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Newsletter for December 2008
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THE RISE AND
FALL OF RATIONALISM IN ISLAM
The Development of Metaphysics in Persia--A Contribution to the Muslim History of Muslim Philosophy)
The Persian mind, having adjusted itself to the new Political environment, soon reasserts its innate freedom, and begins to retire from the field of: objectivity, in order that it may come back to itself and reflect upon the material achieved in its journey out of its own inwardness. With the study of Greek thought, the spirit which was almost lost in the concrete, begins to reflect and realize itself as the arbiter of truth. Subjectivity asserts itself, and endeavors to supplant all outward authority. Such a period, in the intellectual history of a people, must be the epoch of rationalism, skepticism, mysticism, heresy - forms in which the human mind, swayed by the growing force of subjectivity, rejects all external standards of truth. And so we find the epoch under consideration. The period of Umayyad dominance is taken up, with the process of co-mingling and adjustment to new conditions of life; but with the rise of the Abbasid Dynasty and the study of Greek Philosophy, the pent-up intellectual force of Persia bursts out
again, and exhibits wonderful activity in all the, departments of thought and action. The fresh intellectual vigour imparted by the assimilation of, Greek Philosophy, which was studied with great avidity, led immediately to a critical examination of Islamic Monotheism. Theology, enlivened by religious fervor, learned to talk the language of Philosophy, earlier than cold reason began to seek a retired corner, away from the noise of controversy, in order to construct a consistent theory of things. In the first half of the 8th Century we find Wasil Ibn `Ata - a Persian disciple of the famous theologian Hasan of Basra - starting Mu`tazilaism (Rationalism) - that most interesting movement which engaged some of the subtlest minds of Persia, and finally exhausted its force in the keen metaphysical controversies of Baghdad and Basra. The famous city of Basra had become, owing to its commercial situation, the play-ground of various forces - Greek Philosophy, Scepticism, Christianity, Buddhistic ideas, Manichaeism (1) which furnished ample spiritual food to the inquiring mind of the time, and formed the intellectual environment of Islamic Rationalism. What Spitta calls the Syrian period of Muhammadan History is not characterised with metaphysical subtleties. With the advent of the Persian Period, however, Muhammadan students of Greek Philosophy began (1)During the `Abbasid Period there were many who secretly held Manichaen opinions. See Fihrist, Leipzig 1871, p. 338; See also Al-Mu`tazila, ed. by T. W. Arnold, Leipzig 1902, p. 27, where the author speaks of a controversy between Abu'l-Hudhail and Salih the Dualist. See also MacDonald's Muslim Theology, p. 133. properly to reflect on their religion, and the Mu`tazil thinkers (1), gradually drifted into metaphysics with which alone we are concerned here. It is not our object to trace the history of the Mu`tazila Kalam; for present purposes it will be sufficient if we briefly reveal the metaphysical implications of the Mu`tazila view of Islam. The conception of God, and the theory of matter, therefore, are the only aspects of Rationalism which we propose to discuss here.
His conception of the unity of God at which the Mu`tazila eventually arrived by a subtle dialectic is one of the fundamental points in which he differs, from the Orthodox Muhammaden . God’s attributes according to his view, cannot be said to inhere in Him; they form the very essence of His nature. The Mu`tazila, therefore, denies the separate reality of divine attributes, and declares their absolute identity with the abstract divine Principle. "God", says.
1.The Mu`tazilas belonged to various nationalities, and many of them were Persians either by descent or domicile. Wasil Ibn `Ata - the reported founder of the sect - was a Persian (Browne, Lit. His., Vol. 1, p. 281). Von Kremer, however, traces their origin to the theological controversies of the Umayyad period. Mu`tazilaism was not an essentially Persian movement; but it is true, as Prof. Browne observes (Lit. His., Vol, 1, p. 283) that Shiite and Qadari tenets, indeed, often went together, and the Shiite doctrine current in Persia at the present day is in many respects Mu`tazilite, while Hasan Al-Ashari, the great opponent of the Mutazilite, is by the Shi'ites held in horror. It may also be added that some of the greater representatives of the Mu`tazila opinion were abi'as by religion, e.g. Abu'l-Hudhail (Al-Mu`tazila, ed. by T. W. Arnold, p. 28'. On the other band many of the followers of Al-Ash`ari were Persians (See extracts from Ibn `Asakir ed. Mehren), so that it does not seem to be quite justifiable to describe the Asharite mode of thought as a purely Semitic movement.
Abu’l-Hudhail, "is knowing, all-Powerful, living; and His knowledge, power and life constitute His very essence (dhat)"(1) in order to explain the pure unity of God Joseph Al-Basir(2) lays down the following five principles:-
This conception of unity underwent further modifications; until in the hands of Muammar an Abu Hashim it became a mere abstract possibility about which nothing could be predicated. We cannot, he says, predicate knowledge of God (3), for His knowledge must be of something in Himself. The first necessitates the identity of subject and object which is absurd; the second implicates duality in the nature of God which is equally impossible. Ahmad and Fadi (4)disciples of Nazzam, however, recognised this duality in holding that the original creators are two –God
ed., p. 3+.
the eternal principle; and the word of God - Jesus
Christ - the contingent principle. But more fully to
bring out the element of truth in the second alternative
suggested by Mu`ammar, was reserved, as we shall see,
for later Sufi thinkers of Persia. It is, therefore,
clear that some of the rationalists almost unconsciously
touched - the outer fringe of later pantheism for which,
in a sense, they prepared the way, not only by their
definition of God, but also by their common effort to
internalise the rigid externality of absolute law.
1 Steiner - Die
Mu`taziliten ; Leipzig, 1865, p. 57.
of perception without this quality.
Muhammad Ibn `Uthman, one of the Mu`tazila Shafiis, says
Ibn Hazm (1) maintained that the non-existent (atom in
its pre-existential state) is a body in that state; only
that in its pre-existential condition it is neither in
motion, nor at rest, nor is it said to be created.
Substance, then, is a collection of qualities - taste,
odour. colour - which, in themselves, are nothing more
than. material potentialities. The soul, too, is a finer
kind of matter; and the processes of knowledge are
meremental motions. Creation is only the actualisation
of preexisting potentialities (2) (Tafra). The
individuality of a thing which is defined as "that of
which something can be predicated" (3) is not an
essential factor in its notion. The collection of things
we call the Universe, is externalised or perceptible
reality which could, so, to speak, exist independent of
all perceptibility. The object of these metaphysical
subtleties is purely theological. God, to the
Rationalist, is an absolute unity which can, in no
sense, admit of plurality, and could thus exist without
the perceptible plurality - the Universe.
1. Ibn Hazrn (ed.
Cairo) - Vol. V, p. 42.
did not create colour, length, breadth, taste or smell all these are activities of bodies themselves(1). Ever the number of things in the Universe is not known to God (2). Bishr ibn al-Mu'tamir further explained the properties of bodies by what he called "Tawallud" - interaction of bodies(3). Thus it is clear that the Rationalists were philosophically materialists, and theologically deists.
To them substance and atom are identical, and they define substance as a space-filling atom which, besides the quality of filling space, has a certain direction, force and existence forming its very essence as an actuality. In shape it is squarelike; for if it is supposed to be circular, combination of different atoms would not be possible(4). There is, however, great difference of opinion among the exponents of atomism in regard to the nature of the atom. Some hold that atoms are all similar to each other; while Abu'l-Qasim of Balkh regards them as similar as well as dissimilar. When we say that two things are similar to each other, we do not necessarily mean that they are similar in all their attributes. Abu'l-Qasim further differs from Nazzain in advocating the indestructibility of the atom. He holds that the atom had a beginning in time; but that it cannot be completely annihilated. The attribute of "Baqa" (continued existence), he says, does
1 Ibn Hazm (ed.
Cairo) : Vol. IV, pp. 194, 197.
2. CONTEMPORARY MOVEMENTS OF THOUGHT
Side by side with the development of Mu`tazilaism we see, as is natural in a period of great intellectual activity, many other tendencies of thought manifesting themselves in the philosophical and religious circles of Islam. Let us notice them briefly -
1. Scepticism. The tendency towards scepticism was the natural consequence of the purely dialectic method of Rationalism. Men such as Ibn Ashras and Al-Jahiz, who apparently belonged to the Rationalist camp, were really sceptics. The standpoint of Al-Jahiz who inclined to deistic naturalism (1), is that of a cultured man of the time, and not of a professional theologian. In him is noticeable also a reaction against the metaphysical hairsplitting of his predecessors, and a desire to widen the pale of theology for the sake of the illiterate who are incapable of reflecting on articles of faith.
2. Sufiism - an appeal to a higher source of knowledge
which was first systematised by Dhul-Nun, and became
more and more deepened and antischolastic in contrast to
the dry intellectualism of the Ash`arite. We shall
consider this interesting movement in the following
The Isma`ilia movement then is one aspect of the persistent battle (1) which the intellectually independent Persian waged against the religious and political ideals of Islam, Originally a branch of the Shiite religion, the Isma`ilia sect assumed quite a cosmopolitan character with Abdulla ibn Maiman - the probable progenitor of the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt - who died about the same time when Al-Ash`ari, the great opponent of Freethought, was born. This curious man imagined a vast scheme in which he weaved together innumerable threads of various hues, resulting 1 Ibn Hazm in his Kitab al-Milal, looks upon the heretical sects of Persia as a continuous struggle against the Arab power which the cunning Persian attempted to shake off by these peaceful means. See Von Kremer's Geschichte der herrschenden Ideen des Islams, pp. 10, 11, where this learned Arab historian of Cordova is quoted at length.
In a cleverly constructed equivocation, charming tot the Persian mind for its mysterious character and misty Pythagorean Philosophy. Like the Association of the Brethren of Purity, he made an attempt, under the pious cloak of the doctrine of Imamat (Authority), to synthesise all the dominating ideas of the time. Greek Philosophy, Christianity, Rationalism, Sufiism, Manichaeism, Persian heresies, and above all the idea of reincarnation, all came forward to contribute their respective shares to the boldly conceived Ismailian whole, the various aspects of which were to be gradually revealed to the initiated, by the "Leader" the ever Incarnating Universal Reason - according to the intellectual development of the age in which he incarnated himself. In the Ismallian movement, Freethought, apprehending the collapse of its ever widening structure, seeks to rest upon a stable basis,, and, by a strange irony of fate, is led to find it in the very idea which is revolting to its whole being. Barren authority, though still apt to reassert herself at times, adopts this unclaimed child, and thus permits herself to assimilate all knowledge past, present and future.
The unfortunate connection, however, of this movement with the politics of the time, has misled many a scholar. They see in it (Macdonald, for instance) nothing more than a powerful conspiracy to, uproot the political power of the Arab from Persia. They have denounced the Ismallian Church which counted among its followers some of the best heads and sincerest hearts, as a mere clique of dark murderers who were ever watching for a possible victim. We must always remember, while estimating the character of these people, the most barbarous persecutions which drove them to pay red-handed fanaticism in the same coin. Assassinations for religious purposes were considered unobjectionable, and even perhaps lawful among the whole Semite race. As late as the latter half of the 16th Century, the Pope of Rome could approve such a dreadful slaughter as the massacre of St. Bartholomew. That assassination, even though actuated by religious zeal, is still a crime, is a purely modern idea; and justice demands that we should not judge older generations with our own standards of right and wrong. A great religious movement which shook to its very foundations the structure of a vast empire, and, having successfully passed through the varied ordeals of moral reproach, calumny and persecution, stood up for centuries as a champion of Science and Philosophy, could not have entirely rested on the frail basis of a political conspiracy of a mere local and temporary character. Isma`ilianism, in spite of its almost entire loss of original vitality, still dominates. the ethical ideal of not an insignificant number in India, Persia, Central Asia, Syria and Africa; while the last expression of Persian thought - Babism - is essentially Isma`ilian in its character.
To return, however, to the Philosophy of the sect. From the later Rationalists they borrowed their conception of Divinity. God, or the ultimate principle of existence, they teach, has no attribute. His nature admits of no predication. When we predicate the attribute of power to Him, we only mean that He is the giver of power; when we predicate eternity, we indicate the eternity of what the Qur'an calls "Amr" (word of God) as distinguished from the " Khalq " - (creation of God) which is contingent. In His nature all contradictions melt away, and from Him flow all opposites. Thus they considered themselves to have solved the problem which had troubled the mind of Zoroaster and his followers.
In order to find an answer to the question, “What is plurality ? " the Isma`ilia refer to what they consider a metaphysical axiom – “that from one only one can proceed". But the one which proceeds is not something completely different from which it proceeds. It is really the Primal one transformed. The Primal Unity, therefore, transformed itself into the First Intellect (Universal Reason); and then, by means of this transformation of itself, created the Universal soul which, impelled by its nature to perfectly identify itself with the original source, felt the necessity of motion, and consequently of a body possessing the power of motion. In order to achieve its end, the soul created the heavens moving in circular motion according to its direction. It also created the elements which mixed together, and formed the visible Universe - the scene of plurality through which it endeavours to pass with a view to come back to the original source. The individual soul is an epitome of the whole Universe which exists only for its progressive education. The Universal Reason incarnates itself from time to time, in the personality of the "Leader" who illuminates the soul in proportion to its experience and understanding, and gradually guides it through the scene of plurality to, the world of eternal unity. When the Universal soul reaches its goal, or rather returns to its own deep being, the process of disintegration ensues. "Particles constituting the Universe fall off from each other those of goodness go to truth (God) which symbolises, unity; those of evil go to untruth (Devil) which symbolises diversity”(1). This is but briefly the Isma`ilian Philosophy - a mixture, as Sharastani remarks, of Philosophical and Manichaean ideas which, by gradually arousing the slumbering spirit of scepticism, they administered, as it were, in doses to the initiated, and finally brought them to that stage of spiritual emancipation where solemn ritual drops off, and dogmatic religion appears to be nothing more than a systematic arrangement of useful falsehoods.
The Isma`ilian doctrine is the first attempt to
amalgamate contemporary Philosophy with a really Persian
view of the Universe, and to restate Islam, in reference
to this synthesis, by allegorical interpretation of the
Qur'an - a method which was afterwards adopted by
Sufiism With them the Zoroastrian Ahriman (Devil) is not
the malignant creator of evil things but it is a
principle which violates the eternal unity, and breaks
it up into visible diversity. The
' Sharastani: Cureton's
ed : p. 149.
idea that some principle of difference in the nature of
the ultimate existence must be postulated in order to
account for empirical diversity, underwent further
modifications; until in the Hurufi sect (an offshoot of
the Ismailia), in the 14th Century, it touched
contemporary Sufiism on the one hand, and Christian
Trinity on the other. The "Be" maintained the Hurufis,
is the eternal word of God, which, itself uncreated,
leads to further creation - the word externalised. "But
for the 'word' the recognition of the essence of
Divinity would have been impossible; since Divinity is
beyond the reach of sense –perception” (1). The 'word',
therefore, became flesh in the womb of Mary (2) in order
to manifest the Father. The whole Universe is the
manifestation of God's 'word', in which He is immanent
(3). Every sound in the Universe is within God, every
atom is singing the song of eternity (4); all is life.
Those who want to discover the ultimate reality of
things, let them seek "the named" through the Name (5),
which at once conceals and reveals its subject.
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