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God and Logic in Islam (the Caliphate of Reason)

God and Logic in Islam (the Caliphate of Reason)

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The theology students and professors who have always been the primary

users of these texts were and are scholastics, and their use of these texts

reflects scholastic methods of teaching. Two factors have been mainly

responsible for determining the form and use of these texts: the limita-

tions of manuscripts and the Islamic preferencefor the oral transmission

of knowledge.

Fewnowappreciatethepracticaldifficultiesfacedbythosewhowished

to preserve and transmit knowledge in the age of manuscripts. Schol-

ars had the choice of making their own copies of books they needed,

commissioning copies from professional scribes (or their own students),

or buying them from booksellers. Paper was handmade and therefore

expensive.24

Whatever the source, a book was expensive in time, money,

or both. Moreover, a scholarly book had to be carefully checked before it

couldbeused,preferablybyreadingittosomeonewhohadauthoritative

knowledge of that text or by correcting it from the dictation of such a

22

Majm¯u‘ah-yi Mant.iq [Anthology on logic] (Lucknow: Munsh¯ı Naval Kishore, October
1876/Ramadan 1293). This collection is described in John Walbridge, “A Nineteenth
CenturyIndo-PersianLogicTextbook,”IslamicStudies(Islamabad)42:4(Winter2003),
pp. 687–93.

23

I owe this information to Michael Feener.

24

Abdullah Tasbihi has described to me seeing villagers in Siyalkot, once a major Indian
center of paper manufacture, gather the straw and other vegetable matter left behind
by flooding to use for papermaking.

130

GOD AND LOGIC IN ISLAM

1. A page from a lithographed logic textbook.

THE LONG AFTERNOON OF ISLAMIC LOGIC

131

person. Citing a book without checking it in one of these ways was an

academic sin roughly akin to the modern offense of copying footnotes

without verifying the reference personally. Understandably, there was a

strong preference for books that were concise, comprehensive, and cur-

rent. For that reason, earlier texts tended to disappear, replaced by more

complete and up-to-date works incorporating their contents.25

Second, Muslim scholars have always preferred the oral transmission

of knowledge. This has roots in the particular history of Islamic religious

learning, where the hadith were transmitted orally. It also has to do with

the ambiguity of the Arabic script, particularly in its earlier forms, and

with a shrewd evaluation of the limitations of manuscripts and of the

written transmission of knowledge generally. The aversion to the use of

writtentextswasnot quite asstrongin therational scienceslikelogic and

philosophy,becauseonecanintheorydeducethecorrectreadingforone-

self, butpedagogical considerationsandacademic traditionsencouraged

oral transmission even in these fields. The Islamic logicians who taught

in the seminaries were in full agreement with Plato that philosophy must

be learned through discussion. The occasional Islamic autodidact was

a faintly ridiculous figure, however impressive his achievements might

have been.

The form of the school texts reflects these circumstances and preju-

dices, and the manuscripts and lithographs show clearly how these texts

were produced and used. The basic text was the short textbook, such

as the Sun Book of K¯atib¯ı or the Eisagoge of Abhar¯ı. These are typically

about ten to twenty pages in length (I translated the Eisagoge in a day),

so they are delphic in their terseness. The student might buy the text

in the market or, more likely, take it down in dictation in class and

copy it out fair at home. He also might very well memorize it verbatim,

which explains why some of these textbooks were rewritten as verse. In

manuscripts, this primary text was often written with only eight or ten

lines per page, with a space of up to a centimeter between lines and

wide margins. This deviation from the usual manuscript principle of

never wasting paper allowed the classroom use of the text as a notebook.

The teacher would go through the text line by line – indeed, word by

25

Franz Rosenthal, The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship (Analecta Orien-
talia 24; Rome: Pontificium Institutem Biblicum, 1947), p. 61.

132

GOD AND LOGIC IN ISLAM

2. A manuscript showing a student’s interlinear and marginal notes.

THE LONG AFTERNOON OF ISLAMIC LOGIC

133

word–andexplainit.Thestudentwouldglossdifficultwordsandphrases

between the lines and write more extended comments in the margins.26

The students might then collate these marginal notes taken down from

theirteacher’sdictationandpublishtheminhisnameasacommentary–

usually called a h. ¯ashiya, “gloss.”

Thisprocesssoundsmind-numbinglydull,butinthehandsofaskillful

teacher it clearly was not. Students were encouraged to raise difficulties

or objections, to which the teacher or other students would respond. A

student’s status in the eyes of his teachers and other students was largely

dependent on his ability to hold his own in this lively cut-and-thrust.

Written commentaries were often used to supplement the underlying

text. These would not be memorized, but they did serve to explain

and amplify the original textbook for students in their private study

and provide texts for more advanced study of the material. Like modern

textbooks,theyalsoservedtoextendthereachofthemostgiftedteachers.

Because the curriculum tended to visit the same topics repeatedly in

greater depth, a succession of commentaries and supercommentaries

was often used to accommodate students at different levels and probably

alsoasteachers’guides.ThemostfamoussuchseriesinlogicwasK¯atib¯ı’s

Sun Book, with Tah.t¯an¯ı’s Qut.b¯ı, Jurj¯an¯ı’s supercommentary M¯ır Qut.b¯ı,

and Siy¯alk¯ut¯ı’s Gloss, commonly accompanied in India by M¯ır Z¯ahid’s

Gloss on the Qut.b¯ı, and Bih¯ar¯ı’s Gloss on M¯ır Z¯ahid. Read together, such

collections of texts are a written imitation of the lively debate in the

seminaryclassroomandapreparationforthestudentwhohadtobeable

to engage successfully in that debate. There is also a genre of textbooks

on debating techniques or dialectic. They are far less common, but they

had the same pattern of textbooks and supercommentaries. Most likely,

they were intended for the use of more advanced students who would

make their careers teaching in the seminaries or perhaps in the royal

courts, both arenas where debates were a popular entertainment. As far

as I know, disputations in this format are no longer held, but the rules of

disputation are reflected in the arguments in texts on us.¯ul al-fiqh.27

26

See Illustration 2 for a sample. Illustration 3 shows how this form was adapted to
lithographed textbooks.

27

A fact pointed out to me by Khalil Abdur-Rashid. On disputation theory and its
history, see Larry Benjamin Miller, “Islamic Disputation Theory: A Study of the Devel-
opment of Dialectic in Islam from the Tenth through the Fourteenth Centuries,” Ph.D.
dissertation, Princeton University, 1984.

134

GOD AND LOGIC IN ISLAM

3. A commentary in a lithographed textbook.

THE LONG AFTERNOON OF ISLAMIC LOGIC

135

Such texts were the product of an educational system that was narrow

but intellectually challenging. Mottahedeh points out that many of the

leading intellectuals of modern Iran were the product of this sort of

education and remarks that although many of them rejected traditional

religion,theyinvariablyrememberedtheirreligiouseducationwithgreat

fondness.28

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