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Islam, reason and science

July 04, 2007


In an important article in The Australian of July 3, the Muslim writer Tanveer Ahmed noted that Islam must face some uncomfortable truths. He concluded:

Muslim communities must openly argue precisely what it is they fear and loathe about the West. Much of it centres on sexuality. This is the first step in rooting out any Muslim ambivalence about living in the West. But thereafter, the argument must proceed rapidly to Islamic theology and all its uncomfortable truths - from its repeated glowing references to violence, its obsession with and revulsion at sex and its historical antipathy to the very possibility that reason can exist as separate from God.

The final sentence highlights a fundamental problem in Islam. Unfortunately, it’s a problem little recognised by the intelligentsia or most church spokesmen, whether Catholic or Protestant. Fortunately, it is well understood by the Pope.

In his speech entitled Faith, Reason and the University given at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006, Pope Benedict drew our attention to a debate between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam. A key point in this debate was Manuel's contention that:

...not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. .... But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.

By contrast, Christians do not worship a capricious god, but rather a god that is bound to truth and goodness. Christian worship is, again to quote Paul - "λογικη λατρεία", worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).


Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God", said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor.

Since Christianity accepts the primacy of reason, it is not at its core antipathetic to science. In this Christianity differs from Islam, and this is why, after an initial flowering, the Middle East became a scientific backwater and has remained that way for hundreds of years up to the present day.

Articles published in American Thinker help explain why this happened.

In What Islamic Science and Philosophy?, Dr J. D. Carson notes the baleful influence of a doctrine at the heart of Islam, Occasionalism, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as follows:

The doctrine that God is the sole causal actor and that all events are merely occasions on which God brings about what are normally thought of as their effects.

This doctrine was promulgated by one of the most celebrated scholars in the history of Islamic thought, the theologian, philosopher and mystic al-Ghazali (1058-1111). As Dr Carson notes:

Causes and effects are inadmissible, according to al-Ghazali, because causes limit the absolute freedom of Allah to bring about whatever events he wills. Effects are brought about, not by causes, but by the direct will of Allah.


Without a notion of cause and effect, science is impossible, and the acceptance by Islam of al-Ghazali's views meant that science in the Islamic world could develop only in opposition to a fundamental tenet of Islam.

In Hyping Islam 's role in the History of Science, Dr Carson debunks the common notion that much of the wisdom of the ancients had been lost in Europe and had to be retrieved from the Islamic world.

In fact, it was sometimes the other way round. The original works on arithmetic and astronomy written in Arabic by the great mathematician and scientist Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (whose birthplace, Khiva, I visited when I was in Uzbekistan last year) were lost and only exist today in their Latin translations, believed to have been made by the 12th century English scholar, Adelard of Bath.

In Islam and the Problem of Rationality, Patrick Poole writes that far from basing its development on a path pioneered by the Islamic world, Europe developed because it rejected Islamic thought:

Western Christianity's rational tradition developed in the Medieval era precisely as a result of the outright rejection of the irrationalism inherent in Islamic philosophy, not the embracing of it.

He notes:

...the consequences of occasionalism had catastrophic effects for the development of empirical science in the Islamic world.

Other interesting pieces by Dr Carson that are worth reading include The not-so-golden age of Islamic philosophy and Islam, Christianity Classical Civilization, and Modernity. I'll quote from this last article at length.

When it became apparent to the early Church that it might have to wait a long time before the end of world and that it would, as a result, have to develop institutions and a way of life appropriate for a long sojourn on earth, perhaps the most pressing issue was how to respond to the immense legacy of the ancient Mediterranean. With but a few exceptions, Tertullian being the most prominent, the Fathers of the Church took the attitude most succinctly expressed by Saint Ambrose: Christians should "spoil the Egyptians" by using for their own purposes the treasures of the ancient world, including its philosophy.

Despite what opponents of Christianity say and what perhaps most educated people believe, the mainstream of Christianity has always been open to the achievements of the world in which it lives, whether they be the Plato and Aristotle of ancient Greece, the science and mathematics of medieval India and early Islam, the intellectual and political successes of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, or the scientific advances of the modern world. That these achievements have often come clothed in philosophy hostile to Christianity has at times provoked a reluctance on the part of Christians to embrace them, but they have always, though generally with some hesitation, taken them into their arms. In this fallen world, who can marry without trepidation even the most chaste spouse?


When Islam's warriors stormed out of Mecca and Medina and took over predominately Christian Egypt, Syria, Iraq, the Holy Land, and most of Asia Minor, they took over this problematic intellectual legacy along with the lands and seas and trade routes that were its home. Islamic scholars showed little interest in ancient literary masterpieces, but did appropriate the Hellenistic philosophy of the time, chiefly Neoplatonism. They soon found that the Islamic world was decidedly more hostile than medieval Christianity to this philosophical legacy. Three issues predominated. The philosophers denied that the Koran is eternal, they restricted the knowledge of God to universals, and they thought that the world was perpetual, not created in time. They were quickly routed.

European philosophy was not the same as Islamic philosophy, and Christianity not the same as Islam, but Christianity faced a challenge similar to the one faced by Islam. The response of Saint Thomas was to incorporate Aristotelian philosophy into Christian theology, and the response of the Church was to make him the preeminent theologian. Meanwhile, the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes circulated widely in the West, stimulating "Latin Averroeism," which became one of the main progenitors of modern secularism. Thus, the Islamic world rejected the Greek philosophical legacy pretty much entire, while Christianity sifted it for elements it found compatible.

As a result of all this, both the traditional and the secularizing tendencies of Western thought received sustenance from ancient Greek philosophy, while Islamic thought, bereft of both tendencies, froze. The Islamic world and medieval Christianity faced a test. Islam failed it. Medieval Christianity, contrary to just about everything said about it today, proved itself resilient, adaptive, and open. .......

The above passage notes that the Christian world once included Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Holy Land. In a letter dated November 7, 2001 to Carly Fiorina, then CEO of Hewlett Packard Corporation, Peter BetBasoo, an Assyrian Christian, asserts that:

When Arabs and Islam swept through the Middle East in 630 A.D., they encountered 600 years of Assyrian Christian civilization, with a rich heritage, a highly developed culture, and advanced learning institutions. It is this civilization that became the foundation of the Arab civilization.

However, as a result of Muslim oppression:

... the Christian Assyrian community was drained of its population through forced conversion to Islam (by the Jizzya), and once the community had dwindled below a critical threshold, it ceased producing the scholars that were the intellectual driving force of the Islamic civilization, and that is when the so called "Golden Age of Islam" came to an end (about 850 A.D.).

In short, it was only within European Christian civilisation that the Enlightenment could take place and the modern world develop. While this fact may be challenged by post-modernists, cultural relativists and lefties generally, it has been recognised by, of all people, the Chinese. In his book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success, Professor Rodney Stark quotes a statement by a leading modern Chinese scholar, a member of a group commissioned to examine Western success, as reported by David Aikman in his book Christ in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. The scholar noted:

One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact the pre-eminence, of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of Capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this.

I will conclude with an extract from an article by Lee Harris entitled Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason, published by the American journal, The Weekly Standard, on October 2, 2006.

Modern reason, to be sure, cannot prove scientifically that a community of reasonable men is ethically superior to a community governed by violent men. But a critique of modern reason from within must recognize that a community of reasonable men is a necessary precondition of the very existence of modern reason. He who wills to preserve and maintain the achievements of modern reason must also will to live in a community made up of reasonable men who abstain from the use of violence to enforce their own values and ideas. Such a community is the a priori ethical foundation of modern reason. Thus, modern reason, despite its claim that it can give no scientific advice about ethics and religion, must recognize that its own existence and survival demand both an ethical postulate and a religious postulate. The ethical postulate is: Do whatever is possible to create a community of reasonable men who abstain from violence, and who prefer to use reason. The religious postulate is: If you are given a choice between religions, always prefer the religion that is most conducive to creating a community of reasonable men, even if you don't believe in it yourself.

In an Email to me recently, a former professor at a leading American university and the man who initially drew this extract to my attention, noted: "I find this a powerful argument. It captures my predicament perfectly."

One doesn’t have to be a Christian to recognise the primacy of reason and its essential role in our civilisation. All of us, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheistic or whatever, must unite to defend Western civilisation. We must repel the barbarians who wish to destroy it.

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Tracked on July 05, 2007 at 10:51 AM


That is all so, but it might be good to note that al-Ghazali lived in 1100, not 750. It wasn't predetermined that Islam should have gone in his irrationalist direction. Muslims are well aware of the significance of his victory in the war of ideas - they call it "the closing of the gates of ijtihad" (this word means something like "interpretation according to reason"). There were answers to al-Ghazali, e.g. that of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a thinker characteristically ignored in Islam but taken very seriously in medieval Europe. It's only a fatwa that locked Islam into that dead end. So there's a way out if they want it.

Posted by: Jim Franklin | July 05, 2007 at 01:04 PM

The gates of itjihad closed well after the Sunni/Shia split, yet we see very much the same kind of attitude to Koran, Hadith and Sunnah from both sides. The details are small. Indeed, even Sufism contains much that is of concern, and the Deobandi sect (the Taliban are Deobandi, not Wahhabi) is descended from Subcontinental Sufi thinking. That Deobandism and Wahhabism are functionally indistinguishable speaks to a characteristic of the core texts that all stripes of Muslim will return to time and again, even as they continue to jettison their free thinkers, non-literalists and secularists.

What is key is that Islam, unlike other great religions, is based on the sole, complete, literal word of the last prophet, ideally in its original language. Also Islam is dedicated to the spread of Islam by any means necessary, and considers itself to be in a default state of war with the rest of the world. That this is borne by the words of the Prophet and by his actions makes a different interpretation difficult if not impossible, and vulnerable.

What is also key is that a subset of the prophets word was clearly described by him to be the complete, final and perfect message of God to humanity.

It is possible to deviate from this literalist line, as indeed has been done to some extent by Sufi thinkers, Muatzilla practitioners and more open minded thinkers like Averroes. Indeed, sects like the Druze and Bahaii may have sprung from Islam but are not far too dissimilar from it to be considered parts of the faith.

The issue however, is not whether it is, theoretically possible to deviate from the literalist interpretation of Islam, nor even whether there have been successful attempts to do so. Proof by contradiction is easy here. The real questions concern the relative difficulty of such a shift, how representative such behavior is, historically, and how well supported it is in the core texts and beliefs of the religion that all sects and groups, throughout history have returned to.

Here it pays to consider that Buddhism has certainly spawned dogmatic sects, hedonistic ones and indeed violent ones. But these are the exception, while asceticism, pacifism and meditation are the norm to which Buddhists of all stripes, Mahayana, Theravada or Tantra return to time and again. The Buddha was quite clear on such things, even if creative interpreters may have thought otherwise.

Christianity has certainly had brushes with theocracy but returns time and again to a seperation of church and state. Even the Holy Roman Empire in its heyday was thus. The New Testament supports this, while theocracy is on shaky ground. Any political impetus for Christian theocracy has thus had a use-by date.

The question then is what can be done to cause the CORE of the Muslim world to abandon what has been a very effective self-correcting core belief since Medina ?

And how much hope is there that this may be done by pretending that the more dangerous and unpleasant aspects of Islam do not exist, and are not associated with the enfranchised core of believers ? How much hope is there of thus influencing what is effectively a very powerful piece of self-correcting code by attempting to appease those who are least enfranchised ?

Or is a more difficult, robust approach in order ?

Posted by: moose | July 05, 2007 at 06:18 PM



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