Thursday, September 28, 2006

Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new. . .

"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

--Basileus and Autokrator Manuel II Paleologos

Reason and Observation

It is with an odd mixture of grim delight, sorrow and wistfulness that we Orthodox Christians hear the words of the antepenultimate Orthodox Emperor of New Rome, spoken by the Pope of Old Rome, and behold them used as an excuse for the persecution of Christians, Latin, Orthodox, and protestant throughout the Muslim world.

In his reign thus far, Benedict XVI has become by far my favorite post-schism Pope of Rome, a sentiment shared, I think, by many of my fellow Orthodox. It seems to me that only one point keeps the Pope’s speech at the University of Regensberg from being thoroughly Orthodox, and it is a point of similarity, not just between Ibn Hazn and the ‘dehellenizing’ Reformers, but between both and the Medieval scholastics of whose synthesis Pope Benedict seems to approve: all of them treat theology as a synthetic science, rather than a positive science.

It is true that the scholastics were not afflicted as was Ibn Hazn and are the most thoroughly dehellenized Christians, the self-named fundamentalists, with a dead literal approach to the exegesis of their scriptures. Nonetheless, for all of them, theology is an exercise in human reason, in the sense of deduction and logic, albeit applied to different data--the Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers and Aristotle’s philosophy for the scholastics; the Koran and hadiths for Ibn Hazn; the Christian canon as abridged by Luther for the protestant fundamentalists. Evagarius of Pontus’ dictum, “He who prays is a true theologian and the true theologian is one who prays,” beloved in the Christian East is nowhere in evidence.

At some level, Ibn Hazn’s insistence that God is not bound by human categories, rationality included, is entirely correct. It echoes Dionysius the Areopagite’s “The Divine Names”,and the odd dictum of the Cappadocian Fathers, “I believe in God; God does not exist.”

Ibn Hazn, of course, promptly failed to understand the real implications of being beyond human categories and imprisons Allah in the image of an arbitrary oriental despot, who need not keep his word, nor act reasonably, nor pursue the good.

Human categories are invariably dichotomous and exclusive: ‘either-or’.
Transcending them, thus involves . . .both “either ‘both-and’ or ‘neither-nor’”, and” both ‘both-and’ and ‘neither-nor’” or. . . (well I leave you to complete the iteration--and feel free to apply transfinite induction if you’re up to it).

It is neither to a denial of God’s freedom, nor the the applicability of human reason to Him that the Emperor’s ultimate argument appeals, but to the Scriptural pointer to the way in which God transcends human categories:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . .”

In this passage, the Evangelist not only coopts and corrects the intuitions of Greek philosophy, but points to God’s transcendence of the dichotomies between identity and distinction, unity and multiplicity, even as “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” points to His transcendence of the dichotomy between transcendence and immanence.

“God does not act without Logos.”

“Without Him was nothing made that was made.”

These are not deductions from some necessity binding God, but observations about Him. The God who made reason is not unreasonable--He does not act without Logos. Yet neither is he apprehended by human reason, but empirically, provided first one opens the court of the senses to readmit their long-exiled ruler, the noetic sense, by which, when it is cleansed through repentance and prayer, Man apprehends God.

Benedict came very close to this point in his discussion of love transcending knowledge, and again in his lament that the ‘reduction of the scope of science and reason’. It is not the extension of reason to again embrace theology in the manner of Aquinas or of Barlaam of Calabria, which provides a basis for the reuniting of faith and reason, but the noetic empiricism of the hesychasts--misunderstood by Westerners as 'anti-rational mysticism'--and with it the Orthodox position that theology is indeed a science, not a branch of logic or mathematics. And when a man of great humility, who in his writing as a Cardinal had embraced the Orthodox position on the Holy Icons, and is given to quoting 14th century Orthodox Roman Emperors sits on the papal throne, it may even provide the basis for the reunion of the Church, East and West.

The Emperor, the Pope, the Sheik and Islamic Science

"About your stupid question about our contribution to civilization, did not you read about who were the pioneers in medicine, in mathematics, in astronomy? Did not you hear about Averroes and others?”

--Sheik Abu Saqer

The ‘stupid’ question was a reiteration by an interviewer of the Emperor’s implied question to the ‘learned Persian’. The incendiary Gaza-based sheik, who has called for a jihad to conqueror Rome and place the green flag of Islam on the Vatican, did no credit to the rationality of his creed with his response.

The Emperor’s remark, taken as a question, did not ask about Muslims collectively, but about Mohammed, and was framed, moreover in the context of a discussion of religious doctrine.

Unable to point to any teaching of Mohammed which was on the one hand, new (not copied from either Judaism or Christianity) and, on the other, neither evil nor inhuman, the sheik fell back on one of the favored talking points of Islamic apologists: the period when, having absorbed the learning of both classical Greece and Rome (from translations prepared by bilingual Christians) and of ancient India, the Muslim world enjoyed a brief preeminence in technical disciplines.

In truth, one wonders how much the sheik, whose response to the Pope’s speech is straight from al-Ghazali, knows of Averroes, other than the usefulness of his name in discussions with Westerners. Ghazali’s rejection of the ‘pagan’ reason and philosophy embraced by Avicenna and Averroes is de rigeur in Islamic epistemology, and undergirds the Muslim response to the Pope’s call for rational dialog.

But let us for the moment be charitable to the sheik: his answer may not be a non sequitur as it first appears. Since the question from 1391 was asked about the teachings of Mohammed, the sheik, perhaps believes that this brief period of technical prowess somehow flowed from Mohammed's teachings.

The history of science makes this position insupportable, unless, of course, the teaching in question was the one specifically labeled as ‘evil and inhuman’ by the Emperor, which impelled the votaries of Mohammed to overrun two peaceful and technically competent civilizations--that of the East Romans and that of India--providing the basis for the more stay-at-home types in the ummah to coalate and synthesize and somewhat extend with their own empirical observations the knowledge of ancient Greece, Rome and India.

If, as some Muslim apologist claim, the flowering of the sciences in the Islamic world was somehow endemic to Islam, why did it whither so quickly? Surely the triumph of Ghazali’s ideas over Averroes’ was the death-knell of Islamic science. Without an import of ideas from the ‘kuffir’, the insistence on Allah’s absolute freedom, and the occasionalist epistemology this bred, destroyed any impetus for empirical observation or reasoning about natural phenomena, or even effort in commerce. For a culture with such an epistemology, the only alternative to perpetual war seems to be the fatalism of the shrug and a muttered “Inshallah”.

Copernicus had revolutionized astronomy and Vesalius set the West on the road to suprassing Islamic medicine before the Battle of Lepanto ended Muslim attempts to dominate the Mediterranean in the same year Johannes Kepler was born. The last Siege of Vienna was turned back a mere three years before Newton published his Principia. By the time the Ottoman Empire was nicknamed ‘the sick man of Europe’, dwindling through its own indolence, not Western pressure or oppression, not only Western Christendom, with its (perhaps over-)warm embrace of Greek philosophy, but Orthodox Russia and Meiji Japan, had passed the Muslim world in mathematics, science and medicine. By the time the New Turks overthrew the last Caliph--do today's Muslims remember that the Turks, not the West destroyed the Caliphate?--the entire Muslim world had become a cultural backwater.

So, Sheik Abu Saqer, the challenge to refute Emperor Manuel II Paleologos still stands unanswered, and unlike the Pope or the reporter who interviewed you, I repeat his words as my own: Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. No counterexamples have been forthcoming, and the violence which greeted the papal call for dialog is as close to a proof as may be had in human affairs that the Emperor's assessment was correct.


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