Religions

2001-11-21

I've been doing some reading and thinking of late about religion. For instance, last night I read Zia Sardar's book Introducing Muhammad. I've enjoyed some of his essays about Islam and the West, but I must say this book was a disappointment. The general tone was one of jingoistic breast-beating, in which all things Muslim are good and original. As noted in a previous blog entry, I'm well aware that the modern West owes a debt of gratitude to the open society that flourished in the Islamic world during the (European) Middle Ages. But to ascribe all intellectual and material progress in the modern West to precursors in the Islamic world is wrong-headed, not to mention unnecessary. The reality of those contributions (from mathematics to medicine) is tarnished by the presence of outright falsehoods such as Sardar's claim that in 623 CE or thereabouts Muhammad created the world's first written constitution when such documents existed about one thousand years earlier in ancient Greece. Yet it's clear that Islamic society contained much of value. Probably it still does, but unfortunately the spirit of open inquiry characteristic of that society up until the 1100s or 1200s died out. One of the strong contributing reasons seems to have been the rise of the Asharite school of Islamic theology, which strongly criticized and eventually vanquished the Mutazilite school. The Mutazilites, led by great scholars such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd, had sought to integrate Greek learning (and especially Aristotelian philosophy) with Islamic thought, much as Aquinas did somewhat later (and probably on the Mutazilite model) in integrating secular Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology. Unfortunately the Mutazilites were overwhelmed by the Asharites, who argued that reason was strictly limited and that human beings were incapable of creative activity. The ascendance of such views led eventually to the closing of the Islamic mind. I wonder if the more reason-oriented views within the Islamic tradition can be rediscovered. Renaissance, anyone?

In the last few days I also re-read Abraham Maslow's book Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. I've liked Maslow's perspective on things ever since I discovered his works in college. He has a naturalistic approach to the spiritual life that I find appealing and refreshing, and on which I'll write at greater length sometime. Here are two representative quotes:

Small 'r' religion is quite compatible, at the higher levels of personal development, with rationality, with science, with social passion. Not only this, but it can, in principle, quite easily integrate the healthily animal, material, and selfish with the naturalistically transcendent, spiritual, and axiological. [Preface]

I want to demonstrate that spiritual values have naturalistic meaning, that they are not the exclusive possession of organized churches, that they do not need supernatural concepts to validate them, that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged science, and that, therefore, they are the general responsibility of all mankind. [Introduction]

Which reminds me of a quote from Victor Hugo: "Religions do a useful thing: they narrow God to the limits of man. Philosophy replies by doing a necessary thing: it elevates man to the plane of God. True philosophy turns aside from religions, and pushes forward to religion." (A Post-Script to My Life, section 8, Life and Death)


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