No Word For Liberty

America since its founding has had an interest in the Middle East says Michael Oren:

The stalled U.S. mission in Iraq has prompted calls for a return to "realism" in American foreign policy. Instead of striving for freedom and national cohesion in the Middle East, realists argue that the U.S. should negotiate with Syria and Iran and abandon the dream of remaking the region on a democratic, federated model. Realists claim that replacing a faith-based policy with an agenda based solely on economic and strategic interests will return the United States to its traditional posture in the Middle East.

In fact, long before the rise of radical Islam and even the discovery of oil, Americans worked to bring liberty and human rights to the Middle East. For well over 200 years, U.S. citizens have sought to endow Middle Eastern peoples with the same inalienable liberties Americans enjoy at home.

The absence of basic freedoms in the Middle East was well known to the founding fathers. In contrast to the young republic, observed John Adams, the ancient dynasties of the Middle East were rife with "avarice and fear," ruled by despots who treated their subjects like "so many caterpillars upon an apple tree." Thomas Jefferson believed the U.S. could never rely on a peace treaty with any Middle Eastern state, whose word was only as good as the life of its ruler. The prevalence of tyranny in the region was noted by Jefferson's friend, John Ledyard, who in 1788 became the first American to explore the Middle East. "It is singular," he wrote, "the Arab language has no word for 'liberty.' "

Islam is probably in part a codification of that attitude. Liberty would imply a place for cause and effect. Instead for a long time its path was determined by the idea of Insha'Allah - if God wills it.

Such a concept explains why science has never taken off in the Middle East. It explains why there is still so little science in the Middle east.

The more sordid the Islamic present seems, the more we are told of the glories of the Islamic past. And the most glorious of the glories of Islam, the most enlightened of its enlightenments, are the "Islamic science" and "Islamic philosophy" of the Golden Age.

So what does Islamic law say about this science and this philosophy? According to Reliance of the Traveller: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368), they are unlawful, serious affronts to Islam, a form of apostasy. Apologists for Islam in the West brag about the "Islamic science" and "Islamic philosophy" that their accomplices in the Islamic world condemn.

The kinds of unlawful knowledge include philosophy and the sciences of the materialists. Why are they unlawful? Because anything that is a means to create doubts is unlawful. This was the position of the Catholic Church for a long time.

The Jews of course have had no problem with doubts. Their answer was always debate and reason. Put so well by a very modern Jewish scholar Milton Friedman "You cannot be sure you are right unless you understand the arguments against your views better than your opponents do." Jews as part of their religious training are taught to take any side of any question and argue it to the best of their ability. Which may explain why there are so many Jewish lawyers.

The term "sciences of the materialists" requires explanation. It does not mean, as one might think, science that is based on the assumption that matter (and energy) is the sole constituent of the universe. Jews and Christians might agree that such "sciences of the materialists," if not "unlawful," at least present a truncated view of reality, omitting as they do the spiritual realm. It means, rather, according to the commentary of Reliance of the Traveller, the "conviction of materialists that things in themselves or by their own nature have a causal influence independent of the will of Allah. To believe this is unbelief that puts one beyond the pale of Islam."

At issue here is not the existence of the spiritual realm, but the condemnation by al-Ghazali in The Incoherence of the Philosophers of "the judgment of the philosophers," first of all Avicenna,

"that the connection that is observed to exist between causes and effects is a necessary relation, and that there is no capability or possibility of bringing the cause into existence without the effect, nor the effect without the cause."
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.

We see then that the condemnation of "the sciences of the materialists" and the condemnation of philosophy are really the same condemnation and that the condemnation of "the sciences of the materialists" is a condemnation of far more than secular science, extending as it does to any analysis of causes and effects, whether materialist or not. It extends even to any discussion of the nature of any object, whether material or spiritual, because the nature of an object conditions how it affects and is affected by other objects. So in the end the condemnation of "the sciences of the materialists" is a condemnation of any effort to understand anything.

I wonder how the modern Islamic scholars such as these folks explain the existance of cell phones? They must have some kind of pretzel logic to come to grips with that. No doubt Occam's Razor is an unknown concept. Since Occam was a Franciscan friar such a concept would have to be banned if its origin was known.
Averroes replied to The Incoherence of the Philosophers in The Incoherence of the Incoherence, so al-Ghazali, whose views inform Reliance of the Traveller in particular and mainstream Islam in general, attacked Avicenna, one of the two greatest of the "Islamic philosophers," who was defended by the other, Averroes.

And we are told by the entire decrepit establishment that we should honor the "Islamic philosophy" of the Golden Age!

There is, however, a still closer connection between the philosophy and "the sciences of the materialists" declared unlawful by Reliance of the Traveller. 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.

If the true cause of events is the will of Allah, and if the will of Allah is inscrutable, then the causes of events are inscrutable and science a vain pursuit. The issue is ultimately whether the universe and its creator are in any way intelligible. The West, with its traditions of natural law and natural theology, agrees for the most part that the universe is astonishingly intelligible and God somewhat so. Islam, at least at its most rigorous, denies any intelligibility whatsoever to either.

The seriousness of the condemnation of philosophy and science by Reliance of the Traveller can be seen in its list of "Acts That Entail Leaving Islam." Belief "that things in themselves or by their own nature have any causal influence independent of the will of Allah" is apostasy.

In contrast, the Jewish and Christian worlds have been informed by the notion of secondary causes propounded by Moses Maimonides and Saint Thomas Aquinas. God works, at least most of the time, through the laws of nature, via causes. Just as our wills can be both free and subject to God, and divine foreknowledge does not foreclose the contingency of earthly events, God and nature cooperate in the production of effects.

So what does modern Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan have to say about Islam and science?
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:

As I have written before, this profoundly European Pope is inviting the people of his continent to become aware of the central, inescapable character of Christianity within their identity, or risk losing it. That may be a legitimate goal, but Benedict's narrow definition of European identity is deeply troubling and potentially dangerous. This is what Muslims must respond to: the tendency of Westerners to ignore the critical role that Muslims played in the development of Western thought. Those who "forget" the decisive contributions of rationalist Muslim thinkers like al-Farabi (10th century), Avicenna (11th century), Averroes (12th century), al-Ghazali (12th century), Ash-Shatibi (13th century) and Ibn Khaldun (14th century) are reconstructing a Europe that is not only an illusion but also self-deceptive about its past.
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.
So when did Islam go wrong? It went wrong almost from the beginning.
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.

So that takes us back to the beginning of this piece.

This has had a very profound effect on the idea of personal responsibility. It would seem that Islam embraces it in some respects (say laws against theft and murder) and denies it in others.

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.

So in our effort to reform the Middle East and to bring democratic ideals to them we are going to have to start at the very foundation. Insha'Allah will have to be replaced with cause and effect.

That is going to be a tough one.

H/T Kesher Talk and reader linearthinker

Cross Posted at Power and Control

posted by Simon on 01.15.07 at 10:42 PM


Having lived in Saudi Arabia, I can attest to the pervasive and -in a sense- REAL influence of this mindset: Muslims would both absolve themselves of responsibility in their dealings with kffir contractors (invoking the Great Not MY Job Card: "Insh'Allah!") but they would also wink at precisely THAT concept as they discussed doing things IN Saudi Arabia AS "Muslims" that were NOT permitted by God's Will as adumbrated in the Koran!

The USEFULNESS of this concept seems to have been wrung from this Islamic concept BY this concept: 'God uses EVERYTHING, so (tautology requires that) God will permit to happen whatever IS the Will of God, including that which is NOT the Will of God as delineated in the Koran because IF IT CAN BE DONE, it is done by the Will of God. So there...'

Which a rational soul finds exceptionally dissatisfying... But
Baha'i Faith
contrasts with Islam like fresh, golden sunlight contrasts with fetid shadow...

Karridine   ·  January 16, 2007 10:09 AM

Actually there used to be quite a bit of science in the Middle East. Disappeared about the time of the Mongol invasion when Islam abandoned rationalism.

I think the real problem with science in the Middle East isn't the one you're pointing to. I think it's much more that Arab culture preserves certain aspects of classical culture and, in particular, the notion the Greeks had that experimentation is beneath a gentleman.

Dave Schuler   ·  January 18, 2007 5:07 PM


I'm not familiar with the history you point out, but isn't it possible that what I posted represents a codification of undrlying sentiment?

M. Simon   ·  January 18, 2007 5:44 PM

Not being a great philosopher myself may I try to put what you have explained into layman's terms. While spending a wonderful 6 months in Saudi, I drove around the capitol city quite frequently. On most of the freeways there were three lanes in each direction. On the right was the slow lane. In the middle was the fast lane. Finally, on the left was what was known as the Allah Lane. In this lane the Saudis would travel as fast and wrecklessly as humanly possible. The common local philosophy was that since you were constantly in the "hands of Allah" you could and should drive totally without fear and caution. All was in the "hands of Allah" and should you survive, it was Allah's gift to you and should you not, then it was a manifestation Allah's divine will. The speed of the car and your lack of caution while driving were totally independent of your survival. Hence, a complete lack of Cause-effect.

Greg Fisher   ·  January 21, 2007 6:48 PM

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