debaser of higher types and ideas, an insurance fanatic, someone set on his own advantage, and easily manipulated by the catchphrases of propaganda whose often abrupt turnabouts he will hardly perceive; he will gush with humanitarian theory, yet be equally inclined to awful violence beyond all legal limits or international law whenever a neighbor or fellow human being does not fit into his system. At the same time, he will feel haunted by malevolent forces, which penetrate even into his dreams, have a low capacity to enjoy himself, and have forgotten the meaning of a real festival… [Man] is suffering a loss, and this loss explains the manifest grayness and hopelessness of his existence, which in some cities and even whole lands so overshadows life that the last smiles have been extinguished and people seem trapped in Kafkaesque underworlds.”

So my question is, a big part of Junger’s analysis of his time post WW2 was that man in pre-modernity went from being someone who was “known” within his community at every level, back when real metaphysical hierarchies weren’t questioned, to becoming an unknown cipher where he doesn’t know or is known by anyone outside of his household, where he’s split into being the Worker or the Unknown Soldier that leaves him in a grey, depressed state of total isolation. What is your take regarding how the dissolution of traditional hierarchy affects men at this community level?

HS: Junger is an interesting thinker; Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, through whom my parents’ generation came to Islam, knew him personally and thought very highly of many of his writings. You refer to Junger’s opposition to Nazism; it is interesting to note that in the Germany of the time, Junger was so highly revered including by Hitler himself, that despite Junger’s open criticism of the regime, Hitler decreed that Junger was not to face sanctions or be harmed in any way. To turn to your question, there are so many dimensions to the alienated, atomised quality of post-Industrial life. One of the roots of the anonymous, purposeless feeling of contemporary public life in the secular West is that people assume all common causes — any, that is, that involve more than physical survival — are driven by fundamentally arbitrary social contagion, and this gives rise to the widespread fear that any profound commitment will end up impairing individual autonomy. Of course, the effect of industrialisation had seismic repercussions, not merely in the personal and family lives of those forced to leave their skilled trades to operate its machines, but also in drastically impairing the staggering cultural richness of pre-industrial modes of human community life, self-sufficient communities with their vibrant cottage industries and their integral agricultural traditions, in which generations of families had lived and known one another, inter-married and worked together. These were relationships of an intimacy, familiarity, and stability difficult for us to conceive of today. Industrialisation withdrew the ability of rural settlements, historically associated with their own unique crafts, to thrive and indeed survive without vassalage to the emerging industrial towns which had dispossessed them of their markets, by offering more inexpensive but in most ways grossly inferior goods. At the same time, it destroyed the cultural and religious practices that those communities had naturally begotten, as the expressions most befitting to their holistic modes of life. But assimilation into the industrialised city necessitated assimilation into a monoculture, that had cut the true diversity of culture at its source.

The cultural plenitude of rural, village, and traditional city culture has now been severed from its roots in the living earth, and in a shared, experiential metaphysics (and by extension, in recognition of intrinsic hierarchy) to wither instead in the self-congratulatory museums of ‘cultural heritage’ that only really celebrate the total victory of modern industrial society. And yet the loss we are speaking of is not the luxurious nostalgia, as is often alleged, of those who have only been made comfortable enough to purport to care about ‘traditional’ and ‘folk’ culture by the very modern industrialism that has made such ‘comfort and abundance’ widely available. These were, in any case, never mere ‘traditions’, but a whole nexus of virtuous, distinctive, collective responses to natural and supernatural human exigencies of every kind, the loss of which precipitated the more general loss of any sense of objective personal and communal responsibility to fellow man, and subsequently to the isolation and atomisation of the individual within the prison of his own subjectivity. So, the defrocking of religion in public space, the waning of craft and rise of machine-made architectural and artefactual uniformity, and the destruction of rural cultures by city monoculture, represent three of the main strippers of meaning from lived environment and public social relationships in the contemporary world.

The blandness of the modern city lived environment also possesses a reciprocal relationship to the blandness of modern city public life, and both cannot help but tend to reinforce the monotony and cold indifference of the other. Civil life and social interactions today thereby tend towards an ever-greater focus on the navigation and negotiation of individual subjectivities which operate on an at least tacit assumption of self-enclosedness; each individual is fundamentally unintelligible, ‘a mystery’. Again, this is crucial exactly in order to safeguard autonomy. Human friendship today often loses its former basis, in the simple fact of mutual participation in human nature, and inclines instead towards a kind of fortress solidarity, founded on the sharedness of assumptions which are acknowledged to be subjective, in which the friends hold out together, not without a certain degree of hostility, against those who do not share their assumptions — of course, this dystopic new tribalism cannot be ignored today, because it completely dominates internet discourse. One of the further consequences of this lack of recognition of traditional shared assumptions, rooted as they were in shared recognition of objective truth and hierarchy, is that public interaction with ‘strangers’ takes on an increasing awkwardness, a silence which is the expression of the ‘right’ to be ‘left alone’, with substantive topics carefully closed off, and especially anything which purports to transcend mere perspectival perception to attempt to grasp a ‘nature of things’. All one can really say is, alhamdulillāh ʿalā niʿmat al-Islām wa kafā bihā niʿma! As Ahmed Paul Keeler beautifully puts it: In such times as these, Islam is certainly the last Witness, and humanity’s final Refuge against the storm.

AY: Beautifully put indeed. Jazak Allahu Khair, and thank you for your time, Mawlana Hasan.

Hasan Spiker is a philosopher, author, and comparative scholar of Islamic, Greek, and Modern thought from Cambridge University. His latest book, Hierarchy and Freedom, is available now in kindle, paperback, and hardback. You can find him on X/Twitter @RealHasanSpiker.