[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
About a decade ago, much-missed Randian philosopher George Walsh (who once gave a student an A for showing up to his exam naked) offered the following remarks on Islamic history:
The forces of Islam quickly conquered the southern and eastern Mediterranean basin. There they encountered the Hellenistic culture which was already absorbed into Christianity. Translations of Aristotle had been made into Syriac in the sixth century by Eastern Christians, and these translations were in turn translated into Arabic in the ninth century. Other writings in Greek philosophy also became available. The Greek viewpoint was at first admired in Islam, unaware of what they were getting into, and it was advocated up to a point by a party called the Mutazilites, the pro-reason party in Islam. Greek philosophy, however, especially Aristotle, contradicted the whole Islamic viewpoint. The points of conflict were the following:
The Greek point of view was based on reason, the Islamic on faith and revelation. Greek philosophy regarded all of reality as knowable – this was true even of divine beings like the Prime Mover – knowable by reason. Whereas Islam believed that God was transcendent and unknowable. That is the second conflict. First is reason versus faith, second is the knowability of divine beings. Third, the Greeks believed the universe was fundamentally orderly and subject to regular law, but the Muslims believed that each event was separately decided by God’s arbitrary predestination. Fourth, the Greeks believed in an ethics and politics based on reason. For the Muslims, ethics and politics were based on the Qur’an and sacred tradition.
Those who subscribed to any Greek philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, were soon in deep trouble. This is especially evidenced by the fate of the largely pro-Greek party, the Mutazilites. The sect of the Mutazilites represented a strong pro-reason reaction against the traditional doctrine of Islam. The traditional doctrine about the Qur’an was that it was part of the mind of God and therefore co-eternal with God. The real meaning of this doctrine is that it is a blasphemy to raise the slightest question about the Qur’an. The Mutazilites rejected this doctrine, and they said that it is making the Qur’an into a second God to make it unquestionable. The Qur’an, they said, is a creature just like a beast of the field, therefore it does not necessarily express the essential nature of God any more than a cockroach does (they didn’t put it that way). The Qur’an must be subject to the interpretation of reason. If we find that a given thing is irrational and seems to be taught in the Qur’an, we conclude that God didn’t really mean it this way; he merely talked obscurely at that point. If anything in the Qur’an seems contrary to reason, we must then reinterpret it in accord with reason.
This had an influence on the Christian Middle Ages. In this Mutazilite doctrine, we do not erect a second God and, at the same time, reason is saved. This is called the doctrine of the unity of God; it is really the doctrine of the priority of reason. Secondly, we apply this immediately to sections of the Qur’an which seem to teach predestination. Now predestination takes away moral responsibility and man, the Mutazilites said, is morally responsible. A good God would not reward or punish eternally unless man were morally responsible. This the Mutazilites called the doctrine of the justice of God and they presented themselves as defenders of the justice of God. But of course it was really the assertion of man’s free will. These two pro-reason doctrines were accompanied by a strong emphasis on moral virtue and uprightness.
The Mutazilite position began to make some headway when, unfortunately, their own zeal proceeded to fanaticism, as does indeed happen sometimes with people advocating reason, as well as anything else. They sabotaged their own cause. They came into power and issued a requirement that all public officials swear that the Qur’an is created and not divine. Some who refused this doctrine were put to death. This is sometimes called the Muslim Inquisition, from 830 to 845 (ironic that the only real inquisition in Islam was initiated by the pro-reason faction). Of course there was a religious reaction and the Mutazilites were thrown out of power.
What strikes me as interesting about the final paragraph is the suggestion that the reason the liberal/secular/rationalist-leaning faction lost out is that they tried to impose these values by force and so created a backlash. A lesson, perhaps, for those today who think the way to liberalise/secularise the Islamic world is to force liberal/secular values down their throats?