Friday, April 26, 2013

Faith vs Reason: Mutazilites, Ash'arites, et multae Caetera

I have just finished reading a book on Islamic law, that being the subject of one of the chapters of a book I am currently writing. One of the parts that caught my interest was the description of the disagreement between two philosophical schools. The Mutazilites, or rationalists, held that human reason was capable of recognizing good and evil; they concluded that although religious obligations, such as prayers, had to be based entirely on revelation, other legal and moral rules did not. The Ash'arites, on the other hand, held that human reason was unable to make such judgements, hence all rules had to be entirely based on revelation, with reason limited, if I correctly understand their position, to interpreting the meaning and application of what had been revealed.

It occurred to me that there was a small problem with the Ashirite position. If humans are entirely unable to distinguish good from evil, how can they distinguish God from the Devil? How, in other words, when a powerful supernatural being tells them to do something, can they tell if he is good or evil? The same problem must exist for other religions in which some theologians hold a position analogous to the Ash'arite. I am curious as to whether any of my readers can tell me how it is dealt with.

One of the other interesting details in the book was the attitude of Islamic legal scholars to probability. In their view, again as I understand it, as probability becomes stronger, it becomes certainty.

An example is the status of a hadith, an oral tradition about something Mohammed did or said. A hadith known through only one chain of transmitters is at best probable. A hadith known through N independent chains—legal scholars disagreed about the size of N—is certain.

That view of probability theory reminded me of something I had seen before. As anyone who has spent much time arguing with Objectivists, followers of Ayn Rand's philosophy, is likely to have discovered, they too believe in certainty where others would see, at most, a high probability.

I succeeded, with a great effort, in resisting the temptation to title this post "Was Ayn Rand a closet Muslim?"

24 Comments:

At 10:43 PM, April 26, 2013, Anonymous Ted Levy said...

That could explain the late-in-life riff she had with her sister...;-)

 
At 11:28 PM, April 26, 2013, Blogger randian said...

Another consequence of the Ashirite victory is the death of logic, reason, and science. Since Allah recreates the universe from moment to moment, cause and effect doesn't exist. Allah could at any time change the apparent laws by which things operate. It is not correct to say you chopped off that man's head; Allah did that, for at any time Allah may decide that your sword passes through his neck without harm.

 
At 2:03 AM, April 27, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

all religions. brah there is no such thing as "Christianity" or "Judaism" there are many different schools of thought within these religions.

here in the west this is obvious for more western religions but because Buddhism, Hinduism and islam are religions of far away places we tend to generalise and abstract away from the detail.

its better to categorise certain theological ideas and then see which schools within the various religions adhere to these ideas.

 
At 4:29 AM, April 27, 2013, Anonymous Martin Wolf said...

Not a theologian, don't know what the "official" answer is in the case of the Ashirites, but I can think of two possible answers:

1) Humans have *some* ability to tell right from wrong, so they can tell whether God's set of rules is overall a good idea, but they need to realize that God is smarter and more knowledgeable than us, and will sometimes make judgment calls which seem dubious to us and we just have to trust him. You can choose whether or not to accept God's rule as a package deal, but you don't get a line item veto.

2) There is indeed no reason to assume that God is the 'good' side and the Devil is the 'bad' side. It's more like arbitrarily picking a football team to cheer for. If humans truly do not have any sense of right vs wrong of their own, then this would be the logical conclusion.

If you believe that one side has the ability to decide whether you will go to heaven or hell after your death, while the other side is less powerful, then it's obvious which one to pick, even if you don't actually agree with the justness of their moral rules.

This is not limited to Islam. The philosophy of the Old Testament writers also seems to be that you're not supposed to question God's word even when it conflicts with your own intuition of right versus wrong. Witness the story of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice his son. At the last moment, an angel stays his hand and reveals that it was just a loyalty test, but it is made clear that "be willing to kill your innocent child if God tells you to" was considered the correct answer on that test.

 
At 4:59 AM, April 27, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Martin:
On a little bit unrelated note:

It reminded my of Terry Pratchet's Small Gods and the system in which gods actually draw power from their believers who basically shape them, have an influence on what the diety is like, but not entirely, the diety quite a lot of free will. And of course, if it is powerful enough it can nudge the beliefs of its followers in desired directions.

A similar model is also present in some DnD settings.

I just wonder if there are any real world religions that see that to be the model. That in fact, gods draw power from their believers and so should act reasonable well to satisfy their needs, but cannot do everything because their power is limited by the amount (and strenght of beliefs) of their followers.

It would in a way be in the interest of the diety to spread rumours about the powers it has, even though it is not true, because that could attract believers and actually increase its power. And with clever PR such as "god works in mysterious ways" it could even conceal obvious inconsistency between the proclaimed omniscience and omnipotence and reality.

Maybe it would be interesting to write a story focusing on the "economics of worship" in a such a world. On one hand the dieties that are all trying to increase their power and at the same time the people who might try to do the same. Deliberately starting cults that only serve its members to create a tame but powerful diety that serves their purposes but that cannot do much more, since the people would just stop worshipping it. And of course such a diety would try all the tricks to convince everyone that it is powerful regardless of their worship converting them to true believers that it can control.

 
At 6:42 AM, April 27, 2013, Anonymous Giles said...

It occurred to me that there was a small problem with the Ashirite position. If humans are entirely unable to distinguish good from evil, how can they distinguish God from the Devil? How, in other words, when a powerful supernatural being tells them to do something, can they tell if he is good or evil

It's been almost 20 years since I read it, but IIRC this position was what made Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" so offensive to some Muslims. He described a part of the Koran that was given to Mohammed by a demon posing as the angel who normally inspired him; Mohammed worked out the trick and struck those "satanic" verses from the record. But it's implied by the narrator that the rest of the text came from the same source. You can see why some people got a bit upset about that...

 
At 7:53 AM, April 27, 2013, Blogger David R. Henderson said...

Great alternate title!

 
At 8:02 AM, April 27, 2013, Blogger Michelangelo Landgrave said...

Out of curiosity, do you find Islamic law to be drastically different from Christian canon law or Jewish law? I find a lot of people have a fear of Islamic law but I've yet to find anyone terrified of canon law.

 
At 8:39 AM, April 27, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

To attempt an answer to your query I would imagine that the theological line is something like this: "we are endowed by our creator with knowledge of our creator". That is, because we are created by "god" then we can tell who god is or what comes from god. To draw from crypto, we come with god's public signing key already installed and can therefore cryptographically ensure that messages from god that are signed are actually from god.

"God doesn't encrypt but he does sign his messages so that all who would verify his word may know the truth of RSA."

 
At 9:49 AM, April 27, 2013, Anonymous Martin Wolf said...

That would prevent us from believing revelations from a non-divine source. It still wouldn't guarantee that the god you follow is "the good guy", however.

 
At 11:40 AM, April 27, 2013, Blogger randian said...

Out of curiosity, do you find Islamic law to be drastically different from Christian canon law or Jewish law?

Islamic law is wholly different. For example, if you are Muslim:

1) You may kill your children, your grandchildren, an apostate, or a non-Muslim without repercussion.

2) Apostates are so reviled that even non-Muslims may kill them.

3) You may kill anybody who interferes with the spread of Islam (since such persons are either apostate or non-Muslim). Hence we get terror attacks.

If you are non-Muslim:

1) you may not publicly preach your religion, allow your religious practices to be observed or heard outside the wall of your church, publicly wear things like crosses, build new houses of worship, repair existing houses of worship, or criticize Islam, Allah, Muhammad, any Muslim, or the Islamic state itself. Most of these things constitute "making mischief", for which the penalty is death, amputation of the hand and foot on opposite sides, crucifixion, exile, or imprisonment (whatever the ruler decides).

Islamic law concerns itself with many trivial things, because Islam is a religion of law, not morality. This arose from the need of Muslims to know the "right" way to do everything. Hence you have things like what direction you must face when defecating and you may not dishevel your hair when consoling the next of kin of a dead person.

 
At 11:50 AM, April 27, 2013, Blogger randian said...

To attempt an answer to your query I would imagine that the theological line is something like this: "we are endowed by our creator with knowledge of our creator".

Not in Islam. Islam denies that Allah himself can be known or described, though certain facts Allah revealed in the Quran, or have been stated by Muhammad. For example, we know what kind of people Allah favors because Muhammad said, in reliable hadith, that the only infallible way to enter heaven is to kill or be killed in the way of Allah i.e. by fighting unbelievers.

 
At 12:08 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michelangelo:

I don't know much about canon law. Muslim law has a good deal of similarity to Jewish law. As legal systems go, it doesn't strike me as more terrifying than others.

So far as things moderns object to ... . Cutting off the hand of a thief is less obviously over punishment than stoning a disobedient son, as recommended in the Torah--and in both cases legal scholars found arguments for not doing it. Both Jewish and Muslim law permitted polygamy, although it dropped out of Jewish law fairly early. Neither treats men and women as equal--nor do most historical legal systems. Both of them permitted only the husband to initiate divorce. Jewish law eventually found a way around that, letting the wife persuade a court to force her husband to divorce her. I don't know if there is an equivalent in Muslim law.

Arguably Jewish law was less tolerant of diversity than Muslim law early on, since the school of Hillel eventually suppressed the school of Shamai, whereas the four schools of Muslim law are still going today.

After the destruction of the kingdom of Israel Jewish law didn't have a state to support it, so probably ended up more decentralized than Muslim law. On the other hand, in theory Muslim law is produced not by the state but by the legal scholars. Both systems had mechanisms for justifying state law enforcement outside of the legal restrictions of religious law.

Christian and Muslim law both forbade loans at interest. Jewish law, in theory, went even further, since the principal of a loan was supposed to be canceled on the seventh year--but the rabbis created a legal device to get around that.

 
At 12:18 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Randian writes:

"Islamic law concerns itself with many trivial things, because Islam is a religion of law, not morality."

You have that backwards.

Islamic law recognizes five categories of acts.

1: Acts you can be punished for doing.

2: Acts you ought not to do.

3: Acts that are legally and morally neutral.

4: Acts you ought to do.

5: Acts you can be punished for not doing.

Note that categories 2 and 4 are, in our terms, moral not legal. What is going on is that what you are calling law (fiqh) includes both law and morality.

I've just been reading an account of one legal scholar who argued that legal authorities ought occasionally to do acts in category 2 or refrain from acts in category 4, so that those observing them wouldn't think that recommended acts (4) were obligatory (5) or disrecommended acts (2) were forbidden (1).

Incidentally, your point 1 is true of Roman law with regard to children and grandchildren. I don't think it is true of Muslim law. In particular, I do not believe it is true, in the view of any of the four schools, that a Muslim is free to kill a non-muslim without legal consequences.

I'm curious--have you read any serious scholarly accounts of Muslim law, or only attacks on it by non-muslims? I link to the book I just read in my post—you might find it interesting. The author is clearly a scholar of Islamic law, almost certainly a Muslim, clearly in favor of finding some way of modernizing Islamic law, ideally within the existing framework very broadly defined, to make it better suited to modern societies.

 
At 12:21 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Randian writes:

" For example, we know what kind of people Allah favors because Muhammad said, in reliable hadith, that the only infallible way to enter heaven is to kill or be killed in the way of Allah i.e. by fighting unbelievers."

But we also know, because it is in the Quran, that the other three peoples of the book also have access to heaven, and each of them has been given its own law. We even know that they aren't all supposed to become Muslims, since the Quran says that Allah could have made all mankind into one community but chose not to.

 
At 12:37 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger randian said...

I'm curious--have you read any serious scholarly accounts of Muslim law

Yes, Reliance of the Traveler

 
At 12:45 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger randian said...

But we also know, because it is in the Quran, that the other three peoples of the book also have access to heaven, and each of them has been given its own law.

I'd bet those are abrogated verses, from Muhammad's early days. No way the "worst of peoples", the descendants of apes and pigs (the Christians and the Jews, respectively), those whom Jesus will slaughter on the Last Day, go to heaven.

We even know that they aren't all supposed to become Muslims, since the Quran says that Allah could have made all mankind into one community but chose not to.

Even though Allah made them what they are and thus had no choice, the non-Muslims are still the worst of peoples, damned to hell and eternal suffering. And the Muslims are still obligated to conquer them.

 
At 1:58 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Randian responds to my query as to whether he has read any serious scholarly accounts of Muslim law with:

"Yes, Reliance of the Traveler"

A translation is webbed at:

http://www.shafiifiqh.com/maktabah/relianceoftraveller.pdf

Randian, in an earlier post, wrote:

"1) You may kill your children, your grandchildren, an apostate, or a non-Muslim without repercussion."

Checking Reliance of the Traveler, however, I find, in the discussion of the penalty for killing someone:

"The indemnity paid for a Jew or Christian is one-third of the indemnity paid for a Muslim."

And:

"There is no indemnity obligatory for killing a non-Muslim at war with Muslims (harbi), someone
who has left Islam, someone sentenced to death by stoning (A: for adultery (def: o12)) by virtue of
having been convicted in court, or those it is obligatory to kill by military action (N: such as a band of
highwaymen)."

Note that nothing is said about any of Randian's categories other than an apostate.

In addition to the indemnity, owed to the heirs of the victim, there is also the expiation, a religious penalty. The same source says:

" There is no expiation for killing someone who has left Islam, a highwayman (def: o15). or a
convicted married adulterer, even when someone besides the caliph kills him."

Again, only the apostate from Randian's list.

I did a search of the whole text on "children" and found nothing to justify Randian's claim. Perhaps he can point me at the relevant text.

 
At 3:50 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger Michelangelo Landgrave said...

Thank you for your response Prof Friedman. Is there any book you'd suggest for anyone wishing to compare the laws of the Abrahamic faiths?

 
At 4:19 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michelangelo:

I don't know of a good comparative book, although one may exist. I've been trying to make sense of Jewish and Islamic law for the book I'm writing on legal systems very different from ours.

The best secondary source I've found on Jewish law is a four volume treatise by Menachem Elon, of which the fourth volume is on modern Israeli law and so not all that relevant. The best primary source I found was the Mishnah Torah of Maimonides, three (small) volumes of which cover roughly the subjects of modern law, with the rest being religious law.

The book I linked to in my post gives a pretty good idea of how Islamic law developed, but not much detail on its content. The webbed pdf I mentioned in a recent comment is a primary source that gives a very detailed account of Islamic law from the standpoint of one of the four mutually orthodox Sunni schools. The best survey of Islamic law I've found is:

Between God and the Sultan, by Knut S. Vikor.

Hope that helps.

 
At 7:46 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger randian said...

My reading of Reliance of the Traveler is from Book O (Justice), section 1.0, "Who is Subject to Retaliation for Injurious Crimes", and section 3.0, "Retaliation for Bodily Injury or Death." As you will see, indemnity is only available if retaliation is, as indemnity is taken in lieu of retaliation.

Section 1.1: Retaliation (punishment) is obligatory (if the person entitled wishes to take it, see 3.8) against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right.

Section 1.2: The following are not subject to retaliation:

1) A child or insane person, whether Muslim or non-Muslim
2) A Muslim for killing a non-Muslim
3) A Jewish or Christian subject of the Islamic state for killing an apostate from Islam
4) A father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or their offspring's offspring
5) nor is retaliation permissible to a descendant for his ancestor's killing someone whose death would otherwise entitle the descendant to retaliate, such as when his father kills his mother.

Section 3.1

Retaliation is obligatory (if those entitled with to take it) when there is an intentional injury against life and limb.

Section 3.8

Whenever someone who is entitled to exact retaliation decides instead to forgive the offender and take an indemnity from him, then retaliation is no longer called for, and the deserving person is entitled to the indemnity.

Section 3.12

There is no retaliation against anyone for an injury or death caused by someone who did so intentionally but in conjunction with someone who did so by mistake. When an injurious crime is caused by a non-family member in cooperation with the victim's father, retaliation is only taken against the non-family member.

 
At 9:01 PM, April 27, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Randian says:

"As you will see, indemnity is only available if retaliation is, as indemnity is taken in lieu of retaliation."

That's false. 3.8 says that if you are entitled to retaliation, you can take indemnity instead. It doesn't say you can't take indemnity if you are not entitled to retaliation. And it does say:

O4.9: "The indemnity for the death or injury of a woman is one-half the indemnity paid for a man.
The indemnity paid for a Jew or Christian is one-third of the indemnity paid for a Muslim. "

(Incidentally, it's half in the Maliki school).

So it's clear that there is punishment for killing a non-Muslim, although less than for killing a Muslim.

And o5.0 sets the expiation for taking a human life, with no exception for non-Muslims. o5.4 lists the exceptions:

"o5.4 (O: There is no expiation for killing someone who has left Islam, a highwayman (def: o15). or a convicted married adulterer, even when someone besides the caliph kills him.)"

No mention of non-Muslims. Or children.

If you actually read it, instead of looking at selected quotes, it's clear that there are three different punishments—retaliation, indemnity, and expiation. Only the first doesn't exist in the cases you list (aside from someone who has left Islam).

You said you read the book. How is that you didn't notice that it explicitly stated the indemnity for killing a Jew or a Christian?

 
At 4:46 AM, April 28, 2013, Blogger Adam Zur said...

In the world of Orthodox Judaism everything goes by who said a statement.
sometimes the author of authoritative statements can be people living today or recently. There are lots of variations depending on which group you belong to.
It is fair to say that the Mishna Brura for the last fifty years was the definite statement of halacha for most Orthodox people.
Reason does not play a large role except that for a person to get accepted as part of the cannon they in general do have to have some smarts.
But to use reason to decide issues is something that is no longer a part of things. This stems mainly from the school of the Ramban-Nachmanides. The general influence of Maimonides who gave a equal role to reason as to revelation is not at all influential in the orthodox circles but it is for secular Jews.




 
At 9:26 AM, April 29, 2013, Anonymous Eric Rasmusen said...

David Friedman said:
But we also know, because it is in the Quran, that the other three peoples of the book also have access to heaven, and each of them has been given its own law.
Another implication of this is that some truth *can* be known apart from the Koran-- it can be known from the Bible. Are the Asharites mixed up semantically? Maybe they mean "no certain and perfect truth", but would allow that pagans can know that murder is sinful, that God exists, and so forth-- just that pagans don't know the exact definition of murder, don't know the true name of God, etc. Anybody know if that's right?

 

Post a Comment

<< Home