Sunday, July 17, 2005

Islam awaiting a reformation? Anti-rationalism and Anti-Humanism in contemporary Muslim cirlces

I had promised to post the Haydarabad fatwa that interest at the inception of loans is not the forbidden riba, and Rashid Rida's response, and still plan to do so. I have been held back in part by laziness (too much to translate), and in part due to depression over the behavior of Muslims in Iraq, London, and other parts of the world. I think Prime Minister Blair is absolutely right talking about militant Muslims as an evil cult, but that cult did not emerge out of nothing. It emerged out of decades of irrational and anti-humanist thought in Muslim circles. The current crop of young men who have committed acts of mass murder around the world are only doing what they heard their parents praising for so long, and unfortunately, that earlier generation still has numerous bitter people who justify murder in the name of revenge and defense of religion...

The problem goes deeper, and is not entirely unrelated to the anti-rationalism and anti-humanism that gave rise to political Islam, Islamic economics, Islamic finance, etc. Those issues are really very closely related.

The battle within Islam between rationalism and humanism on the one hand, and their antitheses on the other, has been raging on from the earliest days of Muslim empires. The history of rationalism and anti-rationalism looked like a roller-coaster:

  • The first wave of rationalism started in the Eighth Century CE, epitomized by the thought of ibn al-Muqaffa` (720-756) and Abu Yusuf (731-798), who argued for political economic thought underlying codified laws, rather than relying on jurist literalism and excessive reliance on juristic analogies rather than logical analogies and cost-benefit analyses.
  • This first wave was destroyed in the Ninth Century CE with the rise of formal jurisprudence under Al-Shafi`i (d. 820) and ibn Hanbal (d. 855), the first restricting all juristic inference to formalistic juristic analogy, and the latter subordinating even such analogies to literalist adherence to relatively weak canonical texts.
  • All was not lost, as a second rationalist wave arose in the Tenth Century CE, with the likes of Al-Farabi (870-950) and ibn Sina (980-1037), both of whom argued for the superiority of knowledge attained through reason, the limited usefulness of literalist jurists and anti-rational jurisprudence, and emphasizing analysis of the social function of religion, vieweing Muhammad (p) as the consummate Philosopher-Prophet.
  • This set the stage for the greatest intellectual battle of Islam, between two of the greatest minds in its history: Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and ibn Rushd (1126-1198).
    • Al-Ghazali launched a terrible attack on the rationalism of Al-Farabi and ibn Sina, esp. in his Tahafut Al-Falasifah (incoherence of the philsophers). He adopted a neo-Platonic approach that rejected excessive reliance on the rational faculty, arguing that knowledge attained through revelation (or illumination, after the last messenger had passed away) was superior to that attained through reason. This reflected in his legal-theoretic masterpiece Al-Mustasfa, by arguing that benefits (maslaha) cannot be understood rationally independently of revelation, hence giving literalists and jurists the upper hand.
    • ibn Rushd tried to salvage Aristotelian rationalism from Al-Ghazali's attack. His response Tahafut al-Tahafut (incoherence of [al-Ghazali's] incoherence) defeated Al-Ghazali's attacks, and his own mastery of jurisprudence allowed him to speak with great authority on the importance rational analogy in proper juristic reasoning (his masterpiece in this regard is Fasl al-Maqal fima bayna al-Hikmati wa al-Shari`ati min al-ittisal: The final word on the connection between [Rational/Philosophical] wisdom and Religious Law). Echoes of his thought can be found in the jurisprudence of ibn Taymiyyah and his student ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, who rejected legal ruses (Hiyal), and argued that what matters in contracts is substance rather than form and name... Surprisingly, while jurists, especially in the GCC are fond of quoting the latter two jurists, they seem not to follow their method of innovative thinking based on rational analysis of contracts.
As much as I admire Al-Ghazali, I think that his anti-rationalist attack dealt the fatal blow to Islamic civilization, causing it to fall into a deadly sprial through the 13th to 19th Centuries. At the turn of the 20th Century, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and his student Muhammad Abduh (and later Rashid Rida) started what one can define as an attempt at Islamic reformation. They tried to resurrect proper Islamic thought through rationalism, and borrowing from more advanced cultures (in their case Europe) elements that did not stand in contradiction with Islamic thought. Muhammad Abduh said famously: "I went to Paris, and found there Islam without Muslims, then I returned to Cairo, and found there Muslims without Islam". The early writings of Rashid Rida (including those I plan to post here in translation) reflected that early attempt to understand the substance of Islam and Islamic law, and to strive for betterment of Muslim societies through hard work and borrowing from others innovations that are useful and not in contradiction with Islam (that -- of course -- is the paradigm of Sanhuri on which I wrote the last posting).

Unfortunately, in mid-Century, the movement (originally carrying the "salafi" label to imply rejecting bad jurisprudence of intervening centuries, and reinterpreting the Canonical texts of Islam in light of modern social science and experience) was subverted (when later "salafis" chose to imitate the opinions of ibn Taymiyya and his students, even though the latter forbade imitation -- taqlid!!). Under the misguidance of the likes of Mawdudi, Qutb, etc., the few gains of contemporary Muslim societies were rejected as western innovations, and dreams of an ideal Muslim society led to poisonous denounciation of contemporary ones as infidel. It was only a matter of time until the children of the generation growing with this poisonous thought in mid-Twentieth century would debase the name of Islam: In the economic sphere through the mockery that is Islamic finance, and in the political sphere by glorifying "martyr attackers" (even when the targets were innocent civilians -- in direct contradiction to Islamic Canonical texts forbidding such attacks on civilians), first in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, then in Israel, then elsewhere...

Strange as it may seem at first, I think that those developments are not independent. In fact, they are facets of the same phenomenon of anti-rationalism and anti-humanism in the Mawdudi/Qutb poisoned minds of contemporary Muslims that think of jurisprudence as a set of rules with no apparent rational explanation, and think of Islam in a nationalist sense that allows them to commit abhorable criminal acts ostensibly in the name of Islam.

This is difficult for me to say, but I remembered a statement made to me a few years ago by an ex-US ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. "The problem with Islam is that it has not yet had its reformation", he said. I argued with him that Islam didn't need a reformation, since we did not have a Church with political and financial ambitions, let alone one that relied for its financing on selling indulgences (صكوك الغفران). The more I think about it now, the more I see Islamic finance (stamps of approval by bought jurists) as sellers of indulgences (even though the notion of purgatory is not as well developed in Islamic thought), and various politically minded Muslims using religious insecurity to justify criminal activities, just as Catholic rulers could justify ethnic cleansing in Spain and murderous Crusades to the east in the name of religion.

Perhaps Islam does need another reformation. A good place to start might be to re-read the thoughtful writings of the last attempted reformation a century ago, in the writings of Muhammad Abduh and his students. Others must be thinking the same: last year, there was a TV series on Qasim Amin (one of Abudh's disciples, and most famously author of Tahrir Al-Mar'ah -- Women's liberation). Now, there is news about a TV series about the life of Muhammad Abduh himself: http://www.middle-east-online.com/?id=32180.

5 Comments:

Anonymous 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.

3:06 PM  
Blogger 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.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous 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.

11:12 PM  
Blogger 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.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Muhammad Saeed Babar said...

I agree that " what matters in contracts is substance rather than form and name." But it is difficult to digest that knowledge attained through reason is superior to that attained through revelation.

A story of Moses and Khider that tells the real nature of reason versus revelation. Reason has been defined as "the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways". Revelation has been defined as "an act of revealing or communicating divine truth b: something that is revealed by God to humans".

[So they found one of Our servants on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught knowledge from Our own presence. Moses said to him: "May I follow thee on the footing that thou teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which thou hast been taught?" (The other) said: "Verily thou wilt not be able to have patience with me! "And how canst thou have patience about things about which thy understanding is not complete?" Moses said: "Thou wilt find me if Allah so will (truly) patient: nor shall I disobey thee in aught."The other said: "If then thou wouldst follow me ask me no questions about anything until I myself speak to thee concerning it."

So they both proceeded: until when they were in the boat he scuttled it. Said Moses: "Hast thou scuttled it in order to drown those in it? Truly a strange thing hast thou done!" He answered: "Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?" Moses said: "Rebuke me not for forgetting nor grieve me by raising difficulties in my case."

Then they proceeded: until when they met a young man he slew him. Moses said: "Hast thou slain an innocent person who had slain none? Truly a foul (unheard-of) thing hast thou done!" He answered: "Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?" (Moses) said: "If ever I ask thee about anything after this keep me not in thy company: then wouldst thou have received (full) excuse from my side."

Then they proceeded: until when they came to the inhabitants of a town they asked them for food but they refused them hospitality. They found there a wall on the point of falling down but he set it up straight. (Moses) said: "If thou hadst wished surely thou couldst have exacted some recompense for it!" He answered: "This is the parting between me and thee: now will I tell thee the interpretation of (those things) over which thou wast unable to hold patience.] Ayat 65-78 Sura Al-Kahf

Reasoning or thinking through reason could not find the answers to the paradoxes. The same is the case with Riba, the much hue and cry of modern thinking or may be with present day reformists. I subscribe that there should be immutable foundations of Shariah and then details according to time and space but that detail has to be within the four corners of Quran explicitly or implicitly, what is forbidden, is forbidden.

6:18 AM  

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