‘Unthinkable: The Islamic thinker who ‘proved’ God exists’

An interesting piece in The Irish Times from January 15.

Medieval philosophers don’t get much attention these days but Avicenna deserves it, says Prof Peter Adamson

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What has medieval philosophy ever done for us? Seriously, name a thinker of merit to emerge from the 5th to 15th century. Thomas Aquinas? William of Ockham? Mere curiosities today, one might argue; part of an irrelevant tradition of religious superstition.

Prof Peter Adamson, creator of the History of Philosophy Without any Gaps podcast and book series, begs to differ.

“For starters, precisely because of their importance in the history of religion, medieval philosophers remain relevant in some cultures and contexts,” he says.

“If you want to understand the doctrines of the Catholic church you had better know your Aquinas, and in the Islamic world today people still have strong views – both positive and negative – about medieval thinkers such as Averroes and Avicenna. ”

Secondly, says Adamson, “you can’t understand where the ideas of famous figures of early modern philosophy such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz came from without knowing about medieval philosophy”. Thirdly, “it’s just not true that medieval philosophy is always about topics in religion. They [the philosophers] address the full range of philosophical topics, from ethics and political philosophy to logic, philosophy of language, you name it.”

Of further interest today is the fact that some of the most significant thinkers of medieval times emerged from the Arab world in the Islamic “golden age” of the 8th-13th centuries. This was an era when Muslim thinkers were at the forefront of reasoned debate in mathematics, science and philosophy.

Adamson, a specialist in ancient and medieval philosophy, highlights in his latest book Philosophy in the Islamic World just how influential certain theologians and mystics from this milieu have been. Asked to single out one thinker, he names the Persian polymath Avicenna (980-1037) who invented “probably the most influential and interesting medieval attempt to show that God exists”.

Just how influential was he?

“In the Islamic world people who called themselves ‘philosophers’ at first responded above all to Aristotle,” Adamson explains. “But once Avicenna came along, doing philosophy meant responding to him.”

How did Avicenna ‘prove’ God exists?

“The full argument is a bit complicated, but here is a somewhat simplified version. Avicenna’s proof actually has nothing to do with design, he doesn’t need the idea that the universe is intelligently put together. Instead, he argues from the idea that the things we see around us are ‘contingent’ or merely ‘possible’.

“The idea here is that a contingent thing is something that may either exist or not exist; its nature does not guarantee that it exists. What Avicenna wants to do is show you that although all the things we experience directly are indeed contingent, there is also something else that exists necessarily, in other words, whose very nature guarantees that it exists.

“To do this, Avicenna points out that since a contingent thing on its own merit could either exist or not exist, it must have some external cause that made it exist – like ‘tipping the scales’ in favor of its existence rather than its non-existence.

“So take me, for instance. I am contingent, meaning that I am the sort of thing that could easily have failed to exist. In fact, at one time I didn’t yet exist, and in the future I will cease existing, that proves I’m not necessary.

“So there must have been a cause, maybe my parents, who brought me into existence. Now Avicenna observes that the aggregate whole of all contingent things – in other words the physical universe – is also contingent. After all, everything in the universe is contingent, so taken all together as one thing, it too must be contingent. Thus it also needs an external cause, just like I do.

“Since that external cause has to be outside the whole aggregate of contingent things, it cannot itself be contingent. So it is necessary. Hey presto, we’ve proven that there is a necessary existent which causes all other things! And this, of course, is God.”

How did this argument mark an advance on theological proofs in the Christian world?

“One thing I like about this proof is that it captures, in rigorous terms, a reason that I think actually underlies people’s belief in God. Effectively, Avicenna is trying to show that when you look around and think, ‘All of this could have failed to exist; why is there something, rather than nothing?’ you are asking a good question.

“The answer to the question is that not everything can be contingent; that is, not everything could have failed to exist. There must be something that just has to exist, to explain why everything else has wound up existing.

“This contrasts favourably to other medieval proofs, which turn on clever but unconvincing conceptual tricks like Anselm’s ontological argument, or do invoke the intelligent design of the universe, which many people nowadays think is a premise discredited by science.”

Philosophical debate in the Islamic world, as you depict it, seems to have been quite robust and at times fearless in previous centuries. Was there a relatively high degree of intellectual freedom then?

“There were certainly examples of religious and intellectual persecution in the pre-modern Islamic world. But it would be fair to say that these were not the norm and that, especially in the ‘classical’ or ‘medieval’ period of Islam, philosophical thought was far less constrained than in contemporary Latin Christendom.

“We shouldn’t be surprised by this, because in sunni Islam there is no hierarchical institution like the Western Church that could try to enforce orthodoxy. Rather, there was a class of scholars that have religious authority through their learning, but for the most part these people weren’t in a position to enforce whatever they took to be ‘correct belief’.”

As you continue with your project of compiling a history philosophy “without any gaps”, have you discovered any variation between cultures in the acceptance of women philosophers?

“I have covered four cultures so far in the podcast, and in the books based on them: the ancient Greek and Roman world; the Islamic world; ancient India (this I have been covering with a co-author, Jonardon Ganeri); and Latin medieval Christendom. Of these four, by far the richest tradition for women thinkers is, surprisingly, the last one.

“We have a whole series of medieval female authors whose works actually survive. The most famous is Hildegard of Bingen, but there are numerous other philosopher-mystics like Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete – who by the way is an example of a thinker of medieval Europe who was put to death for her teachings – and Julian of Norwich. ”

“Another particularly fascinating figure is Christine de Pizan, who lived in the early Renaissance and is perhaps the first woman who wrote surviving works on a wide range of philosophical topics, including political philosophy.

“Back in antiquity, the situation was less favorable.

“As for Islam and India, I was disappointed to find that although there were female Muslim intellectuals – especially religious scholars – before the modern era, one is hard pressed to name any women philosophers in classical Islam beyond certain mystics, including an important early one named Rabia.

“Ancient India is a fascinating case. There are texts presenting us with wise women in debate with male philosophers, as in a couple of passages from the Upanishads. It seems this must depict a real phenomenon, though as with European antiquity we don’t have many, or perhaps any, surviving works that were actually written by women.”

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Categories: Islam

30 replies

  1. Great article. Thanks Paul for posting.

    This argument on contingency anticipates the argument by Leibniz.

    And there is the Kalam argument that Muslim philosophers including Alghazali formulated.

    Even three of the proofs of Aquinas for proofs of God to have been shown by scholars such as Robert Hammond to be a restatement of Alfarabi.

    Hammond shows excerpts in how Aquinas’s statements are almost identical statements of Alfarabi.

    He shows the statements side by side to each other that shows that indeed they are just restatements of Alfarabi.

    Please see the side by side comparison at

    http://sacred-texts.com/isl/palf/palf07.htm

    The entire book by Hammond which is not that long is on that link.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. What’s different about Avicenna’s argument from say, what the Mu’tazilah and the Ash’aris are saying? It seems like the author is crediting Avicenna for inventing it, but it sounds just like the Kalam argument

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Paul

    What would you say is the current state of philosophy amongst muslims today? and would you hope that the works of avicenna and other classical thinkers should be more regularly studied by muslims outside of the scholarly circles?

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    • Seyyed Hossein Nasr has got to be the greatest living Islamic philosopher. He has written many books in English which are accessible to non scholars.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Avicenna was an Aristotelian philosopher who was basically trying to reconcile this philosophy with Islam. Muslim theologians never supported this philosophy and pointed out it’s flaws. In modern day western philosophy the main points of Greek philosophy are also dismissed.

      The Islamic theologians/philosophers that can be studied are: Ghazali, Razi, Maturidi, Nasafi, Sanussi etc.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Paul i have happened across a couple of Seyyed Hossein Nasrs’ lectures i am particularly interested in his desire to reconcile ecology and man as a spiritual being, guided by God to be a steward of the world.

      Rider sadly many of the thinkers you mentioned are all either classical or medieval thinkers, not to diminish their importance but i think the study of these great philosophers should inspire people to write their own works and formulate their own ideas rather than simply digest and regurgitate what others have said no matter how insightful they may be. You said something interesting however that muslim theologians have rejected avicenna attempts to reconcile aristotilean philosophy and islam. Why did they disagree?

      Liked by 1 person

    • ” but i think the study of these great philosophers should inspire people to write their own works and formulate their own ideas rather than simply digest and regurgitate what others have said no matter how insightful they may be.”

      Theology is a closed topic. There is not much to add. The only issue we could talk about today is physics and how it does not go against the cosmological argument. However reading Greek or Muslim Aristotelian philosophy will not help there. This philosophy is based upon postulates which are considered logical. But they are in now way logical but simply the opinion of philosophers. No modern person can take these teachings seriously. They are in total contrast to modern scientific methods. From a strict empiricist point of view for example observing gravity once is no proof at all that it will happen again under the exact same conditions which has also always been the Sunni position. The Aristotelian philosophers however even used to make deductions from observations of something to something totally unrelated. For example the issue of resurrection:
      -Everything seems to resurrect
      -The human soul has to resurrect too
      Even the Muslim philosophers believed in resurrection. That is the way of arguing we have here. It is of no worth and the only benefit of it is in rejecting the Islamic teaching of tawhid. Tawhid leads to atomism, finiteness of creation and denial of causal power for creation.
      The philosophers rejected atomism and believed in infinitely small particles which is illogical. They believed in an eternal universe (infinite regress) which is again illogical. They believed in direct causality.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The proof for the existence of God (Kalam argument) was not invented by someone. It is the most obvious thing. Formulating it in a precise way however is more difficult. Every Muslim knows the basics of this proof even though he may not be able to formulate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Avicenna did do a good job, he was a mountain of an intellect. But the mutakallims (particularly the ones Rider named) just did one better. Avicenna only went far enough to prove a “necessary existence,” but the task of proving that that was actually Allāh was succesfully completed by the mutakallims (if you doubt it, read Sanūsī).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Atabek Shukurov has done some revisionism about Ibn Sina. His school is even named after him. He pretends as if the belief of Ibn Sina that the world is eternal is not commonly known but Ghazali was simply too stupid to understand what Ibn Sina meant. He refuses to explain Ibn Sina’s position but simply rants about Muslim making takfir of a well-known polymath. He pretends as if Ibn Rushd did not write a response to Ghazali regarding the topic. This person is pure evil.

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    • Lol you need to get over your personal issues, dude. Pretty much none of what you said is accurate. You’re pure silly.

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    • I agree with what you said basically. I just wanted to mention Shukurov’s opinion.

      Like

    • But you didn’t mention his opinion. This obsession of yours is unhealthy 😂

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s true that I describe everything related to Shukurov very dramatically. But it’s all more or less true. You can ask him about his opinion if you have not already heard it.

      I understand that I seem obsessed with him but I have simply seen too much from him. He is extremely arrogant and makes far-fetched claims in a shameless way. He doesn’t even care about anything. He couldn’t even not use the Shia-Russian massacre in Aleppo for his pro-Assad propaganda.

      Like

    • No, just less true; for instance, far from acting like Ibn Rushd’s refutation of al-Ghazali doesn’t exist, he actually teaches it. He actually teaches all three (Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali’s refutation, and Ibn Rushd’s refutation of that refutation) and has mentioned them several times in public fora. I’m very familiar with his opinions, apparently better than you do – I also correspond with him via e-mail.

      Every comment I’ve ever seen from you here and on PrimaQuran is about Shaykh Atabek. Now, I don’t know or care whom you’re taking your marching orders from, but you need to stop acting like a crazy ex-girlfriend because constantly slandering a scholar is really not a good way to spend your valuable time.

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    • I don’t know what he is talking in his commercial courses. What I know is that he attacks Muslims for takfiring the philosophers. The philosophers were not just wrong like someone can be just wrong on the matter of ablution. They made illogical statements that go against the most obvious from the Qur’an.

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    • I don’t know what he says in his commercial courses either (I just know he teaches a book you tried to pretend like he pretends doesn’t exist). I did say “public fora” for that very reason.

      And Shaykh Atabek himself doesn’t agree with the philosophers, but his position is just that making takfīr on them is going to an extreme. Big deal. Disagree with him all you want, but stop lying about him and misrepresenting his views (all in grand Bollywood style).

      Like

  6. Speaking about philosophy, when Caliph Mamun started supporting the Mutazilite rationalists and then an inquisition was set up whereby scholars had to declare that they accept that the Quran was created rather than an eternal speech, in order to be allowed to be judges and persecution set in, then the masses supported the Ahl Hadith (The Hadith scholars) who were against the philosophers.

    Since then, there started a steep slide against philosophers in Islam. I am not supporting all the points philosophers in the past made but the pendulum swung so far to the opposite side of rationalism and it has stayed there for far too long.

    I don’t know all the details about Shaikh Atabek’s views. I certainly despise Assad regime. But Shaikh Atabek is fresh air compared to the intellectual rut that is within the Muslim world.

    I would not be surprised if a few universities in the West put together like Oxford and Notre Dame produce more high quality philosophy than the rest of the entire Muslim world (apart from Iran).

    The Qur’an is full of philosophical wisdom and full of calling us to use our intellect but the Ahl of Hadith scholars wages a battle against rationalism that still reverberates today.

    Unfortunately, most Muslim scholars don’t understand how history and ideology is stifling the mind that God gave us and the numerous commands in the Qur’an (more than any other religious) book demanding us to use our mind deeply.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Why is it sad that the names he mentioned are classical/medieval? On the contrary, I think it’s a testament to their towering intellects; there aren’t many corners of the philosophical/theological rooms they left in shadow – only what their respective levels of technology limited them to. People formulating their own ideas, as you suggest, would really only amount to trying to reinvent the wheel. The kind of open-mindedness you’re exhorting to, however, is sorely lacking in modern times, and we certainly should be studying all of the great Islamic thinkers rather than the few (or the one) that are popular today.

    If you look up the contents of Imam al-Ghazali’s “Incoherence of the Philosophers,” you’ll get a general idea of why our theologians were at loggerheads with the philosophers (however Islamic they really may have attempted to be). Rider did touch on a couple of the relevant issues though.

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    • I think its more than just technology that has advanced but rather the cultural, political, and social contexts are constantly changing meaning their is always a need for philosophers to engage the question of why especially in a world where increasingly empiricism and utilitarianism is taking over as the default position on questions regarding the meaning of life.

      Nasr for example is of a great example of a contemporary islamic philosopher, not because he is reinventing the wheel but rather he is addressing modern issues namely that of the loss of mans sense of the sacred and how muslims can communicate that in an increasingly secular society by exercising traditional wisdom from the greats that have been mentioned.

      Ultimately these are issues that face people of faith regardless of whether they are in the halls of oxford or working as a taxi driver, simply replying to those people by saying they need to read al-ghazali would be about as useless if when someone at speakers corner asks a christian why they believe in the trinity replies by saying they need to read augustines ‘on the trinity’. The philosophers of old are great and all but they cannot possibly address modern issues in the same way as someone living in the here and now can and this is why muslim, christian, jewish philosophers of modernity are needed so that the ideas of the past do not stay in the past but rather continue to remain where they should be and that is at the forefront of peoples minds when discussing these matters.

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    • Well, these aren’t really new issues, but intellectual engagement is always of course a good, necessary thing! And Allah alone gives success.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Nasr is a Persian Shiite perennialist. None of these people dealing with the issues are Sunnis unfortunately. The only person I can recommend is Abu Adam Naruji.

      What is needed today is to know modern physics. Everything else has been dealt with. Saying otherwise makes theology incomplete. The reality we live in has not changed, only society. Fundamental philosophy deals with the reality not with how people live.

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    • I second Rider’s recommendation of Shaykh Abu Adam.

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    • Imam Maturidi’s Kitab at-Tawhid would be something good to translate. It talks about all essential topics of theology beginning from the fundamentals of epistemology.
      BTW Shukurov and his team announced to translate it but due to there being much content that goes against their teaching and that they would label ‘terrorist’ the project was stopped.

      Like

    • LOL see there you go again, lying about Shaykh Atabek. I guess shame isn’t something that can be taught.

      Like

    • Well, I did make the thing about stopping the project up to trigger you a little bit. I don’t know what happened to it actually.

      But it is true that there is “terrorism” in it according to Shukurov.

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    • They’re self-publishing; they haven’t raised enough funds yet. And no, what you said isn’t true.

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    • I could add something to that but I guess it would be too much of Bollywood style.

      But actually we do basically agree about the topic discussed under this post. We only disagree on whether Shukurov is evil or not.

      Like

  8. Shukurov provides a breathe of beautiful fresh air. I don’t know all his views but he helps to sharpen the intellect and to help develop a more pure heart.

    On the side, interesting point about the Kalam Argument, actually someone who spoke about it even earlier than Imam Ghazali but in not the mathematical rigorous way is Imam Ridha (Reza) whose father is Imam Ja’far Sadiq whose father is Imam Muhammad Al Baqir whose father is Imam Ali ibn Husain whose father is Imam Husain whose father is Ali ibn Abi Talib and whose mother is Fatima whose father is Muhammad, the last Prophet of God.

    I am not a Shia and Shias exaggerate about Imams, etc and there are false statements attributed to these Imams. but these Imams were giants of intellects, morals, and ethics.

    Imam Ridha was asked for a proof of God and he said that the fact that the universe had a beginning is a proof of God which is what the Kalam argument says.

    Like

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