December 1, 2006
Islam and the Problem of RationalityBy Patrick Poole
In the run-up to Pope Benedict's current visit to Turkey, TIME Magazine opened its pages to Tariq Ramadan, Europe's favorite Islamist and perhaps the most influential Muslim figure in the West today. Ramadan chided the Pope and Europe for ignoring the positive contributions of Islam to the development of rational thought in the West.
Writing in response to Benedict's now-famous Regensburg speech (which prompted outrage in the Muslim world) and the Pope's first visit to a predominantly Muslim country, Ramadan's article, "And He's Still in the Dark", offers a back-handed compliment to Benedict's attempt at dialogue with Muslims, warning that the Pope's efforts actually threatens the West, and directs Muslims in the West to their point of apologetic attack:
But in fact, it is Ramadan who is operating under an illusion and is self-deceived about Islam's supposed prominent role in shaping the rationalist tradition of Christendom. As an article ("The Pope and the Prophet") by Robert Reilly in the current issue of Crisis Magazine ably notes, 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.
Any hope of the development of a rational tradition within Islam was dashed with the rise of Caliph Ja'afar al-Mutawakkil (847-861). Prior to al-Mutawakkil's rule, a rationalist philosophy had begun to develop under the Mu'tazilite school of interpretation, which advocated for a created, as opposed to an uncreated, Quran. But Caliph al-Mutawakkil condemned the Mu'tazilite school, which opened the door for the rival Ash'arite interpretation, founded by al-Ash'ari (d. 935), to eventually take preeminence within Sunni Islam - a position of dominance it has retained over the centuries. By 1200 A.D., any hope of recovering a semblance of rational Islamic philosophy was seemingly forever lost.
It was the work of the very Islamic philosophers that Ramadan cites that prompted Europe Christian thinkers to make a break with their Muslim counterparts. Historically, the views of the Ash'arite school were rooted in the theological dogma of "volunteerism", which holds that rather than created objects having inherent existence, Allah constantly recreates each atom anew at every moment according to his arbitrary will. This, of course, undermines the basis for what Westerners understand as natural laws.
From volunteerism sprung another irrational idea amongst Muslim thinkers - occasionalism - that further prevented the development of rationalism within the Islamic tradition. Occasionalism is the belief that in the natural world, what is perceived as cause and effect between objects is mere appearance, not reality. Instead, only Allah truly acts with real effect; all seemingly natural observances of causation are merely manifestations of Allah's habits, for Allah simultaneously creates both the cause and the effect according to his arbitrary will. This view is best expressed by one of the Islamic philosophers cited by Ramadan, al-Ghazali (1059-1111), in his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers:
The connection between what is habitually believed to be the cause and what is habitually believed to be the effect is not necessary for us. But in the case of two things, neither of which is the other and where neither the affirmation nor the negation of the one entails the affirmation or the negation of the other, the existence or non-existence of the one does not necessitate the existence or non-existence of the other; for example, the quenching of thirst and drinking, satiety and eating, burning and contact with fire, light and the rising of the sun, death and decapitation.... On the contrary, it is within God's power to create satiety without eating, death without decapitation, to prolong life after decapitation and so on in the case of all concomitant things. (quoted in "Causation in Islamic Thought" from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas)
Using al-Ghazali's own analogy of decapitation, according to the occasionalist view, when a sword struck off a person's head causing death, it only merely appeared that the sword was the cause of the decapitation: the real and primary cause of the decapitation and the death was the will of Allah, not the sword. The sword, in fact, played no part at all. Had Allah willed it so, the sword could have cut through the neck without decapitation or death. To believe otherwise, Islamic occasionalism held, would be a limitation of the omnipotence of Allah. As with volunteerism, the consequences of occasionalism had catastrophic effects for the development of empirical science in the Islamic world.
Occasionalism was rigorously opposed by the two great philosophers of Medieval Europe, Albert Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, along with the great medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who lived and wrote in Muslim-occupied Spain. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) also addressed the threat posed by Islamic occasionalism by affirming the ancient Christian truth that God created the universe ex nihilo (from nothing). This prevented the volunteerist view from gaining ground in the West, and thus occasionalism, merely by stating that God had actually created, and that objects in the natural world created by God have an actual inherent existence and do not need to be constantly recreated.
Other problems developed within Islamic philosophy which prevented the rise of rationalism. Perhaps the most notable following volunteerism and occasionalism is the "dual-truth" theory advanced by Averroes, who with Avicenna is considered one of the two most important Islamic philosophers in history.
In an attempt to navigate between faith and rationality, Averroes argued that what may be true in the realm of religion may be contrary to what is true in nature. Thus, the Quranic maxim, "there is no compulsion in religion," (Sura 2:256) can be entirely true from a religious sense; but in the real world and in the course of jihad, compulsion may not only be required, but entirely justifiable. The dual-truth theory was vigorously rejected by Aquinas, and eventually both Roman Catholic, and later, Protestant theology acknowledged both the authoritative nature and the necessary agreement between special revelation (Scripture) and general revelation (nature).
Aquinas also refuted Averroes on his denial of the personal element to the human soul in the classic treatise, De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas. The implication of Averroes' belief was an ultimate denial of the individual and the rejection of personal immortality - an inseparable component to historic Christian theology.
Neoplatonism and its associated ideas were also commonplace to Islamic philosophy, particularly the recurrent eternal cycles of history (Ibn Khaldun), which stands opposed to the linear view of history that is integral to the development of modern science. But science and rationalism were not the only victims of the problems of Islamic philosophy: free will and ethics also became targets. Islamic occasionalism led to fatalism and ethical positivism, as articulated in recent centuries by Muhammad as-Sanusi (b. 1780):
Again, this is standard Ash'arite doctrine, which is the predominant view of Sunni Islam, not an obscure element within Muslim thought. Because there are no objective standards of good or evil, even with Allah, the only resort to maintain ethics is shari'a; and as-Sanusi makes clear, there is no role at all for rationality in ethics. Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), the favorite medieval theologian of Wahhabis and jihadists alike, contended that there was no role or ability for man to understand Allah; man's sole response was to obey shari'a, making any use of rational faculties irrelevant (see Reilly's article on this point). This is why the reinstitution of shari'a is so critical to the current Islamist project - there are no other alternatives except a complete reconstruction of Islam itself.
Tariq Ramadan is well aware of these problems within Islamic philosophy, as evidenced by his vocal appeals to reopen the "doors of ijtihad" to allow for new interpretations of Islam to escape the irrationalism of the principal ancient schools of belief. But instead of acknowledging those problems and ignoring the insurmountable philosophical obstacles posed by his own Islamic tradition, Ramadan shamelessly attempts to claim for Islamic traditions a commonality with the fruits of Western rationality.
Rather than focus on differences, the true dialogue between the Pope and Islam, and between secularized societies and Islamic ones, should emphasize our common, universal values: mutual respect of human rights, basic freedoms, rule of law and democracy.
The reality is that none of these values - human rights, basic freedoms, rule of law, or democracy - actually exists anywhere in the Muslim world (even in "secular" Turkey) to the degree that they are practiced in or are recognizable to the West, nor are they identifiable in the 1,400 years of Islamic history. (In subsequent essays I hope to show that Islamic theology itself negates these very concepts, making any rapprochement between Islam and Western values impossible without abandoning the most basic tenets of Islam itself.)
As Robert Reilly notes in his article, this acknowledgement of the intrinsic problems of Islamic theology and its incompatibility with Western values is not just a view exclusive to just infidels, but honest Muslim intellectuals as well. He quotes the Iranian thinker Abdolkarim Soroush, who admits:
If Tariq Ramadan is really serious about a dialogue between Islam and the West and cultivating Western values amongst Muslims (and there is some reason to believe that he isn't serious), it must not only be open, but honest as well. Relying on an invented and purely mythological Islamic history and ignoring the problems of Islamic philosophy are not the place for Muslims to initiate the dialogue. Pope Benedict's starting point is clearly much better.