‘This cannot happen again.’ Sprout just did not want to lay any more eggs. Inside her overcrowded coop she couldn’t move, flap her wings, or even sit on her own eggs, which were collected by the farmer’s wife who complained constantly that they were getting smaller and smaller. Even when allowed on the farm, she couldn’t stroll around and see the world flourishing outside the barnyard. She yearned for freedom. In her discontent, she became frail, unable to produce eggs. Disgusted, the farmer’s wife removed Sprout from the flock and threw her into the ‘Hole of Death’, to die or be devoured by the weasel. But Sprout survived; gathering enough energy to escape with the help of Straggler, a friendly mallard. When she returned to the barns, other animals shunned her for being different and having ideas above her station. Even to stay on the outskirts of the farm, she needed to follow the rules. ‘What if I don’t like the rules?’, she asked. ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, she was told, ‘everyone follows the rules’.
Sprout decided to follow Straggler and another duck outside the farm; and she learned to find food, survive in the wild, and outwit the eager-eyed, lean and hungry weasel. When the other duck was killed by the weasel, Sprout found an abandoned egg. She decided to brood the egg, with Straggler standing watch for the deadly weasel and bringing food to keep her going. She continued to concentrate on keeping the egg warm, even after Straggler became another victim of the weasel. When the egg hatched and the ‘Baby’ turned out to be a duckling, Sprout realised that her adopted son was the offspring of Straggler and his mate, the beautiful white duck that had fallen victim to the weasel. She raised her Baby with selfless devotion. Both mother and Baby were torn between their desires and natural inclination. Sprout tried to teach her Baby to fly but she knew she couldn’t fly. ‘Why can’t we fly anymore?’, she asked.
Sun-Mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a simple, moving, beautifully-written allegory, in the style of Charlotte’s Web and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. It is a story of family and love, devotion and sacrifice, courage and loss, and above all, the value of freethought in the face of conformity. The feisty Sprout wants to break out of her physical and mental confinement. Even the name she has chosen for herself symbolises freedom and hope: ‘Sprout is the best name in the world. A sprout grew into a leaf and embraced the wind and the sun before falling and rotting and turning into mulch for bringing fragrant flowers to bloom.’ She knows there are other worlds – dangerous though they may be – beyond her own; she knows she can nurse and nourish other beings and other ideas besides those she has learned on the farm; and she knows that life and death are intrinsically linked. Death, as Sprout witnesses on the farm and in the wild, can be violent and cruel. But as she realises in her own case, it can also be meaningful and liberating when it serves to foster new life.
Freethinkers are a bit like Sprout. Restless and rebellious, eager to break out of convention, longing to be free from tradition that crushes individual and social creativity and spirit. Like Sprout they ask: there must be more to this world than the confinement of our given space? Sprout exhibits unconditional maternal love that transcends species; freethinkers have, or should have, uncompromising love for thought that surpasses the boundaries of race, ethnicity, ideology and religion. Freethought is about dissecting received and perceived truths, breaking out of dominant paradigms and discovering new ways of knowing, being and doing.
Why should freethought, and freethinkers, be deemed dangerous? After all, thought or our ability to reason, as Davies notes in her ‘Last Word’, is integral to what makes us human. But as Davies also points out, ‘thought operates always in a context, the context of the world, the culture, the time and circumstances in which we live. Pure thought is a true utopia, a nowhere no place that is as delusional as it is illusory’. Much of what goes under the rubric of ‘freethought’ in the West is deeply embedded in the context of the conflict between Christianity (seen as ‘religion’) and science (seen as ‘reason’). Google ‘freethought’ or ‘freethinking’ and see what I mean: you will find countless sites devoted to attacking religion and defending science, secularism, and ‘no belief’. This is not freethought but another form of dogmatism: cynical antagonism towards all other forms of knowing, including religion. It is an irrationality that justifies itself in the name of reason. So amongst the dangers of freethought is that what often masquerades as freethought is nothing more than an illogical, dangerous fantasy. That freethought itself becomes a kind of religion is its prime danger. Indeed, for dogmatic humanists, secularist fundamentalists and romantic atheists it is already a religion.
Genuine freethought is something much more profound. Freethinkers don’t just value knowledge, they embody it. That means they are aware of recent advances in most fields and disciplines, have thought about the ethical, social and cultural consequences of advances in knowledge, and have their own highly developed, rounded critiques of what constitutes the new. They understand what history has achieved, what the present is achieving, and have some insight into what the future may yet bring. But it also means that they are aware of their own ignorance. The knowledgeable know that humility is a prerequisite for true understanding. Genuine freethinkers know how to say: ‘I don’t know, I don’t know yet, I may never know’. This is the conclusion Alev Adil reaches when she sets out to discover whether Aisha, the young wife of the Prophet, was a freethinker; a conclusion she wraps in her (partly) fictional story, ‘the Aisha Project’.
Freethinkers are seen as dangerous simply because freethought challenges, or attempts to undermine, the conventional, the orthodox, and the dominant perspectives. If you are going to ruffle feathers you should not be surprised to discover that you are, like Sprout, shunned and exiled. As Davies puts it playfully, freethought ‘means pondering the way of things as they are, asking questions without restraint, traversing the known knowns with a quizzical intent, interrogating the known unknowns and venturing forth into the realms of the unknown unknowns, daring to contemplate that there are things we do not know. Whoever thought I would end up quoting Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defence and architect of the Iraq War? This strange circumstance, surely, is the essence of free thinking: finding the hooks that lead to productive thought in unexpected places and with meaning and purpose quite other than its source may have intended or suspected. It only goes to show that not every useful utterance needs to come from a free thinker or indeed a revolutionary, some can be gleaned from reactionary warmongers as well’.
Indeed, freethinkers have no natural monopoly on ‘useful utterances’. Often their utterances end up fortifying the very thing they are attempting to critique. Like most of us, freethinkers too are in danger of succumbing to the lure of power, the enticement of an all-embracing idea, the attraction of ‘anything goes’. Three celebrated freethinkers illustrate this well: Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (1909–1985), Abdolkarim Soroush and the illustrious mystic Mansur al-Hallaj (c. 858–922).
The Sudanese reformer Muhammad Taha was so fascinated with power that he jettisoned his carefully argued and developed principles and liberal credentials to side with those in power, dictators included. Despite his rather unusual deconstruction of Islam and liberal ideals, his free-wheeling thought led him to a cul de sac. He argued, writes Abdelwahab El-Affendi, that ‘the believer, by immersing himself in the Qur’an and engaging in spiritual exercises of fasting and seclusion could receive “revelation”’ – and who better to receive revelation than Taha himself who concluded that he was the ultimate authority on Islam – a Prophet in fact. Anyway, how are we to determine ‘when a revelation is authentic as opposed to a mere hallucination?’ This not a whimsical question, nor just a theoretical problem, El-Affendi points out: Sudanese history is full of individuals claiming to be the Mahdi. ‘Some, like the Sudanese Mahdi, have demonstrated deep convictions and admirable selflessness. But does that guarantee authenticity?’ Taha has many followers – most notably the Sudanese scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im, who is universally feted as a human rights champion. But apart from the obvious ideals that most sensible, intelligent people subscribe to, Taha’s thought turns out to be, to use Davies’ words, ‘as delusional as it is illusory’.
The Iranian freethinker, Abdolkarim Soroush, has explored numerous taboo subjects, most importantly, as Mohammad Moussa notes, ‘subjective elements of revelation, particularly the Qur’an’. Few would argue with his assertion that Islam is ‘no longer guarded by the certainties of the past’ and ‘urgently requires a rethinking in the here-and-now’ or that ‘the absence of the elements of knowledge and modernity lead to the deleterious effects of treating Islam as an identity which takes it towards fundamentalism’ or that ‘official politics and intellectual thought in post-revolutionary Iran had converged to mistakenly privilege the discourse on cultural authenticity’. His attempts to promote ‘transcultural encounters’ can only be lauded. But should we bury all Islamic traditions to liberate Islam from this impasse, as Soroush seems to suggest? ‘No genuine engagement with the intricacies of the Islamic tradition’, writes Moussa, ‘is made by Soroush which could lead to a creative rethinking of its elements’. His own alternative does not inspire much confidence either. ‘What is of serious concern in his thought is a rather uncritical embrace of modernity in its entirety; Islam must follow the trajectory of the Western civilisation, the apex of human achievement’, notes Moussa. But Soroush’s freethought not only leaves modernity untouched, it is equally uncritical towards secularism. He reduces Islam to a ‘minimalist religion’ with no social or progressive concerns about justice and equity. His reverence for the authority of his Western teachers such as Popper, and the defining power of a dominant civilisation, is total.
Al-Hallaj allowed his free thought to consume his self, a kind of self-indulgence not too dissimilar to that of Taha. A giant of Sufism, he is regarded as a great mystical poet. But the figure ‘who had dared to declare his unity with God by declaring “Ana al-Haqq” (I am the Truth)’, is more a product of mythology than historical fact. Much of this mythology, as Robert Irwin shows, was created by Louis Massignon, the Catholic scholar of Islam. Massignon’s The Passion of Al-Hallaj provides a theatrical and poetic account of al-Hallaj’s death; but as Irwin notes, ‘it is also to a significant degree fictional’. Al-Hallaj invoked God constantly, and saw Truth – His Truth? – everywhere. But he was not simply a ‘primitive rebel’; his theological and literary works were highly sophisticated. What makes it unusual is that he favoured taking his mysticism to the masses – to the irritation of most Sufis. ‘He preached to the poor in the suburbs of Baghdad, as well as to nomads, robbers and bandits. After preaching to criminals, he was even alleged to have trimmed their hair and beards’. But in the end, al-Hallaj’s perpetual immersion in the love of God, his disdain for authority, and rejection of all norms and values of society, were counterproductive. Irwin cites Ali Shariati (1933–1977), the distinguished Iranian social and religious thinker, who observed: ‘Hallaj was constantly immersed in the burning invocation of God, and this was a true source of exaltation for him. But imagine if Iranian society were to consist of twenty-five million Hallajs. It would be nothing but a vast lunatic asylum.’
What al-Hallaj, Soroush and Taha demonstrate is that freethought can take us out of one straitjacket and place us into another. Perhaps it is worth noting at this juncture that the most ardent advocate of freethought in the West, Karl Pearson, the author of The Ethics of Freethought, was a champion of eugenics and a Nazi sympathiser. So freethought can be dangerous in that it has equal potential to take us into the darker alleys as well as to bright futures. Thus freethought per se is not a panacea. We should not be swayed either by the fact that freethinkers are often persecuted. Al-Hallaj was eventually executed probably as much for his thought as for his disdain for the norms of society. Taha too died on the gallows. Soroush has suffered harassment for his thought and was forced into exile. But persecution, which should always be denounced and resisted, is not an indication of the quality or relevance of freethought.
Fortunately, Islamic history is full of freethinkers who take us in a different direction. It is, as Aziz Al-Azmeh shows in his lecture on Abbasid freethinkers, a rich and diverse history that goes back to the eighth century. It includes all types of characters, believers like historiographer and scholar of world religions al-Shahrastani (1086–1153) and al-Razi, who ‘though a rationalist, was no sceptic’ but ‘sought to think beyond the aporias of theological reason’, and hardened atheists such as the celebrated poet Abu Nawas. Al-Azmeh identifies ‘two registers’ of Abbasid freethinking: ‘one is unstructured, playful, often frivolous, jocular impiety and blasphemy, often associated with libertine individuals and milieus of the courtly and literary elite’; the other is ‘high-minded, serious, systematic, and theologically and philosophically engaged’. In most cases, this freethought was a missile aimed at orthodoxy; not surprisingly, the guardians of belief and custom took suitable action to avoid the hazardous projectiles.
The theologians, philosophers and poets Al-Azmeh surveys demonstrate that freethought is certainly against dogmatism, but it can, and has to be, much more than that. Al-Azmeh looks at three representative but very different freethinkers who move in different milieus: Ibn al-Rawandi (827–911), critic and ‘substantial theologian’; Abu Bakr al-Razi (d. 925, perhaps a decade later), polymath, natural scientist and physician; and Abul-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri (d. 1058), a ‘poet among philosophers and the philosopher among poets’. From their different perspectives, they arrived at a common ground that Al-Azmeh presents as four theses: organised religion is not necessary, prophecy is irrelevant, religions are self-contradictory and contradict one another, and religions are full of dogma and rituals that are absurd and insulting to reason. Quite clearly, these are dangerous assertions for a society knee-deep in conservative theology. Yet, this was not a total rejection of God. It is just that these freethinkers preferred a belief in a supreme being based on reason rather than revelation. Or as al-Azmeh put it, ‘underlying all this chaos and disturbance is a diffuse divinity of deistic description, which might, under conditions never specified, be conducive to human improvement’. Al-Razi was not a sceptic. Al-Maarri sought to correct ‘what established religion took for God’s criteria’. And Islamic theology has no answers for some rather simple questions raised by ibn al-Rawandi, such as ‘can the Muslim paradise be pleasing to anyone but a rustic’ and ‘why did the Heavenly Host of avenging angels help Muhammad’s army at the Battle of Badr, while at the Battle of Uhud they stood by as onlookers’?
The danger here is not so much to religion but to the religious state. The Abbasid freethought rebellion, as illustrated by ibn al-Muqaffa’ (d. 756), ‘a prose stylist of prodigious talent and intelligence’, was against religion that has become ‘a political artefact in the hands of the sovereign manipulating the rough and credulous demos’, a ‘rank unreason belonging wholly to the reason of state’. One need not look further than Saudi Arabia and Iran to find contemporary examples. Islam has been covered with layer upon layer of manufactured dogma that is as absurd as it is dangerously obsolete. The purpose of freethought is to cut through this dogmatism and take us closer to God. Freethinkers have, or rather ought to have, a better understanding of the Divine than those who parade their dogmatic religious knowledge.
Two noted freethinkers demonstrate this well: Adonis and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943–2010). Adonis is undoubtedly the most prominent modern poet to emerge from the Arab world. He is seen as a heretic but what exactly is his heresy? As Stefan Weidner shows, no one has tackled the Divine more forthrightly than Adonis. The importance of God to Adonis is evident from the opening lines of his famous 1961 collection The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, which is littered with references to Allah: ‘He is not only said to encompass opposites (he is the reality and its contrary, he is the life and its other), thereby escaping any definition, but has neither a bodily outward appearance (He has the shape of the wind) nor an ancestry (he has no ancestor and his roots are in his footsteps). Furthermore, he has abilities which are marked by power over life and death: He fills life and no one sees him. He whips it into foam and drowns in it, and, he scares and vivifies (…) he peels man like an onion’. One of his most controversial poems is ‘The New Noah’. Noah, of course, is an important Prophet of Islam. But Adonis wants to replace the Noah we know with a new Noah, who speaks in the poem. ‘Towards the end of the poem’, writes Weidner, this new Noah says that he does not ‘listen to the words of God, but long[s] for another, for a new Lord. Although once again the heretic impact of the poem is quite obvious, it is remarkable that the notion of God is not completely dismissed; rather, there is a longing to replace the traditional God with a new one, and the new Noah’s most important role is to be one of his prophets. While the meaning of God and Noah as well as the worldview they convey may have changed, what we may call the divine structure remains: there is still a god and there are still prophets – they are, however, to symbolise new values’. If Adonis is a heretic, then his heresy, and his freethought, is rooted in his attempts to understand the Divine.
We can say the same about the Egyptian thinker Abu Zayd who saw ‘Islam as a message of equality and justice’ and questioned how far the meaning of the Qur’an had been manipulated. Abu Zayd described the Shari’a as ‘man made’, and argued, in the words of Nazry Bahrawi, that ‘Qur’anic exegesis was fossilised as dogma because the commentators and interpreters did not fully account for the historical elements of the Qur’an, leading them to interpret the holy book in a literal manner’. He developed the notion of ‘humanistic hermeneutics’ that aimed to provide a more humane appreciation of the Divine. Exposing the manipulators, as many as stars in the sky, is obviously dangerous. Abu Zayd was declared an apostate and asked to divorce his Muslim wife. He was eventually driven into exile when Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al-Qaeda called for his assassination for his alleged apostasy.
Both Abu Zayd and Adonis illustrate that freethought can be profoundly reflexive. Like Sprout, freethinkers want to nurse different eggs, think outside the boundaries of convention, tradition and orthodoxy. They begin with the conviction that there must be more to God and His universe than the hodgepodge of dogma, the obscurantism of theologians, and the absurd utterings of the Mullah. Freethinkers create new and different spaces, circumscribed by what Richard Scholar calls ‘freedom and constraints’. Freethinkers think freely but they know that freedom depends on constraints without which it cannot function. Freethought is not free of everything, it is not absolute relativism, it is not about ‘anything goes’. If all is true and ‘anything goes’, then everything stays, defeating the very purpose of freethought – to break out of the status quo. Freethinking is the art of navigating a passage out of the ossified and banal beliefs and conventions without turning freedom into a licence.
It is this notion of freethought that we find in three classical scholars: Jahiz (776–868), ibn Rushd (1126–1198) and al-Biruni (973–1048). For Jahiz, as Montgomery writes in his erudite contribution, ‘society needed freethinking to ensure it was a fit response to God’s revelation of the Qur’an.’ He did not regard himself as an authority to be followed unquestionably. ‘Rather his writings were designed to promote freethinking and thus function as society’s guide (in the same way that Plato’s Socrates was both gadfly and midwife of Athens)’. But ‘his unwillingness to accept the views of others unquestioningly, his style of writing as an invitation to challenge and examine his own views through a mode of reading that required of the reader profound and extensive scrutiny, were dangerous and thought to be subversive.’ Jahiz was mocked, ‘branded as capricious, as volatile, as a sophist. His books were read for amusement, or out of antiquarianism, or as an example of style.’ Yet, as Jahiz would himself have said, there is nothing dangerous about his ideas: ‘the application of reason would lead inexorably to the same conclusions as its application had led him’.
Ibn Rushd’s dangerous idea was in fact profoundly simple: the disputes between theologians, interpreters of the Qur’an, grammarians and lawyers, that were then plaguing Islam and have plagued Islam for centuries, should be decided on the basis of reason and evidence. Or, as Oliver Leaman put it ‘in the battle of ideas, ibn Rushd came down decisively on the side of philosophy.’ But his philosophy was seen as so dangerous that it was totally ignored by Muslim society; and ibn Rushd himself banished.
Al-Biruni, my favourite freethinker, managed to escape this fate. He was, as Bruce Lawrence observes, a freethinker ‘not only in his own epoch, but also across the ages, in all the annals of Islamic history extending to culture and religion as well as mathematics and astronomy.’ Al-Biruni sought to free us from artificial disciplinary boundaries, from the servitude to a single Method, from instrumental reason, and from the orthodoxy of philosophy itself. If freethinkers are dangerous, then al-Biruni was a nuclear device. We could move from discipline to discipline, he showed, provided we respect the method of each discipline. But no scientific answer obtained through reason and experience, experimentation and dissertation, was considered by al-Biruni to be absolute. He was the most exact of scientists without being fooled into believing that the method of experimental sciences could lead him to eternal truths, or be applied to religion or the humanities. This is why for al-Biruni there is no single method for studying science but methods for acquiring all types of knowledge in conformity with the innate nature of sciences in questions. The answers you get depend on the nature of the questions, the way the questions are formed, the area under study and the methods used. He moved freely from discipline to discipline, making invaluable contributions, changing his questions and methods according to the dictates of inquiry. He studied Hinduism and Yoga according to their own concepts and categories, becoming, in the words of Lawrence, ‘not just the first but the unrivalled Muslim observer, commentator, and analyst of Hindu belief, thought and practice’.
While philosophers may regard themselves as being above mortal beings (and most classical Muslim philosophers certainly did), they do not always ask the right questions. Thus, al-Biruni had no hesitation in challenging the preeminent philosopher of his time: ibn Sina (980–1037). Lawrence writes: ‘because ibn Sina had commented on the material nature of the universe, Biruni initiated a correspondence with him. He puts forth a number of questions that critique the presuppositions of Aristotelian physics. Bluntly, but also politely, he asks ibn Sina to respond to these questions, in effect, to justify his own predilection for, and reliance on, Aristotle’. The questions were radical in nature and presented a serious challenge both to ibn Sina and Aristotle: ‘once it is possible to prove that some part of Aristotelian natural philosophy does not fit all the evidence, the entire system becomes suspect, its formulations unhinged. The stars and planets, that is, the heavenly bodies, are the subject on which Biruni begins his set of queries to ibn Sina. Some may sound obscure or overly technical to a non-scientist. For example: how do you explore and explain weight in space? How do you determine whether or not heavenly spheres are heavy or light? But one issue is germane to all physical and metaphysical reflection: are there other worlds than the cosmos, as we know it from mathematical astronomy? For Aristotle, as for ibn Sina, the answer was no. For Biruni, the answer was maybe. Though we cannot prove the existence of other worlds, neither can we disprove their existence’, he argues.
Al-Biruni illustrates so well that freethought is something profound – a progressive ideal that seeks to liberate humanity from all variety of misery and authoritarianism. Including, one must add, the authority of freethought based on instrumental reason itself. This is why we cannot do without freethought. We need freethought both to fight repression and to expand the horizons of human thought and knowledge. Freethought is necessary to counter ‘any form of oppression, political falsity, group-think or received ideas’, as Czeslaw Milosz discovered. It was, as Eva Hoffman notes, ‘a crucial part of Milosz’s moral and intellectual development’; and it should be an integral part of the thought and work of any self-respecting intellectual and thinker.
Freedom, Sprout discovers, requires commitment, caution, and hard work, as well as courage and sacrifice. Sprout shows tremendous courage against all odds to rear her Baby, just as freethinkers have to overcome resistance and hostility from orthodoxy both to communicate their ideas and to survive. She makes two supreme sacrifices. When her Baby is ready to fly off with a flock of mallards, Sprout struggles between the desire to be with her progeny and her realisation that his natural place is with the ducks. In an ultimate act of love, she releases her claim and allows him to be among his own kind. A time comes when freethinkers too have to let go of their ideas – allow them to develop and progress in different pastures. Sprout’s final act of love and compassion is towards her arch enemy – the weasel. She too is a mother, and starving. ‘Go on, eat me’, she urges. ‘Fill your babies’ bellies’. After these two supreme acts of love, sacrifice and compassion, Sprout feels ‘transparent and buoyant’; and finally learns to fly.
Freethought, as Richard Scholar demonstrates in his study of Montaigne, is a finely balanced relationship between three essentials: the freedom to reject the authorities of the past including one’s own teacher; the careful use of doubt as a means of searching for truth, including doubt about one’s own position; and employing ‘constraints’ when necessary. But even after that freethought has the potential to become an authoritarian enclave. That’s why Scholar only gives it ‘two cheers’. To be able to fly, as Sprout shows, freethought has to be anchored on love and compassion for all.