Constrained by God: an epistemic event horizon

By Lorenzo

Reading about inadvertent patterns created by Islam brings to mind how adaptability is an advantage in a civilisation. While it is true that religious belief can be something of a moveable feast, it is nevertheless true that religious doctrine–particularly text-based religious doctrine within monotheism–can be a powerful and continuing constraint.

This is particularly obvious in Islam. In the C12th ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) wrote the following about the Franj (Franks, i.e. Christian crusaders):

Upon leaving Tibin (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franj—may God preserve us from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lots to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity.

His response was not “let us learn from these people” but “and that’s why they must be smashed”. A response we see repeated within contemporary Islam. Dramatically in the case of Israel, but also about the West generally.

The notion that submission to the revelations of God puts one in a different class of person from those who do not blocks information in a systematic way. It creates a crippled epistemology (pdf). It undermines the adaptability of one’s civilisation.

It creates a serious and longstanding problem within Islam. Within 50 years of the development of Gutenberg’s press, the printing press had spread across Latin Christendom. It took over three centuries for it to spread from the Christian north of the Mediterranean to the Muslim south. Even when the printing press did spread to the Muslim world, it was blocked from printing in Turkish or Arabic due to the objection of Muslim clerics. The publication of scientific works in post-Reformation Catholic countries was hampered by local clerical authority over the license to print, but the effect was nowhere near as restrictive. In part, because printing could just shift to Protestant Europe.


After the early Islamic surge, Islam became remarkably uncurious about other civilisations–hence the Muslim world translating fewer foreign books in a millennia than a single Christian country (Spain) does in a year. Even now, the entire Arab world translates about a fifth of the foreign books each year as does Greece.

An epistemic black hole

A certain conception of God became dominant within mainstream Islam, thanks particularly to al-Ghazali (1058-1111). He, more than anyone else, is responsible for the closing of the Muslim mind. His is perhaps the most powerful example of ideas having consequences, for he entrenched two views which had already been latent in Islam but now became dominant.

(1) That revelation constitutes the good–that morality is whatever God says it is and has no existence beyond His Will.

(2) That there is no independent structure to the universe beyond what God wills; that whatever regularities we see are merely the habits of God which He can change at any time.

These two propositions constitute a sort of philosophical black hole; a religious event horizon beyond which reasoning cannot take you as long as you accept those two premises. Theology trumps both morality and metaphysics and does so on the grounds that anything less is a blasphemous restriction of God’s omnipotence and transcendence. There is no independent grounds on which to reason about morality or the nature and structure of the world. In particular, causality has no existence beyond the will and habits of God.

After Maimonides (1135-1204) and Aquinas (1225-1274), Judaism and Latin Christendom were in quite different situations. In both cases, the acceptance of Aristotelian philosophy provided the good with an independent existence. The good was not the good because God willed it, God willed it because He was Good.

Similarly, the world had patterns and structures, and things in the world had their natures, in themselves. God had created all, but he had created patterns and structures. He was the ground of causality, the unmoved mover; causality was not His wilful plaything. Metaphysically speaking, God was a constitutional monarch, ruling over an ordered universe.

Statues of two great Aristotelians in Cordoba: Averroes (ibn Rushd) and Maimonides. Both influential in Latin Christendom, neither in Islam.

Statues of two great Aristotelians in Cordoba: Averroes (ibn Rushd) (1126-1198) and Maimonides (1135-1204). Both influential in Latin Christendom, minimally so in Islam.

If the good had independent existence, if the world had structures and patterns in itself, then both could be reasoned about without reference to God. Theology may have been the medieval queen of the sciences, but other disciplines had their own reference points and legitimacy. Medieval scholasticism provided a bridge to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Mainstream Islam has no such bridge. Instead, it is stuck in constant re-reruns of the Reformation, in the search, via scriptures which ultimately have trumping authority, for how to get submission to God correct. That C7th Arabia really is the manifestation of the ultimately correct social order.

Remembering that the Qu’ran is the direct word of God, eternal and uncreated. It is not like Jewish or Christian scriptures, which operate through human intermediaries. The Jewish and Christian understanding of scripture opens up analysis of the structure of scripture in worldly terms in a way that Islam has never done or been seriously open to. The difference between scripture as human-intermediated manifestations in an ordered universe versus scripture as world-trumping direct manifestation of divinity in a world which has no independent existence or legitimacy beyond the habits and Will of God.

In Christendom, law is a human institution. In Judaism, accepting its role as permanent minority, God’s law is for the community of the Chosen, who accept the strictures of the laws of the societies they live in. In Islam, law is yet another manifestation of the authority of God, of His complete sovereignty.

All of which means it is a path to great misunderstanding to see Islam and Christendom as two parts of the one civilisation. They may both be civilisations of the One God, but very different principles and understandings underpin Western and Islamic civilisations.

Westerners are children of the Enlightenment (and the reactions to it) and of God as constitutional monarch. Political adults who can make and unmake law themselves.

Mainstream Islam is based on profoundly different presumptions. Adherents live in a world where law, morality and metaphysics (particularly causality) have no authority or existence beyond the revelation, will and habits of God. Which makes the moral universe of Islam very different from that of the West, with the difference tending to widen over the past century or so, not narrow.

Medieval differences

Ibn Jubayr’s contrast between Muslim peasants under the Franj and under their fellow Muslims was the result of Sharia. In Christendom, law was a human thing. So primogeniture could evolve, allowing mounted armoured warriors to be landholders, as primogeniture kept landholding unified (so large enough to supported a mounted armoured warrior) with the oldest son inheriting the lot (someone likely to be old enough to defend the landholdings) and providing a simple inheritance rule. Thus, the warrior elite had an interest in the productivity of the land and in productive, long-term relations with peasants. So crusader knights sought productive relations with their Muslim peasants.

In Islam, Sharia had strict inheritance laws, requiring sharing out amongst children. Warriors could not be given land grants in the sense of land ownership, since such grants would rapidly fall below the size able to support a mounted armoured warrior. So the iqta, tuyul, timar or jagir tax-fief evolved instead. Descriptions of them as “land grants” are highly misleading. If they were land grants, they would be subject to Sharia inheritance laws; the entire point of the evolution of these tax-holdings was to avoid that. Instead, the holder collected taxes from the grant. They were thus a public function, not private property within the meaning of Sharia, and so not subject to its inheritance strictures.

The new landowners move into Jerusalem

The new landowners move into Jerusalem

Since they were only tax-collectors and, particularly early on, the tax-collection grants were entirely revocable, the connection to the local peasants and the productivity of the land was much weaker than with Western knights. Hence the pattern ibn Jubayr noticed, of the land-holding knights treating their (Muslim) peasants better than did the tax-holding Muslim warriors.

More broadly, the Christian warrior elite had far more interest in the economic and commercial development of their society than did the Muslim warrior elite. Moreover, the Christian warrior elite represented a more difficult political management problem than did the Muslim warrior elite, requiring the development of more sophisticated social bargaining mechanisms. Conversely, the Christian warrior elite had a broader interest in social order, from being embedded in the legal system (in Islam, a matter of muftis and qadis) to upholding the principle of primogeniture, than did the Muslim warrior elite. The Christian warrior elite had long run social stakes to bargain about. The fratricidal civil wars that marked (almost every single) ruler succession in Islam were much less common in Christendom.

muslim rage

Which left ibn Jubayr with a dilemma. The patterns of the Franj could only be copied by accepting law not theologically endorsed. Something of a cosmic insult, that. Smashing what did not fit was much more satisfactory. Contemporary Muslim, particularly Arab, attitudes to Israel typically display the same patterns. So, if somewhat more mutedly, do attitudes to the West.

So, Christendom did not only operate on very different motivating principles, it also had profoundly different institutional evolution. Islam and the West are not two halves of the same civilisation. And Islam is still struggling to get out of its epistemic event horizon; hence its enduring problems with modernity.



  1. conrad
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    The Chinese have historically had this problem too — indeed, history shows that this was more or less the doom of various dynasties when some foreign force came along and smashed them into line once it had gone on for too long (generally to the immediate detriment of the citizens).

    One of the curious things about some of the Islamic countries is it appears they can’t even have sense smashed into them, so it’s not clear where any great force of change might actually ever come from.

    In this respect, it might be worth comparing what the underlying factors are that cause some to be much more stagnant than others, especially not ones on the outer like Indonesia and Malaysia. Iran, for example, whilst not loved by the West, is clearly vastly more productive than, say, Saudia Arabia, so perhaps they might offer some escape route.

  2. Posted March 11, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Until the late C18th and C19th, China had never dealt with seriously richer states. Militarily more successful states–when the nomads were being particularly effective–but not richer states. Nor states able to project power across China’s coasts.

    One can see practical reasons for the Middle Kingdom sensibility. Sure, it got in the way when dealing with the unprecedented Western challenge, but C18th China was a vibrant and effective society. And, after a very bad period from 1839-1979, China is getting with modernity pretty successfully.

    Islam, in one sense or other, has been falling behind the civilisation it is in direct contact with since about 1453, when Mehmed II used Christian artillerists to knock down the walls of Constantinople.

    So, the China-Islam analogy is limited one.

  3. Herding cats
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    We must always remember that the “King James Bible” was collected and collated by the priesthood – “translated into English” only a few hundred years ago.

    The Q’ran?

    Apparently ‘written’ some 600 years after the presumed ‘events’ some 2014 (+-) years ago.

  4. Jolly
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Islam has been high jacked by the ‘uneducated’ mullahs. Their main focus is the subjection of women. An educated woman is regarded as a threat to Islam (as they know it). It is not Islam per se that is not evolving, but those men in control (of Islam) who are reluctant to evolve. The Sufis were an enlightened lot (scholars) under whom Islam flourished. Then came the half-baked chaps whose only qualification (to mullah-hood) was their ability to recite (without the understanding of) the Koran. May take a looooong time before Islam comes out of the dark ages. A reformation of sorts is needed for Islam to become relevant for the 21st century.

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