Sunday, April 20, 2008

Islamist Distrust of Human Reason

From my reading on Islamism this semester as I lead discussions with my students, I've learned that Salafi Muslims would have some objections to human curiosity and the knowledge that it seeks. Indeed, the Salafists objections are far more radical than any objections formulated by St. Augustine, and I suppose that we need another Blumenberg to explore the "trial of theoretical curiosity" in Islam.

I'd like to quote a passage from Quintan Wiktorowicz, "Anatomy of the Salafi Movement," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29:3 (2006), 207-239:
Perhaps the most dangerous challenge to pure Islam, from the Salafi perspective, is the application of human intellect and logic to the original sources ("rationalism" in the Salafi lexicon). Salafis operate as though the Qur'an and hadith are self-explanatory: if the scholar has enough training and knowledge, then the vast majority of derived rulings are clear and indisputable. As a result, there is no need to apply human systems of logic. The scholars are, in a sense, reduced to the archeology of divine texts: their function is to simply unearth the truth that lies somewhere in the Qur'an and Sunna. In this understanding, there is really no such thing as interpretation -- the sources either sanction or prohibit particular beliefs, choices, and behavior; there is a single truth, as revealed by the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad; and there is no room for interpretive differences or religious pluralism. Any time humans attempt to apply their own logic or methods of reasoning (the scientific method of Sir Francis Bacon or Ibn Khaldun, for example), they open the way to human desire, distortion, and deviancy. Approaches that are guided by human logic will necessarily fall foul of human desire, which will lead to the selective and biased extrapolation of religious evidence to support human interests rather than religious truth. (Wiktorowicz, "Anatomy of the Salafi Movement," page 210)
Wiktorowicz is describing the suspicion with which Salafi Islamists view any use of reason in interpreting the Qur'an or the hadith, but since the problem lies specifically in how human desire misleads reason, then this distrust of our reasoning powers would seem also to apply in all realms of knowledge.

Well, that's Salafi Islam, a Sunni form of Islam. What about Islamist views in Shia Islam? From reading Matthias Kuentzel's article "Antisemitism, Messianism and the Cult of Sacrifice: The Iranian Holy War," SPME Faculty Voices (April 10, 2008), I learn that Iranian Shi'ite Islamists have a similar distrust of human reason, as several passages from a subsection entitled "Reason as sin" will demonstrate:
For us, the employment of reason is the most self-evident thing in the world. For Islamists the use of reason -- apart from in the natural sciences -- is an expression of arrogance -- hence our castigation as the "World of Arrogance" -- and an offence against God. Their starting point is that the Koran must be interpreted and applied literally. But evidently, any kind of reason-based doubt undermines such an approach to the Koran. As a result, doubt and conjecture are opposed.
I'm not sure why Kuentzel exempts the "natural sciences," but let's see what else follows:
For Islamist academics, the term "Western imperialism" refers not so much to economic aggression, but first and foremost to an "intellectual invasion" of the world of Islam. In the words of the Islamist Syed al-Attas, "The contemporary challenge of Western civilization . . . is the challenge of knowledge . . . which promotes scepticism, which has elevated doubt and conjecture to 'scientific status' in its methodology." The primary goal of academic Islamism is to "de-westernize" the sciences, i.e. to free them from the principles of doubt and conjecture.
So far, Kuentzel is talking about Islamism generally, not specifically Shi'ite Islamism, for he quotes the Sunni Muslim Syed al-Attas (Syed M. N. al-Attas, cited by Bassam Tibi, Islamischer Fundamentalismus, moderne Wissenschaft und Technologie (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1992), page 139). However, Kuentzel supplies evidence that Shi'ite Islamists think similarly:
At Columbia [University] Ahmadinejad clearly articulated his aversion to the Western concepts of "reason" and "reality". According to him science is permitted only to the strict believer: "Science is the light which illuminates the hearts of those who have been selected by the Almighty . . . . Science is the light and scientists must be pure and pious" . . . . Ahmadinejad is here laying down the criteria to be followed in purging the teaching body of Iranian universities.

At the same time Ahmadinejad also showed in [his speech at] Columbia that he defines his notion of "reality" in religious terms. What is real is the message of the Koran, while "material desires place humans against the realities of the world." And so, just as only the "pure and pious" can be a scientist, so only those who have fully subordinated themselves to the Koran can grasp what "reality" truly is. At Columbia Ahmadinejad said: "Corrupted independent human beings resist acceptance of reality and even if they do accept it, they do not obey it."
Now, Kuentzel may be using the term "science" here in the German sense of "Wissenschaft," which is broader than our English use of the term "science," but since "Wissenschaft" would include both the natural and the human 'sciences', then I suspect that for Shi'ite Islamists, using reason to pursue knowledge leads to corrupt knowledge if one is a "Corrupted independent human being," namely, if one is not a Muslim who has submitted reason to Allah's revelation in the Qur'an. At any rate, the denigration of human reason seems to apply pretty broadly for Shi'ites, for Kuentzel suggests that the submission of reason applies in the realm of power as well:
This rejection of human reason also affects how power is understood. The very word Islam means "submission", in the sense of subjection to God. If people cannot achieve knowledge through reason, all the less so are they capable of shaping and determining their own fate. While the secular answer to the question "can people rule themselves" is positive, from an Islamist point of view it is a priori negative: only God is the sovereign, only God can rule via the Caliphate. To sum up: the second characteristic of the new religious war is its goal: the replacement of individual and social self-determination by a sharia dictatorship.
I wish that Kuentzel had cited Shi'ites other than Ahmadinejad, but from my own, broader reading, I think that Kuentzel is probably right.

And if Pope Benedict XVI is correct in his Regensburg address on "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections," then not merely Islamism but Islam itself has profound doubts about human reason.

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At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And if Pope Benedict XVI is correct in his Regensburg address on "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections," then not merely Islamism but Islam itself has profound doubts about human reason."

Whether Pope Benedict XVI is correct or not, I've not a clue. However I've communicated with several Jesuit scholars and I've run into problems with their defining well, defining.

Reason tells, informs, whatever: my perception of a "quality" is not in itself quantifiable.

To me therefore it seems a bit suspect that I should depend on some Priest, Preacher, Imam to quantify much less qualify his interpretion (Reason) of the "Right Interpretation." Whether the intercessor has spent minutes or decades comes down ultimately to Reason.

How does one come to have Faith (as opposed to Belief) that one man-other than himself-is so endowed by whatever means that the teacher teaches the One and Correct?

Does it not come ultimately to the Individual to use Reason as to whether he should decide whether to travel north rather than south?

Forgive me Jeffery, I see Religion (as Religion) only as a justification for either an Imposition or at worst, an Inquisition.

I recently had an illuminating discussion with waka whether the "blue" of Tonkin Gulf had anything to do with the "blue" perceived in other's eyes. My notion of "blue" remains yet, I am hit upside the head with the realization that not all is as it seems.

Especially if I depend on another man's Reason. By the way I suspect I would receive tea in MP's house as I would expect in yours'.

Recent events in the States give me pause.


At 8:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, reason is reason and goeth where it will.

I don't doubt that we have to circumscribe our reason in certain respects -- hence my discussion of curiosity in various posts -- but Islam seems to draw the line far more restrictively than seems, well, reasonable.

What, by the way, has given you "pause"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a friend got called in to triangulate a "call" from several relaying cell towers that id'd a location that did not verify a certain location.

uuuhhmmm, my pause has to do with Constitutional proscriptions. whether my personal feelings jibe with my "freedom" feelings are presently in a quandary.

I took an oath at one time to "support and defend" I remain true to my one oath.

forward anything you receive.


At 2:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I haven't taken any oaths, so I probably won't be receiving anything.

Jeffery Hodges

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