If it may be said that Santa Maria sopra Minerva is a symbol of our European culture, it should not be forgotten that the mosque also was built on the Greek temple. But whereas in Christian Western theology there was a gradual and indirect infiltration of Greek, and especially Aristotelian ideas, so that it may be said that finally Thomas Aquinas baptized Aristotle, the impact on Islam was sudden, violent, and short. The great conquests by the Arabs took place in the seventh century when the Arabs first came into contact with the Hellenistic world. At that time Hellenistic culture was still alive; Alexandria in Egypt, certain towns in Syria— Edessa for instance— were centres of Hellenistic learning, and in the cloisters of Syria and Mesopotamia not only Theology was studied but Science and Philosophy also were cultivated. In Philosophy Aristotle was still ‘the master of those who know’, and especially his logical works as interpreted by the Neoplatonic commentators were studied intensively. But also many Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean writings were still known, and also, very probably, some of the old Stoic concepts and problems were still alive and discussed.
The great period of translation of Greek into Arabic, mostly through the intermediary of Christian Syrians, was between the years 750 and 850, but already before that time there was an impact of Greek ideas on Muslim theology. The first speculative theologians in Islam are called Mu‘tazilites (from about A. D. 723), an exact translation of the Greek word σχισματικοί (the general name for speculative theologians is Mutakallimun, διαλεκτικοί, dialecticians, a name often given in later Greek philosophy to the Stoics). Although they form rather a heterogeneous group of thinkers whose theories are syncretistic, that is taken from different Greek sources with a preponderance of Stoic ideas, they have certain points in common, principally their theory, taken from the Stoics, of the rationality of religion (which is for them identical with Islam), of a lumen naturale which burns in the heart of every man, and the optimistic view of a rational God who has created the best of all possible worlds for the greatest good of man who occupies the central place in the universe. They touch upon certain difficult problems that were perceived by the Greeks. The paradoxes of Zeno concerning movement and the infinite divisibility of space and time hold their attention, and the subtle problem of the status of the nonexistent, a problem long neglected in modern philosophy, but revived by the school of Brentano, especially by Meinong, which caused an endless controversy amongst the Stoics, is also much debated by them.
A later generation of theologians, the Ash‘arites, named after Al Ash‘ari, born A. D. 873, are forced by the weight of evidence to admit a certain irrationality in theological concepts, and their philosophical speculations, largely based on Stoicism, are strongly mixed with Sceptical theories. They hold the middle way between the traditionalists who want to forbid all reasoning on religious matters and those who affirm that reason unaided by revelation is capable of attaining religious truths. Since Ghazali founds his attack against the philosophers on Ash‘arite principles, we may consider for a moment some of their theories. The difference between the Ash‘arite and Mu‘tazilite conceptions of God cannot be better expressed than by the following passage which is found twice in Ghazali (in his Golden Means of Dogmatics and his Vivification of Theology) and to which by tradition is ascribed the breach between Al Ash‘ari and the Mu‘tazilites.
‘Let us imagine a child and a grown-up in Heaven who both died in the True Faith, but the grown-up has a higher place than the child. And the child will ask God, “Why did you give that man a higher place?” And God will answer, “He has done many good works.” Then the child will say, “Why did you let me die so soon so that I was prevented from doing good?” God will answer, “I knew that you would grow up a sinner, therefore it was better that you should die a child.” Then a cry goes up from the damned in the depths of Hell, “Why, O Lord, did you not let us die before we became sinners?”’
Ghazali adds to this: ‘the imponderable decisions of God cannot be weighed by the scales of reason and Mu‘tazilism’.
According to the Ash‘arites, therefore, right and wrong are human concepts and cannot be applied to God. ‘Cui mali nihil est nec esse potest quid huic opus est dilectu bonorum et malorum?’ is the argument of the Sceptic Carneades expressed by Cicero (De natura deorum, iii. 15. 38). It is a dangerous theory for the theologians, because it severs the moral relationship between God and man and therefore it cannot be and is not consistently applied by the Ash‘arites and Ghazali.
The Ash‘arites have taken over from the Stoics their epistemology, their sensationalism, their nominalism, their materialism. Some details of this epistemology are given by Ghazali in his autobiography: the clearness of representations is the criterion for their truth; the soul at birth is a blank on which the sensations are imprinted; at the seventh year of a man’s life he acquires the rational knowledge of right and wrong. Stoic influence on Islamic theology is overwhelming. Of Stoic origin, for instance, are the division of the acts of man into five classes; the importance placed on the motive of an act when judging its moral character; the theory of the two categories of substance and accident (the two other categories, condition and relation, are not considered by the Muslim theologians to pertain to reality, since they are subjective); above all, the fatalism and determinism in Islam which is often regarded as a feature of the Oriental soul. In the Qur’an, however, there is no definite theory about free will. Muhammad was not a philosopher. The definition of will in man given by the Ash‘arites, as the instrument of unalterable fate and the unalterable law of God, is Stoic both in idea and expression.(I have discussed several other theories in my notes.)
Sometimes, however, the theologians prefer to the Stoic view the view of their adversaries. For instance, concerning the discussion between Neoplatonism and Stoicism whether there is a moral obligation resting on God and man relative to animals, Islam answers with the Neoplatonists in the affirmative (Spinoza, that Stoic Cartesian, will give, in his Ethica, the negative Stoic answer).
The culmination of the philosophy of Islam was in the tenth and eleventh centuries. This was the age also of the great theologians. It was with Greek ideas, taken in part from Stoics and Sceptics, that the theologians tried to refute the ideas of the philosophers. The philosophers themselves were followers of Aristotle as seen through the eyes of his Neoplatonic commentators. This Neoplatonic interpretation of Aristotle, although it gives a mystical character to his philosophy which is alien to it, has a certain justification in the fact that there are in his philosophy many elements of the theory of his master Plato, which lend themselves to a Neoplatonic conception. Plotinus regarded himself as nothing but the commentator of Plato and Aristotle, and in his school the identity of view of these two great masters was affirmed. In the struggle in Islam between Philosophy and Theology, Philosophy was defeated, and the final blow to the philosophers was given in Ghazali’s attack on Philosophy which in substance is incorporated in Averroës’ book and which he tries to refute.
Ghazali, who was born in the middle of the eleventh century, is one of the most remarkable and at the same time most enigmatic figures in Islam. Like St. Augustine, with whom he is often compared, he has told us in his autobiography how he had to pass through a period of despair and scepticism until God, not through demonstration but by the light of His grace, had given him peace and certitude. This divine light, says Ghazali, is the basis of most of our knowledge and, he adds, profoundly, one cannot find proofs for the premisses of knowledge; the premisses are there and one looks for the reasons, but they cannot be found. Certitude is reached, he says, not through scholastic reasoning, not through philosophy, but through mystical illumination and the mystical way of life. Still Ghazali is not only a mystic, he is a great dogmatist and moralist. He is regarded as Islam’s greatest theologian and, through some of his books, as a defender of Orthodoxy. It is generally believed that the Tahafut, the book in which he criticizes Philosophy, was written in the period of his doubts. The book, however, is a Defence of Faith, and though it is more negative than positive, for it aims to destroy and not to construct, it is based on the theories of his immediate predecessors, many of whose arguments he reproduces. Besides, he promises in this book to give in another book the correct dogmatic answers. The treatise to which he seems to refer does not contain anything but the old theological articles of faith and the Ash‘arite arguments and solutions. But we should not look for consistency in Ghazali; necessarily his mysticism comes into conflict with his dogmatism and he himself has been strongly influenced by the philosophers, especially by Avicenna, and in many works he comes very near to the Neoplatonic theories which he criticizes. On the whole it would seem to me that Ghazali in his attack on the philosophers has taken from the vast arsenal of Ash‘arite dialectical arguments those appropriate to the special point under discussion, regardless of whether they are destructive also of some of the views he holds.
Averroës was the last great philosopher in Islam in the twelfth century, and is the most scholarly and scrupulous commentator of Aristotle. He is far better known in Europe than in the Orient, where few of his works are still in existence and where he had no influence, he being the last great philosopher of his culture. Renan, who wrote a big book about him, Averroes et l’Averro’asme, had never seen a line of Arabic by him. Lately some of his works have been edited in Arabic, for instance his Tahafut al Tahafut, in a most exemplary manner. Averroës’ influence on European thought during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance has been immense.
The name of Ghazali’s book in which he attacks the philosophers is Tahafut al Falasifa, which has been translated by the medieval Latin translator as Destructio Philosophorum. The name of Averroës’ book is Tahafut al Tahafut, which is rendered as Destructio Destructionis (or destructionum). This rendering is surely not exact. The word ‘Tahafut’ has been translated by modern scholars in different ways, and the title of Ghazali’s book has been given as the breakdown, the disintegration, or the incoherence, of the philosophers. The exact title of Averroës’ book would be The Incoherence of the Incoherence.
In the Revue des Deux Mondes there was an article published in 1895 by Ferdinand Brunetiere, ‘La Banqueroute de la Science’, in which he tried to show that the solutions by science, and especially by biology, of fundamental problems, solutions which were in opposition to the dogmas taught by the Church, were primitive and unreasonable. Science had promised us to eliminate mystery, but, Brunetiere said, not only had it not removed it but we saw clearly that it would never do so. Science had been able neither to solve, nor even to pose, the questions that mattered: those that touched the origin of man, the laws of his conduct, his future destiny. What Brunetiere tried to do, to defend Faith by showing up the audacity of Science in its attempt to solve ultimate problems, is exactly the same as Ghazali tried to do in relation to the pretensions of the philosophers of his time who, having based themselves on reason alone, tried to solve all the problems concerning God and the world. Therefore a suitable title for his book might perhaps be ‘The Bankruptcy of Philosophy’.