Skepticism in Classical Islam: Moments of Confusion

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 Skepticism In Classical Islam
  • Book Author:
Paul L. Heck
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Skepticism in Classical Islam-The first major treatment of skepticism in Islam, this book explores the critical role of skeptical thinking in the development of theology in Islam. It examines the way key thinkers in classical Islam faced perplexing questions about the nature of God and his relation to the world, all the while walking a fine line between belief in God’s message as revealed in the Qur’an, and the power of the mind to discover truths on its own.

Skepticism in Classical Islam reveals how doubt was actually an integral part of scholarly life at this time. Skepticism is by no means synonymous with atheism.

It is, rather, the admission that one cannot convincingly demonstrate a truth claim with certainty, and Islam’s scholars, like their counterparts elsewhere, acknowledged such impasses, only to be inspired to find new ways to resolve the conundrums they faced. Whilst their conundrums were unique, their admission of the limits of knowledge shares much with other scholarly traditions.

Seeking to put Islam on the map of the broader study of the history of skepticism, this book will be of interest to scholars and students of Religion, History and Philosophy.

Paul L. Heck is associate professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University, specializing in the intellectual history of Islam. His research focuses on the development of theological discourse in Islam and its relation to Christianity, highlighting the dynamic interaction between the two religious traditions.


It is not usual to associate skepticism with Islam. Believers are not supposed to be perplexed. This study seeks to shed light on the place of Islam in the history of skepticism.

 Over the centuries, Islam’s scholars, as their counter- parts elsewhere, faced puzzling questions about the nature of God and his relation to the world. Their inability to resolve such questions required paradigm shifts: new approaches in religious thinking were needed to deal with unsolved ambiguities. This, in turn, spurred the development of doctrine in Islam.

In this study, we seek insight into the phenomenon of skepticism in Islam in its classical period, which stretched from the founding of Baghdad in the eighth century to its destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the thirteenth.

 It was a time of enlightenment when piety encouraged scientific inquiry but it was also a time of doubt and skeptical reservations about what could be known with certainty in the arena of theology.

 The scholarly writings of the period indicate that alongside the great confidence of Islam’s scholars in the power of knowledge, there was also recognition that final conclusions remained elusive.

This does not mean that Islam’s scholars did not try to resolve the conundrums they faced. The story of skepticism in Islam is as much a drive for certainty as an admission of confusion, and the scholarly virtuosi of the period, in seeking to respond to the perplexities of the day, did much to ani- mate the scholastic life of classical Islam.

One of the central conclusions of this study is that skepticism in Islam was never isolated or self-standing but was, rather, a key point of reference within a scholastic milieu where theological questions were endlessly debated. There were always contradictory views and thus there was confusion about final claims to truth within the very circles that sought to attain certainty.

The emergence of a formal school of skepticism in Islam never happened. We do have signs of one gestating from the ninth through the eleventh centuries, as we will see, but it never became established as a recognizable school. Still, this study demonstrates that skepticism was always a force at work within the scholarly history of Islam.

It is in this sense that the history of skepticism in Islam may contribute to our understanding of the broader history of skepticism, inviting us to reconsider whether skeptical thinking in other contexts—ancient or modern— been fully self-standing or whether it is better viewed more as a vital point of reference stimulating even greater efforts to answer the questions and enigmas about the nature of reality.

Skepticism is by no means a singular phenomenon. It can be a strategy used to cast suspicion on a rival’s viewpoints. It can be a way of life where one affirms the truth of equally compelling but mutually contradictory points of view. More specifically, however, it is recognition that some questions cannot be fathomed by the human mind.

 This could lead some to embrace mystery, the reverent conclusion that there are some things about God we simply cannot know. It could lead others to reject final conclusions for some if not all matters. Does it matter whether a Muslim believes the Qur’an—as God’s speech—is created or uncreated (that is, eternal as God is eternal)? Does it matter whether a Muslim believes the universe is created or eternal so long as he believes in God and the Day of Judgment? The fact that the Qur’an is silent on these two issues offers grounds for being a believer while maintaining reservations about the created or uncreated status of the Qur’an and the nature of the universe.

One can believe and—at least for some questions—still say, “I do not know” (la- adr-ı). A maxim from the classical period spoke of three kinds of knowledge: a clear (as opposed to ambiguous) verse of scripture, a well-attested hadith (saying of the Prophet), and “I do not know.”1

Skepticism, then, is not atheism. It need not even imply dissent or non- conformity. It is part of the process of human inquiry, and this was also true of scholastic life in classical Islam. Indeed, skepticism took different forms within Islam from one century to the next during the period of our survey. Our goal is to introduce Islam more fully into the history of skepticism with- out asking it to conform to the contours of skepticism in other times and places, notably Ancient Greece and Modern Europe, which are often held up as exemplars of skeptical expression.

 Islam, of course, was as much heir to Plato and Aristotle as it was to Muhammad—thanks to the translation of much of Greco-Hellenistic philosophy into the language of the Arabs begin- ning as early as the eighth and ninth centuries. Here, however, we focus on particular questions within the theological discourse in classical Islam that hardly caused scholars to abandon belief but did challenge them to admit the limitations of reasoning—and thus what we can know with certainty—about the true realities of God, God’s relation to the world, and, indeed, all things.

 The reader who hopes to be told how the skeptical heritage of Ancient Greece took shape in Arabic should stop right here. As noted, works of Greco-Hellenistic philosophy passed into Arabic with considerable impact on scholastic discourse in Islam. But Islam’s scholars were by no means parrots.

 They made use of the tools of philosophy. Indeed, in this period, it is difficult to draw a sharp distinction between philosophical and theological reflection.2 However, Islam’s scholars faced conundrums that Plato and Aristotle did not. This is the point. Skepticism is not a static phenomenon that exists uniformly across contexts. Elements of the skeptical heritage of Ancient Greece did

 appear in classical Islam, and other studies will enrich our understanding of skepticism in Islam by exploring them. But it would be wrong to reduce Islam’s scholars to carbon copies of their intellectual forebears in Ancient Greece or to suggest that they entertained doubts only when they realized that peoples before them had done so.

Here, then, the goal is to explore the contours of skepticism in Islam on its own terms without dismissing the impact of other cultures. No civilization, after all, stands alone. The study of skepticism in Islam will necessarily take various approaches.

Here, our goal is to look at the phenomenon from one angle—how questions particular to Islam defied resolution. Skepticism, then, was no foreign intrusion but grew organically out of Islam’s own discourse. Even if they used rhetorical strate- gies known from Ancient Greece, Muslims did not need to think like Greeks to gain insight into the limitations of knowledge about God.

Not all of the conundrums faced by Islam’s scholars were unique to Islam. Doubts about the power of logic to establish the truth of reality exist across a number of contexts, as does confusion about the causal order of the world. Islam’s scholars shared these perplexities, but it is also important to empha- size the historical specificity of doubt.

The perplexities of classical Islam were not, for example, those of antebellum America when abolitionists began to look askance at a scripture—long the source of cherished belief—that seemed to concede the existence of slavery.3 The puzzling questions of classical Islam were also not those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when people began to wonder how it could be equally true that man had his origins in God and also in lower primates.4

Such issues, abolitionism and evolution- ism, were simply not on the table during the classical age of Islam. Every age has its conundrums, but they take shape within a historical context, and this is no less true in the case of classical Islam.

This study underscores the fact that skepticism does not belong exclusively to the history of philosophy. Skeptical arguments, casting doubt on dogmatic assertions (which, after all, can be theological as well as philosophical), are not limited to philosophical circles in a narrow sense but extend to those who embrace the idea of a revealed message from God.

The existence of skepticism alongside belief is more common than we might think. Various kinds of skepticism have been ascribed to scholars in the Christian West who were not only philosophers but also churchmen, including Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64), Lorenzo Valla (1407–57), and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94).5

 To be sure, believers may be less inclined to remain in doubt. They may pray that doubts pass. But they are not less ready to face doubt. That believers have had (and continue to have) doubts about dogmatic teachings of one kind or…..

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