Asem al-Fouli on the misconceptions of the Egyptian secularists (Part 4)

Asem al-Fouli on the misconceptions of the Egyptian secularists (Part 4)
We have (gradually) been translating Asem al-Fouli’s important four part article on rationality in Islam for readers of this site. This series first appeared in Arabic in el-Shaab Newspaper on

For translations of the earlier parts (here) follow:
For part 1, follow this link:
For part 2, follow this link:
For part 3, follow this link:


These articles have much to commend them, however, their treatment of logic and rationality stops short of a complete synthetic picture on the matter (which if executed actually produces a different understanding of ibn Taymiyya than does an isolated picture): this will be addressed in due course (ETA: August 30).


Main points in part 4:


**Scholar-jurists and philosophers: Ibn Taymiyya begins his campaign against Aristotle before Renaissance thinkers do
**Ibn Taymiyya: None of the “definitions” of the logicians are a help to our perceptions nor their analogies a path to certainty… logic is not fit for the study of nature, only induction can be the method of science
**Francis Bacon: After two thousand years of mapping out logic and chopping it with the machine invented by Aristotle… philosophy fell and lost its self- respect
**Roger Bacon: if you gave me the freedom to do so I would burn all the books of Aristotle… their study of leads to disorientation and ignorance



Ibn Taymiyya didn’t study philosophy in search of the truth, as did Ghazālī, but he studied it in order to be able to disprove what in it was opposed to religion; in Sheikh Abu Zahra’s words “he believed in what the Prophet said first, then he sought to deny the malice in philosophy” .
Ibn Taymiyya only followed the Book, the Sunna and the ways of the companions and the successors in their understanding, with the help of his clear mind. He was appalled by the claim of the philosophers that Qur’anic proofs were said to be presumptive and that they were not seen as representing absolute certainty, as by contrast was the logic of Aristotle in the way it established proofs which led to certain propositions.


He writes: “if the theoreticians thought they were warranted in their representations in regard to the Qur’an and their views and propositions opposing it, there was in fact no correct instruction to guide or provide them with knowledge. Those who have taken this road, have all recounted their individual tales of what necessarily would become confusion and doubt… and they confirmed by their own testimony and reports about themselves, that whoever presented the Book in order to criticise it, did not gain any certainty of which he was assured, nor any knowledge of which he could be convinced. And those who claimed in regard to some matters that they had clear reasoning which contradicted the Book, they were faced with other rationalists who said: “these attributions are known to be void from clear reason, so whoever used them to contradict the Book, did not possess the wherewithal to assert a clear truth, either in virtue of the claims of the advocates themselves, or from their immediately apparent contradiction, or from counter-claims of others who followed the same reasoning”. So if you consider that the masters of philosophy themselves did not arrive at a clear truth which contradicts the Book, but only to confusion and uncertainty, or to conflicts between the parties, would others be able to?”

The idea which ibn Taymiyya emphasises is that the differences between the philosophers and their opposition to each other confirms that the tools on which they depend are not productive of certainties as they claim, otherwise all those who knew how to use would arrive at the truth, while truth is unique and cannot be different between different people. These differences between the philosophers confirms that the philosophical approach leads only to presumptive results in which the possibility of error remains, and reliance is not possible on such an approach, in opposition to the Qur’an. This goes back to the idea he explains in his ‘Staving off the conflict between reason and text or the agreement between clear reason and true reports’ where he says “divine science cannot be inferred from analogical inductive reasoning (al-qiyās al-tamthīlī) where the original and new cases are considered to be equivalent or by demonstrative reasoning (al-qiyās al-shumūlī) where particulars are considered to be equivalent. There is nothing that compares with God, so he can’t be compared with other things, and He cannot be included with other things in universals that treat all particulars on a parity. Because of this, when sects from among the philosophers and the theologians, used such forms of reasoning in addressing divine questions, they did not reach the truth, rather there proofs were contradictory”.

We shall limit our presentation to what Ibn Taymiyya was driving at, seeking to minimise the value of Aristotelian logic as a tool intended to ensure correct thinking and the validity of conclusions resulting from it, and to clarify his attitude to the philosophers, without trying to explain the different approach which he established and on which he relied in his thinking; that is another story.

Aristotelian logic

The logicians (al-munāṭaqa) would have it that knowledge either pursues a concept (taṣawwur) or a judgement (taṣdīq). Conceptualising is about finding out about what exists, and judging is about ruling on a particular matter.

Conceptualising for the philosophers has no other role than to make analytical definitions, which they call “ḥadd” and which they explain as “the expression that points to the essence of a thing”. When it comes to a mere description, the term “rasm” is used, and this is delimited (without a complete definition) through the accidents (aʿrāḍ, sing: ʿaraḍ) or properties (khawāṣṣ, sing: khāṣṣa) of the thing being defined. The “rasm” cannot help in providing the true essence of a thing, since it only describes appearances. “Taṣdīq” has no other tools in respect of the philosophers than the categorical syllogism (al-qiyās al-manṭiqī) which consists of a major premise (muqaddima kubrā) in the form of a necessary universal proposition, a minor premise (muqaddima sughrā) in the form of a proposition about particulars, and a conclusion. For example: opposites do not attract (major premise), silence opposes motion (minor premise), and the conclusion would be that any moving body cannot be silent.

In contrast with this, analogical inductive reasoning (al-qiyās al-tamthīlī) [used by the scholar-jurists] works by adding a rule on a known case to an unknown case to form from both a rationale (‘illa) for a new rule. This “induction” (istiqrā’) thus results from perusing certain particulars in order to deduce a joint universal rule, which omits all other similar particulars which are not inspected.

For Aristotle analogy and induction do not represent a form of correct reasoning, and cannot provide certainties or proofs in matters of logic. And the logicians insist that their way is the only way that leads to certain knowledge, and that any other way is useless, while ibn Taymiyya insists that both these claims are false. Neither does their way lead always and inevitably to certain knowledge, nor do all other ways fail to provide such knowledge.

Definitions do not help us to conceive of the truth

In regard to conceptualisation ibn Taymiyya replies: “Concepts arise purely in virtue of definition, and this state of affairs is unhelpful for there is a need for proof rather than just assertion. How is this obtained? If this is an assertion without knowledge, then it is so from the very start according to the rule-based system they claim protects the mind from erring in thought. For a definition is merely the assertion of the definer and his claims. If for instance he claimed that the human being was an animal that spoke and laughed, this would be a matter of experience, and a claim without any justification. Either the one listening to the claim knows of its truth without the need for the assertion or he doesn’t. If he knew, he is no better off for the definition, and if he didn’t know, how can he be sure that he correct in the claim simply in virtue of the claimant making the claim, without any proof that can add to knowledge. So in both cases it can’t be the definition which allows us to know the definiendum.

In fact, ibn Taymiyya’s analysis is difficult to refute. If you don’t actually know the essence of a thing, you cannot accept a definition which a philosopher might claim defines the essence of that thing, because the processes of logic do not cover the validation of any definition. How can it be insisted upon that concepts are unattainable without definitions. And in his Refutation of the Logicians ibn Taymiyya lists ten aspects to the baselessness of the claim of the logicians that definitions are the only way to enable conceptualising the essence of a thing.

Have a look at one of these aspects to appreciate the rationality of ibn Taymiyya’s approach:
“God gave man internal and external senses to know objects in the external world, so he knows by hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching externally, and more importantly he knows also what he experiences within himself, in “his heart”. Language does not produce concepts based on individual objects, but through analogy and combinations of words. But none of this helps to conceive of the truth; the idea being that truth conceived either internally or externally eschews assertions of definitions, thus preventing the use of such definitions. When it comes to the sense of taste, for instance, in the case of honey, no-one benefits from concepts. Whoever doesn’t taste it, just as someone who reports on sugar without tasting it, cannot grasp the truth of the matter from a definition.

He gives examples to approximate it, saying that the taste resembles such and such. Such analogy and representation is not the definition that the logicians claim. This applies also to the internal senses, such as anger, joy, sadness, gloom, knowledge and so on. Whoever experiences it conceives it, whoever doesn’t experience it cannot conceive of it with a definition, just as the blind (those afflicted with colour blindness) cannot conceive of colours through definitions, and the sexually impotent, sexual intercourse through them. So whoever says that definitions are useful in order to conceive the truth, is speaking nonsense”.

The Categorical Syllogism does not lead to certainty

Ibn Taymiyya also rejects the claims of the logicians in respect of judgements: “they don’t understand anything of judgements except through reasoning – that is the demonstrative reasoning (al-qiyās al-shumūlī) of the philosophers, not the analogical inductive reasoning (al-qiyās al-tamthīlī) of the scholar-jurists. He says: “This is not axiomatic but rather a negative stance which denies [the validity of other ways], and is not backed by evidence, and which they thus advocate without proof. How can they say that no human being can arrive at judgements which are not axiomatic, except in virtue of demonstrative reasoning? The philosophers say that certain knowledge is not possible except through proof – which for them means demonstrative reasoning – where for them there must be a proposition which is a positive universal, such that knowledge be in the form of a universal. So if what is known is axiomatic, possibly each of its particulars is axiomatic in the first place, i.e. not requiring proof, and if it were known conceptually, in other words known through theoretical reason, it would still require axiomatic knowledge [acting as the premise for the demonstration or syllogism]. So it unravels passively as part of a sequence, and is rationally void [since propositions are either axiomatic in of themselves or demanding proof as to their truth using axiomatic propositions].

Whichever of these cases becomes the universal case used as the premise for the demonstrative proof, the conclusion can be known without the use of such a proof. Ibn Taymiyya presents several instances of this: “Everybody knows that nothing moves and stay still at the same time, and knowledge of the universal proposition is not necessary (i.e. that contradictories do not combine) and so on in everything where two contradictories are known. If two meaning are known to contradict one another, they are known not to combine [and this is necessary to the mind from the necessity of non-contradiction]. And doesn’t see the contradiction cannot have any idea of the universal proposition (that contradictories do not combine). Knowing that those two meanings being contradictory do not combine, can be attained without that major premise (that contradictories do not combine). There is no lack of knowledge except in the case of that reasoning which is called demonstration”.

In summary ibn Taymiyya sees demonstrative reasoning as establishing what is in fact established already, as in the case of all human beings “are” animals, Aḥmad is a human being, thus Aḥmad is an animal, where you actually knew from the start that the human being Aḥmad was an animal, when it was you accepted that all human beings were animals, etc…

The seeds of scientific method

None of this meant that Ibn Taymiyya rejected the syllogism outright, but he felt “that it reminded him of the form of demonstrative reasoning and its terms, which involved the use of enormous energy, without effective outcome, in the sense that everything that could be done with this type of reasoning could also be done without it.

Whereas we have the parts of the body, each of which are given a name in natural science, [ibn Taymiyya] confronted the shortcoming (in demonstrative reasoning), in the correspondence between those mental conclusions resulting, as the [philosophers] claim, from the definitions [followed by] reasoning, and what we [actually] find in the external world (i.e. the parts of the body in the real world), not being certain [or exact]. This is because on the one hand you have universal mental judgements, and on the other, external objects defined in virtue of their subject matter. Perhaps mental judgements can, in virtue of these subjects, indeed be applied to external objects, but only on the basis of evidence from the senses. If the evidence of the senses does not come through their demonstration, where is that certainty that the philosophers ascribed to it?

In this last paragraph we referred to ibn Taymiyya’s fundamental idea, which while being explained, was not set out in detail, around which idea was subsequently built the modern methodology of experimental science. This required that external objects in nature be analysed, with experiments being conducted to ascertain their characteristics, and that it is not appropriate in natural science to use logical demonstration or mental reflection. And if this now becomes obvious to you, then Aristotle would have disagreed with you absolutely.

So ibn Taymiyya doesn’t disagree with Aristotelian logic from the point of view of reasoning as such, only in respect of the philosophers’ claims, firstly that this is the only way to certain knowledge, for indeed there is another way, and secondly that it is a foolproof procedure. On his view, the procedure doesn’t guarantee a certain outcome, and can cause problems and errors: ultimately, “it is a lengthy procedure, which pushes away evidence, making what is close at hand in our knowledge further away [than it needs to be], and turning what is easy into something difficult”. There is also Ibn Taymiyya’s important contribution in pointing out the usefulness of logic in the scientific research which itself should depend on observation and experiment. Note that in all his objections, he without any doubt pursues a direct logical method.

Logic and modern science

I consider that I have proved Dr. Fouad Zakaria and his followers wrong in their belief that Muslim scholar-jurists rejected logic because they felt that logical reasoning would discourage Muslims from [an attachment to] their faith. In fact, quite to the contrary: some of the most important of the ancient scholars glorified logic – not just Ḥujjat al-Islam Abu Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, and they used it to show that it was the philosophers who erred in its use. And those who attacked logic (ibn Taymiyya for instance) did not attack systematic reasoning, rather they wished to encourage thought by freeing it from the constrictions of the formalities of Aristotelian logic and allowing the potentialities of straightforward systematic thinking in all its different ways. And these were the first tremors on releasing the mind on its way to building the modern experimental scientific method of research. Modern science doesn’t emerge until after liberation from Aristotelian logic, to take the road to induction on which ibn Taymiyya became one of the first to tread, leaving behind Aristotelian demonstration… and on this, let us from some witnesses.ِِ

Aristotle believed that the syllogism, which starts from universal propositions, is the only way to get to certain knowledge. But induction doesn’t accept this unless all relevant particulars have been reviewed.Reviewing just some of them to arrive at a judgement which is then use to apply to other individual cases is not considered as productive of certain knowledge. Modern science has been built entirely on the examination of sample cases which are tested in experiments, on the basis that that the results should describe the characteristics of all similar individual cases, not only those only of the samples being examined. This describes exactly the induction followed by ibn Taymiyya, the value of which he defended in the field of experimental research; against the views of the peripatetic logicians.

Will Durant writes in his book “The Story of Philosophy”: “We are bothered, at the outset, with [Aristotle’s] insistence on logic. He thinks the syllogism a description of man’s way of reasoning, whereas it merely describes man’s way of dressing up his reasoning for the persuasion of another mind; he supposes that the thought begins with premises and seeks their conclusions, when actually thought begins with hypothetical conclusions and seeks their justifying premises” [p. 116].

At the beginning of the experimental method in Europe, it was Francis Bacon – ranked by some historians of philosophy as the greatest mind of modern times – who originated the inductive method – 400 years after ibn Taymiyya. In his work on the evidences of modern inquiry Bacon wrote that the error of the Greek philosophers was to spend much time on theory and little time on observation and practical research, where thought is supposed to aid observation rather than supplant it. He said, furthermore, that after a thousand years of having mapped out logic and dissecting it with the tools proposed by Aristotle’s, philosophy has come to the point of having lost the respect of everybody, and we must throw out all the theories from the Middle Ages, the dialectics, the debates, and the theories which require convoluted proofs and forget them. And Bacon’s work on the progress of education abounds with attacks on Aristotle and on his followers in the Middle Ages, and on demonstrative reasoning. In the “Great Instauration” he says “demonstrative reasoning doesn’t apply to the first principles of knowledge but applies in vain on intermediate axioms, and in this it does not parallel nature accurately but leads rather to a presentation as a matter of form, which misses the point of the exercise. Roger Bacon makes even stronger statements when he says “if you left it up to me I would burn all of Aristotle’s books, because their study cannot lead other than to waste, error and increased ignorance”.

The reader must have noticed that such statements don’t differ in essence much from what ibn al-Salah said, by which we saw that Fouad Zakaria measures Muslim thought, namely that “whoever uses logic is a heretic!”. So we don’t accept much of Aristotle’s logic as a tool of thought or as a path to knowledge, but on the other hand it is a good method of presenting thoughts and managing arguments. When two discussants begin to weigh up the major premise, they agree on its import and have thus passed the half-way point to a complete understanding. If they then address the minor premise and agreed on its import, agreement arises naturally in regard to the conclusion. If, on the other hand, they disagreed on anything in the premises, they would have revealed the source of disagreement, which in turn can then be calmly addressed. But the agreement of the discussants doesn’t necessarily mean that would have reached certain knowledge and an agreement on the truth; their agreement on the premises doesn’t guarantee their validity.

Ibn Taymiyya’s severity – he was generally unbending in his discussions – was one of the characteristics of clashes in the heat of those arguments. Subsequent to these battles, with the softening of attitudes and the settling of the dust, Sheikh Abi Zahra clarifies for us the ultimate position of the Muslim scholar-jurists when he says: “logic weighs up the deductive process but does not establish the proof itself; it sets out the substance of the proof but does not produce this substance, and this is the way with all the methodological sciences. Prosody doesn’t add to the content of poetry, nor does it provide the orator with any expressions. Explanatory criticism weighs up the forms of speech and the structure of rhetoric, but does not inform the orator about the substance of rhetoric and illustrative imagery. We don’t need logic or philosophy in order to believe, but learning them is warranted in order to defend Islam, to protect it, and argue its corner in the best possible way. Perhaps they are guided, such as persist in their striving and wrangling, having been refined and strengthened through the methods they have learnt… such is the benefit of logic. So with definitions, forms of demonstrative reasoning, and the use of examples, they can bring out the flaws in arguments. It is enough that they bring out flaws by using demonstrative reasoning, know definitions in all their particulars, and the specific from the general in the major premises, to show up the vicious from the virtuous. But logic cannot be the sole method of reasoning, for mental resources are not limited by logic. It may be a disciplinary criterion, but nevertheless it isn’t by itself the way to mental discipline, for good instincts and clear thinking speak louder”.