The Muslims Still Awaiting Their Rene Descartes?

By Zia H Shah MD and his twentieth entry friends from the Cadet College Hasanabdal alumni

The scientific advance led by the Islamic Empire during the 8th to 12th centuries came to a screeching halt as the baton was passed to the Christian Europe.

Was it due to the fact that the Muslims did not have their Rene Descartes?

Uğur Şahin is an oncologist and entrepreneur and founder of BioNTech, born in Turkey, but had to do his ground breaking research in Germany that led to the first Covid 19 vaccine to be approved in the Western world. He could not have done it in Turkey or for that matter in any other Muslim country.

Is it due to the fact that the Muslims are still awaiting their Rene Descartes?

Dr. Abdus Salam, the only Muslim physicist to receive a Nobel prize had to work in UK and Italy and not in any Muslim country. He has in fact mostly been condemned by his native country of Pakistan.

Is it due to the fact that the Muslims are still awaiting their Rene Descartes?

The victims of rape in Pakistan cannot have DNA evidence come to their rescue. Here is an Urdu video to document that phenomenon:

Is it due to the fact that the Muslims are still awaiting their Rene Descartes?

The prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, was once walking with his companions and saw some farmers pollinating the date palm trees. He made a cursory remark why to go through all this fuss. The companions took it as a religious edict and stopped the pollination process that they had been doing for generations, such was their commitment to the prophet and his mission. The crop naturally failed as the male and female parts needed to come together, as we know well today thanks to the advances in the field of botany.

When the companions complained to the prophet, he said that he was only a religious teacher and when it came to matters of the world and of nature they were their own masters. The humility of the prophet did not keep him from giving up his authority, where he did not have a jurisdiction.

If the prophet himself is not an expert on matters of science then no Muslim scholar or theologian is an expert without establishing his or her credentials in scientific pursuits.

But over the centuries the advice fell on deaf ears. The later Muslims including Imam Bukhari created a whole chapter of medical remedies attributed to the prophet on assumed divine authority, whose vulnerability was only well exposed after the dawn of allopathy in recent centuries.

Was it due to the fact that the Muslims are still awaiting their Rene Descartes?

Before we go to Rene Descartes, let us talk about Al-Ghazali.

Al-Ghazali (UK/ælˈɡɑːzɑːli/,[19] US/ˌælɡəˈzɑːli, -zæl-/;[20][21] full name أَبُو حَامِدٍ مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ ٱلطُّوسِيُّ ٱلْغَزَالِيُّ or ٱلْغَزَّالِيُّ, Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad aṭ-Ṭūsiyy al-Ġaz(z)ālīy; Latinized Algazelus or Algazel; c. 1058 – 19 December 1111) was a Persian[22][23][24] philosopher who was one of the most prominent and influential philosopherstheologiansjuristslogicians and mystics,[25][26] of Sunni Islam.[27]

Most Muslims consider[28] him to be a Mujaddid, a renewer of the faith who, according to the prophetic hadith, appears once every century to restore the faith of the ummah (“the Islamic Community”).[29][30][31] His works were so highly acclaimed by his contemporaries that al-Ghazali was awarded the honorific title “Proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islām).[1]

Al-Ghazali believed that the Islamic spiritual tradition had become moribund and that the spiritual sciences taught by the first generation of Muslims had been forgotten.[32] This belief lead him to write his magnum opus entitled Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm ad-dīn (“The Revival of the Religious Sciences“).[33] Among his other works, the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (“Incoherence of the Philosophers”) is a significant landmark in the history of philosophy, as it advances the critique of Aristotelian science.

Al-Ghazali was a great theologian, may be even a philosopher, but he was no Rene Descartes. So who was Rene Descartes?

René Descartes (/deɪˈkɑːrt/ or UK/ˈdeɪkɑːrt/French: [ʁəne dekaʁt] (listen); Latinized: Renatus Cartesius;[b][15] 31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650[16][17][18]:58) was a French-born philosophermathematician, and scientist who spent a large portion of his working life in the Dutch Republic, initially serving the Dutch States Army of Maurice of NassauPrince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. One of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age,[19] Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.

Descartes was led to his dualistic theories in part from his most famous philosophical endeavor — to place into doubt all that could be doubted in the hope of arriving at a basic, undeniable truth. That resulted in his famous Cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am. Descartes could doubt the existence of the physical world and that even his own body actually existed, but he could not doubt the idea that his mind existed because doubting is a thought process. The very act of doubting one’s existence proves that one actually exists; otherwise, who is doing the doubting?

Through his process of doubting, he recognized that, regardless of what the changeable physical world was really like, his mind was still whole and unchanged, and therefore somehow separate from that physical world.

It’s important to remember that, for Descartes, the brain and the mind are not the same thing. The brain serves, in part, as a connection between the mind and the body, but because it is a physical, changeable thing, it is not the actual mind. Man’s mind is whole and indivisible, whereas his body can be changed. You can cut your hair, remove your appendix, or even lose a limb, but that loss in no way reduces your mind. In laying out the mind body dualism Descartes opened up the physical to independent and systematic study without being constantly bogged down by the non-material things like mind, thought and consciousness that did not lend themselves to an easy scientific study.

The limitation in the study of consciousness was not due to limitation of the tools, but perhaps inherently so.

The fact of the matter is that the study of consciousness has not significantly changed in the last four centuries since Rene Descartes’ time.

Not only the Muslims are awaiting their Rene Descartes but the field of the study of human consciousness is also still awaiting its Rene Descartes.

Descartes also believed that man was the only dualistic creature. He placed animals in the realm of the purely physical, mechanistic world, acting purely on instinct and on the laws of nature. That has been clearly challenged by the Darwinian theory of evolution that clearly connects the humans to other primates and mammals.

Even though Descartes was proven wrong, but the truth is that his dualism had made Charles Darwin possible and be accepted in the Western civilization, without a beheading or burning on the stake for blasphemy or heresy, until he came to be celebrated as one of the greatest of the civilization, a century and a half after his death.

Descartes believed that the pineal gland in the brain was the locus of interaction between the mind and body because he believed that this gland was the only part of the brain that wasn’t a duplicate. This was not substantiated but his dualism was nevertheless a magical wand that triggered the last four centuries of astronomical progress in all the physical sciences in the West.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers (تهافت الفلاسفة Tahāfut al-Falāsifaʰ in Arabic) is the title of a landmark 11th-century work by Al-Ghazali. a student of the Asharite school of Islamic theology. He criticized the Avicennian school of early Islamic philosophy.[1] Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Al-Farabi (Alpharabius) are denounced in this book, as they follow Greek philosophy even when it contradicts Islam. The text was dramatically successful, and marked a milestone in the ascendance of the Asharite school within Islamic philosophy and theological discourse.

It was a scathing and influential critique of the budding Neoplatonic philosophical tradition in the Islamic world and against the works of Avicenna in particular.[44] Among others, Al-Ghazali charged philosophers with non-belief in Islam and sought to disprove the teaching of the philosophers using logical arguments.[43][45]

The book favored faith over philosophy in matters specifically concerning metaphysics or knowledge of the divine.

Please note that in retrospect, some thousand years later, it is easier to appreciate that he was not focused on science or study of nature, rather on metaphysics and knowledge of the divine.

The holy Quran states:

“The Originator of the heavens and the earth! How can He have a son when He has no consort, and when He has created everything and has knowledge of all things?

Such is Allah, your Lord. There is no God but He, the Creator of all things, so worship Him. And He is Guardian over everything.

Eyes cannot reach Him but He reaches the eyes. And He is the Incomprehensible, the All-Aware.” (Al Quran 6:101-103)

Study of nature is based on human observation, as our eyes perceive this universe. However, if a Transcendent God of Abrahamic faiths exists, Who is beyond time and space, then the human eyes cannot reach Him. But, He reaches the eyes of the prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, and saintly people or whoever he chooses to reveal Himself to.

Nevertheless, the Muslims of Ghazali’s time used his book to misunderstand the role of science or human observation and human effort to advance our understanding of the universe.

Was it due to the fact that the Muslims are still awaiting their Rene Descartes?

Fifteen years after Al Ghazali’s death Ibn Rushd was born.

Ibn Rushd (Arabic: ابن رشد‎; full name in Arabic: أبو الوليد محمد ابن احمد ابن رشد‎, romanizedAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd; 14 April 1126 – 11 December 1198), often Latinized as  Averroës (English: /əˈvɛroʊiːz/), was a MuslimAndalusian[1]polymath and jurist who wrote about many subjects, including philosophytheologymedicineastronomyphysicspsychologymathematicsIslamic jurisprudence and law, and linguistics. The author of more than 100 books and treatises,[2][3] Being described as “founding father of secular thought in Western Europe”,[4][5] his philosophical works include numerous commentaries on Aristotle, for which he was known in the western world as The Commentator and Father of rationalism.[6] Ibn Rushd also served as a chief judge and a court physician for the Almohad Caliphate.

Averroës was a strong proponent of Aristotelianism; he attempted to restore what he considered the original teachings of Aristotle and opposed the Neoplatonist tendencies of earlier Muslim thinkers, such as Al-Farabi and Avicenna. He also defended the pursuit of philosophy against criticism by Ashari theologians such as Al-Ghazali. Averroes argued that philosophy was permissible in Islam and even compulsory among certain elites. He also argued scriptural text should be interpreted allegorically if it appeared to contradict conclusions reached by reason and philosophy.

He wrote the Critique of Al Ghazali’s Incoherence named Incoherence of the Incoherence.

Averroës argued that philosophy—which for him represented conclusions reached using reason and careful method—cannot contradict revelations in Islam because they are just two different methods of reaching the truth, and “truth cannot contradict truth”.[46][47] When conclusions reached by philosophy appear to contradict the text of the revelation, then according to Averroes, revelation must be subjected to interpretation or allegorical understanding to remove the contradiction.[46][43] This interpretation must be done by those “rooted in knowledge”—a phrase taken from the Quran, 3:7, which for Averroes refers to philosophers who during his lifetime had access to the “highest methods of knowledge”.[46][47] He also argues that the Quran calls for Muslims to study philosophy because the study and reflection of nature would increase a person’s knowledge of “the Artisan” (God).[48] He quotes Quranic passages calling on Muslims to reflect on nature and uses them to render a fatwa (legal opinion) that philosophy is allowed for Muslims and is probably an obligation, at least among those who have the talent for it.[49]

His book did not have the desired effect among the Muslims and the baton of the scientific progress was passed gradually from the Muslims to the Christian Europe for the coming centuries.

Averroes and the study of his literature made Rene Descartes possible in the Western world. Unfortunately no Descartes was born in the Muslim world.

Therefore the Muslims are still awaiting their Rene Descartes?

The tide of scientific research is still not turning in favor of the Muslims. Can we continue to blame Al Ghazali for our continued downfall? Perhaps we could come up with better narratives to keep our theology and faith as well as our study of nature and science.

Simon Van Den Bergh writes in the last paragraph of his Introduction to the translation of the Incoherence of the Incoherence by Averroës:

Emotionally the difference goes deep. Averroës is a philosopher and a proud believer in the possibility of reason to achieve a knowledge of ‘was das Innere der Welt zusammenhält’. He was not always too sure, he knew too much, and there is much wavering and hesitation in his ideas. Still, his faith in reason remains unshaken. Although he does not subscribe to the lofty words of his master that man because of the power of his intellect is a mortal God, he reproaches the theologians for having made God an immortal man. God, for him, is a dehumanized principle. But if God has to respond to the needs of man’s heart, can He be exempt from humanity? Ghazali is a mu’min, that is a believer, he is a Muslim, that is he accepts his heart submits to a truth his reason cannot establish, for his heart has reasons his reason does not know. His theology is the philosophy of the heart in which there is expressed man’s fear and loneliness and his feeling of dependence on an understanding and loving Being to whom he can cry out from the depths of his despair, and whose mercy is infinite. It is not so much after abstract truth that Ghazali strives; his search is for God, for the Pity behind the clouds.

The human concerns can be conveniently divided into two dimensions the physical and non-physical. The scientific method works very well in the physical domain and should not be allowed to be hijacked by the theologians of one religion or sect or others.

The belief in God, His Providence, revelation from this All-Knowing source, our true dreams, our best intuitions, our consciousness and our soul do not easily lend themselves to methods used to study the physical world.

Let there be a Descartes and there will be light.


Who do I prefer, Al Ghazali or Averroës?

Simon Van Den Bergh writes in the second and the third last paragraphs of his Introduction to the translation of the Incoherence of the Incoherence by Averroës:

When we have read the long discussions between the philosophers and theologians we may come to the conclusion that it is sometimes more the formula than the essence of things which divides them. Both philosophers and theologians Arm that God creates or has created the world. For the philosophers, since the world is eternal, this creation is eternal. Is there, however, any sense in calling created what has been eternally? For the theologians God is the creator of everything including time, but does not the term ‘creation’ assume already the concept of time? Both the philosophers and theologians apply to God the theory that His will and knowledge differ from human will and knowledge in that they are creative principles and essentially beyond understanding; both admit that the Divine cannot be measured by the standards of man. But this, in fact, implies an avowal of our complete ignorance in face of the Mystery of God. Still, for both parties God is the supreme Artifex who in His wisdom has chosen the best of all possible worlds; for although the philosophers affirm also that God acts only by natural necessity, their system, like that of their predecessors, the Platonists, Peripatetics, and Stoics, is essentially teleological. As to the problem of possibility, both parties commit the same inconsistencies and hold sometimes that the world could, sometimes that it could not, have been different from what it is. Finally, both parties believe in God’s ultimate Unity. And if one studies the other works of Ghazali the resemblance between him and the philosophers becomes still greater.

For instance, he too believes in the spirituality of the soul, notwithstanding the arguments he gives against it in this book; he too sometimes regards religious concepts as the symbols of a higher philosophical or mystical truth, although he admits here only a literal interpretation. He too sometimes teaches the fundamental theory of the philosophers which he tries to refute so insistently in our book, the theory that from the one supreme Agent as the ultimate source through intermediaries all things derive; and he himself expresses this idea (in his Alchemy of Happiness and slightly differently in his Vivification of Theology) by the charming simile of an ant which seeing black tracings on a sheet of paper thinks that their cause is the pen, while it is the hand that moves the pen by the power of the will which derives from the heart, itself inspired by the spiritual agent, the cause of causes. The resemblances between Ghazali and Averroës, men belonging to the same culture, indeed, the greatest men in this culture, seem sometimes greater than their differences.

As a devout Muslim believer and practitioner, I defer to Al Ghazali when I am thinking about my religion and Providence of God and to Averroës when I am thinking about sciences and my profession of a healer, a physician, a Sleep Disorders specialist. In addition to being ‘a believing people’ the Muslims are also ‘a thinking nation or Ummah,’ as the holy Quran calls them time and again to ponder over nature and bring forth their arguments.

Unfortunately, the Muslim theologian of all sects, without any considerable exception, still side with Al Ghazali, even in scientific matters and study of nature, to the implied ignoring or even condemnation of present day Averroës, who push his arguments. Why do the religious scholars do that? It soothes their egos and keeps them relevant in the present day and age and wins them blind obedience of their followers.

Averroës of today are still condemned invariably, in the twentieth first century, by the so called Muslim scholars, theologians and their mobs. Who are the Averroës of our time? These are people like Javed Ahmad Ghamidi and Pervez Hoodboy in Pakistan and Mustafa Akyol from Turkey.

They are condemned because the Muslims have not had their Rene Descartes yet! The Muslim masses are unable to see the two clear compartments or shall we say the distinction is too often blurred by their religious leaders.

Is it due to the fact that the Muslims are still awaiting their Rene Descartes?

Rene Descartes was a thinking man and a source of great light to the Western civilization and to the whole of humanity in turn.

We have pooled hundreds if not thousands of articles on the theme of religion and science, to draw the Muslim masses out of hero worship to a new era, where they can grow their learning not only from their scholars of choice, but Avicenna, Al Ghazali, Averroës and Descartes of all faiths and lack thereof.


Video: Hamza Yusuf About Al Ghazali

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126—1198)

From the Muslim Sunrise: Truth and Science

Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science On the lost Golden Age and the rejection of reason

Book Review: Islam Without Extremes by Mustafa Akyol

The great Greek trio and a case for religion

Human Soul: The Final Frontier?

Video: Laughter is the best cure for psychics

Neurobiology of Dreams and Revelation

Al Aleem: The Bestower of true dreams

The Nature of Revelation

True Nature of Divine Revelations

We Dream, Therefore God Is!

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