How intellectual suicide created the modern Islamist crisis.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Robert R. Reilly, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, and National Review, among many other publications. A member of the board of the Middle East Media Research Institute and a former director of the Voice of America, he has taught at the National Defense University, served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. His latest book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, just been published by ISI Press.
FP: Robert R. Reilly, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Let’s begin with what inspired you to write The Closing of the Muslim Mind.
Reilly: Several things. Professionally, I was working in the “war of ideas” area both at the Voice of America and then at the Defense Department. One cannot fight a war of ideas unless one understands the ideas one is at war with. Our 9/11 attackers justified themselves in terms of their Muslim faith. Therefore, I was ineluctably led into a deep study of Islamic theology and into an examination of what constitutes justice in Islam.
I was also intrigued by Bernard Lewis’ work, which so effectively laid out “what went wrong” in the Islamic world without exactly telling us “why” it went wrong. I began searching for the answer.
FP: What is the main argument of your book and how is your book original?
Reilly: I did not find the answer to my question in any one place, or I would not have written the book. I discovered bits and pieces here and there. I put them together into what I hope is a coherent answer to the question of “why it went wrong?” I wrote the book for myself and for any others who are intrigued by the same question as to how this once great culture so totally collapsed in on itself and became so frustrated that it bred these Islamist terrorists.
My general thesis is that Islamism is a spiritual pathology based on a deformed theology that has produced a dysfunctional culture. I know this is a mouthful, and I take some 200 pages to explain it. In short, the source of the problem is a profound misconception as to who God is.
FP: Tell us about the Islamic conception of God and how it closes the human mind.
Reilly: First, I must be careful in saying that I speak only of Sunni Islam, which is by far the majority expression of the faith. Within Sunni Islam, I speak of the Ash‘arite school of theology, which is the majority view within Sunni Islam, especially so in the Middle East. I focus on this because the Arab world is dominant in Islam for the obvious reasons that Mohammed was an Arab and that the Quran, thought to be the literal word of God, is in Arabic. As most Muslims accept the Quran as having existed co-eternally with God, this means that Arabic is God’s language.
The answer to your question completely hinges on God’s relationship to reason in Sunni Islam. Is God reason, or logos, as the Greeks would say? If God himself is reason, then it is hard to close the mind because one would then be closing oneself to God. This, in fact, was the view of the first fully-developed theological school in Islam, the Mu‘tazilites. The Mu‘tazalites asserted the primacy of reason, and that one's first duty is to engage in reason and, through it, to come to know God. They held that reason is a gift from God given to come to know Him through the order of his creation. All men have this gift, not only Muslims. Therefore, they were disposed to accept Greek philosophy and the moral truths it contained.
However, the school of theology that arose to oppose the Mu’tazilites, the Ash‘arites, held the opposite. Unfortunately, by the end of the ninth century, they prevailed and became the formative influence in Sunni Islam. For the Ash‘arites, God is not reason, but pure will and absolute power. He is not bound by anything, including his own word. Since God is pure will, He has no reasons for his acts. Thus what He does cannot be understood by man. One of the things that God does is create the world, which also cannot be understood.
To protect their notion of God’s omnipotence, the Ash‘arites denied cause and effect in the natural world. For God to be omnipotent, nothing else can be so much as potent. Therefore, fire does not burn cotton; God does. Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does. God is the direct cause of everything and there are no secondary causes. To say otherwise is blasphemy – comparing something to the incomparable God. Everything therefore becomes the equivalent of a miracle. By their very nature, miracles cannot be understood. Without causality in the natural order, anything can come of anything, and nothing necessarily follows. The world becomes incomprehensible because it is without a continuing narrative of cause and effect.
Within our Western tradition, Albert Einstein once remarked that "the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Thomas Aquinas put it another way. He said that we can understand the world because it was first "thought" by God. The universe is the product of creative reason. That is why it is comprehensible. The Ash‘arite rejoinder to Einstein's statement would be that "the most comprehensible thing about the world is that it is incomprehensible." It must be incomprehensible because it is the direct consequence of God's action, of his will, not of his reason.
Man can only understand that God has given him rules to obey in his revelation. As a consequence of its character, this revelation must be blindly obeyed. It is not given to be understood or questioned, but to be complied with. Put reason aside and submit. This is how the Sunni Muslim mind closed. It undercut reason and its ability to know reality. Philosophy was forbidden. To protect its notion of God, it made reality unknowable. This had devastating consequences.
FP: Share some statistics and facts with us to illuminate the earthly incarnations of the closed Muslim mind. In other words, paint for us the dysfunctional culture of Islam today.
Reilly: Well, there are tons of statistics put out by the UN Arab Human Development reports, all written by Arab scholars, by the way. In brief, but for sub-Saharan Africa, the 300 million people in the Arab world would be at the bottom of every measure of human progress – education, literacy, health care, productivity, GDP, patents, etc. Original scientific research is essentially dead. The effort of science is to discover nature’s laws. The teaching that these laws do not, in fact, exist (for theological reasons) is an obvious discouragement to the scientific enterprise.
Also, it is very revealing that Spain translates almost as many books in a single year as the Arab world has translated in the last thousand years. What would Caliph al-Ma’mun, who created the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in 830 A.D. to translate books, think of the state of the Arabic world today? He would be appalled.
Sometime anecdotes tell as much or more than the statistics, especially about the effects of the denial of secondary causality on even the most practical aspects of daily life. For instance, former British Islamist Ed Husain relates that “Hizb ut-Tahrir [an organization dedicated to the restoration of the caliphate] believed that all natural events were acts of God (though in some actions man could exercise free will), hence insurance polices were haram . . . Hizb members could not insure their cars.” Likewise, the use of seatbelts is considered presumptuous. If one’s allotted time has arrived, the seatbelt is superfluous. If it has not, it is unnecessary. One must realize that the phrase “in shā Allah [God willing]” is not simply a polite social convention, but a theological doctrine.
Those involved in training Middle Eastern military forces have encountered a lackadaisical attitude to weapon maintenance and sharp-shooting. If God wants the bullet to hit the target, it will and, if He does not, it will not. It has little to do with human agency or skills obtained by discipline and practice. As the Qur’anic verse states: “When you shot it was not you who shot but God.” (8:17)
A Kurdish acquaintance told me that he went on the Hajj with a devout friend who was very much taken by the Ash’arite teaching of God as the only cause. At the Ka’ba under the hot Saudi sun, his friend touched the black stone, which was cool. See, he said, this is God’s direct miraculous action; how else could this stone be so cool in this heat? My Kurdish acquaintance looked around until he found stairs descending to a refrigeration unit. He then took his friend down to see it, and explained to him, “This is why the stone is cool.” His friend’s reaction to this lesson was outrage. Rational knowledge was a threat to his religious certainty. The refrigeration unit, a product of rational knowledge, was an assault on his theology.
FP: Why is the West, aside from some few and brave thinkers, so blind in confronting the Islamist crisis?
Reilly: Self-delusion is one problem and ignorance is another. Many in the secular West find it hard to believe that anyone takes religion seriously anymore. Since they have lost their faith, they don’t have the ability to comprehend the terms of faith in anyone else’s life. In fact, their incomprehension, their obliviousness to the sacred, is one of the things that inflames Islam against the West.
We are essentially facing a theological problem and a profound spiritual disorder. People ignorant of theology are unable to recognize the nature of the problem. They want to create another economic development program in the Middle East, as if that will solve it. This is delusional and a total waste. The problem needs to be addressed at the level at which it exists, not by sociologists or psychiatrists.
FP: What hope is there that some kind of “moderate” Islam can ever emerge?
Reilly: I suppose you could say that there is always hope where there is prayer. So we had better start praying.
At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century there was far more intellectual ferment for reconciling Islam and modern science, for finding ways to adopt the best of the West to the Muslim world. These efforts largely failed. Things are now likely to get worse, not better.
The intellectual impetus in the Muslim world is not with those who see the need to reopen the foreclosed questions from the ninth century as to who God is and what his relationship to reason is. (There are such Muslim thinkers but they get no support from us.) It is with those who wish to return to the seventh century and replicate the feats of the Companions of the Prophet in creating the greatest empire the world had seen up to that point. The worse things get in the Muslim world, the more support these jihadists receive because they provide an explanation and a program that can be easily understood by those who deeply feel the grievances and humiliation of their situation.
It is not inevitable that the Islamists should succeed, except in the absence of any strategy to counter them. Muslim leaders like the former president of Indonesia, the late Abdurrahman Wahid, the spiritual head of the largest Muslim organization in the world, Nahdlatul Ulama, have called for a counter-strategy that would include offering “a compelling alternative vision of Islam, one that banishes the fanatical ideology of hatred to the darkness from which it emerged.” Wahid advocated a partnership with the non-Muslim world in a massively resourced effort to uphold human dignity, freedom of conscience, religious freedom, and the benefits of modernity before the juggernaut of Islamist ideology swamps the Muslim world. It was a compelling summons. It has yet to be answered.
There is another way to state this at its heart. The Arab Muslim world reached its apogee when it was at its most Hellenized, i.e. under the influence of Greek philosophy. It then underwent a process of dehellenization, a divorce from reason and the extirpation of philosophy. Its path to recovery must be in these same terms – a rehellenization, a restoration of the status or reason and a return to philosophy. Is that possible? As a twentieth century Moroccan Muslim thinker put it, either the future of Islam will be Aristotelian, or it will not be.
I think the general theme is how a deformed theology produced a dysfunctional culture.
FP: Robert R. Reilly, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.