Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Exchange on (anti-)rationalism in jurisprudence with Mohammad Fadel

Saif I. Shah Mohammed suggested that this exchange (and perhaps other exchanges) in the comments section following an earlier posting is getting too long, and should be reposted independently. I am including an interesting "comments" exchange with Mohammad Fadel in this reposting:

This exchange deals with my earlier posting: "Islam awaiting a reformation? Anti-rationalism and Anti-Humanism ..."

Mohammad Fadel said...

I have no quarrels with your diagnosis of the general intellectual malaise within the Muslim world that has made it a fertile ground for terrorism and nihilistic political movements, with the caveat, however, that the experience of Muslim peoples under the post-war system of international relations has left them a lot of legitimate complaints.

I must object, however, to your further argument that there has been a "battle within Islam between rationalism and humanism on the one hand, and their antitheses on the other, . . . from the earliest days of Muslim empires." (Please excuse the rambling nature of this post)

I want to make the bold claim that all Muslim sects were rationalists in the following sense: they all believed that reason, in theory, can provide certainty, and in those circumstances where it does provide a certain answer, one is obliged to accept it. Accordingly, theologians developed the concept of "al-mu'arid al-'aqli" (the countervailing rational argument) as a necessary tool in the interpretation of revelation. Muslim sects disagreed, however, on the scope of questions that reason could conclusively answer, and of course, they often disagreed substantively on what reason required.

In understanding Muslim scholastics' view of reason, however, it is critical to understand the distinction between pure reason and practical reason: one can affirm the latter as a tool of legal reasoning (which all jurists do, otherwise fiqh could not exist) while at the same time reject pure reason as a source of moral truth, which is the position of the Ash'aris, with the Mu'tazilis taking the position that pure reason is a source of moral truth. The distinction between pure and practical reason is also critical in understanding the differences between the Muslim theologians and the Muslim philosophers. The Muslim philosophers believed that pure reason could give an account of the physical world because it was the subject of "necessary" laws which could be understood through logic. For them, natural science was simply a branch of metaphysics, and one could understand the physical world simply through the logical application of the laws of metaphysics to the empirical world of human experience.

Muslim theologians rejected this view of nature, largely for the reason that it denied any creative power to God, in favor of a theory of constant creation whose stability is not a result of mechanical rules, but rather the "custom" of God. Nevertheless, divine custom is regular enough that, based on empirical observation, one can make predictions about natural phenomenon. Accordingly, the metaphysics of the theologians is consistnt with an empirical investigation of the natural and social worlds, even if it is not a postivistic account of the natural and social world. It is interesting that Muslim scientists (or scientists in the Muslim world (not all were Muslim)) were committed to empirical investigation of the natural world. While I would never claim that the metaphsyics of Islamic theology required them to adopt this methodological innovation (see the work of George Saliba and Ahmad Dallal), I point out that Muslim theology gave empirical knowledge an important place in human learning distinct from metaphysics, and in that sense is certainly superior to what the Muslim philosophers were offering.

In general, Islamic epistemology recognized three orders of knowing: that of pure reason ('aql), that of experience ('ada) and that of revelation (shar'). Pure reason was ultimately superior to the other two in that neither experience nor revelation could contradict something that must be true as a matter of pure reason, i.e., one cannot experience something that cannot be true as a matter of pure reason, e.g., being in point A and B simultaneously, and revelation cannot contradict rational truths, e.g., that God has no body, and therefore, any expression in revelation implying corporeality cannot be taken literally.

Ghazali's discussion of maslaha cannot be understood without understanding the broader epistemological framework within which he worked. Note that it is a topic raised within the rubric of understanding revealed knowledge, specifically, divine commands, and whether maslaha in itself, is a source of divine commands. His answer is no, it is not a source of divine commands, but, divine commands are consistent with maslaha.

For his more general views on the relationship of pure reason to moral knowledge, one must consult his discussion on the nature of good "al-husn wa-l-qubh", wherein he rejects the notion that good and evil are rational concepts. Instead, he stakes out the position that good and evil are relative to individuals, and therefore, something is "hasan" (good) if it is consistent with one's desire and something is "qabih" (bad) if it is not. He does not deny that practical reason is incapable of discovering, instrumentally, the way (or even the best way) to satisfy one's desires; his objection is to the claim that pure reason can know that certain ends are good or bad and instead asserts that it is desire that establishes our ends. Accordingly, for al-Ghazali and others, maslaha cannot be an independent source of moral value, because it is inherently instrumental. Once the good is known (and that can be known only be revelation), however, practical reason can use maslaha as a mode of understanding revelation's applicability to solving particular problems.

I believe this is fairly consistent with the views of contemporary economists that welfare, i.e., salah, is objectively indeterminate, and is ultimately incommensurable across individuals (although you can do empirical studies of individuals' utility curves).

Now, what we should not do is confuse rationalism with positivism. No Muslims, whether theologians or philosophers, were positivists. Abduh and Afghani clearly attempted to move Islamic theology toward a more positivistic stance, but I don't believe this is logically necessary: I believe the metaphysics of traditional Muslim theology gives enough respect to empirical reality that practical reason can legitimately flourish.

I would add that, with respect to al-Ghazali's political thought, he is the only pre-modern Muslim theologian whom I know to have given any attention to distributive concerns (beyond mere recitation of the rules of zakat). In his argument for the necessity of the Imama (the state) in al-Iqtisad fi-l-i'tiqad, he points out certain public goods that are essential for religious life to flourish (and therefore logically prior to religion) and which cannot be secured in the absence of the state. Among these are the minimum necessities of life, e.g., food, security, housing and companionship, implying that persons must have certain minimal entitlements to collective resources before they become capable of benefitting from religion.

Mahmoud El-Gamal said...
Let me say at the outset that I consider theology (`ilm al-kalam) to be a terrible waste of time and intellect. As Qaradawi once said: "we need the creed of Qur'an, rather than re-hashed Greek philosophy" (نريد شريعة القرآن لا كلام اليونان). I am more interested in what Ghazali and others said from a juristic point of view, and I am fully cognizant of the fact that someone can be a brilliant jurist but a mediocre theologian (like ibn Taymiyyah) or vice versa.

The practical effect of Ghazali's (and Shatibi's) restriction and subordination of Maslaha or benefit analysis to scholastic interpretations of revealed texts severely limits what you call practical reason as well as pure reason. It does so by subordinating contemporary benefit analyses to outdated scholarly interpretations of the revealed Texts, rather than allowing those contemporary analyses to yield their own superior interpretations of the Texts.

Mohammad Fadel said...

It's a shame that you dismiss kalam . . . In any case, you can hardly make the claim that someone like al-Ghazali was against rationality without attempting to understand his epistemological theory. To do that, you must read kalam, which, as Ghazali points out in his introduction to al-Mustasfa, is the mother of all religious sciences, being logically precedent to all other inquiries.

In any case, it seems your real complaint is not against kalam, but rather, in your words the " restriction and subordination of Maslaha or benefit analysis to scholastic interpretations . . . by subordinating contemporary benefit analyses to outdated scholarly interpretations of the revealed Texts, rather than allowing those contemporary analyses to yield their own superior interpretations of the Texts."

My response is that your complaint is with juristic hubris, not scholastic epistemology. Qarafi makes the point, and cites numerous examples, that jurists have no expertise in empirical matters, and accordingly, it is not permissible to defer to a jurist in his empirical assessments of reality. In other words, a scholar's analysis of benefits is entitled to zero deference, because that is an empirical matter, not a matter of scripturual interpretation.

I will admit, however, that fiqh books are chock full of rules that are no more than codifications of empirical observations of presigious jurists. Legal systems often do this for their own reasons, e.g., stability and predictability, but Qarafi's point makes clear that when deference is given to a jurist's factual assesment, the basis for that deference, whatever it is, cannot be because he has some type of special talent for observing the world -- he does not.

In short, if Muslims defer to scholastic interpretations that are based in benefit analysis, that is no fault of medieval jurisprudence or theology, but our own unwillingness to be honest about the nature of Islamic law.

Mahmoud El-Gamal said...
I agree. The problem, however, is that we have many people (jurists and lay people) with pre-formed opinions about Halal and Haram (say of "mortgage loans", without fully investigating if they are in fact "loans" in the sense of "qard", or totally new contracts that require a new juristic analysis). It is also the nature of argumentation that one always tries to move the discussion to one's own turf, where one is more comfortable (which explains my discomfort with kalam, and your moving the debate from a Shafi`i Usuli -- Ghazali -- to your Maliki territory under Qarafi ... just injecting some humor in the discussion :-).

Many jurists do not understand the empirical issues, as you and Qarafi suggested (one may say that the juristic characterization of the problem is faulty, rendering their application of Texts to that characterization irrelevant). However, they have their biases, and they can easily find "experts" (including ideologically-driven economists) who will corroborate their faulty juristic characterizations of problems. Moreover, jurists exercise a selectivity bias by choosing "experts" who confirm their own views, rather than challenge them (and there is no shortage of those). Then if one criticizes the resulting opinion as incoherent or irrelevant, one is criticized for "attacking our eminent scholars", or "spreading confusion" (not to mention more serious charges, و العياذ بالله).

I am not sure how to avoid this problem, which has plagued Muslims in many areas of life. My personal leaning is to dismiss the institution of fatwa altogether, since the mustafti and the mufti both manipulate its procedures to issue pre-conceived opinions, rather than engaging in an objective analysis of the problem in light of the Islamic Texts.


Anonymous Mohammad Fadel said...

That is precisely why kalam (and the usul al-fiqh tradition inspired by it) is so important: it shows the equivocal, tentative and (ultimately) relative nature of juristic arguments and proof. Again, I would suggest a quick perusal of al-Mustasfa, under Kitab al-ijtihad, bab: hal lillah ta'ala hukm fi kulli nazila (Does God have a rule for every occurrence?). There, Ghazali destroys the notion of juristic "proofs" and agrees (or should I say, you agree with him) that juristic evidence (at least in the context where ijtihad is required), because of its equivocal nature, lacks the ability to compel a conclusion. Instead, he argues that legal judgments that rely on ijtihad are really a function of the psychology of the mujtahid, and not the product of the evidence. Indeed, he refuses to use the term "dalil" with respect to juristic evidence, prefering instead to call it "amara" (a sign) to which some may be attracted and others repelled, just like iron may be attracted to iron, but not stone. Ghazali is particularly scornful of jurists who naively believe that despite all the differences among jurists, their opinions happen to be right.

The point is, both kalam and usul al-fiqh took knowledge claims seriously, and therefore, were concerned with identifying the limits of human knowledge, and distinguishing knowledge from probable judgments. We modern Muslims have lost this. If I tell a modern Muslim that the vast majority of Muslim scholars are of the view that a sahih hadith only results in a probablistic attribution to the Prophet (S), at first blush they think I must be insane. Nevertheless, that was the orthodox position among scholars, until today, when some groups have asserted the outrageous claim that a solitary report, if accompanied by a valid isnad, produces certainty in its attribution to the Prophet (S).

This dogmatism is completely alien to the skepticism that characterized much of pre-modern Muslim epistemology.

I mean, when al-Qaradawi rejects kalam for its (alleged) Greek origins, and calls for the creed of the Quran, he is simply assuming that the Quran is true. Why should I care about the creed of the Quran in contrast to the creed of Mills' "On Liberty"? Kalam is intended to answer that fundamental question. If we are interested in a principled account of pluralism (as opposed to a strategic one, in which we acquisce because we are a minority), we have to consider the way we know God, and give an account of moral accountability. These are all subjects dealt with in kalam . . .

Now, to make something clear, I do not read works of the turath out of a desire to emulate them, but rather to learn from them, recognizing that at times they have good arguments, and at times their arguments are silly. Most of all, however, modern Muslims can learn to respect learning, and the seriousness of the intellectual endeavor, by reading these books. Contemporary discourse is so embarassingly shallow, one needs to read pre-modern works to convince himself that Muslims writing in Arabic are indeed capable of sustained intellectual argument!

6:16 PM  
Blogger dezhen said...

Sorry to inject to something that is over my head - but i just wanted to say that it has been a pleasure to read the discussion - and i hope this type of constructive dialogue continues. As a student of Islamic Studies that has read both Dr. Fadel and your own work on economics briefly, it's great to see you both 'at work'. We Muslims may find a solution to our problems yet! :-)

10:26 PM  

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