I am not a right-winger. I am ashamed to say that I discovered Sir Roger Scruton only four years ago when an argument in a Washington DC think-tank led to a search for contemporary philosophers who took a long view of civilisation, history, ideas, and implications of philosophy.
It happened when I was an advisor to Tony Blair and visited Washington DC for a think-tank meeting representing Tony. There, left-wing Muslim activists, who put their community’s interests before their country, accused me of being a ‘neoconservative’ because I argued that the national security of our countries and peoples mattered more than any Muslim community identity. A safer country, logically, meant a safer Muslim community.
The attacks from them kept coming that I was a ‘neo-con’. To better understand what was really meant by ‘neo-con’, I started to read Leo Strauss, the so-called founder of neo-conservatism. This German Jewish philosopher worked wonders for my growing appreciation and learning of how the West was built on the ideals of Athens and Jerusalem; his own struggles as a Jew with the modern West were instructive for me.
I discovered, through Strauss, the great Muslim philosophers, particularly al-Farabi (d.950) and Avicenna (1037). I was hooked. Here were renowned Muslim luminaries who honoured Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and merged early Islam with the classical West. Knowledge was not limited to the Quran or the Bible, but came from the great Greek pagans too.
This encounter and subsequent discovery drew me to seek out Sir Roger as the supervisor for my doctoral research for six reasons.
First, he is fair to the contributions made by Muslim philosophers to the West. He is not dismissive of God and divinity, as is fashionable among too many Nietzschean academics. In his seminal A Short History of Modern Philosophy he writes how al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes ‘all of them Muslims’ ‘systematised and adapted’ Aristotelian thought. Where others sought to downplay or ignore Muslim contributions to the emergence of the modern West, Scruton was true to the historical record.
In his book on Spinoza, among the greatest of the Enlightenment thinkers, Scruton repeatedly emphasises that Spinoza was reading the Muslim philosophers of Andalusia before Spinoza read Descartes or Hobbes. Commenting on Spinoza’s Spanish Jewish ancestry, Scruton writes:
‘For several centuries such people had lived relatively securely in the Spanish peninsula, protected by the Muslim princes, and mingling openly with their Islamic neighbours. Their theologians and philosophers and scholars had joined in the great revival of Aristotelian philosophy […]’
In The Soul of the World Scruton admiringly quotes Muslim mystics and heaps praise on Ghazali and Rumi, quoting from the latter’s verses and shows a grasp of the Muslim mystical mind.
For me, it was clear that Scruton’s objection was not to the Islam of beauty, co-existence, spirituality, poetry, civilisation, art and architecture. But like millions of Muslims, his fight was with the literalists, the supremacists, the Islamists and Salafists. Islam of the philosophers and mystics belongs firmly in the West and is part of the West’s heritage.
Second, sitting in class I was taken aback by his polymathic mind. In addition to his mastery of an array of disciplines, not a single tutorial has passed to date where he has not referenced the Quran in Arabic or Avicenna’s thoughts, Ghazali’s writings, Rumi’s poetry or others. Even when discussing the Austrian genius Ludwig Wittgenstein, Scruton could see and identify parallels with Islamic Sufism, the immersion in God. It is often Scruton evoking verses from the Quran on the soul, the Sun, the galaxy, and I am left catching up trying to match my Arabic recall with his.
Third, leading Muslim theologians in the West understand and respect Scruton. Here is Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, described by the Guardian as ‘arguably the West’s most influential Islamic scholar’, in deep and detailed discussion with Scruton on ‘sacred truths’. Then here is Scruton and Yusuf discussing ‘What Conservatism Really Means’. Shaikh Hamza’s admiration for Scruton has directed many Muslim influencers around the world to better understand conservatism as explained and advanced by Scruton: identify what we love in civilisation and then protect these virtues and values from current threats so that our children can also find a beautiful world.
Fourth, Arab Muslim princes and scholars are asking questions about how they can reform, and what went wrong with the Arab spring that led to Islamist revolutionaries taking over in Egypt, and to this day angling in Damascus, Gaza, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya, Kuwait, Bahrain, even Saudi Arabia. What is the way forward to head off Marxism-influenced Islamist revolutionaries, but still make political reforms? Like Scruton, they wish to take the long view and in that I have seen them reading Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands to better understand the dangers to civilisation. If the kids are reading Chomsky and Zizek, the grown-ups are with Scruton.
Fifth, he cares deeply for the values informing architecture and aesthetics in the Muslim world. It was from Scruton that I heard about Marwa al-Sabouni, an architect, hijab-wearing Muslim, trying to rebuild her native Homs in Syria. Not only has Scruton mentioned her book to every willing audience, he has invited her to think-tank events in London, including here at Policy Exchange. Here was a philosopher who applied his thinking and worked with Muslim women to build and bolster places and identity in the most difficult parts of the world.
Finally, Scruton does not shy away from the tough questions, the true hallmark of a philosopher with a philosophy. I liked his courage and the fact that the mob could not silence him. For me, yes, anti-Muslim hatred exists and must be uprooted but ‘Islamophobia’ is an oxymoron: Islam seeks peace and how can people have a fear of peace?
The Muslim Brotherhood, their naïve acolytes, and their left-wing allies have used accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ to try to silence criticism of Islam and Muslim practices. Scruton often tells me that Islam and Muslims need to remember the spirit of the witty and wise 13th century Molla Nasreddin Hodja, who laughs at himself. Scruton is right to say that we Muslims take ourselves too seriously, too mired in victimhood narratives and need to re-embrace the Greek spirit of comedy and mockery.
Scruton is not a binary thinker: he admires Islam, but is critical of it too. Scruton is asking tough questions: can Muslims learn to put country before faith community? Do away with notions of blasphemy and accept liberty? Those questions need answers. For all of our futures depend on it.
If Muslim countries and communities make progress towards liberty, pluralism and peace, it will be because their conservative instincts were helped, understood, and respected by an Englishman fond of wine and hunting, music and aesthetics. And long may he live.
Ed Husain is author of The House of Islam: A Global History (Bloomsbury, 2018)