Scholars, scientists, philosophers and mystics: Islamic culture after 500 years

And poets, architects, artists, glassworkers, doctors, potters, calligraphers, merchants …

Islam counts its calendar from the Hjira, the flight of the prophet Mohammed and his companions from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 of the Common Era. So the year 1122 of the Common Era is the year 500 of the islamic calendar.

Those five hundred years had seen a flowering of learning and creativity that incorporated the wisdoms of the cultures that the muslims met. From China they learned how to make paper. They adopted the numbering system, including the symbol of zero, from India. From the christians who had moved east into Asia they met the learning of the ancient Greeks. But the muslim world didn’t just copy this wealth of learning. They added to it, with insights of their own. Their religion encouraged them to explore and learn, and they did so.

But first we need to backtrack. After Mohammed died in 632 his successors made a point of collating the recitations that he had received from the angel Gabriel. Those recitations became the Quran. It became the guidance on how to organise the ummah, the community of believers. It instructed the members how to look after orphans, how to manage divorce or inheritance. It was the basis of their law.The second successor, Omar, funded a group of scholars to study the Quran so that they could make sound judgements on difficult questions that the community encountered. This group became the ulama, the learned ones.

For example, one question that Omar put to the ulama was about the drinking of alcohol. The Quran does not expressly forbid drinking alcohol, although drunkenness is disapproved of. However, it does prohibit slander. Omar’s reasoning was that when a person drinks alcohol they become slanderous, and so merit the same censure. Drinking of alcohol was thus forbidden in the community. In the absence of specific instructions, the ulama used similar analogous reasoning to find how the community could live together.

But Mohammed had said a lot more that people remembered and passed on and that was not included in the Quran. There were thousands of such remembered sayings. The next step was to verify and collate these, too. This took much longer – a couple of centuries – but eventually the collected utterances became the hadith, the sayings, and was the second most important source of reference after the Quran.

Anyone who studied the Quran and the Hadith and was recognised for their learning could become a member of the ulama. The ulama were the legal system, the educational system and advisors to the politicians. They developed a body of literature, commentaries on the Quran and the Hadith. They became the establishment.

The instructions in the Quran had other side-effects. The people had to be able to read them, for a start. A largely illiterate desert people became highly literate within a couple of generations.

Quran_rzabasi1 This early Quran is now in the Reza Abbasi Museum in Tehran

As the community expanded out of the Arabian peninsula into Africa, Asia and Iberia, the people had to be able to locate the direction of Mecca in order to face towards it when performing their daily prayers. They had to be able to determine when the month of Ramadan began and ended. This required the study of astronomy. The inheritance laws required the study of mathematics. The Quran was written in Arabic, and Arabic became the common language from Cordoba to Kabul, so the astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers could communicate with each other.

Because there were philosophers, too. The learning inherited from the Greeks gave them mathematics, and also brought up some awkward questions. Was the world eternal, as Aristotle said, or was it created? Was the path to learning via enquiry and reasoning, or by divine revelation?

Others grew wary of the pronouncements of the scholars, scientists and philosophers and sought a more direct communion with God. The arabic word ‘sufi’ may originate from ‘suf’, meaning the rough wool of the simple garments the adherents wore, or ‘safa’ meaning purity, or possibly both. The sufis developed devotional practices, particularly recitation of the names of God, and are known today for the whirling meditations of the dervish order. They also passed on their wisdom from teacher to student down through the generations.

675px-Porte_mosquee_Sidi_Boumediene_TlemcenThis mosque in Algeria is named after the sufi master Abu Madyan, born in 1126.

One man who lived in this period was in turn a scholar, a philosopher and finally a mystic. Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali was born in the province of Tus in eastern Persia, in what is now Iran, near the border with Afghanistan, and died there in 1111. As a young man he established himself as an articulate scholar of the Quran and the Hadith. In his time there was already a rift between the scholars and the philosophers. The scholars felt that the philosophers were encroaching on their territory. Al-Ghazali resolved to study their subject for himself. His book, ‘The Aims of the Philosophers‘, explored the ideas of his predecessors, in particular those of Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna). It was so even-handed that when it reached Europe in translation it was taken to be a textbook of Greek philosophy.

Then he moved back into scholar mode. His next book was entitled ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers‘. In it he presented a detailed criticism of philosophy as he had described it, citing from the learning he had absorbed from the Quran, the Hadith and the commentaries. The human function is not to better understand the world, he declared, but to know God better! He accused the philosophers of apostasy, a crime punishable by death.

In modern discussions of Al-Ghazali I recognise and recoil from the hard, hectoring, intolerant tone that I hear. That tone was my experience of islam before embarking on this project.

Al-Ghazali’s legacy divides opinions to this day. Some see him as a Muhajjid, a renewer of the faith. For others, his writings mark the beginning of the end of the golden age of islamic culture. Any muslim who explored philosophy after this time had to take into account what Al-Ghazali had said, and tread carefully. The only part of the muslim world that records criticisms of al-Ghazali’s conclusions was the far west, in al-Andalus. The novel by Ibn Tufayl, Hayy ibn Yaqzan or Alive the son of Awake, is in part a defence of the human ability to reach revelation through reasoning as put forward by the philosophers. And later still the man known to the west as The Philosopher, Averroes, wrote a refutation of ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers‘, with the unwieldy title of ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence‘. Perhaps it sounds better in Arabic: Tahāfut al-Tahāfut. 

Al-Ghazali himself had a spiritual crisis when he was in his forties. He tidied up his affairs in Baghdad where he was living at the time, provided for his family and after a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina he returned to Tus in 1096. There he lived in seclusion for the rest of his life, adopting the ways of a sufi. For him, all that counted now was to find ways to know God. Learning and study were irrelevant in comparison to that intense experience. He continued writing, however. And with his customary brilliance he wrote about what he experienced, with the result that sufism became integrated more thoroughly into mainstream islam. His books became the most revered in the islamic world after the Quran and the Hadith.

Munqidh_min_al-dalal_(last_page) Here is a page from his autobiography, written shortly before he died.

He must have been an extraordinary man.


One thought on “Scholars, scientists, philosophers and mystics: Islamic culture after 500 years

  1. Pingback: Great human achievements. Generations 451-452, 1000-1040 | How did we get to here from there?

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