We’re back from Fall Break today in CoPhi, “tanned rested & ready,”right? Well, except for the distraction of the World Series. Freedom means controlling your thoughts and directing your attention, so I’ll do my best not to think about the game and instead turn freely to our topic: the original Arab Spring, the Muslim Skeptical movement of over a millennium ago known as Falsafah. Hard to believe Baghdad was once a cosmopolitan and intellectual mecca. One is tempted to put up a sign message: With nonbelief all things are possible. A false message, of course, but satisfyingly apposite.
Falsafah, al-Rawandi, al-Warraq, al-Gazzali, Averroes
It’s so refreshing to be reminded of the Islamic “falsafah” tradition, typically committed (as in the case of Al-Farabi) to combining logical rigor and empiricism with neoplatonic mysticism.
The name of Muhammad has come to symbolize, for many, an intransigent, inflexible, violent species of piety. For others it still evokes the humble merchant’s son’s message of humility and brotherhood. He had a dream, a “nocturnal ascent” that centuries of unquestioning piety have cemented into legend. But, really: riding a winged horse to the upper chambers of heaven? Of such stuff a world religion is made? Interminable wars are still waged in the name of such a sandy fantasy? And as in the time of Brian, of Muhammad, of Joe Smith and Ron Hubbard, we still don’t know “how to recognize a true prophet.” Or a witch. It was ever thus.
“Islam” and “Muslim” mean submission, and whatever the total truth about the historical Muhammad it’s clear that a religion centered on unqualified submission was always bound to conflict with philosophy’s devotion to freedom of thought and expression. You can submit to inherited authority or you can question and challenge it. You can’t do both. [Muslim spirit, modesty… “Why I am not a ___”… holy books]
Yet, as JMH points out, there is a Muslim theological tradition–Kalam– which holds that Muslims should use reason and logic to show that God is beyond human understanding. But if reason and logic are the prime tools of human understanding, this is an unpromising and paradoxical approach. We should use reason and logic to expand our understanding, not curtail it.
On the other hand, one could argue that Socratic humility is no different, using the tools of inquiry to demonstrate universal human ignorance (and grow wise in the process). Hmmm.
In any case, the Arabic philosophers of the early middle ages, anticipating the Catholic scholastics in their attempt to have their religion and their logic too, were looking to preserve a neoplatonic hybrid that would be more than the sum of its respective parts. They came to believe that God, Allah, was sweet reason itself. But then, of course, sadly, they were superceded by the forces of irrationalism, superstition, dogmatism, and (at the extremes) violence. And those are the forces shaping so much of our world today. Wouldn’t a revival of the Faylasufs and a real Arab Spring be nice?
There were practitioners of kalam who were not intent on using reason to bury itself:
among the early Muslims there were a few deeply independent scholars who doubted almost all the features of God that made him godlike, i.e., that God was good, that he made the universe, or that he cared about humanity. They were often referred to as atheists.
And they were, to say the least, shunned. Ostracized. Marginalized. Dealt with.
But to repeat (because it seems so incredible, after so many generations of intellectual and religious intolerance), that’s not the whole story. The Faylasufs (or Falsafahs) “held that the God of the Greek philosophers was identical to Allah… was reason itself.”
Once upon a time, for centuries in fact, “Muslim skeptic” was not an oxymoron. Nowadays, you’re more likely to encounter a former-Muslim skeptic like the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq. His namesake precursor Muhammad al-Warraq referred to God as an idiot,
because “He who orders his slave to do things that he knows him to be incapable of doing, then punishes him, is a fool.”
“People developed the science of astronomy by gazing at the sky, and no prophet was necessary to show them how to gaze… We can know the world on our own.”
Unlike the hated sarcastic freethinker al-Rawandi, Al-Razi (“the first true Faylasuf”) was beloved for being devoted to his community’s well-being. (Could be a lesson in that for certain NewAtheists.) But he pulled no punches. He “thought the variety of religions was a good proof that none of them had it right,” and that revealed religions “led to bloodshed.” The solution? Philosophy.
Avicenna, reputdely the greatest “Faylasuf,” seems to have been confused about the distinct identities of Plato and Aristotle. Or maybe he just wanted to humanize the impersonal Aristotelian Unmoved Mover and conjoin to it a less sterile, more alluring conception of an afterlife than could be squeezed out of “The Philosopher” and his metaphysically austere world of principles and causes.
Avicenna‘s concupiscible faculties (Critchley) are impressive. “I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length.” Reading Aristotle inventively and neoplatonically, he “found a way to speak of an afterlife.” Where there’s a will. But to his credit he considered philosophy a calling, and the search for truth a universal moral responsibility.
Al-Ma’arri, the “eastern Lucretius” (about whom a terrific new book called The Swerve has just come out, btw), said: Lies are believed amongst every race; and was any race ever the sole possessor of truth? He makes the obvious but still damning observation that people tend to believe what they’re brought up to believe, not what they or anyone in recent or extended memory has ever bothered to really think about or confirm. They show their raisin’ (as an in-law once said, much to this transplanted midwesterner’s linguistic consternation), not their thinkin’ or their reasonin’. This all reminds me of the point Richard Dawkins likes to make about children. Nobody is born a Catholic or Baptist or Muslim or Jewish or atheist child. We’re all born free, and free to think.
Al-Ghazzal may have taken doubt too far, with his mystic turn, but he was right to note that psychological certainty is no sure sign of truth or reality. Then, he went and courted mysticism anyway. “The difference between reading about God and having an ecstatic experience of him,” like the difference between reading about alcohol and being drunk, is huge. Trouble is, sometimes we’re too close to our own firsthand experiences (whether of drink or belief or whatever) to report them rightly without corroboration by our collaborators. “Go be a mystic and prove the truth to yourself” won’t really prove anything, if (as Socrates and his heirs supposed) truth is after all a co-phenomenon.
Averroists defended the autonomy of philosophy and its separation from questions of theology and religious faith. We still wage that battle. Can’t we all just co-exist? No, our magisteria really do overlap, Professor Gould notwithstanding.
Averroes, “The Commentator,” got clearer on the Plato-Aristotle distinction and upheld the interpretive value of allegory (but not for “the masses”), while attempting to reconcile philosophy and Islam.
NOTE TO STUDENTS: We have a new posting policy on the class blog, read all about it : everybody needs to post two questions pertaining to your group’s topic (factual & discussion) prior to class, in a comment replying to your group leader’s post. But if your leader inexplicably neglects to post in a timely fashion, everybody go ahead and post your questions directly.
Also: if you’ve not declared your midterm report intentions yet, the time to hesitate is through…