Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Islam as Philosophical Dead End

Classical (622 to c.940) and early medieval Islam was a civilisation and period with a rich philosophical tradition. Yet Islam became a philosophical dead end, an example of how societies, indeed, an entire civilisation, can stop supporting philosophy as a significant autonomous realm of enquiry. Islam is a civilisation where religion swallowed philosophy, with consequences we are still living with.

That Islam as a civilisation developed a rich philosophical tradition is obvious and well-documented. Thinkers writing in Arabic were particularly important in reconciling Aristotelianism with monotheism. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198) in particular was very influential in Latin Christendom. So much so that St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in his writings, would refer to Aristotle (384-322 BC) as The Philosopher and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) as The Commentator.

Yet that rich philosophical tradition dwindled away to vanishing point. It did so as the result of interaction between ideas and social change.

The social dwindling

The social change was the dwindling away of any basis for supporting scholarship and learning outside explicitly Islamic religious schools. The movement to a fief-based military administration reduced administrative bureaucracies, by far the most significant basis for non-religious intellectual life within Islamic societies, while dominance by Turkish-speaking warlords, from the time of the Seljuqs (1037-1153) onwards, led to a surge in ostentatious support for religion by rulers making up for their non-Arabness via ostentatious religious adherence and patronage.

The shock and devastation of the Mongol invasion (much larger and far more traumatic than Crusader seizure of narrow coastal strips), including the sack of Baghdad (1258), the only time the capital of a living Caliph had fallen to non-Muslims, aggravated these trends. The Mongol invasion and conquests, particularly the violent ending of the Abbasid Caliphate, apart from a sad shadow-line in Cairo, both disrupted what non-religious scholarly networks remained and encouraged a retreat into an intensified Islamic identity. These processes are well set out in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr.

The religious trumping
The two philosophy-swallowing ideas developed from the Ash'ari Islamic school, being given their civilisation-winning form by al-Ghazali (c.1058-1111). The moral claim was that revelation was the only ground for ethical judgement. This effectively eliminates moral arguments as the West understands them (indeed, as all the origin civilisations for philosophy—the Hellenic world, northern India and China — understood them). It is why Islamic states are the only ones who have seen fit to issue an adjusted form of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, because all ethical arguments and claims have to be grounded in revelation.

The metaphysical claim is that Allah is the source of all non-human causation. Not merely the ground of causation in the Aristotelian sense, but literally the immediate cause of everything that happens. Allah remakes the world at every moment; what we see as causal patterns are merely the habits of Allah, which Allah can change at any moment.

Unsurprisingly, the dwindling away of philosophy also saw the dwindling away of science within Islam, as intellectual effort was directed back into religion. Especially as law was part of religion and religious scholarship, apart from elements (qanun) allowed to operate in the silences of Sharia.

In this way, Islam pre-eliminates competition to itself from within Islamic society. It does so by eliminating the category of moral arguments beyond itself and allocating all non-human causation to Allah. So the levers to replace religious grounding of social and physical understanding which led to the Western Enlightenment are absent within mainstream Islam, as they have no resting points. Especially as the Quran is held to be the literal word of God, a manifested miracle, written in a single language and, according to mainstream Sunni thought, outside time, so far more insulated from critical scholarship than the Christian scriptures.

Adoption aborted
The expansion of the non-religious intelligentsia from the early C19th onwards that the (much delayed) spread of the printing press and efforts of modernising rulers created in the Middle East appeared to give the basis for Islam as a civilisation to “catch up” with the West. A modernising intelligentsia did develop, but largely as a by-product and support for modernising regimes and states.

This centrally-organised, copycat modernisation largely failed to put down deep roots in Islamic societies. Worse, it became tied to success of those states and regimes. (In some ways, a repeat of what happened to the original wave of reason-based modernisers, the Mu'tazila of Classical Islam: Islam is a civilisation of strong recurring patterns.)

Islamic Enlightenment: the Struggle between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue provides a history of this modern abortive Enlightenment: an informative and perceptive review is here.

The Islamic world became dominated by fascist-analogue regimes. But defeat in the Dictators’ War (1939-1945) had rather discredited Fascism and the Soviet bloc was willing to supply arms and support to friendly regimes, so socialism became the dominant rhetorical flavour of non-monarchical regimes in the Islamic world. (Note that I mean socialism in its command economy sense rather than its “free-floating good intentions insulated from any failures” sense.)

But Arab socialism fared no better than its alternatives elsewhere; though, being less actually socialist, rather less catastrophically so. In the West, the failure of socialism led to postmodernism and its close associates, such as Critical Theory. In Islam, the failure of socialism led to political Islam (Islamiyya) and to a search for a purified Islam (notably the Salafi and Deobandi movements).

This was somewhat less of a difference than it might appear, as al-Ghazali’s causal analysis was grounded in essentially the same epistemologically sceptical argument about what we can know from observation later developed by Hume (1711-1776), which so influenced Kant (1724-1804) and from there led to postmodernism.

Moreover, Critical Theory permits no moral argument beyond itself, as the purpose of all “proper” intellectual endeavour is to support the struggle against oppression and any critique of that goal is, by definition, illegitimate defence of exploitation and oppression. An attitude which has seeped into the wider society (particularly the "cultural commanding height" industries of media, education, entertainment and IT) to the extent that start-up entrepreneur Sam Altman can report that it is easier to discuss heretical ideas in China (under a Leninist regime) than in Silicon Valley in California.

Monarchy, mosque and military
So both mainstream Islam and PoMo progressivism pre-eliminate competition. In Islam, outside the monarchical societies, the weakness of civil society leaves politics suspended between mosque and military. (The monarchies tend to have richer civil societies precisely because the monarchies both incorporate and balance between mosque and military and failed to wage quite the war on traditional society that the modernising military regimes did.)

The revival of the headscarf both speaks to the power of Islam and the revival of political Islam. (Trying to spin it as some sort of manifestation of female power is pathetic, even given that reveiling has largely been driven by [pdf] expanded education and employment opportunities for women, as it is a response responding to the power of Islamic belief.) That the Islamic world still has significant patches of relatively low literacy rates (especially for women), and (in the case of the Arab world) a strikingly low rate of translation of non-Arabic books, does not help the develop of non-religious thinking and ideas within Islamic civilisation.

What intellectual life there is within Islam remains trapped within the concerns of the early Western Enlightenment—how to replace and overcome religious grounding of social and physical understandings versus how to insulate religion from the pressures of modernity—and remains without the levers that the Western Enlightenment relied on. While there is some dim possibility of a moderate modernising approach developing, Islam is not likely to stop being mostly a philosophical dead-end civilisation any time soon.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. "to the extent that start-up entrepreneur Sam Altman can report that it is easier to discuss heretical ideas in China (under a Leninist regime) than in Silicon Valley in California."

    It is easier for a *visiting American businessman to discuss heretical ideas in China (under a Leninist regime) than in Silicon Valley in California.

    There, fixed it for you.

    Try asking the Chinese if they feel the same way. Saying that "gay people are evil" is not "heretical"; it's repulsive. It's like saying "black people are inferior" or "Jews are greedy evil motherfuckers." The visceral response to such things is not merely emotional; it's also rational, in that we know from moral reasoning that such "heretical ideas" are rationally and empirically wrong. So you can't fault people for denouncing those who spew such demonstrably false things. The last time I checked, you were supposed to call out liars for their lies. And that's what these "heretical ideas" often are these days, if his own example is any indication ("I am less worried that letting some people on the internet say things like “gay people are evil”...). Now, should the state ban such hateful speech? Of course not. But people have every right to refuse any association with people who keep spewing it -- with habitual liars. I doubt you would be anywhere near as opposed to it if it were Muslims who go around in the workplace saying gays/Jews/blacks/women/etc. are evil/inferior/etc."

    1. So, it is easier to discuss stuff where you won't be sanctioned than where you will? I think that was Altman's point. And Altman was clearly not talking about the sort of abusive speech you are mentioning, but the ever expanding range of "problematic" topics. It's the Puritan element in US culture finding new sins to be hysterically self-righteous about.

  2. Capitalism will trump Islam. The hardline Islamists know it and fear it. But their fellow Muslims can't do without it. And it's wonderful.

    1. Not convinced: Islam was always highly commercial. The cultural tag-alongs of capitalism may be having a more corrosive influence, though.

    2. With the thoughts you'd be thinkinDecember 22, 2017 at 6:25 PM

      Have you ever read Jihad vs the Shopping Mall by Gary Brecher (John Dolan)? It talks about the authors personal experience working in Saudi Arabia and it argues what James argues, but honestly I'm not sold either way.

    3. The thesis is set out here. . I am in the "maybe but sceptical" camp on the thesis.

  3. Great essay. I especially like that humble insight: "The movement to a fief-based military administration reduced administrative bureaucracies, by far the most significant basis for non-religious intellectual life within Islamic societies, "

    1. Thanks. There is considerable scholarship on the broader issue of social basis of intellectual life within Islam. Timur Kuran's pieces on Islamic society in general and Ottoman society in particular are especially worth reading.

  4. What Jacques said -- great essay.