By Sabieh Anwar
Science as a Community Obligation
On the other hand, Ghazālī considers mathematics and arithmetic to belong to the category of the praiseworthy (Mamdūh) sciences. In his book Revival of the Religious Sciences he writes:
Sciences whose knowledge is deemed Fard Kifāyah comprise [all] sciences which are indispensable for the welfare of this world such as: medicine which is necessary for the life of the body, arithmetic for daily transactions and the divisions of legacies and inheritances, as well as others. These are the sciences which, because of their absence, the community would be reduced to narrow straits. 8
The science of mathematics is a community obligation (a Fard Kifāyah) and furthermore, delving even deeper into the mysteries of mathematics and medicine has also been regarded meritorious. Ghazālī even laments that Muslims prefer a study of Islamic law over medicine and it becomes hard to find Muslim physicians, yet jurisprudents abound and often indulge in disputation, rancour, useless hair splitting and vehement diatribes, adding to confusion and strife. For example, an individual deciding to take up study of Fiqh when there is a population in dire need of health care is someone “who neglects to give his attention to the calamity which has befallen a group of thirsty Muslims [and] is like the person who devotes his time to debate while several Fard Kifāyah duties remain neglected in town.”9
The Worldly and the other-Worldly
A major problem of Ghazālī’s times was that all forms of knowledge had acquired religious significance and so, points of intellectual dispute would often slip into bitter religious disagreements, leading to excommunication and heresy. Ghazālī addressed this situation by carefully proposing a classification scheme of all common forms of knowledge, placing Islamic jurisprudence, one major source of contention, at the level of “worldly disciplines”, not too superior to mathematics and medicine and regarding it as a collective duty of the community rather than an individual obligation. Such a ranking was in opposition to the generally held opinion of the Islamic scholarship, and was considered a sacrilege towards the religious merits of Fiqh, but Ghazālī stuck to his position.
The Rationalist Mu‘tazilites and Irrationalist Ash‘arites
Ghazālī was a strong supporter of the Ash‘arites, one of the schools of thought upholding the necessity of divine intervention in the physical course of events and opposed to the Mu‘tazilites over important metaphysical and theosophical questions. In present-day literature, the Ash‘arites are generally presented as dogmatists, an orthodoxy engaged in blind imitation of the “tradition”, with no latitude for rational thought necessary for science. On the other hand, the Mu‘tazilites are the rationalists, the upholders of Greek logic, abstract thought and hence the true heirs and practitioners of the scientific method.
However, one must remember that the rationalists did depend on tradition and likewise the tradionalists did depend on rationality. The distinction between these two groups is one of degree, rather than one of form. The rationalists believed in tradition, in the divine origins of the Qur’ān, in the need to interpret the Qur’ān, and their aim was not different from the conservatives: to affirm the transcendence and unity of God. As a result, Sherman Jackson in his introduction to Ghazālī’s text The Decisive Criterion of Distinction between Unbelief and Masked Infidelity writes:
Meanwhile, rationalist writings reflect a clear and sustained recognition of the authority of the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic tradition, including the propriety of following it by way of Taqlid. Traditionalists, on the other hand, use reason – even aspects of Aristotelian reason – but they do not recognize the tradition of Aristotelian reason as an ultimate authority. 10
Furthermore, one must also remember that the one and only period of Mu‘tazilite’s political ascendancy was during the Emperor Māmūn al-Rashīd’s and Mu‘tasim’s reigns, extending from 813 to 842. This state-sponsored cultural prominence of Mu‘tazilism was short lived. How could it then explain the golden age of Muslim science that extends well beyond half a millennium?
As far as I see it, the real distinction between the two Mut‘tazilite and the Ash‘arite approaches is actually based on the Hellenophilic glorification of Aristotelian reasoning – a hellenophilia that is all the more evident in several modern accounts of the history of science. A critique of the Greek body of knowledge becomes a defining signature of irrationality, contributing to the demise of science in the Muslim lands, enshrouded in the coffins sewn by the religious orthodoxy, the last nail in the coffin driven by the Ash‘arites and the funeral pyre finally set on fire by Hujjah al-Islām Ghazālī.11
David Pingree in unequivocal language writes about this attitude:
Hellenophiles, it might be observed, are overwhelmingly Westerners, displaying the cultural myopia common in all cultures of the world but, as well, the arrogance that characterized the medieval Christian’s recognition of his own infallibility and that has now been inherited by our modern priests of science.
Finally, I come to the point of what Ragep calls “political spin” or “preconceived views” – an ideological framework that suits our conceptions of Islam. The compatibility of scientific work-habits and the rigorous demands of religious practice seem to be an alarming idea for many natural scientists. These days, a belief in or mentioning of “God” is likely to arouse surprise and ridicule in academic circles. Dawkins, Weinberg, Shermer and their followers are highly uncomfortable with a deity who interferes in our lives, a belief they would consider to be toxic to the promotion of science. For example, even though Hoodbhoy gives considerable concessions to his readers in his book, first published in 1991 by passing the verdict: “Scientists are free to be as religious as they please, but science recognizes no law outside it own”, yet in his latest article in the distinguished periodical Physics Today, he preaches:
The faithful must participate in five daily congregational prayers, endure a month of fasting that taxes the body, recite daily from the Qur’ān, and more. Although such duties orient believers admirably towards success in the life hereafter, they make worldly success less likely. A more balanced approach will be needed. 12
It will be useful for many working Muslim scientists to discover what a “more balanced approach” means with regards to the five daily congregational prayers and the month of Ramadan! But remember that this sermon is also a strict piece of advice to all practising Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews who desire worldly success in their scientific careers.
1. George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007. Also see: Khwarizmi Science Society. Re-writing the History of Science in the Islamic Civilization. http://www.khwarzimic.org/islam/report_saliba.htm.
2. Steven Weinberg, The Deadly Certitude, Review of The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Times Literary Supplement, (January 17, 2007).
3. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, London: Zed Books, 1991.
4. Jamīl Ragep, When did Islamic Science Die (and who Cares?) Viewpoint, February 2008.
5. Michael Marmura, trans. Incoherence of the Philosophers (Lahore: Suhayl Academy, 2005), 6.
6. Watt, Montgomery, trans. Deliverance from Error (London: George Allen and Alwin, 1953), 34-35.
7. Incoherence of the Philosophers, op. cited, 7.
8. Faris, N.A. Revival of the Religious Sciences (Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 1962), 30.
9. Ibid., 105.
10. Sherman Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam, Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī’s Faysal al-Tafriqah, ed. Noman al-Haq (Oxford: Oxford Studies in Islamic Philosophy, 2002), 2002.
11. David Pingree, Hellenophilia Versus the History of Science, Isis, 83, (1992), 554-563.
12. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Science and the Islamic World – Quest for Rapprochement, Physics Today (August 2007), 49.
Part One of the Article: