In a famous historical work, al-Mas‘udi maintained that the Byzantine Christians of his time had gone into a civilisational decline because they had rejected the pagan Greek sciences as basically incompatible with Christianity, whereas Muslim civilisation was prospering because it had successfully assimilated the learning of the ancients and continued to build on it. In other words, it was the Muslims who had successfully blended faith with reason and had thus left the Christians behind. As such, it is highly ironic that Pope Benedict would use the words of a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor to redirect the same accusation at Muslims in the twenty-first century.
In al-Mas‘udi's day, the great translation movement which had started in Baghdad in the ninth century was bearing rich fruit, making Greek philosophical texts accessible to Arabic-speaking Muslims and effecting a genuine intellectual revolution in the Islamic world. In this period, Muslims displayed a remarkable receptivity towards knowledge and learning, regardless of its source. Persian works of literature and philosophy and Indian treatises on mathematics were also translated and studied alongside Greek works. Some of the best-known philosophers of the medieval period – Avicenna, Averroes, al-Farabi – were Muslims, and their thought was influential in medieval Europe as well. Without this intellectual and cultural legacy that was transmitted to Europe from the Islamic world, there may well have been no European Renaissance!
Pope Benedict's statements, therefore, unfortunately point to a basic lack of knowledge about this organic continuity between the learning of the pre-modern Islamic world and that of the post-Renaissance West. He is not alone in this. Many otherwise highly-educated Westerners (and Muslims as well) are often quite ignorant of these historical connections. There are rejectionist Muslims today who would deny that Islamic thought and learning has in any way been influenced by non-Islamic sources. They too need to acquire a more accurate knowledge of the historical inter-connectedness between the West and the Muslim world. This is why so many find the "clash of civilisations" thesis credible today.
There is a danger, however, when anyone argues that their own religion and civilisation had/has a monopoly on reason and had/has effected the best synthesis between faith and reason. Such triumphalism is a serious impediment to dialogue and for any kind of sustained civil discourse. If dialogue is what the Pope is after, setting up a reified Islam as a straw man in order to posit the superiority of Western civilisation and its supposedly unique values is a non-starter. Dialogue is better-served through the humble acknowledgment of commonalities, of one's own sins and of one's connectedness to the other.
To set the record straight on a number of points raised by the pontiff in relation to Islam, it is important to point out that Muslims through time have subscribed to a spectrum of views on the dialectical relationship between faith and reason. Two main trends remain influential within Sunni Muslim thought today. One is represented by the Ash‘ari school of thought and is fideistic so that faith or revelation always trumps reason. The other is represented by the Maturidi school of thought which holds that reason independently of revelation can arrive at the same truths. Both schools of thought are considered equally "orthodox" within Sunni Islam, with Maturidi thought gaining ground. The Mu‘tazila (known as the Rationalists) in an earlier period claimed that there was no incompatibility between faith and reason and the Shi‘a have also historically emphasised the rational basis of their school of thought. One cannot, therefore, simplistically and reductively portray Islam as preferring one over the other i.e faith over reason or vice versa, nor can one portray Christianity, or perhaps any other faith tradition, in this manner either.
The key to getting along with one another is, therefore, to learn the truth about one another and avoid trading in pernicious stereotypes. In fact, Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia University has recently coined the term "Islamo-Christian civilisation" to describe our shared heritage. This is a term and concept that deserves to gain broader currency.
To address the deteriorating world situation today and the problem of ostensibly religious extremism, we have to make the eradication of global poverty and promotion of the dignity of ordinary human beings a top priority. We have to reinsert moral and ethical values in the public sphere and in international diplomacy, and hold our leaders accountable to such values. This would be the best way to undermine extremist platforms which feed off the grievances of the poor and the powerless. It is on such common ground, constructed on universal ethical principles, that diverse groups of people, faith-based and secular, can come together.
October 17, 2006
Asma Afsaruddin is associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame and author of the forthcoming The First Muslims: History and Memory (Oxford: OneWorld, 2007).
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