by Paul Austin Murphy (November 2013)
During the short time in which philosophy and science prospered in Muslim lands, it did so only in spite of Islam, not because of it. This is partly shown by the fact that the Arab hegemony, as it were, hardly ever produced any philosophers of its own. Most Muslim philosophers were Persian. Many others were Christians and other non-Muslims who happened to live and work within Muslim lands.
Philosophy even had a hard time during the Islamic Golden Age. Indeed the 'greatest Muslim philosopher', al-Ghazali, believed that his prime task was to place severe limits on philosophy in order to make way for Islam's complete dominion. Yet, because he did so with philosophical tools, Western Islamophiles have seen him as an affirmative philosopher rather than as a kind of 11th-early deconstructor (as it were) who used philosophy simply in order to try and destroy philosophy. (He was partly successful in this; at least in the Muslim world.)
Science had an easier time only because of the technological and practical benefits it offered the various Islamic empires (e.g., curing Muslims and providing them with better weaponry).
In addition, in Part One of this essay it can be seen that the Arab Muslim conquerors often invaded lands which already had thriving philosophical and scientific cultures. Not surprisingly, then, philosophy and science were passed onto these Muslim invaders who, some years later, passed some of that knowledge and culture onto Western Europe.
Part Two deals with the mistaken view that Islamism and even Islamic fundamentalism are relatively new phenomena. It can be shown that only the word 'Islamism' is new. Those that take the view that Islamism itself is new – whether they are moderate Muslims, practitioners of interfaith or Western Islamophiles – usually attempt to prove this point by simply highlighting those features of Islamism which were specific to the 20th century; even though the same biased sampling can be used to argue that, say, Christianity or democracy was a purely 20th century phenomenon by citing TV evangelists or digital voting in Parliament.
The deeply and essentially political nature of Islam goes back to Muhammad, the Koran and the hadith. That political nature never really altered during the next 1,400 years. Indeed, depending on which Muslim you ask, and when you ask him, Muslims themselves are likely to stress Islam's 'totalist' nature. Moreover, it is precisely that politics-religion fusion within Islam which hundreds of millions of Muslims think makes their religion superior to all other religions. Without that fusion, they would argue, Islam would simply no longer be Islam.
What has just been said about Islamism can also be said about Wahhabism. The latter too has its most direct and obvious roots in the 13th century. (Wahhabis themselves stress this 13th century link.) However, Wahhabism, like Islamism, really goes back to Muhammad and his Companions as well as back to the hadith and the Koran itself.
The bottom line, then, is that Islam cannot help but produce Wahhabis (or 'revivalists') and Islamists. It has done so since the time of the Prophet and did so for the next 1,400 years.
Arab Muslims Conquer Philosophical & Scientific Cultures
It is often said that Muslims passed on Greek philosophy and science to the West. That is true as it stands. What we aren’t often told is that Greek philosophy and science were also passed onto Muslims by non-Greeks who were also non-Muslims. The Arab Muslims simply conquered places in which the traditions of Greek philosophy and science were being carried on by such 'unbelievers'.
Arab Muslims, for example, conquered a mainly Christian Alexandria (in present-day Egypt) in 641. In Alexandria, Greek philosophy and science were already healthy – and had been for hundreds of years -when the Muslim invaders arrived. This means that if Muslims passed on Greek philosophy and science to the West (or to Western Europe), Muslims had already had such things passed on to them, in this instance, by Alexandrian Christians.
Exactly the same happened when the Arab Muslims conquered Syria and Iraq. In these areas, the study of Greek science and philosophy (amongst many other things) was being pursued by Christian Nestorians and Christian Jacobites.
Muslim writers themselves are fully aware that although there was a 'dark age' in much of Western Europe (depending, of course, on definitions and perspectives), it certainly wasn't the case that Greek science and philosophy – as well as Jewish learning and various Indian and Persian intellectual traditions – had ceased to be studied and added to in other parts of the world – certainly not in the places invaded by the Muslim Arabs. Albert Hourani (not a Muslim), for example, puts his own stress on the fact that the invaders didn't put an end to these traditions. However, you can equally stress that these traditions were still ongoing in the pre-Islamic 6th and 7th centuries (even if not in all of Western Europe). Hourani writes:
“The coming to power of an Arab dynasty did not cause an abrupt break in the intellectual climate of life in Egypt or Syria, Iraq or Iran. The school of Alexandria continued to exist for a time, although its scholars were ultimately to move to northern Syria. The medical school at Jundishapur in southern Iran, created by Nestorian Christians under the patronage of the Sasanians, also continued to exist…. There was also a high tradition of Jewish learning in Iraq, and an Iranian tradition expressed in Pahlavi and incorporating some important elements coming from India.”1
If we deal specifically with Baghdad and the Abbasid Empire, we can see that not only did these pre-Islamic traditions continue, they sometimes did so in the heart of the Muslim world.
In 762 Baghdad became the capital of the Muslim Abbasid Empire. Now if we move to Persia (Iran today) at roughly the same period, there you could have found the Sasanian academy of Gundishapur. This academy was founded at roughly the time as Muhammad’s birth – in 535AD. More relevantly, the Sasanian academy in Persia was an important place of study of Greek science, medicine and philosophy. Those studying it were non-Muslims. However, this academy supplied the caliphs of Baghdad with many court physicians, as well as passing on its knowledge of Greek science and philosophy. Many of these academics at the Persian Sasanian academy were also Christian Nestorians.
When it comes to the translations of Greek philosophical and scientific works within the Muslim world, most of it was done by Christians who spoke Syriac. This means that on the whole Greek works were firstly translated in Syriac and then into Arabic (although later, some works were directly translated from Greek into Arabic).
More specifically, take the case of the most famous of all Arab translators within the Muslim world, an Arab by the name Hunayn ibn al-Ibadi (808-73). He too was a Nestorian Christian. He started out as a disciple of another Nestorian in the heart of the Muslim world: Ibn Masawayh, the Baghdad-based physician. Masawayh too was part of a medical hegemony of Christian Nestorian families in the Abbasid Baghdad court which had all originally come from the city of Gundishapur in Persia.
So, here again, non-Muslims passed on Greek science and philosophy to either their Muslim hosts or to their Muslim conquerors.
The Slow Birth of ‘Islamic Philosophy’
It can be seen that Islam is not the natural home of philosophy when one bears in mind the fact that the first genuine Muslim philosopher, al-Kindi (who was born in Iraq – a rare case of an Arab philosopher), was not born until 801. We can now say that the first Muslim philosopher began to work around 200 years after the founding of Islam in Arabia. And even then al-Kindi was still treated with intense suspicion and aggression by many Muslims; both everyday Muslims and educated ones. As continued to be the case in the Muslim world, Greek philosophy – of which al-Kindi had a special affection – was also deemed to be both a foreign and a pagan/infidel import into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam).2
(In terms of comparative religion, Greek philosophy was to be found within Christianity from the very beginning. For example, Paul the Apostle, c.5 – c. 67, was steeped in the philosophy of both Plato and Aristotle as well as in the works of the Roman Stoics.)
I mentioned that there was no Muslim philosopher until around 200 years after the death of Muhammad. It can also be said that there were virtually no Arab philosophers at all – even during the Islamic Golden Age (al-Kindi being an exception). Most – or all – of the Muslim philosophers at this time – and after – weren’t Arabs. This is not surprising if one bears in mind the simple fact that in the 7th century – and for hundreds of years after – Arabic didn't have the words or concepts to deal with science or philosophy; let alone to do so in complex or theoretical ways.
Al-Farabi, for example, was a Persian of Turcoman origin. Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, was Persian. The ‘greatest Muslim philosopher’, al-Ghazali, was also Persian. Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, was born in Cordoba in Spain. And even up until today, all the main Muslim philosophers have been non-Arabs (usually Persian/Iranian). We must surely conclude that Arab Muslims were – and still are – a very unphilosophical and even anti-philosophical people at heart. And, from that, it can be said that Islam’s very Arabic essence somehow always worked against philosophy – as well as science – itself.
Even those Muslim philosophers who have traditionally been deemed to have been free of reactionary attitudes towards philosophy (as displayed by Ibn Taymiyah and Ghazali), still had ample problems with both philosophy – as a whole – and science.
The Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332 to 1406), for example, is regarded by many commentators as an 'empiricist'. Yet he was an empiricist who was largely against science (which is not, in itself, a direct contradiction). In regards to speculations on physical or material realities, he thought them worthless. He did so primarily because (as he put it in his well-known, at the time, Prolegomena) “questions of physics do not concern us, either in our religion or our livelihood, and therefore we should abandon them”.
As a result of all this, as well as the combined assault on philosophy of both Ghazali, Taymiyah and others, philosophy – and even Islamic theology – couldn't help but decline in the Muslim world in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. All that was left were often pretty mindless and useless commentaries/super-commentaries on the writings of those who were deemed to be the 'classical' Islamic masters.
Wahhabism 900 Years Before Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab
It is said that the Islamic Golden Age lasted roughly from the 8th to the 13th century. Despite that, the Islamic reaction had already set in well before the 13th century. In the case of Ibn Hazm,3 the Zahirite or 'literalist', the Islamic war against philosophy and science began in the 11th century. (Ibn Hazm was born in 994 and he died in 1064.) His personal Islamic battle was against any non-Islamic accretion to Islam; such as all forms of deduction, analogy and the imitation of authoritative masters (taqlid). All of which, up until his own time, various Muslim theologians and jurists had applied to the texts and the teachings of Islam.
By the 13th century, that Islamic war of attrition had truly set in and begun to destroy all free thought in the Muslim world. Ibn Taymiyah was the main offender; but there were many others. It is clear that Ibn Taymiyah is still seen as a kind of proto-Wahhabi – and the same can be said of Ibn Hazm 200 years before Taymiyah. Indeed Ibn Taymiyah can be called a proto-Wahhabi because Wahhabis themselves see him that way.
We can trace a line from Taymiyah in the 13th century to al-Wahhab himself in the 18th century; all the way from there to the rise of the rise of the 20th Wahhabi movement in Arabia and beyond; and then ultimately to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Consequently, just as Islamism is not a new phenomenon (many see it as being as recent as the last few decades), so contemporary Wahhabism stretched back to the 18th century and back to the 13th century; and then, ultimately, beyond that to Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam itself.
As for Taymiyah (1263-1328) himself.
Considering we are speaking of a Muslim ‘philosopher’ who predates Wahhabism by 600 years, and 20th century Wahhabism and al-Qaeda by around 800 years (as well as the fact that some would place him within the Islamic Golden Age), it is interesting to note that he denounced all theological and philosophical methods of proof when it came to Islam and to Islamic texts. Instead, he demanded a return to the ways of who were then called – and indeed who still are – the ‘pious ancestors’ (al-salaf al-salif, from which contemporary Salafism get its name).
Muslims were also calling for a return to the ‘pious ancestors’ (as al-Wahhab did in the 18th century) in the 19th century. What this partly meant was that these 'revivalists' believed that all Muslims truly need, according to the Wahhabis and the Salafists, are the Qur’an and the hadith as interpreted by the Companions of the Prophet and their immediate successors.
Once those ‘interpretations’ have been decided upon, then that is final. It is said that the authority of the interpreters is confirmed by the consensus (ijma) of the community. However, many non-Muslims – and perhaps some Muslims – mistakenly think this means that all Muslims are involved in the ijma and that this is a democratic process of some kind. It isn’t. The community, or ijma, only refers to imams, clerics, etc. – not to ‘the people’ and certainly not to Muslim women or to non-Muslim subjects (dhimmis).
The upshot of this Islamic reaction – amongst hundreds of others during Islamic history – is that all consequent interpretations of Islamic texts were deemed suspect and frowned upon. The same was true of all further theological, philosophical and even mystical additions, developments and accretions to the Koran and hadith. In fact all such movements within Islam were deemed as heresies (bida). And to this day they are still classed that way by literally hundreds of millions of Muslims.
1) Albert Hourani A History of the Arab Peoples (Faber and Faber, 2005) page 75.
2) In terms of comparative religion, Greek philosophy can be found within Christianity from the very beginning. For example, Paul the Apostle (c.5 – c. 67) was steeped in the philosophy of both Plato and Aristotle, as well as in the works of the Roman Stoics.
3) One Muslim 'Islamic scholar' suggested that my inclusion of Ibn Hazm – as a 'proto-Wahhabi' – was misplaced. He argued that Hazm, amongst other things, respected poetry and allowed the use of alcohol for cooking purposes. This follows the argument put forward in the introduction that certain 'moderate' Muslims, or Muslim movements, are distinguished from 20th/21st-century 'extremists' by simply highlighting the arbitrary things that might – or indeed did – distinguish them from such people. Nonetheless, these distinguishing features do not really take away their proto-Islamist, or proto-Wahhabi, nature. The very fact that Ibn Hazm lived in the 11th century couldn't help but make him different, at least in some instances, from al-Wahhab in the 18th century or 21st-century Wahhabis.
The Muslim scholar also suggested that I cite Ibn Hanbal as a better example of a 'proto-Wahhabi'. Ibn Hanbal, however, was not a philosopher – not even by Muslim standards. This would have therefore worked against one of the points of the essay.
Paul Austin Murphy is a writer who lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire. He has had articles published in American Thinker, Think-Israel, Liberty GB, amongst other places. He also runs the blogs, Jihad/Counter-Jihad & Politics: News & Comment and Counter-Jihad: Beyond the EDL, as well as Paul Austin Murphy’s Poetry and a more general blog, Stuff.
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