Syed Ameer Ali.

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men, and claimed for them equal capacity — in war, in philo-
sophy, in science. He cites the example of the female warriors
of Arabia, Africa, and Greece ; and refers to their superiority
in music in support of his contention, that, if women were
placed in the same position as men, and received the same
education, they would become the equals of their husbands and
brothers in all the sciences and arts ; and he ascribes their
inferiority to the narrow lives they lead.

In Ibn-Rushd Arabian philosophy reached its apogee. Six
centuries divide him from the Prophet. Within these centuries


the Arab intellect had broadened in every direction. Men like
Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd thought with the accumulated wealth
of ages on all the most important questions which occupy
human attention in modern times, and formulated their ideas,
little different from those held by the most advanced scientists
of the present day, with logical precision. All these thinkers
claimed to be Moslems, and were recognised as such by the best
minds of their times. Ibn-Sina repudiated with indignation
and contempt the charge of infidelity levelled against him by
fanatics or enemies jealous of his fame ; and one of the greatest
mystical poets of Islam, Sanai, whose orthodoxy, though
doubted by his personal foes, is no longer questioned, has
embodied his veneration for " Bu Ali Sina " in an immortal
poem. 1

Ibn-Rushd wrote on the concord of religion with philosophy ;
and one of his intimate friends, Abd ul-Kabir, a highly religious
person, described him as one anxious to establish a harmony
between religion and philosophy. 2 Al-Ansari and Abd ul-
Walid speak of Ibn-Rushd as sincerely attached to Islam ;
and his latest biographer says : " There is nothing to prevent
our supposing that Ibn-Rushd was a sincere believer in
Islamism, especially when we consider how little irrational
the supernatural element in the essential dogmas of this
religion is, and how closely this religion approaches the purest
Deism." 3

The close of the tenth century was full of the darkest omens
for rationalism and science. The star of the son of Sina had
not yet risen on the horizon ; but masters like Kindi and
Farabi had appeared and departed after shedding an abiding
lustre on the Saracenic race. Patristicism was triumphant in
every quarter which owned the temporal or spiritual sway of
the Abbasides : the college of jurists had placed under the
ban of heresy the rationalists and philosophers who had made
the name of Moslems glorious in the annals of the world ; a
heartless, illiberal, and persecuting formalism dominated the

1 See Appendix III.

2 In the Fasl-ul-Makdl (Muller's ed. published in Munich, 1859), which is
said to have been written in a.h. 575 for the Almohade sovereign Yusuf ibn
Tashfin, he establishes this concordance.

3 Renan, Aver roes et Averroism, p. 163.


spirit of the theologians ; a pharisaical epicureanism had taken
possession of the rich, and an ignorant fanaticism of the poor ;
the gloom of night was fast thickening, and Islam was drifting
into the condition into which ecclesiasticism had led Chris-
tianity. It was at this epoch of travail and sorrow for all
lovers of truth that a small body of thinkers formed themselves
into a Brotherhood to keep alive the lamp of knowledge among
the Moslems, to introduce a more healthy tone among the
people, to arrest the downward course of the Moslems towards
ignorance and fanaticism, in fact, to save the social fabric from
utter ruin. They called themselves the " Brothers of Purity,"
Ikhwdn-us-Safd. The society of the " Pure Brethren " was
established in Basra, which still held rank in the fast-
dwindling Caliphate as the second city of the empire, the home
of rationalism and intellectual activity. To this " Brother-
hood " none but men of unsullied character and the purest
morals were admitted ; the passport for admission into the
select circle was devotion to the cause of knowledge and
humanity. There was nothing exclusive or esoteric in their
spirit ; though, from the necessities of their situation, and
working under a rigid theological and political despotism, their
movements were enshrouded in some degree of mystery. They
met together quietly and unobtrusively in the residence of the
head of the society, who bore the name of Zaid the son of
Rifa'a, and discussed philosophical and ethical subjects with a
catholicity of spirit and breadth of views difficult to rival even
in modern times. They formed branches in every city of the
Caliphate, wherever, in fact, they could find a body of thought-
ful men, willing and qualified to work according to their
scientific method. This philanthropic and scientific movement
was led by five men, who, with Zaid, were the life and soul of
the " Brotherhood." Their system was eclectic in the highest
and truest sense of the word. They contemned no field of
thought ; they " culled flowers from every meadow." In
spite of the mysticism which slightly tinged their philosophical
conceptions, their views on social and political problems were
highly practical and intensely humane. As the result of their
labours, they gave to the world a general resumi of the know-
ledge of the time in separate treatises, which were collectively


known as the Rasdil ^i-Ikhwdn-us-Safd wa-Khulldn-ul-Wafd,
" Tracts of the Brothers of Purity and Friends of Sincerity " ;
or, shortly, Rasdil-i-Ikhivdn-ns-Safdr These risdlas range over
every subject of human study — mathematics, including astro-
nomy, physical geography, music, and mechanics ; physics,
including chemistry, meteorology, and geology ; biology,
physiology, zoology, botany, logic, grammar, metaphysics,
ethics, the doctrine of a future life. They form, in fact, a
popular encyclopaedia of all the sciences and philosophy then
extant. The theory of these evolutionists of the tenth century
as to the development of animal organism may be compared
with advantage with that entertained in present times. But
I am not concerned so much with the scientific and intellectual
side of their writings as with the ethical and moral. The ethics
of the " Pure Brethren " are founded on self -study and the
purification or abstraction of human thought from all impurity.
Moral endowments are prized above intellectual gifts ; and
the strength of soul founded upon patient self-discipline and
self-control is regarded as the highest of virtues. 3 " Faith
without work, knowing without doing, were vain." Patience
and forbearance, mildness and loving gentleness, justice, mercy,
and truth, the sublimity of virtue, the sacrifice of self for others,
are taught in every line : cant, hypocrisy, and deceit, envy and
pride, tyranny and falsehood, are reprobated in every page ;
and the whole is pervaded by a purity of sentiment, a fervent
love of humanity, an earnest faith in the progress of man, a
universal charity, embracing even the brute creation in its
fold. 4 What can be more beautiful, more truly humane, than
the disputation between the " animals and mankind " ? Their
ethics form the foundation of all later works. 5 Their religious
idea was identical with that of Farabi and Ibn Sina, — the
universe was an emanation from God, but not directly ; the
Primal Absolute Cause created Reason, or the Active Intel-

1 Plural of Risala, a tract, a chapter, a monograph.

2 Published in 4 vols., at Bombay, in 1305 a.h., by Haji Niir ud-din.

3 See the third Risala, vol. iv.

4 See the fourth Risala, vol. iv.

5 Such as the Akhldk-i-Ndsiri of Naslr ud-din Tusi, the Akhlak-i-Jdldli,
and the Akhldk-i-Muhsini of Husain Waiz Kashifi.


ligence : and from this proceeded the N afs-i-nufus , the Abstract
Soul, from which sprang primary matter, the protoplasm of all
material entities ; the Active Intelligence moulded this primary
matter, and made it capable of taking shapes and forms, and
set it in motion, whence were formed the spheres and the
planets. Their morality is founded on this very conception of
the Primal Absolute Cause being connected by an unbroken
chain with the lowest of His creation ; for the Abstract Soul
individualised in humanity is always struggling to attain by
purity of life, self-discipline, intellectual study, the goal of
Perfection, — to get back to the source from which it emanated.
This is Ma'dd ; this is the " Return " which the Prophet taught ;
this is the rest and peace inculcated in the Scripture. It was
thus that the " Pure Brethren " taught. Whatever we may
think of their psychology there is no denying that their morality
was of the purest, their ethics of the highest that can be con-
ceived, standing on a different plane from those of the theo-
logians who induced the bigot Mustanjid to burn their
encyclopaedia in Bagdad, before Bagdad itself was burnt by the

Aristotelian philosophy, which was founded on " observation
and experience," was, however, more akin to the Saracenic
genius and the positive bent of the Arab mind. Aristotelian
logic and metaphysics naturally exercised a great influence on
the conceptions of Arab scientists and scholars. Neo-Platonism
based on intuition and a certain vague and mystical contempla-
tion, did not take root among the Arabs until it was made
popular by the writings of the unfortunate Shihab ud-din
Suhrwardi. The Aristotelian conception of the First Cause
pervades accordingly many of the philosophical and meta-
physical writings of this period. And it was in consequence of
the influence exercised by the Stagyrite that a section of Arab
thinkers tended towards a belief in the eternity of matter.
These men received the name of Dahris (from dahr, or nature) .
" The fundamental idea of these philosophers," says Kremer,
" was the same as has gained ground, in modern times, owing
to the extension of natural science." But they were not, as
their enemies called them, atheists. Atheism is the negation
of a power or Cause beyond and outside the visible and material


world. These philosophers affirmed no such thing ; they only
held that it was impossible to predicate of the Causa Causans
any attribute whatsoever, or to explain the mode in which He
works on the universe. They were, in fact, the exponents of
the doctrine of ta'lil or agnosticism.

It appears clear, therefore, that the Islam of Mohammed
contains nothing which in itself bars progress or the intellectual
development of humanity. How is it, then, that, since the
twelfth century of the Christian era, philosophy has almost
died out among the followers of Islam and an anti-rationalistic
patristicism has taken possession of the bulk of the people ?
How is it that predestinarianism, though only one phase of the
Koranic teachings, has become the predominant creed of a
large number of Moslems ? As regards the supposed extinction
among them of philosophy, I should like to call attention to the
revival of Avicennism under the Safawi sovereigns of Persia
to show that rationalism and free-thought are not yet dead in
Islam. But the questions which I have formulated apply to
the general body of Moslems, and I propose to explain the
causes which have led to this result.

Before the Abbaside Mutawakkil's accession to the throne,
Islam presented a spectacle similar to that of Christendom in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was divided into
two camps, one of Authority, the other of Reason ; the one
advocated the guidance of humanity in matters, natural as well
as supernatural, by precedent, pure and simple ; the other, by
human judgment tempered so far as practicable by precedent.
Between these two parties the difference was irreconcilable.
The first was composed chiefly of the lawyers — a class of people
who have been regarded in every age and country, and not
always without reason, as narrow-minded, self-opinionated, and
extremely jealous of their interests as a body. To them were
joined the ignorant populace. " The creed of the bishop is the
creed of the grocer. But the philosophy of that grocer is
in no sense the philosophy of a professor. Therefore it is
that the bishop will be revered where the professor will be
stoned. Intellect is that which man claims as specially his
own ; it is the one limiting distinction ; and thus the
multitude, so tolerant of the claims of an aristocracy of birth


or of wealth, is uneasy under the claims of an aristocracy of
intelligence." x

As I have had occasion to mention in a previous chapter,
most of the legal decisions pronounced by the Prophet were
called forth by the passing necessities of a primitive and archaic
society. After him the Caliph Ali was the expositor of the new
Faith. In the Koran these legal doctrines were extremely few,
and adaptable to any circumstance or time, and, during the
reigns of the Rashidin Caliphs, were expounded chiefly by Ali
and his disciple Ibn Abbas.

Upon their death, the men who had attended their lectures
or listened to their judgments opened classes of jurisprudence
on their own account. Fakihs or lawyers multiplied ; they
discussed religio-legal questions, gave opinions on points of
casuistry, the rites of religion, as well as on the ordinary
relations of life. Gradually they became the keepers of the
conscience of the people. Naturally there was a keen desire
to discover how the Prophet had acted in any particular case ;
traditions multiplied. The supply was in proportion to the
demand. But, excepting in the school of Medina, there was
no uniformity of system or method. The immediate des-
cendants of Mohammed followed one definite rule ; if they
found any precedent of the time of the Prophet or of the Caliph
Ali, authenticated by their own ancestors, which was applicable
to the circumstances of the case, they based their decision upon
it ; if not, they relied on their own judgment. Law was with
them inductive and experimental ; and they decided according
to the exigencies and requirements of each particular case.
Under the early Ommeyyades there was no fixed rule ; the
governors ruled sharply by the sword, according to their own
judgment, leaving matters of conscience to the Fakihs. Under
the later Ommeyyades, however, the lawyers assumed great
preponderance, chiefly on account of their influence with the
fickle populace. When the Abbasides rose to power the
lecture-room of Imam Ja'far as Sadik was attended by two
men who afterwards became the bulwarks of the Sunni Church,
— one was Abu Hanifa, 2 and the other Malik son of Anas. 3

1 Lewes's History of Philosophy, vol. ii.p. 59.

2 See ante, p. 351. 3 See ante, p. 352.


Abu Hanifa was a native of Irak ; Malik, of Medina. Both
were men of severe morals and great kindliness of nature, and
anxious to broaden the foundations of the Church. They were
devoted to the family of the Prophet, and suffered in con-
sequence of their attachment. Abu Hanifa on his return to
Kufa opened a class which became the nucleus of the now
famous Hanafi school. He rejected most of the traditions x
as untrue, and relied solely on the Koran ; and by " analogical
deductions " endeavoured to make the simple Koranic
utterances applicable to every variety of circumstance. Abu
Hanifa knew nothing of human kind ; nor had he ever been to
any city except Medina and Bagdad. He was a speculative
legist, and his two disciples, Abu Yusuf, who became Chief
Kazi of Bagdad under Harun, and Mohammed ash-Shaibani,
fixed Abu Hanifa's conceptions on a regular basis. Malik
proceeded on different lines. He excluded from his system all
inferences and " deductions." He applied himself to discover
in Medina, so full of the Prophet's memories, every real or
supposititious incident in the Master's life and based his
doctrines thereupon. His was " the Beaten Path," 2 and to
the simple Arabs and the cognate races of Africa Malik's
enunciations were more acceptable, being suited to their archaic
forms of society, than the rationalised views of the Fatimide
Imams, or the speculative theories of Abu Hanifa. Soon after
came Shafe'i, a man of strong and vigorous mind, better
acquainted with the world than Abu Hanifa and Malik, and
less casuistical than Abu Yusuf and Mohammed ash-Shaibani.
He formed, from the materials furnished by Ja'far as-Sadik,
Malik, and Abu Hanifa, an eclectic school, which found accep-
tance chiefly among the middle classes. Less adaptable than
original Hanafism to the varying necessities of a growing and
mixed population, it contained sufficient germs of improvement
which, had they not been killed by the rigid formalism of later
times, would have been productive of substantial good. 3 Four
different systems of law and doctrine, more or less distinct from

1 Ibn Khallikan.

2 The Muwatta, i.e. " The Beaten Path," is the name of his work on juris-

3 Shafe'iism is spreading rapidly among the educated Hanafis of India.


each other, thus established themselves in the Islamic world.
The Fatimide system was chiefly in force among the Shiahs,
who were dispersed all over the empire ; Malikism among a
large part of the Arabs in the Peninsula, among the Berbers,
and most of the Spanish Moslems ; Shafe'ism among the fairly
well-to-do classes ; and Hanafism among the more respectable
sections of society in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. The
position of Hanafism in the Caliphate was similar to that of
Pharisaism among the Jews. It received the countenance of
the Court as the only school with sufficient expansiveness
to meet the requirements of a mixed population. To have
acknowledged the Fatimide system would have been to give
too great a preponderance to the descendants of the Prophet ;
to have adopted Malikism and Shafe'ism for the administration
of a liberal State would have jeopardised the interests of the
empire. Hence, whilst rationalism ruled in the colleges and
Madrasas, 1 Hanafism held possession of the pulpits and
Mahkamas. 2 In its theological views, Hanafism inclined
towards Sifdtism ; but it varied its opinions according to those
of the rulers. At this period Hanafism was remarkable for its
flexibility. Ahmed ibn Hanbal, commonly known as Imam
Hanbal, made his appearance at this juncture, — a red hot
puritan, breathing eternal perdition to all who differed from
him, he was shocked with the pharisaical liberalism of Hanafism,
and disgusted both with the narrowness of Malikism and the
common-place character of Shafe'ism, he applied himself to
frame a new system, based on traditions, for the whole empire.
Abu Hanifa had rejected the majority of the current traditions ;
Ibn Hanbal's system included a mass of incongruous, irrational,
and bewildering stories, the bulk of which were wholly incon-
sistent with each other, and bearing upon their face the marks
of fabrication. And now commenced a serious struggle between
the parties of progress and retrogression. Ibn Hanbal adopted
the extreme Sifdtia views ; he inculcated that the Deity was
visible to the human sight ; that His attributes were separate
from His essence ; that the statements about His being seated
on the throne were to be accepted in their literal sense ; that

1 Madrasa is a place where lectures are given, hence a college, school, etc.

2 Courts of justice.


man was in no sense a free agent ; that every human action
was the direct act of the Deity, and so forth. He denounced
learning and science, and proclaimed a holy war against
Rationalism. The populace, carried away by his eloquence or
his vehemence, took up the cry ; the Hanafi jurists, whose
power materially depended on their influence over the ignorant
masses, and who were jealous of the prominence of the scientists
and philosophers in the Court of Harun and Mamun, made
common cause with the new reformer. The pulpits began to
fulminate brimstone and fire against the upholders of reason
and the advocates of philosophy and science. The streets of
Bagdad became the scenes of frequent rioting and bloodshed.
Mu'tasim and Wasik repressed the fanatical violence of the
fiery puritans with some severity. The prime mover of the
disturbances was put in prison, where he died in the odour of
great sanctity ; his bier was followed to the grave by a crowd
consisting of a hundred and forty thousand men and women. 1
His system never took root among any large body of people :
but, mixing with Hanafism, it gave a new character to the
doctrines of Abu Hanifa. Henceforth Hanafism represents
a mixture of the teachings of Abu Hanifa and of Ibn

When Mutawakkil was raised to the throne the position of
the various parties stood thus : — the Rationalists were the
directing power of the State ; they held the chief offices of
trust ; they were professors in colleges, superintendents of
hospitals, directors of observatories ; they were merchants ;
in fact, they represented the wisdom and the wealth of the
empire ; Rationalism was the dominating creed among the
educated, the intellectual, and influential classes of the com-
munity. Sifdtism was in force among the lower strata of
society, and most of the Kazis, the preachers, the lawyers of
various degree were attached to it. A cruel drunken sot,
almost crazy at times, Mutawakkil had the wit to perceive the
advantage of an alliance with the latter party. It would make
him at once the idol of the populace, and the model Caliph of
the bigots. The fiat accordingly went forth for the expulsion
of the party of progress from their offices under government.

1 See Appendix IT.


The colleges and universities were closed ; literature, science,
and philosophy were interdicted ; and the Rationalists were
hunted from Bagdad. Mutawakkil at the same time demolished
the mausoleum of the Caliph Ali and his sons. The fanatical
lawyers, who were now the priests and rabbis of Islam, be-
came the ruling power of the State. Mutawakkil's death
and Mustansir's accession gave the victory once more to
the Progressists. But their success was short-lived. Under
the pitiless and sanguinary Mu'tazid b'illah the triumph of
Patristicism was complete. He mercilessly persecuted the
Rationalists. They inculcated that " justice " was the animat-
ing principle of human actions ; that God Himself governed
the universe by " justice," which was His Essence ; that the
test of right and wrong was not any individual will, but the
good of humanity. These doctrines were terribly revolutionary;
they were aimed at the divine right of the Caliph to do wrong.
Tom Paine could scarcely preach worse. On the other hand,
the clerical party taught very properly " God is the Sovereign ;
as the sovereign does no wrong, so God can do no wrong."
There could be no question which of these two doctrines was
true. The days of Rationalism were now over under the
Abbasides. Expelled from Bagdad, it took refuge in Cairo,
which was worse, for if there was one place which the Abbaside
Caliphs hated with the hatred of death, that was Cairo. The
very name of Rationalism became one of dire import to the
Pontiffs of Bagdad. A College of Jurists was established to
ferret out " heresy " in the writings of the philosophers and
scientists, whose misfortune was still to live within the reach
of the patristic influences. The works in which the smallest
taint was observed were committed to the flames ; their authors
were subjected to tortures and to death. Islam now presented
the spectacle of orthodox Christendom. There was a time
when, in spite of the fact that the temporal power was arrayed
against it, Rationalism would have regained its hold on the
masses. In their constant disputations the clerical party
always found themselves worsted ; and though, on these
occasions, they not infrequently invoked the more forcible
reasoning of the sword and bricks and stones, their defeats
in argument perceptibly told on the ranks of their followers.


It was at this period that the retrogressive party received the
assistance of an unexpected ally. Hitherto they had fought
against Reason with their usual repertory of traditions. Abu'l
Hasan al-Asha'ri, 1 a descendant of the famous Abu Musa
al-Asha'ri, who had been tricked by 'Amr ibn al-'As into
abandoning the rights of the Caliph Ali, was educated among
the Mu'tazilas. He had learnt their logic, their philosophy,

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 47 of 55)