Al-Ghazali, Galileo, and Pope Benedict’s Critique of Secularism

February 24, 2013 | 6 comments
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A stunning amount of what I think is wrong with the world is poetically captured in a recent article in First Things, commenting on the relationship between faith and reason on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam on the other. Unfortunately, the author captures these problems unintentionally. The difference between his perspective and mine is both fascinating and discouraging. Hope remains, however, so hang on . . .

In his article, “Benedict Face to Face with Islam,” Andrew Doran portrays Pope Benedict XVI as a rational Christian who has the (supposed) insight to see Islam as irrational, and who defends true religion as a harmonious blend of faith and reason. Doran then traces this supposed irrationalism of Islam to the Muslim thinker Al-Ghazali, who may be the most influential voice in Islam next to Mohammed the Prophet. Doran suggests that this irrationalism is a fundamental cause of the violent extremism we have seen flare up in the Muslim world in recent years. Based on this diagnosis, he argues that “the West’s secular approaches to end religiously based violence by means of war, democracy, foreign aid, or other policies are doomed to failure before they begin.” Rather than such efforts, “the true basis for peace,” he argues, is “philosophical reengagement.”

Wow, where does one start with an article like this? What is most disturbing about it is that a perspective like this seems so natural for many Christians today, as evidenced by the fact that this piece appeared in First Things, normally one of the most estimable sources of intelligent religious thought today. Ironically, Doran’s message is not only unfair to Islam, but also a complete betrayal of Benedict’s message at Regensburg, as I understand it. Benedict’s message is fundamentally not about a criticism of Islam, but rather a criticism of the secular West.

Not knowing where else to start, I will start with a simple list of some of the major things wrong here:

  • Doran perpetuates an unfair and divisive caricature of Islam as fundamentally irrationalistic.
  • In so doing, he seems to legitimate those who most betray Islam by committing atrocities in its name, suggesting that irrational, violent extremism is a manifestation of Islam’s true nature.
  • He directly compares Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address to Pope Urban’s baneful call for a crusade, surely the last comparison Benedict would want.
  • He reinforces misinterpretations of the Regensburg address that angered and offended Muslims and led to violence.
  • He mischaracterizes Al-Ghazali as an irrationalist and the ultimate cause both of today’s violent extremism and of the decline of the Muslim world from its medieval preeminence in both intellectual and political realms.
  • He presents Al-Ghazali as opposing the harmonizing of faith and reason for which Thomas Aquinas is revered, when in fact Al-Ghazali was one of Aquinas’ role models for just this harmonization.
  • Perhaps worst of all, Doran’s interpretation obscures the true message of Benedict’s Regensburg address, which despite serious flaws in its composition, reflects deep insight into the dysfunction of the modern world, its causes, and the potential for overcoming that dysfunction.

I know Al-Ghazali’s work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, fairly well and teach a course in which we study his influence on Thomas Aquinas, so before talking about the Regensburg address, let me clear up a few things about Al-Ghazali.

Al-Ghazali’s intent in the Incoherence is actually rather close to one of the major goals of Thomas Aquinas’ work: both argued that where reason appears to contradict faith, this is because the reasoning is faulty—sound and reliable reasoning does not contradict faith. In Al-Ghazali’s time, an influential school of thought argued that key teachings of Islam were disproved by rational argument, tracing much of their reasoning to ancient Greek sources. Al-Ghazali responded by arguing, like Aquinas, that reason is not capable of reaching a decisive conclusion on some rather important questions of faith, such as whether the world has always existed, or whether there will be a resurrection, and rationally refutes those arguments that contradict key faith claims. He therefore frees the reader to rely on revelation for these questions instead. So Al-Ghazali actually preserves faith as a rational path and simultaneously redeems reason from those who abuse its authority by claiming rational proof in matters where there is none. In this he set an admirable precedent for Maimonides and Aquinas, both of whom acknowledged Al-Ghazali as an intellectual benefactor.

I make some of these points about Al-Ghazali in a comment on the First Things site (pending moderation).

Of course, Al-Ghazali is so successful in intellectually destroying his opponents that it does cast the hellenizers (those who were promoting Greek, or hellenic ideas) in a rather bad light. Doran sees this de-hellenization as the source of major problems both for the Muslim world and for the modern West. The fact is, however, Greek cosmology was very problematic and deserved to be resisted. Al-Ghazali was right to defend Muslim teachings on creation against Greek speculations, which their originators realized were only speculative. Similarly, in the opening developments of the Enlightenment, Galileo, Kepler, and others refuted major Aristotelian ideas about the heavens, not just rationally but empirically. If this discrediting of Aristotle’s ideas on cosmology led Europeans to discard Aristotle’s profoundly insightful moral thought as well, and the Aristotelian moral thought of Aquinas with it, that is unfortunate, but we can hardly blame Galileo for that. If Enlightenment rationalism and secularism leads to a decline in the West, it will be partly due to imperfections in the defenders of religious truth, as well as the foolishness and ignorance of those who reject it. Similarly, if Al-Ghazali did lead later Muslims to take a pessimistic view of reason, that is not his fault, but the fault of those who made excessive claims in the name of reason, which he had to refute in order to defend his faith.

I have a lot more to say about this, but this is long enough for one post. Next time: faith, reason, and dehellenization in Islam and the West.

6 Responses to Al-Ghazali, Galileo, and Pope Benedict’s Critique of Secularism

  1. cadams on February 24, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Glad to read this. I read one Arab apologist’s accounting for the centuries’ long cultural stagnation in Arab lands. He blamed it on the Mongol plunder of Baghdad, the Crusades, and on the Ottoman and European conquest of much of Arab lands. Together with the Black Death, he argues that depopulation in Arab lands, as compared to the population explosion that occurred in Europe in the early Renaissance, made it impossible for those Muslims to compete with Europe.

    We know that Europe also had severe traumas to deal with over the centuries, such as the Vikings, the Crisis of the 13th C. (which also included the Black Death), and religious wars of the Reformation.

    Are you arguing that there is no internal explanation for cultural stagnation in Arab Muslim lands, and that it can all be explained by outside oppression?

  2. DavidF on February 24, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Good post. When it comes to the decline of science in the Arab world, the economists have it right. Science, like art, follows money. If wealthy peoplee aren’t investing in it, you won’t find any. This is as true for the Arab world as it was for the ancient Romans abd for Renaissance Europe. And whether wealthy patrons invest has almost nothing to do with attacks on reason, but everything to do with whether they think it will advance their ego. There are rare exceptions to the rule throughout all history, but blaming religion is just naive.

  3. Ben Huff on February 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I don’t think it is realistic to blame the decline, such as it is, entirely on either internal or external factors. I do think that religious and moral principles and convictions play an important role in human flourishing, and I think that the spiritual and philosophical problems of the secular West which Benedict describes are displaying themselves quite dramatically in Western economic and financial struggles today, as well as problematic trends in demography and education. However, I wouldn’t attribute all of these solely to lacunae in religious and moral conviction. There are also simple matters of supply and demand, the inherent dynamics of democracy in which voters want benefits without paying for them, factors of population density and disruptive effects on families and communities due to economic specialization and rapid changes of technology, etc.

    Similarly, I suspect that disease, agricultural productivity, technology, and forms of government played a role along with moral, religious, and philosophical factors that shape human goals and behaviors, in explaining the relative decline of the East and the rise of the West. I wouldn’t rule out the idea that Al-Ghazali did contribute to a turn away from the bold, exploratory use of reason represented in Greek thought, and that this may have played a role in Eastern decline, but to brand Al-Ghazali himself as an irrationalist is to fundamentally miunderstand him, and to draw a straight line from The Incoherence of the Philosophers to extremist violence today is fantastical. Perhaps what is most upsetting about it is that this line of thinking ignores the political and philosophical errors of the West which have also done much to feed the tensions and violence today.

  4. Steve Smith on February 25, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Thanks for the post on al-Ghazali Ben. And thanks for calling attention to Doran’s distortion of al-Ghazali and the history of Islam. As someone who enjoys studying Islam, allow me to add a few comments:

    I think that if anything, al-Ghazali actually helped saved Islam from becoming “irrational” (at least in the way that Doran uses the term). al-Ghazali’s treatise against Neoplatonist Muslim philosophers (Ibn Sina and al-Farabi particularly) can be explained in part by the fact that different Shi’ite groups, both the Fatimid dynasty and the more extreme Nizari Isma’ilis, of al-Ghazali’s time were appealing to the Neoplatonic ideas of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna) as a means of the challenging the spiritual authority of the caliph in Baghdad and legitimating the authority of the Shi’ite Imam. The Fatimids were Isma’ili or Sevener Shi’ite Muslims and claimed that the Shi’ite Imam, whom they propped up in Cairo, was the legitimate ruler of Islam and not the Sunni caliph at Baghdad, who had become powerless at the hands of military dynasties (i.e. the Buyids and the Seljuks, the latter of whom al-Ghazali lived under) which were commanded by sultans. The Nizari Isma’ilis were a branch of the Sevener Shi’ites who also claimed that the legitimate ruler of the Muslim community was the Imam, but went further than the Fatimids by legitimating the formation of secret societies in order to assassinate political opponents and overthrow the caliph and his Seljuk military backers.

    al-Ghazali’s aim was to stem the tide of extremist Shi’ism and persuade other Muslims that 1) the caliph’s authority was still legitimate, in spite of the fact that he was forced to cede his political power to a sultan (whose authority he also attempted to legitimate alongside that of the caliph), and 2) Islam was intended to be a personal way of spiritual devotion instead of a political tool. For al-Ghazali, Greek philosophy had corrupted Islam since it tried to turn the prophet Muhammad into a philosopher-king-like figure and justified the extremist Shi’ites’ argument that the Shi’ite Imams’ authority was their ability to access a revelatory knowledge (Active Intellect) much like that of Muhammad. The Muslim community was better off with a guardian/overseer who worked in tandem with an independent military, which the caliph was acting as, rather than a political visionary, whom the Nizari Isma’ilis were justifying the Imam to be.

  5. Adam G. on February 25, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I appreciate the extra insight on Al-Ghazali.

  6. Ben Huff on February 26, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Interesting! Thanks for adding in that dimension, Steve! So, do all the religion and law guys hang out and talk about the Nazari Isma’ilis when they get together? : ) This is really the kind of detail that we need if we are to stay grounded in trying to think about the effects of philosophy on politics, so thank you. I bet you have some interesting things to say about the Regensburg Address, too, so I’ll get a post up on that soon.