Fjordman: Why Christians Accepted Greek Natural Philosophy, But Muslims Did Not

Fjordman’s latest essay, “Why Christians Accepted Greek Natural Philosophy, But Muslims Did Not”, has been posted at the Brussels Journal. Some excerpts are below:

My main thesis in this essay is that Christianity was a Greco-Roman religion in a way which Islam never was or could be. Islam was founded outside of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity was founded within this world, and gradually grew accustomed to Greco-Roman culture. This had a major long-term impact on how the adherents of these two religions treated the Greco-Roman legacy.

As a young Jew, Jesus’ main language was probably Aramaic, but he may well have been familiar with Hebrew, the language of the Hebrew Bible and a Semitic tongue closely related to Aramaic. It is also possible that he was competent in Koine Greek, although the details of his linguistic skills are disputed among critical scholars. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the founder of Christianity spoke Greek. We can be virtually certain that Muhammad, if he did indeed exist, did not speak Greek, nor did any of his prominent followers, immediate successors or those who first formulated Islamic legal doctrines. In contrast, we know with absolute certainty that Paul, who shaped Christianity more than any other person other than Jesus himself, was proficient in Greek, as were many of the early Christian leaders.

It is true that there were some decent scholars in the medieval Islamic world, for instance Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Razi (Rhazes), al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), but they made their contributions more in spite of Islam than because of Islam.

The Saudi reformist thinker Ibrahim al-Buleihi expressed his admiration for Western civilization in an interview 2009, stating that “Western civilization is the only civilization that liberated man from his illusions and shackles; it recognized his individuality and provided him with capabilities and opportunities to cultivate himself and realize his aspirations.” Self-criticism is a precondition to any change for the better, and Mr. Buleihi thinks Muslim culture lacks this. Here he is, as quoted by the Middle East Media Research Institute ( MEMRI ):

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“When we review the names of Muslim philosophers and scholars whose contribution to the West is pointed out by Western writers, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Haitham, Ibn Sina, Al-Farbi, Al-Razi, Al-Khwarizmi, and their likes, we find that all of them were disciples of the Greek culture and they were individuals who were outside the [Islamic] mainstream. They were and continue to be unrecognized in our culture. We even burned their books, harassed them, [and] warned against them, and we continue to look at them with suspicion and aversion. How can we then take pride in people from whom we kept our distance and whose thought we rejected?….these [achievements] are not of our own making, and those exceptional individuals were not the product of Arab culture, but rather Greek culture. They are outside our cultural mainstream and we treated them as though they were foreign elements. Therefore we don’t deserve to take pride in them, since we rejected them and fought their ideas. Conversely, when Europe learned from them it benefited from a body of knowledge which was originally its own because they were an extension of Greek culture, which is the source of the whole of Western civilization.”

In medicine, there is the phenomenon of “transplant rejection,” which happens when an organ is transplanted into another body and that body’s immune system rejects it as an alien intrusion. This is a useful analogy to keep in mind when assessing how Muslims and Christians treated Greek natural philosophy during the Middle Ages. Muslims did engage the Greek heritage, but only parts of it, and eventually even this limited acceptance was rejected by conservative theologians such as al-Ghazali. The immune system of Islamic culture considered Greek philosophical ideas to constitute an alien intrusion into its body, fought them and ultimately rejected them. In contrast, for Christian culture, the Greek philosophical heritage did not constitute something alien. Christians did not accept all parts of the Greek heritage as valid for them, but most of them didn’t consider Greek logic, modes of thinking and philosophical vocabulary per se to be something alien and hostile. We could say that Christianity was a Jewish child, baptized in water steeped in Greek philosophical vocabulary and raised in a Greco-Roman environment. This new synthesis was personified by Saint Paul, a Greek-speaking Jew, a follower of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and a Roman citizen.

Read the rest at the Brussels Journal.

6 thoughts on “Fjordman: Why Christians Accepted Greek Natural Philosophy, But Muslims Did Not

  1. This essay furthers the understanding on the muslim mindset as how it comes they adopt or rather hi-jack all western discoveries and inventions and claims them for their own.

  2. Al Buleihi’s comment “…Greek culture which is the source of the whole of Western civilization” is incorrect, there is no one source to our civilization. No mention is made of the huge Roman contribution, or the Etruscans or the civilizations of the ME. Westerners have been absorbing and adapting the ideas of others since the Bronze Age. In typically Islamic fashion Al Buleihi misses the point, the East Asians starting, with the Japanese in the 19th century, understand this dynamic principle very well.

  3. Mace: I agree with you, actually. The Greek legacy alone did not form our civilization. It is a combination of Greek, Roman and Christian impulses, and the Christian culture was again shaped by Judaism, Roman law and Greek philosophy, as stated above. And there are also the Germanic, Slavic contributions etc. added to the mix. Ours is a very layered civilization. Most civilizations consist of several different cultural layers, but European civilization especially so. It is this complex mixture of impulses which makes us into what we are. To reduce our entire civilization to just one of these layers, for instance the Greek or the Christian one, is misleading.

    That being said, while the ancient Greek contribution is just one of the pillars of European and Western civilization, it is an important one, and it is true that Europeans internalized the spirit of Greek curiosity to an extent that Muslims never did. They studied the natural philosophy of Aristotle but ignored his political writings. They largely ignored Socrates, too. Socrates, according to the sources we have of his life, never wrote physical works or conducted extensive biological studies of his own, as Aristotle did. Socrates is important not for telling us what to think, but for telling us how to think. Muslims never liked him.

  4. Fjordman,

    First, thanks for this article and your earlier ones,especially in regard to Islam’s “achievements” I hadn’t realised how meager indeed Moslems’ scholars contributions to science are. However, I have to say I’m sceptical in regard to how “Christian” our civilisation really is. Commentators often use the term “Judaeo-Christian” civilisation for Western culture, I find this a very dubious description . I notice you use the term “Christian impulses”, presumably to differentiate the contribution of Christian beliefs from the influence of the institutionalised Church, which was an enemy of progress.

  5. Kudos again Fjordman for another stimulating article!

    Looking over their brief period of inquiry into matters of the mind, circa 800-1100 AD, it struck me as funny that only a Muslim author could come up with a book title like “THE INCOHERENCE OF THE INCOHERENCE” …and not be Robert Musil.

    The Islamic “Name of the Rose” plotline -of intellectual censorship- would be almost everything written by philosophers from Heraclitus to Husserl, since these thinkers championed the active individual mind and its skeptical and critical insights over the inshallah fatalism and the hive mind of Mohammadism.

    Once Muslim religious scholars ruled that Allah is “unfetter-able” (beyond anything “rational” or predictable, in any sense), they decreed that their “faith” would be an irrationalist one, and a belief system that must avoid philosophical boundaries like “logic”. epistemology, etc., or “the scientific method”, as such, since it limits their deity to a “lawful” and orderly / predictable Universe.

    But, in their irrationality, they have mightily “fettered” their Allah by accepting Mohammad’s forbidding of any further “prophets”, which Mohammedans do not appear to be able to appreciate as a central contradiction in their “freeing” of Allah from human contraints, since it prevents Allah from acting freely.

    But unreason is its own mad reason.

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