Postdoctoral Project

Science and Religion in Historical Perspective: Kalām, Astronomy and the Constructivist Quest for Knowledge

The Postdoctoral Fellowship focuses on the relationship between the philosophy of divine voluntarism and the conceptions of modal contingency and habits of nature as developed within the Muslim intellectual school of ʿilm al-kalām. This is contrasted to the Greek necessitarian philosophy of nature and its implications upon a philosophy of determinism. Historically, while evidence points to the fact that the first conception promoted observational experimentation and a philosophy of science founded upon an empirical a priori, the latter seems to have been responsible for keeping science within the boundaries of a hypothetical presupposition that is more akin to Aristotelian natural philosophy.

To defend our thesis within the context of Islamic civilization, we primarily focus on the flowering of the scientific philosophy of Kalām in fifteenth century Samarqand under the patronage of the Timurid Court of Ulugh Beg, and which saw the construction of the great Observatory of Samarqand. In fact, this Samarqand theological and mathematical center of learning undertook the development of a modern response to the crisis of Ptolemaic astronomy with its well-known equant problem. The philosopher and mathematician ʿAli Qushji (d. 1474), with whom “the philosophy of the Kalam” (to use Harvard’s Harry Austryn Wolfson’s expression) reaches an apex, openly removes all conceptual impediments to Earth’s motion in his philosophical work Sharḥ Tajrīd al-Kalām (Elucidations on Scientific Abstraction), and he does so in direct refutation of the realist presupposition about the stationariness of the Earth. Shortly after his death and in the late fifteenth century, a resembling work of one of Qushji’s astronomical models - on solving Ptolemy’s infamous equant problem - appeared in the works of the Latin mathematician Regiomontanus, who was working with manuscripts that the Byzantines had carried with them out of Constantinople. This very same model, which contained in a revolutionary manner the constructive foundations for the motion of the Earth, also showed a strong resemblance to the mathematical argumentation presented by Copernicus in his De Revolutionibus – the book in which he first presented his thesis on Earth’s motion. In fact, Copernicus’ realism seems to be apparent in the fact that he only reverses the cosmological motion from the Sun to the Earth, while maintaining the underlying Aristotelian epistemology. In this study, we, therefore, highlight the ties between Ptolemaic astronomy and the Greek idea of necessitarian causality in relation to the Renaissance reading of nature as a world-machine that was accompanied by a slow creeping of atheistic trends in Europe. Consequently, while the astronomical revolution in the Islamic world was presented in a science of Kalām theological text, the one that followed in Europe at the hands of Copernicus and later Galileo took the path of a struggle for authority between the Catholic Church and secular science.

In this research project, we, therefore, trace the full development of constructivism, as an alternative epistemology to Greek realism, as exhibited in the later ʿilm al-kalām School of the fifteenth century. To do that we focus on the periods of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and in particular on Qushji’s aforementioned Sharḥ Tajrīd al-Kalām. Qushji one of Islam’s greatest philosophers and mathematicians, has been recently discovered in Western academia in connection to Copernicus and the scientific revolution in astronomy. Qushji was the head of the Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarqand, and later in Constantinople he was Fatih Sultan Mehmed II’s appointed head at the newly instituted madrasah/university at Ayasophia. A manuscript copy of his significant philosophical work, Sharḥ Tajrīd al-Kalām, is kept at Harvard University’s Widener Library and which despite its significance and contemporary relevance has not been academically studied in the West.

In addition, and as a comparative study, we wish to compare this Kalamic  tradition to a noted overlap with the philosophy of the British empiricists, John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume and the later American pragmatists, namely that of the Metaphysical Club at Harvard which involved Charles Peirce and William James. James has especially influenced John Wild the Harvard Philosopher and author of The Radical Empiricism of William James and the strong defender of the “empirical a priori”. Indeed, James has also influenced John Rawls the more contemporary philosopher who grounded his political philosophy for dealing with pluralism upon his understanding of “constructivist” epistemology that he cited in connection to Kant’s own Copernican Revolution in philosophy. The striking similarities, therefore, between later Kalām as found in Qushji’s works, and a particular Harvard development within the Anglo-American tradition certainly invites us to study this intellectual relationship that our project attempts to further unravel and clarify.

Mustapha is currently working on a book manuscript that covers two interconnected themes: (1) the constructivist philosophy of Kalām as a foundation for developments in Arabic astronomy in the fifteenth century, and (2) the epistemological connection between constructivist philosophy and the revolution in science that took place in the West beginning in the sixteenth century.