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.