Plato in Africa

IMG_2251[1]The effects of a colonization last longer than one can imagine. This struck me about seven or so years ago, when a secondary school was about to be chosen for the further education of the children. Nowadays schools present themselves to parents and children on special ‘open days’. It was on such a day that I sat in a class with some twenty twelve year olds and a few parents, when the French teacher asked the pupils which French words they already knew. ‘Why are these words part of our (Germanic) language?’ she asked. The answer was: ‘Because these words come from Latin, and we were once colonized by the Romans.’ I realized later that the effects go further than words – in my country parents who want the ‘best’ education for their offspring choose the ‘gymnasium’ – a school that not only prepares for university, but adds to that the learning of ancient languages, Latin and Greek – languages that, obviously, never can be spoken in real life, and haven’t been in use as scholarly languages for three hundred years.

This was the first step in making me understand the discomfort which had always been lingering in the back of my mind, especially while studying philosophy – when my teachers exclaimed triumphantly how the ancient Greeks had invented all the sciences and wisdom that are at the basis of ‘civilization’. Especially philosophy. ‘But how about Indian philosophy?’ asked some student who was a practitioner of classical yoga and who had studied the Veda’s. Well, Indian philosophy was not really philosophy, for it was not separated from religious mythology. It could better be described as wisdom. No, real philosophy, and a really scientific outlook, dawned only in ancient Greece. That was what the Romans told us – I now knew, for Greek philosophy was a great source of inspiration to them! My fellow student, who wrote a paper on possible Indian influences on Plato, left the program after two years, for she saw what we learned as untruths.

Just last week I was led on a search by reading a French African post on the internet, on the Egyption roots of Christian and islamic religion. The post was all but academic, but referred to some seemingly serious literature (works by a coptic scholar, named Al Assiouty, whom I had never heard of) – so my curiosity led me on. Al Assiouty’s works were not readily accesible, but I found this great article which made use of them, in the International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies. The article attempts to show the fruitfulness of what is called the afrocentric or ‘Diopian’ model. This model is named after the Senegalese scholar Cheich Anta Diop, who shook up the learned world by his claim, some sixty years ago, that the ancient Egyptians (who, as I learned in my colonized education, were in some minor aspects precursors of the Greek revolution of science) were not semi-white, but black. As it goes with good models – they lead to new findings which not only affirm them, but which on the way change so many other things one thinks one knows. Eric S. Ross, the writer of the article, gathered many sources and data to attempt to reverse the view that ‘Africa has been […] in a passive role, as simply receiving Islam.’ Aiming to show, instead, that through the centuries, and before it was even around, Islam has been influenced by black African theologies, among whom the most well-known, those of the ancient Egyptians.

Ross clearly indicates who taught the European thinkers from the nineteenth century onward the false idea that African peoples knew no real civilization, since they would have had ‘no history’ (sic): Hegel. He cites: ‘[Africa] is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.’ The ancient Egyptians are comfortably declared by Hegel to belong not to Africa but to the ‘Asiatic or European World’. Ross sees a political ground for Hegel’s obvious lie (and if ‘the world’ had not been fooled so succesfully it would have given more attention to the tragic loss of so many medieval African manuscripts in the Malian struggles some time ago): the ‘great thinker’ had come up with a good reason to justify enslavement of Africans ‘as a means of bringing them out of the ahistorical night into the day of self-conscious history’. That was the same time that the ‘anthropological age’ began: Africans were studied by Europeans from the outside – observing their customs and traditions, neglecting their proper philosophical, scientific and religious historical records. What Ross does is rare for the combination of his skills are rare – he not only masters English and French (being able to read an author like Al Assiouty), but also several African languages and Arabic. Since he not only has a PhD in Islamic religious studies, but is also a geographer, and an associate professor in the latter discipline in Africa (Morocco), he has been able to visit many historically important sites, and to link places, oral histories, and written ones. A lot of the sources, he himself states, are to be checked and researched – the merit of the article lies a.o. in making such checking and researching possible by bringing them together.

The article is not just about religion, but also about general history and about philosophy. It states that not only early Islam and early Christianity owe a lot to the ancient Egyptians, but also the so called ‘Greek miracle’ – for ancient writers themselves relate how Greek thinkers ‘traveled to Egypt to learn in its temples’ – among them Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras, who studied in the temples of Heliopolis, Memphis and Thebes. But – there it was – Plato himself, the great ancestor of Western philosophy ‘spent thirteen years as a student in Heliopolis.’ This provides new possibilities to explain how Plato’s works so strongly influenced, through neo-platonic thought, all ‘abrahamic’, monotheistic, theologies of the middle ages – passing on ancient Egyptian (black – remember Diop!) theological views.

This reading relieved me to a greater extent of the slumbering discomfort about what I learned in university, for it now showed clearer its partiality. The interesting thing about afrocentrism is that it strives for a higher level of objectivity for all, by starting out from a partial view (‘centrism’) – and promises good results in doing so. It invites readers and researchers to question partialities by adding new ones to the combined sources from where our questions come. Here I have one question with regard to Ross’s article – while it presents sources that show Africa’s influence in Islam, it does not explain much about the nature of this influence, apart from the Egyptian monotheistic inspiration. His remark that African Islam’s characterizaton as ‘syncretist’ goes back to the distorted Hegelian view of African peoples as ahistorical and primitive remains rather formal – for so long as some of its typicalities (the large role it gives to saints, holy places, and quasi-magical practices of healing) are not also related to the central inspirations of monotheism. There is more in this direction, however, in other work of his (see below), which I will perhaps discuss another time.

The article ‘Africa in Islam: What the Afrocentric Perspective can Contribute to the Study of Islam’ can be found here.

Eric Ross keeps a very interesting blog.

His PhD thesis can be accessed here.



1 comment
  1. Jah said:

    Thank you for this article

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