Monday August 16, 2010

When Islam Abandoned Reason: A Conversation with Robert R. Reilly

“If we don’t help the side that we wish to see prevail in that struggle, we had better get ready for things far worse than 9/11”

Robert R. Reilly

LONDON, August 16, 2010 ( – What happened to Islamic civilization? How did we get from Avicenna and Cordoba to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda? In his new book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, Robert R. Reilly traces the problem back to a thousand-year-old theological debate over reason and the nature of God.

InsideCatholic Editor Brian Saint-Paul spoke to him.

Brian Saint-Paul: Islam exploded out of Arabia as a kind of nomadic religion. In its earliest generations, it was less interested in philosophical issues than it was with general expansion and succession. But that changed. How?

Robert R. Reilly: The first four caliphs remained on the Arabian peninsula. At first, they kept their troops quarantined outside the cities they had conquered so that Muslims wouldn’t be contaminated by alien cultures and beliefs. After the founding of the Umayyad caliphate around 660, the center of the new empire moved to Damascus, and then later the Abbasids moved it to Baghdad. They couldn’t maintain the quarantine, and they encountered peoples for whom philosophy had been second nature, as it was infused in Christian apologetics at the time.

So in their conversations with Christians, they felt the need to develop philosophical tools to advance or defend the Muslim faith. They needed their own apologetics. The question then arose: Is it legitimate for us to use these tools, like logic and philosophy, and what is permitted for us to know through these means?

BSP: This transformation centered around a particular school of Islamic thought — the Mu’tazilites.

RRR: Yes. The Mu’tazilites asserted the primacy of reason, and that one’s first duty is to engage in reason and, through it, come to know God. They also thought it their duty to understand revelation in a way that comported with reason, so that if something in the Koran seemed inconsistent with reason, it should not be read literally. It should therefore be taken as metaphor or analogy.

The Mu’tazilites held that God Himself is Reason, and that man’s reason is a gift from Him so that he can come to know Him through the order of His creation. Abd al-Jabbar, one of the great theologians, made the statement, “It is obligatory for you to carry out what accords with reason.”

This was because the Mu’tazilites held that reason could come to know what is good and evil, just and unjust. This knowledge is available to all, not just to Muslims. Therefore, it is incumbent upon everyone to reason, come to know the good, and to behave according to it. Unless reason was capable of moral knowledge, how could God expect man to behave morally?

The Mu’tazilites were sponsored by the Caliph al-Ma’mun, who was the greatest supporter of Greek thought in Islamic history. He is said to have had a dream in which Aristotle appeared to him. He asked the philosopher, “What is the good?” and Aristotle answered, “It is what is rationally good.” And so al-Ma’mun embraced this rational school of theology — the Mu’tazilites — and also sponsored al-Kindi, the first Arab philosopher.

BSP: In its broad outline, this view of God is quite compatible with that of Christianity, isn’t it?

RRR: It sounds very familiar to us. And when reading Abd al-Jabbar, one is struck by how similar it is to Christian apologetics, or to what we might call Natural Theology. In fact, his arguments for the existence of God are very much the same as those we find in Christian Natural Theology. This should not surprise us, as they were influenced by the same Greek sources.

BSP: But this is entirely unlike what we would associate with modern Muslim theology. What happened?

RRR: Not all of this went over well with the more traditional Muslims. Out of this opposition arose another school of theology that came to be known as the Ash’arites, after its founder al-Ash’ari. They denied, point by point, everything the Mu’tazalites said. They claimed God isn’t reason but pure will and power. He can do anything He wants — He’s not restrained or constrained by anything, including His own word. There is no way one can know what is good or evil through reason, but only through revelation.

Al-Ghazali, the great Ash’arite theologian, said that “no obligations flow from reason, but from the Sharia.” So nothing you can know through your reason can guide you in your life as to what is good or just. There is no moral philosophy.

BSP: That has a heavy consequence when it comes to the objective morality of things.

RRR: The key here is that God does not forbid murder because it is bad; rather, it is bad because He forbids it. He could change His mind tomorrow and demand ritual murder, and no one could gainsay Him, because things are themselves neither good nor evil, but are only made so by God’s commands. Therefore, for salvation, you have to know His commands, and you cannot come to that knowledge through reason.

In interpreting God’s laws, there is a principle in Islamic jurisprudence which states, “Reason is not a legislator.” In other words, the only laws that apply to you are the ones God gave you. Reason has no authority or status in creating laws, or even in interpreting them.

The political consequences of such a view are easy to see: If reason is not a legislator, then why have legislatures at all? They have no standing, because reason has no standing.

BSP: Without reason, then, you cannot have representative democracy.

RRR: Right, you would simply see democracy as a cover for the rule of the stronger. It would simply be another exercise of the imposition of power through force — in this case, the force of the majority.

So the Ash’arite school rejects the primacy of reason in favor of the primacy of pure will and power, and this is why constitutional democratic rule did not develop indigenously in the Islamic world.

BSP: That’s a tremendous shift, because in separating reason from God, one undercuts causality, and with it, the knowable universe.

RRR: Yes, that’s one of the by-products of this loss of reason. God acts for no reasons. Therefore, what He does is unintelligible. One of the things He does is to create the universe, which itself then becomes unintelligible.

Also, for the Ash’arites, the omnipotence of God requires that He be the only cause of things. So the First Cause ends up as the only cause, which denies the existence of secondary causes in the natural world. Fire does not burn cotton; God does. Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does it directly. There is no such thing as natural law. This denial of cause and effect is devastating. It helps explain the dysfunctional nature of much of the Islamic world today.

BSP: Because God may do one thing, or He may do another — there’s no predicting. In one swing, we’ve wiped out science.

RRR: It’s hard to comprehend events in the natural world if they’re not tied together in a narrative of cause and effect. They are just a series of miracles. As such, they become incomprehensible. This is the consistent emphasis of the Ash’arite school, that there is no inherent order in nature, only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s will.

God is not teleologically ordered. God is unknowable. What He has done in the Koran is not to reveal Himself, but to set out rules which He expects us to obey. But do not presume to think that you can know Allah or interrogate Him as to the reasons for which He acts, because you can’t.

BSP: Obviously, the Ash’arites won their debate with the Mu’tazilites over the role of reason, and we live in al-Ghazali’s Islamic world. But he himself eventually devolved into mysticism — if one loses reason and natural theology, one’s only remaining contact point with God is that of direct experience. So why hasn’t the rest of Islam followed al-Ghazali’s path?

RRR: Al-Ghazali boxed himself into mysticism; in cutting himself off from reason, he had no other way to move forward. He made the transition in such a way that it became more palatable to the Sunni world, and he is thought to have revived Islam through his embrace of mysticism. But this mysticism is itself irrational, and only reinforced the attacks on reason that al-Ghazali had made in his famous work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. It’s kind of a double whammy, really.

Sufism did spread but was always suspected by the Sunni orthodox, because the mystics sometimes excused themselves from the mandatory rituals of Islam. On occasion, they’d also make extravagant claims about merging with God, which is an absolutely forbidden notion in Sunni orthodoxy. As a result, Sufism, despite its popularity, was on the fringes.

BSP: Modern Muslims aren’t particularly mystical, but they do carry the rest of al-Ghazali’s baggage. Is there a connection between the anti-rationalism of Ash’arite theology and the violence found in so much of contemporary Islam?

RRR: Benedict XVI made this point in his Regensburg talk, that not only is violence in spreading faith unreasonable, but that a conception of God without reason leads to this very violence.

BSP: How so?

RRR: Because this view of God is like the statement of Thrasymachus to Socrates that “Right is the rule of the stronger,” taken to a theological level. God’s rule is right because He, by definition, is the strongest. Whatever He says is right — it’s almost a form of divine positivism.

But if God is right simply because of His power and pure will, then there are no theological barriers between that conception of God and the endorsement of violence in spreading faith. And we know that this was the primary way Islam spread historically.

One of Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentors was Abdullah Azzam, who made the notorious statement that “Terrorism is an obligation is Allah’s religion.” Bin Laden repeated this remark in one of his post-9/11 videos. This can only be true — that violence in spreading faith is an obligation — if God is without reason, and therefore acting unreasonably is not against his nature.

Now, there are certainly grounds in Islamic jurisprudence for forbidding the killing of unarmed women and children. But the Islamists of today reject the Muslim jurisprudence of the Middle Ages and want to dispense with all those rules. And they have.

BSP: In reading through your book, two thoughts struck me. First, you make your case very well, to the point that I’ve revised my own position in light of the things I’ve learned from you. And second, the problems with Islam may be even more intractable than we think, and will only be eliminated through a wholesale shift in the Muslim worldview.

How do you go about changing a rival religion’s understanding of reality?

RRR: The problem is ultimately theological, and any solution needs to be at that level. That’s why economic and political approaches don’t work.

One of my friends is a leading pro-reform Muslim intellectual in Europe. I asked him: If I could give you all the funding and power you needed for ten years to fight the war of ideas within Islam, what would you do? His answer was very interesting: He said he would undertake a re-Hellenization of the Muslim world. Just as Benedict pointed out that the problem in Islam today came about because of its de-Hellenization, he was saying the solution is to reverse the process.

BSP: But how do we do that, practically speaking? Philosophy and Greek thought are so plainly associated with the West in the Muslim mind, that that they carry a taboo. How do we overcome that?

RRR: Well, these things are part of Muslim history. Islam has rejected that history, but it’s there nevertheless. That’s what Muslims need to revisit, and that includes the fundamental question about who God is. They need to rediscover some of the ideas that were closed off by Ash’arite thought.

That includes the idea that the Koran was created at a certain time and place. Most Muslims believe that the Koran has existed co-eternally with God — that it has been inscribed on a tablet in heaven forever, exactly as it appears today in Arabic. That was the Ash’arite position, and it prevailed. In other words, the Koran is ahistorical.

The Mu’tazilites saw the Koran much the same way that Christians regarded their own Scriptures. Yes, it is the word of God, but it was created in time and needs to be interpreted in light of the circumstances of that creation. Thus, the need for interpretation.

Without reopening this question in the Muslim world, it’s hard to see any kind of reform succeeding.

BSP: Does the U.S. government have a role to play in re-Hellenizing Islamic theology? Or to put it more broadly, should the government be involved in a theological dispute at all?

RRR: Insofar as the United States is a product of Hellenic thought, I would think we should be involved. We obviously won’t be heard if we try to interpose ourselves in a Muslim theological debate unless the primacy of reason is restored, and then all reasonable people could participate.

There are a number of Muslim thinkers who understand the problem in these terms, and who are trying to do something. They require help and protection. The Muslim intellectual I mentioned earlier required German police protection and an armored Mercedes for five years because of threats against his life. And of course, in many parts of the Muslim world, if you were to say the Koran was created in time, you would be in great danger.

Because of the explosion in communications — the hundreds of satellite channels beamed from around the world into their homes each day — Muslims can see that their situation is not a good one. So how do they account for this once-great Islamic civilization in the Arab world that has now ended near the bottom of the heap?

It’s a hard thing for Muslims to come to the realization that they took a wrong turn 800 years ago and need to revisit some fundamental questions regarding their theology. It requires a tremendous amount of work and learning and self-examination and critical thinking.

The easy answer — which is proliferating through the Muslim world — is the Islamist answer, that Muslims find themselves in this position today because they have left the path of God. According to this popular view, if Islam returns to the path of God, they will see their past glory restored.

Unfortunately, what really needs to be done is a lot of hard intellectual and spiritual work. It’s no surprise that the people engaged in that are having such a difficult time in the face of Osama bin Laden’s easier program for Islamic restoration.

And of course, we in the West are not helping the people engaged in re-Hellenization. They’re on their own — we don’t give them protection, or printing presses, or radio stations.

BSP: But wouldn’t they be disqualified as legitimate participants in this Islamic debate if they were seen as proxies of the West?

RRR: If the support were openly known, then there is that danger. There are ways to do it three or four steps removed, but we’re just not intelligent enough to do that. Also, these people are already accused of being in the pay of the West, so they might as well be. They get the blame but not the benefit.

As things stand now, we have allowed the Islamists a theological safe haven, which is far more dangerous than the physical safe havens they enjoy in parts of Pakistan and elsewhere.

There is a contest on for the soul of Islam. If we don’t help the side that we wish to see prevail in that struggle, we had better get ready for things far worse than 9/11.

This article was republished with permission from

Click here for more information on Robert R. Reilly’s new book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.

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