Islam versus Reason and Logic

I recently read Ibn Khaldun’s (1332–1406) The Muqaddimah (also known as Prolegomena) in a Swedish translation and wrote a couple of blog posts about it. Now I find that the full English text of this work is available on the web[1], and therefore I will adapt one of these posts for my non-Scandinavian readers.

My interest in him was triggered by somebody whispering in my ear that he had made some interesting economic observations. And so he has. Long before Arthur Laffer presented his Laffer curve – which says that when taxes become too high, they become counter-productive to the tax collectors, because they lower people’s incentive to work – Ibn Khaldun made the same point. (Laffer actually acknowledges this, and the curve is sometimes called the Laffer-Khaldun curve.)

Or take this paragraph on the subject of division of labor, written a few hundred years before Adam Smith:

[…] the power of the individual human being is not sufficient for him to obtain (the food) he needs, and does not provide him with as much food as he requires to live. Even if we assume an absolute minimum of food –that is, food enough for one day, (a little) wheat, for instance – that amount of food could be obtained only after much preparation such as grinding, kneading, and baking. Each of these three operations requires utensils and tools that can be provided only with the help of several crafts, such as the crafts of the blacksmith, the carpenter, and the potter. Assuming that a man could eat unprepared grain, an even greater number of operations would be necessary in order to obtain the grain: sowing and reaping, and threshing to separate it from the husks of the ear. Each of these operations requires a number of tools and many more crafts than those just mentioned. It is beyond the power of one man alone to do all that, or (even) part of it, by himself. Thus, he cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through co­operation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than their own (number), can be satisfied. [From the First Prefatory Discussion in chapter 1.]

But Ibn Khaldun was also a devout Muslim; and this is what I will write about here.

As you all know, the “Aristotle Renaissance” in the late Middle Ages took hold in the Arabic world before it reached Europe. The best known names are Ibn Sina (latinized Avicenna; ca 980–1037) and Ibn Rushd (latinized Averroës; 1126–1198). And just as Thomas Aquinas would later claim that Aristotle’s teachings are compatible with Christianity, so those philosophers claimed that they are compatible with Islam.

But there were Muslim philosophers who disagreed. The most well-known is Al-Ghazali (ca 1058–1111), who attacked this view in a book called The Incoherence of the Philosophers – where he claimed that we should not look for causes, because everything that happens in the world happens because God wills it, and no other causal explanation is necessary, and looking for them constitutes heresy. Ibn Rushd answered him in a book called The Incoherence of the Incoherence; but the Muslim world followed Al-Ghazali, and Aristotelianism was abandoned. (I first heard of this in a lecture by Edwin Locke, who dubbed Al-Ghazali a “reverse Aquinas”. It does explain why the Muslim world has since lagged behind the West; but Al-Ghazali would probably say that it lags behind, because God wills it to lag behind.)

Ibn Khaldun was a follower of Al-Ghazali (and a couple of less known philosophers who held the same view). In The Muqaddimah he has a chapter titled

A refutation of philosophy. The corruption of the students of philosophy

… from which I quote[2]:

This and the following (two) sections are important. The sciences (of philosophy, astrology, and alchemy) occur in civilization. They are much cultivated in the cities. The harm they (can) do to religion is great. Therefore, it is necessary that we make it clear what they are about and that we reveal what the right attitude concerning them (should be).

There are (certain) intelligent representatives of the human species who think that the essences and conditions of the whole of existence, both the part of it perceivable by the senses and that beyond sensual perception, as well as the reasons and causes of (those essences and conditions), can be perceived by mental speculation and intellectual reasoning. They also think that the articles of faith are established as correct through (intellectual) speculation and not through tradition, because they belong among the intellectual per­ceptions. Such people are called “philosophers” […]

And later on:

It should be known that the (opinion) the (philosophers) hold is wrong in all its aspects. […] Existence […] is too wide to (be explained by so narrow a view). […] The philosophers, who restrict themselves to affirming the intellect and neglect everything beyond it, are in a way comparable, to physicists who restrict themselves to affirming the body and who disregard (both) soul and intellect in the belief that there is nothing beyond the body in (God’s) wise plan concerning (the world of) existence.

And:

[…] we must refrain from studying these things, since such (restraint) falls under (the duty of) the Muslim not to do what does not concern him.

And what about logic?

[…] the science (of logic) is not adequate to achieve the avowed intentions (of the philosophers). In addition, it contains things that are contrary to the religious laws and their obvious meaning. As far as we know, this science has only a single fruit, namely, it sharpens the mind in the orderly presentation of proofs and arguments, so that the habit of excellent and correct arguing is obtained. This is because the orderly process and the solid and exact method of reasoning are as the philosophers have prescribed them in their science of logic. They employ (logic) a good deal in the physical and mathematical sciences as well as in the science that comes after them (metaphysics). Since (logical) arguments are much employed in those sciences in the way they should be employed, the student of them is able to master the habit of exact and correct arguing and deducing. Even if (those sciences) are not adequate to achieve the intentions of the (philosophers), they constitute the soundest norm of (philosophical) speculation that we know of.

Such is the fruit of this craft (of logic). It also affords acquaintance with the doctrines and opinions of the people of the world. One knows what harm it can do. Therefore, the student of it should beware of its pernicious aspects as much as he can. Whoever studies it should do so (only) after he is saturated with the religious law and has studied the interpretation of the Qur’an and jurisprudence. No one who has no knowledge of the Muslim religious sciences should apply himself to it. Without that knowledge, he can hardly remain safe from its pernicious aspects.

God gives success and guidance to the truth. [Italics mine.]

Well, what do you make of this? Obviously, the Muslim, too, should use logic to some extent – it “sharpens his mind in the orderly presentation of proofs and arguments”, and it “affords acquaintance with the doctrines and opinions of the people of the world”. But he also has to know its “pernicious aspects” – so that he does not employ logic in his study of Islam! Then, his mind should be “unsharpened”. But as long as logic is used to refute the use of logic in religious matters, it is OK. The concept of “concept-stealing” comes readily to mind …

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Ibn Khaldun was also in favor of jihad or holy war.[3] Another chapter in his book is titled

Wars and the methods of waging war practiced by the various nations

… and it begins:

Wars and different kinds of fighting have always occurred in the world since God created it. […] It is something natural among human beings. No nation and no race (generation) is free from it. […]

The first (kind of war) usually occurs between neighbor­ing tribes and competing families.

The second (kind of war) – war caused by hostility – is usually found among savage nations living in the desert […] They earn their sustenance with their lances and their livelihood by depriving other people of their possessions. They declare war against those who defend their property against them. They have no further desire for rank and royal authority. Their minds and eyes are set only upon depriving other people of their possessions.

The third (kind of war) is the one the religious law calls “the holy war.”

The fourth (kind of war), finally, is dynastic war against seceders and those who refuse obedience.

These are the four kinds of war The first two are unjust and lawless, the other two are holy and just wars. [Italics mine.]

Jihad is holy and just!

And in chapter 31 he writes:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the (Muslim) mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. {Italics mine.]

As for the Christians:

It is (for them to choose between) conversion to Islam, payment of the poll tax, or death. [Italics mine.]

It could not be more clearly stated that Islam is not “a religion of peace”.


[1]) Translated by Franz Rosenthal in 1967.

[2]) The words in parentheses in the quotes are added by the translator to make the meaning clearer.

[3]) An old acquaintance of mine who has converted to Islam has explained to me that there are two forms of jihad. There is the “small jihad”, which is waging war to spread Islam; and there is the “big jihad”, which is waging war within one’s own mind against anti-Muslim thoughts and ideas, like selfishness. – Well, to risk one’s life in the holy war – much more then to become a suicide bomber – one first has to uproot selfishness. But why then all those promises of Paradise and threats of Hell? Wishing to avoid coming to Hell in the hereafter is a selfish wish.

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