Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Another Serendipitous Discovery

The nature of the relationship between Islam and terrorism, and, taking a broader view, between the Islamic tradition and Western humanism, has been much in the news since the events of September the 11th, 2001. In seeking to understand Islam, many a commentator has tried to draw on the historical development of the religion for insights into its' current state, and in asking where exactly it was that Islam supposedly took a wrong turn down the path of religious obscurantism, the finger has often been pointed in the direction of one individual in particular, namely to the teachings of the theologian Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). It therefore came as a surprise to me to discover that Al-Ghazali's actual thoughts weren't quite as simplistic and anti-rational as they'd been made out to be on so many occasions, as is evident from reading R.J. Kilcullen's Al Ghazali and Averroes. The following excerpt should give a feel for the subtlety of Ghazali's thought:

So [Al-Ghazali] turned to philosophy. He seems to have expected it to be defective. "I was convinced that a man cannot grasp what is defective in any of the Sciences unless he has so complete a grasp of the science in question that he equals its most learned exponents in the application of its fundamental principles, and even goes beyond and surpasses them, probing into some of the tangles and profundities which the very professors of the science have neglected. Then and only then is it possible that what he has to assert about its defects is true.... I realised that to refute a system before understanding it and becoming acquainted with its depths is to act blindly."

[............]

The second group, "the naturalists, see in nature enough of the wonders of God's creation and the inventions of his wisdom to compel them to acknowledge a wise Creator who is aware of the aims and purposes of things. However the naturalists deny immortality, deny resurrection, and deny the future life - heaven, hell, resurrection and judgment". The third group are the theists, who include "Socrates, his pupil Plato, and the latter's pupil Aristotle" (p.268). These theists also did not altogether escape unbelief and heresy. Their mathematical science (e.g. astronomy) is undeniably true, but it has two drawbacks. First, enthusiastic students of philosophy are apt to suppose that since the philosophers have done so well in mathematics, all their philosophy is just as certain. "The second drawback arises from the man who is loyal to Islam but ignorant. He thinks that religion must be defended by rejecting every science connected with the philosophers", and the philosophers then suppose that Islam must be based on ignorance. "A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by the man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences". Similarly religious people who reject the philosophers' science of logic give the impression that religion rests on the rejection of logic. The natural science or physics of the philosophers does not need to be rejected, "except with regard to particular points which I enumerate in my book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers".

[............]

Al-Ghazali goes on to survey the opinions of the philosophers on ethics and politics, and makes a few specific criticisms. He says that in ethics the philosophers have borrowed from religious people. "The philosophers have taken over this teaching and mingled it with their own disquisitions, furtively using this embellishment to sell their rubbishy wares more readily". This has two drawbacks. First, some people rejected the whole mixture. "This is like a man who hears a Christian assert, "There is no god but God, and Jesus is the Messenger of God". The man rejects this, saying, "This is a Christian conception", and does not pause to ask himself whether the Christian is an infidel in respect of this assertion or in respect of his denial of the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him). If he is an infidel only in respect of his denial of Muhammad, then he need not be contradicted in other assertions, true in themselves and not connected with his unbelief". There is no God but God, and Jesus is a messenger of God. "It is customary with weaker intellects thus to take the men as criterion of the truth, and not the truth as criterion of the men .... If it is true, [the intelligent man] accepts it, whether the speaker is a truthful person or not". "If we adopt the attitude of abstaining from every truth that the mind of a heretic has apprehended before us, we should be obliged to abstain from much that is true" (p.273).

Given the time and place in which Al-Ghazali held the notions outlined above, he ought to be reckoned as having been an extraordinarily sharp thinker, rather than the reactionary opponent of rationalism that he has too often been made out to have been.

Kilcurren also has interesting things to say about the ideas of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), particularly in relation to Al-Ghazali's notions. The whole article is well worth reading, both as an entreé into the world of medieval philosophy, and as a glimpse into a world of islamic intellectual sophistication that has long since vanished from view, with the ascendancy of today's mullahs and sheikhs with their fatwas and incitements to terrorism. It is simple-minded to believe, as many do, that Islam in all its' guises is something to be feared and hated, just as it is stupid to reject all of Christianity on the basis of the Inquisition or the Crusades, but one is justified in wondering if the intellectually curious and sophisticated Islam of Ibn-Rushd, Al-Ghazali, Harun-al-Rashid and Al-Mansur, will ever regain the ascendancy over the simple-minded creed of hate and ignorance that seems to hold pride of place in much of the world today.