Category: Islam and Rationality

PROGRESSIVE SCHOLARS all agree that the problem of contemporary Islam is the lack of an Enlightenment brought about due to falsely conceived cultural constraints. They argue however, that these constraints need not be essential to Islam. They note the specific directions taken in Sunni Islam that discredited Reason, but that these directions were founded upon a predilection for the authority of the Hadīth, rather than that of the Qur’ānic text which can equally be adduced to support rationalism and evidence-based science.

Islam’s loss of philosophy and rationality was secured when the advocates of determinism prevailed over the supporters of free will, characterized by the suppression of the rationalist Mu‘tazila school of thought, on the grounds that its Hellenist foundations constituted an ‘interloper’ science. The rejection of free will and the embrace of predestination satisfied an instinct to absolute omnipotence for the Creator, as did the Occasionalism that held God to be the sole author of all actions, on the grounds that created substances could not be conceived to be efficient causes of events.

However, with the chain of physical cause and effect undermined in this way, and instead conceived as a series of miracles granted at the whim of God, there can be no talk of ‘natural’ or ‘rational laws’ since this would seem to limit God’s freedom and omnipotence. Consequently the physical sciences – or any science – are impossible, as the seven-century hiatus in scientific progress in the Islamic world attests to. Similarly, all human endeavour, all accumulated human constructions in law and governance – since they lack this unconditioned authorship of God – are to be considered as without validity and worthless. The inevitable result of this mindset is a culture of oppression and autocracy; since with no common ground of rational principles and laws to refer to, differences cannot be resolved by reasoning so much as through the unilateral imposition of force.

Empirical evidence establishes the link between intellectual freedom and material progress, as the authors of this section demonstrate. The ‘Golden Age’ of Islamic civilization – the 9th to 13th centuries – was at the same time its most Hellenized age. Its luminaries such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) had a lasting impression on a European world that was opening up to intellectual freedom, while in the Muslim world, on the other hand, a reverse dynamic consigned their memory, along with their writings, to the bonfires.

Since the ‘interloper sciences’ failed to gain an institutional footing in the Islamic world the arena was left to Ash‘arite Occasionalism and the more culturally ‘authentic,’ Arab textual sciences, which became the prism through which reality had to be perceived and managed. As a result the intellectuals of the 19th century Nahda were incapable of reconnecting with these earlier Arab lights and thus failed in their task to indigenize modernity. It remained an exercise of the élites, whom the Islamists could easily marginalize.

Present-day progressive Muslim scholars, many of whom hail from the Maghrib, are revisiting the relationship – inherited from the 8th century – of philosophical thought with Scripture in order to build up afresh an epistemological structure that goes beyond analogy from closed logocentric authority, beyond the ‘ilm al-yaqīn or ‘certainty-based science,’ to one that can accommodate modernity’s combative diversity, empiricism and elaboration of natural laws for its structures, without at the same time compromising Islamic identity.

Authors of this section oppose the idea of cultural betrayal in any promotion of protest, criticism and rationality, rooting their argument within the Islamic historical tradition of religious and philosophical thought, in all its own combative diversity – such as that championed by the Mu‘tazila..
Reconnecting with this ‘alternative pedigree,’ however, is still fraught with risk since Islam’s long legacy of despotism is not so easily dismissed. Yet despite the apparent onward march of Islamism these more courageous minds are taking up the challenge, in the knowledge that the key to Arab Muslim emancipation and progress lies with a creative resolution of the relationship of faith with philosophy. For on this all else depends.