past is prologue

going to get a bit nerdy here, fair warning.

read this article a few days ago, Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science by Hillel Ofek, which if a little slanted and condescending towards the end of the article, does outline some pretty interesting points – primarily why it was (mostly)  Christian Europe that went into the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, rather that the Islamic world of the Golden Age.

the entire article is worth a read, but what got me thinking the most were two points that ofek made about the structure of islam as a religion in general.  one huge component was the rise of anti-rationalism as the predominant theology:

In its place arose the anti-rationalist Ash’ari school whose increasing dominance is linked to the decline of Arabic science. With the rise of the Ash’arites, the ethos in the Islamic world was increasingly opposed to original scholarship and any scientific inquiry that did not directly aid in religious regulation of private and public life. While the Mu’tazilites had contended that the Koran was created and so God’s purpose for man must be interpreted through reason, the Ash’arites believed the Koran to be coeval with God — and therefore unchallengeable. At the heart of Ash’ari metaphysics is the idea of occasionalism, a doctrine that denies natural causality. Put simply, it suggests natural necessity cannot exist because God’s will is completely free. Ash’arites believed that God is the only cause, so that the world is a series of discrete physical events each willed by God.

… A similar ossification occurred in the realm of law. The first four centuries of Islam saw vigorous discussion and flexibility regarding legal issues; this was the tradition of ijtihad, or independent judgment and critical thinking. But by the end of the eleventh century, discordant ideas were increasingly seen as a problem, and autocratic rulers worried about dissent — so the “gates of ijtihad” were closed for Sunni Muslims: ijtihad was seen as no longer necessary, since all important legal questions were regarded as already answered. New readings of Islamic revelation became a crime. All that was left to do was to submit to the instructions of religious authorities; to understand morality, one needed only to read legal decrees. Thinkers who resisted the closing came to be seen as nefarious dissidents. (Averroës, for example, was banished for heresy and his books were burned.)

of course, christianity both today and historically has its own very strong tradition of anti-rationalism.  but there is an important difference to consider, particularly when it comes to the tradition of separation of church and state in both religions:

As a way of articulating questions that lie deeper than the Ash’arism-Mu’tazilism debate, it is helpful to briefly compare Islam with Christianity. Christianity acknowledges a private-public distinction and (theoretically, at least) allows adherents the liberty to decide much about their social and political lives. Islam, on the other hand, denies any private-public distinction and includes laws regulating the most minute details of private life. Put another way, Islam does not acknowledge any difference between religious and political ends: it is a religion that specifies political rules for the community.

Such differences between the two faiths can be traced to the differences between their prophets. While Christ was an outsider of the state who ruled no one, and while Christianity did not become a state religion until centuries after Christ’s birth, Mohammed was not only a prophet but also a chief magistrate, a political leader who conquered and governed a religious community he founded. Because Islam was born outside of the Roman Empire, it was never subordinate to politics. As Bernard Lewis puts it, Mohammed was his own Constantine. This means that, for Islam, religion and politics were interdependent from the beginning; Islam needs a state to enforce its laws, and the state needs a basis in Islam to be legitimate. To what extent, then, do Islam’s political proclivities make free inquiry — which is inherently subversive to established rules and customs — possible at a deep and enduring institutional level?

i think that this is an important point, and i think that there is another one that ofek doesn’t address in the article – the enormous structural differences in the texts of the two religions.

the bible is an anthology.  it comprises of writings from very different periods of time, different languages, etc.  even the gospel has four separate accounts, and nary a primary source directly from jesus as a prophet.  there is no unity of perspective.  the fundamentalist might argue that all of it is ‘divinely inspired’ and as such is united in point of view, but speaking strictly from the analysis as prose, it’s undeniable that the style and perspective vary wildly between books (and often even within them, particularly in the case of genesis).  what books are included as holy texts has always been a matter decided by the ecclesiastical establishment, and considering how many translations (some of them atrocious) the bible has journeyed through… well, linguistically there is distance.  the possibility, perhaps even necessity of equivocation.  investigation.

the circumstances surrounded the koran are completely different.  there is one text, presumably dictated directly to the prophet from the angel of god, in one language and within a relatively short period of time.  bits and pieces of it have not gone through hebrew and greek and aramaic and latin and back and forth – it is a cohesive unit.  and cohesiveness is much harder to argue against.  i know less about the koran as a work of literature than i do the bible, so unfortunately my structural analysis ends there.  but i think that it is a significant difference.

i read the satanic verses a few months ago, and the more i understand about the tradition of islam the more i understand why the book caused such a furor.  there’s one section particularly when mohammed’s disgruntled scribe starts pointing out how the prophet has advantageously been dictated personal exceptions to otherwise unambiguous rules regarding personal behavior: the prophet is not bound by the rule of no more than three wives, etc etc.

the structure (and history) of words determines the structure of thought.  that can never be underestimated.