“There is No Greater Harm to Knowledge”

There are objective criteria by which to determine who has greater expertise, whether on specific events, ideas, or people in history. Scholars of the Middle East risk committing blunders when claiming to speak with authority on any and every topic tangentially related to their field without referring back to others who have reached a greater level of expertise on a given issue. If, in order to avoid making a false claim, even high-ranking members of the academy must refer back to other specialists before speaking on a matter outside their immediate area of expertise, then it stands to reason that an academic should not treat the opinion of someone who does not possess the requisite training, skills, experience, and authority within a knowledge tradition as equally valid as opinions from experts within a scholarly community.


“Knowing the Texts”

Included among the necessary criteria to ascertain a person’s scholarly authority are their years of experience dealing with the primary sources on their subject. Many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have gained an awe-inspiring level of expertise in the craft of taḥqīq, the verification of texts and manuscripts and the publication of their most authoritative critical editions. Some of the most accomplished of these scholars include Charles Pellat (1914-1992) from France, Abd al-Salam Harun (1909-1988) and Aisha Abd al-Rahman (1913-1998) of Egypt, the Czech-American A.R. Nykl (1885-1958), R.A. Nicholson (1868-1945) and A.J. Arberry (1905-1969) of England, and Hellmut Ritter (1892-1971) and Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003) of Germany.

In an interview I conducted with Said Bikdash, a contemporary scholar-editor of texts belonging to the Hanafi school of thought, such as the Mukhtaṣar of al-Quduri (d. 1037) and the Kanz al-Daqāʾiq fī fiqh al-Ḥanafī of al-Nasafi (1067-1142), he emphasized that manuscript studies require two types of knowledge: knowledge of the subjects that form the content of the texts, for example, botany, linguistics, law, or theology, along with knowledge of the process of manuscript verification itself. Modern manuscript verification in the Middle East and North Africa can be traced to around 1868, when the jamʿiyyat al-maʿārif, an organization headed by the Azharite scholars Muhammad Mahmud al-Tarakzi al-Shanquiti (d. 1904) and Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), was founded for the purpose of publishing kutub al-turāth, the Arabo-Islamic heritage literature. Multiple manuscript copies of a text were compared with one another and differences were identified. Texts were documented with full descriptions of each manuscript supplemented with detailed appendices and indexes adopted from techniques of textual editing that had emerged in Europe in the early nineteenth century. In the introduction to his edition of the Maqāmat by the Iranian poet Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadani (d. 1007), Abduh outlined some of the major aspects of taḥqīq, including verifying the language style of the author, distinguishing it from the marginalia written by others in order to authenticate the source text, and placing any alternative recensions in the text annotations.[1]

“Multiple manuscript copies of a text were compared with one another and differences were identified. Texts were documented with full descriptions of each manuscript supplemented with detailed appendices and indexes…”

In the following section, I have chosen one figure from Muslim intellectual history in order to explore the often-immense divergence between an expert view, that of someone with the aforementioned skills in textual analysis and intimate knowledge of the most relevant literature, and the views of non-experts who have not paid appropriate attention to their sources. While similar analyses can be performed with medieval Muslim thinkers like Ghazali (d. 1111), Nawawi (d. 1277) or Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), I chose the eleventh century Andalusi independent authoritative jurist and polymath Ibn Hazm.


“Ibn Hazm (993-1064)”

Throughout the last century, Ibn Hazm, like Andalusian scientists who followed him such as Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati (1166-1239) and Ibn al-Baytar (1197-1248), was looked upon by Muhammad Asad (1900-1992, born Leopold Weiss, the father of the famed anthropologist Talal Asad) and other progressive Muslim thinkers as a model for intellectual reform due to his belief in the “universalism of reason and the necessity of rendering it the sole referential authority in the various epistemological fields.”[2] Moroccan professor of philosophy Mohammed Abid al-Jabri (1935-2010) quotes Ibn Hazm as saying,

“There is basically no path towards knowledge except in one of two ways: one of them is what is necessitated by intuitive axiomatic reason and the senses, and the second is the premise reverting back to the axioms reason and prerequisites of sense,’ and from these premises and from them alone can correct knowledge be founded, and through the correctness of this knowledge, there must be compliance with the rules of logic and the conditions of true proof’.” [3]

By the second half of the twentieth century, scholar-editors in the Middle East like Ihsan Abbas (1920-2003) had mastered manuscript studies, editing dozens of voluminous medieval Arabic texts “of poetry, proverbs, literature, literary criticism, philosophy, political thought, biography, history, and geography.”[4] He travelled widely in search of rare manuscripts, discovering Ibn Ḥazm’s book Facilitating the Understanding of the Rules of Logic (al-Taqrīb li-ḥadd al-manṭiq) that for centuries was thought lost. He published the authoritative edition of this and many others of Ibn Hazm’s essays running the gamut of Andalusian culture, philosophy, logic, theology, law, literature and ethics. “

“No scholar can afford to discuss Ibn Hazm without recourse to the editions of Abbas”
 No scholar can afford to discuss Ibn Hazm without recourse to the editions of Abbas whose “uncanny knowledge of Arabic in all its classical and dialectical forms, and his emendations routinely make perfect sense of passages that had previously seemed hopelessly corrupt.”[5]

From left to right: Ahmet Özel (fiqh, ISAM, Marmara Ilahiyat), Hosni Subh of the Cairo Arabic Language Academy (1905-1985), and Ihsan Abbas (1920-2003) at a conference on manuscript studies at The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, Jordan in 1986.

After Ihsan Abbas, along with Said Afghani (d. 1997) of the Arabic Language Academy of Damascus who specialized in Ibn Hazm’s linguistic theories, the scholar who possessed the most intimate knowledge of the primary sources on Ibn Hazm’s life and thought would be the Guggenheim Fellow and professor at the University of Minnesota Anwar G. Chejne (1923-1983), whose papers are still held at the university archives.[6] Chejne’s translation of Ibn Hazm’s Categories of the Sciences as well as his study of the latter’s introduction to logic remain the most relevant sources on the subject in English that must be referenced by anyone wishing to analyze Ibn Hazm’s views on Aristotelian reason. As Chejne points out, for Ibn Hazm “the intellectual faculty (quwwat al-ʿaql) is that which helps the discerning soul to make justice triumph, to choose what sound understanding dictates and to be convinced of it.”[7]

The most prolific writer on the subject of Ibn Hazm’s theological and legal opinions today is Camilla Adang, associate professor of Islamic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and it is not possible to make a sound assessment of his views on kalām and fiqh without consulting her work, particularly in the realm of positive law (furūʿ). One of her studies highlighted Ibn Hazm’s explicit condemnation of fatwas that declared homosexuality punishable by death, whether by being decapitated or burned alive or thrown down from a high place or by stoning, the preferred opinion among many of Ibn Hazm’s conservative contemporaries from the Maliki school of Sunni Islamic law. His verdicts on women’s issues include the illegality of forbidding education to women, of preventing them from praying in mosques as conservative Shafiʿites would, as well as the illegality of obligating the face-veil as many conservative Hanafis and Hanbalis did. He permitted women to hold positions of leadership, to marry without coercion and receive greater protection in divorce as opposed to the conservative Hanafi opinion, to travel un-chaperoned and to interact in public with members of the opposite sex, to sing in public, and to participate in funeral processions and visit the graves of loved ones, whether Muslims or not.[8] Adang has also pointed out that Ibn Hazm’s “rulings concerning social interactions between Muslims and Jews (as well as Christians), are often milder than those of jurists belonging to other legal rites, a fact which has so far received little attention.”[9]

“He permitted women to hold positions of leadership, to marry without coercion and receive greater protection in divorce as opposed to the conservative Hanafi opinion, to travel un-chaperoned and to interact in public with members of the opposite sex…”

Significant biographical details have also received little attention, like the fact that Ibn Hazm remained loyal to the government he was born under, the Iberian Umayyad dynasty, or that he called for peaceful transitions of power and condemned the rebellion and civil strife perpetrated by warlords along with the violence and chaos created by their mercenaries, in particular their attack on the city of Cordoba, the cosmopolitan cultural center of al-Andalus. The massacres committed after the fall of the central government took the lives of many of Ibn Hazm’s loved ones and, upon realizing that the military defense of the Andalusi-Umayyad dynasty would lead to even greater bloodshed and loss of innocent lives, he focused entirely on scholarly assessments of the state of legal, philosophical, scientific, and cultural life in eleventh century Iberia. At the instigation of some zealously conservative anti-rationalist Maliki jurists, one of the warlord chieftains that had taken over a swath of territory after the fall of the Umayyads ordered the burning of Ibn Hazm’s books. The poet famed for his philosophy of love wrote the following verses in response:

“The paper ye may burn,

But what the paper holds ye cannot burn;

‘tis safe within my breast.

Where I remove, it goes with me;

Alights when I alight,

And in my tomb will lie.”[10]

About fifty years later, again at the instigation of archconservative Maliki clerics, the militant Almoravid rulers ordered the public burning of another important philosopher’s works, this time those of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Later still, upon the Almohad dynasty’s victory against the Almoravids, they too chose to burn books, this time those of the Maliki scholars, distinguishing themselves from their Almoravid rivals by promoting the theology of Ghazali as well as the rationalist approach of Ibn Hazm through the Aristotelian-Malikite compromise advocated by the philosopher-jurist Averroes.


“They Took a Meager Part of Some of the Sciences”

To know more about the rich history of debate in law, theology, philosophy, science, logic, history, politics, literature, poetry, one should seek the opinions of experts on each person, topic, or event relevant to that history.

“Unfortunately, even otherwise careful and accomplished scholars have often made claims that suggest a lack of awareness regarding the necessary primary and secondary sources.”
 Unfortunately, even otherwise careful and accomplished scholars have often made claims that suggest a lack of awareness regarding the necessary primary and secondary sources. Examples include a specialist in the history of Islamic education referring to Ibn Hazm’s magnum opus in law as belonging to the Shafiʿi school of thought,[11] an expert on Islamic philosophy writing that Ibn Hazm was “opposed to kalām and its claim to ground the Islamic creed in subtle rational argumentation”[12] and a well-meaning but uninformed pharmacologist’s biographical entry on Ibn Hazm in which he writes that “in his treatise on logic (now lost), he disregarded Aristotle’s position.”[13]  This is not to suggest that there is no room for further study beyond what scholars like Abbas, Chejne, and Adang have accomplished, but for there to be a discussion people first have to get to know these texts.

Sculpture by the artist Amadeo Ruiz Olmos (1913-1993) for the 900th anniversary of Ibn Hazm's death (1963)
Sculpture by the artist Amadeo Ruiz Olmos (1913-1993) for the 900th anniversary of Ibn Hazm’s death (1963)

Even more unfortunate would be an academic who, in catering to policymakers, claims that terrorist ideologues in al-Qaeda or millenarian death cults like the so-called Islamic State, manipulated primarily by Ex-Baathist Saddam loyalists hoping to fulfill the kind of quashing of dissent among Sunnis and genocide of ethnic and religious minorities they could have only dreamed of under Saddam,[14] exhibit a deeper knowledge of the tradition than people who spent decades mastering the analytical tools to study a millennium’s worth of textual heritage within their historical contexts. To suggest such a thing would be like citing the Church histories of Philostorgius or Eusebius and their praise of the destruction of pagan temples and philosophical schools as the most authoritative texts in the Christian tradition or that anyone in the present day attempting to revive such actions would be “very Christian.” Equally reprehensible would be to suggest that the “divine right” of Manifest Destiny and the interpretation, once prevalent in the American South, of Genesis 9:24-27’s “curse of Canaan” as justifying the African slave trade, segregation and racial terror against blacks and Native Americans, is the soundest interpretation or that the ideologies of terrorist mathematician Ted Kaczynski, American analogue to the hard science psychopaths among Jihadist extremists, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph and his so-called Army of God, the so-called Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups, Father Coughlin, Baruch Goldstein, Dylann Roof, Anders Breivik, Thomas Mair, and Alexandre Bissonnette provide the most accurate representations of Western or Judeo-Christian civilization. Whether in the study of classical texts and their historical contexts or the study of violent extremism, respecting the boundaries of expertise between each field is imperative. In this context, the following words of Ibn Hazm are most apt:

“There is no harm greater to knowledge or the learned than from the likes of such people. They took a meager part of some of the sciences, while missing a much larger part than what they had grasped.”[15]

[1] Abd Allah b. Abd al-Rahim Usaylan, Tahqiq al-Makhtutat: Bayna al-waqi wa-al-nahj al-amthal (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Malik Fahd al-Wataniyah, 1994), p. 90.

[2] Muhammad Abid Jabiri, The Formation of Arab Reason: Text, Tradition and the Construction of Modernity in the Arab World (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011), pg. 385.

[3] Ibid., 384

[4] Lawrence I. Conrad, “Ihsan Abbas: Custodian of Arabic Heritage and Culture,” Al-Qantara XXVI, no. 1 (2005): p.8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anwar G. Chejne Papers, 1970s. http://special.lib.umn.edu/findaid/xml/uarc00060.xml

[7] Chejne and Ali B. Ahmad Ibn Hazm, Ibn Hazm of Cordoba and His Conception of the Sciences (Chicago: Kazi, 1982); Chejne, “Ibn Hazm of Cordova on Logic,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 104, no. 1 (1984).

[8] Adang, “Women’s Access to Public Space according to al-Muhalla bi-l-Athar” in Manuela Marín and Randi Deguilhem (eds.),Writing the Feminine: Women in Arab Sources. London, New York: I.B. Tauris: 2002, 75-94.

[9] Adang, “Medieval Muslim Polemics against the Jewish Scriptures” in Jacques Waardenburg (ed.), Muslim Perceptions of Other Religions. A Historical Survey. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 143-159

[10] Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 427.

[11] Roxanne Leslie Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, eds., Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from Al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), pg. 297.

[12] Khaled El-Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pg. 210.

[13] Iftekhar Mahmood, Islam beyond Terrorists and Terrorism: Biographies of the Most Influential Muslims in History (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002), pg. 87.

[14] See also Liz Sly, “The Hidden Hand behind the Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein’s.,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2015; Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, “How Saddam’s Fighters Help Islamic State Rule,Reuters, December 11, 2015; Juan Cole, “Peace and Concord in the Qur’an,” The Library of Congress, August 18, 2016.

[15] Ibn Hazm, “Maratib Al-‘Ulum,” in Rasail Ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi, ed. Ihsan Abbas (Beirut: Al-Muassasah Al-Arabi, 1983), 4:86.