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    Islam, The West, And Reason

    The cultural differences between Islam and the West can be understood in light of the role played by classical reason in their respective histories. While the West underwent significant teleological transformations through the dialectic of faith and reason, Islam did not. The many difficulties encountered between Islam and the West when it comes to communicative relations in socio-cultural, political and religious dimensions can be traced back to this unique distinction.

    The intersection of classical reasoning and Islam took place between the 9th and 12th century. Bagdad, Cairo and Cordoba had become the most prominent intellectual centers of science, philosophy, medicine, trade, and education.   Muslim philosophers such as Al Kindi, Al Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd incorporated Greek philosophy into the Muslim faith. Much like the Christian-Hellenic philosophers in the West, the Mulsim philosophers can be credited, although not nearly to the same extent as their Christian counterparts, with the historical dissemination of various categories of knowledge, from medicine to metaphysics.

    From the 7th century, Islam quickly and fiercely came on the scene of history as it rose out of Arabia to conquer the Sassanid Persian Empire in the East and much of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire in the West. The Muslim conquest of Visigothic Spain, and the rise of the Umayyad Empire saw the assimilation of the Spanish population to Muslim and Arabic culture. Intellectuals among Jews, Christians and Muslims in Spain translated the Latin and Greek classics into Arabic and other languages.  The translation process began to reach Europe through Spain. European translation began around the 11th century after Toledo was conquered by Alfonso VI, King of Castile, Leon and Galicia. This gradual process of Christian re-conquest enabled European intellectuals to gain access to Classics that had been all but lost since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Original classic works and Arabic translations of originals were translated into Latin by Jews and European scholars. Other areas of intellectual growth were less accessible than Spain, including both Christian Constantinople and Muslim states.

    The intellectual atmosphere in Muslim Spain and elsewhere flourished and was permitted to the extent that Muslim rulers tolerated it. As such, the Aristotelian ideal of intellectual perfection and rational contemplation of ultimate reality became a part of Muslim philosophical thought, as did, to different degrees, Aristotelian and Platonic notions of ethics and justice. The philosophers considered the injustices of temporal rulers, namely the caliphs. Rational philosophical thought, however, did not make strong inroads in Islam due to the intolerance of Muslim rulers and to the primitive and tribal inclinations of the Arab people in general. In addition to this, both the temporal and the spiritual dimensions of power are invested in individual Muslim rulers. This fusion of Imperial and sacerdotal power in one man-made it all but impossible to separate and rationally integrate faith and reason, the sacred and the temporal.

    The Reconquista, which began with the battle of Covadonga in the 7th century, in which the Visigothic nobleman Pelagius defeated an Umayyad army and established the small Christian principality of Asturias, and ended definitively when Granada, the site of the last Islamic state, fell to the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, brought an end to Muslim rule in the region, saving Europe from Muslim expansion out of the Iberian Peninsula. Combined with the Mongolian sac of Baghdad in 1258, Islamic imperial dominion on a global scale had come to an end. Greek, Roman, Jewish and Muslim work was translated into Castilian and Latin, and the opening of the Iberian Peninsula to the West was complete. The now available body of classical thought included physics, math, astronomy, medicine, and more, and was to be entirely absorbed by the West, culminating in the historical re-emergence of rational thought, the so-called Western Renaissance. As Islamic power continued to decline, the West gained more access to the ancient classics. Furthermore, Greek scholars and texts from the Byzantine Empire came to the West with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Eventually the whole library of classical knowledge, from Spain to Baghdad, fell into the hands of the West.

    To its advantage, Western Christendom, unlike Islam, is characterized by a pervasive discontinuity between temporal power, invested in the Emporer or king, and spiritual power, invested in the popes and the clergy. From the outset, this division opened up the possibility of the dialectic of faith and reason in which each refined the other. From St. Augustine to St. Thomas in the middle ages, and from Descartes to Locke in the modern age, the dialectical synthesis of faith and reason is drawn out teleologically. In other words, it is an evolutionary historical event that always points to the Age of Reason in which the Christian faith becomes fully rationalized and, at last, expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the American constitution. Churchill expresses it famously when he says “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus, Trial by Jury, and the English common law, find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”

    Western Christendom underwent significant transformations before its culmination in the thoughts and actions of the founding fathers. The combined effects of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment makeup the historical appropriation of Classical reasoning and Christian faith. In the 17th century, natural philosophy, metaphysics and theology were separating as the role of subjective experience and physical data were taking the place of a-priori philosophy. Philosophers looked to nature for direct guidance in morality, ethics, and politics, while metaphysics and religion became the general context of thought, containing the implicit, automatic assumptions that guided natural philosophy. Indeed, faith and reason were parting ways even as they were being woven together. Under the sway of Kantian and Lockean thought, empiricism takes center stage in the context of Christianity, and thinkers looked to natural law to derive positive law.

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    Although natural law was separate from theology, it was taken for granted by thinkers such as Locke and Kant that natural law was possible because it was given by Gd. From natural law theory evolves democracy as we know it. In “Two Treatises on Government”, Locke reasons that Gd’s grant to Adam of dominion over the earth extends to all people, not just to the Kings – as the absolutists argued. Furthermore, when a man mixes his labor with nature, that part of nature becomes his, and the purpose of the Commonwealth is to protect that property, indeed, to protect that person, whose ownership of himself is the basis of property and privacy. Furthermore, reason was understood as the means by which the excesses of the ego could be controlled and sublimated. Absolute monarchy, the exemplary unmitigated ego, was undermined by the philosophers. Deriving from nature the principle that all men are born free and that all men including the king are subject to the moral law of nature, the Enlightenment philosophers replaced the logic of the absolutists – that only the King is truly free and that the people are subject to the king’s absolute will – with the logic of natural philosophy.

    The protection of the rights of individuals is written into law. From the Magna Carta to the Napoleonic Code and the Constitution of the United States, laws protecting human rights and human dignity are globally disseminated from their Western source. This is the opposite of what happened in the Muslim world. The caliphs, analogous to the Western absolute monarchs, never let Muslim intellectuals near their power. Islam saw no fundamental changes, no Reformation, and no Age of Reason. We in the West take for granted so many protections that can be credited to the Enlightenment thinkers, from freedom of religion, to HIPPA law and informed consent forms – from modern art to food safety inspection, building codes, and institutionalized standards of professional conduct. All of this can be traced back to the rational arguments for the dignity and protection of the individual, his privacy, his property, and liberty.

    To comprehend how different Islamic “values” are from Western values, and as such why communicative relations are inherently problematic, one needs to understand the function of Western rational thought. It is reasoning combined with faith that generates Western civilization, its unique tradition, and its freedom. Civilization is grounded in this process. To speak of Muslim civilization is a misnomer because reason does not guide Islam and its religious laws. Islam is, rather, guided by a literal reading of the Koran and by faith without rational contemplation. It has no rational theology, no analogue to the Talmud or to Christian Biblical commentary, no civilizing force to sublimate its natural inclinations.

    Reason in the West is Platonic and Aristotelian, that is, it is characterized by the rational contemplation of the Divine. Through the medium of the Logos, the Divine can be grasped and understood. Such contemplation in Islam began and ended with the medieval Muslim philosophers. Without Classical reasoning, and without developing a similar reasoning on its own, Islam cannot make sense of the Divine, and is left only with its instincts and faith alone.

    The crisis between Islam and the West is characterized by a chasm that separates two very different histories. In addition to what I have said above, there are many other ways to visualize their differences. For example, Christianity is a religion based on forgiveness, while Islam is based on conquest. The essential character of each religion can be found in the personalities of their respective founders.

    Western intellectuals imagine a multicultural, post-religious world in which all humans can blend peacefully, tilling the community soil and running freely beneath the rainbow by day, singing around the campfire and dancing the African flit by night. It is the utopian-dream of a Marxist inspired acid trip that began in the 60’s and never ended. In reality, the gap between the West and Islam cannot be crossed by a philosophy of post-religious multiculturalism, or by a politics of universal inclusively and unqualified tolerance. A dialogue between the West and Islam cannot be one of mutual understanding.


    Brian Hurowitz

    Brian Hurowitz

    Brian Hurowitz is a philosopher, student of history and psychology, and essayist based in Philadelphia PA. He writes on various topics such as politics, language, culture and religion.

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