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
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
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
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
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 .
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
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
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. 
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 . 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) 
Many discoveries attributed to Western societies were made earlier in the
Islamic world .
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 .
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. 
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
- 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,".
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
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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'
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
- random variations seem to be inadequate in explaining genetic
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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 . However none of those statements seem to
define in detail the world view that is embedded in Islamic science as
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
introduce their own mistaken interpretations or imaginings without
others recognizing that they have done so. Islam's
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
- '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.