book reviews

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times

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Ibn Taymiyya and His Times is a collection of high-quality scholarly essays on Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE) edited by Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed. It is highly worth reading for anyone interested in this important and controversial character of Islamic history. Maybe I should mention that I do not consider myself a follower of Ibn Taymiyya. I do like some aspects of his thinking as do many important mainstream Islamic thinkers, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Yasir Qadhi.

The book is an important contribution to our understanding of Ibn Taymiyya, refuting the views of both his extremist supporters and his critics. The essay show that Ibn Taymiyya is a far more sophisticated and multi-dimensional thinker than is commonly imagined. This book will hopefully serve as a landmark in ending the simplistic, biased and prejudiced treatments that Ibn Taymiyya has so far received in both Muslim and Western sources.

The first essay by Caterina Bori shows that Ibn Taymiyya was not a representative of the Ḥanbalī school, quite the opposite. He was something of an outsider to the school and was surrounded by a very small group of highly dedicated followers.

Jon Hoover’s essay focuses on Ibn Taymiyya’s theology. Ibn Taymiyya has unique theological views that differ greatly from Ḥanbalī orthodoxy and that do not follow directly from the views of the Salaf (“Pious Predecessors”, the earliest few generations of Muslims). He argues that God’s relationship with humans is personal and dynamic. He acts directly in time and interacts with humans. This is a far more satisfying view of God to the modern mind compared to the impersonal God of more popular versions of Islamic theology.

M. Sait Özervarli’s essay continues the discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s theology. Ibn Taymiyya, like Ibn Rushd, argues that there can never contradiction between rationality and scripture. When there is a contradiction, either scripture has been misunderstood, or the rational evidence has been misconstrued. According to Özervarli, Ibn Taymiyya argues for a Quran-centered empirical rationalism that shuns the complicated arguments of the kalam-theologians and takes its inspiration from the basic facts of life that we observe around us. According to Ibn Taymiyya there is no need for philosophical proofs of God’s existence since the Quran is full of signs that point to God. These signs are a sufficiency to those who understand them properly.

Racha el Omari’s essay focuses on Ibn Taymiyya’s polemics against Ashʿarite theology (the “orthodox” theology of scholars like al-Ghazālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī). Ibn Taymiyya argues for a “theology of the Salaf” that goes beyond Ḥanbalī theology and tries to always re-derive its theological views from the views of the earliest Muslims, although just how much Ibn Taymiyya’s theology agrees with that of the Salaf has to be studied further. It is seems more historically accurate to me to say that the Salaf did not really have much of a theology beyond their faith in the Qurans literal meaning. This means that any effort to develop an intellectually satisfying theological framework will always need to go far beyond what the Salaf ever said or imagined, and Ibn Taymīya’s theology seems to fit this description.

The essay by Walid A. Saleh examines Ibn Taymiyya’s approach to interpreting the Quran as it is laid out in his short treatise Muqaddima fī uṣūl al-tafsīr (An Introduction on the Foundations of Quranic Exgesis). Saleh calls Ibn Taymiyya’s approach “radical hermeneutics” since it attempts to throw away the existing exegetical tradition in order to take the field back to its origins among the Salaf. It tries to force the authority of the hadith tradition and the opinions of the Salaf on the field so that no one is allowed to interpret the Quran in any way save the way of hadith and the Salaf. Anyone who tries to put forth an interpretation of a Quranic verse will have to find a basis for it in hadith or the opinions of the Salaf. This intellectual caging of interpretive freedom is meant to ensure the “purity” of Quranic interpretations so that heretical and misguided interpretations do not enter into it. Among scholars who followed his methodology are his student Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373 CE), who continued to respect the existing exegetical tradition, and Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505 CE), who according to Saleh produced the classic work of the genre of exegesis that Ibn Taymiyya called for. Modern Muslims who are not entirely happy with this restricted methodology can still benefit from sources that try to follow it, considering them one legitimate voice among others (even if such sources consider themselves the only legitimate voices).

Livnat Holtzman discusses Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim’s theological views on human freedom and choice. Ibn Taymiyya breaks with existing views on God’s guidance to say that while all humans are born in a state of purity and guidance, a person can go on to choose what is good or evil, and according to this choice, God goes on to guide them further or misguide them. This is a refreshingly rational treatment of the question compared to the views of other scholars. There is still an important question that his theology does not answer; how can free-willed decisions be really free if they can be predicted with 100% accuracy by God beforehand? I have never read an intellectually satisfying answer from any Muslim scholar on this.

Yossef Rapoport discusses Ibn Taymiyya’s unique legal methodology, such as his rejection of accepted legal tricks that used lawful means for unlawful ends, and his breaking away with Ḥanbalī tradition in order to call for persistent ijtihād (striving to solve issues of law and theology using one’s efforts rather than merely relying on the opinions of past scholars). Intention is of primary importance to Ibn Taymiyya; even if all the proper legal forms are obeyed, if the aim is evil, he wholeheartedly rejects it. As is usual with Ibn Taymiyya, his views are in general refreshingly modern and rational.

Tariq al-Jamil’s essay is a short discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Shia polemical views. The essay by David Thomas is on Ibn Taymiyya’s polemical response to a Christian piece of writing that attempted to insinuate that all Muslims would embrace Christianity if they understood the Quran and the Bible better. Rather than responding to the Christian piece directly, Ibn Taymiyya uses it as an occasion to discuss why Islam is superior to Christianity and replaces it as God’s final, universal religion.

The essay by Khaled el-Rouayheb argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s popularity in the post-classical era has been greatly exaggerated. He was a marginal figure that was rarely mentioned or taken seriously by the scholars that came after him. This state of affairs continued for five centuries after Ibn Taymiyya’s death. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a movement started to rehabilitate his image and popularize his works. The most important figures in this movement were Nuʿmān Khayr al-Dīn al-Ālūsī (d. 1899 CE) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935 CE).

Raquel M. Ukeles’ essay argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s rejection of such things as the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad was more sophisticated than is realized or acknowledged by his modern admirers. While he considered such things false innovations (bidaʿ, plural of bidʿa), he recommended tolerance toward its practitioners, saying that they could even get a great reward from God for their good intentions. He therefore takes a highly intelligent stand on the issue:

  • Those who follow the way of the earliest Muslims and believe in rejecting innovations must shun such things. If they engage in them, they would be committing a sin.
  • Those among qualified scholars whose own personal opinion (ijtihād) has convinced them that such celebrations are religiously acceptable should be respected. They have the right to their own opinions.
  • Those among the Muslim masses who celebrate such things should be judged by their intentions. If they do it out of good intentions, their deed is accepted. If they do it for other intentions, their deed is rejected.

That is an amazingly tolerant view compared to that of some of those who today think they are representative of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings.

The last essay is by Mona Hassan. She argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s views regarding the caliphate have been misconstrued by much of Western scholarship. Western scholars like Henri Laoust wrongly believed that Ibn Taymiyya had done away with classical scholarly view of the necessity of the existence of a ruler that followed the ideals of the Rashidun caliphs. She also discusses his fatwas regarding the permissibility of fighting the Mongols. The group that assassinated the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 claimed that their actions were legitimate according to Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas. Hassan says that this group completely misread Ibn Taymiyya, whose framework is actually concerned with fighting outlaws and rebels. Ironically, that extremist group itself falls within the definition of those groups that Ibn Taymiyya believes can be legitimately fought by the Muslims. She discusses Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s statements in support of peaceful political participation. Al-Qaradawi uses two of Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas to show that Ibn Taymiyya’s was not an isolationist as some of his admirers believe.

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times should interest anyone interested in a sophisticated understanding of Ibn Taymīya, Islamic intellectual history or the origins of Salafism.

Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science

Nidhal Guessoum’s Islam’s Quantum Question (originally published in French in 2009, published in English in 2011) is well worth reading, mainly for its detailed refutation of various pseudo-scientific defenses of Islam and the Quran that have been offered by others. His detailed critique of Iʿjāz literature and its supporters (such as Zaghloul El-Naggar), who purport to show scientific “miracles” found in the Quran and hadith using the flimsiest of evidence, will hopefully help bring the discussion on Islam and science to a higher and less embarrassing plane in the Muslim world.

Guessoum’s refutation of misguided Muslim arguments against the theory of evolution (such as those of Harun Yahya and Seyyed Hussein Nasr) and his overview of the scientific support for evolution are also highly valuable.

The book is marred by Guessoum’s attempts at coming up with “scientific” explanations for miracles. He suggests that Jesus’s healing of the blind may have actually been the placebo effect, seemingly finding it the most scientifically satisfactory explanation. This rather naive reasoning is symptomatic of the fact that Guessoum offers very little in the way of synthesis, despite the subtitle’s promised “reconciliation”. The book is largely overview and refutation, with little in the way of creative theological problem-solving.

Guessoum follows Aristotle and Ibn Rushd in conceiving of nature as a principle that stands above God–what I will call the nature supremacist view. When Mother Nature says something (miracles do not happen), and God says something else (miracles happen), the plain meaning of God’s words is to be ignored to please Nature. Thus Guessoum finds it more satisfactory to believe that the stick of Moses turning into a snake was actually an illusion rather than a fact of reality. Guessoum’s theology is therefore secularized and defensive; he has to find flimsy scientific-sounding excuses (the placebo effect, quantum mechanical indeterminacy) to explain away Quranic statements about divine action in order to be more scientifically “authentic”.

A respect for Islam’s traditional theology and an effort to reconcile it with modern science is largely absent from the book. Guessoum seems to think it beneath him to take the plain sense of the Quran literally. Like Ziauddin Sardar (whom he admires and whose thought he covers in some detail), he thinks that a person as intelligent and well-educated as himself could never be a traditionalist. Guessoum writes:

I commented that the reconciliation between the two depends strongly on the reading (literal vs. interpretative) that one adopts for the religious texts. The more literal the person is, the more problems she/he will find in harmonising science with Islam.1

That is only the case for Guessoum himself–and only because he has accepted to be driven into the nature supremacist corner. There is an alternative that he is wholly unaware of: the Ghazalian worldview. Guessoum is dismissive toward al-Ghazali (who is “orthodox” and therefore automatically persona non grata to Guessoum), unaware that al-Ghazali’s universe-as-simulation metaphor (which Guessoum cites and summarily discards) provides for a better reconciliation of Islam and science than his Aristotle-and-Ibn Rushd-inspired nature-supremacist worldview.

The Ghazalian worldview accepts the plain sense of the Quran while remaining utterly rationalist and empiricist toward the natural world. It is more faithful to the Quran because it does not try to explain anything in it away in the service of Mother Nature, and it is more faithful to science because it does not abuse concepts borrowed from fields like quantum mechanics to support mystical explanations. It is both as God-centered as any mystical view of the universe and as scientific as any atheist scientist may desire.

In the Ghazalian worldview, since we free our conception of God from the chains of nature supremacism, the literal meaning of the Quran stops giving us trouble. God caused the Red Sea to part? That is problematic to Guessoum and Guessoum’s imaginary literalist since he must come up with an explanation that pleases Mother Nature almost as a deity alongside God. But in the Ghazalian view explaining it is the simplest thing in the world: the person in charge of a simulation can make any change to it he wants. He can cause it to run according to natural laws that he can suspend whenever he wishes. There is no need for quantum mechanical or psychological explanations of this miracle because nature is not a god alongside God, nature is merely a projection, a mirage, upheld by God. Trying to find scientific explanations for miracles is as silly as a video game character trying to find explanations for miraculous events inside the video game using the game’s logic that they see around them, wholly unaware that the video game is actually hosted on a computer and that the miraculous event was just a number that switched inside the computer’s RAM. By being unaware that there is one logic to the inside of the game and another, far more sophisticated, logic to the outside of it, all explanations our character comes up with will be hopelessly inadequate. Only once the creator of the game sends a revelation into the game telling the character that there is an outside infrastructure to the game will the character be able to finally understand the miracle. The miracle had no basis within the game’s logic because it followed a different logic, a foreign, outer logic.

The parting of the Red Sea had no need for scientific intermediaries because scientific factors are how God normally does things; when He abnormally does things as in the case of miracles, He is acting unscientifically. Science merely describes God’s normal ways of operating this simulation. So trying to come up with scientific explanations for miracles is to think that God has to bow down to Mother Nature and do things her way rather than His way.

According to Guessoum, and I hope I am not being too harsh here, a self-respecting and scientifically-minded Muslim must believe that God has no choice but to act according to the laws of nature. Why? What is so special about nature that God must bow down to it? What a low opinion to have about God! Guessoum could argue that God acts according to nature by choice, but there is no suggestion in the book that he has such a conception. He appears to think of God and nature as two equally powerful deities, apparently thinking this is the only way we can “reconcile” the two and remain scientifically respectable.

I respect Guessoum’s right to have his own theology. But I do not respect his apparent thinking that his secularized and defensive theology is the only intelligent and rationalist one. This could of course simply be due to his lack of knowledge of the details and sophistication of Islamic theology. See my essay on reconciling Islam and Darwinian evolution for more on the Ghazalian worldview and how it fits perfectly within a rationalist worldview.

Selection bias and cultural intertia

He discusses a 2007 conference on “Quranic Healing” organized in Abu Dhabi and attended by many university professors and professionals. The keynote speaker called for integrating “Quranic healing” into medicine in university curricula. Topics discussed included the effect of Quran recitation on water and the scientific basis for the evil eye.

Reading such reports, I had difficulty reminding myself that all this was being presented in the twenty-first-century conferences and not in dark medieval gatherings.2

There is a selection bias here: only the minority of Muslim professors and professionals who find “Quranic healing” interesting would have been interested in attending such a conference. This tells us nothing about the potential majority of elite Muslims who would have found such a conference absurd. That conference could either be (1) a sign that Muslims are still medieval in their thinking on some matters or (2) one of the last gasps of the dying breed of Muslim professors and professionals who engage in such silly abuses of religion and science.

Guessoum expresses many aspects of what I call “Muslim middle class horror syndrome”; the horror of middle class Muslims at what we might call ordinary Muslims. He decries the fact that a Quran memorization competition at his son’s school (in the UAE) attracted the interest of all the parents while a science fair barely attracted a few of them. The Quran competition only focused on memorization, not understanding, and the parents apparently could not care less about comprehension as long as memorization took place.

“Islam” might be a completely irrelevant variable here from a social science perspective here. Children of doctors and other highly educated professionals, regardless of their parents’ religiosity, are going to enjoy having parents that are going to be as open-minded and interested in science education as Guessoum. And children of uneducated parents are going to not have parents that are interested in science education. It just so happens that in the UAE, most children are the children of uneducated parents.

To put it another way, Islamic beliefs never prevented children born to highly-educated parents from reading and taking in dozens of modern scientific books. Guessoum, who had such an upbringing, somehow thinks he is unique. I doubt he is. With or without Islam, children who come from families predisposed to love knowledge and learning will get a wide, modern education. The idea that there are highly intelligent Muslims who refuse to read scientific books (as Guessoum’s theory of the ailment of Islamic cultures would predict) is completely a figment of the imagination; there are no such Muslims.

Now, I do not deny that the Arab/Islamic world suffers from far more superstition and anti-scientific attitudes than, say, Sweden. But this may simply represent cultural inertia. The number of people getting a university degree in the Middle East has increased by orders of magnitude in the past 50 years, and this cannot help but slowly change their cultures. It is just that change takes time.

We should therefore look at the attitudes of devout Muslim children versus their parents to find out whether Islam is preventing progress as their culture changes or not. I am very much of the opinion that Islam is quite irrelevant here.

To put it another way: Islam never prevented someone from being a rationalist. It did not do that in 850 CE, and it does not do that today. Islam can be used as an excuse for irrationalism, but it can also be used as an excuse for rationalism. It is quite amazing that, seeing the extremely diverse worldviews of Islam’s different scholars, one can hold onto the view that Islam somehow hampers rationalism. The existence and celebrity status of rationalists like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī should be sufficient evidence to show that a person predisposed to rationalism will find rationalism through Islam. It is humans themselves who make Islam rationalist or irrationalist as their own personal and cultural tendencies make them. Islam may not be a causal factor here–it may simply be a victim.

Another support for my argument is this: In the Middle East, secularists who reject Islam and proudly embrace theories like evolution as alternatives to the Islamic worldview are going to be just as ignorant about real science as Muslims of equal education / socio-economic status. They will follow a narrow-minded, make-believe science that is almost half made up of a secularist metaphysics. This means that it is the culture that is the problem, not the religion. Even if religion is abandoned, ignorance and narrow-mindedness remains because of cultural inertia. I do not have data to back this up, but my experience of the Middle East strongly supports this view.

The solution is going to be slow and will take much time. If each generation is slightly more rationalist than the one before it, then we can consider that progress. Egypt’s scientific output has increased from about 2800 research papers in 1996 to 17,000 in 2017. That is a tremendous increase in scientific output that at least partly reflects increased funding and engagement, and will likely have important ramifications for Egyptian culture. We see the same pattern almost everywhere else in Muslim majority countries: Pakistan went from 890 papers in 1996 to 15800 in 2017, Iran publishes more science than Belgium, Sweden or Poland (data from Scimago Journal & Country Rank).

The anti-Ghazali prejudice

While his treatment of al-Ghazali is friendlier than many others, he too submits to the Orientalist myth that al-Ghazali had a harmful effect on philosophy. He writes:

He remains an icon of Islamic classical scholarship, although for philosophy and science his legacy and influence were minimal, if not negative.3

Recent Western scholarship has shown that al-Ghazali wasn’t just a non-enemy of philosophy; he actually tried to integrate philosophy with spirituality and Islamic law. See Frank Griffel’s Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology and Kenneth Garden’s The First Islamic Reviver. Guessoum’s understanding of al-Ghazali is therefore outdated and unaware of recent scholarship.

Wahhabism, Ibn Taymiyya and Salafism

I am neither a Salafi nor follower of Ibn Taymiyya but I am forced here to defend them against Guessoum’s treatment. He conflates Wahhabism with Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings. Unfortunately it looks like it will take decades before we can rescue Ibn Taymiyya’s image from these caricatures. Guessoum really likes Ibn Rushd’s assertion that there can never be conflict between rational knowledge and scripture–a concept that was in fact very strongly defended by Ibn Taymiyya as well. As a modern Muslim, I find Ibn Taymiyya’s version of the argument superior to Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd continues to hold onto philosophical arrogance–the belief that when scripture and philosophy conflict, philosophy should be used to explain away scripture.

Ibn Taymiyya has the opposite, and wiser and more modern (some would say postmodern) view. Rather than arrogantly thinking that we are always superior to scripture, we should acknowledge that scripture is superior to us. When there is a seeming conflict between scripture and philosophy (I include science in this), rather than naively explaining away the conflict, we should look deeper and consider the possibility that it is our seemingly rational arguments that are at fault. A good example is the question of Darwinian evolution. Past reformers tried to reconcile Islam and Darwinian evolution by explaining away Islam’s views on creation. As I show in my essay on Islam and evolution, now that we have progressed further in our knowledge, we can actually fully support scripture’s views while maintaining rationality. It was rationality that was at fault in the past, not scripture. As our rationality improved, we realized that scripture had it right all along.

A wise person takes a lesson from this: we should strongly resist the desire to explain away scripture when there is a seeming conflict between it and rationality. We should always keep in mind that future generations may solve the conflict without being forced to throw away the plain meaning of scripture.

Ibn Taymiyya, despite his faults, was a wonderfully intelligent, open-minded and rationalistic scholar. To those of us wishing for a more intelligent and empirical Islamic law, Ibn Taymiyya is a much-needed breath of fresh air compared to the scholars who came before him (for example in his rejection of the triple divorce, in his consideration of the common good as a positive thing in its own right). Those interested in a sophisticated view of Ibn Taymiyya should check out Ibn Taymiyya and his Times (edited by Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed, see my review of it here).

Guessoum writes the following gross mischaracterization of Salafis (who, according to him, are the same as Wahhabis, but perhaps he was simplifying for the sake of his readers):

And Salafis often nonchalantly dismiss scientific and other truths whenever they appear to conflict with their literal understanding of Islamic texts or with injunctions found in the Qur’an and in the Hadith. No effort at interpretation is ever made to reconcile such truths; the Texts come first – complete with the readings and understandings of the Salaf.4

In reality Salafism is a diverse doctrine with an important non-Wahhabi element. Some of the most ardent Salafi followers of Ibn Taymiyya are in fact far more rationalistic in their understanding of Islam than many other Muslims (due to their critical approach to the opinions of previous scholars and toward hadith). As for Salafis rejecting science, if we ignore Wahhabi propagandists then I doubt there is any such pattern.

Did Muslims invent science?

Guessoum mentions Ziauddin Sardar’s defense of Muslims as originators of science and rightly does not agree with it. Despite his high respect for Sardar, he feels free to criticize his often politically motivated statements about Islam and the supposed intrinsic racism of the West, something I was pleased to see. Sardar unfortunately often acts as a propagandist capitalizing on fashionable Western trends, the current fashion being the doctrine that while all cultures and civilizations are somehow equally worthy, Western culture and civilization is inherently evil. For my previous criticism of Sardar see my essay An Islamic defense of free speech (a critique of Ziauddin Sardar’s views on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses).

Guessoum says that modern science is a recent phenomenon. He gives a number of the attributes of science, such as objectivity and a focus on experimentation. I believe the relationship of medieval Muslims with science deserved further discussion. First, let me propose a simple definition of science that captures its modern spirit and shows why medieval Muslims did not really have science as we understand it:

Science is autonomous consensus-seeking about explanations of the natural world.

An explanation is only scientific if it there is autonomous consensus about it among humans. Autonomous consensus means for many people to reach the same conclusion despite the almost-complete lack of pressure on them to reach that conclusion. If you have people in the United States, China and Egypt study the same phenomenon and reach the same conclusion about its explanation even though no one is forcing them to agree, then we call that conclusion scientific. Of course, this process can lead to false results, but the point is that as the process is carried out, it uncovers its own falsehoods and corrects them.

Guessoum says that an essential aspect of science is methodological naturalism (the insistence on natural, rather than supernatural, explanations). I believe this may not be necessary because autonomous consensus-seeking automatically, over the centuries, leads to methodological naturalism. Humans necessarily do not all share the same faith or the same liking for supernatural explanations. Therefore when humans seek consensus, they necessarily must discard supernatural explanations one by one until only the natural remains. In other words, discarding supernatural explanations is a side-effect of autonomous consensus-seeking, it is not an essential part of it. You simply cannot have humans from different cities and countries all come to the same autonomous consensus on some supernatural explanation because that requires equality of faith and theology, something that never exists. But they can come to autonomous consensus about natural explanations, since no faith or theology is needed for this. Therefore the seeking of consensus about the natural world automatically causes the supernatural to fade away over time until only the natural remains.

Now, medieval Muslims did not really have science because, while many brilliant minds sought explanations of the natural world (thus possessing one aspect of science), they did not have any concept of the importance of autonomous consensus-seeking, which is the essential element of modern science. They worked independently to understand the natural world, but they did not have sufficient self-awareness to generalize their methods into an agreed-upon process for uncovering the workings of the natural world. Al-Biruni defended science’s inductive method, but his method was never generally accepted or practiced. It took centuries of development before humans had sufficient self-awareness to think of science as a thing in itself. This self-awareness only started in the late 16th century with people like Francis Bacon.

Saying medieval Muslims had science therefore discards an essential aspect of its development. We should instead say that medieval Muslims had elements of modern science while lacking its essential quality: that of being able to see science as a thing in itself, a process of consensus-seeking for uncovering facts about the natural world. Muslim “science” was un-self-aware science. Self-awareness is essential to modern science. Therefore trying to drag the concept of modern science into the medieval era, as people like Ziauddin Sardar try to do, only muddies the waters. It is also an insult to the ingenuity and hard work of Europeans who were able to see science as a thing in itself.

It is true that Muslims contributed two essential things to science: the concepts of academic freedom and the doctoral dissertation that comes with it (see George Makdisi’s books). Christianity is a hierarchical religion that had little respect for independent initiative among scholars. Europe literally imported academic freedom from Islamic civilization where it was considered essential to the validity of the rulings of legal scholars (muftis). This was a foreign element in European universities that caused great conflict at first. Originally European universities were little more than servants of the Church and subservient to its authority. But Islamic academic freedom continually weakened the Church’s authority over the universities. Eventually, modern science was born out of this atmosphere.

Islam may have been essential to the development of modern science, but Islam did not have modern science. It only provided some of its building blocks. It took Europe centuries to sufficiently develop these building blocks into what became modern science. While ignoring Islam’s contribution to the development of science is an injustice, ignoring Europe’s contribution to its development is also an injustice.

The “Islamization of knowledge”

One of the best contributions of the book is Guessoum’s critical appraisal of the “Islamization of knowledge” fad of the 1980’s. This ill-defined program for reviving the Islamic world was based on the assumption that the modern sciences need to be re-built with Islamic concepts at their heart. This program was opposed by Ziauddin Sardar, who still subscribes to the equally silly post-modern idea that there is something inherently dangerous, un-objective and un-Islamic about modern science. Sardar’s modest proposal for solving Islam’s supposed science problem is the somewhat insane suggestion that we should throw out all of modern science’s axioms about the universe, nature, time and humanity to replace them with Islamic ones.

Both the Islamization of knowledge program and Sardar’s are little more than hasty reactions to the West’s dominance. Both subscribe to the utopian idea that there is some magical fairy land of knowledge that can be attained once we somehow (nobody knows exactly how) combine Islam and science.

The main underpinning of these two sides of the same coin is elitism: they come from a minority of intellectuals who think their services are needed to give the rest of the unwashed Muslim masses the keys to some utopia of knowledge. They are unable to realize, or refuse to admit, that every single Muslim intellectual and scientist will already be viewing the world just as they themselves do. Every Muslim intellectual and scientist will be forced to integrate Islamic ethics within their scientific and philosophical worldviews merely by existing and doing their jobs.

Sardar also thinks that the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim scientists out there are ignorant of ethical concerns. Science is inherently supposed to be “violent”, somehow these scientists are blind to the fact while he is not. Isn’t being so special wonderful?

Theistic science and metaphysical pluralism

Guessoum gives an overview of the concept of theistic science, the idea that science should be or can be practiced in a non-secularized way. The problem it responds to is the metaphysical intolerance of some atheists who falsely believe that science leaves no room for religion. But in our answer to this mindset we should not hold onto yet another form of metaphysical intolerance. We should first point out that all science has some metaphysical underpinnings (even if it is atheist metaphysics). Next, we should call for metaphysical pluralism: we do not dehumanize others regardless of their metaphysics, and we respect them as our cooperators in our seeking of autonomous consensus regarding natural phenomena, even if our metaphysics differ.

Consensus-seeking can be carried out regarding both natural phenomena and metaphysics. When it comes to natural phenomena, it is clear that all humanity is capable of hoping to reach consensus. But when it comes to metaphysics, we know that it is impossible for consensus to exist. There will always be Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists.

What does that entail? For those of sufficient humanism and insight, it entails metaphysical pluralism. All humans enjoy a divine spirit, an inviolable dignity, that gives them the right to be partakers in consensus-seeking: both physical and metaphysical. That means we should not attack individuals who propose godless metaphysics (even if we criticize their theories). We must not attack the persons, but we can critique their thinking. We must not try to use force, arguing that theism must be accepted by all. We must instead call for pluralism: all humans have the right to seek the truth on their own terms.

The only thing that we fight against is metaphysical intolerance: when militant atheists deny us the right to have our own metaphysics. Through metaphysical pluralism we can have intelligent discussions with those who disagree with us without dehumanizing them and refusing them the right to their independence of conscience.

It is true that atheist metaphysics can have very dangerous consequences (think the metaphysics of the Bolsheviks that gave them the right to summarily execute suspected dissidents). But the same applies to religious metaphysics; the religious too can use their metaphysics to support dangerous and inhuman doctrines. Therefore it is rather lacking in self-awareness to argue that theistic metaphysics is always more constructive and life-affirming than non-theistic ones. Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists can all reach a humanist metaphysics that transcends religious differences. We can, for example, all agree on the rule “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”

Non-theists, atheist or agnostic, remain human and continue to enjoy their God-given inviolability and dignity. We must leave it to them to accept their own metaphysics: there is no compulsion in faith/creed/religion, as the Quran tells us. If there is no metaphysical compulsion, then this means there is metaphysical freedom. People should be free to come up with their own metaphysics, and we should be free to come up with our own, and both sides should be free to critique the other’s metaphysics. Problems only arise in cases of metaphysical imperialism and intolerance.

Of course, disagreements on metaphysics can lead to severe practical differences, as in the argument over very-late-term abortions. In such cases, as the spirit of Islamic law teaches us, the lesser evil should be chosen. And the lesser evil is tolerance, even if it leads to what some consider horrible deaths. In a Western society where the law permits such abortions, the lesser evil is to tolerate the law while working peacefully to persuade others to change it, as most people seem to recognize. The alternative would be a civil war between supporters of the law and its critics, leading to far greater evils.

Conclusion

Nidhal Guessoum’s Islam’s Quantum Question is a good contribution to the discussion on Islam and science. While there is much in it that can be criticized, it can still perform the function the writer hand in mind for it; helping expose the weaknesses in the way the relationship between science and religion is envisioned in the Middle East.

An Islamic defense of free speech (a critique of Ziauddin Sardar’s views on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses)

I have had Ziauddin Sardar’s Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim since 2010, but I only got around to reading it recently. This is one of the funniest books written by a Muslim, rivaling the books of Turkey’s Aziz Nesin. In what is perhaps my favorite scene of the book, Sardar camps out in the office of a Saudi official who is refusing to let him leave the country. In order to make a point, he reads the classic Book of the Superiority of Dogs Over Many of Those Who Wear Clothes in front of him.

A cover of Ibn Marzuban’s The Book of the Superiority of Dogs

Soon after getting into the book, it becomes clear that Sardar is not engaging in a rigorous retelling of past events. The book appears to be a fictionalized memoir. The characters he disapproves of appear comical and cartoonish, while the characters he approves of jump out of the page to lecture the reader.

Many famous characters of the Islamic history of the second part of the twentieth century show up: the Pakistani Islamist Mawdudi, Said Ramadan (father of the intellectual Tariq Ramadan), Sheikh Nazim, Ian Dallas (Abdul Qadir al-Murabit), Ibn Baz (the Saudi scholar), the Palestinian-American philosopher Ismail al-Faruqi, the Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq, Usama bin Laden (seen by Sardar from afar according to him) and the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim (famous for being put on trial for sodomy by Mahathir Mohamad’s government, according to Sardar a false accusation designed to destroy his career).

We see Sardar jump from one Islamic thinker or leader to another, first worshipfully following them, then discovering that their thinking has fatal flaws that makes it impossible for Sardar to continue alongside them. Maududi seems to have great ideas about freeing the Islamic world from foreign interference, but he has a medieval attitude toward women. Speaking of Said Ramadan and other Muslim Brotherhood members:

And that was my problem with the members of the Brotherhood. They see themselves as perfect; they were certain of everything. In short, they were ideologues: Islam, for them, was an ideology that allowed for no imperfections, no deviation, and, in the final analysis, no humanity. This is why I found so many of them repugnant.

Sardar looks into Sufism and finds that organized Sufism often leads to authoritarianism, made up of Sufi masters surrounded by a zealous and intolerant inner circle of worshipful followers who demand absolute and unquestioning obedience from initiates. Sardar says that he traveled to Morocco to find out if Ian Dallas’s version of Sufism really had its origins in the authentic Sufism of that country, but he fails to make any investigations, suggesting that that may not have been the (main) reason for his trip.

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and censorship

In one of the worst parts of the book, Sardar spends many pages trying (and failing) to convince readers that what Rushdie wrote about the Prophet Muhammad in his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses is somehow simply unacceptable. He does not bother to present a framework within which a pluralist society may decide what is and what is not acceptable to say. To a skeptical reader, it almost appears as if Sardar is saying:

We Muslims are simply too immature and uncivilized to deal with criticism and mockery, so please do not criticize or mock what is dear and holy to us or else we will flip out!

He compares the Satanic Verses to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, saying that books and ideas can be dangerous—the usual patter that today America’s democrats use to tell us why it is such a great idea to put them in charge of censoring the nation’s media.

Sardar also makes the pitiful argument that similar attacks on Jews would have never been accepted in the West. True, we all know the double standards. We have songs by a Jewish singer on YouTube calling Mary mother of Jesus a whore. We have the Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman saying she would happily crucify Jesus again without anyone batting an eye. But just because Jews enjoy an unfair advantage does not mean we should ask for the same. We should join the Christians in insisting on the rule of law and equal standards rather than clamoring for special treatment like little children.

According to Sardar, Muslims should get special protection for what they hold holy and dear because…because… they can’t handle things otherwise. This is especially bad because Sardar presents himself as a futuristic liberal Muslim who has risen above the pack. If this enlightened Muslim is so narrow-minded to be incapable of seeing the dangerous implications of his support for censorship what hope is there for the rest of us?

Sardar is unable to appreciate the fact that placing limitations on free speech will mean that politicians, with their all too obvious short-sightedness and hunger for power, will end up deciding who can say what. Whatever the harms of free speech, allowing politicians to limit it is breathtakingly naive. It is amazing that Sardar can spend a lifetime in the West and fail to get the memo on this. In Islam, when faced with two evils, we are required to choose the lesser one. It shouldn’t take a genius to recognize that free speech is the lesser evil compared to censorship. I do not want anyone, no matter how pious or wise, to decide for me what books I can and cannot read. There is no way to make censorship better than free speech. The censorship department, even if full of democratically elected people, will inevitably make decisions based on political considerations and personal alliances. You cannot neglect the human element when designing any political institution, something too many Muslim political thinkers of the past kept failing to learn.

I am sure Sardar, in his private life, would not want anyone telling him what he can and cannot read. As is typical of many 20th century thinkers and leaders, he probably thinks he personally should be free to read what he wants while also thinking he has the right to limit other people’s reading rights. Regardless of how vile Rushdie’s book was, if his work is truly worthless then he should be given no power to ruin freedom of speech for us by prompting us to create an authority that can censor books.

What exactly is the harm of Rushdie’s book?

Sardar, other thinkers, and Islamic preachers who inflame people’s feelings about anti-Islam books and cartoons promote hysteria to satisfy their own desire for revenge. Ask them why the Satanic Verses should be banned and you will hear vague phrases like the “protection of the honor and dignity of Islam”. So Rushdie wrote a book that disgusts Muslims; what exactly is its harm beyond making you feel upset if you try to read it? If you are afraid it will give people negative impressions of Islam, the reality is that people’s impressions of Islam are already as negative as they can get. If you are afraid it will cause people to leave Islam, it is actually far more likely to inflame feelings of allegiance to the ummah by making Muslims feel that their identity is unfairly under attack.

At the end of the day, what Rushdie’s book achieves is close to nothing. It will not cause people to leave Islam. It will affirm the negative views of those who already had negative views about Islam. And as for those who have no firm beliefs about Islam, it will merely be one influence among countless others on their thinking and they will soon forget most of it. And among the non-Muslims who have a positive view of Islam, they will either see it as an unfair attack or as something strange and difficult to understand. Rushdie’s book will soon be nothing more than a footnote in history, and the only reason it will keep being remembered is that too many Muslims were immature enough to make such a big deal of it as to make it a worldwide bestseller.

Metaphorical interpretation

Sardar firmly plants himself within the liberal, non-mainstream camp within Islam by supporting a metaphorical interpretation of the Quran. He seems to think, along with many Westerners, that taking the Quran too literally is bound to lead to narrow-mindedness and extremism. I understand where they are coming from. If the Quran was a man-made book like the works of Plato and Marx, then it would have been true that taking it literally would lead to serious problems, since it would mean that one man’s limited and potentially misguided thinking would control the fates of millions of people. Isn’t it so much more sensible to open the door for updating the book so that Muslims can move with the times?

Sardar thinks the Quran should be read historically, as if God was not intelligent enough to foresee that humanity could very well continue for the next 100,000 years. According to Sardar God gave humanity a book that is stuck in the mindset of 7th century Arabia. That is a rather low opinion to have of the God who invented this universe. Shouldn’t a real God be capable of giving us a book that can stand the tests of time?

The reality, as I will explain, is that the Quran is just such a book. The more literally you take it, and the more firmly you try to follow it, the more moderate you become. You don’t have to take my word for it, just look at the historical evidence. The most kind, peaceful and moderate Islamic leaders in modern history have all been ardent lovers of the Quran who treated it not as a historical artifact but as if it was sent down the very day they were reading it: the Pakistani poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, the Turkish revivalist Said Nursi, the greatly loved Egyptian scholar Mohammed al-Ghazali (not to be confused with the more famous medieval al-Ghazali), the Kurdish leader Ahmad Moftizadeh. These were not extremists. In fact many of them have been subject to constant attacks by extremists for being too liberal and open-minded. A US government officer recently published a book on how Moftizadeh’s Quran-centered version of Islam can be used a role model for fighting extremism (see The Last Mufti of Iranian Kurdistan).

The Quran has a special status which Sardar has apparently failed to grasp. He thinks that admitting that the Paradise described in the Quran is really a physical Paradise is something that can only be done by an ignorant literalist. This is a rather insulting view to have of the majority of the world’s Muslims who do believe in a physical Paradise. Unfortunately, the path he recommends, of giving Paradise-related verses a metaphorical interpretation (they are apparently really about a mystical reality that cannot be described in words) leads to turning Quran-interpretation into a free-for-all. He offers no convincing explanation for why he thinks this is a valid way of interpreting the book apart from the fact that he really wishes things to be that way. He is doing the same thing that extremists do; reading his own prejudices into the Quran rather than letting the book speak for itself.

God’s speech plainly tells me about a physical Paradise. Sardar and some others say that these are actually references to a non-physical reality. I will take God’s words about Paradise any day over any human’s.

Conclusion

Sardar is a good intellectual and his skepticism toward the Islamic thought of the second half of the 20th century was justified and necessary. He, however, is stuck in the mindset of the Muslims he despises; he believes in hurling insults and making caricatures of his intellectual opposition, rather than rising above the argument and treating those who disagree with him as full humans, to be respected and treated with an open heart. If you close your heart to those who disagree with you, you are no better than them no matter how enlightened you think you are (see my essay Consensual Communities). Sardar is a liberal who attacks the (supposedly) narrow-minded conservatives/literalists. As I explain in the linked essay, one can rise above this argument to find a third path that can actually lead to positive outcomes.