Islam's eclipse of reason

 A number of columnists observed that the violent Muslim reaction to Benedict XVI's statements about Islam in his recent Regensburg speech illustrated the very point he was making. Despite the Pope's three expressions of regret, the protests continue, with crowds leaving the mosques from Friday prayer in Kashmir, chanting "hang the Pope," and others calling for his replacement. Soon, no doubt, there will be demands to include imams in the College of Cardinals.
The protests focus on the Pope's quotation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor who labeled Mohammed's "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" as "evil and inhuman." The sensationalism of this remark and the reaction to it almost overwhelmed the deeper meaning of the point Benedict XVI was making. He said that not only is violence in spreading faith unreasonable and therefore against God, but that a conception of God without reason, or above reason, leads to that very violence.
A God without reason? Who could that be? Is this Allah? The Pope's allusion to the teachings of 11th century Islamic philosopher Ibn Hazn - "God is not bound even by his own word" - suggests that possibility. However, the Pope was also addressing the attempts in the history of the Church to strip God of reason. The interesting term the Pope uses to describe this process is dehellenizing - extirpating the great gift of Greek philosophy from Christianity.
As Benedict XVI pointed out, there were strong tendencies within the Church to move in this direction in the teachings of 13th century theologian Duns Scotus and others. The anti-rational view was violently manifested in the millenarian movements of the Middle Ages, and within the movement that was known as fideism - faith alone, sola scriptura. In its most radical form, this school held that the scriptures are enough. Forget reason, Greek philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas. However, the anti-rationalist view in its more extreme forms has never predominated in Christianity, because it was protected by the magisterial pronouncement in the Gospel of St. John that Christ is Logos. If Christ is Logos, if God introduces himself as ratio, then God is not only all-powerful, he is reason. On the basis of this revelation and Greek philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas achieved the defining synthesis of reason and revelation in Christianity.
That makes it all the more ironic that an irate Pakistani political leader chose to denounce Benedict XVI in these terms: "He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages." It is curious the Pakistani should have described this period as one of "darkness" for it was during it that Islam, not Christianity, took a decisive step away from rationality and chose to dehellenize itself.
This took place over an argument, already begun in the seventh and eighth centuries, about the status of reason in relationship to God's omnipotence. The outcome of this struggle decisively affected the character of the Islamic world. This struggle had its roots in a profound disagreement over who God is. There was a side in this debate that would seem very familiar to Westerners because it was as deeply influenced by Greek philosophy as was Christianity. The Mu'tazilite school, composed of the Muslim rationalist philosophers, fought for the primacy of reason in Islam. The Mu'tazilites held that God is not only power, he is reason. Man's reason is a gift from God, who expects man to use it to come to know him. God, being reason, would not expect man to accept anything contrary to it. Through reason, man is also able to understand God as manifested in his creation. God's laws are the laws of nature, which are also manifested in the Sharia (the divine path). Therefore, the Mu'tazilites held that the statements in the Qur'an must be in accord with reason. Unfortunately, the Mu'tazilites were suppressed during the reign of Caliph Ja'afar al-Mutawakkil (847-861), who made holding the Mu'tazilite doctrine a crime punishable by death, and the long process of dehellenization and its resulting ossification began.
It was in the "darkness" of the Middle Ages that the coup de grace was delivered by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), perhaps the single most influential Muslim thinker after Mohammed. Al Ghazali vehemently rejected Greek thought: "The source of their infidelity was their hearing terrible names such as Socrates and Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle."  In The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Al-Ghazali insisted that God is not bound by any order and that there is, therefore, no "natural" sequence of cause and effect, as in fire burning cotton or, more colourfully, as in "the purging of the bowels and the using of a purgative." Things do not act according to their own natures but only according to God's will at the moment. There are only juxtapositions of discrete events that make it appear that the fire is burning the cotton, but God could just as well do otherwise. In other words, there is no rational order invested in the universe upon which one can rely, no continuous narrative of cause and effect tying these moments together in a comprehensible way.
Although all monotheistic religions hold that, in order to be one, God must be omnipotent, this argument reduced God to his omnipotence by concentrating exclusively on his unlimited power, as against his reason. God's "reasons" are unknowable by man. God is not shackled by reason. He rules as he pleases. He is pure will. In his attack on philosophy, entitled Kuzari, Judah ha-Levi, a Jewish follower of al-Ghazali, reached the logical conclusion as to how man ought to approach the revelations of such a deity: "I consider him to have attained the highest degree of perfection who is convinced of religious truths without having scrutinized them and reasoned over them." (How, one wonders, does one become "convinced" of something without having thought about it?) There could hardly be a more radical rejection of what Benedict XVI calls "the reasonableness of faith."
Equally as damaging to the status of reason, al-Ghazali wrote that reason is so infected by man's self-interest that it cannot know moral principles; they can only be known through revelation. Since reason is not a source of moral truth, concludes al-Ghazali, "No obligations flow from reason but from the Sharia (the divinely ordained path)." With this, he despatches Aristotle's The Ethics and all other moral philosophy.
Today's radical Muslims embrace the "unreasonableness" of faith in an unreasoning God and translate it into a politics of unlimited power. As God's instruments, they are channels for his omnipotence. Once the primacy of force is posited, terrorism becomes the next logical step to power, as it did in the 20th-century secular ideologies of power, Nazism and Marxism-Leninism. This is what led Osama bin Laden to embrace the astonishing statement of his spiritual godfather, Abdullah Azzam, which Osama quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11: "Terrorism is an obligation in Allah's religion." This can only be true - that violence in spreading faith is an obligation - if, as Benedict XVI said in Regensburg, God is without reason.
How, then, do we reason together? Can neo-Mu'tazilites in the Muslim world, of which there are more than a few, elaborate a theology that allows for the restoration of reason, a rehellenization of Islam with Allah as ratio? It is idle to pretend that it would take less than a sea change for this to happen. If it does not, it is hard to envisage upon what basis meaningful interfaith dialogue with Islam could take place. That is the unfortunate meaning of the violent reaction to the Pope's Regensburg speech.
Robert R. Reilly writes from Washington DC. He is a contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.