Malcolm 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.