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The Fallacy of Philosophical Logic & Reasoning An Insight into Ibn Taymiyya’s Radd ‘ala al-Mantiqiyyin

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The great British philosopher, logician and mathematician, Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) wrote in his autobiography (1950, p. 395):

When I survey my life, it seems to me to be a useless one, devoted to impossible ideals. My activities continue from force of habit, and in the company of others I forget the despair which underlies my daily pursuits and pleasure. But when I am alone and idle, I cannot conceal from myself that my life had no purpose, and that I know of no new purpose to which to devote my remaining years. I find myself involved in a vast mist of solitude both emotional and metaphysical, from which I can find no issue.

Russell’s reflections are typical of those who trust in a particular style of reasoning as the means by which human beings can know and understand themselves and the world they live in. After a lifetime devoted to this style of reasoning, they become disappointed with reason altogether because it is unable to account for the most general, fundamental and most obvious of all realities: namely, that humans are intelligent and the world is intelligible to them, that the world seems to demand and reward human curiosity. Reason cannot account for the existence of reason. It is so, but reason cannot tell us why and how it is so.

Reason also cannot account for how and why we understand and respond to notions of value, like love, justice, truth, beauty, happiness, and their opposites. Notions like these form the basis of all the important practical judgements we make in life: who and what we like or dislike, what we strive for, our own behaviours and lifestyle and how we respond to others. We cannot define these values in any way that will apply to all situations or be agreed and accepted by all people. And yet in judging actual, particular situations we somehow know when these values are adequately expressed and when they are not.

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All human beings understand these values and have words for them.  They also have the competence to express themselves generally: they have the competence to hold in their own minds and convey to other minds, their perceptions of the real world outside them, and the feelings prompted by those perceptions. More than that, they can think, remember and imagine many things that are not directly prompted by anything in the world outside their minds. All human beings have this ability to express themselves, spontaneously and uniquely, with or without a prompt from someone else or from the world outside the mind. This ability takes different forms in different environments: humans do not all speak the same language, but they do all speak.

Our competence to hold perceptions and impressions in the mind, within the system of signs that we call language, and to hold them independently of any condition in the world outside the mind, enables us to compare this and that, to see patterns, to make analogies, to make suppositions, to plot and plan. This is how we learn: we make mistakes in perceptions and judgements, then we work through the errors and improve our perceptions and judgements; our plans go wrong, and then we try to make better plans. Because we can store what we have learnt in our language, what we learn and how fast we learn gathers pace and volume. Again, it is a mystery on top of a mystery that we can keep doing this and yet never seem to run out of storage space: our minds and language systems are, for all practical purposes, unbounded. Human beings do not just collect the food given in the world like nuts and berries and cereals, and the flesh of hunted or reared animals, they combine flavours and textures and fragrances: they cook, and so enlarge their own appetite as well as their ability to survive in different environments. This applies in all domains of human activity.

Nevertheless, for all its curiosity, its linguistic and rational competence, the human mind cannot see the whole of itself in action. We cannot predict or control all the conditions that affect our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and actions; we cannot predict or control all the consequences of our actions, not even upon ourselves and those near us, let alone upon people far removed from us in place and time, not to speak of the earth’s life-system as a whole. We can watch other people looking but we cannot, ourselves, see ourselves in the act of looking. That is how it is. We can know that we will die, but we cannot, so to speak, live through our own death. We can live through other people’s death, never our own. It is at this boundary that we experience our deepest need to know and understand, and the reason and language that seemed to serve us so well here fail us. This is the boundary of the seen and the unseen.

The need to cross this boundary is the root of the religious impulse. If there were no input from the unseen, this impulse could not exist. But it does exist. We are flooded with feelings of uncertainty, about why we exist at all if we are to die, why we have feelings, motives and effects in the world that we cannot fully understand, why we are followed by our past though it is no longer there, why we are thrown towards our future in great rushes of hope and fear. If there were no input from the unseen these feelings would paralyse us. But there is input: it is this that we call religion. Of this there are numerous forms in the world. The believers say the only reliable form of religion is what has been conveyed by the Prophets, men informed by God from the unseen and informed about the unseen. Muslims are exceptionally fortunate in that what our Prophet informed us about is perfectly preserved in the Qur’an, and almost as reliably preserved in the record of his teaching and example, the Sunna.

Because religion informs us about what we have not directly perceived, and more importantly, because it begins in an act of affirmation — we must affirm the truthfulness of the Prophets and their teaching before we begin to live by that teaching and its truth becomes a certainty for us – there is a human tendency to resist religion, to rebel against the Prophets, to distract from their message. This can take the form of an outright denunciation of the Prophet’s message as a fairy-tale or nonsense. But it can also take the form of an approval of the Prophet’s message as a necessary comforting delusion for the masses, but still a delusion. This approval is expressed in two ways: either the delusion is corrected by re-stating the Prophet’s message in the language of philosophical propositions which convey the message in abstract concepts, rigorously assembled as an argument. Or it can take the form of a thoroughly subversive alternative to the Prophet’s message, which claims insight into the unseen just as the Prophet’s message does, but is fundamentally contrary to the Prophet’s message: so if the Prophet teaches that God is absolutely other than His creatures, the alternative teaches that God and His creatures are essentially one and the same; if the Prophet teaches that Pharaoh was a wicked tyrant who is punished in this life and in the hereafter, the alternative teaches that Pharaoh understood the reality that he and God are essentially the same, and so he, Pharaoh, is entirely forgiven.

These two ways of resisting the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) message have in common the idea that this message is not expressed as it should be, that what it says in fact is not what it means; what it says is not how things really are. In short, both these ways believe that the revelation does not establish the truth, rather it establishes the rules and norms of a civic religion, a way useful to the elites for keeping the masses in order. The truth is something else, known to the philosophers, or known to the ittihadi Sufi shaykhs. These two ways have something else in common, namely the legacy of Greek philosophy, albeit the falasifa and the mutakallimun depend more heavily upon Aristotle, and the ittihadi Sufis depend more heavily upon Plato. Ibn Taymiyyah’s Radd ‘ala l-mantiqiyyin is a reasoned polemic against both, and one of the most vigorous defences of realist thinking ever written. Needless to say, he defends realist thinking, not for its own sake, but for the sake of defending Islam as a belief and as a way of life.

Imam Ibn Taymiyyah (661-728/1263-1328) was a great Muslim thinker of Damascus. Besides his excellence in the traditional Islamic sciences, he was a great expert in logic, philosophy, theology and linguistics. He admits that had there been no Prophets, the philosophers would have been the best people on the face of the earth. He appreciates that philosophers raise and think about the right questions. But they do not have the right tools to get the answers that will benefit them or humankind. This is a point that he has elaborated in most of his major works, like Dar’ al-ta`arud bayna al-`aql wa-l-naql, al-Radd `ala al-mantiqiyyin and many of the essays and articles collected in Majmu` al-Fatawa.

In al-Radd `ala al-mantiqiyyin, he discusses in detail the methodological problems of philosophical logic, which is praised by the philosophers as the criterion or measure of right thinking, i.e., it has the same importance for reasoning as grammar has for language. His argument is that a methodology which can work within the domain of any narrowly defined discipline cannot necessarily work in other domains, and certainly does not hold for human reasoning as whole. His criticism against Greek logic is not that it cannot work in a limited disciplinary context, but that it should not be applied as a sort of test to every science and every effort of reasoning. (The philosophers and theologians explicitly deployed it in the discourse on metaphysical and theological questions, and in the argumentation used in jurisprudence and Arabic grammar.)

In the Radd Ibn Taymiyyah focuses on four claims of the logicians:

(1) that tasawwur (conceptualisation) cannot be attained except through hadd (a particular style of definition);

(2)that  tasdiq (affirmation, judgement) cannot be established except after qiyas al-shumul (syllogism; a particular style of reasoned demonstration);

3) that the hadd leads to reliable tasawwur;

and (4) that the qiyas leads to certain or near-certain tasdiq. Ibn Taymiyyah demonstrates the errors of the logicians in all four points in their theoretical discussions and practical application.

[For a detailed discussion of this subject please refer to the online seminar by Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi on al-Radd `ala al-mantiqiyyin (Refutation of Greek Logicians) of Ibn Taymiyyah as part of the Introduction to Classical Islamic Texts Series at Cambridge Islamic College – www.cambridgeislamiccollege.org]

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zdv7XRL82rc

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Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi is an Islamic scholar from the Indian city of Jaunpur and a graduate of the world renowned Nadwatul Ulama (India) where he studied and taught Shariah. Shaykh Akram is a Muhaddith of the highest calibre who has specialised in Ilm ul Rijal (the study of the narrators of Hadith). He has Ijaza (licenses) from over 600 scholars. Shaykh Akram Nadwi has a doctorate in Arabic Language and has authored and translated over 25 titles on Language, Jurisprudence, Qur’an and Hadith. In May 2010, he completed a monumental 457-volume work on the lives of female scholars of Hadith in Islamic History. Also now available in English is Madrasah Life (2007) the translation (from Urdu) of his personal memoir of a student’s day at Nadwat al-Ulama. Shaykh Akram is the recipient of the Allama Iqbal prize for contribution to Islamic thought. As a leading scholar steeped in traditional Islamic learning and in modern academia, Shaykh Akram is a former research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford. He is the Dean and the Academic Director of the Cambridge Islamic College.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Azmath

    March 13, 2015 at 8:41 AM

    Awesome!!! MashaAllah – really love this article. Please MM post more such articles on philosophy, logic and reasoning. It really helps get an insight into how thoughtful and amazing muslim scholars really were. Islam really calls for very deep reflection. Loved it very much!

  2. Stardusty Psyche

    March 19, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    Atheists like Russell and I do not “trust in…reasoning as the means…”. Immediately, brother Nadwi, I see you lack even the most basic understanding of the atheistic philosophy you are commenting on.

    We atheists are well aware that there is the potential for faulty perception and faulty reasoning. We simply do our best to perceive and reason as well as we seem to be able to do. “Trust” simply is not a factor.

    Neither do we become disappointed with reason itself, rather, we come to the realization through reasoning that human life has no ultimate purpose relative to the universe as a whole. Our lives only have the meanings we and our fellow humans assign to ourselves. Such meaning, our reasoning tells us, is transitory and ultimately insignificant as compared to the fate of the universe as a whole.

    Reasoning does account for intelligence. Reason most certainly does account for the existence of reason itself. Brains have evolved. You can read all about it from thousands of sources.

    Love, beauty, justice and all the rest are evolutionary artifacts, often observable in other species besides homo sapiens sapiens. Biological and cultural evolution have resulted in our having empathy and connections to each other and our environment because they impart a net survival advantage, or are side effects of such evolutionary processes.

    Indeed, we are pattern seeking animals that seek explanations for phenomena we perceive, both outside ourselves and within our own thoughts. Lacking any good explanation we invent imaginary explanations. Thousands of such speculations have been made up over millennia taking the form of almost uncountable imagined gods and spirits you would now dismiss as mere fantasy.

    We atheists share in your dismissal of all these thousands of imagined gods and spirits. We just go one god more :-)

    Peace
    Stardusty Psyche

    • A

      March 26, 2015 at 2:57 PM

      Appreciate the etiquette in which you posted that comment.

      Nonetheless, I’ve always found the verse below to be so relevant to atheists:

      “Think [Prophet] of the man who has taken his own desire as a god: are you to be his guardian? Do you think that most of them hear or understand? ” (The Qur’an 25: 43-44)

      In ditching religion, they form their own religion. In dismissing God, they construct their own god to worship – not one made of clay or stone, but of pure desire. Whatever conclusion they stumble upon by solely relying on reason, they blindly follow and wholeheartedly adopt into their lives. That is until their reason says something else, and their lives change 360 degrees.

      It is unfortunate that in ignoring their very nature, and its longing to worship one God and one alone, they invite so much instability in their lives and so much confusion. If they ever stumble upon the truth, and that is a big IF, it is after centuries of trial and error.

      • StardustyPsyche

        March 27, 2015 at 1:29 AM

        “A” is the shortest name I have ever encountered !-) Ok, maybe that means answer or author or something…

        Why would you suppose that atheists worship anything at all? Qur’an 25: 43-44 is not at all insightful into the atheistic outlook. Why would we consider ourselves to be gods if we think there are not gods at all?

        It seems theists theists are so steeped in worship of a god of some sort that most generally seem to assume we all must worship something as a god, so lacking any one of the thousands of proposed deities then theists such as yourself apparently feel obliged to identity who or what my “god” is.

        I don’t have a god, or a worship object, or a worshiped concept…most especially not myself or any of my faculties.

        “Blindly follow”…”wholeheartedly adopt”…”instability”…”confusion”. Gee whizzz, I am one really messed up guy!!!

        Sorry A, but we atheists are not blindly lurching from fad to fad, blindly following and wholeheartedly adopting. Most of us think scientifically, which is to say provisionally and evidence based.

      • John

        March 27, 2015 at 5:22 PM

        What truth? Moslem truth, my Christian truth, my friend’s Jewish
        truth, or our atheist’ buddy’s truth?
        Scientifically, our mind is the primary creative force in our reality, and
        the law of attraction principles apply, cant deny we all have atoms inside
        billion years old if you believe there are satellites up there.i mean, we can deny, does not mean it does not exist.. anyone can deny anything :) i am denying everyday things that dont belong in my “picture” of reality, we all are, but I hope that existence of atoms is a common belief between us, even with our spiritual and religious differences. God is the same, in my view, but I
        accept is not in yours on in any other individual’s perspective. My ego is
        not hurt if Atheists or anyone else dont believe in God, much less in my
        God. My relationship with God is my own, and is no better or worse than
        yours. Its my private perspective, and I am also free to think the world
        would be a much better place if people saw my “truth”. You can argue that
        i should listen to yours, I am not arguing that point of view towards mine,
        saying mine is the right one, the real one, or the best one. I try to love
        you all, within the principles of unconditional love, without expecting
        retribution, and I am sorry we cant talk more about things we have in
        common, instead of talking about our differences all the time.
        Not using this my convenient “truth” to get away of my terrestrial human
        positive compassionate duties that include trying my best to give
        unconditional love (Buddah’ type :) , that in my perspective are clearly
        drafted in my mind.

        Meaningful to me means Its expressed by anyone’s example of servicing
        others, wiht great examples of their convictions (aka passion, because
        passion can take us to places that talent cannot reach) and at the same
        time neutrality in judging others by our own standards. Anyone is free to believe whatever they want, and being neutral in harmony with the universe means that the sum of the activity=0 Zero, Nada. Thinking that I am right and you wrong, only exists in my own little head, and vice versus.

        I think one needs to be careful sometimes with words that only a
        few in the world know the meaning, words that might hide that golden
        nugget, but can also keep them prisioners in their own sandbox foreva! :D.

        What can we do together instead of trying to say loudly how good we are, how much do we really know about any given subject?
        You don’t get respect by demand it, it happens by our own example.

    • sperc

      March 26, 2015 at 8:36 PM

      Your comments typify the usual atheist rhetoric but they fail to address the deeper epistemological concern, viz. Münchhausen trilemma. Read about that and then you will understand the significance of what is described here:
      http://spiritualperception.org/the-real-battle-meaningful-vs-meaningless/

      • StardustyPsyche

        March 27, 2015 at 2:22 AM

        Thanks for the link, Sperc. Not to my surprise, it consists of a few interesting subjects raised in the framework of straw men, poorly reasoned arguments, and hopelessly vague scriptural quotes.

        ‘philosophical skepticism’ and ‘philosophical naturalism’ are defined in terms that simply do not represent any seriously held positions.

        Meaning is relative. One thing means something in relation to something else. Meaning is descriptive of relationship. Thus, all of existence has no meaning in this sense, because by definition there is nothing outside of all of existence for all of existence to relate to.

        Indeed we may entertain the notion that we do not exist, but, in entertaining that notion we are drawn inexorably to the realization that we must exist in order to entertain the notion that we do not exist. Cogito ergo sum.

        I can consider the speculation that I am god and you are all simply figures of my divine imagination, and neither you nor I can absolutely disprove that speculation. But, I have no positive evidence for that speculation, and in principle, there is no upper bound on the number of such speculations that might be put forth, so it seems infinitesimally likely I am god. I thus choose to live my life on the provisional basis that I am more or less what I perceive myself to be since that seems to be born out by my everyday experiences.

        It is true, Sperc, that I did not attempt an exhaustive dissertation on epistemology, but this is pretty basic stuff here…certainly nothing new that I have somehow uniquely expressed.

        As far as getting wisdom from the Qur’an…well, no…there is about a half a cupful of some good rehashed common knowledge, and the rest is either fantasy, or nonsense, or violent fascism or just mundane pointlessness.

        In case you have not noticed, a very great deal of violence and destruction is being perpetrated in the world right now in the name of Allah’s word as it was delivered by his messenger and the example of said messenger…led by people with very deep theological and scholarly knowledge of the Qur’an and the Hadith.

        All in all, the Qur’an is about the last place I would look to for any kind of positive or useful insights.

        So, I do appreciate the interesting link, but given the poorly constructed philosophical arguments plus the vague and rather pointless Qur’an quotations Dr. M. Nazir Khan unfortunately did nothing to improve upon all such articles of Islamic philosophy I have read thus far.

      • sperc

        March 27, 2015 at 5:38 PM

        Stardust, I’m surprised you were unable to address the issue specifically raised – namely Munchausen’s trilemma. I understand that you may be academically unequipped to handle such questions, but don’t underestimate yourself! Try and read up about Munchausen’s trilemma and attempt a thoughtful response. No dissertations required, just a direct answer. The trilemma pertains to evidentiary justifications – so you can keep repeating phrases like “positive evidence” but it reveals only that you are oblivious to the fact this is precisely the notion that is problematized by the trilemma. Try seeking education, it’s not a bad thing y’know.

        And unfortunately, just calling the article poor reasoning and then spouting red herrings about ‘moslem violence’ is unlikely to get you anywhere in intellectually competent dialogue. You are in a position to adjudicate very deep and sound theological knowledge of Quran and Hadith? Please. Do tell – which basic references on principles of jurisprudence are you familiar with? Ibn Qudamah’s (d/620H) Rawdah al-Nadhir? Ibn Hazm’s (d.456H) al-Ihkam? al-Zarkashi’s (d.794H) Bahr al-Muhit? Let me know. And please do yourself a favour so you don’t repeat the fallacies outlined here:
        http://spiritualperception.org/the-tactics-of-bigotry/

  3. Reed

    March 19, 2015 at 11:08 AM

    “Reason also cannot account for how and why we understand and respond to notions of value, like love, justice, truth, beauty, happiness, and their opposites.”

    This is not true. There’s a considerable body of research that looks at the biological bases for love, beauty, and so on.

    • Rizwan Ahmed

      March 27, 2016 at 10:14 PM

      I am a geneticist, and there is no biological reason for ‘love’ or ‘justice’ as used in the typical sense. In fact, the evolutionary instinct points in the opposite direction. Could you provide references?

  4. sperc

    March 26, 2015 at 8:31 PM

    The article by M. Akram Nadwi expresses an idea that is very similar to what is fully flushed out in detail here:

    http://spiritualperception.org/the-real-battle-meaningful-vs-meaningless/
    http://spiritualperception.org/fitrah-the-primordial-nature-of-man/

    Enjoy!

  5. Say

    March 26, 2015 at 10:06 PM

    “and one of the most vigorous defences of realist thinking ever written.”

    This is a joke, right?

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