Slavery: Historic Perspective & Islamic Reforms

by Dr. Hafiz Safwan Muhammad Chohan

Abstract: Slavery, generally defined, refers to the systematic exploitation of labor for work and services without proper compensation and the possession of human being as property. Although there is no clear timeline for the formation of slavery in any formalized sense, the history of slavery covers many different forms of human exploitation across many cultures and throughout human history. Existence of slaves can be traced to the earliest records that refer to slavery as an already established institution.

This articles starts with finding the reason that is impetus to slavery. The history of slavery is surfed. Slavery in Turkey is specially scanned due to the special, distinctive position of the Ottoman caliphate— the last body of the united Muslim Ummah. How did Islam take up with the institution of slave trade and what corrections & legislations did it put in this inhumane system so that it eventually transformed the typical master-slave relation into a fraternity and “brotherhood,” is discussed at large. A casual look at the content may be this way that: the foundation of the practice of slavery; what features made this institution a necessary racecourse; why did Islam let it continue with certain customizations and parameters. The articles of concubine and mukātabat (مکاتبت) are separately treated.

Muhammad صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم did instruct on his deathbed about taking care of and being gentlemanly to the slaves [i]. The words of his last will lend colour to the fact that slavery will never die out. It will remain alive with the humanity, in one form or another. In this sense, the slogans of driving slavery to a full stop seem more a political stunt and a downright nonsense than a serious suggestion.

Slavery was legally abolished as it did not remain economically feasible. However, this abolition was in name only. In the past it prevailed due to economic reasons, and is found today in different fiber in consonance with the present-day economic needs. Today’s forms of slavery, i.e., “white-collar” slavery which is commonly labeled as “job” or “service,” and the mass enslaving of governments and sucking their resources, is also discussed.

Missionaries hold that the social reforms which they impose are the dictates of Christianity but the facts are otherwise; these icons of development are the result of intellectual progress and their religion has no say in these reforms. If it were true, slavery won’t have persisted in them for millenniums. In contrast, whatever Islam did to do away with slavery was not prompted by economic exigencies or social conditions. It did only from a moral point of view. According to the teachings of Islam, all men are equal and it is not proper for anyone to impose himself on another.

Western sources of the era of legal abolition of slavery worldwide (late 19th and early 20th centuries) are quoted plentifully so that varying perspectives of the forerunners of slavery come in front. Blemish over the practice of slavery is not the problem of Islam, for Islam is rightfully proud of being superbly immaculate in its nature, having a spotless character without any such blemish and immune to all such defilements.

[i] Ibn Mājah: 1614 (Chapter on Funerals)

The complete paper can be accessed here.

An Open Letter to a Private English-Medium School’s CEO

Dear Sir, assalamu alay’kum

It has been a while since I wanted to engage with you regarding an extremely important issue of both immediate as well as long-term importance. In fact, I carried fragments of this concern since I admitted my eldest children in your school a little more than eight years ago; however, I somehow kept procrastinating to indulge with you formally. This reasonably long period and my continuing diverse academic indulgences in philosophy, literature, social sciences and engineering gave me enough time to reflect incessantly and frame this problem in a somewhat befitting manner.

The issue at hand is complete disregard of pedagogical significance of Urdu language by your esteemed institution, and how it not only reduces functional capacity of a child’s imagination but also endangers its creative capacity to model complex spatio-temporal problems related to science and engineering, as well as humanities.

Guided by my experiences as an academician and a social critic of sorts, I have reasons to believe that in all good faith, you tend to fall prey to various post-colonial pedagogical sensibilities where not realizing the subtle distinctions between “learning a language” and “learning in a language” have already reduced the whole industry of education to a grim duality, that is, English medium vs Urdu medium. I do not wish to digress towards the adverse social effects of ascribing to such dualities in this space, however, you would perhaps agree that by promoting (read ‘enforcing’) English in school premises in such a manner that children and teachers are administratively discouraged to communicate in vernacular, negatively transforms young psychologies to consciously or subconsciously reduce Urdu to a so-called subaltern language in an otherwise supposedly anglicized atmosphere. However, this largely artificial Anglicization in a school which imparts education to predominantly middle-class strata of society cannot promise much except a generation feigning false elitist appearances with stilted pronunciations.

But I apologize for digressing into some unwarranted social criticism—since I understand the competitive marketing concerns for the contemporary private-sector education market which promises a constant supply of the so-called quality human resource to the modern world—in order to supply additional grounds for a point I am about to make. My primary concern is with the pedagogical and didactic compromises which need to be made in order to achieve objectives which are rooted in above mentioned sensibilities.

Find-XThat language is the key in elementary school class room scene is a fact far better known to you than me, since I am faced with a comparatively less difficult pedagogical challenge of teaching graduate and post-graduate students. Language, being the only mental tool to shape pointers for conceptualizing both abstract and concrete aspects of reality, is always firmly rooted in a complex and intricately rich milieu, the so-called Weltanschauung. It is certainly possible (and desirable) to acquire a foreign language, rather as many languages for utilitarian as well as aesthetical concerns, but it is impossible to train a mind to transform its mental habits according to a totally different milieu; and younger the mind, greater the degree of this  impossibility. In fact, there is a plethora of research supporting this claim, but since I do not intend to present my views as a technical paper, only drawing your attention to one of the recommendations (quoted here) of a British Council study titled, ‘Language in Education in Pakistan: Recommendations for Policy and Practice’ coauthored Hywel Coleman and Tony Capstick in 2010 should suffice:

“Early years’ education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels … poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long-term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalization leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities.’’

Since my submittal may be construed as drawing you needlessly to a broad-spectrum ongoing debate in Pakistan in the wake of recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Urdu, I would like to clarify that I have no such intention to make a case for a sweeping shift to Urdu since it is your institutional prerogative as a private entity and I respect your right and judgment. Moreover, I fully understand that not all children in your school are native Urdu speakers belonging to various regional communities; in any case, it is not unreasonable to assume that a native young speaker of Pushto or Punjabi is still far more mentally accustomed to Urdu as compared to English.

This private engagement, therefore, is not from the perspective of an Urdu promoter or a literary enthusiast, but simply as a concerned parent and an academician. Take for instance, an extremely simple example from a 6th grade Mathematics textbook (Oxford D-1), I was just discussing the other evening with my son.

David was trying to sleep one night but there was too much noise around him. His clock ticked every 5 seconds; a tap was dripping every 7 seconds and his pet dog snored every 12 seconds. He noticed on his clock that all three things happened together on the stroke of midnight.

  • After how many seconds would all three things happen together again?

  • How many times would all three things happen together again between midnight and one o’clock?

I want to put a disclaimer that this problem is deliberately picked as the one with least degree of linguistic complexity in the problem narrative. The aim is to show how an ostensibly simplest narrative like this one carries various challenges for the student as well as teacher in the class room environment which is not conducive for a bilingual (or trilingual) interaction, rather forced against the native vernacular of speakers. I assume that the point being consistently ignored here while informing your decisions of enforcing English as instructional language is the whole image-creating nature of language in the mind of the young student who is trying to map an abstract concept—Least Common Multiple in this case—to a concrete problem situated in real world. A simple and direct utterance by a teacher in class room that,

ایک رات ڈیوڈ  سو نے کی کوشش کر رہا تھا لیکن اس کے آس پاس بہت  شور تھا۔ اس کی گھڑی   ہر پانچ سیکنڈ بعد ٹک ٹک کرتی تھی، پانی کا نلکا  سات سیکنڈ بعد ٹپ ٹپ کرتا تھا اوراس کا کتا بارہ سیکنڈ  بعد  خراٹے لیتا تھا۔  اس نے اپنی گھڑی پر دیکھا کہ رات  کے ٹھیک بارہ بجے  شور کی  یہ تینوں آوازیں اکٹھی آئیں۔ اب دوبارہ  یہ  تینوں آوازیں کب  ایک ساتھ آئیں گی؟ اور  بارہ سے ایک کے درمیان یعنی اگلے ایک گھنٹے میں ایسا کتنی بار  اکٹھے ہو گا؟

considerably reduces the burden of mind’s effort to make a mental picture corresponding to the problem at hand. Regardless of the question whether all the children in classroom are perfectly at ease with pictures of a ‘dripping tap’, ‘snoring dog’ and ‘ticking clock’, the real challenge faced by the teacher is linking the problem statement to the particular mathematical concept. Here the teacher is faced with the challenge of pushing students to discover that using the concept of Least Common Multiple solves an otherwise laborious real problem. As I see it, restricting the class room interaction to English language hampers the whole instructive process in two ways: one, it adds a completely needless extra layer in creating an adequate mental picture of the problem and two, it forces teacher to somehow resort to instructive approach—as far as imparting knowledge of a particular mathematical concept is concerned—rather than working with the young minds to discover the concepts themselves. The latter impediment to learning is simply introduced by unavoidably linking phrases such as together again to the concept of Least Common Multiple. We must understand that making these linkages are indeed widely accepted as an admissible pedagogical tool, but one that works differently for native speakers of a language than those who are already studying a text book in a foreign language that is English in this case. Even in case of native speakers these verbal-conceptual linkages work in collaboration with experimental or pictorial approaches, and employed diversely by teachers who are far well trained in advanced countries as compared to developing third world.

Concluding this missive, I would just reiterate that mandating the use of English as instructive and interactive language in class room for scientific subjects such as Mathematics or Physics is obviously at the cost of one additional layer of translation. Moreover a decision like this, motivated from some unfathomable slanted considerations, completely disregards the nature of language as a tool for learning, thereby rendering the whole instructive activity counter-productive. Lastly it adds complex, unpredictable and unique distortions in the whole instructive process since neither all the teachers, nor all the students share the same cognitive models when it comes to medium of class room communication. One can easily imagine the difficulty by reconstructing the famous TV show “Mind Your Language” in a class room for elementary mathematics, as a theoretical experiment.

I wish and pray that you take this criticism in positive spirit and can only hope that you end up agreeing with me after due reflection. I assure you that it would immensely improve the standard of comprehension as far as scientific subjects involving abstract thinking is concerned. By leaving the instructive atmosphere of the class room to the ease of students as well as teachers by not mandating the use of English language, you would not only help shedding the needlessly accrued mental burden but also gain benefits of a rich bilingual atmosphere, where both languages would augment the limitations of each other.

Yours sincerely,

Aasem D. Bakhshi

Among Dogmatic Slumberers (III): Quranic Contemplation into Universe, A Universally Communicable Experience of Ultimate Reality or Insistence on an Esoteric Mystic Consciousness?

A modified Urdu version of this essay is published in Al-Shariah (Aug, 2014), and can be accessed here

When a supposedly well-crafted exposition sets about by throwing a classical ad hominem, it defies the whole aura of academic critique. Besides adding a tinge of offensive posture, otherwise customary for social media brawls, it also lays bare the hidden biases which deform even a good and otherwise well-intended argument. This is what can be called a first reaction to Abdullah Shariq’s essay in a recent issue of Al-Shariah; needless to mention that his concern is well-intended and his argument is a reasonable representation of a complete strata of classical modern Islamic thought. Some readers might be amazed by my use of the word ‘modern’ but there are well grounded reasons to read these simplistic trends as modernist; since unlike the classical periods of theory-making, positions are taken here which are ostensibly oblivious to underlying philosophical standpoints regarding theory of knowledge, its cosmological underpinnings, and conception of God and human being. Or else, if these omissions are advertently intended, then the whole exposition can be labelled as a reductionist tirade.

To recapitulate, here is the crux of the argument: The kind of contemplation Quran, and therefore God, requires an individual to do regarding the universe is not ‘scientific contemplation‘ rather a ‘spiritual‘ one. Because the scientific contemplation is centered on materialistic, empirical enquiry, it cannot instill the desired religious experience bordering on an esoteric spiritual recognition of the majestic glory and presence of Allah Almighty. Scientific activity, even if an individual engages in it, is legally categorized by the author as Mubah. Simply speaking, God is indifferent if one undertakes scientific contemplation in the nature and working of universe. Consequently, as the desired religious experience is essentially a spiritual one, it is poles apart from any scientific enterprise in the name of exploring religious truth. Moreover, a pressing leading question, appealing to historicism from early generations of formative period of Islam, is raised: If scientific contemplation and an attitude of materialistic enquiry is appropriate, why wouldn’t Prophet encouraged it, and companions engaged themselves actively in it? As a corollary to this question, why would it took a century after first four caliphs before the so called translation movement from Greeks set off in the Abbasid dynasty? Why didn’t earlier Muslim invasion of Sassanian or Byzantium empire trigger the translation movement?

Interjecting it as a disclaimer, I must begin by appreciating that from the perspective of ongoing tussle between modern scientific materialism and classical religious spiritualism, the views expressed by the author have an element of genuine concern. The ‘scientific‘ education rooted in modern capitalist knowledge-based economy is giving way to epistemic attitudes, where a modern man’s thinking patterns are essentially dualistic, if not totally tilted on the side of various forms of materialism. It must also be noted that we are talking about a religious man since that is a necessary assumption of the whole dialogue. However, with all the good intention of reviving this balance in favor of transcendental spiritual element, the whole argument is questionable on number of accounts. Since the whole phenomenology of engaging with a text, which is in our case claimed to be Divine, is not the central issue of the dialogue we must proceed from a necessary presupposition, that is, the act of deliberation over Quran cannot situate itself extraneous to the individual who is engaging with the Divine text. In other words, we must agree from the onset that this act of contemplation, or to employ the exact Quranic terminology Tadabbur, is not orthogonal to the human experience, since we cannot possibly speak of an individual engaged with Quranic text without assuming something about his experience. Therefore, in order to move forward, we must agree that the enterprise of Tadabbur would necessarily vary from individual to individual, but the underlying aim is to guide towards a common transcendental Truth or Ultimate Reality.

Moving from this necessary agreement, various questions automatically pose themselves to a scientific temperament engaged with Divine truths. For instance, in the Quranic semantics, what constitutes an enterprise of contemplation into the universe? Is Quran indifferent to the questions regarding the ultimate nature and functioning of universe? What is the exact nomenclature of human experience of the external world? How is this experience related to the internal world of innumerable inspirations, attitudes, psychologies and temperaments? Is this internal psychology and external sensory experience closely entangled as a unified monolithic whole or can we necessarily identify one that triggers the other? Is it possible to speak of some psychological models that can characterize all individuals in terms of their experiences of transcendental truths asserted by the revelation forcefully and unequivocally, and the resulting fulfillment? What is the relationship between human knowledge and experience, in other words the perennial question of knowledge and being?

Most importantly, since the whole premise is basically the necessity of inward and outward contemplation to access the Ultimate Truth, is Quran only interested in making case for a higher-poetic experience, a kind of mystic union so to speak, or modern man’s concrete habits of thought can also result in the kind of knowledge which can make such a union possible?

The purpose obviously is not to supply exhaustive, satisfying answers to all these questions; since minds far better than us, belonging to diverse religious, scientific or philosophical domains, have been tackling these since the age of great sages and prophets of antiquity. However, the human consciousness and experience is continuously undergoing a process of enrichment and creativity, thereby supplying new answers and looking at the past in the light of new knowledge. Therefore, the present motivation is only to question the presented classical discourse and help framing questions which are meaningful to a mind of modernist as well as traditional bent.

Unlike the ostensible classical perception insinuated from the referred piece, the truth of Quran is essentially a monolith, the Ultimate Reality being essentially singular. The categories of knowledge such as physical, biological or psychological sciences are in fact meant to guide us towards exploring that singularity. A largely prevailing modern view in philosophy of science – one that is motivating research since almost last few centuries – that the whole universe is governed by a singular identifiable law [1] echoes reasonably well with the overall Quranic spirit. Moreover, since the cosmos also encompasses the world within, the singularity of its governing principle also entail singularity of human experience. Therefore, it becomes obvious that the same mind which is engaged with knowing the external world around him is capable of knowing the Ultimate Reality. In this regard, arguing for a mystic experience as something essentially in contrast with the more concrete intellectual, and thus scientific, experience may not be such a plausible idea. Here we can see this peculiar atomistic tendency of classical viewpoint in the central argument of the referred exposition. In an almost poetic prose with some mystic element, the author sets about explaining what Quran means by contemplation in universe,

It means contemplation which draws attention towards the creator of the universe and produces an attitude of attention towards God, the kind of contemplation which provokes him to see the light of God in each and every particle of the universe, and he finds himself completely immersed in this light; the kind of contemplative process, during which the individual finds himself absorbed in the Being of God, finds himself overpowered with the Divine power and glory, and attitude of closeness to God is instilled into him. [2]

The problem here is not the pattern of thinking where sensory experience of the universe is giving way to a kind of religious experience of transcendental reality, or existence of Divine presence in the macrocosm. That is obviously a given from any reading of the Quran including the one shared above, may it be scientific or otherwise. Rather the problem is the classical thought almost inadvertently pitting a mystic experience against a more concrete, so called scientific experience of reality. As I read it, this view is provoked by a largely mystic-pietistical understanding of human fulfillment through religious experience.

In one of the most original studies regarding nature of religious experience in modern times, William James shed some light on the nature of it varieties [3], and Iqbal discussed it in depth in his first lecture [4], explaining significance of Islamic doctrine, and placing its metaphysical element in the context of concrete rather than esoteric experience,

No doubt, religious beliefs and dogmas have a metaphysical significance; but it is obvious that they are not interpretations of those data of experience which are the subject of the science of Nature. Religion is not physics or chemistry seeking an explanation of Nature in terms of causation; it really aims at interpreting a totally different region of human experience – religious experience – the data of which cannot be reduced to the data of any other science. In fact, it must be said in justice to religion that it insisted on the necessity of concrete experience in religious life long before science learnt to do so. The conflict between the two is due not to the fact that the one is, and the other is not, based on concrete experience. Both seek concrete experience as a point of departure. Their conflict is due to the misapprehension that both interpret the same data of experience. We forget that religion aims at reaching the real significance of a special variety of human experience.

What does it mean therefore to say that contemplation in the universe, which is essentially a sensory experience interpreting some data immediately available to it, can guide me towards a higher reality?

It isn’t merely a spiritual catastrophe that doesn’t instigate a rich experience of highest truth, in other words an attention towards the glory of God almighty, in most modern temperaments. Of course, it has a lot to do with distorted modern human condition, regarding actual place of human self in the cosmic scheme, yet it will not be reversed simply by appealing to moral and practical aptitudes, since it has a lot to with transformation of human experience that has taken place since the so called age of enlightenment [5]. Such a reversal is only possible through studying the nature and historical context of cultural and philosophical factors that shaped such an experience and suggesting means to enrich it in modern settings. Indeed, the means of enrichment and the enrichment itself must only come about from a single source, that is, revelation.

The question about the nature of contemplation automatically presumes something about the object of contemplation. The Quran obviously presents the whole cosmos as an indirect pointer towards the Divine creativity. This teleological appeal contains in itself an inherent demand to know. The problem, therefore, boils down to the classical problem of knowledge, and this is the area where the intellect and the object it wishes to perceive necessarily interact.

We are not interested here in the epidemiological dimensions but a more simpler question, namely, how does the object of knowledge presents itself to a knower? Even a cursory reader of Quran would agree that revelation primarily addresses our intuitive capacities and then invites our ordinary sensory-experience to vindicate that intuition; after all, its the ordinary sensory-experience that is our sole universal possession. Besides breaking away from the classical esoteric traditions of perceiving higher reality, this novel aspect of Quran is also not contradictory to modern science. From a scientific perspective, Quran simply provides intuitive symbols towards an higher reality to an engaging mind, and motivates him to know the intricacies in the universe. For instance, when a reader is told that God sends rain (Luqman: 34), it is simply an intuitive knowledge to provoke further exploration for environmental regulatory mechanisms bringing about rain; when Quran says that man is created from a quintessence of clay (Al-Muminoon: 12), it provides the bare minimum knowledge serving intuitive thrust and motivating a biological academic quest; and when it contends that Kuffar are worst than animals (Al-Airaaf: 179), it doesn’t set about on a detailed theory of human nature and belief, thereby providing intuitive pointers for development of moral philosophy and psychology.

In this manner, since it moves forward from an assumption of Divine revelation from the mouth of Prophet, Quran suffices itself with more or less intuitive aspects of knowledge. To maintain that these intuitive aspects of knowledge are something distinct from Quranic contemplation is not only based on erroneous, insufficient or biased readings of Quran but also based on simplistic philosophical or scientific foundations. It is true that there are academic currents denying or questioning them, but from a sheer religious perspective the ultimate cornerstone of separating truth from falsehood is again revelation. Therefore, for a curious religious reader it is merely a preservation of faith in revelation that these intuitive and imaginative aspects, as well as metaphysical foundations, underlying scientific enterprise are being exhaustively explored by philosophers of science, for instance, Edwin Burtt [6] and Gerald Holten [7].

Consequently, if religious solace of recognizing a higher truth can just come about from staring at heavens, and feeling glory of God showering upon us, there is nothing objectionable in it, per se. However, its a kind of religious experience that cannot be concretely communicated as a universal truth statement, in other words, its a personal intuitive version of truth still demanding to be verified or falsified.

It is also correct that any such experience does not depend upon a particular academic position regarding the state of universe, such as earth being flat or universe being heliocentric. However, it is also a fact that besides inviting a reader to look up towards the skies and peep inwards into his heart, revelation continuously frames arguments which implicitly or explicitly force a reader towards envisioning a particular version of physical reality. As mentioned above, this aspect of revelation, however, is not an scientific-empirical judgement but necessarily an intuition about aspect of physical, or psychological reality – that is, signs in the outer as well as the inner world which are meant to be deciphered by the consciousness. Faith in an Ultimate Reality has therefore a necessary cognitive element to it. Being a byproduct of ethical, aesthetical and religious elements of consciousness, each of us, in at least some sense, do experience higher-reality in a unique way. Since immediacy of this experience lies in an individual’s interaction with the text, what we understand as expressions of knowledge or truth would greatly expand with the kind of meanings are intellects are capable of creating, being function of our present state of knowledge. Thus the appropriate Quranic promise: Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things? (Fussilat: 53)

For what is faith but our possession of truth, what kind of force it has if it cannot be expressed outside ourselves? If you insist that contemplating signs such as “He surrounds (all the mysteries) that are with them, and takes account of every single thing (Al-Jinn 28)” gives you a kind of overwhelming psychological feeling regarding presence of Lord and “there is not a thing but its treasures are with Us; but We only send down thereof in due and ascertainable measures (Al-Hijr 21)” gives you a taste of showering glory, I have a respect and reverence for your faith, and have no motivation to doubt its psychological element, but there is no way to express it beyond yourself as a sound knowledge because there are no universals principles that can judge its general relationship with all human beings. On the other hand, a logician, mathematician or scientist, while interacting with same components of text, would obviously get an intuitive motivation to explore the nature of infinities since he decipher those signs as assertive judgement regarding cosmic truths. Hence, to reduce the complex nomenclature of human consciousness to a mere psychological element is an ironical error of judgment. What is more ironical is to insist, to borrow words from Iqbal, that a purely psychological method can fully explain religious passion as a form of knowledge.

To reiterate, it can certainly give you a sense of individual fulfillment but its not a knowledge upon which you can insist with conviction and certainty outside yourself. On a generalized scale, this is complex and problematic since regardless of scientific, social or psychological dimensions, ultimate unison of knowledge and being is primarily a religious demand and a fundamental prerequisite for any possibility of arriving at a sustainable meta-theory.

We are now in a position to analyze the assumption regarding the early Prophetic community not engaging in a sustained empirical enquiry in a scientific contemplative fashion. Disregarding the socio-historical and cultural aspects, and what ‘scientific contemplation‘ may mean in the pre-medieval tribal societies, we can at least argue from the perspective of placing response of immediate Prophetic community to revelation and how they understood truth in relation to it. In this respect, Dr Muhammad Rafiuddin, a really imaginative philosopher and an interpreter of Iqbal, had some really interesting ideas to offer regarding putting the Prophetic mission in philosophical perspective. According to Rafiuddin, since human beings naturally have variety of intuitive ideas due to their different dispositions, Prophets are God’s way of intervening to sift right intuitions from the wrong ones [8]. We have already discussed above how revelation primarily serves with emphatic truth statements, leaving the aspects of rationalization or theory-construction to the intellects. In this regards, its the natural mode of perception which is first receptor of revelation before the subsequent take over by the somewhat artificial intellectual self. The immediate Prophetic community, by virtue of its interaction with the Prophet living among them, did not naturally have the need of enterprises like theory-formation, truth-construction and knowledge-production. Moreover, the challenge presented to their claim of truth was not primarily rational or intellectual but more of a skeptic bent, per se, regarding truthfulness of Prophet, who was essentially a person like them claiming to be sent from God and having unequivocal possession of truth. As soon as this early, enclosed society expanded and interacted with other rich cultures and scientific-philosophical traditions, the nature of challenges exponentially diversified. The culmination of creative potentiality of human intellect can be inferred directly from the fact Quran is the the last word of God and Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet. That creative potential, however, is still in the process of actualization and text of Quran subsequently has the potential to incessantly create new meanings and rich vocabularies of expressing truth.

Lastly, arguing for scientific or philosophical contemplation in universe to picture reality, is not in any way meant to down play the spiritual or psychological aspects of reality. Truth and consciousness do have a certain esoteric relation but insisting on a transcendental pattern without understanding that relationship is a dangerous tendency. Human beings, by virtue of diverse conscious make-ups would continue to envision and understand truth in innumerable fashions. But an inward possession and sustenance of truth does not automatically entail a meaningful, consistent expression. Since the time of Pythagorean tradition, human beings have tried to produce consistent, rigorous pictures of higher-reality employing abstract mathematical concepts. There have been many historical troughs later, yet it has been undoubtedly established that scientific exclamation and description of truth is one of the most cogent and sustainable approaches out there. On the other hand, spiritual and psychological aspects of the faith are related to our aesthetical selves. In that domain too, we have rich poetical and mystical traditions of the past, for instance the Greek tragedy.

Considering modern extension of scientific methods to linguistics, psychology and even theory-making in aesthetic creative disciplines, religion is being increasingly commented upon using scientific vocabularies. Religious temperament, being the proud possessor of Divinely sanctioned truth propositions, must naturally come out with universally convincing synthesis of knowledge and being. Rather than strictly reducing scientific enterprise to utilitarianism, and finding flimsy foundations in history, a religious mind must possess the right combination of intellect and spirituality, or materialistic and the ineffable. The act of contemplation is a deliberate intended activity desired out of any addressee of the Quran, regardless of her apriori leanings; however, only that manner of propounding truth would be considered universally meaningful and fulfilling which can claim to come from a universal body of principles and agreed upon methodologies of discourse. Otherwise, our insistence on possession of truth would not be more than a mere personal statement having no universal value whatsoever.

___________________________

Bibliography

  1. Edwin. A. Burtt, Religion In An Age Of Science (1930)
  2. Muhammad Abdullah Shariq, Tadabbur-e-Kainat Kay Qurani Fazail: Roohani Tadabbur Murad Hey Ya Sciencey, Al-Shariah (June, 2014)
  3. Muhammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930)
  4. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902),
  5. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1919)
  6. Edwin. A. Burtt,  The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science. A Historical and Critical Essay (1924)
  7. Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought (1973) and The Scientific Imagination: Case Studies (1978)
  8. Muhammad Rafiuddin, Ideology of the Future (1946)

Alexander Herzen: My Past and Thoughts

Beyond doubt, the most beloved literary monument among all genres in my library. Going through this 700 page abridgement from the original four tomes can only leave you with the desire to read the original Constance Garnett translation of complete four volumes. Its so unfortunate that Dwight MacDonald decided not to include that long essay, ‘A Family Drama’ in this abridgement for editorial reasons.

70069Its very hard that something socio-politically meaningful and interesting can be uttered about Herzen’s memoirs by a South-East Asian reader in 21st century. However, from the perspective of an ardent lover of Russian literary tradition and an admirer of that peculiar milieu, Herzen, at times, comes out as deeply disquieted, hot and bothered reactionary; at other times he is a genius social critic, questioning reactionary zealousness and republicanism with the equal force. But overall, his characterization of bourgeois mentality is the strongest part of contemporary interest that protrudes out of the narrative, with capability to even hook a reader who is not that much aware of Turgenev’s Bazarov — the superfluous man —, Bakunin, Belinsky, or even Mazzini or Garibaldi.

The whole Western-Europe of middle of 19th century comes alive in these memoirs and at times, stares at your face not letting you blink your eyes. There are passages which have unsurpassable literary force in whole classic modern literature; for instance, the angst laden ones such as,

All Italy was awakening before my eyes! I saw the King of Naples tamed and the Pope humbly asking the alms of people’s love – the whirlwind, which set everything in movement carried me, too, off my feet; all Europe took up its bed and walked – in fit of somnambulism which we took for awakening. When I came to myself, it had all vanished; la Sonnambula, frightened by the police, had fallen from the roof; friends were scattered or were furiously slaughtering one another…And I found myself alone, utterly alone, among graves and cradles – their guardian, defender, avenger, and I could do nothing because I tried to do more than was usual.

have the kind of old school nihilistic tinge, which Herzen characterized more fully in his famous letters to Turgenev and the essay titled, The Superfluous and the Jaundiced (1860). However, its in the later years when Herzen developed, and displayed, his true literary and critical acumen beyond just the art of blending the personal with the historical. His musings on relationship between art and bourgeois life are so confounding, as well as accurate that one is forced to pause, reflect and perspire in the process. Here is a passage:

Decorum, that is the real word. The petit bourgeois has two talents and he has the same ones, Moderation and portrait-alexander-herzen-astafievPunctuality. The life of middle class is full of small defects and small virtues; it is self-restrained, often niggardly, and shuns what is extreme and what is superfluous. The garden is transformed into a kitchen garden; the thatched cottage into a little country-town house with an escutcheon painted on the shutters; but everyday they drink tea and eat meat in it. It is an immense step forward, but not at all artistic. Art is more at home with poverty and luxury than with crude prosperity or with comfort when it is an end in itself; if it comes to that, it is more at home with a harlot selling herself than with the respectable woman selling at three times the cost of the work of the starving seamstress. Art is not at ease in the stiff, over-neat thrifty house of the petit bourgeois, and in his house is bound to be such; art feels instinctively that in that life it is reduced to the level of external decoration such as wall paper and furniture, to the level of hurdy-gurdy; if the hurdy-gurdy man is a nuisance he is kicked out, if they want to listen they give him a halfpenny and that’s that. Art which is pre-eminently elegance of proportion cannot endure the yard-measure; a life self-satisfied with its narrow mediocrity is stigmatised in the eyes of art by the worst of blots — vulgarity.

But that does not in the least prevents the whole cultured world from passing into petit bourgeois, and the vanguard has arrived their already. Petit bourgeois is the ideal to which Europe is striving, and rising from every point on the ground. It is the ‘chicken in the cabbage soup,’ about which Henri Quatre dreamt. A little house with little windows looking into the street, a school for the son, a dress for the daughter, a servant for the hard work—all that makes up indeed a haven of refuge—Havre de Grace!

Bourgeoisie, the last word of civilisation, founded on the despotism of property, is the ‘democratisation‘ of aristocracy, the ‘aristocratisation‘ of democracy. In this environment Almaviva is the equal of Figaro—from below everything is straining up into bourgeoisie, from above everything is sinking down into it through the impossibility of maintaining itself. The American States present the spectacle of one class—the middle class—with nothing below it and nothing above it, the petit bourgeois manners and morals have remained. The German peasant is the petit bourgeois of agriculture; the working man of every country is petit bourgeois of future. Italy, the most poetical land in Europe, was not able to hold out, but at once forsook her fanatical lover, Mazzini, and betrayed her husband, the Hercules Garibaldi, as soon as Cavour, the petit bourgeois of genius, the little fat man in spectacles, offered to keep her as his mistress.

And with such kind of incessant, untiring, almost magnetic prose, he continues to take notes around the dying old world and its emerging new forms. As he himself says in a rejoinder to one of his critical interlocutors, he has no solutions to speak of. He was like a man sitting beside a patient on his death bed describing him his disease.

As Isaiah Berlin observes elsewhere, the chief reason for these memoirs being a supreme masterpiece is that the writer does not commit himself to any single thesis with a clear purpose, rejecting all general solutions of his time, may it be the optimism of Bakunin or Marx, or pessimism of Burckhardt or Tocqueville; thereby grasping,

…as very few thinkers have ever done, the crucial distinction between words that are about words, and words that are about persons or things in the real world. Nevertheless, it is as a writer that he survives. His autobiography is one of the great monuments to Russian literary and psychological genius, worthy to stand beside the great novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy.

Readings in Philosophy of Science (I): The New Scientific Spirit (Gaston Bachelard’s Critique of Cartesian method and his Philosophy of Science)

I am thankful to my friend Dr. Qaiser Shahzad for suggesting to share these reflections here for any benefit that others may draw. These write-ups are based upon our joint readings, discussions and notes into various philosophical traditions and approaches within philosophy of science. The present series is intended to serve as a placeholder to record important notes of our continued readings on this thread. The Urdu version can be read here on our Urdu blog.  

gaston-bachelard_large Of all the criticisms on Descartes (d.1650), Bachelard’s stands out, as he has selected those principles of Cartesian method which were passed on in silence by other critics, presumably for their seeming innocence. With most of the detractors of the father of modern philosophy, it has either been the principle of universal doubt, the alienated and privileged ego, some step in the logic of the Meditations, some substantive philosophical or scientific doctrine, or the very quest for foundations. For Gaston Bachelard (d. 1962), on the other hand, it was the reductive nature of Cartesian method and resulting epistemology which rendered his philosophy “too narrow to accommodate the phenomena of physics.” (New Scientific Spirit, p. 138) In more particular terms, Bachelard attacks the following rule which according to Descartes summarized his whole method:

The whole method consists entirely in ordering and arranging of the objects on which we must concentrate our eye if we are to discover some truth. We shall be following this method exactly if we first reduce complicated and obscure propositions step by step to simpler ones and then starting with the intuition  of the simplest ones of all, try to ascend through the same steps to a knowledge of  all the rest.” (Descartes, Rules for the Direction of Mind, Rule 5).

Bachelard objects on the reductive nature of Cartesian method and complains that it fails to regain the unified and synthetic reality once analyzed under the demands of method. It seems that Bachelard here has a point in view of the fact that it was this analytical tendency which lends Descartes in the unbridgeable Dualism of Mind and Body. On the Cartesian advice to reduce the complicated to the simple, Bachelard accuses Descartes of having neglected the reality of complexity and neglecting that there are certain qualities which only emerge in the wholes and are not there in the parts. Even some qualities of the parts or simple realities are not noticeable unless one first understand the complex ones. (Ibid. p. 142) This is illustrated with reference to the fact that the doubling of lines in Hydrogen atomic spectrum would not have been noticed if we had not understood the spectra of Alkaline metals first, while it had been presumed, on Cartesian lines, that the latter complex phenomena are to be understood after the pattern of hydrogen model. (Ibid. pp. 148) Taking a step even higher, Bachelard claims that “there are no simple phenomena; every phenomenon is a fabric of relations. There is no such thing as a simple nature, a simple substance; a substance is a web of attributes.” (Ibid. pp. 147-148) Thus, “no idea can be understood until it has been incorporated into a complex system of thoughts and experiences.” (Ibid.) This attack on even the existence of simple natures once again manifests Bachelard’s desire to criticize nothing less than what is  essential to Cartesian method. The concept of “ Simple natures” was introduced by Descartes in his explanation for Rule 6 which according to Descartes, contained the whole secret of his method and the most valuable insight of his treaties (i.e. Regulae). Here Descartes says: “I call ‘absolute’ whatever has within it the pure and simple nature in question” and in Rule 12 further explains the nature of simplicity of simple natures by saying: we term ‘simple’ only those things which we know so clearly and distinctly that they cannot be divided by the mind into others which are more distinctly known.” Moreover, these simple natures are directly intuited by the intellect and are thus self-evident.

This Cartesian notion of intuition is subjected to critique by Bachelard which is comparable to that made by Charles S. Peirce (d. 1914) according to whom “ we have no power of intuition but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognitions.” (“Some consequences of four incapacities” Philosophical Writings, ed. Justus Buchler p.230) Although Bachelard is not that loud in the denial of very possibility of intuition, the conditions he imposes upon it end up at the same destination: “ Intuitive ideas are made clear in a discursive manner, by progressive illumination, by illustration in a series of examples that bringone or another notion into clearer focus.” Thus according to Bachlardian philosophy of science, science does not develop by accumulation and this implication  makes Bachelard one of the heralds of contemporary trend in history and philosophy of science started by Thomas Kuhn.[i] He has quoted Dupreel with approval that “ Once an axiom is posited, a second act is always necessary to establish its application.” (ibid. p. 144) Our initial intuition is completed by clarification through induction and synthesis.  Furthermore immediacy, the basic ingredient of the concept of intuition is denied in a manner which brings Bachelard very close to Peirce: “Intuition is no longer direct and prior to understanding; rather it is preceded by extended study.”  Two more points in connection with intuition are the following. 1) we are warned against ‘positivism in the first sight’ that is assuming that the most apparent features of something are its most characteristic features. 2) the counter intuitive nature of modern science: “nothing can be more anti-Cartesian then the slow change that has been brought in our thinking by the progress of empirical science, which has revealed a wealth of information never suspected in our first intuition.” (Ibid. p. 142)

This second point draws upon the nature of modern science which tends to augment the notion of mathematical intuition with empirical intuition, if not completely replace it. Pointing towards the works of Poncelet, Chasles, Laguerre and NewScientificSpiritPoincare, Bachelard argues that modern scientific spirit, through ‘mathematization‘ of the problem, emphasizes more on discovery rather than solution, Thus what we are experiencing is an end of Cartesian thought in mathematics: “the way to rationalize the world is to complete it”. Mathematics, as Bachelard notes, has moved beyond the order of measure (as in geometry, algebra and arithmetic in Cartesian age) to a tool for progressive scientific objectification. A metaphysician, therefore, brooding over the nature of reality through primarily subjective means is now transformed into a mathematician who is actively indulged in designing controlled experiments in his laboratory. Knowing well that he is confronted with a complex reality, he proceeds by mathematically modelling the phenomenon in the light of available empirical knowledge. He may choose to move from simple models — what might have been comparable to simple natures in order not to rebel from Cartesian spirit — which are only as simple as the choice of keeping some inherent parameters constants for designing more realistic experiments, or for some specific objectives to examine partial reality. Thus, it’s a spiral involving progressive experimentation, models fitting the data, more data arriving from experimentation, and mathematically intensive fresh models best fitting these new datasets. In this sense, modern scientific belief is in discovering the trends which best depict the reality, rather than the reality itself. This is a completely novel spirit, which Bachelard terms as ‘progressive objectification‘.

In order to illustrate “Cartesian partiality in favour of subjective experience” Bachelard discusses Descartes famous wax example and shows what anti-Cartesian implication can be of using latest experimental techniques on wax. For Descartes the ball of wax was, says Bachelard, a symbol of the fleeting character of material properties.” After describing in detail how a modern physicist would conduct an experiment with the piece of wax using careful purification techniques, controlling the rate of melting and solidification by using an electric oven and even exposing the surface of the wax, he makes the following claim: “what is fleeting is not, as Descartes thought, the properties of the wax but the haphazard circumstances surrounding his observation of it.” (Ibid. 170) It is  difficult to disagree with Bachelard’s conclusion from all this discussion that “scientific work is essentially complex,” (p. 171) and that science “rather than rely on whatever clear truths happen to lie ready at hand, actively seek its complex truths by artificial means.” What is unclear is the fact that Descartes would have been impressed with all these details of new technological development and we can imagine him retorting that what is new is not the nature of things but is only a matter of degrees: he himself has pointed out the fact that the extension of the piece of wax “increases if the wax melts, increases again if it boils and greater still if heat is increased” (Second Meditation, Philosophical Works, vo. II. p. 21). What difference does it make from the point of view of Descartes if nowadays one can “regulate the temperature by adjusting the supply of power” or “precisely controlling the shape and surface composition of a wax droplet”? The whole point of the wax example was to problematize shape, surface and other empirically knowable qualities in order to show that these cannot represent reality and to argue for the existence of substance  “which is grasped solely by the faculty of judgement which is in my mind.” (Descartes. Ibid.)  Bachelard is right that modern scientific and experimental techniques do give some order to the conditions of observation which are confused as given by nature, but the question Descartes was raising through the wax example was not a scientific question but a philosophical one: can we identify the wax-in-itself with the observable qualities? This question might be rejected as absurd or answered in a different way than Descartes[ii] but we fail to see any important implication of the new technological developments for Cartesian question regarding the mutability of qualities and existence of an immutable substance knowable only by the mind. In fact Descartes has mentioned in passing another example for his purpose as well: “… if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square… I normally say that I see the men themselves, just as I say that I see wax. Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons. I judge that they are men.” (Ibid.) Has experimental science shown that qualities do not change or it has simply gained more control over the process of their change? It could have been logically relevant to the Cartesian argument only if it had done the former, which it is not clear that it has.

 ***

Notes.
[i] Kuhn himself says , “I did read some Bachelard. But it was so close to my own thought that I did not feel I had to read lots and lots more.” “Paradigms of Scientific Evolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn” in The American Philosopher: Conversations, ed. Giovanna Borradori, (Chicago, 1994), p. 160.
[ii] One example of this is Pierre Gassendi who took Descartes to task on this issue: “ I am amazed at how you can say that once forms have been stripped off like clothes, you perceive more perfectly and evidently what the wax is. (Meditations, Fifth Set of Objections, pp. 190-191) Sources.

  1. Gaston Bachelard, The New Scientific Spirit (Beacon Press, 1984).
  2. Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of Mind; Discourse on Method; Meditations on First Philosophy  in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes Volumes 1& 2, eds. Cottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch(Cambridge University Press, 1984).
  3. Charles Sanders Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (Dover Publications, 1965), pp.228-251.

 For Further Reading.

  1. Mary Tiles, Bachelard:  Science and Objectivity  (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
  2. Mary Tiles, “Technology, Science and Inexact Knowledge,” in Continental Philosophy of Science  ed. Gary Gutting (Blackwell, 2005), pp. 157-176.

Orthodox Penchant for Medieval Heresiography: Biased Readings of Ghazali—Averroes Dispute


This comment is in reference to the essay by Muhammad Abdullah Shariq titled
غزالی اورابن رشد  کا  قضیہ in last two issues of Al-Shariah magazine. Both episodes can be read here and here, and my comment is already published here. The version posted on this blog includes some corrections for language.

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The premise of the essay is flimsy, since the author aims to defend Ghazali against a hypothetical attack without caring to cite even one source. In fact, there is more than one way in which criticisms have been extended on Ghazali from variety of perspectives such as scientific, philosophical or religious, some of which may are given as,

  1. Less informed and reductionist criticisms by the so-called Muslim rationalists or modernists.
  2. Minimalist critical attempts by Non-Muslims (including atheists) who kind of see Ghazali-Averroes tussle as a manifestation of struggle between dogma and rationalism.
  3. Nuanced criticisms waged from the point of view of extending critique on Asharite cosmology and the nature of its causal underpinnings.
  4. Formal all-encompassing criticisms from epistemological point of views where Ghazali and Averroes seem to be coming from different paradigms as far as theory of knowledge is concerned; of course, there are also far reaching sociological implications as different Weltanschauungs are seem to be purported.

In my humble view, the author is only defending Ghazali against the first kind of criticisms but that too remains elusive to a reader who is already aware about this classical historical debate. As far as the less informed lay-reader is concerned, the whole exposition besides being misleading, presents a simplistic and distorted picture of Muslim intellectual activity in medieval period, as well as history of philosophy and science as well.

TranslationGreek
Consequently, these Muslim intellectuals are shown by the author to belong to two distinct camps, that is, those who didn’t involve themselves with ultimate metaphysical questions and those who did. Of course, this is certainly his authorial discretion; however the division presented by the author is generally superfluous. It is merely a matter of fact and interest that some of them cared to indulge in metaphysics while others restricted themselves to pure empirical disciplines. The author does not care to note the fact that it was primarily the Greek science that was passed to Arabs through the translation movement; and because the complete medieval scientific tradition was deeply rooted in Hellenistic philosophy, its metaphysical foundation could not be just overlooked. Moreover, if it is not entirely erroneous, it is at least remarkably arguable and simplistic to attribute an original compartmentalization of knowledge in physics and metaphysics within the Greek paradigm.

Therefore, when we analyse the whole intellectual tradition of medieval era, it is merely a matter of interest that Al-Farabi, Al-Jahiz, Al-Kindi, Ibn Tufail, Avicenna or Averroes indulged in humanistic disciplines and others (some of which the author mentioned) indulged in empirical disciplines. In fact, all of them were polymaths in varying degrees and were essentially multidisciplinary.

Considering for instance the case of Muhammad Bin Zakariah Razi — whom the author chooses to introduce as an example of his contributions in Chemistry — which student of Muslim medieval philosophical tradition is not aware of the infamous Rhazes, the so-called free-thinker? Hasn’t he written scores of works on metaphysical questions? Wasn’t he declared a heretic and a free-thinker by the religious zealots of his time? Or if Abbas Ibn Farnas — whom the author erroneously mentions as Muslim Ibn Faras — is better known as the first aviator (arguably), he was also a physician and musician; and if the author chooses to present Albeiruni as a representative indulgence in Geometry, he is far better known as an Indologist too.

A more realistic and plausible contention, therefore, is that all of these myriad intellectuals were multidisciplinary polymaths. As unbiased readers of Muslim tradition we must be able to rise above the medieval heresiography, try to get into the shoes of Avicenna, Averroes or Ibn Tufail, and empathetically view  them struggling with the onslaught of the challenge of Hellenistic tradition.

Considering that the author himself acknowledges the historical convergence of science and philosophy as a single Ghazali-Teachingacademic discipline, his subsequent insistence on division between utilitarian-empirical and metaphysical-philosophical seems superfluous. Of course, he is right in contending that Ghazali is targeting the arguments which affect the religious side of truth; however, he refuses to acknowledge that inquisitive human minds are seldom able to compartmentalize truth in this vulgar fashion to keep its higher dimensions and purely utilitarian sides separately. It is a feat only achieved by ordinary masses or exceptionally extraordinary minds such as Ghazali himself. It is no wonder, then, that his immediate detractors, for instance Averroes, find it hard to interweave all threads of his thought into a common fabric. Hence, it is not merely an acerbic disparaging comment, when Averroes contends that,

He was an Asharite with the Asharites, a sufi with the sufis, and a philosopher with the philosophers, so that he was like a man in the following verse:

One day you are a Yamanite, when you meet a man of Yaman

But when you meet a man of Ma´add, you assert you are from Adnan

Moreover, if Muslim culture and civilization ended up being compartmentalized and atomistic in terms of knowledge and thought, and being ostensibly proud of it too, Ghazali deserves to take a large part of the blame. That however, is fortunately arguable and in recent few decades, it has been extensively shown that there is a lot more unification of thought in Ghazali then classically perceived.

More remarkably, when seen from a philosophical and scientific standpoint, the present classical review of Ghazali – Averroes dispute ends up making a case against any possibility of finding a holistic unified trend of Ghazalian scheme. Taking for instance the author’s claim that Ghazali is not refuting ‘science‘. Can such a claim be warranted without any objective definition of science?  Authors bent on classical discourse must realize that those who criticize Ghazali are basically coming with their own definitions of science and how it attempts to answer the questions related to higher reality and ultimate fabric of the universe, its origin as well as its destiny.

Any reading of Ghazali-Averroes dispute disregarding these intricate issues, not attempting to disentangle them neatly and bordering on polemics through boisterous ridicule against supposed philosophers and scientists would prove to be simply reductionist, just like its counterparts in radical scientism and New Age militant atheism.

At the same time, it is pertinent to argue that among the two, Ghazali is perhaps more novel even in his system of natural philosophy — whatever than can be deduced from his writings such as Tahafah or Iqtisad fi al-Aitiqaad — as compared to Averroes who is primarily an interpreter indulged in Aristotelian exegesis. The comparison, however, is incomplete and unfair to both Averroes and Ghazali unless we try to see the so-called dispute from their respective standpoints.

If Ghazali, who is primarily speaking from the position of a theological defence, aims to safeguard religious belief from speculative contamination of philosophers — specifically targeting Al-Farabi and Avicenna —, Averroes takes it as an attack on the whole Peripatetic tradition and appropriately rises to its defence.

While Ghazali is justified in his objection to the notion of eternality of world as it conflicts with the omnipotent agency of God, Averroes is not entirely wrong in his notion of differentiation between temporal and eternal agents. Can we speak of qualitative aspect of time, or for that matter time itself, when ascribing action to God? Is it temporally sensible at all to utter that God suddenly created the world? Does God differentiate between this hour and next hour in terms of quality, since he is beyond a notion of temporality at first place?

averroesWhen Ghazali extends the analogy of a hungry man, sitting ambivalent in front of two similar dates, confronted with the choice, Averroes questions whether it’s truly a choice between dates or between eating and not eating since there is nothing in the qualitative domain that differentiates one date from the other; as soon as we are forced to make a qualitative difference, it would not remain a choice between two similar options. While Ghazali is creating a space in natural philosophy for God as an active agent, Averroes keeps falling back to the problem of differentiating between God’s will and His knowledge.

In the same manner, through juxtaposing their rich and intricate texts, we can visualize them debating complex issues related to agency, nominalism, contingency, causation, the nature of soul and cosmology. It is also important to note for the sake of completion that their exchange is not restricted to these two books but Averroes extensively quotes Al-Ghazali in his other works as well, sometimes questioning his theories and at other times presenting them in support of some contention. As a recent commentator on their interaction aptly notes, Ghazali gave birth to a new philosophy while criticizing philosophies of his predecessors.

Averroes, on the other hand, never projects himself as someone too sure on his convictions. If all his literature is reduced to a singular contention, it would be an unassailable belief that divinely revealed knowledge cannot be in contradiction with acquired knowledge through reflection and reason.

Lastly, in my humble opinion, if the underlying contention by religious intelligentsia is to call for submission of scientific discourse to a so-called Shar’i limits, it is not warranted, may it be through rational or theological justifications. On both these grounds, such a demand would remain questionable unless a curious soul is forced to submit in front of an ecclesiastical order, as in medieval Christianity. Quran incessantly calls man to search for truth within himself and outside in the universe. As Iqbal notes in the start of his celebrated lectures, the ultimate nature of this world, its permanence or extinction, our relationship to it and our conduct are important questions equally belonging to the domains of religion, philosophy and higher-poetry. And even though science can afford to ignore or forget the underlying metaphysics, religion can hardly function without an ultimate reconciliation of human experience with his environment.

Since the advent of modernity, most of these questions are now being increasingly thrown into the domain of science, or at least being equally commented upon from a scientific standpoint. In this respect, while a post-modern inclination towards scientism and the so-called new-age Atheism is unwarranted on purely intellectual grounds, arguing for a regulated or coerced compartmentalization of knowledge for theological considerations is equally unjustifiable.

Science does have its metaphysical foundations, and inherent in its spirit of enquiry is the resolve that it cannot simply remain indifferent to higher aspects of reality, thereby restricting itself strictly to the questions of utilitarian domains. One thing we learn from Averroes, Ghazali and other Muslim philosophers is the spirit of enquiry and the resolve to defend their faith in an unseen higher reality when challenged by science or philosophy. Liberals as well as conservatives in Muslim societies must learn to look beyond the heresiographic aspects of medieval disputes and instead of extrapolating them to our times must rephrase those questions in accordance with contemporary relevance.

Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers

Russian-Thinkers-w00“Describe, don’t explain”. Though Wittgenstein perhaps wrote those words while discussing the epistemological value of science, one has to read Isaiah Berlin in order to see their true expository demonstration. This is no ordinary achievement. In more than one way, its an indispensable text; that is, its a marvel of literary criticism, a classical description of the inner-most structures of Russian thought, introduction to some of the brilliant minds and intellectual giants of 19th century Russia, and most importantly, an exquisite commentary on the history of ideas that made the modern world.

But while achieving these goals, Berlin does not try to supply judgements, leaving reader with a lot to chew. As I said, its the description that is perhaps much more important than the explanation; the latter has the tendency to eject the enquirer out of the domain of possibility, which in a way brings the creative process to a terminus.

On a different note, would anyone believe that a collection of essays about Russian literature and thought can prove to be a page turner? Well, to tell you the truth, it might not be unless the reader is at least familiar with major trends of Russian literature. For instance, two essays included in the volume -‘The Hedgehog and the Fox‘ and ‘Fathers and Children‘ – may fail to inspire a sense of awe without a decent familiarization with Tolstoy and Turgenev and if those who have read ‘War and Peace‘ and ‘Fathers and Sons‘, its a bonus. Moreover, if you are not familiar with Herzen, Belinsky or Bakunin, Berlin makes a point to generally characterize these trends of liberal intelligentsia before taking the reader finally to the outliers of the whole liberal spectrum.

Besides lucidity of prose, the greatest aspect of Berlin’s exposition is fine categorization of social and political trends in literature, and how he supplies archetypes of thought for an informed as well as uninformed reader. His point, for instance in the starting essay, that Tolstoy could neither be characterized as a Fox or Hedgehog and his ultimate conclusion that he was a Fox trying to portray as a Hedgehog is so illuminating and potentially powerful that one is forced to place intellectuals in these relative compartments for the rest of one’s life. Then there are subtleties like Turgenev being an archetype for liberal predicament, which are expounded with such force that now we have a way to describe various ideological movements of 21st century through the models of Russian thought.

An illuminate experience, a gripping read and a force to make you fall in love with Russia as well as Isaiah Berlin’s immense literary canvas.