About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Abu Bakr Al-Razi and Islamic skepticism

Several times now I have recommended Jennifer Hecht's book, Doubt: a history, and another reason to do so is her treatment of skepticism during the peak of Islamic intellectual achievements (c. 700-1000 CE), the same period during which Europe was plummeting to the depth of its Dark Age.

Just to wet your appetite, consider the story of Abu Bakr Al-Razi, who lived from 854 to 925. While he was praised and accepted by his community because of his charitable work, he also wrote scathing criticisms of Islam and religion in general. Titles of his books included gems such as “The Prophet's Fraudulent Tricks,” “The Stratagems of Those Who Claim to Be Prophets” (this one could have been written by James Randi or Michael Shermer!), and even “On the Refutation of Revealed Religions” (notice the plural in the title). One can get killed for much less in today's “civilized” world.

Al-Razi clearly understood the distinction between common religious people and religious and political authorities, with the latter exploiting the naïve beliefs of the first ones; he also saw the existence of many religions as a pretty good clue that none of them got it right (a powerful argument against the so-called Pascal wager).

Here is what Al-Razi, quoted by Hecht, had to say about the Koran: “By God what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation. Then you say: 'produce something like it?!'” This is precisely the sort of reaction that modern humanists have whenever they are told about the so-called “good book” or one of its derivatives (like the Koran), and it is rather humbling (and, frankly, a bit depressing) to see how someone saw things so clearly already twelve centuries ago.

What was Al-Razi's answer to those who claim that religion is the only way to find meaning in life and deal with the reality of existence? Philosophy, naturally. As he elegantly put it: “No soul can be purged from the turbidity of this world and escape to the next, except by contemplating philosophy. If a person contemplates philosophy and comprehends anything, be it ever so small, his soul is purged from this turbidity and is saved.” Why would one want to be tied by religion (whose original meaning is in fact “to tie fast,” from the Latin religare), rather than develop love of wisdom, the root meaning of philosophy?


  1. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

    "No step is lost on this path, and no dangers are found. And even a little progress is freedom from fear." (Bhagavad Gita, 2.40)

  2. Amazing. According to wikipedia, there's even a 'Razi Day' ('Pharmacy Day') commemorated in Iran every August 27. I wonder if the ruling mullahs are aware of his work.

  3. Truly amazing.
    I'm off to find more about this Abu Bakr Al-Razi first thing in the morning.

    Comming from a muslim family, it's nice to see "one of our own" critize religion.

    Certainly there will be things to discuss while drinking coffe with the family.

  4. I could probably read that book once a year for the rest of my life.

  5. Al-Razi sounds like my kind of guy! The Muslim world needs more of his sort today.

  6. Islam was not always as conservative as it is now. During much of the Middle Ages it was more advanced than Europe.

    Pascal's Wager fails to take into account that there are really an unlimited number of hypothetical/possible beings and scenarios requiring faith for our salvation. Why pick any given one?

    Such imagined scenarios are not a reasonable wager - they are they backdrop of vanishing possibility against which our well-evidenced observations stand out. It is not zero possibility that is the default position, but the unknown. And in this regard, theism is entirely unremarkable.