By Saheed Ahmad Rufai
The exercise of academic freedom among Muslim scholars is traceable to their expression of the Oneness of God over which there is no disagreement among them. Ibn Sina was later to take the lead in offering a philosophical definition of God as the necessary existent Wajib al-wajub which, according to Henry Calder is a concept that suffered a rejection among Sunni theologians, for sometime. Consequently, this notion of God was comprehended, appreciated and embraced in Sunni theological circles “through the influence of those scholars who admired the philosophers, and especially through the influence of Fakhr-al-Din al-Razi (d.1209) who fell in love with Ibn Sina’s scholarly articulation of right belief. This later culminated in the conception of God among Sunni scholars as not only one but also the necessary existent. The outcome of such conception was the emergence of patterns, perspectives and dimensions in the articulation of right belief. Expectedly, there were areas of disputes in addressing which theologians and jurists exercised freedom of thought and expression.
Another side of the Islamic attitude to academic freedom may be explained through the concept of the ta‘liqa with regards to the teaching of Law in the Islamic tradition. Makdisi describes the ta‘liqa as containing a jurist’s disputed legal questions concerning which, in demonstrating his expertise as a professor of law, he exposed his graduate student jurists to both the material and how to handle it by way of analysis and interpretation.
For the wheel to come full circle, this study, in the spirit of objective scholarship, must not fail to allude to an incident in Islamic history that has arguably remained a bitter pill uneasy to swallow among some Muslim scholars and researchers. The incident concerns the December 640 invasion of Alexandria by Arab armies under the leadership of Amr bn Al-Aas, which culminated in the destruction of the huge collection of books contained in the library of Alexandria, on the order of Caliph Umar bn Al-Khattab who reportedly wrote in response to Amr bn Al-Aas’s request for directive or instruction on the library, “concerning the books that you have mentioned, if they contain things in accordance to Allah’s Book (the Qur’an), then Allah’s book is enough. And if they contain things that contradict what is found in Allah’s Book then we do not need them.” It should be pointed out that for effective drawing of curtain on this issue, there is need for a critical engagement with the scholarship of the story which finds support in the works of a number of notable and credible Muslim historians such as Al-Qifti’s History of Wise Men, Al-Makrizi’s Sermons and Lessons in the Mention of Places and Monuments, Ibn Al-Nadim’s The Index, and Ibn Khaldun’s Prolegomena even though Lewis declares the story as unfounded on the ground that “none of the early chronicles, not even the Christian ones, make any reference to this tale…and in any case the great library…had already been destroyed in internal dissentions before the coming of the Arabs”. Lewis’ viewpoint is applaudable as a fresh perspective even though it fails to declare the works of such authoritative historians as mentioned earlier, as unqualified to be regarded as “early chronicles” and equally fails to add that the great library was always rebuilt after each of the “internal dissentions” which, according to him, led to its destructions “before the coming of the Arabs”.
In a similar token, Russell opines that “in contrast to the Christian who persecuted not only pagans but each other, the Mohammedans (i.e. Muslims) were welcome for their broadmindedness, and it was largely this that facilitated their conquests”. (p. 219). Again, this opinion says the obvious about Islamic conquests but is not in any way exonerative of the destroyers of the great library. It is however interesting that Lewis admits that this story is reinforced in medieval times by Salah-al-din Al-Ayyubi who destroyed the Fatimid Caliphate’s collection of ‘heretical Ismaili works in Cairo’ while reinstating orthodox Islam in Egypt.
A veiled justification of library’s destruction marks the meeting point between Lewis’ argument and Ibn Khaldun’s opinion in his Prolegomena that the Arabs’ behaviour towards books during that era as exemplified by the throwing of Persian books in fire and water by their leader Sa’ad bn Abi Waqqas following the order from Caliph Umar bn Al-Khattab, lends credence to the non-toleration of opposing views by Arab Muslim leaders. Besides, even Phyllip Hitti, an authoritative voice in Arab History, did not deny the story but rather reveals that the library was burnt as early as 48 BC by Julius Ceasar and a later one known as “the daughter of library” was destroyed about AD 389 as a result of an edict by the Emperor Theodosius” thereby submitting that “at the time the Arab conquest …no library of importance existed in Alexandria…”.
Nonetheless, it is worthy of note that although contemporary Muslim settings are not altogether favourably disposed to academic freedom, the Western world poses greater threat to such freedom and therefore makes the Muslim world a safer place in that regard. This line of argument finds a better articulation in the recent words of Norton, a professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, who writes in 2015, “The Muslim question shows us people who are not permitted to speak freely, who are obliged instead to say what others would like them to say, to speak script dictated to them by others. These compulsory speech acts are a prominent part of contemporary political discourse. They include the demand that “moderate Muslims,” “more Muslims,” or “Muslims,” denounce the 9/11 attacks, accept or even engage in the mockery of their religion; the demand that Palestinian politicians, Palestinian academics, the Palestinian Authority, or “Palestinians’ recognise Israel or denounce terrorism. These people can speak – they are required to speak – but they cannot speak freely…the greatest threats now come not from those who would silence speech, but from those who would dictate just what it is we have to say”.
Rufai, Ph.D is acting dean, Faculty of Education, Sokoto State University. This is an excerpt of his inaugural lecture titled ‘Death Sentence on Palestinian Poet: Neither Saudi Arabia nor Prof. Wole Soyinka is right’