The Dangers of Science: Imam Ghazzali’s Advice on Philosophy

By: Mustafa Umar

About a thousand years ago, Imam Ghazzali wrote in his autobiography, ‘Deliverance from Error’: “a clumsy and stupid person must be kept away from the seashore, not the proficient swimmer; and a child must be prevented from handling a snake, not the skilled snake-charmer.”

This was his advice to students who studied philosophy, particularly the Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle which many Muslims took pride in at that time. The Imam was warning them of the dangers that could result from this type of study. But he didn’t stop at philosophy. He even warned people about studying mathematics and other natural sciences. Why?

So You Thought You Were Safe

What’s wrong with an innocent subject like math, you might ask? That has nothing to do with religion. Well, here is what the Imam had to say:

“The mathematical sciences…nothing in them entails denial or affirmation of religious matters…from them, however, two evils have been caused…”

He readily admits that there is nothing intrinsically harmful in such a science, which is generally disconnected from Islamic beliefs. Nonetheless, the study of this science resulted in two dangers which greatly affected the beliefs of many students.

The First Danger: Blind Conformity

The Imam continued: “One of these is that whoever takes up these mathematical sciences marvels at the fine precision of their details and the clarity of their proofs. Because of that, he forms a high opinion of the philosophers [who were the mathematicians at that time] and assumes that all their sciences have the same lucidity and rational solidarity as this science of mathematics. Moreover, he will have heard the talk of the town about their unbelief and their negative attitude… [they say]: ‘If religion were true, this would not have been unknown to these philosophers…’” What Imam Ghazzali was trying to point out is that students who read the mathematical works of Pythagoras, Ptolemy or Aristotle became so impressed by those authors that they followed them blindly even in their non-mathematical ideas on metaphysics and religion.

The Imam then expresses his deep regret over this sad state of affairs: “How many a man have I seen who strayed from the path of truth on this pretext and for no other reason!” He criticizes these students for blindly following these mathematicians even in their religious ideas under the false assumption that all of their ideas, from their belief/disbelief in God to their views on the purpose of life, must be based on the same strong proofs as their mathematical principles.

Not much has changed since then. How many times have I heard a Muslim doubting something about his own religion while saying: “but scientists say…”? One thousand years have passed and this danger persists. How many Muslims have doubted their belief in Allah simply because of the naturalist Charles Darwin, the psychologist Sigmund Freud or the economist Karl Marx propagated their atheistic/agnostic ideas? Even today, the popular writings of the zoologist Richard Dawkins and the physicist Stephen Hawking influence millions of people about what to believe concerning the purpose of life. Hundreds of intellectuals anxiously wait for Hawking to make up, or change, his mind whether or not he believes in God, as if he was the pope about to issue a decree or retraction.

Imam Ghazzali advised people to remember that a man skilled in one field is not necessarily skilled in every field. He also noted that the internal consistency in one field of study does not necessarily imply the same in another field. People must realize that just because someone may have the ability to process mathematical equations quickly in their mind or to figure out how certain chemicals work with one another doesn’t mean that they have all the answers to life.

The Second Danger: Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater

The Imam points to another problem, which arises as a reaction to the first danger. When some well-meaning believers realized the danger resulting from studying these sciences, they began to form a hatred for the subjects themselves rather than differentiating between the science itself and its adherents. The Imam said, “The second evil likely to follow from the study of the mathematical sciences derives from the case of an ignorant friend of Islam who supposed that our religion must be championed by the rejection of every science ascribed to the philosophers…”

Imam Ghazzali noticed the excessive precautionary measures that some Muslim scholars advocated in his time and exposed the danger of such a view. If mathematics, philosophy, biology, physics, etc. are leading people away from Islam, should they be abandoned completely? Several Muslim scholars did incline towards such a view on the basis that it is not worth putting someone’s Islam in danger for a few worldly benefits that these sciences might bring. Imam Ghazzali, on the other hand, favored a more practical approach where those who are ready to master the subject and see it for what it is need not be afraid of falling into the pool.

The Solution

So what should Muslims do in such circumstances? Most high schools and universities require a student to study several subjects at the same time, even if they are not specializing in that field. It is unrealistic to assume that every student would have to master every subject that might put their Islamic beliefs in danger. Rather, a more practical alternative is to push for the development of an Islamic Studies curriculum that equips the student with answers to the most common attacks against Islam. Without such preventive measures, some Muslim students will continue to suffer from the venomous snake-bites while others will drown in the ocean of deviant ideas.

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