Asem al-Fouli on the misconceptions of the Egyptian secularists (Part 2)

Asem al-Fouli on the misconceptions of the Egyptian secularists (Part 2)

First appeared in Arabic on

*Socrates argued for reason as the basis for knowledge, so he was accused of corrupting the minds of the young people and was sentenced to death by poisoning.

*Orientalists managed to establish the idea that Ancient Greek civilization represented the path to reason, freedom and truth, while Islamic civilization without it would have been incapable of developing systematic thinking.

In part 1, we set out the claim of some secularists that the Islamic intellectual heritage is characterized by the lack rationality, based on the rejection by our scholars of the philosophy and logic of Aristotle. We then set out the views of some contemporary philosophers in respect of the definition of philosophy, its objectives and scope. We explained how there is no specific thing that can be called philosophy, rather that there are many contradictory and conflicting philosophies, and furthermore that philosophical thought is not comprised of pure reason, rather of many individual subjective factors.

For part 1, follow this link:

In this second part, we review the most important philosophers of the Greeks whose views circulated among Muslims, so that the reader can consider what it may have been that provoked our scholars to oppose them. In part 3 we shall demonstrate what the position of these Muslim scholars actually was, how their objections to Greek philosophy had nothing to do with their concern with reason, as some of them would actually use these very tools to refute Greek philosophical arguments. In part 4 we shall then deal with the criticisms of these tools by Muslim intellectuals.

* * * * *


It seems that Orientalists have succeeded – in virtue of their persistence – to establish the idea that Ancient Greek civilization represented the path to reason, freedom and truth, while Islamic civilization without it would have been incapable of developing systematic thinking, despite the fact that the most prominent intellectual achievements of Muslims had already been achieved prior to any knowledge Greek philosophy or the logic of Aristotle, on the basis that the most prominent Islamic intellectual achievements involve jurisprudence, its principles and what accompanied them in terms of the sciences. All this had been established whether in terms of jurisprudential rules or principles, before the beginning of the translations from Greek and the consequent exposure of our scholars to Greek thought. Nevertheless, matters are approach entirely differently by some secular intellectuals. They never discuss whether Muslims learned correct reasoning from the Greeks, or whether we developed our own traditions independently, they claim rather that our scholars refused rational thinking in of itself when they objected to Greek ideas, thus denying that we relied on reasoning for our arguments against the Greeks in the first place. This is clearly a different issue, which to answer requires first a review of Greek philosophy, which was the only philosophy that circulated at the time of the ancients in the early Muslim community.

Greek philosophy

When philosophy began in Greece, and questions were asked about the origin of the objects, it was only natural that physical explanations would be arrived at. Where the philosophers here who would have influence on Muslim culture did believe in one eternal God, their belief was, however, not based on religion or revelation, but on pure abstract thought. Greek religion didn’t supply these great minds with a basis for their thinking, because Greek religion was a religion steeped in paganism, worshipping gods described as being involved in immoral acts such as robbery, kidnapping, treason, and raping mortal human beings, producing half-gods as a result. Thus any reasoning person thinking on eternal matters would have had to brush aside all such ideas. In fact, we note that much older pagan religion from Ancient Egypt had sought to promote gods with a greater sense of moral principle and cosmic responsibility than these Greek gods, apart from “Seth” who was, after all, the Egyptian god of evil. We don’t know what it could have been in the value-system of the Ancient Greeks that led them to imagine such ignominious gods.

Greek thinkers and their abstract concerns

Greek thinkers focused exclusively on intellectual abstract and theoretical issues, without getting involved in concerns of the material life, such as technological innovation or the development of production methods. Similarly their abstract thought eschewed experimentation or the testing of theories, even when they considered the phenomena of nature around them. This contemplative impractical approach would seem to have been an expression of classes of people who relied on slaves, as Will Durant explains: “There was contempt by Greeks towards manual labour, which meant that only slaves were really concerned with production processes. Only intimate involvement with the machinery of production could reveal its flaws and produce a desire in people for technical innovation”.

 The industry of Pharaoh

But slavery couldn’t have been the only reason for Greek society to favour the contemplative mode of thinking. Taking the example of Ancient Egypt, once again, we find a caste system there, on the summit of which sat Pharaoh as god, with the priestly aristocracy enjoying high positions from their access to the substantial revenues generated by the endowments of vast tracts lands to their temples. Despite this, these priests pioneered advanced technologies, and were a repository of considerable knowledge that continues to bewilder the world until this day. So, none of this social context can have a bearing on our discussion. What is important is simply that Greek philosophy was based on the idea that everything had a nature which was the thing had an effect on itself or on the external world, and that the mind can perceive such a “nature of things”, in virtue of abstract thought, and that thought abstract alone all facts could be discovered.

* * * * *

Greek metaphysics

Despite the general confusions and misconceptions surrounding the thinking of the philosophers of the Greeks in regard to the attributes of God and how they relate to the world, their proofs of the existence of God still evoke admiration, and attest to the fact that logical minds cannot but acquiesce in the idea that the world could not exist without a higher power. It is their logical proofs that we have inherited. Although it is not our task here to describe these proofs, but many Muslim theologians accepted them, finding that the Qur’an had already used them. They extracted verses on the subject from the Qur’an and explained them in ways that did not differ much from the explanations of Aristotle and Plato and other Greek philosophers.
But the thinking of these philosophers – in spite of its beauty and strength – does not transcend this material world, so that when it tries to express what is behind it in order to understand the attributes of God and how they relate to the world, they have nothing other than speculative hypotheses, which to us seem odd and untenable. But could there be anything more than this to the mind? The experience of Greeks confirms what Muslims knew from the outset: that the mind can grasp the existence of God, but does not have the ability to know the attributes nor of the relationship of God to His creatures.
We set out below those illustrious names among Greeks philosophers who believed in the eternal God, who necessarily exists and who is the efficient cause of all things.


Socrates saw ethics in his time as collapsing before the polemics of the sophists. So his concern was to establish a firm basis for knowledge applicable to all, to overcome the deceptions and evasions of the sophists, by defending a foundation from reason rather than from the senses, and by attempting to prove the existence of unalterable truths evident to all minds, and to which they would comply. The purpose of this was to establish principles acceptable to all from which virtue would be defined. Ultimately however he was tried on charges of corrupting the youth through excessive debate and convicted, and was sentenced to death by poisoning.
The Socrates had his own private faith in an eternal and transcendent God, and believed that death was not the end. He believed there were eternal ethical principles that could not be built on the shaky foundations of Athenian religion, although he acknowledged the gods of Mount Olympian and their associated rituals.


Plato was a disciple of Socrates, and followed his rationalism. However,he framed it in “idealist” terms, a concept somewhat difficult to describe, but centered on the idea of shared meanings between “forms”, such as ugliness and beauty, reason and the senses. For our minds to be able to consider and conceived of these shared meanings, there had to be preconceived ideas about these meanings. So where would such a preconceived idea actually come from? If he had called it an invention of our minds, then we would be at the mercy of sophistry, in virtue of allowing everyone the possibility of adjusting meanings to give them qualities supportive of particular points of view. To overcome this,we would have to accept the idea that universal meanings had a truly independent presence, and were not purely ideas in our own minds. Plato called such meanings “ideals”. He also said that our souls, before being distilled into our bodies, existed in the world of “ideals”, and after this process of distillation, partially forgot the world of ideals. So learning is remembering “ideals”, whilst ignorance is forgetting them. For Plato, “ideals” as abstract concepts existing in of themselves, which are the essence of things and not dependent on anything. They are not creations of God but are permanent and eternal, which are not being specified in either time or space.

Plato believed in the eternal God as a necessary being, and the efficient cause of the world. However, when he sought to explain how God created the world, he encountered a contradiction that would later be experienced by many. He couldn’t imagine creation as being ex nihilo; so categorising things in terms of “matter” and “form”, he saw “matter” in origin as something chaotic or unformed, which God simply found and did not create. He also saw the “ideals” that were abstract forms, and shaped original matter into these forms. This was Plato’s God.


Aristotle conceived of an eternal world (i.e. existing without beginning or reason or cause). Eternal in terms of “matter”, “form”, “movement” and its “prime mover”, this being, of course, God. This world has no beginning, and God did not create ex nihilo, and God’s existence is not prior to the existence of the world. So God’s relationship to the world is not one of causation such that time is involved. It is, instead, a logical relationship, where the principles were provided for the outcomes, but in terms of thought not in terms of time. What led Aristotle to these thoughts was his belief in the eternity of “movement”, while this belief was reached by thinking as follows: given that the “prime mover” – God – is fixed and unchanging, having the same capacity from time immemorial, if we assumed that there was a time without movement, the consequence of this is that movement is not eternal, and while the “prime mover” having continued in his capacity since time immemorial, it cannot be imagined that he would, at some stage, be invited to preponderate. Who could there be apart from the preponderator to do so? So “movement” had to be eternal (this was refuted by Abu Hamid Ghazali using logic, which we shall return to). Aristotle’s God does not move the world by pushing it, because it would imply that he would have to conceive God’s movement in space, instead it is driven by a movement of attraction, such God is fixed and is not seen as moving as such, but the world is attracted to God as love is attracted to the loved.

God in the eyes of Aristotle does nothing ever other than think (perhaps because Aristotle himself does nothing over than think). He has no desires nor the will nor a goal, being absolute perfection, does not want for anything because he has everything, and therefore does nothing. His only role is to think about the essence of things, and given that He himself is the essence of things, His role is to think about himself. In Aristotle’s attempt to dislike God, he denied him any act of will, or planning, or organising this world, for he does not interfere in it. He thus awarded everything its own nature, and left the world to develop according to the “nature of things”, an idea which is still to this day dominant in the minds of many.

Aristotle set out the foundations of logic, which earned him the title of the first teacher first. He also had many ideas about the natural sciences, but these were the result of a process of abstract reflection shorn of any experimentation. He despised all manual labour, so his ideas on the natural sciences were set out as a series of amusing anecdotes. These were adopted by the (Catholic) Church after that as part of its Biblical exegesis, punishing such as rejected this authority. In the field of Astronomy Ibn Rushd talks about him in his “Tahāfut al-tahāfut” as says: “The sky is an animal obedient to God in respect of its circular movement, and is eternal (its presence cannot be ascribed to any prior reason) incorruptible, comprehensive, simple and light in weight, moving as a spirit, and circular motion cannot occur without a spirit… ” and so on.