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December 14th 2015 print

Mervyn F. Bendle PhD

Malcolm Piffle, PM

Politicians can perhaps be forgiven for saying things that go down well with their media admirers, but our latest leader's pronouncements on the intellectual debt the West allegedly owes Islam  harvests a broad acreage of nonsense from a grain of truth

koranic scienceMalcolm Turnbull’s ill-informed claims about the intellectual achievements of Islam (recalled by Mark Durie) provide an opportunity to confront and refute one of the most insidious myths about Islam and its contribution to world history.

Turnbull parrots the political correct propaganda promoted by Islamists and fellow travelers and useful idiots in academia and the media. According to this, Islam is a source of great scholarship and served as the vehicle for the transmission of ancient learning and science through the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. Indeed, Turnbull believes that “much of our learning and culture came to us from the Muslims”. This is an obvious absurdity that reflects very poorly on Turnbull and his advisors. It indicates that he’s happy to ignore the colossal achievements of the West and continue the denigration and undermining of his own civilization, the default position of Green-Left trendoids, Hizb ut-Tahrir, jihadists and Islamists generally.

It is all the more absurd because Turnbull is referring to an era during the Middle Ages dominated not by Islam’s openness to Classical thought but rather by its willful and determined rejection of this prodigious heritage. As the great Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, recorded about the Muslim conquest of Persia, the newly triumphant Caliph ordered that the huge quantity of captured books and scientific papers captured by his forces destroyed because, “if what they contain is right guidance, God has given us better guidance [in the Koran]. If it is error, God has protected us against it”. This was an attitude recorded also in the apocryphal account of the destruction of the great library of Alexandria: “These books either contain what is in the Koran or something else. In either case, they are superfluous”. And, as the very influential medieval Muslim scholar, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111), confidently insisted: “The science that the Koran brings is all science”.

Moreover, very little changed in this arrogant and willfully ignorant attitude and for centuries Islamic scholarship and inquiry was focused almost entirely on the Koran and its exposition, while the printing of books was forbidden, and book production and translation were extremely constrained throughout the Muslim world. And this situation persists. As Robert R. Reilly points out in The Closing of the Muslim Mind (2010), Greece by itself translates five times more books annually than does the entire Muslim world, while in the past millennium the Arab world has translated only the same number that Spain translates in one year. Consequently, intellectual and scientific productivity of Muslim countries is very poor. As measured in terms of articles published in reputable academic journals, patents registered, money spent on research, and the number of scientists and technically trained personnel, etc., this productivity falls far below that of the West, other industrial societies, and even developing countries. Between 1980 and 2000 South Korea alone registered 16,328 patents, while nine Middle East countries registered only 370 between them, and many of these were registered by foreigners; India and Spain each produce a larger proportion of global scientific literature than do the 46 Muslim countries combined.

As a result, the 2003 UN Arab Human Development Report (prepared, it should be emphasised, by Arab scholars), observed that the persistence of archaic intellectual commitments in Arab nations “raises basic knowledge problems”, including “a lack of scientific perspective and sometimes a disregard for reality”; and that the Arab consciousness “has been cloaked in the supernatural, which in reality signified an absence of consciousness and an abandonment of the scientific and intellectual basis” of contemporary thought.

It is to this civilization that Turnbull believes the West should be beholden for its intellectual heritage.

And this attitude becomes even more insane as ISIS is now demonstrating the same nihilistic attitude of utter ignorance and contempt towards classical antiquity with its destruction of the ancient sites in the Middle East, and particularly in the unspeakably tragic destruction of Palmyra, an act that even the United Nations labelled a war crime.  This echoed the horrendous vandalism of the Taliban, which destroyed the gigantic statues of Buddha with anti-aircraft fire and ordered the destruction of all books in Afghanistan except the Koran.

It is incredible therefore that Turnbull could make such claims about Islam, especially when they are further considered in detail.  After all, exactly what is it that Muslims preserved for us from the pre-Islamic era that would justify his assertion that “much of our learning and culture came to us from the Muslims”? In fact, very little apart from the documentary material from classical antiquity that happened to be physically located in those parts of the world that Islam conquered, and was preserved largely by accident rather than through any positive Muslim preservation policies or attitudes of respect for pre-Islamic traditions.

This shouldn’t be surprising as Islam originated in a tribal context within an area on the periphery of the Roman and Persian empires of Late Antiquity. Its military successes (achieved at a time when these empires were exhausted from warfare) thrust it in into a complex intellectual matrix that had been in place for at least a millennium and these venerable systems of thought had little in common with the stark and unsophisticated monotheism that suddenly appeared from Arabia. Islam found itself as an imperial power confronted by innumerable ancient works of logic and philosophy, natural science, medicine, engineering, mathematics, alchemy and astrology that dated back centuries. Muslim scholars were compelled to engage with this work, struggling to devise the concepts that would allow its incorporation into Arabic, while also marshalling arguments in support of their new religion as it confronted the well-established monotheisms of Judaism and Christianity. For a time, the largely dogmatic and jurisprudential mode of thought that typified early Islam was enriched by a philosophical and scientific awareness that nurtured free enquiry and speculation, but the Muslims abruptly turned their backs on this heritage and embraced a primitive form of theological irrationalism. The resulting world-view came to dominate Islam and destroyed its capacity to embrace science, democracy, and economic development down to the present day.

For example, in the central realm of philosophy, few of the key figures and schools of classical thought that came to shape Western Civilization (e.g., Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.) found a secure place in the Islamic intellectual tradition. Virtually the only things of note that were transmitted were some elements of Aristotle, and even these were eventually rejected by Muslim theologians.  Moreover, what knowledge the early Muslims had of Aristotle was one heavily coloured by the Neoplatonism that emerged in the 3rd century in the Eastern Roman Empire (leading them to the mistaken conclusion that they possessed the so-called ‘Theology of Aristotle’). Aside from Plato and Aristotle, this was shaped by Christian, Gnostic, Hindu and Buddhist mystical ideas. Nothing particularly original was added to this tradition by Islam thinkers, with the possible exception of the Sufis. However, they were mystics and a prominent hadith recalled Muhammed’s declaration that there was “no mysticism in Islam”, and so the Sufis were regarded as heterodox and are now rejected by Wahhabis and other Salafist fundamentalists as apostates and polytheists.

The fate under Islam of the type of pluralistic philosophical impulse that characterized the ancient world can be illustrated by the careers of two notable Muslim philosophers who appeared in the high Middle Ages: Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) and Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-98), and these hardly support Turnbull’s rosy view of Islamic intellectual tolerance. Their thought was not primarily derived from the Koran but was largely shaped by the Neoplatonic version of the Aristotelean tradition that they had inherited from the West, and which they reinterpreted to fit with the monotheism of Islam, considered in an abstract philosophical manner. Consequently, their work was regarded with great suspicion by Muslim clerics, and they faced imprisonment and execution throughout their lives.

Averroes, in particular, fell afoul of Muslim orthodoxy and was accused of betraying the true Koranic faith in the name of the rationalistic philosophy of Aristotle. The reigning Caliph (who had previously been his protector) issued an edict condemning rationalism and declaring that the fires of Hell awaited those who held that truth could be attained by unaided reason outside the teachings of the Koran. After Averroes, Muslim philosophy was strangled by the brute force of religious orthodoxy, and Avicenna and Averroes are remembered today principally because the ultimately classical origins of their thought meant it could be re-absorbed into the Western tradition after the rise of Scholasticism in the 13th century.

At the heart of this epoch-defining shift in the intellectual allegiance of Islam was the perennial confrontation of Revelation with Reason: in religion, which of these primary forms of knowledge is the final source of Truth?  It was a struggle exemplified by two theological schools, the Ash’arites and the Mu’tazilites during the early years of Muslim history. For one, the Truth was found in Revelation (i.e., the Koran); for the other, it was found in Reason (i.e., philosophy). Consequently, they had totally different conceptions of God, and therefore opposing views of the value of pre-Islamic thought. The Ash’arites emphasized God’s absolute omnipotence and will and looked solely to the Koran; the Mu’tazilites stressed His rationality and justice, and looked to philosophy. For one, God can act at any time in any manner He chooses, however incomprehensible this might be to humanity; for the other, God always acts rationally and within the framework of natural and moral law, which can be identified by reason. The Mu’tazilite’s rationalist view initially prevailed but eventually Ash’arite irrationalism was victorious, with dire consequences.

The Mu’tazilite school had emerged as champions of philosophy and of the power of reason, with all that this entails about the knowability of God, the rational nature of the universe, and humanity’s place within it. They were also advocates of free will and questioned the principles of fatalism and predestination, and when the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyads this became a politically useful position and so the Mu’tazilites gained the support of the regime. They also insisted that humanity was free to use reason and philosophy to interpret revelation, and that the Koran was created in time. Once again these were politically useful views as they enhanced the authority of the new dynasty and reduced the influence of the traditionalist clergy. Eventually the Mu’tazilites established the first fully developed school of Islamic theology, and promoted learned debate with Christian theologians about their two faiths.

Their triumph was short-lived, and by the mid-9th century the Ash’arites had re-asserted their opposing views of God, the universe, humanity, and the Koran, shifting the emphasis fundamentally in all key areas. Above all, God came to be seen in terms of Will alone, outside and above any notions of reason, rationality, and natural law, which were all seen as subsidiary and contingent human constructions, and subject always to the divine Will.

Quite contrary to the myth of a benign, tolerant, and open Muslim intellectual culture propagated by Turnbull and apologists for Islamism, the newly triumphant Ash’arites wreaked revenge upon their opponents. The Mu’tazilites were expelled from court, ejected from all government positions, and adherence to their doctrines became punishable by death. Mu’tazilite works were largely destroyed and copyists and booksellers were prohibited from trading in all works of theology, philosophy, and dialectical disputation associated with them.

In this fashion, “the long process of dehellenization and [intellectual] ossification had begun”, as Reilly puts it. And, as the Pakistani physicist and historian of science, Pervez Hoodbhoy, concludes in Islam and Science (1991): “Thus ended the most serious attempt to combine reason with revelation in Islam … By the twelfth century the conservative, anti-rationalist schools of thought had almost completely destroyed the Mu’tazilite influence”. Tragically, the anti-rationalist reaction only gathered pace over the years and the rage of the Ash’arites came to be moderate compared to the rigid fundamentalism of the later Hanbalites and the more recent Salafists and Wahhabis, who of course, now dominate Saudi Arabia and control all the Islamist groups sustained around the world by massive Saudi funding, including most of those in Australia.

Because of the hegemony of Wahhabism achieved by petrodollars, contemporary Islamism is now the intellectual heir to the Ash’arite victory, and central to its outlook is a refusal to follow the West and acknowledge the underlying principles of science and technology, i.e., that the world and the universe are rational realms governed by physical laws that remain constant and stand outside the contingent behaviour not only of human beings but also of God. Instead, the view prevails in Islam that science and all useful knowledge is completely contained within theology and ultimately the Koran, and that scientific laws do not even exist, since this would entail a limitation upon the Will of God.

Consequently, a bogus form of ‘Islamic science’ promoted and funded by Saudi petrodollars has emerged, as Hoodbhoy explains in a 2007 Physics Today article:

In the 1980s an imagined ‘Islamic science’ was posed as an alternative to ‘Western science’. The notion was widely propagated and received support from governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Muslim ideologues … announced that a new science was about to be built on lofty moral principles such as tawheed (unity of God), ibadah (worship), khilafah (trusteeship), and rejection of zulm (tyranny), and that revelation rather than reason would be the ultimate guide to valid knowledge. Others took as literal statements of scientific fact verses from the Qur’an that related to descriptions of the physical world. Those attempts led to many elaborate and expensive Islamic science conferences around the world. Some scholars calculated the temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly djinnis [spirits].

As Hoodbhoy continues, although none of these Muslim scholars “produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment, or even formulated a single testable hypothesis”, they were regarded as honoured practitioners of ‘Islamic science’. Inevitably, many Muslim academics professing an expertise in ‘Islamic science’ have found senior positions in Western universities, including in Australia.

In summary, according to the Islamist view, we do not live in a rationally ordered universe governed by scientific laws but in a realm utterly subject to the Will of God, as disclosed in the Koran, and it is incumbent upon all humanity to life entirely and solely in accordance with this revelation of the divine Will, as interpreted, of course, by the Islamists.

Therefore, the contemporary crisis of Islam exists for reasons that are the exact opposite of Turnbull’s misinformed view: its rejection, during the Dark Ages, of the empirical and scientific mode of thought that was nurtured in the West and came to empower its rise to global dominance.

As a result of this inversion of reality, Islamists (and apparently Turnbull) labour under the mistaken belief that the hard-won achievements of science and technology could have arisen outside of the very specific economic, social, cultural, and political context of the Western tradition. Moreover, Islamists also believe that this tradition can be jettisoned while its achievements can be appropriated and exploited by an authoritarian theocratic state that seeks to dominate every aspect of life while routinely employing systems of terror against its citizens.

This blindness exists for theological and psychological reasons. Islamists are Salafists, the ultra-conservative and fundamentalist version of Islam that insist that Islam will only rise to its proper position of global hegemony by returning to the beliefs, values, and practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. Enraged that their religion does not dominate the world, Islamists delude themselves that they can reach back thirteen centuries to a mythologized golden age of Muslim history (believed in by Turnbull) to resurrect an Islamic theocracy that they can now impose on humanity.  And they imagine that they can do this while nevertheless retaining all the benefits of science and other achievements of modernity, of which they remain great but deeply resentful beneficiaries.

It is incredible that Turnbull panders to such fanatics and to their willful ignorance and arrogance about the comparative nature and achievements of Islam and the West. And it is lamentable that he feels unable to follow the lead taken by David Cameron and Tony Abbott (in his new conservative incarnation) and resolutely champion the West, as the only civilization that has been able to raise vast masses of humanity out of endless poverty and place it on the path of progress to a better world for all.

Comments [19]

  1. Jody says:

    It’s really no different to the legions who’ve bought into the equivalence of Aboriginal culture to our own; that “Dreamtime” is an education system and the local “Log of Knowledge” Park is a university.

    • Eeyore says:

      Hi Jody,
      Not having been inflicted with the local “log of knowledge”, I wonder if it too is inhabited by trigger warnings, 3rd wave feminists, rent seeking professorships and other disreputable types.

  2. Jody says:

    Yes, Rob, the types who need to be tossed out with “climate” change. Only the “climate” I’m referring to is a political and cultural one!!! BRING IT ON.

  3. Bill Martin says:

    This timely article is decidedly the most educational piece of writing I have ever read and I am most grateful to Mervyn Bendle for it. What an eye-opener! I am awed by the depth and breadth of his familiarity with this vitally important and relevant subject, one which most people know nothing or very little about and that little is mostly way off the mark. I would be keen to know of books dealing with the history of science and Islam, suitable for non-academic readers. Perhaps Mr. Bendle could write one, unless he has already done so, which I would buy without hesitation. Any suggestions, anybody?

    • Alice Thermopolis says:

      Bill

      Perhaps try Jim Al-Khalili’s “Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science” [Allan Lane, 2010, ISBN 9718-1-846-14161-4].

      Al-Khalili OBE is an Iraqui-born UK scientist, author and broadcaster. Professor of Theoretical Physics at University of Surrey. Won Royal Society’s 2007 Michael Faraday prize for science communication.

      Promo: “For over 700 years the international language of science was Arabic. In Pathfinders, Jim Al-Khalili celebrates the forgotten inspiring pioneers who helped shape our understanding of the world.”

  4. Keith Kennelly says:

    To instigate a real revolution we need to elect a Labor government with Bill Shorten as leader.

    Such well take us onto the gravy train to Greece and into the abyss. As a consequence of this we would overwheliming see the rise of politicians committed to abandoning all the pipe-dream fantasies of the years since the ruse of Goeff and his acolytes.

    It might really then become Tony’s time. He rely is ahead of his time.

  5. DRW says:

    From 2001 till 2014 the Great Satan issued 2,874,103 patents, the rest of the world
    2,539,770 and Australia about 22,000, however the western European nations are about equal on a per capita basis, Japan 570,000.

  6. Bran Dee says:

    for Bill Martin and others wanting an easy read of a scholarly book on Mohammedanism with copious notes I recommend the one by the Dutch parliamentarian and champion of free speech Geert Wilders. The title of the book is “Marked for Death – Islam’s War Against the West and Me”. The book has a forward by Mark Steyn and is packed with comprehensive historical information. It is published by Regnery in the US and I bought my copy from Q Society of Aust Inc at http://www.skipngirl.com.au/qshop

    • Bill Martin says:

      Thanks Bran Dee, I have that excellent book and a number of others, from which I have acquired a reasonable volume of information concerning the history and vile theology of Islam and its evil founder, Mohammed. There is very little in any of those books about the relationship between science and Islam, that is what I found particularly interesting in the above article and would like to learn more about.

  7. Keith Kennelly says:

    Bill

    Try the Majesty That Was Islam by Montgomery Watt.

    It is pretty much the primary school of info re the growth and development of Islam. It describes the when and where and how. I read that and some works of the Islam scholars, referenced by Dr Bendle, Averrones and Avicenna

    For an understanding of how westerners have felt about the ways of Salafism and Wahabism see Montesque, Churchill, and Chesterton .

    Dr Bendle’s scholarship and his references are much more complex, ‘meaty’ and he explains the why and how … in great and relevant detail.

    Avenues and

    • Bill Martin says:

      Thanks Keith. Will check it out.

      • Bill Martin says:

        I have checked it out Keith, and no thanks. I bypass anyone who believes that the Koran was divinely inspired, whereas it almost certainly began as some sort of hallucination of a disturbed mind and developed into a cunning system of coming up with verses to serve his purpose as and when required.

        • Philip Owen says:

          Bill.
          I have read a considerable amount about the origins of islam and have realised that nothing that is commonly believed about the origins of it is true.
          For example scholars (and I am not one) can demonstrate that no form of the koran was known until about sixty years after the supposed death of Muhammed. Strange when he is held to have received it from god, a process which presumably ended with his death.
          It can also be demonstrated that the original language of the koran was Syriac and there is evidence of discussion in the early eighth century about translating the document into the language of Muhammed’s tribe, which presuably was arabic.
          Beyond that there is the problem that as much as a third of the sayings can be traced to earlier Judeo-Christian writings.
          So much for the the unchanging word of allah transmitted in the language of paradice.
          More of a fabricated document put together for political purposes.
          No wonder so much effort has been devoted, and continues to be devoted, to avoiding any examination or questioning of the bases of islam. You can only ensure that your lies are safe by threatening to kill any questioner.

          • Bill Martin says:

            What you bring up about the “origins” of Islam, Philip, is very interesting but not surprising and certainly news to me. Having done some reading on the subject, what does surprise me is that nowhere did I see anything of what you are saying. Could you suggest some of the sources for this information, such as websites, authors or books? At any rate, thanks for your response. is very interesting but not surprising and certainly news to me. Having done some reading on the subject, what does surprise me is that nowhere did I see anything of what you are saying. Could you suggest some of the sources for this information, such as websites, authors or books? At any rate, thanks for your response.

  8. Alistair says:

    Anyone after an introduction to Islam should go straight the the master – Ibn Warraq

    “Why I am not a Muslim” – published 1995 The great news is that I just found this book available as a free down load at

    http://www.conflicts.rem33.com/images/books/Ibn%20Warraq%20-%20Why%20I%20Am%20Not%20a%20Muslim.pdf

    He has other scholarly works “What the Koran really says”, “the Quest for the Historial Mohammad” and so on

  9. en passant says:

    Mervyn,
    A good, informative and readable article. Let me see if I understood your position concerning the Great Communicator, the smartest guy in the room, the … you know the rest. He is wrong by supporting a totally untenable position that is the exact opposite of the real situation? So when you report that the Caliph [Malcolm]ordered “… the huge quantity of captured books and scientific papers captured by his forces destroyed …” are we talking about Islam, Climate Change or everything that is on the table?
    As we descend into a new Dark Age of Unreason, as you correctly state in your article “The reigning Caliph [the Wentworth Waffler] issued an edict condemning rationalism and declaring that the fires of Hell awaited those who held that truth could be attained by unaided reason outside the teachings of the [Cabinet or the IPCC] Koran.”
    I worked in Qatar with a petrochemical geologist who paradoxically, unshakably believed that the Earth was 6,000 year old and that his god had laid down fossils as clues for us to find and interpret. Faced with that level of irrationality of a highly educated barbarian prepare to meet thy doom if we do not start facing reality very soon.

  10. pgang says:

    Rationalism and Islam – both out of sync with reality. Natural law is God’s law – the rational way in which he upholds the material universe. It neither restricts God, nor is it outside of God’s ‘contingent behaviour’. However, God acts rationally for our benefit and to His own glory. On that basis we have modern science. On the basis of rationalism/materialism we have only superstition masquerading as science (a causal universe without cause).

    So are we really that much better than Islam at this point in history? Well, obviously yes, but we are going backwards.

  11. Keith Kennelly says:

    Bill Martin

    What I took from Watt’s book was not that Islam is magnificent, but that there was a time when it did actually seem to be quiet magnificient for a time until overtaken by the fundamentalists. That time coincided with its base being the Ancient Persian empire.

    Dr Beadle states as such but omits the geographic info and he points out it was a fleeting time which added little. His explanation has much more depth than I have explored and I can now understand more than I once did.

    Without the initial understanding of the development and spread of Islam, which Watt supplies, I have difficulty fully understanding the nuances and complexity of Dr Bendle’s essay.

    Cheers

  12. Ian MacDougall says:

    pgang:

    “Natural law is God’s law – the rational way in which he upholds the material universe. It neither restricts God, nor is it outside of God’s ‘contingent behaviour’. However, God acts rationally for our benefit and to His own glory. On that basis we have modern science. On the basis of rationalism/materialism we have only superstition masquerading as science (a causal universe without cause).”

    Dr Merv Bendle PhD has written a great informative article here, but consider the subtext of it. Turnbull made appeasing politicianspeak noises on Islam and therefore we should have Tony Abbott back in his old gig as PM. You know Tony: It’s time we gave the Queen’s husband yet another gong; climate change is crap; the future is coal; get rid of renewables research and development… etc, etc.
    As to God: He has to be omnipotent and omniscient. It stands to reason. So if God wished to, He could make gravitational force one of repulsion, and as a result we would have water flowing uphill, the tidal force of the Moon being a push rather than a pull, and so on: if He wanted it that way.
    Reason and revelation are the basis of any religion’s science, but in the final wash, any given prophet’s revelation is good as any other’s. There is no rational basis for choosing one over the other.
    However, Islam has the disadvantage of being based on a book written by just one such prophet. Islamic doctrine is also totally devoid of escape clauses, unlike say, Christianity.