Saturday 2 November 2013

There is no Golden Age of Islam and al-Ghazali Did Not Kill Rationalism in the Muslim World

Asad Q. Ahmed
Piecing together the scholarly heritage of the pre-modern Muslim world, the intellectual historian Asad Q. Ahmed has come to the conclusion that there is no single Golden Age of Islamic learning. In an article on Open Democracy, he also corrects a number of other misconceptions about the Muslim past.
Over the past few years, I have slowly and meticulously been peeling away at the layers of Muslim rationalist discourses, in order to construct a responsible narrative of the fate of science in Islam; some of my colleagues - singly and in teams - have also been devotedly involved in this scholarly endeavor around the globe and have contributed much to my own understanding of the past.  And though we have yet a massive amount of trans-generational work to do, on the basis of our discoveries thus far, we have unanimously come to reject the longstanding narrative of the Golden Age and subsequent decline of Islamic rationalism
 Many conventional accounts, put the blame at the feet of a figure who is at the same time also recognized as one of the towering figures in Islamic intellectual history, the Persian polymath Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111):
 But I am afraid that this is not how things happened.  To begin with, al-Ghazali’s attack in his famous Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) is not aimed at reason or philosophy (despite how the title sounds).  He takes issue, as he clearly outlines in his multiple introductions to the work and in the main body, only with metaphysicians, insofar as they use faulty logic - incoherent formal syllogisms, arguments with internal contradictions, premises that are unrelated to the conclusions, etc. - to argue about matters that pertain to the Muslim creed (such as the issues of bodily resurrection, that God knows particulars only in a universal way, etc.).  Beyond these creedal matters, al-Ghazali is in fact rather explicit in stating that on matters pertaining to scientific demonstrations, Muslims should not argue with philosophers. 
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE)
Indeed he goes so far as to claim that when a scientific demonstration contradicts a hadith (Saying of the Prophet), it is more suitable to reject the latter as unsoundly transmitted; similarly, when any other scriptural proof text fails to conform to the demonstrated conclusions of reason, the former must be interpreted allegorically.  In other words, there is practically no doubt that al-Ghazali gives authority to reason over transmitted sciences. His other works, including those on law and legal theory, include sentiments such as “reason is the source of transmitted knowledge” and sharp attacks against the blind imitation (taqlid) of authority.
Instead, Asad Ahmed argues for a more careful qualification of the significance of Muslim rationalists of the pre-modern Muslim world:
...let me point out that the rationalists that I am referring to and whose attitudes I am reporting here were not marginal figures in Muslim societies: they straddled multiple fields of expertise, ranging from Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) and Sayings of the Prophet (hadith) to astronomy, medicine, mathematics..
 Therefore he rejects the notion that Islam is inherently opposed to reason:
..if this is true, then I would advise Muslims to abandon their religion.  For in my view, no religion that suppresses this primary, essential, and defining faculty of humans can be true...
The explanation for the sorry state of the present-day Muslim world in terms of contributing to modern sciences and intellectual activities in general is therefore more complex. In the case of the geographical area in which A.Q. Ahmed specializes, it was a combination of the collapse of patronage by rulers, the rise of the Urdu language at the expense of Arabic and Persian, changes in the synchronic and dialectic practices of traditional scholarship in the wake of the introduction of print technology, and the tendency of Orientalist philology to privilege the foundational Sanskrit heritage of antiquity over the later cultural sediments brought by the Muslims..

To read the whole article, click here.