Friday, 25 September 2009

Mali: the irony of it all

It’s fascinating to see the protests in Mali against the proposed new family law, which would in particular free women from the obligation to obey their husbands. Among leaders of the opposition were many women, speaking out against a law that would have enshrined their right to do so.

The real key to the opposition was that it removed a religious consideration from the law. The obligation of obedience on wives enshrined a principle of Islam; another provision would have made marriage a secular institution, not a religious one. That separation of religion from civil life is contentious in many Communities, such as 85% Moslem Mali, though it's a hallmark of the West. The first amendment of the US Constitution famously states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ though even in the US many are uncomfortable with that principle of separation between state and faith.

Curiously, the roots of the separation lie in the work of one of the greatest ever Islamic thinkers.

With the explosion of scientific work as a discipline independent of theology, the principle became fully established in the eighteenth century, the century of the US Constitution. The culmination of the process is perhaps best symbolised by the moment when Napoleon asked the scientist Laplace why his latest work contained no mention of God; Laplace replied ‘I had no need of that hypothesis’.

The road that led to Laplace had far earlier origins. Back in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas remodelled Christian thought along Aristotelian lines. He saw the hand of God in the laws that governed the behaviour of the world itself, and not just in spiritual matters. That meant that it was theologically valid to study the physical universe and its principles in its own right, instead of confining oneself only to the study of the divine.

Thomas was declared a saint within a hundred years of his birth, but not before having been denounced as a heretic, because many in the Church so just how dangerous legitimising the study of nature might be: it could lead to views such as Laplace’s nearly six centuries later.

And where did Thomas learn his Aristotle? Above all from reading the commentaries of Averroes, the outstanding Muslim thinker, from the then great Arab city of Cordoba in Spain.

If Christians realised that the Aristotelian ideas voiced by Aquinas were dangerous, Moslems were equally aware of the danger when they were voiced by his master Averroes. Islam nipped his ideas in the bud, exiling him to North Africa and banning him from public office for much of his life. His ideas could only flourish outside his own religious community.

So what we’re seeing playing out in Mali this week is a cultural clash between the coreligionists of Averroes and the descendants of those who adopted his principles.

Isn’t irony one of the great joys of life?


Awoogamuffin said...

‘I had no need of that hypothesis’


David Beeson said...

Shall we just take it as a proven fact then?