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The Study of Philosophy & Human Progress

Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, January 13

During my recent visit to Saudi Arabia I noticed great interest in the government’s decision to begin teaching philosophy classes in universities around the country. This initiative is part of Riyadh’s framework to promote openness and modernization. The Saudi decision to teach philosophy clearly emerged from the importance of critical thought and rational logic in pushing the human mind and liberating it from fanaticism and extremism, while teaching it to accept tolerance and diversity. These values are required today in our societies whose religion and culture have been hijacked by radical groups. It is true that the traditional perception of philosophy in the Arab world has not been positive for centuries, although the discipline has since the 4th century shaped much of our moral heritage. What is not understood by many is that there is great overlap between philosophy and religion. The great philosophers of Islam were not merely interpreters of ancient Greek philosophers, but had a fundamental role in shaping our faith. What came out of the philosophers of Islam in embracing Greek thought while working on its revision and renewal is the Islamic perception of the unity of truth. The pioneers of the Arab Renaissance have recognized the importance of the philosophical lesson in modernizing Arab and Islamic societies. It is enough to point to the role of Imam Muhammad Abdo and his student Mustafa Abdel Razak in building a modern philosophical school in Egypt. Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, a 19th-century Egyptian writer, also launched a philosophical translation of a number of important European Enlightenment texts. Unfortunately, the revolutions that swept the Arab world during the 1950s eliminated the prominence of philosophy. The illusion that has long prevailed in the Arab world is the discipline is merely intellectual luxury, and that modernization will come out of empirical scientific and technical studies. It is obvious that the rise of the wave of religious extremism is directly related to the decline of philosophy in Arab universities. The study of philosophy has done more to promote our societies than we can ever imagine, and re-instituting its teaching in universities is an important step. –Oulad Abah