Understanding the Present by Examining the Past

An Historical Paradigm

A Paradigm Sketching the Interaction Between Islamic & Western Civilizations

This is a paradigm inspired by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf [1], with some amendments from The History Guide, that I’ve found very useful. Like yourselves, I’m no historian. Hence, the rote learning throughout my years. That is the boring, not least exhausting, approach. Extremely uninspiring. The better approach is to learn a paradigm (or narrative or whatever you want to call it) and fit facts into it. Or, to put it another way, to have a framework from which the details can be hung from. Context and comprehension are the primary tools here, while details and memorization take the back seat.

So to start off, I’ve drawn out a rough draft of the paradigm, which looks like the following:


To point out a few things, the top time-line represents Western civilization while the bottom represents Islamic Civilization. I’ve written down the year-span for the Middle Ages (~500-1500 CE) and the names of four people: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Rushd, and al-Ghazali. I’ve also numbered two arrows, the second arrow representing European colonialism of the 1800s. So that’s less than ten items. [2] First I’ll devote a few paragraphs explaining the narrative. In the next post, I’ll fit the beginnings of modern Ireland into the picture. I’ll also throw in a Muslim country, like Malaysia, for some interesting comparison.

My humble advice is to print out the paradigm and follow along. It pretty much sums up everything. (Or at least open it up in a separate window.)

In a nutshell, both civilizations encountered the Greek tradition near the beginning of their histories. It is the response to that encounter, and the subsequent encounters between Islamic and Western Civilizations, which is the focus of this paradigm.

Common to Muslim and Christian theology is the debate between Reason and Revelation. The kind of Reason that was debated about was the Greek variety, not the Chinese or Indian variety, for geographical reasons. St. Augustine, an important figure in the development of Western Christianity, was largely in favor of Revelation over Reason. Hence Aristotelean logic was largely rejected until St. Thomas Aquinas came along six-hundred years later. St. Thomas Aquinas is known for reconciling the conflicts between Reason and Revelation, concluding that both are complementary and lead to the same conclusions. This was company line until the Renaissance, when Revelation, as a source of knowledge, was marginalized and Reason was depended on in imitation of the Greeks and Romans before the Middle Ages. [3]

In Muslimdom, a different narrative occurs. When Muslims encountered the Greek tradition, a debate arose between those who favoured it (known as the Mutazilites) and those who rejected it. It was Imam al-Ashari, in the 900s, similar to St. Thomas Aquinas, who reconciled Greek Reason with Revelation (or more accurately, defended Revelation while assimilating Greek Reason into his discourse). The debate lived on, however, with the Philosophers (represented by Ibn Rushd in this paradigm) who favoured Greek Reason. It was not until al-Ghazali wrote his decisive refutation of Philosophy, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, when Greek Reason was finally defeated. Al-Ghazali championed Sufism (which affirmed Revelation) over Reason. [4]

So that is the short explanation of the Muslim and Western time-lines. Now it’s time to explain arrows one and two. Trust me. This is where it gets interesting.

At the time when Sufism takes hold in Muslimdom, one of the Philosophers, Ibn Rushd, begins to have an influence on St. Thomas Aquinas (represented by arrow one in the paradigm). Ibn Rushd was an admirer of Aristotle, and it is St. Thomas Aquinas who makes Aristotle mainstream among Western thinkers of his time and generations after.

In other words, the same Rationalist model that was defeated by al-Ghazali in Muslimdom ended up becoming successful in Europe. This had some profound implications, both in Europe and in Muslimdom.

In Europe, the focus on Reason lead to things like the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and so on. In particular, progress in science lead to progress in technology, which empowered colonialist efforts. So by the 1800s, the Muslim World came under the yoke of European colonialism. Arrow two symbolizes the importation of European Rationalism into Muslimdom during this period. Although the Rationalism al-Ghazali defeated in the Middle Ages is different from the Europeanized Rationalism of the 1800s (which included -isms like Nationalism and Positivism, for example), it is still interesting how it makes a comeback vis-à-vis Sufism. [5] This is evident in important figures like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu, who admired European advancements in science and technology and sought to “modernize” Islam. It would be more apt, I suppose, to call them “puritan reformers” who sought to “purify” Islam in a way akin to the Protestant Reformers, who “protested” against the Catholic tradition and sought to interpret Christianity by Scripture alone. More can be said about this later. But for those who are familiar with the intellectual landscape of contemporary Muslims, the roots of contemporary Salafism can be traced back to Muhammad Abdu’s student Rashid Rida. What’s known as Wahhabism (an Islamic movement that shares in the same “puritanical reformist” attitudes of Salafism) develops independently in the 1800s and plays an important role in the founding of Saudi Arabia in the early 1900s.

1. From his lecture, The Concept of Ihsan, which is part of the Foundations of Islam lecture series.

2. Of course the usual discretion is needed when coming accross such over-simplistic narratives. A list of the things left out could fill an ocean. On the bright side, it does serve as an effective “contextualizer”. More on that later.

3. For a concrete example of this, look up René Descartes.

4. For an excellent summary summarizing the views of Kalam, the Philosophers, and Sufism, please read the chapter called, The Intellectual Schools, in the book, The Vision of Islam.

5. For an essay on Sufism in the Middle Ages and its later confrontation with Modernism in the 1800s, please read the essay, The Decline of Knowledge and the Rise of Ideology, in the book, Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition. The essay after it, A Traditional Islamic Response to the Rise of Modernism, contains a historical account of Muslim India during its encounter with Western modernity.


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