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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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Sebastian Münster Cosmographia 1544
Science plays a central role in modern societies but science is not what most people believe it to be. Methodological foundations of science are nowadays unstable and scientists themselves are uncertain what these foundations are, if there are any.  The matter is important because, as Russian philosopher Lev Shestov says, “the theory of knowledge is not at all an abstract, harmless reflection on the methods of our thought; it determines in advance the sources whence our knowledge flows.” One may say that ontology is dependent on epistemology and not the other way around.
The ancient Greeks distinguished between episteme (knowledge) and doxa (opinion) and were only interested in what could be known for certain. They were cognitive maximalists. Only episteme mattered while doxa was considered unworthy of attention of a rational being. A gentleman would not lower himself to thinking about ordinary matters which was the domain of the slaves. As a slave society, the Greeks held manual work  in contempt while contemplation was considered the highest form of activity. Only slaves had closer contact with matter. As the Greeks believed that Logos (Reason) permeated that part of reality that really mattered, they thought that rational thinking was the key to understanding the world. Therefore, techne (craft) was for them inferior to episteme.
Moreover, as Alexandre Koyre explains, the Greeks thought that terrestrial, or sublunary, world was very different from the supralunar sphere.  The former was the domain of corruption and change while the latter was governed by the laws of mathematics. As the Greeks believed that mathematics could not be used to describe the world of earthly matters,  they were unable to develop techne into applied science. They were quite advanced in the mathematisation of astronomy but would consider the mathematisation of physics an absurd proposition because the sublunary world was imperfect, impure and changeable.
Theirs was a static society with no hope for progress. Aristotle was engaged in some rudimentary observation of physical objects while Plato devoted himself entirely to pure speculation. This frame of mind operated as a straitjacket on the Greek spirit.
Christianity continued the Greek philosophers’ disdain for earthly existence. Philosophically speaking, it was initially a form of Neoplatonism whose orientation was highly speculative. A significant change occurred in the thirteenth century when St Tomas Acquinas christianised Aristotle. Science, however, could not progress neither under Neoplatonists nor Aristotelians. The latter developed slavish devotion to Aristotle. His texts were considered more important than observation and supposedly contained all there was to know.  There was no place for change in the Middle Ages.  The medieval man looked towards the past and cherished permanence and immutability.
Only medieval technology made significant progress. As a religion open to slaves, Christianity gave recognition to manual work. The first centuries of Christianity were marked by the oriental form of worship involving asceticism and eremitic forms of monasticism. Eremitism was later replaced by cenobitism with monks not only praying but also working (ora et labora). Homo faber is a medieval creation and monks can be seen as the first empiricists. Gothic cathedrals are a testimony to an intense engagement with the physical world in medieval times, albeit only among monks, craftsmen and artisans.
The modern world started with theoreticians like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes and practitioners like Galileo. They created the model of science that lasted for three centuries, reaching its apogee in the second half of the nineteenth century and starting to crumble in the 1930s.
Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp 1632
A revolutionary change occurred when Galileo concluded that celestial bodies were also subject to change, limitations and imperfections. The discoveries of mountains on the Moon and the moons of Jupiter shattered the medieval worldview which was already crumbling following Copernicus’ calculations suggesting that the earth was moving around the sun. For Galileo, celestial bodies were but physical objects subject to the same laws as objects on Earth. Universal laws governed both the subblunary and celestial worlds. The sharp distinction between episteme and doxa thus disappeared.
Descartes provided theoretical basis for the mathematisation of physics and Galileo applied Descartes’ new method in his scientific experiments. He wrote in 1623 that “this grand book, which stands continually open before our eyes (I say the ‘Universe’), […] is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures”.

Galileo treated change as orderly and discrete therefore he needed exact calculations which could only be obtained by using precise measuring instruments. Senses were replaced by instruments in the observation of Nature. Until Galileo, people lived among objects that were apprehended by the five senses. Renaissance science introduced objects which could only be apprehended indirectly through instruments. Ordinary people still lived among objects that could be seen, heard, touched, smelled and tasted. Scientists however dismissed evidence coming from the senses as unreliable and focused on the objects that could only be observed via instruments. Visible objects moving in physical space were replaced by abstract objects moving in geometric space. Real existence of such objects was verified by theories, not senses; the status of these objects is even today questionable to some.

Theory replaced the everyday experience and common sense was no longer an arbiter of what was true and false. It was quite a challenge for people to accept that the Earth was moving around the Sun at an enormous speed without terrible wind pushing  objects off the surface of the earth. It was also puzzling that objects thrown into the air fell on the same spot from which they were thrown. Common sense dictated that the Copernican model was absurd but science won the argument by appealing to the verdict of Reason emancipated from the yoke of ancient wisdom and metaphysics, but also from everyday experience.
It seemed that the marriage of Bacon’s empiricism and Descartes’ rationalism, or induction with deduction, was a perfect match that put the humanity on the path to knowledge that was certain and final – true everywhere and for all times. The Enlightenment strengthened that conviction and led to belief that all the fundamental questions raised by man will be eventually answered by science. Boundless confidence in science was quite common among the educated members of the society.
This model of science existed for three centuries. At its apogee in the second half of the nineteenth century, it usurped the right to all-encompassing knowledge of all human matters. Scientism penetrated into the areas that could not and should not be mathematised like psychology, sociology, anthropology and history which deal with human behaviour.
 Joseph Wright of Derby An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768
A reaction to scientism found its best expression in the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey who proposed to distinguish between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften whose aims and methods were different – explaining and understanding, respectively. The neoromantic criticism of science was based on the conviction that science was inimical to values, and alienating man from the world. Artists were natural enemies of science and literature abounds in expressions of hostility to science. Tolstoy writes in The Death of Ivan Illich that
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of?… “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”
Dostoevsky is even more direct in his attack on science and its dehumanising effect in Notes from Underground
Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions.
Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four?
… But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.
… Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up.
These attacks were from outside of science and had little impact on it. A more powerful blow came from philosophers of science who questioned its methods and foundations.  The last valiant attempt to put science on firm ground was made by Husserl who wanted to give science absolute certainty. “What is true is true absolutely, in itself; the truth is one, identical with itself, whatever may be the beings who perceive it – men, monsters, angels or gods”, he writes in Logische Untersuchungen.
His uncompromising maximalism could not be defended when there was growing evidence of science being a historical phenomenon. Thomas Kuhn destroyed the myth of science as a process of accumulative growth of knowledge which is expanding by adding one discovery to another. He showed convincingly that there was no steady progress in science which in fact changes through one paradigm replacing another. Karl Popper replaced verification with falsification, claiming that knowledge is always of provisional nature.  Paul Feyerabend rejected all forms of authority, including the authority of reason and denigrated science as base and of little consequence.
The history of science is no longer perceived as linear and rational. Scientific criteria change through the change in paradigms, and scientists have difficulties with deciding what is scientific and non-scientific and what is rational and irrational. The boundaries of science are now porous. No-one believes anymore in trans-historical existence of the scientific method.
Polish philosopher Stefan Amsterdamski writes that for three centuries
… science has been treated as the embodiment of human rationality. It was seen as a feature specific to our culture, and its development was represented as the result of a systematic application of the rational method of investigation […] unlike the scientists and philosophers of a century ago, we no longer possess the conviction that scientific knowledge can be fully objective, as an  unmediated product of an autonomous knowing subject, and that its history is simply the history of Reason.
The ship of science has entered unchartered waters and there is no land in sight.
(based on Stefan Amsterdamski Między historią a metodą and Jozef Zycinski Język i metoda  )

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