This semester I am teaching a course about Aristotle, democracy and law on a University of London campus which has large numbers of Muslim students. Over the past few weeks, two of them approached me – independently, and at different times. They both asked, a bit nervously, whether Aristotle's philosophy is compatible with Islam.
They couldn't have posed a more interesting or complicated question.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and into the Middle Ages, Greek learning gradually vanished from Western Europe. It was the Mediterranean centres of Muslim learning that kept Greek thought alive. Intellectuals such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes authored lengthy commentaries on early Greek treatises on democracy, theology, psychology and many other subjects that are still studied today as classics.
In the later Middle Ages, it was from Arabic translations that Aristotle re-appeared in the West, re-introducing logical and dialectical rigour into medieval Christianity, and heralding the gradual revival of Greco-Roman classicism that culminated in the Italian Renaissance.
Over centuries, through empires and crusades, through the rise and fall of entire civilisations, the body of wisdom weaving steadily through Islam, Christianity and Judaism was Greek philosophy, the great example being Spain in its Golden Age.
Yet some insist that secular philosophy is anti-Islamic. And the students who approached me found themselves in the situation of many young Muslims in the West today. Even the choice to attend a class on law and ethics can provoke dilemmas of identity and allegiance.
Anyone familiar with Plato knows that nothing is taboo in Greek philosophy. Nor is any proposition admitted on faith alone. Logic and nature, ethics and politics, even art, music and literature must be justified through reason. No custom, tradition or religion stands above scrutiny. The very existence of God – or the gods – must be cast off if good reason cannot be mustered in support of it.
For those who believe that a meaningful human life requires faith coupled with reason, the ancient Greeks make unsettling reading. Religious people of all faiths have at times shunned secular philosophy. Religion, like science, closes minds when it leads people openly, or secretly, to declare, "We have all the truth we need. We don't need philosophy!"
My two students had no intention of shutting down their minds. Both decided that their Islamic faith in no way bars them from free and critical inquiry into ethics, history and society. They embrace Islam to bring a wider world in, not to shut it out. They have no fear of Aristotle. They are, like Aristotle, the arbiters of their own minds. They see in the Greek canon not crusty dogma, but living dialogue. Aristotle poses no more of a threat to them than would an interfaith educational or cultural forum.
According to a poll recently conducted for the BBC, nearly 80 percent of British Muslims, far from shunning Christianity, support a stronger role for it in British life. That figure exceeds by 10 percent even the number of Christians who express such support. How can that be? Wasn't Christianity the avowed foe of Islam for century after blood-soaked century?
What many Muslims in the West understand, and what my two students embrace, is the insight that cultural, religious or intellectual traditions are interactive and dynamic. Muslims are inviting non-Muslims to re-evaluate their own heritage, because they recognise that re-opening the mind to one tradition is a way of opening it to others.
Past intolerance need place no obstacle in the way of a tolerant future. Muslims are urging non-Muslims to celebrate an important past, which does not preclude that past, or any past, from remaining subject to ongoing, critical assessment.
In recent years, headlines and bookshops have swelled with stark, simplistic distinctions: science versus religion, reason versus faith, the West versus Islam. It is not in the triumph of any one of these, but in constant, constructive exchange among all of them that science and religion, reason and faith, the West and Islam fulfil their highest aspirations.
While many voices have ignorantly dismissed Islam – and indeed all religion – as an embodiment of ignorance, my two students are proving the contrary, as are Muslim intellectuals throughout the world. Like their great medieval forbears, they seek within Islam not closure, but openness. They are using Islam to deepen their understanding of other traditions, and using other traditions to deepen their understanding of Islam.
* Eric Heinze is professor of law and humanities at Queen Mary University of London. This article appeared in The Guardian's "Comment is free: belief" website and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).