Review | 'The Flying Man': Refuge In Interfaith Philosophy

Review | 'The Flying Man': Refuge In Interfaith Philosophy
Islamic Golden Age, between 9th to 13th centuries, was a period of religious harmony and significant scholarship. It was an era when scholars of all religions were free to pursue their scholarly interests and their work was valued. In Umayyad Spain, as in Abbasid Baghdad, several non Muslim scholars were honoured for translating Greek and Sanskrit manuscripts into Arabic besides making their original contributions in science and philosophy. Some of that work, especially in philosophy and theology, continues to be relevant in our age even after the passage of a millennium.   

Dr Akbar has been enamoured by the glorious era of Islamic scholarship. He has constructively utilised his forced year-long Covid-19 related confinement by writing a new book titled 'The Flying Man'. He has judiciously added a subtitle to the book that says, “Aristotle and the philosophers of the Islamic Golden Age, Their relevance today”. The book has been published by Amana publications of Maryland USA. 

Aristotle had a great influence in shaping philosophical thought during the heydays of Islamic Caliphate. Muslims had been reared, and continue to be motivated, in the concepts of predetermination and God's will. When they came across Aristotle through Arabic translations of Greek classics, they were astonished by the sheer power of his logic. In simple words, while Aristotle believed in a necessary being (read: God) that existed before the universe came into being or a prime mover (read: The Creator) who initiated every event in this world (read All physical, chemical and biological interactions), he also believed in investigation to acquire knowledge of the Primary Causes (read: 'logical investigation of physical phenomenon'). 

'Al-Ghazali, a leading theologian, was aghast with horror at the supersession of the sole Deity. He advocated Will of God in each and every instance of application of natural phenomena (read: application of scientific laws)  and admonished against pursuit of logic or inquiry into Primary Causes when they came into apparent conflict with scriptural edicts.


The sufficiency of logic to understand the universe, however, soon came into conflict with scriptural edicts for challenging the concept of an involved Deity. This gave rise to divergent views on the primacy of reason over belief or vice versa. Muslim logicians like al-Farabi, al-Kindi, Avicenna, Averroes and al-Razi held, much to the chagrin of the religious orthodoxy, that a scholar must pursue logic wherever that may lead to as that was sufficient to understand the world. This implied irrelevancy, if not improbability, of divine revelations. 

'Al-Ghazali, a leading theologian, was aghast with horror at the supersession of the sole Deity. He advocated Will of God in each and every instance of application of natural phenomena (read: application of scientific laws)  and admonished against pursuit of logic or inquiry into Primary Causes when they came into apparent conflict with scriptural edicts. Maimonides and Saint Thomas Aquinas, the leading Jewish and Christian theologians of that era whose writings shaped modern thinking on their respective religions, were influenced by Muslim philosophers, especially ibn Rushd, while Muslim society has been shaped by al-Ghazali. Dr Akbar has admirably taken full measure of the work of all these philosophers and their relevance to today's politically troubled world.   

A common unique thread runs through all three Abrahamic faiths which is unity of an all powerful creator, who harbours no duality. The three sages, al-Ghazali, Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas, discussed by Dr Akbar, belonged to different geographical regions, were raised in different social environments and adhered to different religions but believed in the same God. Their basic premises are related in thought as they devoted their life's work to codify the relationship between God and his creatures. This has relevance in today's anarchic world where followers of these same religions are on a collision course on a global scale.

The virulent Jihadist movement in Islam has taken over the peaceful sufist concepts formulated by al-Ghazali and ibn-Arabi, another philosopher discussed in the book. Muslims continue to be frustrated by the failure of nationalistic aspirations in post colonial era. The Palestinian issue defies solution and has intractably pitched the Christian and the Jewish world against the Muslims. It has also contributed to sanguine western intervention in the Arab countries; a region that is not expected to see peace in our lifetime. It is under these dire circumstances that the philosophers under discussion show us a beacon of hope from across a millennium. As Dr. Akbar rightly points out, they are the lifeboats in the ensuing disaster of Titanic proportions.

In the chapter titled 'A thought experiment', the writer demonstrates the similarity of thought between these three scholars as their writings are at times indistinguishable from one another. While the point is well made in the context of these three religions, it can be extended to other religions too as some of the humanist lines from the Hindu Gita or Buddhist Tripitaka are similar in form and message to passages from the Abrahamic scriptures. Where 'love of creator', 'justice to all', 'equitable social order', etc are concerned, all religions are alike. The conflict arises when divisive religious figures stress on segments that are divergent. For instance, some verses in the scriptures of at least two Abrahamic religions, as certainly in other religions, mandate violence against other people. Dr Akbar's book is a reflection of his lifelong struggle to create interfaith harmony and cultural acceptance by stressing on religious commonalities.

The book has rightly concluded that in articulating a practical mode of Jewish public as well as private life, Maimonides did for Judaism faith what al-Ghazali did for Islam. Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, was influenced, as were many in pre-Renaissance Europe, by Averroes, whose work is now largely available in Latin and Hebrew translations rather than in Arabic, the native language of the great philosopher. 

Dr Akbar has used simple language in explaining a difficult philosophical subject and has been able to weave together thinkers of three faiths. Dr. Husein ef. Kavazović, the grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina praises the book for highlighting the role of Islam as a bridge builder between the modern and classical as well as between the west and the east. Dr Lord Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury states that the book 'brings out both the intellectual and the human qualities of the great souls presented here.' 

The book endeavours to bring different religious communities together in peaceful co-existence. This is a message that has much relevance today. Such efforts need to be lauded so that love trumps hatred.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: