In FrontPage today, I discuss Islam’s persistent anti-intellectualism:
The Malay Mail Online reported Tuesday that the Perak mufti, Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria, advised Muslim members of the government “not to go overboard.” He reminded them that “Islam is based on faith… Don’t make any remarks based on the intellect or logic…” Why not? Because “the intellect is governed by desires and it is influence by shaitan (satan). Don’t be ruled by desires and rudderless comments.” Harussani was reflecting an aspect of Islam that runs through its history, but is little remarked upon today by Western analysts: its anti-intellectualism and rejection of reason.
An apocryphal story about the caliph Umar sums up an attitude that has always been prevalent in the Islamic world: Umar, after conquering Egypt, is said to have ordered the burning of the fabled Library of Alexandria. When asked why, he responded: “If the books in it agree with the Qur’an, they are superfluous. If they disagree with the Qur’an, they are heretical.” Only one book was needed – and even if this story isn’t historically accurate, it reflects an anti-intellectualism that has run through Islamic history and persists today.
This tendency is founded in Islam’s central text. At one point the Qur’an excoriates the Jews for suggesting limits to Allah’s power. The passage is ambiguous, but its principal import is plain enough: They dared to say that there was something Allah could not do: “And the Jews say, ‘The hand of Allah is chained.’ Chained are their hands, and cursed are they for what they say. Rather, both His hands are extended; He spends however He wills” (5:64). Neither does he have any obligation to disclose any consistency or anything else in what he does: “He shall not be questioned as to what he does” (21:23).
What could the Jews have possibly meant, if any Jews ever said it at all? It is possible that they meant that God, being good, would be consistent, and would operate the universe according to consistent and observable laws. This would not have been so much a limitation on what God could do, but upon what he would do. As St. Thomas Aquinas explained: “Since the principles of certain sciences—of logic, geometry, and arithmetic, for instance — are derived exclusively from the formal principals of things, upon which their essence depends, it follows that God cannot make the contraries of these principles; He cannot make the genus not to be predicable of the species, nor lines drawn from a circle’s center to its circumference not to be equal, nor the three angles of a rectilinear triangle not to be equal to two right angles” (emphasis added).
This proposition of divine consistency was key for the development of scientific inquiry. “The rise of science,” observes social scientist Rodney Stark, “was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God. In order to love and honor God, it is necessary to fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork. Because God is perfect, that handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, it ought to be possible to discover those principles.” That process of discovery became the foundation of modern science. “These were the crucial ideas,” says Stark, “that explain why science arose in Christian Europe and nowhere else.”
Indeed, for an Islamic culture to have affirmed that God’s creation operates according to immutable principles would have been nothing short of blasphemy. Allah’s hand is not fettered by consistency or by anything else. Allah is absolutely free to do anything he wills to do, without any expectations or limitations deriving from logic, love, or anything else. This idea made sure that scientific exploration in the Islamic world would be stillborn.
In his Guide for the Perplexed, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides described the Islamic thinkers with whom he was in contact as rejecting absolutes as illegitimately binding upon Allah’s will:
Human intellect does not perceive any reason why a body should be in a certain place instead of being in another. In the same manner [the Muslim philosophers] say that reason admits the possibility that an existing being should be larger or smaller than it really is, or that it should be different in form and position from what it really is; e.g., a man might have the height of a mountain, might have several heads, and fly in the air; or an elephant might be as small as an insect, or an insect as huge as an elephant.
This method of admitting possibilities is applied to the whole Universe. Whenever they affirm that a thing belongs to this class of admitted possibilities, they say that it can have this form and that it is also possible that it be found differently, and that the one form is not more possible than the other; but they do not ask whether the reality confirms their assumption.
[They say] fire causes heat, water causes cold, in accordance with a certain habit; but it is logically not impossible that a deviation from this habit should occur, namely, that fire should cause cold, move downward, and still be fire; that the water should cause heat, move upward, and still be water. On this foundation their whole [intellectual] fabric is constructed.
According to the priest/physicist Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, the great Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali “denounced natural laws, the very objective of science, as a blasphemous constraint upon the free will of Allah.” Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), although himself a philosopher, delivered what turned out to be the coup de grace to Islamic philosophical investigation, at least as a vibrant mainstream force, in his monumental attack on the very idea of Islamic philosophy: Incoherence of the Philosophers.
Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes, according to al-Ghazali, were not intellectual trailblazers worthy of respect and careful consideration. In positing that there could be truth that was outside of or even contradicted what Allah had revealed in the Qur’an, they had shown themselves to be nothing more than heretics who should be put to death and their books burned. Al-Ghazali accused them of “denial of revealed laws and religious confessions” and “rejection of the details of religious and sectarian [teaching], believing them to be man-made laws and embellished tricks.” He declared that the doctrines of Muslim philosophers such as al-Farabi and Avicenna “challenge the [very] principles of religion.”
Al-Ghazali, said scholar Tilman Nagel, “was inspired by a notion that we frequently see in Islam’s intellectual history: the notion that everything human beings can possibly know is already contained in the Koran and the hadith; only naïve people can be made to believe that there is knowledge beyond them.”
At the end of The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Al-Ghazali reveals how high the stakes are: “If someone says: ‘You have explained the doctrines of these [philosophers]; do you then say conclusively that they are infidels and that the killing of those who uphold their beliefs is obligatory?” He then concludes that they should indeed be pronounced infidels, and therefore, presumably, be executed.
Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria would doubtless agree.