MercatorNet: The Closing of the Muslim Mind
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The Closing of the Muslim Mind

A deformed theology has produced a dysfunctional culture.
Michael Cook | 29 October 2010

Muslim terrorism is a baffling phenomenon. How can indiscriminate slaughter of fellow human beings – Christians and Muslims, men, women and children – be justified in the name of God? As Osama bin Laden said shortly after 9/11 in one of his videos, “Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.” For many Muslims this is insane – not to mention his opponents in the West – so what gives Islamists moral legitimacy, at least in their own eyes?

It is vital for the West to diagnose this moral delirium. Three strategies are being used currently to cure it: exterminating the terrorists, promoting economic development, and integrating Muslim cultures into Western mores.

The disheartening message of Robert R. Reilly in his clear and concise book The Closing of the Muslim Mind is that none of these is likely to eradicate the infection. The terrorists’ fanaticism is so deeply embedded in the dominant interpretation of Muslim theology that it may take an intellectual earthquake to shake it loose.

What terrifies Westerners is the admonition of the sacred book of Islam, the Qur’an, to wage jihad upon non-believers. But “jihad”, like other fundamental notions in Islam, is equivocal. It can be interpreted as moral struggle as well as brutal violence, depending upon who is holding the Qur’an.

What Reilly suggests, based on abundant modern scholarship, is that the first fully developed theological school in Islam, the Mu’talizites, would probably have despised bin Laden’s ravings. The tragedy of Islam is that the Mu’talizites, after a brief flowering in the 9th and 10th centuries under the Abbasids in modern Iraq, have become anathematised heretics.

The fundamental questions in any culture are: who is God and who is man? Christianity responds that man has been created in the image and likeness of God. The universe is rational and comprehensible because it reflects the rationality of its creator. The Incarnation – the assumption of a human nature by God – is the capstone of the metaphysics of Christian culture. The God-Man dignifies human nature and confirms that God’s actions are ultimately humanly comprehensible.

The Qur’an’s teachings are not altogether clear. On the one hand, many verses -- such as “When you shot, it was not you who shot but God” -- support determinism. But others do not, like “Each soul earns but its own due.” How did early Muslims cope with this? Is the sacred text God’s inalterable word, or can it be interpreted by his creatures?

Influenced by the rationalism of ancient Greek philosophy, the Mu’tazilites taught that the Qur’an had been created in time and was therefore subject to human interpretation. God had endowed man with reason so that he can know the moral order. Reasoning is essential for a good Muslim. The great philosophers Averroes and Avicenna, who influenced Christians like Thomas Aquinas, belonged to this school.

Unhappily, by the 12th century, the Mu’talizites were almost exterminated. The victorious Ash’arites taught that the supremacy of the revelation of the Qur’an was absolute. Reason was useless for discerning good and evil and God was incomprehensible, supreme Will.

The Ash’arite conception of God’s transcendence has been unimaginably important in shaping Muslim thought. “God is so powerful,” says Reilly, “that every instant is the equivalent of a miracle.” Science becomes almost impossible because there are no natural laws which govern the universe – only God’s eternally renewed decree. One scholar summarised it as follows: “to search for ends and reasons in His laws is not only meaningless but also grave disobedience to Him.”

The Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy observes, almost in despair: “Many, if not most orthodox ulema [Islamic scholars] contend that prediction of rain lies outside of what can be lawfully known to man, and infringes on the supernatural domain. Consequently, between 1983 and 1984, weather forecasts were quietly suspended by the Pakistani media, although they were later reinstated.” Causality, the foundation on which science rests, is meaningless in such a philosophy.

What about morality? God is beyond good and evil for the Ash’arites. Whatever he commands is good; whatever he forbids is evil. Ed Husain, a British Muslim who was a member of a fundamentalist group for several years, recalls in his 2007 book The Islamist that his leader “always taught that there was no such thing as morality in Islam; it was simply what God taught. If Allah allowed it, it was moral. If he forbade it, it was immoral.”

Consequently there can be no freedom of conscience. How could there if our reasoning power is suspect? “Good and evil are foreordained,” wrote the great philosopher Al-Ghazali. “No one can rebel against God’s judgement. No one can appeal His decree and command.”

As Hoodbhoy says, “the gradual hegemony of fatalistic Ash’arite doctrines mortally weakened… Islamic society and led to a withering away of its scientific spirit. Ash’arite dogma insisted on the denial of any connection between cause and effect – and therefore repudiated rational thought.” It was, in Reilly’s words, intellectual suicide.

Muslim thought and society entered a long, sad decline under influence of Ash’arite dogmas. The Islamic Golden Age, when Muslim science, philosophy, medicine and technology were the best in the world, is long, long past. Today, Spain translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand; scientific inquiry is nearly dead in the Islamic world; the Arab world stands near the bottom of every measure of human development.

Arab politics, too, bears the mark of Ash’arite philosophy. It inevitably leads to despotism, not democracy, because it privileges power over reason. There is no lack of terrifying quotes from intellectuals on this score. According to a Kashmiri militant leader, "the notion of the sovereignty of the people is un-Islamic -- only Allah is sovereign."

The notion of universal human rights is absurd. According to Ali Allawi, a former minister in the government of the new Iraq, “the entire edifice of individual rights derived from the natural state of the individual or through a secular or political theory is alien to the structure of Islamic reasoning.”

Equipped with this background, it is easy to see how terrorist groups find fertile ground for their fevered theories. Reilly emphasises that it is not Islam itself, but a particular interpretation of Islam which makes this possible – but unfortunately it is the dominant interpretation. “What we are witnessing today is the ultimate consequences of the rejection of human reason and the loss of causality as they are played out across the Muslim world in the dysfunctional culture engendered by them.” It is easy for extremists to turn terror into a moral obligation, an expression of the will of Allah, however cruel and irrational it may seem.

There are eminent Muslim thinkers who are calling for a return to the worldview of the Mu’tazilites. But many of these are exiles in the West. The dismaying reality is that the heirs of Ash’arite unreason dominate, not the Mu’tazilites. Can this change? Insha’Allah! But Reilly’s book gives little reason to hope that it will.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | Islam, philosophy, terrorism
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