Abbasid Freethinking Humanism by Aziz al-Azmeh

On 13 July 1856, Charles Darwin wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, wondering at ‘what a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature.’ Darwin was not predisposed by temperament to advocate the Devil’s work, but he was nevertheless sufficiently sober-minded to engage, privately and to a considerable degree impelled by his knowledge of nature’s cruel ways no less than by a private tragedy, with questions of theodicy and design that were all the rage among English scientists and theologians of his time. He was rather impelled to detect in claims for benign and intelligent design, or in the milder claims that this be the best of all possible worlds, an absurdity and a travesty.

In times more determinedly exercised by theological and dogmatic consideration, doubts expressed about theodicy were redacted otherwise than by sober musings over the results of research into natural history, or by their extension to the ethological, sociobiological and ethical study of homo sapiens inaugurated by Darwin himself in The Descent of Man (1871). A different redaction was required for doubts about the wisdom of a divinity creating a nature by nature messy and violent, and creating humanity by nature given to greed, aggression and injustice – doubts over claims for theodicy in the natural and human worlds equally characterised by ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works.’ In these times past, the potential toxicity of creation’s works, and the incongruity of any consequent notion of benign and firm stewardship, tended to be attributed to a pernicious, personified agency acting against the wholesome order of the divinity. The ways of nature were not so much hers as God’s; human disorder was generally attributed to the wiles of Satan and, when not, to divine retribution whose works in nature were legion.

A thousand years before Darwin, this bundle of themes was addressed in Abbasid domains in a variety of manners: in philosophical and theological works, in casual and sometimes exuberant blasphemy, by libertine literati, and in a variety of genres in which Abbasid freethinking was expressed. Before I come to this, I shall take up the bird’s-eye view adopted by the historiographer and scholar of world religions al-Shahrastani (1086–1153). Wishing to account for the disorder that was, to him, right thinking and, by extension, of disorder in general, al-Shahrastani referred this back to an archetypical event, an aetiological legend standing alongside a myth of the creation of God’s good order. In doing so, he has Satan cast aspersions on the consistency and wisdom of God’s own works.