Why is the West ahead of Islam?

(this is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Beata Janowska with Professor Marek Gensler, of the University of Łódź (Poland). The interview was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on 21 March 2016. The translation and the choice of images are mine).


Henri Bechard Interior of the Amrou mosque ca 1870

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a question arose in the Arab and Latin civilisations of what to do with philosophy. The response was different in each of these two civilisations. In your view, it was a key moment which paved the paths of the Muslim world and Europe. In the eleventh century, the Arabs were far superior to the Latins in their knowledge of philosophy.

Yes, the Arabs knew philosophy incomparably better than the Latins because they inherited ancient philosophy directly from the Greeks. When they conquered Egypt in the seventh century, the Mouseion in Alexandria was still a major intellectual institution of the ancient world. The legacy of Aristotle and Plato, or rather of the whole philosophical tradition, was very much alive in Alexandria at that time.

The Latins hardly knew Aristotle, because only a few of his minor texts were translated into Latin before the sixth century. Previously, there was no need for translations because everyone who dealt with philosophy knew the Greek language. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and the dark ages began between the sixth and tenth century, contacts with the Greek world had weakened. People no longer understood Greek and all the important texts were lost or were in Byzantium and therefore inaccessible. Nevertheless, Aristotle was still believed to be a great philosopher because he appears as such in the works of St. Augustine.

There were at that time important philosophical centres in Syria.

This is another story, they were created by refugees from Athens. In 529, the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of pagan schools, or more precisely, forbade non-Christians to teach in them. This resulted in the transfer of the Alexandrian school to Christians and that transfer occurred through an arrangement between Christians and pagans. In Athens, however, the philosophical school was closed because the Athenians did not want to negotiate with Christians and preferred to emigrate to Hellenised Syria which was then controlled by the Persians.

In Syria, they translated Neoplatonic texts first into Syriac and then, when the Arabs took over those lands, into Arabic. This work continued in Baghdad, the new capital of the Muslim empire, where a school was established at the court of the caliph. From the fifth to the eighth century, interesting things were done in philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire, of which the Latins were not aware of because of their separation from Byzantium. In contrast, the Arab conquerors of the Roman provinces in the south and east of the Mediterranean showed great interest in the philosophical thought of the conquered population.

Did the Arabs learn Greek?

They employed Greeks and Syrians as translators. Syrians were often were bilingual and, as their Semitic language is close to the Arab language, it was not particularly difficult for them to translate philosophical texts into Arabic. Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, was a Syrian. There were schools established at the courts of Muslim rulers because the Arabs, unlike the Latins, believed that the monarch should be educated. The Arabs accepted the Greek ideal of an enlightened ruler. The sons of emirs and sultans had to learn philosophy, often from textbooks written specially for them.

In Islam, education was not associated with religion and science was secular in nature. Islam did not develop theology in the Western sense. When Muslim lawyers needed logic, they learned it from ancient thinkers, while doctors studied biology from the same source. However, most Muslims did not think that they could learn anything from pagans about God.

Why did philosophy and theology come close to each other in the West?

Unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity treats its holy texts as dictated by the Holy Spirit to specific people at a specific time. That is why they have a supernatural element, but also human. The task of the theologian is to extract the revealed truth from a text written down by a human being. The holy text must be freed from the accretions of human origin, and expressed again to be understood by a new generation. St. Augustine said that no one understands fully the message of holy books. Acculturation of the holy texts is therefore necessary for every believer.


Tommaso da Modena Albertus Magnus 1352

Do you mean that one has to interpret Biblical texts anew in order to reconcile them with the level of knowledge and way of understanding of the world at a particular time?

Christians were aware of this from the very beginning. The first theological school was established in Alexandria by Clement at the beginning of the third century, when paganism still prevailed. Origen, who received solid philosophical and philological education at that school, distinguished three levels of interpretation of the revealed text. The first is the somatic or bodily level which involved a literal reading of the simple truths such as the Ten Commandments. The second level, which is psychic, refers to the soul. At this level, moral truths are dissected from the sacred texts for a particular time and place. For example, in the Old Testament, polygamy was allowed, and now it is not. Why? After all, it is not possible for God to change His commandments and indeed, He did not change them, only Man learned to read them differently. That’s what God allowed at the times of Abraham, it became unacceptable when mankind developed new sensitivities. People now understand that having four or five wives is a bad idea. It’s better to have one, lifelong companion. Moral progress affects the interpretation of the biblical texts whose meaning can be adapted to a particular period in the history of mankind.

The third and highest level of Origen’s scheme is called pneumatic as it involves the spirit (Gr. pneuma) and not the soul. At this level, the Bible is being interpreted allegorically to gain knowledge of Man as a creature of God and of God himself. This is the theology in the strict sense i.e. the speculative theology. This is what Christianity managed to gain through philosophy. Without philosophical conceptualisation, we would be doomed to a literal reading of the Bible.

As it is in Islam and Judaism?

In Islam and Judaism, the sacred text is treated as revealed in full, without the human element. In the Torah, which contains the Mosaic laws, there are rules governing nearly all aspects of life and there is not much room for speculation, though Judaism is still much more open than Islam. On the other hand, the Arabs believed that as long as religion does not intersect with science, everything is fine. Religious Islamic law is disconnected from ethics. Metaphysics is also absent. Muslims rejected it as a tool to know God, because there is no place in Islam for a discussion about God as the first cause.

Initially, Muslims showed great enthusiasm for philosophy and there was even a kind of speculative Muslim theology developed by scholars of the Koran, Mutazilites, but later philosophy was considered as unhelpful in spiritual development. Muslims began to wonder whether the extraction of pure knowledge from the Qur’an about God and creation is indeed necessary and whether it leads to salvation. Maybe this is an expression of arrogance of reason which leads people astray? Christians in the West also have such doubts. The eleventh century is a time of great dispute about the value of philosophy, both among Christians and Muslims.

These concerns are best expressed by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). 

Damian, a Benedictine monk, came to the conclusion that the development of philosophy went too far. Young and ambitious monks had the audacity to discuss issues such as, What it means that God is omnipotent. Is He omnipotent in such a way that even the principle of contradiction does not apply to Him? Damian was irritated by such deliberations because, being well educated, he sensed that the philosophy began to drift dangerously, freeing itself from theology, and soon it could happen that the philosophy would begin to dictate the terms to theology.

Did Damian believe that the teaching of philosophy should be forbidden?

He wanted to see theology above philosophy. This order was determined by the Augustinian concept of goods, according to which the knowledge of God is the supreme good, so that what serves this aim is also good, including philosophy. However, when philosophy ceases to be a means to this end, and sets itself other goals, it becomes evil because it distracts man from God. Damian worried that philosophy began to separate itself from theology as an autonomous discipline and to impose scientific requirements on theology. He wanted philosophy to be ancilla theologiae, a servant of theology. If philosophy does not want to play this role, it should be discarded.

Al-Ghazali rejected philosophy for slightly different reasons.

Both Damian and Al-Ghazali were scholars and long-time teachers of philosophy. Al-Ghazali studied, commented and taught philosophy until he had a kind of mystical vision that changed his life. He gave up teaching, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and travelled a lot. He abandoned teaching to venture on the mystical search for God. In his famous work The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he criticised the philosophical approach to God as erroneous and of little value. He did not say that philosophy is bad but that it is inferior to mysticism. Such views were voiced in Islam before, however, it was Al-Ghazali who triggered the loss of interest in philosophy among Muslims who gradually abandoned speculative theology which anyway was in an early stage of development. Interestingly, Al-Ghazali also distrusted the systematic study of Qu’ranic law and the emphasis on orthodoxy by its guardians. He maintained that Sufis, or mystics, are closer to God.


Jean-Leon Gerome Prayer in Cairo 1865 

Did Al-Ghazali recommend the abandonment of philosophy for religion?

In the eleventh century, Islamic mysticism went beyond its religious frame, with eminent Sufis suggesting that God is too great to be constrained within one religion. In all religions, mystics are censored because of individualism in their approach to faith. Nowadays, Islamic fundamentalists blow up the tombs of famous Sufis because individualism makes Sufism heretical. Christianity experienced similar problems, as mysticism often leads to heresy.

In the eleventh century, philosophy and science were synonymous. For as much as one could grasp a thing scientifically, one could only describe it in the concepts of philosophy. Even medicine was in fact the practical use of natural philosophy. The emancipation of science occurred in later centuries. A major step on this road was the appearance of universities in Europe in the thirteenth century, with the autonomy of studies and research in various departments. At the faculty of liberal arts, people were free to philosophise in a secular context; they were even forbidden to deal with religious issues. They were only bound by the principles of correct reasoning and by the correspondence between thought and reality. Interestingly, students at the faculty of theology engaged in thought experiments by using the procedures of so-called secundum imaginationem, which are exercises to imagine an entirely hypothetical situation such as, for example, God commanding us to hate Him. This idea was later developed by philosophers and eventually incorporated into the study of nature as an idealisation, that is the representation of a hypothetical state of nature stripped of certain elements which are non-essential from the point of view of the hypothesis under investigation.

For the development of science, it is important to develop complicated theories and to define concepts. Without philosophy and theology, there might not be such giants of science as Newton and Leibniz.

That’s right. Theology was a discipline for pioneering a new type of scientific hypotheses, which were later tested empirically. In science, verification was carried out by experiment, while in theology it was affected by reference to the tradition of religious dogma and the examination whether new theses are consistent with it, or lead to contradictions.


Laurentius de Voltolina

If the West rejected philosophy at that time, would science also be rejected? Was it a decisive point in the fate of Western civilisation?

Yes indeed, although it is difficult for us to accept that this is the case because for the past three centuries we got accustomed to the idea that science is the avant-garde of knowledge and theology is of little consequence. But in the Middle Ages, science found protection under the wings of theology. Regrettably, people now see the the Middle Ages in pejorative terms. Reputation of the Middle Ages suffered greatly during the Enlightenment. Most people nowadays cherish the Renaissance which supposed to be a period of the restoration of antique tradition. In fact, modern science is the legacy of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which the achievements of antiquity were enriched and developed further.

Mystical knowledge also involves intellect which is however engaged in contemplation rather than speculation. Mystical experience cannot be shared with others. Unlike philosophy, mysticism cannot be taught. Mystical knowledge does not require a conceptual apparatus because the mystical union is inexpressible.

In the West, the position of philosophy was defended by St. Anselm (1033-1109), the archbishop of Canterbury.

The authority of Anselm was instrumental in the continued duration of philosophy as an inalienable component of education. He strongly supported the autonomy of philosophy. Justifiably, Anselm is called the father of scholasticism. He claimed that philosophy is absolutely necessary as an element of education and without education one cannot acquire the knowledge of God.


Ludwig Deutsch The Scribe 1911

In the Arab world, science was defended by Averroes (1126-1198).

Averroes was aware of the damage caused to philosophy by Al-Ghazali, and in response to it he wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence in which he provided arguments against mysticism. According to Averroes, philosophy it is the highest form of theology because only philosophy uses abstract terms, being the subtlest and most sophisticated of all possible forms of expressions as the language of the abstract. Philosophy is capable of expressing matters concerning God as the supreme cause in the fullest and most precise way. Averroes did not differ in that from Aristotle who argued that philosophy leads to the knowledge of God as the first mover. By knowing the causes of things we attain perfect knowledge.

But he failed.

Averroes could play the same role in Islam as Anselm did in Christianity but he had insufficient authority as a religious thinker. He was a kadim, or Islamic judge, a person of great importance but not important enough to save philosophy. He was accused of the lack of piety, because he claimed that philosophy, not religion, is the surest path towards God. As a result, he had to flee from his native Cordoba to Africa. Averroes was treated as a heretic. After him, the authority of philosophy crumbled to dust and even his pupil Ibn Arabi abandoned philosophy for mysticism. Averroes is the last great scholar and philosopher of the Arab world.

In the East, there were no universities in the Western sense because there was no room for autonomous faculties. The University in Cairo, founded in the tenth century, is only a religious school. Over the following centuries, only remnants of philosophy needed by medics and lawyers were preserved in Islam. It is a sad paradox that, when in the twelfth century the Latins literally rushed to the Arab philosophy, and the great Arab scholars were read with admiration in Europe, the thinkers of the Muslim world already switched to mysticism. When universities flourished in Western Europe and became institutions of higher learning in the full sense of the word, science almost completely froze in the Arab world.

We can say that in the relay race of human progress, the baton was taken by another player at the very last moment.


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Filed under Christianity, God, Islam, philosophy, religion, Uncategorized

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