With the two brief exceptions of Baghdad and Spain over a millennium ago, the history of Islam has been that of a long decline without a fall. What started as a violent creed of invaders from the desert soon ran out of steam, but the collective memory of earlier successes lingered on as proof of divine approval and superiority. It was not until 1683 that the menace to Europe was finally crushed at the gates of Vienna, but for long before that the Islamic world had little interesting to say or do. Not even a prime location at the crossroads of the world could act as an antidote to the slow poison of Islamic obscurantism. The Ottoman interlude concealed and postponed the latent tension between the view of world history as the fulfillment of Islam and its triumph everywhere, on the one hand, and the reality of squalor and decadence, on the other.
The nature of the problem has always been spiritual. When the Ottomans realized that something went seriously wrong two centuries ago, their view of knowledge remained that of a commodity that could be imported and used. Western engineers, military officers, and doctors have been training their Muslim students ever since, but the latter never managed to proceed beyond what had been imparted to them. The problem is insoluble: Muslims want the fruits, but not the culture itself. Western discipline, cohesion, ingenuity, and prosperity are incompatible with instant gratification, inherent to the Muslim mind ever since Muhammad resorted to divine intervention in his lust for his daughter-in-law. There is no creative spark from within that could use foreign novelties to transform the society and catapult it into modernity. As Bernard Lewis notes in What Went Wrong? Muslim modernizers concentrated their efforts on three main areas: military, economic, and political.
The results achieved were, to say the least, disappointing. The quest for victory by updated armies brought a series of humiliating defeats. The quest for prosperity through development brought in some countries impoverished and corrupt economies in recurring need of external aid, in others an unhealthy dependence on a single resource—oil. And even this was discovered, extracted, and put to use by Western ingenuity and industry, and is doomed, sooner or later, to be exhausted, or, more probably, superseded . . . Worst of all are the political results: the long quest for freedom has left a string of shabby tyrannies, ranging from traditional autocracies to dictatorships that are modern only in their apparatus of repression and indoctrination.
In The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Robert R. Reilly’s objective is not to recapitulate the conventional summary of what went wrong, but to explain why it did. To that end, he explores the theological and philosophical foundations of mainstream Sunnite Islam, as they were developed in the ninth and tenth centuries.
The “intellectual suicide” at the root of the problem, he says, was Islam’s “dehellenization” over a millennium ago. The stage was set with the second dynasty of the caliphate, the Abbasids, who ascended to the caliphate in 750, succeeding the Umayyads. They moved the capital to Baghdad, absorbed much of the Syrian and Persian culture, and ushered in a “golden age.” Three notable thinkers, al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Avicenna, tried to reconcile Aristotle and Neoplatonism with the teaching of Islam. Known as the Mu’tazilite school, they were influenced by Baghdad’s Greek heritage in philosophy, which survived the Arab invasion. Some adopted the view that reason is superior to revelation. Farabi even came close to regarding religion as a symbolic rendering of truth and, following Plato, saw it as the task of the philosopher to provide guidance to the state.
Mainstream Mu’tazilites did not go that far, but tried to deploy reason and science in asserting the authority of Islamic scripture. They were rationalists insofar as they fell back on Greek philosophy for their metaphysical and physical explanations of phenomena while staying within the limits of what they regarded as orthodox belief, not unlike the Scholastics in Christendom. They developed an “Islamic theology” able and willing to engage in debates with Christian thinkers. But when the Mu’tazilites went too far in their inquiry into the secrets of nature, they aroused the suspicion of rulers in North Africa and Spain, as well as in the East. By the mid-ninth century a rival school (the Ash’arites) came to dominate Muslim discourse with their insistence that Allah was pure Will, outside and above reason or nature. Natural laws and human thoughts are subsidiary and contingent; Allah is the only actor.
Persecution, exile, and death were soon suffered by the authors whose writings did not conform to the canon. Copyists and booksellers were prohibited from trading in works of the Mu’tazilites. The long process of dehellenization and ossification had begun.
It is said that when the Caliph Umar conquered Alexandria in the seventh century, he had its huge library burned, saying that if the writings contained therein were in agreement with the Koran, they were redundant and therefore useless; and if they disagreed with the holy book, they were blasphemous and must be destroyed. Modern Muslims delight in debunking this apocryphal story as anti-Islamic slander; yet it was not invented by Christians or Jews but by the triumphant Ash’arites to justify the end of critical inquiry, ijtihad, as shown in the burning of works by Ibn al-Haitham, who dared claim that the Earth is spherical.
Reilly’s chief villain is Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who asserted that “the science that the Qur’an brings is all science.” Islam as we know it has been shaped by his triumph. It rejects the notion that the universe is governed by natural laws, because this would suggest a limitation on the sovereign will of Allah, who cannot be “obliged” to observe any rational order to the universe. No secondary causes are possible, and therefore no relations of cause and effect are operational.
“Creation is not imprinted with reason,” Reilly writes of this Islamic voluntarism, and therefore cannot reflect what is not there. There is no rational order invested in the universe upon which one can rely, “only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s Will.” This is an insight of paramount importance. An orthodox Muslim will see each act in itself as fitting an occasion rather than as a link in a chain of cause and consequence. Accordingly, it is blasphemous to say that combining hydrogen and oxygen makes water: “You are supposed to say that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together then by the will of Allah water is created.” Buying auto insurance or wearing seat belts is presumptuous, unnecessary, and ultimately futile in the face of Allah’s sovereign Will. The phrase Insha’Allah (“god willing”) is not simply a polite social convention, Reilly warns, but the reflection of a theological doctrine that denies reason and any law separate from divine will.
In the last two decades of the 20th century South Korea registered over 16,000 patents, while nine key Middle Eastern countries registered only 370 among them, many of them on inventions by foreigners. Spain, with a population of 36 million, produces a larger proportion of scientific literature than 46 Muslim countries with a billion people. Seven million Greeks translate five times more books annually than the entire Muslim world. Over the past thousand years the entire Arab world has translated as many books as Spain translates in a year. Reilly quotes a Syrian author bewailing the fact that, in the Arab world “from one end to the other[,] there is no true added value to anything.”
The victory of the Ash’arites has crippled the Muslim world in every aspect of human endeavor, according to Reilly, and the implications of its continuing stranglehold on the Muslim mind for the future are dire: The West is divorcing reason from faith and sinking into crisis, allowing Islam to continue divorcing faith from reason. The result, he warns, will lead to catastrophe. Reilly concludes that “what Thomas Aquinas did for Christianity, someone needs to do for Islam—if it can be done”:
This will depend on whether or not Ash’arite voluntarism and occasionalism are seen as integral to the Qur’an or as later accretions that can be disregarded . . . The recovery of reason, grounded in Logos, is the only sentinel of sanity. This is imperative of the East as well as the West. “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).
The central problem with Reilly’s analysis is that it underestimates the weight of the moral and intellectual chains imposed on Islam by its founder and his early followers well before the Mu’tazilite attempt to reconcile Allah with logos two centuries later. The dictum that commands of Allah, or precedents established by his Prophet, must be obeyed and may not be subjected to rational analysis was firmly in place already at the time of the four “rightly guided caliphs” in Islam’s first century. “If it can be done” begs a frank answer, and Reilly is insufficiently attentive to three unpromising facts.
First, the most irrational, violent, and intolerant chapters in the Koran—the “Verse of the Sword” (Sura 9:5), most notably—were “revealed” in Medina, late in Muhammad’s life, after the ones potentially amenable to a neo-Thomist treatment, and therefore they abrogate the earlier chapters. Allah’s order to “kill the unbelievers wherever you find them” is an injunction, not a suggestion. “When we decide to destroy a population,” Allah says, “then we destroy them utterly” (17:16-17). Such words are as unamenable to rationalist disambiguation as is the order to “fight those who do not profess the true faith till they pay the jiziya (poll tax) with the hand of humility.”
Second, the author underestimates the weight of Muhammad’s personal legacy. The problem of Islam lies to a significant extent in the claim of its prophet that his words and acts provide the universally valid standard. The Hadith—Muhammad’s words and deeds, as supposedly recorded by his contemporaries, which must be obeyed by every true Muslim—contain huge stumbling blocks for a would-be Aquinas in Cairo, Istanbul, or Jeddah. The Koran is to be recited, the prophet of Islam declares, not subjected to analytical study by a reasoning mind: “Whoever so interprets the Quran according to his opinion, let him seek his abode in the fire.”
Third, Muhammad invented jihad in his lifetime; Islam was spread by jihad in its first century, and it has been defined by jihad ever since. Islam had developed a doctrine, legal system, and historical practice of mandatory violence against nonbelievers many decades before the Mu’tazilite thinkers were born. Muhammad’s early followers, sweeping across the Middle East, North Africa, Iberia, and the subcontinent, adopted bloodshed and terrorism as a divinely ordained method. The Jews of the Old Testament exterminated non-Jews in the name of their God, but they did so on specific commandment against specified enemies. To the Muslim warriors, the command was open-ended from the outset.
Far from being capable of tilting either way until the “closing of the Muslim mind” in the ninth century, Islam was devoid ab initio of any reasoned principle of justice or moderation. It was born into the paradigm of a permanent cosmic war, and it thrived on it, true to Muhammad’s assurance that Islam is not only the true faith but the only faith with any truth. By the time the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750, Islam was already established as a quasireligious ideology of cultural and political imperialism that absolutizes the conflict with that which is other and knows no natural limits to itself. Thus, the Mu’tazilite attempt to revalidate individual judgment and natural morality was defeated because it ran counter to the orthodox demand for submission to the letter of revealed law, to the precedent of Muhammad, and to the established practice of jihad.
In the aftermath of the July 2005 London bombings, Salman Rushdie called for a “reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age.” In terms of doctrine, he wrote,
reformed Islam would reject conservative dogmatism and accept that, among other things, women are fully equal to men; that people of other religions, and of no religion, are not inferior to Muslims . . . and that the repression of free speech . . . must be replaced by genuine, robust, anything-goes debate in which there are no forbidden ideas or no-go areas.
It has been tried before. A few self-professed Muslims have been seeking a more rational variety of their faith for over a century. As Clement Huart pointed out in 1907, however,
until the newer conceptions, as to what the Koran teaches as to the duty of the believer towards non-believers, have spread further and have more generally leavened the mass of Moslem belief and opinion, it is the older and orthodox standpoint on this question which must be regarded by non-Moslems as representing Mohammedan teaching and as guiding Mohammedan action.
Huart could have said the same of those Mu’tazilites who created new words in Arabic to take in Greek concepts; who cherished “the spirit of free inquiry and speculative thought” about the nature of God, the universe, and humanity’s place within it; who advocated free will over determinism; who felt free to interpret revelation; and who insisted that the Koran was created in time. They belong to Islam as much as Voltaire belongs to Christianity.
The willingness of a few to risk condemnation (or worse) by rejecting the irrational and stifling tenets of historical Islam may be laudable, but it will do nothing to modify Islam as a doctrine. As Sir William Muir noted, a redirected Islam that should attempt by rationalistic selection or abatement to effect a reform would no longer be Islam. For the majority of Muslims, any such attempt is considered as heretical today as it was in al-Ghazali’s time.
The Ash’arites did not “distort” Islam; the neo-Hellenists did. Islam, in Muhammad’s revelations, traditions, and their codification and historical practice, breeds a peculiar mind-set, the one against which Burke warned when he wrote that “intemperate minds never can be free; their passions forge their fetters.” A comprehensive and explicit neo-Islamic revisionism capable of growing popular roots may be possible, but in his otherwise excellent book Robert Reilly only hints at why it is not likely. This sin of omission is forgivable in an author who is, and wants to remain, “mainstream.”
Although the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind stops short of spelling this out, his book is a cogent plea for our vigilance against the irrational and obscurantist world of Islam, and for keeping its captives away from “the world of war” that they seek to conquer or destroy.
[The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, by Robert R. Reilly (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 244 pp., $26.95]