On taqlid, or blind emulation

An artistic representation of Islamic philosophers

Last month I wrote an article that briefly summarized two important concepts from Islamic philosophy, taqlid and ijtihad, which roughly translate to assent and freethinking.

In this article, I’ll be further illustrating taqlid by discussing its use in a seminal text of Islamic philosophy, al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers, where assent or unreflecting emulation of Greek philosophy is identified as a regrettable source of religious disbelief.

Clash of cultures

In the centuries following Islam an entire civilization had sprung out in miraculous fashion, combining multiple ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups under its expanding domain. More than just a personal religion, Islam served as the social and political framework of this nascient order.

When Muslims, beginning with the philosopher al-Kindi, began translating and absorbing works of Greek philosophy, they were faced with a cross-roads. Their concept of truth had been synonymous with the doctrines of Islam as outlined in the Quran. Now, the peripatetic tradition of Greek philosophy introduced an entirely new source of truth, apodixis: irrefutable statements founded on logical syllogisms and scientific investigations of the world.

Not every Muslim thinker responded to this contradiction with hositility. al-Kindi himself was welcoming of the Greek philosophical tradition, saying this much in his text On First Philosophy:

We ought not to be ashamed of appreciating the truth and of acquiring it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. For the seeker of truth nothing takes precedence over the truth, and there is no disparagement of the truth, nor belitting either of him who speaks of it or of him who conveys it. The status of no one is diminished by the truth; rather does the truth ennoble all.

In fact, a central argument of that treatise was that religion comprised the ‘first philosophy’, being an investigation of the first and primordial cause of truth, namely God. Needless to say, al-Kindi didn’t see the Greek and Islamic conceptions of truth as mutually exclusive.

However, some Islamic philosophers did. al-Ghazali, one of the most prominent of the early Islamic philosophers, wrote his text The Incoherence of the Philosophers as the first rigorous response to the Greek peripatetic tradition. In this text, al-Ghazali argues that while logic and math are not opposed to Islamic doctrine, precisely three of the metaphysical principles argued by the Greek philosophers are tantamount to blasphemy, while seventeen others are heretical innovations which should be considered false but nonetheless tolerable.

al-Ghazali represents takes a more hostile position against Greek philosophy than other Islamic philosophers, most certainly al-Kindi. But it also contains an enlightening use of the Islamic concept of taqlid.

Aristotle and the boys

The accusation of taqlid

In the first section of The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali charges an unnamed group of Muslims with a laxness in religious belief and practice. Inspired by the Greek philosophers, this group has all but abandoned Islamic principles and no longer recognizes the authority of scripture.

In analyzing how the reverence of Greek philsophy has resulted in this irreligious state, al-Ghazali states that taqlid, or unreflecting emulation and borrowing of opinion, is the cause. He writes:

I saw a group of people who — being themselves convinced to be distinct from the companions and peers by virtue of a special clever talent and quick wit — have rejected the duties ofIslam regarding acts of worship, who have disdained religious rites pertaining to the office of prayer and the avoidance of prohibited things, who have belittled the devotions and ordinances prescribed by the divine law, and who have not stopped in the face of prohibitions and restrictions … There is no basis to their unbelief other than emulation (taqlid) of what they hear and what is most familiar to them, such as the emulation of the Jews and the Christians, since their upbringing and that of their children has followed a religion other than that of Islam.

Here, al-Ghazali likens the unbelief of those influenced by the Greek philosophers to Jews and Christians, insofar as both base their beliefs in emulation or assent to authority. But if Christians teach the divinity of Jesus Christ in direct contradiction to Islam, what teaching in Greek philosophy is causing Muslims to go astray? Precisely the three teachings mentioned earlier, which al-Ghazali categorizes as blasphemous statements.

On first glance, it may seem confusing that a group following the Greek tradition — whose philosophers developed the most rigorous form of independent truth-testing — are being charged with unreflecting assent, especially by a Muslim whose beliefs necessarily derive from submitting to the authority of the Quran. But this is precisely al-Ghazali’s point: that the Greek philosophers’ metaphysical notions, such as the idea that the world is pre-eternal, are not a matter of apodictic knowledge but pure speculation.

Thus, al-Ghazali says that the Greek philosophers, who have developed certain forms of irrefutable knowledge (the apodictic truths of logic and math), nonetheless engage in purely speculative deliberations about metaphysics. The unnamed group mentioned in The Incoherence of the Philosophers is charged with blindly accepting the metaphysical conclusions of Greek philosophers, which contradict Islam, on the basis of their possession of apodixis.

Page from a Quranic manuscript

Taqlid and contemporary science

al-Ghazali identified a certain class of thinkers, namely the Greek philosophers of the peripatetic school, whose possession of irrefutable knowledge made them sources of unreflecting emulation among Muslims. Being a man of devout faith, he was obviously disturbed by the fact that this emulation — what he called taqlid — was causing them to fall into disbelief, neglecting religious duties and rejecting matters of religious principle.

In my previous article on the subject, I showed that the average person relies on taqlid for a variety of beliefs about the world: obscure facts about history, archaeology, physics, chemistry, and so on. To illustrate this I referenced an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where a character is forced to admit that he hadn’t himself seen any fossil records, and that he was therefore assenting (albeit, pretty soundly) to the testimony of biologists.

That we assent to scientists in cases of complicated and hard-to-demonstrate facts is perfectly acceptabe, as far as I’m concerned. But if we can find a modern-day version of al-Ghazali’s argument in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, it’s in our tendency to accept scientists as authorities of morality. In the same way that al-Ghazali emphasized that metaphysical speculation didn’t share the definitiveness of logic and math, we should also bear in mind that the opinion of scientists in ethical and religious matters doesn’t partake in the soundness of their scientific positions.

In other words: science itself is an amoral convention, and those who dedicate their lives to it are in no greater a position to speak about ethics or religion than anyone else. Science is great for understanding how the world works, but it’s useless — and maybe even harmful — when it comes to how to act in it.

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