How Not to Liberalise

[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:

Ibn Rushd 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?

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6 Responses to How Not to Liberalise

  1. Niccolo Adami February 24, 2008 at 12:16 am #

    I’m sure that the general rejection of “Western” concepts in Arab countries may have a great deal to do with the general hostilities the Westerners have possessed towards the Arabs, however, I do not see why the Arabs are entirely wrong in their beliefs that God can not necessarily be knowable and why faith can sometimes be more important than “reason.”

  2. Sergio Méndez February 24, 2008 at 6:31 am #

    Profesor Long:

    Althgout I agree with your point, I don´t think the expresion “forcing liberal/secular values down their throats” is fortunate. You cannot force “freedom” under anybody troats, and if you see, that is also part of the rethoric of the religious right in the US (that the “secularists” are forcing secular values when they promote separation of church and state, or when they oppose the use of the state to promote a specific religious credo). I will rather say that what the US does is to try to force its own interests (political, economical) down muslims troats with THE EXCUSE of promoting liberal and secular values

  3. Ben February 24, 2008 at 4:19 pm #


    This has -a lot- to do with it, in my opinion. Western intervention and colonialism also has a lot to do with the rise of apocalyptic Shi’ism.


  4. Anon73 February 24, 2008 at 4:28 pm #

    I guess it’s a good thing that an ancient Fascist version of Ayn Rand never became the Pope, otherwise Europe might be even more messed up today…

  5. Kevin Carson February 25, 2008 at 2:22 am #

    It seems to me that belief in that the Quran existed in the mind of God wouldn’t necessarily contradict its status as a created thing or require treating it as “divine.” In that case, it’s hard to avoid a Platonistic conclusion: since God is eternal, and the pattern of his creation must always have been (or rather must always be, in the present tense, to a God whose being is not subject to duration) in his mind, then the idea of every created thing is co-eternal and is likewise liable to be considered divine.

    The only way to avoid it, it seems to me, is to posit God as an everlasting being *in* time rather than a truly eternal being, and thereby to deny that every action taken by God in time is inherent in his eternal being. If you start with the assumption of the major monotheistic religions that God is eternal and changeless, and that his actions in time are simply a temporal cross-section of his eternal being, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that every created thing exists in the eternal mind of God. (Or if you want to get really Platonist, I guess you could just say the universal forms exist in the mind of God, and that matter is the principle of differentiation–but that kind of dualism is a big heresy right there, right?)

    In any case, my point is that the traditional monotheisms are generally comfortable with the idea of created reality existing in the mind of an eternal and changeless God. And if this is true of every created thing, why quibble about the Quran in particular?

    Another point: if God is eternal and changeless, it follows that the act of creation is eternal and that our perception of it from inside as past, present, and future is more or less equivalent to Mr. A. Square’s perception of Flatland as a cross-section of a 3-D reality he can’t comprehend. I believe Tony Hollick, in reference to Popper, referred to a “four-dimensional Parmenidean block” in which the entire event track of everything, from its creation to destruction, exists “now.” And if an eternal four-dimensional continuum exists, then the future is “already” part of it.

  6. Tony Hollick December 18, 2008 at 9:26 am #

    The reference to a “four-dimensional Parmenidean block Universe, in which nothing ever changes” is the problem-situation WRT General Relativity which Popper discussed with Einstein. Einstein’s response was that insofar as this might be the case, GR may have to be ruled out “on logical grounds.”

    As I understand it, Islam’s position is that the physical Universe is indeed fully determined, but that individuals still have moral choice (to accept or reject a moral stance). I cannot make this approach meaningful.

    Popper (and I) take an Interactionist Dualist approach to the Mind-Body problem, which is, for me, easily the most interesting problem for liberarian ideas. Popper’s “Self and Its Brain” (with John Eccles) is a lovely book, which I’m re-reading at this time.



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