Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Asad Q Ahmed & Sheldon Pollock's Bollocks

Asar Q Ahmed is a young Professor of Arabic at Berkeley. Though his first degree was from Yale, the bastard speaks Urdu with a correct accent. I find this very shocking and totally unacceptable. What is the point of sending our young people to elite institutions abroad if they can't even mispronounce their own names- let alone weird Dravidian cognomens like 'Raghunathananananaan'?
Okay, maybe the fellow was born in the States. Still, he should show some basic respect for Indian culture innit?
On the other hand, his views are as stupid as any of our own JNU jholawallah types as is evidenced by this article in which, apropos of the decline of Islamic Science, he says-

 In my own work, I have discovered that a number of factors played a role in bringing about a collapse of disciplines like philosophy, astronomy, and medicine.  I mention only a few of them here; the more complete picture must await further research. 
For example, the religious scholars, who were trained in a curriculum with a high dose of rationalism, faced an entirely transformed and impoverished system of princely patronage, staring at them in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Many of the rationalist scholars belonged to the establishment; they not only sat as judges in the courts or passed fatwas, but they also served as court poets, tax collectors, diplomats, personal physicians, and cartographers.  With the rise of the British Raj and the collapse of the institutions that sustained them, many of these scholars became disenfranchised and the vacuum was increasingly filled by a class of popular preachers, trained in a very different curriculum and connected with an emergent trans-regional reformist network of scholars. 
Then at least in the context of South Asia, another factor for the decline in the rationalist disciplines was the growth of Urdu as the primary literary language among Muslims.  Prior to this period, practically every single text in the rationalist sciences was written in Arabic (and sometimes in Persian).  These two languages contained within them an advanced technical vocabulary that had developed over the longue duree of rationalist disciplines.  With the loss of languages and the lack of systematic investment in translations into Urdu, the rigor of the rationalist disciplines was also compromised, since the technical baggage of the disciplines was lost with the language that carried it. 
Finally, one may mention that, though counterintuitive, the introduction and growth of print technology had a negative impact on rationalism as well. Prior to the growth of this technology, Muslim scholars regularly wrote commentaries and glosses on various texts of the rationalist disciplines by hand and in the margins of manuscripts.  This produced a diachronic and synchronic tradition of an internal dialectic with texts that was directly responsible for progress within a discipline.  The introduction of print technology fundamentally changed the way one did scholarship in the context of the madrasa.  There were no manuscripts and margins, no reproduction and living engagement with a tradition of argumentation.
Ahmed is making 3 mistakes
1) The British Raj expanded opportunities for Arabic and Persian scholars. The collapse of the Mughal Empire and successive invasions and periods of anarchy did adversely affect Islamic scholarship but the British Raj was a stabilizing factor. The Mutiny, no doubt, was a catastrophe but the British continued to patronize Islamic scholarship. In any case, Hyderabad was able to absorb many refugees from Delhi.

The real cause of the relative decline in Islamic Rationalism was that Religion was not divorced from Law. The autonomy of Secular lawyers in the West set the pattern for autonomous Science scholarship. The fact that the learned man in Islam combined various different functions- writing poetry, casting horoscopes, giving medical advice, acting as judge/tax collector- is what weakened Islamic rational scholarship. Specialization is the key to the pursuit of excellence in any empirico-rational discipline. One may say this militates against 'Wisdom' as opposed to 'Knowledge' or that it inculcates 'Materialism' but it is the only path to progress. We may admire Goethe's (or Schopenhauer's) Scientific interests but we must also admit they were shite. Strindberg, who learnt Chinese and Sanskrit, also believed in his own alchemical theories. Great dramatist, shite scientist.
The reason traditional Qazis and Muftis and Unani doctors fell behind was not because the curriculum at the Madrasas changed but because everybody had come to realize that they were shite. Smart kids didn't want to study that shite. BECAUSE IT WAS SHITE. Nothing to do with 'Orientalism' or some fucking false binary. Unani medicine, like Ayurvedic medicine, made you ill. The fatwas of the Qazis and Muftis contradicted each other and themselves. Everybody resorted to declaring their opponent an apostate more especially because the idiocy of Muhammadiya ideology created status competition between scholarly families- like that of Khwaja Mir Dard.  Everyone wanted to prove that they were descended from a purer and holier lineage and thus themselves represented the best chance for Islam to heal itself and regain its lost glory.
Maulana Azad had a traditional education. He was a massive fuckwit. Kasturba Gandhi ended up cooking mutton chops for him. In his last years he was drunk off his head.
2) The development of Urdu- as with any other mother tongue language- was good for raising Educational standards and spreading empirico-critical thinking. It began before the British came and it continued after they left. The British insisted that students also study a Classical language. They invested a lot in translating Classical works into the mother tongue- thus enriching the vocabulary. Muslims, in any case, would learn Arabic to read the Quran Sharif. There is no evidence that they stopped doing so and started reciting prayers in Urdu. Even Hindu lawyers and administrators learnt Arabic so as to apply Muslim law.
Consider the case of Iqbal. He studied in British Schools and Colleges. He wrote in Persian even though he did not have an idiomatic command of it.
Prof. Ahmed must be completely mad to say that mother tongue literacy and instruction could adversely impact Science amongst Muslims. If traditional medicine and astronomy and so on declined it was because the Western product was greatly superior. Nothing to do with 'Orientalism' or evil White people or deluded darkies at all.
3) Ahmed says printing books was bad for Islamic Science. This is batshit crazy. Printed books are much cheaper than hand-written books. Still, they were expensive. Teachers gave lectures and students took notes. In the process, all the comments and comments on comments and comments on comments on comments got recorded.
Why is Ahmed saying such stupid things? The answer is that he's done a bit of research during the course of which he noticed that some old scholar wrote something in the margin of the manuscript of another old scholar. Aha! says Ahmed. How interesting! This doesn't happen on my Amazon Kindle! It's like the scholars could email each other across the centuries! Cool!
But it isn't really cool at all, but a common practice. When I was young, the books at the library had the sort of comments and comments on comments that Ahmed is talking about. The reason was that books were expensive. Indian libraries couldn't afford to get the latest editions of foreign texts. So people updated these precious volumes by hand. Printing made it easier to do this sort of thing because printed books had wider margins (at least in those days) and bigger typefaces. Kids like me weren't allowed to write on a book- but learned people were encouraged to do so.

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is an actual scientist who lives in Pakistan. He was a friend of the late Nobel laureate Abdus Salam. Hoodbhoy mocks Ghazalli's 'Tahafut' and says that the Occassionalist ideology it promotes discourages Scientific inquiry. Hoodbhoy is right.  Leibnizian occassionalist casuistry added nothing to Scientific Research and Voltaire laughed it out of the Academy. Nobody laughed Ghazalli's Tahafut out of Islam. Poor old Averroes wasn't smart enough and, crucially, his weapon wasn't laughter. Ahmed says, 'look, Ghazalli's Occassionalism can be neutral w.r.t Science. But, it wasn't. That's a historical fact. Ahmed is supposed to be a historian. Let us look at his justification for rejecting 'the false binary of a Golden Age in Islamic Science'.
'The world that came after al-Ghazali, this same attitude towards reason continued to flourish - authors such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (d. 1311), Adud al-Din al-Iji (d. 1355) , al-Sayyid al-Sharif al-Jurjani (d. 1413), and Muhibballah al-Bihari(d. 1707) are a few among an innumerable host that come to mind.  In fields ranging from astronomy to metaphysics and well into the early twentieth century, Muslim scholars generally took the attitude that reason provided scientific models for understanding the universe and that these models were conceptually and mathematically real, though one could not necessarily prove the validity of one over another.  In other words, they adopted precisely the kind of attitude toward the scientific enterprise that has been embraced and consistently modified in the western tradition since David Hume (d. 1776), who, incidentally, also raised important questions about the metaphysical commitments in one’s assumption of causality and in one’s adherence to methods of induction.  A rather large number of works from the period after al-Ghazali explicitly state that scientific investigations do no harm to one’s creed.'

Why does Ahmed mention al Bihari? He did no original scientific work but was just  a jurist. What about al Jurjani? He wanted to do original work but couldn't because the teachers were too old or too far away. Why? Well the real reason for the end of 'Islam's golden age' was that the Mongols and Turks had taken power. Some Muslim cities never recovered. Tusi, famous now not as a Scientist but for his work on Ethics, is also infamous for his role in the the Mongol debacle. Al-Ijji is still quoted for his attacks on the 'hashish eating' Ibn Arabi. What was his great scientific accomplishment? Al Nafisi might be more to the point but he was a bigoted defender of the doctrine of bodily resurrection, so Ahmed doesn't mention him. Tusi and Shirazi could have worked with the Mongols to create an autonomous Scientific tradition totally separated from Religion. They chose not to do so. Shirazi, like many others, took the disorders of his age as evidence that Truth was to be found in devotional piety of the sort espoused by Rumi. There is no shame in that. What is bizarre is for a Western historian to quote Tusi and Shirazi and Jurjani as continuing a Scientific tradition when the truth is they and their followers retreated from it. Yes they conserved what was already seen as the fruits of a vanished golden age. But this was not some Orientalist fable of Nineteenth Century invention- it was their own empirical finding, or existential choice. The same thing happened in other traditions.which lost confidence by reason of invasion and foreign domination.
In Medicine, Islam currently allows the dissection of cadavers for Scientific research. However, not one single one of the people Ahmed mentions, despite being jurists, ever licensed this by their own fatwas. They conserved the work of their saintly forbears as a religious duty. They wouldn't chance their own salvation by procuring corpses to cut up to further their researches.Why? They didn't feel Science was truly autonomous in the way that Military technology was accepted to be. It's a bad thing for Science if stupid priests learn a little medieval Astronomy or Medicine in their seminaries. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or quit the Pierian spring.

Ahmed isn't a bad guy. He speaks up for the Ahmadiyas at a time when it is dangerous to do so- even in India. Why is he writing shit? The answer, of course, is that he's been reading Sheldon Pollock's bollocks.

'Let me end this essay with a statement about why the Golden Age vs. Dark Age narrative came to exist in the first place, without the analysis of the vast body of literature from the so-called Dark Ages; and let me also supply a statement about why the narrative still persists and will likely survive in the future, despite what we academics share with the world. 
Here my own words cannot match the eloquence and directness of Sheldon Pollock, the Arvindh Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University.  In an essay on Indian intellectual history, “Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern South Asia,” he writes:
“With respect to science and scholarship, however, especially during this critical early modern period, in-depth research in most disciplines is virtually non-existent…  whole libraries of manuscripts… remain unread today.  The factors contributing to this indifference would be worth weighing with care.  One is certainly the diminished capacity of scholars today to actually read these materials, one of the most disturbing, if little-remarked legacies of colonialism and modernization.  But there are other factors.  These include the old Orientalist-Romantic credo that the importance of any Indian artifact or text or form of thought is directly proportional to its antiquity…  Equally important is the colonial-era narrative of Indian decline and fall before 1800, so central to the ideology of British imperialism and its civilizing, modernizing mission… one salient example… is the disdain with which the remarkable achievements of Hindi literature and literary science…  were dismissed by colonized Indian intellectuals no less than by their colonial masters” (emphasis mine).
The narrative began as colonial Orientalist lore and has taken hold as a kind of neo-Orientalism among individuals who have lost access to their past.  Given this, I am afraid that Muslims really have one of two choices:  they may continue to perpetuate a hackneyed and essentialist Orientalist narrative, misdiagnose the problem, and even enable all kinds of extremists with the power of a fanciful story. 
Or they may rediscover their lost languages, produce historians who would penetrate the sources, and cultivate philosophers who would go beyond simple binaries and take control of the discourse in a sincere and sophisticated manner.  Then perhaps they may be able to revise their received histories and find some real solutions to a complex situation.
Either Islam is the same as Hinduism or it is different. If it is different, how can it suffer from the same malady as Hinduism? Colonialism? But, under the Brits, the Hindus shook off their (far worse) inherited stupidity and embraced Science. Amazingly, even the stupidest and most worthless amongst them- I refer of course to people of my own Brahmin caste- overtook the Muslims in education and the professions. Being terrible hypocrites, no doubt they pretend that their ancestors were all Scientists or Math or Computing mavens but that's only because they don't drink enough whiskey to get properly beaten up by their wives or girl friends. Interestingly, Hindu Schools- like the D.A.V or Ramakrishna Mission Schools- at one time could have gone down an anti-Science route. However, parents wanted Science subjects to gain prominence and Sanskrit type shite to be confined to Middle School. Pollock thinks this a bad thing. He is wrong. Sanskrit is easy. Middle aged people are going to rediscover it anyway. The problem Pollock mentions- viz. untranslated manuscripts- only exists because Indian Liberal Arts professors are a bunch of illiterate hoodlums who are bound to try to eat or smoke or wipe their arses on sacred palm leaf manuscripts. Everyone else can read that shite but has the good sense to see that it's mainly shite.
 Ahmed quotes Pollock though he is a crypto-Hindutva nutjob for whom Hinduism's 'dark ages' coincide with Turkish rule. But Turks turned Muslim. They were smart. They were powerful- so what happened? Well, Timur Kuran, a Turkish economist, gives us part of the answer but Ahmed isn't interested in Kuran because the academic availability cascade from which he can personally most profit is of the Pollock Bollocks type.
Gandhi was a nut-job. He wanted to believe in Ayurveda- which prescribes Arsenic and Mercury but bans milk- and so he tried Ayurveda till it made him very very sick. Then he stopped. That's also the story about Islamic science and Hindu science and Japanese science and Taoist science and Mayan science and Voodoo Science and so on. People switch from stuff which is worthless to stuff which is slightly less worthless. They may talk shite- and shite is always talked- but it's just 'preference falsification' and munafiqat is all it is.
Ahmed is worried about 'narratives'. Why? We all know that people tell stupid stories. We also know that Science is about laboratories and maths and complicated stuff of that sort. A conquered or deeply corrupt country isn't going to have a lot of laboratories or Professors who can actually do Math or understand complicated stuff. It is going to have people like Ahmed whose vaunted scholarship has only had the effect of robbing him of his common sense and turning him into a whining little gobshite who thinks some Dead White Males, a hundred and fifty years ago, told a story which by some strange magic continues to keep his people stupid and backward even now.
What's next Ahmed? Will you be the Vishva Adluri of Islam?


  1. Ahmed is arguing from a religious point of view and you should have the decency to give him credit for standing up for his beliefs.
    Sheikh Ghazali ends the Tahafut with a fatwa condemning to death any Muslim who denies bodily resurrection on the day of Judgement. This is a matter of Faith not Science because Science can only deal with repeatable events not with things which happen only once by the Will and Command of Allah.
    Note that Prof. Ahmed is not approving taqlid blindly. He writes- 'Why is any of this historical disquisition important? If the narrative presented by my co-panelist (Parvez Hoodbhoy, a notorious person) -one that is routinely rehearsed by open-minded, liberal commentators on Islam - is correct and explains anything at all, then the current state of rationalist disciplines in the Islamic world is the direct result of the attitudes of mainstream Islam toward reason and rationality; and if this is true, then I would advise Muslims to abandon their religion. For in my view, no religion that suppresses this primary, essential, and defining faculty of humans can be true. Indeed this immediate consequence of the Golden Age and decline narrative - i.e., to abandon Islam - is precisely one that is also adopted by right wing Islamophobes in our own county. It is the fault, so we are told, of mainstream “orthodox” Islam that rationalism has had no home among Muslims for 900 years! The religion must be deeply flawed, they say, and so it must disappear in the modern age. Paradoxically, the same narrative breeds another kind of radicalism - one that is characteristic of militant fundamentalists within the fold of Islam. Much like the other side, they argue that Islam was gloriously successful during the first centuries of the religion’s existence and it is to this Golden Age of Islam that they intend to return. The rest of us find ourselves in the middle, struggling to find a space for reason, while hard pressed by extremes on both sides.'
    Anyone is welcome to embrace Islam but once they do so they must affirm belief in Creation, Destruction and Resurrection by Will and Command of Allah and not by any scientific process. Penalty of apostasy is death as ordained by the fatwa of Sheikh Ghazali. This is a matter of Religion not anything else.
    If you want to argue how to improve Science Education that is up to you. You can bring facts and figures to support your case. However, Religion is different and separate issue and Prof. Ahmed is speaking of Religion only on which, since you are not Muslim, you do not have required knowledge or standing.

    1. I respect your viewpoint. As you mention, I'm not Muslim so my comment has no sound basis. However there are two questions I can pose
      1) Why not prefer Salafi/Wahhabi Islam which rejects Ghazali? After all, at the time of the Companions, there was Scientific and Technological work being done. That is enough to license Scientific and Technological training, Medical research etc. What is the relevance of Manuscripts written in Persian etc?
      2) You are condoning Prof. Ahmed telling people to abandon Islam even if anti-rationalism developed and became mainstream at some time AFTER death of all the Companions. This is mad. Just because some custom becomes fashionable or is forced upon people due to their weakness, does it mean that Religion itself can counsel its own abandonment? Jewish people were prisoner of Pharaoh. No doubt bad customs became mainstream during their bondage. Did this mean they should have abandoned their Religion? Is this the teaching of Torah or Quran Sharif? It became mainstream practice of Muslims in South Asia to bend the knee to British. Does it mean Muslims should have abandoned their Religion? If in Palestine, if a Muslim can't get into proper School to pursue 'reason and rationality...the primary, essential, and defining faculty of humans'- should he abandon his Religion?
      Is that what you are saying?
      If not, why are you quoting this young idiot who does not know how to reason?
      Either there is a penalty for apostasy or there is not. If there is a penalty, why counsel young people to do it? Is this really how a Professor should talk?

    2. "If the earth is flat you should abandon Islam." How is this telling people to abandon Islam? He is saying that there was no anti-rationalism in the mainstream tradition. He is saying that this idea of anti-rationalism as overwhelming the tradition is invented. So there is no need to consider leaving the religion. He says that the Islamophobes build their arguments on this false claim. Do you get it now?

    3. No Muslim 'alim' would make such a statement because no fact about the world can justify abandoning one's Faith and Principles. Suppose, at some time in the future, mankind is spread across the galaxy. An enemy race decides to flatten the Earth like a pancake. Should Muslims abandon Islam because of this malicious act?
      Within Islam, people like Ghazali believed that there is a need for a reviver of the tradition because it tends to degrade. This clearly shows that the possibility was recognized that the mainstream can fall way from the ideal but his does not license apostasy; on the contrary pious practices should be redoubled.
      Islamophobes are often racists. They don't need any sophisticated argument about rationalism or anti-rationalism. In fact, in general, they are too ignorant to make such claims. Ahmed is involved in a particular Research Program. He says it is very important. It should receive more support- more money, more prestige, more Academic appointments- because otherwise 'Islam is in danger'. This is self-serving nonsense.
      Ahmed has studied logic. He knows very well that no positive argument defeats an imperative argument. They are two separate realms.

    4. It seems you don't work well with counter-factuals :). And your imagination is quite bewlidering: aliens, apostasy, prestige, money...all from this article! Wow!

    5. I don't understand your reference to counter-factuals. Are you referring to the difficulty of specifying the 'Stalnaker Lewis' closest possible world? But, in this instance, no such problem arises.
      Some Muslims may not know that the earth is round- it doesn't mean they are not good and pious Muslims. Of course, for Society to progress, we need to educate our young people.
      In the 1960's the Pakistani dictator, Ayub Khan, invited Prof. Fazlur Rahman Malik, with a view to introducing a 'rational' code for Islamic education and policy making. However, the Dictator was losing his grip and various different sects of traditionalists were able to gain popularity by opposing this move. One result was that in the Seventies and Eighties, both civilian and military Govts. courted the traditionalists. Thus, the Pakistan in which Abdus Salam and, later, Parvez Hoodboy received their initial education was changing in a manner unfavorable to Scientific advancement.
      Ahmed says that a revisionist history of the tradition of Ghazali is going to help. I suggest that this is nonsense. Keeping the ideologues, religious or otherwise, out of Science Education is the way forward.

  2. Bihari wrote a treatise on the indivisibility of the atom and a book on logic- he was more than just a jurist.

    1. Yes, I recall reading some guy making a claim that Al Bihari anticipated Rutherford or something like that. It was in the papers some thirty years ago. Then the heavyweights came in and rubbished the whole thing. Essentially, the guy was conserving what had come from the Golden Age not doing new Science and even then the purpose was the refutation of them evil batinis who had ruled the roost under Akbar. Could you point me to a link for this or give me an ISBN ref or something? There was probably an issue of some magazine or a seminar write up or something which I read at the time. Don't remember the details but I'd love to refresh my memory because of the whole Bedil and Ghalib and possible worlds thing which I keep wanting to blog about.

    2. There is material in Urdu- put a request on the forum fro link

  3. Ibn Masawayh wanted to dissect his own son to find out the cause of his stupidity but was stopped by the Caliph.
    Science can only progress if we permit such vivisection.