About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science [2005]

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Introduction + The ideology of Islamist extremists appears to be based not only on the creation of Islamic states ruled by a Caliph and by Sharia Law but also on attempts to modernize Islam to present it as relevant to solving the problems that Muslim societies confront (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism).

The purpose of this (preliminary and evolving) document is to identify and evaluate the intellectual foundations of those attempts.

In brief it will be suggested that the unity of nature and the Divine that is the foundation of Arabic thought and Islamic science does not seem to be an accurate reflection of a differentiated reality. Moreover the political and economic consequences of that assumption appear to be central to the disadvantage that Muslim societies have experienced in the modern era, while the challenge that the globalization of modern ideas poses to the authority Muslim scholars have claimed on the basis of this assumption is a plausible explanation of the attacks against Western societies by Islamist extremists.

Which came first?

Arabic Thought or Islam: Which came First?

An account of Medieval traditions of Arabic thought suggests a world view which holds that all aspects of a diverse reality are directly created by, and conform strictly to the will of, God.

This provides a useful insight into the character of Islam (see also Islamic science below) - though it is not clear whether those Arabic traditions are primarily a result of the spread of Islam in the 7th century, or predate it.

There is a high level of similarity between the monotheistic teachings of Islam and those of its Judeo-Christian precedents. The basic message is 'God wants people to live according to His will', and (as in the Jewish scriptures) under Islam this primarily involves compliance with a set of laws for human behaviour.

Muhammad started teaching initially in Mecca as a prophet in the Judeo-Christian tradition whose message involved respect for one God and for the laws espoused by earlier prophets. Christianity's founder (Jesus of Nazareth, known to Muslims as 'Isa) was seen one of those prophets, and ascribed a very high importance. Muhammad subsequently gained an opportunity to put this teaching into practice as the basis for governing at Medina. In doing so he encountered opposition. In particular he was ridiculed by the Jews of Medina, whose endorsement of his prophetic status he sought. 

There was absolutely nothing unusual about this for prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition (ie an apparently unexceptional person speaks out, and is rejected by established interests). What was different was the reaction. While early parts of the Qu'ran had suggested that religion should be free and not coerced, later segments implied that 'you can't reject God's authority', and this was further interpreted to mean 'God's messengers should force compliance'. Muhammad put this into practice, and proved a successful military leader.

Though some Muslims argue that a socially-coercive approach to 'submission to God' results from misreading the Qu'ran, this seems to remain a feature of Islam especially where the majority of a community are Muslims. This is quite different to the freedom to reject God's messengers that people have usually (though not always eg see 2 Chronicles 15:13) been assumed to have (at their long term cost) by Islam's Judeo-Christian precedents .

For example, Jesus of Nazareth ('Isa):

  • used a parable which directly referred to the repeated rejection of God's messengers

“.... There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.  When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him." (Matthew 21: 33-39)

  • warned his followers that they would often be misunderstood, rejected and abused

"I am sending you out as sheep amongst wolves" (Matthew 10:16)

"Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospels will save it" (Mark 8:34-35)

"They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service" (John 16:2)

Islam thus needs to be seen as either the Judeo-Christian message interpreted through a pre-existing world view which held that God (and his messengers) could not be disobeyed, or that the contribution of Islam was that such a world view was needed to properly understand the intent of the earlier Judeo-Christian message.

Other consequences of Islam's assumption that reality must conform strictly to the will of God include, for example:

  • if reality conforms to the will of the Creator, and in practice it is observed that reality changes, then it follows that the Creator must be changing his mind. The Qu'ran, for example, presents God as doing so in the revelation to Mohammad with later revelations over-riding those made earlier;
  • justice is achieved (by definition) when reality conforms exactly to the will of its Creator;
  • if reality conforms perfectly to the will of the Creator, then whatever happens is the 'will of God' - and there is no point in human initiative other than compliance with his will.

Such assumptions imply much different types of societies to those which have been developed under Western assumptions.

Moreover in a practical sense they do not provide a formula for the initiative required for material prosperity. The enforcement of moral legalism through family, community and (at times) state institutions which is likely to be a primary factor in the difficulties which Muslim dominated societies have experienced in modernisation in recent centuries because of the importance of change to economic success  (see below). 

Those assumptions also imply that a lack of material prosperity has to be the result of (a) a failure to comply exactly with God's will or (b) the theft of their potential wealth by others.

It may well be that pre-existing Arabic world-views account for the autocratic style that has emerged in the Islamic world. In this critical respect, it has been suggested that pre-Islamic Arabs believed in a blind and inexorable fate over which man had no control (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Moreover at least one Muslim dissident has argued that Islam suffers because Arabic culture was imposed on it [1].  

If so, then overcoming problems that Muslim societies have experienced, may simply require separating Muhammad's original simple message from the influence of the complex Arabic system of thought in which it was elaborated in developing the broader world-view of those societies.

Doing so would have significant implications for what is understood to be the Islamic approach to science.

Islamic Science

Islamic Science

Islam is led by scholars who seek to take account of all knowledge that is not inconsistent with Islam's simple precepts to present a comprehensive and up-to-date view of all issues facing a society at a particular time.

This comprehensiveness is quite different to (say) Christianity, which only seeks to provide information about God's relationship with humanity, and which is traditionally led by persons simply concerned with bringing individuals into a relationship with God.

A scientific tradition was developed in the Islamic world from its foundation, apparently because this was viewed as a way of better knowing (though  not relating to) God.

The core of the Islamic worldview seems to involve an assumed unity of Nature and Divine Will - which is similar to the observations above about Arabic thought.

Islam is a religion based upon knowledge for it is ultimately knowledge of the Oneness of God combined with faith and total commitment to Him that saves man. The Quran has many verses that invite use of the intellect for the goal of human life is to discover the Truth which is none other than worshipping God in His Oneness. The Hadith literature is also full of references to the importance of knowledge. The history of Islamic civilization has witnessed a celebration of knowledge. All traditional Islamic cities possessed public and private libraries and also bookstores. The scholar has always been held in the highest esteem in Islamic society. [1]

Comment: Argentina, which seems perpetually to have economic difficulties, has been said to be one of the cleverest countries in the world - with many Nobel Laureates and more bookshops per-capita than anyone else [1]. Thus it is clear that having academic knowledge does not, in itself, ensure its successful application

There was a rich tradition of Islamic science from 750 to 1100AD (when there was no equivalent in Western societies). Once the Islamic state was established, Arabs encouraged learning of all kinds (eg from conquered peoples). Baghdad was the intellectual centre of the world and characterized by a true scientific spirit (proceeding from the known to the unknown; taking precise account of phenomena; accepting nothing as true which was not confirmed by experience, or established by experiment) [1]

Many discoveries attributed to Western societies were made earlier in the Islamic world [1].

Comment:  similar claims to having invented 'everything' that Western societies subsequently exploited have been made in relation to Russia (in the Soviet era) and China now [1]. If such claims have validity, then it is again clear that that invention is not the key to success, so much as the societal institutions that allow inventions to be applied

Islamic science should be evaluated from an Islamic viewpoint, as its goals differ from Western science. Those goals are to know the unchanging principles of Islam (the unity and interrelatedness of everything), rather than allow creativity and change. Islam involves surrender to the Divine Will. All knowledge that does not contradict revelation is absorbed. The gnostic seeks to be one with nature and understand it from the inside, rather than analysing it to exert control. Both Nature and the Quran provide symbols of higher orders of reality. Emphasis is given to reality as a whole, rather than to individual things. Causal relationships are never independent of Divine Will - which is quite different to the West's science concerned with the material world. Science is sacred and studied through: law; the insights of those with special calling; and search for ultimate Truth. Conflicts between various ways of knowing are seen as reflecting a lack of an adequately universalist viewpoint. The study of secularized nature which allowed the West to develop technologically from the 17th century has been of secondary interest in the Islamic world. [1]

More detail of above argument

  • Muslims wants to know and 'realize' the unchanging principles of Islam, rather than seek originality and change.
  • Once Islamic civilization was created, interest in change disappeared - which the West sees as stagnation. Arts and sciences are based on the idea of unity. Sciences reveal the unity of Nature. They aim to show the unity and interrelatedness of everything - to lead man to unity of the Divine Principle, of which the unity of Nature is the image.
  • Understanding this requires understanding Islam. The Prophet revealed "pure" original religion - to restore unity. "Islam" means both "submission" and "being at one with the Divine Will." Its essence is that God is one, and the Prophet (the vehicle of revelation and the symbol of all creation) was sent by him. This simplicity implies a religious structure different  from Christianity. There is no priesthood, or dogmatic theology.  Based on the idea of unity, all that is not contradictory to the creed has been absorbed. Islam has three levels of meaning. All beings are Muslim (ie "surrendered to Divine Will."). All who accept the revelation are Muslim (ie surrender their will to its law). Finally is the level of pure knowledge / understanding (the contemplative / gnostic level).
  • The gnostic is Muslim as his whole being is surrendered to God. "Knowledge" and "science" are different from curiosity and analytical speculation. The gnostic is "one with Nature" and understands it "from the inside". The intellective function is hard for Westerners to grasp. Analytical functions (which resolve, conquer, and dominate by force) are different from the contemplative. The gnostic's relation to Nature is "intellective,".
  • Nature is a fabric of symbols, whose meanings must be read - and has a counterpart in the symbols in the Quran. Both Nature and the Quran speak of God. Some see Nature only as the setting for men's actions. The gnostic sees both Quranic and Nature as symbolic of higher orders of reality.
  • Islam emphasizes the unity of Nature. Only unity is represented in Islamic art (though this is possible only symbolically). Muslims gives priority to the universe as a whole (symbolizing the Divine Principle) - rather than individual things - as the concrete reality. Mathematics appeals to the Muslim - as a bridge between multiplicity and unity, and thus a key to the cosmic text. Muslims practices two types of maths: algebra (related geometry and trigonometry) and science of numbers (in Pythagorean sense). The Pythagorean number has a symbolic aspect, as a projection of Unity. Numbers are studied symbols leading to the intelligible world. Gnosis in the Alexandrian world used mythological symbols - where Islam used mathematics.
  • Muslim metaphysicians say that rational knowledge reveals the Divine Unity (though spiritual realities are not only rational). Rational knowledge can be integrated into gnosis (even though it is partial while gnosis is total and intuitive). Causal explanation in Islam is never outside the faith. Human knowledge is legitimate only if subordinated to Divine wisdom. In Islamic history some rationalists tried (but failed) to get independence of the gnostics. 
  • Aristotelianism spread in the West (leading to the Renaissance and Reformation). Europe developed a science of Nature concerned only with the quantitative and material aspects of things
  • Muslim looks on all science as "sacred," and studies this three ways (a) through the Law (in Quran etc) which covers every aspect of life (b) the Path dealing with the inner aspect of things, which governs the spiritual life of Sufis who have been "elected" to follow it (c) the Truth itself. At its core is metaphysical intuition, knowledge that comes only to the right "mode in the knower."
  • Those who embody the theoretical outlook of Islam have remained unchanging (unlike West). They are seldom specialists and intellectual achievement is modeled on the unattainable complete (ie the "total thing" - unlike the Greek tradition).
  • Confidence that Islam was expressing the Truth at the heart of all revelations, allowed Islam to absorb ideas from others - and integrated this with the structure derived from the Revelation itself. Muslims drew from Greek civilization, especially the Hermetic-Pythagorean school (which was metaphysical in its approach) rather than the syllogistic-rationalistic school of Aristotle who aimed at finding the place of things in a rational system, rather than at seeing their heavenly essences.
  • Umar Khayyam divided seekers after knowledge into: (1) theologians, who are content with disputation .and "satisfying" proofs (2) philosophers who use rational arguments and seek to know the laws of logic - but can never understand fully (3) Ismailis [a branch of Shia Islam] who seek knowledge from a  credible informant (as reasoning about the Creator is hard) (4) Sufis, who seek knowledge by cleansing the soul of the impurities of nature - so as to access the perfection of God.
    • Khayyam regarded as theologians "atomistic" school of thought (of Ash'arties in 10th century) which the West might see as scientific. They saw continuity broken by an "atomistic" doctrine of time and space, and denied the Aristotelian idea of causality. They see the world as annihilated and recreated at every moment. Events are caused by the Creator - not by laws of nature (which are mere habits). Miracles are simply breaking a habit;
    • Khayyam's second group (philosophers) are the famous names of Islamic science. There are two schools: the Peripatetic school seeks to find the place of each being, in a system based upon the philosophy of Aristotle. The Illuminatist (ishraqi) school has sciences of Nature and mathematics that are primarily symbolic.
    • Ismailis (in Khayyam's third group) are a branch of Shia Islam - whose doctrines are based on numerical symbolism and the symbolic interpretation of the "cosmic text." The symbolic interpretation of the Quran (basic to Shia Islam and Sufism) was the basis for the symbolic study of Nature - which ranks among the most important Islamic writings on Nature.
    • Khayyam fourth group was the Sufis or gnostics who cleanse the instrument of perception (the soul), to see the realities of the spiritual world.  Knowledge of Nature is secondary to knowledge of the Divine Principle; yet Nature plays a role in guiding him to his goal. The gnostic divorces himself from his individual perspective and identifies with Being. Knowledge of anything means knowledge of the relationship between its essence and the Divine Intellect
  • Conflicts between these schools are not between incompatible orthodoxies but are seen as the result of an insufficiently universal point of view. Only the gnostic, who sees things "as they really are," can integrate all these views into their principal unity.
  • Muslims are not just Puritan warriors and merchants, whose strange bent for the "subtleties" of algebra and logic enabled them to transmit Greek learning to the West. It is a culture whose spiritual values are tied up with mathematics and with metaphysics of a high order, and which fused the elements of Greek science into a unitary conception.
  • The elements of Islamic sciences that allowed the West to study secularized Nature (in 17th century) had become secondary in the Islamic world. "Science" is identified with technology and its applications.
  • Islamic science, by contrast, seeks knowledge to contribute to spiritual perfection. Its fruits are inward, its values hard to discern. To understand it requires accepting as legitimate a science which has a different end, and uses different means. Its aim has been to relate the corporeal world to its basic spiritual principle, through knowledge of symbols which unite the various orders of reality.

European societies gained their understanding of ancient Greek (especially Aristotelian) science from Islamic science at the time of the Renaissance - and this ultimately provided one basis for the development in Western societies of technologies that allowed material progress. However those gains were highly dependent on concepts of individual liberty which were derived from the West's Judeo-Christian heritage (see Cultural Foundations of Western Dominance).

In brief: The Mosaic Law set people free of the arbitrary moral judgments of human authorities, while Jesus of Nazareth freed his followers of prescriptive moral law by: simplifying the Jewish law down to two basic precepts;  raising the goal posts too high for unaided human effort; and providing a path to salvation through faith rather than slavish adherence to moral laws. The effect was to locate moral judgments in individual consciences responsible to God. The potential for individual liberty this created (with other factors) then allowed effective use of rationality as a tool for decision making.

Islamic science has focused on better understanding God, because of the assumed unity of Nature and the Divine Will. Western science, by contrast, emphasized understanding of causal relationships in nature - a process whose success increasingly appeared to some to make a 'God hypothesis' unnecessary.

There are some modern features embedded in traditional Islamic science, such as:

  • an explicit recognition of the limits to rationality - a limit which follows from the fact that the complexity of reality is greater than the simple concepts we may use to describe it. Limits to rationality have also been recognized in: management theories; public administration theory in relation to counter-intuitive responses to public policies; and economics as part of the basic proof of the need for market mechanisms. Recognition of the limits to rationality also seems central to understanding of the epistemology which underpins East Asian traditions (see 'Asia' Literacy);
  • a recognition of systemic relationships - whose significance has been widely appreciated in Western sciences for only a few decades.

Elements of Islamic science also have parallels with:

  • some environmentalists thinking - because the 'intellective' approach to understanding of nature is not not directed towards control of the natural world. However some environmentalists have argued that only further technological advances can resolve the conflict which exists between the environment and human activities and populations;
  • aspects of the (so called) New Age movement which is based on a perception of the 'oneness' of all things - a perception derived from Buddhist traditions - though the New Age movement (and Buddhism) identifies human beings as spiritual fragments of the Divine;
  • suggestions by some scientists that free will is merely an illusion - though they would do so on the basis that outcomes are determined simply by natural laws (an assumption that seems highly suspect).

Islamic science's assumption that a super-natural God is involved in creation also parallels an hypothesis about this that the present author developed as a result of undoubtedly partial knowledge about advances in understanding of physical sciences and social systems. Problems in an Internally Deterministic Worldview identifies problems in assuming internal determinism within Nature. For example:

  • causal relationships can at times be changed intentionally by humans;
  • the laws of physics are inadequate to explain / predict the causal relationships that exist in higher order systems, relationships which can emerge as the result of the influence of their (boundless?) environment;
  • the time-reversible laws of nature do not explain the irreversibility that is implicit in the Second Law of Themodynamics;
  • the laws of physics do not explain their own existence; and
  • random variations seem to be inadequate in explaining genetic changes.

The above analysis also implies a process of creation involving stimulation of new systemic arrangements by introducing new information to a reality whose causal relationships, complex character and physical elements embody the effects of prior creative acts in a way which permits elements in that reality to have their own autonomous patterns of behaviour (eg to respond to both natural laws and free will; and even themselves exhibit creativity) while ultimately being subject to external creative influence both in part and as a whole. Under this hypothesis, creation involves a role something like that of an 'orchestra conductor'.

However traditional Islamic science seems to assume different mechanics of creative influence (eg to involve a constant comprehensive re-creation on a perpetually zero-base) so that reality is micro-managed by God. Under this hypothesis, creation involves a role like that of the ultimate-hands-on 'orchestra conductor' who not only signals changes to tempo and volume, but starts again and completes the composition of the music and the education and musical training of everyone in the orchestra every instant.

The 'systemic stimulation' model appears more plausible than the 'micro-management' model because:

  • nature is highly differentiated. While there has been no success in discovering 'things' which exist in isolation (and so everything is comprised of elements which themselves consist of relationships; and everything is ultimately related to everything else), there are few examples in nature of systems which are both large and highly connected. This strongly suggests that the 'model' for creation is of quasi-individual elements which exhibit autonomous behaviour in response to natural laws, or self-will.  Reality would not need to be so highly differentiated if it were 'micro-managed';
  • the computational problem in the 'micro-management' model would be horrendous - and the process of creation thus extremely inefficient. Analogies can be drawn with:
    • the problem facing a central planner trying to control an economy - an effort which can be shown to be impossible because of the 'planners' inability to acquire the relevant information.  The computational problem is dramatically reduced and the outcomes far more interesting and self-sufficient (as is the case with economic management also) by simply creating laws of behaviour for quasi-individual elements;
    • the concept of 'fuzzy logic' which shows that it is not possible to more effectively control a system by fully analyzing its behaviour than by making simplifying assumptions (because too much time is required to fully analyze the system to allow real-time control);
    • the shift to object-oriented computer programming. Originally programs were written as an integrated whole, but this became too complex - so object-oriented methods were developed through which 'objects' were were defined, assigned properties and methods and enabled to respond individually to events in their environment.
  • laws of nature can be identified which go very close to allowing 'grand unified theories of everything' to be developed, and such scientific understanding seems mainly to have difficulties in relation to the process of change;
  • similarly feedback relationships emerge within systems (as a result of a system's interaction with its environment, or sometimes as a result of human intention) and those feedbacks also have a 'causal' effect (eg noting the principle of homeostasis whereby feedbacks stabilize a system against external change; or the observed effect of 'the system' on ensuring that new recruits to an organization will behave much like their predecessor). As with the laws of nature, these feedback relationships, reduce the need for 'micro-management';
  • the observed process of change in the natural world (which has been described as 'evolution') involves building new order by creating new relationships amongst systems which already exist. If the 'micro-management' model were valid it would be expected that new organisms (etc) would appear without any need to build off existing systems;.

Numerous statements related to knowledge about nature in the Qu'ran can be identified [1]. However none of those statements seem to define in detail the world view that is embedded in Islamic science as discussed above.

Moreover there seem likely to be negative societal effects from assuming a total unity of Nature and Divine Will. For example:

  • attempts to understand complex social systems must be impossible for anyone and thus there is always the risk that some individuals (despite their best efforts to purify themselves) will introduce their own mistaken interpretations or imaginings without others recognizing that they have done so. Islam's more esoteric approaches to determining 'truth' (based on the untestable perceptions of human 'authorities') seems potentially dangerous. Even if right outcomes emerge 90% of the time from the insights of noble leaders, there is always the risk that eventually a leader's delusional 'insight' will be blindly accepted by his followers (eg consider Hitler's 'insights', expressed in Mein Kampf, about political, economic and social reality);
  • a lack of interest in change involves resistance to a process which is widespread in nature. If the 'systemic stimulation' model is correct then resistance to change may actually involve disobedience of, rather than submission to, God's will.  Also, from a practical viewpoint:
  • 'intellective' methods can not lead to productive use of knowledge (widely regarded as the key factor in economic growth) because they lead to limited interest in application. Moreover if the 'systemic stimulation' model of creation is correct, methods which try to view nature as symbolic of God will make it impossible to see nature as it actually is.

If Islam's Divine micro-management view of creation does not correspond with the way the world actually works, then this could be the basic problem that the Muslim world suffers. Islam's imams / scholars may be continually building what is presented to others as a comprehensive 'enlightened' intellectual edifice on a false assumption.

Conclusion Conclusion

The revelations which Muhammad received were necessarily viewed through the lens of pre-existing patterns of Arabic thought, and those patterns (which apparently perceived humanity as rigidly bound by a blind and inexorable fate over which man had no control) must also have affected the way in which a world-view was subsequently constructed around those revelations.

The framework of Islamic science which subsequently developed reflects a corresponding assumption that God 'micro-manages' creation - a view which:

  • seems less likely that other alternatives (eg a systemic stimulation model);
  • perhaps results in resisting God (rather than submission to God, which is understood to be the Islamic ideal); and
  • leads to great difficulties and distortions in understanding natural systems and managing human affairs. 

Moreover, as suggested in Discouraging Pointless Extremism, the assumption that social and natural reality can best or only be interpreted as a reflection of Divine will traditionally places control of Muslim communities in the hands of Islamic scholars. The potential for loss of this control as a result of the spread of modern ideas through globalization may well have been a factor in motivating extremist scholars to encourage Islamist militants to attack Western societies.