I just wanted to share something I read today on the conflict between philosophy and theology in Medieval Islam, especially the immortal intellectual duel between Averroes and al-Ghazzali. Simon van den Bergh, in the introduction to his 1954 translation of the former’s The Incoherence of the Incoherence, writes this remarkably beautiful passage (pages xxxv – xxxvi) concerning the similarities and subtly important differences between not only these two important thinkers, but ultimately between those who seek “what holds together the interior of the world” by the incisions of reason or the illuminations of faith:
When we have read the long discussions between the philosophers and theologians we may come to the conclusion that it is sometimes more the formula than the essence of things which divides them… The resemblances between Ghazali and Averroes, men belonging to the same culture, indeed, the greatest men in this culture, seem sometimes greater than their differences.
Emotionally the difference goes deep. Averroes is a philosopher and a proud believer in the possibility of reason to achieve a knowledge of ‘was das Innere der Welt zusammenhält’ [‘what holds together the interior of the world’]. He was not always too sure, he knew too much, and there is much wavering and hesitation in his ideas. Still, his faith in reason remains unshaken. Although he does not subscribe to the lofty words of his master [Avempace] that man because of the power of his intellect is a mortal God, he reproaches the theologians for having made God an immortal man. God, for him, is a dehumanized principle. But if God has to respond to the needs of man’s heart, can He be exempt from humanity?
Ghazali is a Mu’min, that is a believer, he is a Muslim, that is he accepts: his heart submits to a truth his reason cannot establish, for his heart has reasons his reason does not know. His theology is the philosophy of the heart in which there is expressed man’s fear and loneliness and his feeling of dependence on an understanding and loving Being to whom he can cry out from the depths of his despair, and whose mercy is infinite. It is not so much after abstract truth that Ghazali strives; his seach is for God, for the Pity behind the clouds.
(I must confess that although I’m very much a student of Averroes, in this regard I’m on the side of al-Ghazzali.)