The destruction of philosophy and science: Al-Ghazali vs Thomas Aquinas

Today, most historians reject the myth that the Middle Ages were dominated by a tolerant and progressive Islam on the one hand and a superstitious and violent Catholic Church on the other. The concept of the Dark Ages has been recognised as a myth[1][2][3].
            Polemicists such as Robert Spencer have even argued that Islam is intolerant by definition and results in terrorism. That the Koran and the example of Muhammad lead to violence and hatred[4].
This is part of a wider social and religious debate. The notion of the Islamic golden age is also questioned as many of the scientific discoveries and intellectuals during the early Islamic period were often not of Islamic origin. The caliphate made effective use of the cultures they had conquered. This, however, leads to another historical question: how was it that until the 11th century, Islam was often prepared to adopt and use the science, philosophy and mathematics of cultures they conquered, while from the 11th century onwards, the Islamic world and the Middle East, which until then had been the centre of civilisation in the world, began to stagnate more and more and eventually collapsed.

Islamism before the year 1000

Islam splintered merely a few decades after the death of Mohammed. The split between Shiism and Sunnism is the best known. Sunnism also disintegrated into several philosophical and ideological streams that vied for dominance. Sunniism places great value on traditions which were handed down orally including Ijma, Fatwa, Ijtihad and Aqidah. Just as Catholicism relies on the Church Fathers and canon law and Judaism on the Babylonian Talmud. However, Sunnism did not have a clear, uncontested and centralised leadership that could provide unity, and the various factions relied on support from the state and the majority/multitude to win the conflict.[5][6]
            These traditions within Sunnism have undergone several essential developments that help explain why by the time of the fifteenth century Christian Europe almost completely eclipsed the Islamic world in terms of science, philosophy, mathematics and general civilisation. This is despite the fact that the Middle East had been the pinnacle of science and knowledge in the world since the time of the Pharaohs.
            From its emergence in the eighth century until the tenth century, moetazilism flourished within the Sunni world. Moetazilism was a mixture of Islamic theology and Greek philosophy, supporting faith and reason. The followers of Moetazilism, like Catholicism, held that the goodness of God meant that he could not do unjust things.[7][8]
            It was particularly influential due to the support it received from a number of Caliphs, the most famous being Al-Mu’tasim. The latter even instituted the Mihna, which had Islamic fundamentalists and opponents of Moetazilism tortured and killed. This only made the movement, which preached rationalism and moderate tolerance lose support, and boosted the popularity of anti-rationalist resistance groups. [9] As more and more citizens of the Caliphate converted to Islam to become first class citizens, the numbers of the extremists only increased, as the rationalist form of Islam was primarily supported by the ruling caliphs and not necessarily by the local rulers or fighters.
            Ahmad ibn Hanbal founded Hanbalism, an interpretation of Islamic law that defended a strict interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith against Caliph influence, and this movement within religious law became a major influence on the theological movement of the traditionalists.[10] Hanbal also attacked the use of philosophy within the Islamic world.
            Hanbal was thrown into prison and tortured but Caliph Al-Mutawakkil changed all this and turned away from Moetazilism, he released Hanbal and supported a restoration of orthodox Islam.

This was accompanied by a generally more intolerant policy, including worse discrimination against Christians and Jews and the persecution of Zoroastrians and Shiites. From that point on, the caliphs consistently supported traditionalism and used it as a way to rally the radical crowds behind them.[11]


The fundamentalism that would come to the Middle East largely through the efforts of Al-Ghazali had its basis in the ideas of Al-Ash’ar 874-936 and the current of Asharism founded by him. Asharism proclaimed a form of predestination very similar to Calvinism and fought the powerful Moetazilism.

For Asharism, this means there is not a single limitation of the omnipotence of God. Allah was not bound by his own goodness. He could make people do evil and punish them for it. Nor were good and evil objective realities but simply what Allah commanded or what He forbade. Critical moral thinking and the importance of personal conscience are affected by this. The belief that God can be arbitrary and unjust is definitely bad for every religion and believer. Personal responsibility is also attacked by the denial of free will, and although Asharism did not initially deny free will altogether and tried to accommodate it within its almost fatalistic doctrine of predestination.[12] It was nevertheless trivialised and later proponents of Asharism, such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, preached pure determinism. 13]
            Asharism further preached occasionalism. A philosophy that denies cause and effect. According to occasionalism, it only seems as if there is such a thing as causality. Everything that happens is in reality the direct consequence of the fact that Allah wants it to happen. So there is no distinction between nature and the supernatural. Everything that happens is a miracle, the direct will of Allah. Fire burns wood because Allah wills it, not because of any natural explanation. Cause and effect do not exist.[14]
This form of thinking discourages any form of scientific enquiry. One need not seek natural or logical explanations for how the world works. It is all just because Allah wants it that way. At the same time, it supports superstition and the attribution of natural events to “so-called supernatural” forces. Although this form of anti-rationalism had been proclaimed by the Asharists since the late ninth century, even more fanatical currents within Islam had appeared around the same time, including the aforementioned traditionalism. Moderate tolerance and reason were attacked from different angles. Al-Ghazali would become decisive in the downfall of every possible form of moderate Islam.

Multiple colours of anti-nationalism

As mentioned earlier, several even more fundamentalist theological and jurisprudential currents flourished during this period, creating fertile ground for the destruction of rationalism and openness to non-Islamic philosophy and the eventual dominance of Asharism in the Middle East, (which seemed relatively moderate compared to most of its opponents). These were sometimes related to Asharism, traditionalism or both. The most important of these currents were the Zahiri, who spread as far as Spain and have maintained a certain influence within Islam to this day,[15][16] the Muhaddithin and the bi-la kayfa, the latter stating that one should not ask critical questions about the faith, even when articles of faith seem to be in clear conflict with each other, (this last current was itself fairly closely linked to Asharism). It was Al-Ash’ari himself who first posited the argument that Muslims had accepted contradictions within the Qur’an without critical questioning from the beginning. That is why he coined the term Bi-la kaifa, which loosely translated simply means: “don’t ask how”. He was thus not only the founder of Asharism but also its more fundamentalist competitors. Other sources, however, state that Hanbal had come up with the term. This further seems to confirm the overlap between the theology of Asharism and the legal tradition of Hanbalism associated with traditionalism.
            Asharism and the even more extreme traditionalism are recognised as orthodox movements within Sunnism, while Moetazilism and the Murji’ah are seen as heretics. (The Murji’ah held that only Allah knew who was actually apostate and therefore Muslims should never condemn bad/sinful Muslims. This movement has long since died out, only the idea that Muslims remain true believers even when they commit serious crimes/sins has been adopted). Maturidiyy is the most moderate of the orthodox currents within Sunniism and the least opposed to reason, although it agrees with Asharism on many points.
            Traditionalism still has a disproportionate amount of influence within Sunnism, especially within Salafism, although Asharism is probably the most widely recognised form of Sunnism in the Islamic world.
With four different forms of extremism influential, it was only a matter of time until someone like Al-Ghazali would become the leading ideologue of Islamism.

Al-Ghazali: The shadow that has covered the Middle East for nearly a millennium.

Virtually every possibility of rational and free-thinking within Islam ended with Al-Ghazali (1058,  Toes, Khorasan – 19 December 1111, called Nishapur or Toes). He bears the honorific name Hoeddjat al-islaam (Proof of Islam) and for many Sunni Sufis he is the second teacher after the Prophet Mohammed. The influence that Al-Ghazali has had on the Islamic world can hardly be overestimated.
            Al-Ghazali actively promoted Sufism, normally a fundamentalist form of mysticism, which had been very popular within Islam since the eighth century and which Al-Ghazali eventually made generally accepted. Politically correct thinkers like to pretend that Sufism is a separate movement within Islam. Tolerant and pluralistic. In reality it has a great deal of influence on Islamic tribes in Libya and Sudan who are anything but modern. It supports the Sharia.
Al-Ghazali also became a fanatical follower of Asharism. Not only did he preach occassionalism and mysticism, he also started an intellectual battle against Greek philosophy and all major Islamic thinkers influenced by Greek philosophy.
            Several of the theses of the Greek philosophers are obviously in conflict with an “orthodox” interpretation of Sunnism or the Qur’an. As described earlier, the Islamic philosophers and scientists who drew on the Greek philosophers and made important contributions to science, such as Avicenna and Al-Farabi, were far from orthodox.
Al-Ghazali decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater and wrote his most famous work “The Confusion of the Philosophers”, ‘Tahafut al falasifa’ in which he attacked Al-Farabi and Avicenna as well as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle whom he rejected as infidels. However, he went further and fanatically proclaimed Asharism and made it an important part of orthodox Sunnism.
These efforts of Ghazali also resulted in the (almost) complete victory of Occidentalism within theIslamic world. Causality was from now on heretical.
                 In the twenty-first century, the accusation that a Muslim follows Moetazilism is still a serious one within Salafism. 

The destruction of logic and reason

Averroes still tried to fight Al-Ghazali and wrote a reply called “The Confusion of Confusion” (‘Tahafut at-Tahafut’). However, this was censored and burned in Islamic countries. Averroes was exiled to Morocco. After Averroes’ death, the period of Islamic philosophy/falsafa ended. Philosophy was replaced by mysticism. This collapse of philosophy specifically affected Al-Andalus and North Africa. Philosophy still flourished for some time in the East, primarily in Persia. The collapse caused by Al-Ghazali had less effect on Shiism than it had on Sunniism. The more moderate form of rationalism Kalam, which influenced Asharism and Maturidiyy but not traditionalism, also lost its popularity. The Turkish intellectual Mustafā Ibn Yūsuf al-Bursawī, would reaffirm Al-Ghazali’s argument within the world of Islam during the fifteenth century.
The German orientalist Eduard Sachau argued that Ashariame and al-Ghazali were primarily responsible for the fact that the Islamic world did not become a world of Galileos, Keplers and Newtons.[17] Historian Joel Mokyr accused Al-Ghazali of playing a crucial role in ending the so-called Islamic golden age.[18] Stagnation slowly set in.
            At the same time, Sunni revival took place. This was accompanied by the victory of Al-Ghazali. Shiism weakened while Sunnism strengthened its political positions with the help of the Turks. The Sunnis created unity through consensus (which benefited the funamentalists) and Grand Vizier Nizam al-Mulk founded the madrasas, specific Islamic schools that, on the one hand, reduced anafalbetism but, on the other, according to historians, also reduced interest in and appreciation for the rational sciences. Some historians see the Sunni revival as a major cause of the intellectual decline in the Islamic world,[19] and they also see it as a major cause of the decline in the Islamic world.
Dissecting human corpses for medical research was also banned under Sharia law during the twelfth century,[20] making further medical research more difficult.

The final philosophical split between Islam and Christianity

Averroes’ ideas ironically spread beyond the Islamic world and brought about a rediscovery of Aristotle in the West. They became extremely popular within Judaism. Maimonides received them enthusiastically. Maimonides drew Rabbinic Judaism even more in the direction of rationalism. Within Rabbinic Judaism, the supernatural was put into perspective and reason and nature were emphasised.

The reaction of the Christian/Catholic world in Western Europe was somewhere between these two positions. Greek philosophy had occupied an honoured position within Catholic theology since at least the middle of the second century. Church fathers and saints such as Justin de Martlaar and Clements of Alexandria even saw Greek philosophers as precursors to Christianity,[21][22] which is why it is bizarre that certain “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens claim that Christians destroyed writings from antiquity.[23]

The blending of philosophy and theology led to the development of Scholasticism. Scholasticism became influential within Catholicism and formed the basis of Catholic theology and philosophy in the late Middle Ages and early modern period.

Christianity always made a sharp and consistent distinction between nature and the supernatural, (at least before the Reformation in the West or the takeover of the Eastern Orthodox churches by mysticism).

            Within the Catholic Church there were the same problems as in the Islamic world with certain propositions of Aristotle. Theses such as that the world was eternal, that God could not know everything, and so on. Several of the philosopher’s theses were thus also condemned between 1210 and 1277. However, Greek philosophy or reason itself were not condemned as they were within Islam. Catholic intellectuals were encouraged to continue studying Greek philosophy within the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy.

            According to Pierre Duhem, this weakened the Peripatetic School. For example, according to Aristotelian thought, the existence of a vacuum was absurd. According to the Catholic doctrine of divine omnipotence and presence, it had to be possible. This led scientists to investigate it as a possibility. This would eventually lead to the development of a form of classical mechanics, dynamics,[24] and the ideas of Aristotle could not be ignored.

Thus, Aristotle’s ideas could also no longer be seen as infallible or faultless. However, they were not completely banned either. Edward Grant believed that this forced intellectuals to break away from a form of Aristotelian dogmatism as well.

Pierre Duhem even went so far as to say that modern science began in 1277 when the Bishop of Paris definitively ruled that multiple worlds did not exist and that God could move the heavens in a straight line.[25]

Most scientists agree that this particular condemnation by the Church made science freer and caused scientists to consider possibilities that had never occurred to Aristotle[26].

            Saint Thomas Aquinas rejected occasionalism [27] stating, as Augustine had done 800 years earlier, that the universe had a logical order and functioned according to certain rules. Although God was the creator of the universe and thus the primary cause of everything, God had created the world in such a way that creation functioned according to the principle of cause and effect. This is called secondary causation. God had created a rational world that could be understood by man. A universe based on natural law. God’s omnipotence meant that the whole universe was subordinate to this rational order that he had created. This meant that everything that was not yet understood, whether it was volcanic eruptions or gravity, still had a logical and scientific explanation. People honoured God by investigating these causes and thereby better understanding God’s creation. This formed the basis for the development of critical and systematic scientific enquiry in the West. It was also a refinement of the critical thinking of the Greek philosophers. The pagan and Eastern cultures had no clear or systematic view of the universe, nor of the laws of nature. There was no clear distinction between nature and supernature. Natural disasters could be attributed to demons or witches. Some Greek and Roman philosophers already began to reject superstition and analyse the world, but they had no central authority and often disagreed. Monotheism was interpreted within Christianity as meaning that the whole world could be understood and studied since it had a rational cause.

Faith and science became two almost completely separate streams. One dealt with the supernatural and spiritual and the other with earthly reality. The Bible and Church Fathers were no longer decisive in understanding the natural world. The natural sciences became honourable and valuable studies, disconnected from theology.

            Catholicism made the existence of causality a generally recognised principle. The whole world could and should be investigated. Virtually every form of scientific enquiry was thus dignified and respected. If phenomena were difficult to explain, they had to be examined more closely.

Unlike Gnosticism, Buddhism, Manichaeism or other religions with strong elements of Dualism, the physical world was also seen as real and as good. The physical reality was not an illusion, nor was it merely a prison from which people needed to be freed.[28]

            The only exceptions to the principle of cause and effect within this form of theology/philosophy were choices made by the human soul with free will and supernatural miracles. The Deists during the Enlightenment followed this same principle, they also included impossibility  of miracles and seeing only free will as free from the course of nature. The Church eventually used scientific research to investigate so-called miracles before they were recognised. This further reduced the role of so-called miracles in the European understanding of reality. This helped to reduce superstition within Europe.

Practical implications: Canon Law vs Sharia

The rediscovery of Greek philosophy in the West, the development of scholasticism, the Church’s support for causality and the condemnation of 1277 coincided with a new set of European scholars and philosophers including Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus and Duns Scotus.

Catholicism also broke the taboo that had prevailed among the Romans and Greeks regarding the examination of corpses for medical science; as mentioned earlier. That taboo was actually made law within the Islamic world in the early twelfth century, shortly after Al-Ghazali and the Sunni revival.[29][30]

            By the time of Al-Ghazali, Pope Gregory VII had supported and regulated the concept of the modern university by decree in 1079 leading to the first modern universities within Europe. In 1155, Authentica habita or Privilegium Scholasticum was established and received recognition from Pope Alexander III shortly after. This document was the first to recognise academic freedom.[31]

Historians today regard these developments as the basis for the scientific revolution.[32]


1. David C. Lindberg, “The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon, and the Handmaiden Metaphor,” in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, ed. When Science & Christianity Meet, (Chicago: University of Chicago Pr., 2003), p.8

2. Tainter, Joseph A. (1999). “Post Collapse Societies”. In Barker, Graeme (ed.). Companion Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Abingdon, England: Routledge. p. 988. ISBN 0-415-06448-1.

3. Nelson, Janet (Spring 2007). “The Dark Ages”. History Workshop Journal. 63: 196-98. ISSN 1477-4569.

4. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (And the Crusades), Regnery Press, 2005

5. Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi (26 March 2016). The Laws of Islam

6. Majid Khadduri, Introduction to Al-Shafi’i’s al-Risala, pg.38-39

7. Al-Shahrastani, al-Milal, p.31 f

8. Al-Baghdadi, Usul al Din, pp.150f

9. Muhammad Qasim Zaman (1997). Religion and Politics Under the Early Abbasids: The Emergence of the Proto-Sunni Elite. BRILL. pp. 106-112

10. Chiragh Ali, The Proposed Political, Legal and Social Reforms, in Modernist Islam 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, pp. 281-282 Edited by Charles Kurzman, Oxford University Press, (2002)

11. William Thomson, “The Moslem World”, in William L. Langer (1948), ed., An Encyclopedia of World History, rev. edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 189.

12. Watt, Montgomery. Free-Will and Predestination in Early Islam. Luzac & Co.: London 1948; Wolfson, Harry. The Philosophy of Kalam, Harvard University Press 1976


14. Griffel, Frank (2010), Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology, Oxford University Press.

15. Daniel W. Brown, Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought: Vol. 5 of Cambridge Middle East Studies, pp. 28 and 32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 9780521653947

16.  M. Mahmood, The Code of Muslim Family Laws, p. 37. Pakistan Law Times Publications, 2006. 6th ed.

  1. Muzaffar Iqbal, Science and Islam, pg. 120. From the Greenwood Guides to Science and Religion Series. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 9780313335761

18. Mokyr, J.: Een cultuur van groei: The Origins of the Modern Economy. (eBook en hardcover)”. p. 67. Gearchiveerd van het origineel op 2017-03-24. Retrieved 2017-03-09.

19. Chaney 2016.

20. Mohammed, Madadin; Kharoshah, Magdy (2014). “Autopsie in de islam en de huidige praktijk in Arabische moslimlanden”. Tijdschrift voor Forensische en Juridische Geneeskunde. 23: 80-3.

21. (Eerste Apologie 46 [A.D. 151]).

22. Ferguson (1974), pp. 108-9

23. David B. Hart (20 april 2010). “Geloof het of niet”. Eerste Zaken

24. Duhem, Pierre (1913). “Geschiedenis van de natuurkunde” . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Katholieke Encyclopedie. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

25. Duhem, II, p 412; vert. door Grant (1962), p 200, n. 8.

26. Woods, p 92

27. (II Sent. 1.1.4; Aquinas over de schepping, p. 83)

28. Newadvent Katholieke Encyclopedie Dualisme

29. Nummers, Ronald (2009). Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Harvard University Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-674-03327-6.

30.  “Een mythe ontkrachten”. Harvard University. 7 april 2011.

31. Watson, P. (2005), Ideeën. Londen: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, blz. 373.


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