“During its Golden Age, the Muslim world, in the arts and sciences, conducted a love affair with the Greek method of observation-based rationality; but—because such method applied to life’s most fundamental questions threatened religious beliefs—could not, and, consequently, did not adopt it in philosophy. When the advocates of a faith-reason mixture lost the intellectual battle to the advocates of unadulterated faith—as, given the basic premises of each side, they had to—reason, in the Islamic world, was doomed. The tragic spectacle of a superlatively-advanced civilization crumbling into mindless irrationality is heartbreaking. It is also a cautionary tale.”
Claims of an “Islamic Golden Age,” from roughly the 8th to the 12th centuries, are not politically correct propaganda; such a Golden Age was real. During that period, numerous thinkers of the Arab-Islamic world—many of them committed Muslims—wrought significant advances in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, literature, and other fields. Sadly, that era came to an end; tragically, for the past 800 years, it has not been revitalized; terrifyingly, during those centuries—and continuing today—religious fervor has superseded reason, and crushed intellectual culture under Islam. For fully eight centuries, the Islamic world first coasted on its past glories, and then, collapsed into a cultural Dark Age.
Who were these great thinkers and their accomplishments, known today, in the West, only to a relative handful of scholars? Which earlier philosophers influenced the great thinkers of medieval Islam? What was the specific form, in the Islamic world, of the bitter struggle between faith and reason? How and why did the apostles of faith triumph over the advocates of reason?
This intellectual battle, and its tragic outcome, forms the fundamental reason that modern Islam is a menace to human civilization. Any rational person, of any creed, anywhere—within or without the Muslim world—who seeks to protect reason and freedom from the Islamists, needs to understand them and their bitter hostility to the independent mind; therefore, needs to understand the intellectual battle that shaped modern Islamist premises.
This is a story of great achievements—and their rejection; of great heroes—and their defeat; of great minds—and their suppression; ultimately, of great danger—and its cancerous growth.
The story begins with the farflung military conquests of vast portions of the globe by Islamic warriors, in the 7th and 8th centuries, during Mohammed’s lifetime (570-632 AD), and continuing after his demise. Middle East scholar, Bernard Lewis, writes: “In the course of the seventh century, Muslim armies advancing from Arabia conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa, all until then part of Christendom…”[i] Related, “Islam represented the greatest military power on earth—its armies, at the very same time, were invading Europe and Africa, India and China.”[ii] Within a century of The Prophet’s death, Islam ruled a mighty, inter-continental empire.[iii]
In the West, Muslim forces conquered Spain and Sicily, and invaded France. They conquered and held the entirety of the Middle East and North Africa. In the East, they subjugated much of India. In the course of such conquests, Islamic warriors subjugated large portions of three advanced civilizations: the Byzantine, Persian, and Indian.
In conquering much of the Byzantine Empire, the Muslims found many of the manuscripts—intellectual treasures—of ancient Greek thinkers, which were unknown in Arab culture. To their credit, Arab-Islamic scholars were fascinated by what the Greeks had said. They assiduously studied Greek intellectual culture; and, over centuries, built upon that foundation. Advanced culture in the Arab-Islamic world flourished.
For example, al-Mansur (ruled 754-775), the second Abbasid caliph and builder of Baghdad, initiated a movement that translated into Arabic many Greek texts. “The Graeco-Arabic translation movement lasted…well over two centuries; it was no ephemeral phenomenon.”[iv] One of his successors, al-Ma’mun (ruled 813-833), established, in Baghdad, a research institution, aptly named the “House of Wisdom.” He, and several other caliphs of this period, “dispatched messengers to Constantinople and other Hellenistic cities…asking for Greek books, especially in medicine or mathematics; in this way Euclid’s Elements came to Islam.”[v] At the House of Wisdom, scholars translated into Arabic the writings of Aristotle, Plato, many of the pre-Socratic philosophers, and such scientists as Archimedes, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, Galen, and Euclid.[vi] Muslim scholars proceeded to study—and build on—the knowledge these texts provided.
Historian, Will Durant, writes regarding the impact on Islamic culture of the Greek’s orientation toward not faith, but reason. “…the yeast that caused the ferment of thought in Moslem Asia…was the rediscovery of Greece. Here…a new world appeared: one in which men had reasoned fearlessly about everything, unchecked by sacred scriptures, and had conceived a cosmos not of divine whimsy and incalculable miracle, but of majestic and omnipresent law…now for three centuries Islam played the new game of logic, drunk…with the ‘dear delight’ of philosophy.”[vii]
Some of the greatest intellectual achievements of this period were in medicine. Al-Razi (roughly 850-925)—one of the great physicians of human history—was a Persian, who studied chemistry and medicine at Baghdad, and authored well over one hundred books, half of them on medicine. “His Kitab al-Hawi (Comprehensive Book) covered in twenty volumes every branch of medicine.”[viii]
Critically, al-Razi was thoroughly empirical in approach; he respected such past physicians as Hippocrates and Galen, but regarded observational data as superior evidence to authorities’ claims. In his clinical notebooks, he carefully jotted findings regarding his patients’ progress. “He wrote what was perhaps the earliest treatise on infectious diseases—smallpox and measles. It is based on his own painstaking empirical observations, not neglecting any aspect of those diseases that might help in their treatment—heart, breathing, and so on.”[ix] Additionally, he introduced such new methods as animal gut in sutures—and new remedies, including mercurial ointment. His enormous medical encyclopedia, al-Hawi, was translated into Latin in 1279 and was the preeminent medical textbook of European culture for centuries. “In the school of medicine at the University of Paris hang two portraits of Moslem physicians—‘Rhazes and Avicenna.’”[x]
Further, despite his training in alchemy, al-Razi was, perhaps, the first true chemist. “He shunned all the occultist mumbo jumbo attached to this subject and instead confined himself to ‘the classification of the substances and processes as well as to the exact description of his experiments.’”[xi] Here, too, as in medicine, his conclusions were based on empirical research, not on adherence to authorities.
Al-Razi was one of the few great minds of this period, who, born into Islam, rejected it, indeed all religion—and fully, avidly, explicitly supported the Greek commitment to unfettered rationality. He is widely considered the greatest freethinker in the history of Islam. That many of the others—great minds though they were—were devout Muslims, will be seen to be instrumental in reason’s downfall.
Abu Ali al-Husein ibn Sina—known in the West as “Avicenna”—(980-1037) is another extraordinary polymath; an originator in medicine and an accomplished Aristotle scholar. Avicenna’s Qanun-fi-l-Tibb (Canon of Medicine) is a comprehensive work of a million words, which covers every aspect of medical science, from the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of major diseases to instructions for preparing numerous medications. He includes sections on hygiene, breathing, and medicinal plants. Eventually, the Canon superseded al-Razi’s book as the core text in Europe’s medical schools.[xii]
The achievements of Islamic thinkers in mathematics and astronomy equaled those in medicine. For example, Muhammad ibn Musa, known as al-Khwarizmi (780-850), compiled astronomical tables, which, after revision in Islamic Spain, became standard for centuries among astronomers around the world. He formulated the oldest extant trigonometric tables; and, “in his Calculation of Integration and Equation gave analytical and geometrical solutions of quadratic equations.”[xiii] This book, when translated into Latin, “introduced to the West the word algebra (al-jabr—‘restitution,’ ‘completion.’)”[xiv] During the medieval renaissance in the West, as Europe slowly recovered from the Dark Ages, early texts in arithmetic “borrowed extensively from the…Arab mathematician al-Khwarizmi.”[xv] Further, the mathematical term, “algorithm,” is a derivation of his name.
Further, al-Battani (850-929) built upon the foundations of trigonometry established by such great Greek mathematicians as Hipparchus and Ptolemy. He replaced Ptolemy’s quadrilateral solutions with triangular ones—and the chord of Hipparchus with the sine. He “formulated the trigonometrical ratios essentially as we use them today.”[xvi]
Additionally, Islamic scientists made important contributions to astronomy. For example, the Maragha school that developed at the astronomic observatory of that name in present day Iran, revolutionized men’s understanding of planetary motion. Despite their great advances, Greek astronomers were generally oblivious to the need to match mathematical analysis with the facts of observation; Islamic astronomers insisted on it. After the heyday of Islamic culture, Ibn al-Shatir (1304-1375) culminated Islamic achievement in this field, creating the first model of planetary motion superior to Ptolemy’s in terms of rigorous accordance with observable evidence. Although al-Shatir’s system maintained a geocentric orientation, contemporary historians of science note the profound mathematical similarities between his work and that, two centuries later, of Nicolaus Copernicus.[xvii]
It is widely recognized by scholars that in mathematics and astronomy—indeed, in science generally—Arab-Islamic culture was, in those centuries, the world’s most advanced. Toby Huff, a leading current historian of science, makes this point forthrightly. He states: “…trigonometry—an essential part of mathematics for astronomy—was invented by the Arabs…Arab mathematicians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries achieved mathematical innovations that were not accomplished by Europeans until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.” Such advances include: “the binomial formula and the tables of coefficients, the algebra of polynomials, and above all, the algorithm of divisibility, and the approximation of whole fractions by elements of the algebra of polynomials.” Huff understandably concludes: “Considered altogether, in mathematics, astronomy, optics, physics, and medicine, Arabic science was the most advanced in the world.”[xviii]
Not surprisingly, such intellectual advance led to positive, real-life consequences. One famous and illustrious example was that of Cordoba in Andalusia—Islamic Spain—which, during its 10th century highpoint, was Europe’s largest city, with a population of roughly 500,000. It featured paved and lighted streets, indoor plumbing, and, its great library—the world’s largest—held approximately 600,000 manuscripts.[xix]
In the field of literature, Muslim writers during these centuries—both Arabs and Persians—created an enormous body of exquisite poetry. Among Arab bards, “love and war outbid religion as poetic themes.”[xx]
Ahmad ibn Husein—or al-Mutanabbi—(915-965), is assessed the Arabs’ greatest poet. He proclaimed himself a prophet, for which he was promptly imprisoned. In time released, he lived independently and, by all accounts, wrote beautifully. “…he made his own religion, and notoriously neglected to fast or pray or read the Koran.”[xxi] He celebrated battle and glorious victory. Durant reminds us that one such verse might have, inadvertently, cost al-Mutanabbi his life: “I am known to the horse-troop, the night, and the desert’s expanse; Not more to paper and pen than to sword and lance.”[xxii] Evidently, one of his poems insulted a peer, who determined to kill him; beset upon, the poet fled; “his slave inopportunely reminded him of…[his] swashbuckling verses; al-Mutanabbi resolved to live up to them, fought, and died of his wounds.”[xxiii]
Another splendid Arab poet, al-Ma’arri (973-1058) was a freethinking rationalist, openly skeptical of religious claims. He is known primarily through 1592 short verses compiled in a collection titled, Luzumiyyat (Obligations). Unlike many of his peers, al-Ma’arri eschewed women and war as poetic themes, writing on fundamental philosophic issues. He boldly questioned religion and proclaimed reason superior to faith. “Some hope that an Imam with prophet’s gaze Will rise and all the silent ranks amaze. Oh, idle thought! There’s no Imam but Reason To point the morning and the evening ways…Shall we in these old tales discover truth, Or are they worthless fables told to youth?”[xxiv]
Persian poetry of this era is known in the West primarily through the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). But in Persia, Khayyam is noted more for his scientific work than for his verse. Persian culture “considers his quatrains the casual amusement of ‘one of the greatest mathematicians of medieval times.’”[xxv]For example, one of his books, Algebra, went substantially beyond the Greeks and other Islamic mathematicians. In it, his work on cubic equations is considered a masterpiece of medieval mathematics.[xxvi]
His quatrains often sing the virtues of wine. “Tis I who have swept with my mustaches the wineshop, To what is good and ill of both worlds said good-bye. Should both worlds fall like a polo ball into the street, You shall seek me out. A-sleeping like a drunkard I shall be…From all that is, save wine, to refrain is well…”[xxvii] However, given Omar’s accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, and literature, it is dubious that he spent his evenings sprawled, inebriated, in the gutter. Though possible that he overmuch loved wine, he certainly venerated the independent mind. In Islam, whether praised or scorned, he is universally assessed a freethinker openly skeptical of religion. His co-religionists have labeled him “an unhappy philosopher, atheist, and materialist”—a thinker “without equal in astronomy and philosophy”—and “an advanced freethinker, constrained by prudence to bridle his tongue.”[xxviii] One of his most beloved quatrains chants primarily the universal language of romantic love: “A book of verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness—Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”[xxix]
If Persia celebrates Omar more for his scientific, than his literary achievements, it holds up Abu’l-Qasim, known by the nom de plume, Firdausi (roughly 940-1020) as an undisputed giant of its national literature. Firdausi labored for thirty-five years on his masterpiece, the Shahnama, an epic of 120,000 lines, depicting Persia’s legendary founding and ascent to dominance. The mighty poem, exceeding in length the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, features Rustam, a noble warrior who “serves and saves three kings…retires from military life at the age of 400…” and after whom, in honor of, real-life Persians have named—in a single province— 300 villages.[xxx]
Durant states: “The Shahnama is one of the major works of the world’s literature…[Firdausi’s] epic is half-finished before it reaches history…[Sadly] we are not Persians; we have not heard the sonorous roll of its original verse…”[xxxi] So we are unable to fully appreciate the beauty of the language in its original form.
No survey of medieval Islamic literature is complete without consideration of Sa’di (roughly 1213-1291), reckoned one of the greatest figures in classical Persian poetry. After graduating from college, he embarked on an epic journey of surpassing hardships—thirty years through the Middle East, Ethiopia, India, and Egypt. He suffered every affliction, endured excruciating poverty, and famously complained that he had no shoes—until he met a man who had no feet. He fought the Crusaders, was captured and ransomed, married twice—divorced his first wife as “an intolerable vixen,” and outlived the second. He retired at age fifty to a garden retreat and spent the final decades of a long life composing pithy verses, ironic aphorisms, and striking phrases: “if the orb of the sun had been in the wallet” of this miser, “nobody would have seen daylight…until Judgment Day;” “a friend and I were associating like two kernels in one almond shell.” In a biting passage, he gives men his assessment of monarchs: “An unjust king asked a holy man, ‘What is more excellent than prayer?’ The holy man said: ‘For you to remain asleep until midday, that for this one interval you may not afflict mankind.’”[xxxii]
Such a brief survey of poetry from Islam’s Golden Age inevitably overlooks many superb writers. Ironically, the most famous piece of writing, especially in the West, from this era—The Thousand and One Nights—has “never been regarded by the Arabs as a legitimate part of…Classical Arabic literature.”[xxxiii] Nevertheless, it is a thrilling compilation of tales. Its basic narrative structure is a frame story: the king’s bride, Scheherazade, prevents him executing her at dawn only by narrating suspenseful tales whose climaxes she refuses to divulge until the following evening. In this way, the resourceful girl preserves her life for three years.
Regarding the tales themselves, “Sindbad the Sailor…has many touches which remind one strongly of the Odyssey…[‘Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp’] has been retold…to so many generations all over the world that it can…be rightly described as the most renowned story invented by man.”[xxxiv] The famous story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves is an Arabic folk tale that may have been added to The Thousand and One Nights by an early European translator. Known with certainty is that The Thousand and One Nights is one of the world’s most widely read books.
Even this succinct sampling of intellectual accomplishments reveals a superlatively advanced culture. “Arabic-Islamic civilization clearly had extraordinary intellectual advantages bequeathed through its literary and scientific past and…it was reasonable to expect that its intellectual achievements in the future would far surpass those of the West. But this did not happen.”[xxxv]
Why didn’t it? What force(s) wrought the demise of such an elevated culture? Durant provides a clue. In discussing al-Ma’arri, he writes: “We do not know how many Moslems shared the skepticism [regarding religion] of al-Ma’arri; the revival of orthodoxy after his time served as a conscious or unconscious censor of the literature transmitted to posterity…after [such poets as he] the supremacy of theology and the silencing of philosophy drove Arabic verse into…insincerity…”[xxxvi]
What power silenced philosophy, revived orthodoxy, and enshrined theology? The clear answer is: religion.
From their first encounters with Greek culture, Muslims drew a critical distinction between “foreign,” “alien,” or “intruding” sciences—and “Islamic” sciences. To them, philosophy was, preeminently, an alien science. Such disciplines as physics, chemistry, and biology also were considered alien sciences in the Islamic world; tolerated for several centuries because of their practical benefits, but ultimately rejected. The “Islamic sciences,” on the other hand, advance one’s understanding of, and commitment to Islam, and one’s ability to practically apply religious beliefs; for example, learning the Koran, studying the Hadith (the sayings and actions ascribed to Mohammed), and mastering Islamic law.
The essence of the “foreign” sciences is, secondarily, that they “intrude” from Greece, and are not indigenous to Islam; primarily, is that they employ the method of reason, not of faith.
Reasoning, properly conceived, begins with observation, with empirical data, with facts; then proceeds by means of logical, i.e., non-contradictory theory to explain facts. Men consistently rational eschew pre-conceived notions, whether these are based in faith, feelings, or another consideration. Reasoning consists exclusively and entirely of logical thinking about facts. The sole means by which human beings gain knowledge is that of observation-based rationality.
The most fundamental field of rational cognition is philosophy; for it asks, and attempts to answer, life’s most basic questions: what is the nature of the universe taken as a totality? How—by what means—do men gain knowledge? What is human nature? What is the good? What is the good society?
To illustrate how rational thinkers approach a fundamental philosophic issue, consider the question whether the universe was created or is eternal. A rational man observes that building a house, preparing a meal, conceiving a baby, and so on, entails raw materials. A thing is created from something else; all creation involves re-arrangement of already existing materials; no thing is created from nothing. But if the universe—the sum total of all things—was created, what existed antecedently? In logic, the answer is: nothing. But from nothing, comes nothing. So tiny an item as a matchstick could not be wrought from nothing; much less, the immensity of the cosmos. Therefore, the universe is eternal; its components move, change, re-arrange; but its fundamental building blocks—whatever science ultimately proves them to be—are eternal. This argument illustrates how philosophers answer fundamental questions by logically thinking about observable facts.
Because philosophy asks foundational questions, a society’s answers make it what it is. For example, if a culture’s answer regarding the question of knowledge is that it is predominantly gained by means of observation-based rationality, then it will develop philosophy and science. But if a society’s answer to that question is, generally, by means of faith, then it, conversely, will uphold religion.
In specifically discussing the demise of Islam’s Golden Age, it is of especial importance to remember that genuine philosophers utterly eschew faith. In terms of the above example, they disdainfully dismiss the faith-based belief that “God created the universe.”
In exact terms, faith is an attempt to gain “knowledge” that starts, not with facts of observation, but with a “revealed” text, for example, the Bible or the Koran. Such a book, believed composed by men “divinely inspired,” is infallible; its teachings are upheld without criticism. Claims of divinely-inspired men are accepted, regardless whether they violate natural law. For example, Mohammed claimed to ride a winged, flying steed from Mecca to Jerusalem—and from where he and the steed sprang to Heaven, subsequently flying back to Mecca, accomplishing all of this in a night. Because Mohammed is “divinely inspired,” the faithful accept his testimony without doubt. His claim is considered literally accurate, despite the manifest facts that: 1. “steeds” (horses, camels, and the like) lack wings and cannot fly, and 2. Mohammed and steeds are material beings, and flying is a physical activity through the material medium of air, whereas monotheistic religions claim Heaven is a spiritual, immaterial “place,” not to be arrived at by physical beings performing physical actions.
Such nonsensical faith-based beliefs are anathema to philosophy and its proper method of observation-based rationality.
But Muslim “philosophers,” virtually without exception, accepted religion as their cognitive starting point; and proceeded to “reason” about God, His attributes, His relations to men, and His commandments. Study, for example, the leading medieval Islamic philosophers.
Al-Kindi (801-873), although enjoying a reputation as a great philosopher—the so-called “Philosopher of the Arabs”—believed that God created the universe from nothing. He held that the faith-based beliefs of the Koran were ultimately reconcilable with philosophy; indeed, that in some ways prophecy is superior to philosophy.[xxxvii] (emphasis added)
Al-Farabi (roughly 870-950) became known to medieval Muslims as “the Second Teacher,” the successor to Aristotle, “the First Teacher.” In his youth, he espoused agnosticism and was denounced in Baghdad as a heretic. Al-Farabi elevated reason, as he conceived it, above revelation—but on what grounds? “As the divine mind rules the universe, so reason should govern and control the life of man.”[xxxviii] Not surprisingly, he lapsed into orthodox belief; provided “a detailed description of the deity;” and held that the good life was best achieved under a “monarchy based upon strong religious belief.”[xxxix]
Avicenna, respected as widely in Islam for philosophic as for medical achievements, was a great Aristotle scholar who first applied to the Macedonian the famous appellation of “The Philosopher.” But despite Aristotle’s influence, Avicenna, in his explanation of universals—e.g., “man-ness” or “rock-ness” or “dog-ness,” the essence of what makes a thing what it is, and thereby unites diverse particulars into one class—held that they exist originally in the mind of God as eternal archetypes, in accordance with which He creates such things. In brief, bizarre, faith-based beliefs are inseparably important elements of his philosophy.
This brief survey could be continued, but with the same conclusion: God is a central belief of Islamic “philosophy,” the purpose of which is not an unprejudicial attempt to rationally explain nature, but an effort to reconcile the faith-based beliefs of Islam with aspects of a rational method adopted from the Greeks. What passes for philosophy during Islam’s Golden Age is, overwhelmingly, theology.
Theology is deductive logic applied to God and other faith-based beliefs. It begins with commitment to a non-observable supernatural dimension and proceeds to tease out the implications of such belief. For example, if God is all-powerful, there can exist no constraints on His behavior. He can will anything He pleases. Therefore, X is not good independent of God’s say-so—and He is not required to command X. If He were required to command X, then He could not command non-X; and there would then be something He could not do. Rather, X is good solely because God mandates it, and He is free to reverse His ruling at any moment. An omnipotent God creates, and changes, the moral law at His discretion.
If one’s starting point is belief in an all-powerful being, then this moral argument is rigorously logical; it is formally valid; the conclusion follows necessarily from the premise.
The method of theology is formal—that is, deductive—reasoning from faith-based premises. Inductive reasoning—that is, forming universal principles from observation of particular facts—is anathema to the field. Facts are not the cognitive base from which explanatory theories are induced and by reference to which they are judged. Bizarre, faith-based beliefs form both the basis of knowledge and the cognitive standard by means of which theories are assessed. A theory is tenable if and only if it conforms to the faith-based beliefs that form theology’s starting point. For example, theologians of the monotheistic religions hold, as their cognitive bedrock, that a super-consciousness, all-knowing and all-powerful, exists without bodily means, and that it created, from nothing, the universe. All of their subsequent “thinking” consists of deducing the implications of such fantastic beliefs.
In brief, faith in a supernatural realm, not observation of the natural one, dominated the fundamentals of Islamic cognition. Religion, not rational philosophy, was the Muslims’ primary field of study.
If religion is the dominant ideology of a culture—if it is the foundation, the term-setter, the not-to-be-repudiated—then any philosophic debate in that culture will be between fundamentalism and theology. The cultural disagreement will pit blind faith in a revealed text against deductive reasoning about that text—or, specific to this era, a pristine Islam versus an Islam tarnished by superimposing on it the method of the Greeks.
Philosophy, as conceived by the Greeks—observation-based rationality applied to life’s most fundamental questions—never openly existed under Islam. During Islam’s Golden Age, observation-based rationality was widely applied to scientific questions, rarely to philosophic ones; so great thinkers were free to reason regarding issues that did not directly bear upon religious beliefs, but not so regarding questions that did. Those few brave souls who attempted to publicly philosophize put in danger their reputations, their writings, and their lives.
Al-Razi was one of those few brave souls. He held that through reason, philosophy, and science—but not through religion—human life could be improved. So-called prophets, including Mohammed, are, in his scornful formulation, “nothing but billy goats with long beards,” who spouted nonsensical lies. “Religions have…been resolutely hostile to philosophical speculation and scientific research. The so-called holy scriptures are worthless and have done more harm than good,”[xl] whereas the writings of such Greek thinkers as Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Euclid have been much more beneficial to mankind. Such principles earned for al-Razi universal condemnation from Muslims, including from numerous leading thinkers. Not surprisingly, his heretical philosophic writings have not survived. “One problem in accurately ascertaining the thought of the losing side in Muslim theological debates is that the losers’ books were usually burnt.”[xli]
Even theologians, starting from faith-based premises, were in danger for applying deductive logic to religious beliefs. The clearest example is the struggle of the Mu‘tazila against Islamic orthodoxy. They were Muslim theologians, proponents of deductive logic, who flourished during this era.
They espoused Aristotelian logic, repudiating blind faith. They tried to make logical sense of the Koran. “…the starting point for…traditionalists…is revelation, and for the Mu‘tazila it is reason.”[xlii] Or, putting this point another way: “It is only logical then, since God is reason and reason comes from Him, that His revealed words in the Qur’an would be decipherable by man’s reason…”[xliii] On this method, if some of the Koran’s claims did not make sense, they were to be logically explicated until they did. Crude Koranic claims—for example, that God possesses hands, a face, and occupies a throne—were construed as metaphors, not to be taken literally. Regarding their philosophic foundations, one contemporary Westerner compares the Mu‘tazila to Thomas Aquinas: “The Mu‘tazalites would have been in accord with…Aquinas’s proposition that man can apprehend created things with his mind because they were first thought by God. God’s intelligibility is the cause of the intelligibility of creation.”[xliv]
Representative is the intellectual struggle between Mu‘tazila theologians and orthodox Muslims regarding God’s responsibility to do good. Since God is all-good, reasoned the Mu‘tazila, He is obliged to act justly: He must keep His word, must let men know His word, and must ensure that His word is intelligible to man—His intelligent, rational creation. But the notion that God must do anything was, to the orthodox, appalling. For them, God is not required to do anything. If He were, His omnipotence would be nullified. An all-powerful God can do whatever He wills.
At the dispute’s foundation is the Mu‘tazila claim that God is reason—and that for God to act irrationally is contrary to His nature. God is, in effect, a cosmic Aristotle. But for the orthodox, God is fundamentally not reason but will, unchecked by rational principles acting as constraint. He can will anything He pleases, at any moment that He pleases—and can choose to be as irrational as He damn well pleases. He is, in effect, a cosmic Nietzsche.
For a time during the 9th century, the unstable Mu‘tazila mixture of Islamic faith and Greek logic was dominant in Baghdad. The caliph al-Ma’mun—to whom Aristotle “appeared” in a dream—supported their principles; indeed, legally mandated them. An inquisition in support of “rationality” was established; those opposing the Mu‘tazilite teachings were incarcerated, even executed. The orthodox were, for a time, persecuted. For example, Ibn Hanbal, founder of a rigidly fundamentalist school of Islamic jurisprudence, was imprisoned and scourged for his adamant refusal to reject blind faith in favor of logic-employing theology.
To the piously orthodox, the Koran did not authorize logic-using theology; therefore, it must be repudiated. Ibn Hanbal stated, “Every discussion about a thing which the Prophet did not discuss is an error.”[xlv] A modern Saudi aphorism echoing the Hanbali doctrine is: “Abandon debate and surrender to the text [the Koran].”[xlvi]
The Mu‘tazilite ascendency in Baghdad was short-lived. The overwhelming majority of Muslims supported orthodoxy, as did most subsequent caliphs. By the 9th century’s mid-point, “holding the Mu ‘tazilite doctrine became a crime punishable by death.”[xlvii] The Mu‘tazilite theologians were expelled from court and government positions, and their writings destroyed.
The rout of reason was on. Abu Hasan al-Ash’ari (873-935), after whom the widely influential Ash’arite school of Islamic theology is named, was, for years, a Mu‘tazilite. By age forty, he renounced their beliefs and sought to destroy their school. The Ash’arites uphold the supremacy of revelation. “In Ash’ arism…the primacy of revelation over reason rises from the very nature of what is revealed: God as pure will and power. The response to this God is submission, not interrogation.”[xlviii] For the Ash’arites, reason is a handmaiden of the truths revealed in the Koran and Hadith; at best, might explicate these truths; but is not an independent source of religious knowledge. Critically, “nothing outside of the Qur’an and the Hadith could be brought to bear upon…[their] interpretation.”[xlix]
An overview of Islamic “philosophy” can be succinctly stated. The Greek orientation of observation-based rationality was never widespread; nor could it be, given the cultural supremacy of religion. The overwhelming preponderance of Islamic “philosophy” begins with God. The Mu‘tazila held that God is reason, His Creation is rationally intelligible, and consequently, reason—deductive logic from the definition of God—is the final arbiter of theologic inquiry. Al-Ash’ari and his supporters, start with the Koran and Hadith—hold that reason, at best, can explicate scriptural teachings—in some cases, not—but the holy texts are to be accepted, never doubted. Ibn Hanbal and his followers embrace the holy texts literally and eschew all theology.
In brief, even during Islam’s Golden Age religion was the culture’s philosophic foundation. Answering philosophic questions by means of observation-based rationality was never a viable option. Philosophy did not die in the Islamic world so much as it was still-born.
Then came al-Ghazali.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is reckoned not merely Islam’s greatest theologian—but, second only to Mohammed—its greatest man.
He was a philosophic skeptic, who disparaged the cognitive efficacy of sense perception and, consequently, of observation-based rationality. For example, he argued that the senses make the stars appear small, whereas, in order to be observed at so great a distance, they must be vastly larger. In his magnum opus, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he artfully deployed a thousand such fallacies to undermine men’s trust in reason. The means to fundamental knowledge, taught al-Ghazali, are faith in the Koran and mystical experience of God. The respected Encyclopedia of Islam states: “Al-Ghazali taught that intellect should be used only to destroy trust in itself.”[l] Or, phrased alternatively: “Reason was—for al-Ghazali—the enemy of Islam, which requires absolute and unquestioning submission to the will of Allah.”[li]
Philosophy, properly conceived—even before al-Ghazali—was regarded, in Islam, as an “intruding science;” existed only sporadically; and neither philosophers nor their “heretical writings” generally escaped destruction. After and because of al-Ghazali, even logic-employing theology was extirpated.
It is routinely claimed by scholars that—due to al-Ghazali—philosophy was killed in the Islamic world. For example, Ibn Warraq agrees with Middle East scholar, A.J. Arberry that “Al-Ghazali’s condemnation of philosophical speculation [was] a turning point in the intellectual history of Islam.”[lii] This is true: reason was fatally undermined; “after him…the pursuit of science waned; and the mind of Islam more and more buried itself in the Hadith and the Koran.”[liii] But philosophy was not killed in the Islamic world by al-Ghazali. Rather, it never lived. After and because of al-Ghazali, logic-employing theology—what passed for philosophy in the Islamic world—was dead, not yet to be revitalized.
Even so, such an advanced civilization does not succumb without a struggle. The defenders of reason had one more blow to throw. Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known in the West as Averroes, answered al-Ghazali; writing in his book, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, a brilliant line-by-line refutation of the theologian’s work. Averroes was an outstanding physician, a superb medical researcher, and Islam’s greatest Aristotle scholar. He denied creation, held that the universe is eternal, and, following his beloved Aristotle, rejected all forms of mysticism, including that of al-Ghazali.
Nevertheless, he held that God is the ordering intelligence of the universe, that the world exists only through a continuous emanation of divine energy, and that, for human beings, the truths arrived at by reason are the sole means to union with God—that is, to achieve the ultimate goal.
Al-Ghazali versus Averroes represents the climax of the centuries-long intellectual struggle waged during this era: unquestioning acceptance of a revealed text versus logic-employing theology—or blind faith versus a mongrel mixture of faith and reason.
Averroes’s books were burned. Indeed, by his day, all pretense of respect for philosophy had died in the Islamic world. In 1150, for example, the Caliph Mustanjid ordered burned, in Baghdad, all the philosophic writings of Avicenna and other thinkers. In 1194, the Emir Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur had burned, at Seville, all the philosophic works of Averroes; the Emir prohibited the study of philosophy; and commanded the destruction of all philosophic texts, wherever found.
(Within sixty years of these tragic events, the Islamic Middle East was shattered—utterly laid to waste—by the devastating Mongolian invasions. One wonders if such an advanced civilization had not rejected reason and secularism for faith—if it had valued life in this world rather than submission to a “higher world”—if it had embraced its most rational elements—would it have been better able to effectively meet the Mongols’ fierce aggression, as, fifteen centuries previous, the Greeks had stopped the Persian advance?)
The result was that Averroes had great influence on Thomas Aquinas and the revival of Aristotelianism in the West. But, for eight interminable centuries, he has been ignored in the Middle East. Conversely, al-Ghazali is lionized and studied by educated Muslims across the world.
Why did the Greek approach survive, and, to a significant degree, triumph in the West, while it was ruthlessly expunged in the Middle East? In the West, the Greeks preceded Christianity, and laid the foundations of a rational culture. For a full millennium, the Christians warred against it—closing the schools of Greek philosophy, forbidding pagans to teach, burning philosophers’ books, excommunicating and executing freethinkers—but never succeeded in uprooting the West’s cultural heritage; echoes of it remained, for example, in a widespread theologic use of Aristotelian logic, which was never disparaged as a “foreign,” “alien,” or “intruding” science. The medieval renaissance, brilliantly typified by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, represented the West returning to and building upon its magnificent cultural foundation.
But in the Middle East, Islam came first, and laid, not a secular but a religious cultural foundation. Then, when Muslims conquered parts of the Byzantine Empire, they encountered Greek thought. They were fascinated and attracted—but warily. These “intruding” sciences, including the theologic employment of logic, were always regarded suspiciously by the orthodox. This essay has shown the ensuing cultural struggle—and its result.
In brief, during the middle ages, both Western and Middle Eastern cultures were unstable mixtures of reason and faith. In Europe, despite being deluged by Christianity, the Greek approach was entrenched, tenaciously—if barely—remained alive, and was resuscitated. But in the Middle East, it was an ephemeral, if glorious, overlay on an Islamic foundation. Ultimately, each culture remained true to its own distinctive genesis.
A contemporary Saudi proponent of reason puts it this way: “These [achievements] are not of our own making, and those exceptional individuals were not the product of Arab culture, but rather Greek culture…we treated them as though they were foreign elements…Conversely, when Europe learned from them it benefited from a body of knowledge originally its own…”[liv]
Secularists, Muslim and otherwise, understandably lament—in the Middle East—this turn of events; invariably, they remark that, by Averroes’s day, it was “too late” for reason in the Islamic world.
But the truth is that it is not a matter of time. It is a matter of ideas; specifically, of consistency of ideas. In any struggle between men who share fundamental premises, those most persistently loyal to those premises will triumph. When faith is the unchallenged fundamental, those whose beliefs are most consistently faith-based will win the struggle with those who dilute faith with elements of reason.
During its Golden Age, the Muslim world, in the arts and sciences, conducted a love affair with the Greek method of observation-based rationality; but—because such method applied to life’s most fundamental questions threatened religious beliefs—could not, and, consequently, did not adopt it in philosophy. When the advocates of a faith-reason mixture lost the intellectual battle to the advocates of unadulterated faith—as, given the basic premises of each side, they had to—reason, in the Islamic world, was doomed.
The tragic spectacle of a superlatively-advanced civilization crumbling into mindless irrationality is heartbreaking. It is also a cautionary tale. Faith is toxic. Subordinating reason to faith is injecting into human civilization a terminal illness. The patient’s expiration, regardless his previous vitality, is thereby guaranteed.
A version of this essay was first published in The Objective Standard.
[i] Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 4.
[ii] Lewis, What Went Wrong, p. 6.
[iii] Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 11.
[iv] Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, pp. 2, 29-33.
[v] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, “The Age of Faith” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), p. 240.
[vi] Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), p. 262.
[vii] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 249-50.
[viii] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 246.
[ix] Warraq, Why I Am Not A Muslim, p. 266.
[x] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 246, 247. Warraq, Why I Am Not A Muslim, p. 266.
[xi] Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim, p. 266.
[xii] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 247-49.
[xiii] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 241.
[xiv] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 241.
[xv] Toby E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 348.
[xvi] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 242.
[xvii] Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, pp. 54-5.
[xviii] Huff, The Rise Of Early Modern Science, pp. 50, 51, 52.
[xx] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 264.
[xxi] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 264.
[xxii] Quoted in Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 265.
[xxiii] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 265.
[xxiv] Quoted in Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 265.
[xxv] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 321.
[xxvi] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 321.
[xxvii] Quoted in Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 323.
[xxviii] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 322-23.
[xxx] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 269, 270.
[xxxi] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 269, 270.
[xxxii] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 325-327.
[xxxiii] N.J. Dawood, “Introduction,” Tales From The Thousand And One Nights (London: Penguin Books, 1954), p. 7.
[xxxiv] Dawood, “Introduction,” pp. 11, 12.
[xxxv] Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, p. 219.
[xxxvi] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 267.
[xxxvii] Robert Reilly, The Closing Of The Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2010), p. 38 (emphasis added).
[xxxviii] Richard Walzer, Greek into Arabic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 209. Quoted in Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim, p. 263.
[xxxix] Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 253, 254.
[xl] Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim, pp. 268-69.
[xli] Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. 20.
[xlii] Richard Martin and Mark Woodward, Defenders of Reason in Islam: Mu ‘tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol (Oxford, England: One World Publications, 1997), p. 16.
[xliii] Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. 24.
[xliv] Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, pp. 25-26.
[xlv] Quoted in Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. 47.
[xlvi] Quoted in Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. 48.
[xlvii] Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. 41.
[xlviii] Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. 48.
[xlix] Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, pp. 48-49.
[l] Quoted in Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. 120.
[li] Roger Scruton, “Foreword,” in Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. x.
[lii] Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim, p. 264.
[liii] Durant, The Age of Faith, p. 332.
[liv] Quoted in Reilly, Closing Of The Muslim Mind, p. 125.