I came upon an intriguing article on Britain's Huffington Post from political reporter Mehdi Hasan, who was confronted by British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins about whether he believed in a "winged horse." (I have been told the "winged horse" characterization is an over-simplification for the Islamic steed called Al-Baruq.) Hasan is a Muslim, so he concedes that he does believe in this entity, and in Allah as well.
There are some intriguing points within this article which I'll get to in the a later post, but for now I wanted to address one point of historical interest. Hasan presents the cosmological argument as support for the idea that religious faith is rational. He attributes the original formulation of this argument to medieval Muslim theologian al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD), and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry concurs. An image of Imam al-Ghazali is shown in the graphic to the right.
But the fact that Hasan would invoke al-Ghazali is particularly contradictory given that about a third to one-half of the article is devoted to explaining how the Islamic faith is compatible with not only reason, but specifically with a scientific understanding of the universe ... but al-Ghazali himself is, by at least one account, largely attributed with distancing the Islamic world from their considerable scientific heritage!
Consider this quote from the book Space Chronicles by Neil deGrasse Tyson:
Between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1200 the intellectual center of the Western world was Baghdad. Why? Its leaders were open to whoever wanted to think stuff up: Jews, Christians, Muslims, doubters. Everybody was granted a seat at the debating table, maximizing the exchange of ideas. [...] Historians will say that with the sack of Baghdad by Mongols in the thirteenth century, the entire nonsectarian intellectual foundation of that enterprise collapsed, along with the libraries that supported it. But if you also track the cultural and religious forces at play, you find that the influential writings of the eleventh-century Muslim scholar and theologian Al-Ghazali shaped how Islam viewed the natural world. By declaring the manipulation of numbers to be the work of the devil, and by promoting the concept of Allah's will as the cause of all natural phenomena, Ghazali unwittingly quenched scientific endeavor in the Muslim world. And it has never recovered, even to this day.
I don't know if Tyson's characterization of al-Ghazali and his teachings are accurate or not. I am sadly deficient in my knowledge of Islamic scientific history, something which I need to remedy by getting around to reading House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization to get a better grasp on it (or, alternately, a different book called The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance ... which just goes to show there are many wise houses in the muslim world).
But it does strike me as odd that al-Ghazali would be specifically referenced on both sides of the same fundamental issue: invoked both as a sign of Islam's fidelity to science and reason by Hasan and also as one of the causes of the schism between Islam and scientific thinking by Tyson. I wonder if any of our readers might know more about al-Ghazali, who is apparently quite an influential figure in Muslim intellectual history, and might be able to set the record straight.
I welcome your comments.