Category Archives: religion

Why is the West ahead of Islam?

(this is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Beata Janowska with Professor Marek Gensler, of the University of Łódź (Poland). The interview was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on 21 March 2016. The translation and the choice of images are mine).


Henri Bechard Interior of the Amrou mosque ca 1870

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a question arose in the Arab and Latin civilisations of what to do with philosophy. The response was different in each of these two civilisations. In your view, it was a key moment which paved the paths of the Muslim world and Europe. In the eleventh century, the Arabs were far superior to the Latins in their knowledge of philosophy.

Yes, the Arabs knew philosophy incomparably better than the Latins because they inherited ancient philosophy directly from the Greeks. When they conquered Egypt in the seventh century, the Mouseion in Alexandria was still a major intellectual institution of the ancient world. The legacy of Aristotle and Plato, or rather of the whole philosophical tradition, was very much alive in Alexandria at that time.

The Latins hardly knew Aristotle, because only a few of his minor texts were translated into Latin before the sixth century. Previously, there was no need for translations because everyone who dealt with philosophy knew the Greek language. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and the dark ages began between the sixth and tenth century, contacts with the Greek world had weakened. People no longer understood Greek and all the important texts were lost or were in Byzantium and therefore inaccessible. Nevertheless, Aristotle was still believed to be a great philosopher because he appears as such in the works of St. Augustine.

There were at that time important philosophical centres in Syria.

This is another story, they were created by refugees from Athens. In 529, the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of pagan schools, or more precisely, forbade non-Christians to teach in them. This resulted in the transfer of the Alexandrian school to Christians and that transfer occurred through an arrangement between Christians and pagans. In Athens, however, the philosophical school was closed because the Athenians did not want to negotiate with Christians and preferred to emigrate to Hellenised Syria which was then controlled by the Persians.

In Syria, they translated Neoplatonic texts first into Syriac and then, when the Arabs took over those lands, into Arabic. This work continued in Baghdad, the new capital of the Muslim empire, where a school was established at the court of the caliph. From the fifth to the eighth century, interesting things were done in philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire, of which the Latins were not aware of because of their separation from Byzantium. In contrast, the Arab conquerors of the Roman provinces in the south and east of the Mediterranean showed great interest in the philosophical thought of the conquered population.

Did the Arabs learn Greek?

They employed Greeks and Syrians as translators. Syrians were often were bilingual and, as their Semitic language is close to the Arab language, it was not particularly difficult for them to translate philosophical texts into Arabic. Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, was a Syrian. There were schools established at the courts of Muslim rulers because the Arabs, unlike the Latins, believed that the monarch should be educated. The Arabs accepted the Greek ideal of an enlightened ruler. The sons of emirs and sultans had to learn philosophy, often from textbooks written specially for them.

In Islam, education was not associated with religion and science was secular in nature. Islam did not develop theology in the Western sense. When Muslim lawyers needed logic, they learned it from ancient thinkers, while doctors studied biology from the same source. However, most Muslims did not think that they could learn anything from pagans about God.

Why did philosophy and theology come close to each other in the West?

Unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity treats its holy texts as dictated by the Holy Spirit to specific people at a specific time. That is why they have a supernatural element, but also human. The task of the theologian is to extract the revealed truth from a text written down by a human being. The holy text must be freed from the accretions of human origin, and expressed again to be understood by a new generation. St. Augustine said that no one understands fully the message of holy books. Acculturation of the holy texts is therefore necessary for every believer.


Tommaso da Modena Albertus Magnus 1352

Do you mean that one has to interpret Biblical texts anew in order to reconcile them with the level of knowledge and way of understanding of the world at a particular time?

Christians were aware of this from the very beginning. The first theological school was established in Alexandria by Clement at the beginning of the third century, when paganism still prevailed. Origen, who received solid philosophical and philological education at that school, distinguished three levels of interpretation of the revealed text. The first is the somatic or bodily level which involved a literal reading of the simple truths such as the Ten Commandments. The second level, which is psychic, refers to the soul. At this level, moral truths are dissected from the sacred texts for a particular time and place. For example, in the Old Testament, polygamy was allowed, and now it is not. Why? After all, it is not possible for God to change His commandments and indeed, He did not change them, only Man learned to read them differently. That’s what God allowed at the times of Abraham, it became unacceptable when mankind developed new sensitivities. People now understand that having four or five wives is a bad idea. It’s better to have one, lifelong companion. Moral progress affects the interpretation of the biblical texts whose meaning can be adapted to a particular period in the history of mankind.

The third and highest level of Origen’s scheme is called pneumatic as it involves the spirit (Gr. pneuma) and not the soul. At this level, the Bible is being interpreted allegorically to gain knowledge of Man as a creature of God and of God himself. This is the theology in the strict sense i.e. the speculative theology. This is what Christianity managed to gain through philosophy. Without philosophical conceptualisation, we would be doomed to a literal reading of the Bible.

As it is in Islam and Judaism?

In Islam and Judaism, the sacred text is treated as revealed in full, without the human element. In the Torah, which contains the Mosaic laws, there are rules governing nearly all aspects of life and there is not much room for speculation, though Judaism is still much more open than Islam. On the other hand, the Arabs believed that as long as religion does not intersect with science, everything is fine. Religious Islamic law is disconnected from ethics. Metaphysics is also absent. Muslims rejected it as a tool to know God, because there is no place in Islam for a discussion about God as the first cause.

Initially, Muslims showed great enthusiasm for philosophy and there was even a kind of speculative Muslim theology developed by scholars of the Koran, Mutazilites, but later philosophy was considered as unhelpful in spiritual development. Muslims began to wonder whether the extraction of pure knowledge from the Qur’an about God and creation is indeed necessary and whether it leads to salvation. Maybe this is an expression of arrogance of reason which leads people astray? Christians in the West also have such doubts. The eleventh century is a time of great dispute about the value of philosophy, both among Christians and Muslims.

These concerns are best expressed by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). 

Damian, a Benedictine monk, came to the conclusion that the development of philosophy went too far. Young and ambitious monks had the audacity to discuss issues such as, What it means that God is omnipotent. Is He omnipotent in such a way that even the principle of contradiction does not apply to Him? Damian was irritated by such deliberations because, being well educated, he sensed that the philosophy began to drift dangerously, freeing itself from theology, and soon it could happen that the philosophy would begin to dictate the terms to theology.

Did Damian believe that the teaching of philosophy should be forbidden?

He wanted to see theology above philosophy. This order was determined by the Augustinian concept of goods, according to which the knowledge of God is the supreme good, so that what serves this aim is also good, including philosophy. However, when philosophy ceases to be a means to this end, and sets itself other goals, it becomes evil because it distracts man from God. Damian worried that philosophy began to separate itself from theology as an autonomous discipline and to impose scientific requirements on theology. He wanted philosophy to be ancilla theologiae, a servant of theology. If philosophy does not want to play this role, it should be discarded.

Al-Ghazali rejected philosophy for slightly different reasons.

Both Damian and Al-Ghazali were scholars and long-time teachers of philosophy. Al-Ghazali studied, commented and taught philosophy until he had a kind of mystical vision that changed his life. He gave up teaching, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and travelled a lot. He abandoned teaching to venture on the mystical search for God. In his famous work The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he criticised the philosophical approach to God as erroneous and of little value. He did not say that philosophy is bad but that it is inferior to mysticism. Such views were voiced in Islam before, however, it was Al-Ghazali who triggered the loss of interest in philosophy among Muslims who gradually abandoned speculative theology which anyway was in an early stage of development. Interestingly, Al-Ghazali also distrusted the systematic study of Qu’ranic law and the emphasis on orthodoxy by its guardians. He maintained that Sufis, or mystics, are closer to God.


Jean-Leon Gerome Prayer in Cairo 1865 

Did Al-Ghazali recommend the abandonment of philosophy for religion?

In the eleventh century, Islamic mysticism went beyond its religious frame, with eminent Sufis suggesting that God is too great to be constrained within one religion. In all religions, mystics are censored because of individualism in their approach to faith. Nowadays, Islamic fundamentalists blow up the tombs of famous Sufis because individualism makes Sufism heretical. Christianity experienced similar problems, as mysticism often leads to heresy.

In the eleventh century, philosophy and science were synonymous. For as much as one could grasp a thing scientifically, one could only describe it in the concepts of philosophy. Even medicine was in fact the practical use of natural philosophy. The emancipation of science occurred in later centuries. A major step on this road was the appearance of universities in Europe in the thirteenth century, with the autonomy of studies and research in various departments. At the faculty of liberal arts, people were free to philosophise in a secular context; they were even forbidden to deal with religious issues. They were only bound by the principles of correct reasoning and by the correspondence between thought and reality. Interestingly, students at the faculty of theology engaged in thought experiments by using the procedures of so-called secundum imaginationem, which are exercises to imagine an entirely hypothetical situation such as, for example, God commanding us to hate Him. This idea was later developed by philosophers and eventually incorporated into the study of nature as an idealisation, that is the representation of a hypothetical state of nature stripped of certain elements which are non-essential from the point of view of the hypothesis under investigation.

For the development of science, it is important to develop complicated theories and to define concepts. Without philosophy and theology, there might not be such giants of science as Newton and Leibniz.

That’s right. Theology was a discipline for pioneering a new type of scientific hypotheses, which were later tested empirically. In science, verification was carried out by experiment, while in theology it was affected by reference to the tradition of religious dogma and the examination whether new theses are consistent with it, or lead to contradictions.


Laurentius de Voltolina

If the West rejected philosophy at that time, would science also be rejected? Was it a decisive point in the fate of Western civilisation?

Yes indeed, although it is difficult for us to accept that this is the case because for the past three centuries we got accustomed to the idea that science is the avant-garde of knowledge and theology is of little consequence. But in the Middle Ages, science found protection under the wings of theology. Regrettably, people now see the the Middle Ages in pejorative terms. Reputation of the Middle Ages suffered greatly during the Enlightenment. Most people nowadays cherish the Renaissance which supposed to be a period of the restoration of antique tradition. In fact, modern science is the legacy of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which the achievements of antiquity were enriched and developed further.

Mystical knowledge also involves intellect which is however engaged in contemplation rather than speculation. Mystical experience cannot be shared with others. Unlike philosophy, mysticism cannot be taught. Mystical knowledge does not require a conceptual apparatus because the mystical union is inexpressible.

In the West, the position of philosophy was defended by St. Anselm (1033-1109), the archbishop of Canterbury.

The authority of Anselm was instrumental in the continued duration of philosophy as an inalienable component of education. He strongly supported the autonomy of philosophy. Justifiably, Anselm is called the father of scholasticism. He claimed that philosophy is absolutely necessary as an element of education and without education one cannot acquire the knowledge of God.


Ludwig Deutsch The Scribe 1911

In the Arab world, science was defended by Averroes (1126-1198).

Averroes was aware of the damage caused to philosophy by Al-Ghazali, and in response to it he wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence in which he provided arguments against mysticism. According to Averroes, philosophy it is the highest form of theology because only philosophy uses abstract terms, being the subtlest and most sophisticated of all possible forms of expressions as the language of the abstract. Philosophy is capable of expressing matters concerning God as the supreme cause in the fullest and most precise way. Averroes did not differ in that from Aristotle who argued that philosophy leads to the knowledge of God as the first mover. By knowing the causes of things we attain perfect knowledge.

But he failed.

Averroes could play the same role in Islam as Anselm did in Christianity but he had insufficient authority as a religious thinker. He was a kadim, or Islamic judge, a person of great importance but not important enough to save philosophy. He was accused of the lack of piety, because he claimed that philosophy, not religion, is the surest path towards God. As a result, he had to flee from his native Cordoba to Africa. Averroes was treated as a heretic. After him, the authority of philosophy crumbled to dust and even his pupil Ibn Arabi abandoned philosophy for mysticism. Averroes is the last great scholar and philosopher of the Arab world.

In the East, there were no universities in the Western sense because there was no room for autonomous faculties. The University in Cairo, founded in the tenth century, is only a religious school. Over the following centuries, only remnants of philosophy needed by medics and lawyers were preserved in Islam. It is a sad paradox that, when in the twelfth century the Latins literally rushed to the Arab philosophy, and the great Arab scholars were read with admiration in Europe, the thinkers of the Muslim world already switched to mysticism. When universities flourished in Western Europe and became institutions of higher learning in the full sense of the word, science almost completely froze in the Arab world.

We can say that in the relay race of human progress, the baton was taken by another player at the very last moment.

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Jacob Boehme

(This is a fragment of Jacek Woźniakowski Góry niewzruszone. The translation is mine).




In 1613, the mayor of the Silesian town of Gorlitz wrote as follows: On 26 July Jacob Boehme, the shoemaker living between the gates behind the hospital smithy, was summoned to the City Hall to be punished and investigated for his enthusiastic faith (um seinen enthusiastischen glauben gefragt), then he was shackled in the stocks, and ushers took from his home a book written by him in quarto after which he was released from prison and admonished to give up such things”.
He, however, did not abandon anything despite pressure from many sides; in the years 1612-1623, he wrote three and a half thousand pages of strange thoughts that were to made powerful impression on the European culture in the following centuries.
Boehme was two years older than Rubens and four years younger than Kepler. He wrote his meditations at the same time when the works of Bacon and Shakespeare were being printed, when Rembrandt, Corneille and Milton were entering adulthood. He lived to see only one of his books published, and only anonymously (Der Weg zu Christo), but his manuscripts spread like fire in countless copies: already in 1621 he was read in the whole of Silesia and Saxony, and the March of Meissen. Silesian nobles were particularly attached to his thought and spread it long after the death of the master. Saint-Martin (1743-1803) translated Boehme into French, learning German for this purpose. Mickiewicz translate Boehme into Polish, and also  wrote an essay about him. There are several books about the impact of Boehme on English literature and about his English followers, of whom the most important, and perhaps the least orthodox, was William Blake; one of the most fascinating romantic landscape painters, Samuel Palmer, probably learned about Boehme from Blake. Later, Shaftesbury’s thought was also developed within the circle of Behmenists.
Coming from Evening Church 1830 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881
Samuel Palmer Coming from Evening Church 1830
The literature on the role of Boehme in German culture is, of course, especially abundant. When he was still alive, he was called Philosophus Teutonicus: and he was very proud of that. Friedrich Schlegel put him on a par with Shakespeare and Durer. Schelling considered him to be a miraculous phenomenon in the history of mankind. Today, the thought of Boehme is believed to be the root of all the major theosophical systems of the eighteenth century and also of all contemporary sects of this kind. The impact of Boehme, sometimes decisive, on Tieck, Runge (who initiated the romantic philosophy of landscape painting), Novalis, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer are widely discussed, but even completely different type of thinker, Feuerbach, owes Boehme a lot. Russian philosopher Berdyaev wrote about Boehme as “without a doubt one of the biggest Christian gnostic”, and stressed the importance of Boehme as almost the “Father of the Church” in old Russia. Herzen was also enthusiastic about Boehme. According to Berdyaev, Boehme enabled the victory over the rationalism of Leibniz and Spinoza) and as the first reached to the Bible to see the life of cosmos as a passionate struggle, as a movement, as a process, as incessant Genesis. Lucien Febvre says that in the brain of Boehme “ferment probably one of the most powerful metaphysical geniuses of humanity” and another eminent historian of ideas, Koyre, devoted a large monograph to Boehme.  It is worth to add that in the United States it exists today (or at least existed in 1960 ) the Jacob Boehme Society.
Boehme experienced a spiritual shock when reading Copernicus: it was an intense feeling of infinity of space. Copernicus expanded space by moving the sphere of the fixed stars into a celestial abyss. Where is God in this case, where is the real heaven? – asks Boehme. It is necessary to either reject the theory of Copernicus, or push back the sky and God into infinite depths, or negate the existence of God. Boehme confesses that he experienced “pagan hours” when he understood that, after Copernicus, it was impossible to keep the old idea of “heaven above the stars.” And then – probably under the influence of Sebastian Franck and Paracelsus – he was dazzled by a thought that infinite space – Abgrund, Tiefe, Chaos, Unendlichkeit, Mysterium Magnum – this was God (Gott ist das Ganze alleine and die grosse Tiefe überall). Such was the foundation of his thought, expressed in nebulous and vague language, extremely complicated, and with ambition to explain the world and the after-world, even if explaining the unknowns by other unknowns which is typical for theosophists; in fact there are no unknowns: those who are initiated simply know it all. Nevertheless, a powerful poetic vision of the cosmos shines behind Boehme’s strange meanderings of language and thought. A stormy exposure of arguments by the shoemaker from Gorlitz moves forward with enormous force. Let’s try – at the expense of inevitable simplification – to elucidate some of the elements of this vision.
William Blake
The Abyss is an “eternal peace without beginning and end.” It is the matrix of everything that exists, but undisclosed, unfathomable, unknowable and perhaps in-knowing (reminding us of complicatio of Nicholas of Cusa). Thought can only grasp something while the divine abyss is above and beyond anything that is particular and definable. But the abyss does not want to be in the state of nothingness. God, to be revealed, needs Nature. He is in fact for Nature what the central point is for the circle: to be the centre, the point needs a circuit. Revelation is therefore primarily an act of the abyss seeing itself in a mirror, that is, splitting itself in the act of creative love; the Son is love while the Spirit is behind the power of the act of creation; this Trinity is the basic form of the divine dynamics and consciousness. The Trinity manifests itself initially in the first stage of creation, which Boehme calls die ewige Natur. Eternal Nature is purely spiritual and coeternal with God, but we can not comprehend this, because we always think in terms that are temporal.
God, having revealed Himself in Eternal Nature, wants the full realisation of everything that already exists potentially in the divine unity. Here we encounter an important, quasi-Augustinian place in the doctrine of the Silesian theologian. The pure  revelation of the Abyss is impossible without further fissions (“separations”), without the play of the opposites. God is for Boehme love itself, eternal Nature is also good, the opposites somehow contain one another, the light is hidden in the darkness: Die Lichtwelt ist in den finstern verborgen, auch die finstere Welt in der Lichtwelt. “if there were no death, there would be no life, if there were no darkness, there would be no light.” Darkness is not bad in itself, but in the extent to which it separates itself from light (here there is an echo of Manichaeism of Gnostics): all that is good, comes from light, everything that is evil comes from darkness that separated itself from light.
This way, God separated Himself from Lucifer. Eternal Nature became black and empty. “If all the trees were writers, and all the twigs were feathers, and all the mountains were books and all the water was ink, even then they would not be able to describe all the pain and despair, which caused Lucifer and his angels … “
But God created the world in order to fix what was broken, and restore the meaning and harmony where there was the disharmony of the opposites, to reveal His own presence in the world, like the soul of the body, like the juice in the tree. God also sent his Son, the Prince of Light, so light cold win where it fought against darkness in the “wild nature”. It is so because “God is everything – darkness and light, love and anger … He is called the one God because of the light of His love.” Christians should ponder upon the life of Christ and thus guide their souls from darkness into light.
Nature, the whole nature is therefore the last degree of Revelation, as the only true teacher of philosophy, astrology, theology, as the figure and signature of God: “When you see the space and the stars, and the earth, you see your God, and in this God you live and exist … otherwise you’d be nothing … “
In De Signatura Rerum, Boehme expresses his vision of Nature as Revelation with particular force. In this speculative treatise  on astronomy, intricate and full of repetitions, the Silesian Theosophist seeks relations of everything with everything, like Paracelsus did before him. In this oeuvre, there are moments of admiration for created things so intense that perhaps only in Shaftesbury – despite the differences in style – we hear a similar tone.
Creation is for Creator a statement and a sign. Das Ausgesprochene ist ein Modell des Sprechenden und hat wieder das Sprechen in sich, dasselbe Sprechen ist ein Saame zu einer andern Bildnis nach der ersten: denn beide wirken, als das Sprechende und das Ausgesprochene. Each object reveals his internal and spiritual properties.  Boehme puts it in an aphorism of great poetical power, Das Innerliche arbeitet stets zur Offenbarung. Thus also Creator revealed Himself in multiple forms. We can rocognise the divine in the stars and natural phenomena, in trees and herbs. Everything tells us about the spiritual hierarchy of existence, from herbs and trees to God. Everything tells us of its own voice: Ein jedes Ding hat seinen Mund zur Offenbarung. This terse sentence containes in nuce the whole philosophy of nature of Romanticism.

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Islam must modernise itself. An interview with a Muslim writer

Polish-born writer Piotr Ibrahim Kalwas lives in Alexandria, Egypt, together with his wife and son. He is a Muslim with a difference. His Islam incorporates humanism, openness, tolerance and free thinking. Kalwas explains his views in an interview published in a Polish online magazine, (the translation is mine).


You converted to Islam 13 years ago and emigrated to Egypt 5 years ago. What seduced you in Islam?

It is a very private question and the answer is lost a little in the past. It was certainly a quest for the meaning of life, religion, and for a point of support in life. I has always been interested in religions. At some point, I started to read various holy books, one after another, and I was captivated by the Qur’an. I started going to the mosque in Warsaw, attended “lessons” there, and somehow slowly it all began.

People make comments in social media that the Qur’an is not a pleasant book. There is a lot of killing in it, and cutting off heads, etc.

It depends on who reads it. As with any holy book, it is a matter of interpretation. We know how the Gospels were read by Inquisitors, Crusaders and all those who sowed violence in Christianity. The same can be done with Qur’an and that’s what jihadists and Islamists are doing.

But it is also true that in the Qur’an, which is the text written in the Arabian Desert fifteen centuries ago, we find fragments that from the perspective of cultural humanism seem threatening. I’m not trying to sweep them under the carpet, as it is done by many Muslims. There are controversial verses in Qur’an and worst of all, their interpretation has not changed for centuries.

With the exception of small  modernist movements, these verses are treated literally by Muslims. They urge Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews, to kill unbelievers, to beat women and cut off the hands of thieves.  This may give rise to fear. I agree that such passages should be re-interpreted and treated symbolically and metaphorically.

So Islam should adapt to the times?

Yes, because Islam is not developing intellectually. Any attempt to change the interpretation of the Qur’an is regarded by most Muslims with suspicion, if not with rage. Qur’an has ossified. It contains archaic messages that frighten people. This must change.

Except that in Islam – in Sunnism – there is no hierarchy, as in the Catholic Church. Therefore it’s more difficult to develop one interpretation.

It is true that theoretically the clergy exists only in Shia Islam where ayatollahs decide about everything. But Sunni Islam also has its institutions, Egypt’s Al-Azhar University and universities in Mecca for example. This is also the Islamic clergy, which unfortunately has solidified into conservative and archaic thinking. All fatwas issued through the centuries by the clergy do not bring anything new. On the contrary, they move Islam backwards. When I sometimes listen to the arguments of various Arab sheikhs on TV, I feel like I’ve just listened to scholars from 100 or 200 years ago. This is a vicious circle of traditionalism.

On the other hand, the community of the faithful is also backward and cannot cope with the ever changing modern world. What does the large part of aggression of Muslims towards the West come from? From the lack of understanding, from envy, from powerlessness of the people who do not know which way to go.  Should they choose the way of modernity? But that’s the West. Religiosity? But which form of it if fundamentalism lurks everywhere. It all adds up to the image of Islam. Islam is a poorer relative of other religions, not only intellectually, but also materially.

Do you think that the greatest error of Muslims is their literal interpretation of the words from fifteen centuries ago? Is this the root of all the problems?

Yes, I think this is the main root of backwardness of the Muslim world. Its centre is the religious perception of reality. This is visible in education which is of very low quality. Someone once said that Egypt is a country that invents the most significant ideas in the Muslim world – the worst and best. In Egypt, education is really bad. And yet a thousand years ago Egypt radiated education and knowledge. Arabs often mention the wonderful time of the Caliphate which extended from Spain to India.

Maybe you just want Islam in the European version?

What counts are the facts. There is no science here, no new ideas are being invented, no significant literature is being written, there is nothing happening here intellectually. But there is terrible poverty. Not only European Muslims but also some young people in Muslim countries ponder about what is happening, whether they will always be poor, copying everything from the West, or will they participate in creating the modern world?

There has been a slippery slope here for centuries. At the same time, it is difficult to find out what people really think because many of them have an inferiority complex towards the West. When asked about their world, they are reluctant to talk, often being suspicious of foreigners. It is a characteristic of closed societies – people suspect foreign interference, which will apparently make their lives even more difficult.

You’re talking about the reform of Islam. But how do you cope yourself with the most controversial passages of the Qur’an? By ignoring them?

Yes. I’m not saying that they are not true, I do not deny the holiness of the book. I conclude that God, in his wisdom, could reveal verses that are no longer valid if they are not interpreted anew. So I ignore some of them and I reinterpret other passages on my own. Take, for example, the cutting off the hands of thieves. When asked, an Egyptian will declare his strong opposition to such practices. On the other hand, surveys show that 80 per cent of Egyptian population supports this type of punishment.  Where is the truth? It’s hidden and concealed.

There are verses in the  Qur’an, like those about marriage for example, that refer to the concrete reality of fifteen centuries ago. They were revealed in the desert. How can they be presented to someone who, for example, adopts Islam in Greenland? After all, they are completely at odds with the modern world, culturally and even geographically. These verses require continuous interpretation. And when the Qur’an is not being interpreted, it dies – just like any other book. At the moment, certain verses or hadiths are dead, empty, because they cannot be adapted to other cultures. It’s wrong to understand them literally as some converts and neophytes do.

So you don’t agree with the position of women in Islam?

Of course not. I treat women the same way as any other creature. The vision of women’s role in the society from 1500 years ago cannot be transplated to our modern world.  Everything was revealed in certain time and place. Even the Buddhists have interpreted and re-interpreted their religion or philosophy all the time through the centuries, and that’s why their religion is alive. The same happens in Christianity, although after centuries of stagnation.

You choose different things from Qur’an in such a way that really nothing is left of it.

This is only my vision, that’s just what I practice. I do not impose my vision on anyone. I am a devotee of individualism, which in Islam barely exists. Here, a community is everything, all follow the sheikh, the imam or ulema. I myself interpret Islam in my own way and as this religion has no pope or a central authority, I believe that every Muslim should act in a similar manner. Meanwhile, in Egypt 30 per cent of people cannot read or write, so what do you expect? Unfortunately, one cannot expect independent thinking and reflection.

What would be your general conclusion about Islam. Is it a good or bad religion, of peace or war?

Let’s be honest. Most Muslims follow the traditionalist and conservative interpretation of Islam. This does not mean that these people are bad. They are usually very hospitable, kind, and would not hurt even a fly. The overwhelming majority of Muslims also hate terrorism and do not want to have anything to do with it. At the same time, their thinking is traditionalist and sometimes fundamentalist.

There is also a small minority, a handful of people like me who want to change Islam. Because traditionalist thinking among Muslims will not move this world forward by even one step. The Muslim world does not need a revolution in the sense of overthrowing everything, it needs the enlightenment that can only come from Muslims themselves.

[What do you think about the critics of Islam?]

I do not pay any attention to those who write hateful comments about Islam. Mind you, some Muslims also use a similar language. One can often observe that both sides are barking at each other in social media. Often it is just hatred … but keep in mind that there are voices that criticise Islam from a legitimate position. They do not intend to offend but to stimulate a fruitful re-examination of Islam among Muslims. I read such comments with interest and often agree with them. I think that criticism and self-criticism are the basis of intellectual development.

… Islam is a religion that requires total engagement and refers to every aspect of life… It all requires deep reflection. Anyone can become either a monster with bombs in his pockets and boots, or he can follow the path of love and knowledge. For me, these are the two most important things.

(this is an abridged version of an interview which is available in Polish at,polski-muzulmanin-z-egiptu-piotr-ibrahim-kalwas-polscy-konwertyci-przestaja-myslec-i-klepia-islamkie-pacierze)


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Knowledge and its enemies

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Christianity. An introduction in 1000 words


As a syncretic religion, Christianity is difficult to analyse. There is no agreement among Christians themselves as to its essence, hence there are many Christian churches. To probe into Christianity, one has to examine its history.

Within the first few centuries, Christianity originated as a Jewish sect, evolved into a religion with universal aspirations, incorporated Greek philosophical ideas into its doctrine, and became a state religion. Christianity stands therefore on three pillars – Jewish mysticism, Greek philosophy and Roman administration. Correspondingly, its foundation texts are written in three languages – the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek, while the Latin translation of both texts had been used in the Catholic Church for nearly two millennia.

In Christianity, beliefs are more important than practices. All its Churches make claims to orthodoxy, ie the correct set of beliefs. Christians are indifferent to how they dress and what they eat but focus on what they think. In Judaism and Islam, orthopraxy prevails hence there are strict dietary and clothing rules in both religions while beliefs are relatively simple. In Islam, a declaration of faith is sufficient to become a Muslim. In Judaism, one is born a Jew.

Christianity has strong rational and humanistic elements. These elements are so dominant that some critics of Christianity deny that it is a religion. En arche en ho Logos, kai ho Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en ho Logos, John writes in his Gospel. For the Greeks, Logos meant the underlying order of reality. John’s passage can be read as “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God”. Christian God can therefore be understood as deified Logos, or Reason, combined with the personal God of the Jews.

Socrates asks whether that which is holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods. He answers that the gods only recognise the holiness which already exists in holy things. This thought became the basis of the Christian theology. It equates God with the Good and Necessity. God is benevolent. What follows is that God is not omnipotent. God cannot appear again and declare that the Decalogue will now include new commandments urging believers to rob, rape and murder. Similarly, God can only do things that are not contradictory or impossible. God cannot change what I ate yesterday for breakfast.

One of the papal encyclicals is titled Fides and Ratio, faith and reason, and this combination makes Christianity a peculiar religion. The centrality of Aristotelianism in the Catholic Church prompted Russian emigre philosopher Lev Shestov to declare that Catholicism is a rationalist philosophy masquerading as a religion. Shestov expands on Dostoevsky’s criticism of the Papacy in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky accuses the Church of corrupting the original message of God that his kingdom is not of this world, and sacrificing freedom for earthly welfare.

“Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”. Pope Benedict XVI used this statement by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus to reiterate the Church’s attachment to Reason. The Church cannot accept Tertulian’s Credo quia absurdum because it denigrates Reason. God can be both known through Revelation and rational thought. It is therefore legitimate to seek rational proofs of God’s existence. Shestov writes that Catholics believe that they have the key to the universe and that that key is Reason.


Jean Fouquet Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, ca 1452

The other central aspect of Christianity is its anthropocentrism. The New Testament says that Jesus was sent to Earth to die for our sins in an act of atonement. Jesus became Man and suffered as a human being for the sake of humanity. His human characteristics are stressed to such an extent that this may not be the case of God becoming Man but Man being celebrated as God. In Western art, Jesus is portrayed first as a baby with his loving mother, then as a merciful teacher and, finally, as a humiliated and suffering individual who is executed together with common criminals. If a Martian landed on Earth and visited art museums and Catholic churches, he would have concluded that Christianity is the religion of Man. Catholicism acquires feminine characteristics through the cult of Mary, the mother of God. The Church is the Bride of Christ. Sensualism of certain saints verges on eroticism. Religious themes in painting, but also in music, provide ample evidence of Christians celebrating beauty in themselves, also physical beauty. There is disarming sweetness in cantatas of Bach and Vivaldi or paintings of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.

By worshiping their God, Christians worship the order in the universe and themselves as deified human beings. Christianity is therefore prone to be perceived in human, rational and, ultimately, secular terms. It is only seemingly a paradox that Christian societies had evolved into modern welfare states. The original Christian promise has found its fulfilment in a secular society which treats Christian principles as its own. Even the pessimistic doctrine of the original sin has turned out to be a blessing, so to speak. Man is born in sin and incapable of perfection. If an individual transgresses against divine and human laws he will be dealt with according to the severity of his transgression, with the aim of rehabilitation rather than revenge. Among Western societies, only the US retains the capital punishment. In Islam, striving for perfection is a religious obligation and those who fail in jihad are harshly punished.

Christianity is unique among religions. It encompasses rationalism and humanism and this combination places it on the antipodes of Islam and orthodox Judaism which are both strictly theocentric. Orthodox Jews and Muslims are oriented towards their holy texts as homini unius libri, or men of one book. Judaism has its reformed branch which originated in Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and mainstream Judaism embraced modernity to the same extent as mainstream Christianity. The fact that most Jews had lived in diaspora in Europe for two thousand years is reflected in the history of Israel which is a state with Western institutions, although with complications of geopolitical nature.

Islam though is past-oriented and anti-modern and will remain so until it revisits the dispute of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), an Aristotelian philosopher, with Al-Ghazali, an enemy of Aristotelianism. Islam diverged from Christianity when Al-Ghazali accused the philosophers of blasphemy and infidelity, punishable by death. Al-Ghazali killed the flourishing Islamic civilisation which abandoned Reason and reverted to Revelation, discouraging an interaction with visible and tangible reality and focusing instead on the holy text as the primary aspect of reality.

Christianity chose an opposite path when it opted for Aristotelianism as its core in the thirteenth century, and it made all the difference for Europe and its outposts on other continents. Modern civilisation can only be built on three pillars – rationalism, empiricism and humanism. There are plenty of aspects of Christianity that can be criticised but, on balance, Christianity has played a positive role in the history of the world.


Filed under Christianity, philosophy, Reason, religion