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The Muslim-Catholic Forum: Can You Name the Animals? Print E-mail
By Robert Reilly   
Saturday, 10 December 2011

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Late last month, twenty-four Catholic and twenty-four Muslim leaders, scholars, and educators met on the east bank of the Jordan River for the second of the two Catholic-Muslim Forums, inaugurated by Benedict XVI in 2008 to encourage dialogue between the world’s two largest religions. How much can be gained from such encounters is hard to say. But the extremely astute Fr. Samir Khalil Samir has said, “dialogue is better than indifference and reciprocal silence.”

The forum’s subject was “Reason, Faith, and Mankind,” a highly important topic. King Abdullah saluted the participants: “the forum is the outcome of ongoing initiatives to foster concepts embraced by both Muslims and Christians. . . .” There certainly are things in common, principally in morals, but the sources of those morals differ significantly in terms of the authority on which they draw. 

I often reflect upon the moving episode that my wife experienced in Cairo during the 1995 U.N. Population Conference. She and her colleagues from the National Institute of Womanhood were busy assembling papers opposing the U.N.’s pro-population control and abortion policies. The Muslim women staff of the hotel would voluntarily help my wife collate the sheets and assemble them for distribution. After several days, she tried to thank them. They responded, “Please don’t thank us; we should thank you for coming here to help save our country.” 

I have also worked closely with Muslims both in the United States and in the Middle East. If they discern you are primarily motivated by moral concerns which they share, the walls of separation quickly come down. 

But it can be difficult to go any further because of various theological problems. Thomas Aquinas counseled his fellow Dominicans about how to approach Muslims: you cannot appeal to them from our revelation, he said, because they do not accept it; and you cannot appeal to them from their revelation because we do not accept it; therefore, you must deal with them as natural men. 

By this, of course, he meant appeal to their reason. The problem is whether Muslims accept themselves as natural men. Muslims believe that all men are naturally Muslims. If you are not a Muslim, it is probably because you have been apostasized by your parents. In this view, people do not convert to Islam so much as revert to it.

The essential issue here is the status of reason, which is why this latest forum was so important. Can we reason together? This was an issue Benedict XVI dealt with in the Regensburg Lecture. His answer: this is possible only in so far as we and they are Hellenized, which means that we both recognize reason as capable of apprehending reality.

Adam Naming the Animals by Currier & Ives

Is this the case? On the Muslim side, Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish philosopher, certainly thinks so. In Jordan, he said, “Islam largely shares this notion of rationality with Judaism and Christianity.” According to The Tablet, he claimed that “the Qur’an teaches a natural law that would be quite familiar to Thomists. Charges of irrationality persist, he said, because Islam kept a balance of faith and reason while the Enlightenment tipped the focus of Western thought towards reason and science.”

Would that this were so; then there could be a very deep dialogue, indeed. Unfortunately, Kalin omits that the one Muslim theological school that roughly fits his description, the Mu’tazilites of the early ninth century, were irreparably crushed, starting with caliph Al-Mutawikkil around the year 850 AD. This is the period of de-hellenization to which the pope has referred.

After that, the notion of natural law became anathema in Islam, because of its view of God as omnipotent pure will, unconstrained by anything, including reason. Fire does not burn cotton; God does. Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does, etc. Rather than avoiding the Enlightenment, this form of Islamic occasionalism beat David Hume to the punch by some 800 years. The denial of cause and effect in the natural world eventually devastated the Muslim realm, which looked to Allah as the first and only cause of all things. To suggest otherwise became a form of blasphemy.

While I would agree that there are invitations to natural theology in the Qur’an, there are also several less inviting things. For instance, in the Qur’an’s account of creation, there appears an interesting detail. In Genesis, God parades the animals in front of Adam, who then names them, and these names are what they are. In the Qur’an, it is Allah who names the animals, not man. Man does not have this power to name. 

This is symptomatic of the difference between the two views of man in Genesis and the Qur’an. The power to name is, in a way, the power to know. Joseph Pieper once wrote, “Reality becomes intelligible through words. Man speaks so that through naming things what is real may become intelligible.”  If you cannot name a thing, can you know it?  Can reality be intelligible to you without this power?

Actually, the situation in the Qur’an is even worse. The angels complain to Allah in Surah 2 about his having created Adam. Allah then challenges them to name these very same animals. The angels cannot do it, and respond: “Oh, Allah, You who know all things, You know we do not know; we know only what You have taught us.”

Not even pure spirits have within their reason the ability to apprehend reality independent of what God himself directly places in their minds. This seemingly little detail foreshadows what later develops within Islam:  the epistemological inability to grasp reality and to know only that which God himself has revealed. Islam thus loses rational access to reality through a deformed theology, which in turn has produced a dysfunctional culture. 

Until these problems are addressed (the extent to which they still exist is displayed in the recent Arab elections), it will be very difficult to reason together.

First they have to be able to name the animals.

Robert Reilly, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is a former director of the Voice of America. He has taught at the National Defense University and served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. His most recent book is
The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Bruce Fingerhut, December 10, 2011
This is a wonderful article that sympathetically but honestly shows the problems we face with a Muslim world philosophically dominated by voluntarism. The importance of Adam's actions in Genesis are manifest, not only for the action itself but for the notion that naming is the only duty given him in paradise.
An important explanation from none other than Confucius appears in his Analects (XIII Tsze-lu, Chapter 3):
1. Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
2. The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”
3. “So, indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”
4. The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
5. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
6. “When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
7. “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

written by Ray Hunkins, December 10, 2011
"If you cannot name a thing, can you know it?" Precisely, Mr. Reilly. Please forward that quote to those who yesterday declared the Ft. Hood massacre, "work place violence". Thank you.
written by Dave, December 10, 2011
My thanks to may friend Bob Reilly for another wonderful column on the possibilities of rapprochement with Muslims: when such activity seems more and more unlikely, and such little of it as there may be seems unfruitful, it is good to see that the search for common ground is always worthwhile and always bears fruit.

To take nothing away from this remarkable article, we do have to bear in mind the situation of Christians -- and other non-Muslims -- in Muslim countries. It is one thing to dialogue in special fora created for that purpose, and one thing again to dialogue with Muslims in non-Muslim countries; but when Islam gains the upper hand, we face such situations as the persecution of the Copts in Egypt, the virtual destruction of the Christian Churches in Iraq; the constant harassment and violation of Christian women in Islamic lands. The situation is not pretty, and it is a constant: one has to give credence to those commentators on Islam who see it as a constitutive element of the religion.

The question remains whether Muslims can successful resolve the epistemological challenge intra mures. The answer, to date, is that it appears not; and in fact, those who do resolve the epistemological challenge often find themselves embracing the Christian Faith, at great peril to themselves and their loved ones, or, if not embracing it, coming to terms with it for other than the merely tactical imperatives of jihad.

To put it another way, Muslims may well take down the wall of separation for action on common ground; but especially since 9-11, Christians and others have erected their own defensive walls.

Press on, Bob, and show us how to do the work with you. It isn't easy, but it is always worthwhile, and Our Lord expects nothing less of us.
written by Bob Reilly, December 10, 2011
Thank you, Bruce. I had recently seen the quote from Confucius. Priceless.
written by Louise, December 11, 2011
I strongly recommend the book "The Regensburg Lecture" by our own Fr. Schall. It is great os so many levels. I am going to send it to a couple people for Christmas presents.
written by Thomas G., December 13, 2011
Wonderful article. It brings to mind the antinomy of Islamic anti-reason: the anti-faith of the atheistic naturalist who believes that empirical science comprehends all of reality and if it cannot be proven by sceintific method, then it doesn't exist. The Catholic integration of faith and reason stands balanced between these two extremes.
written by Karim Johnson, December 18, 2011
I am a student of traditional Islamic Theology and I beg to differ. The negation of causality in Islam is a negation only of necessary causality and not of the observed relations between things. There is a missing middle term in the argument used in your article - apparently 'the denial of cause and effect in the natural world eventually devastated the Muslim realm' but if this conclusion is based only on the fact of Muslims having a metaphysical belief in occasionalism, the argument falls apart. The rational sciences flourished in late Islamic history through the works of such savants as al-Jurjani, al-Taftazani, Mulla Fanari, Mulla Jami, Siyalaquti, Gelenbevi, and countless others. Ottoman scholars discovered the validity of relational 'unfamiliar syllogisms' far before Western logicians did. The saddest thing in your article, however, is that the 'naming' that you refer to as quoted from the Qur'an refers to Adam having the intelligible forms of things impressed into his consciousness (see Tafsir al-Razi) and thereby learning to attain knowledge discursively - quite the opposite of what you claim. This is an article of a very sad prejudice, based on ignorance. Thank you
written by Bob Reilly, December 19, 2011
Please read the UN Arab Human Development Reports, all written by Arabs, for an account of the devastation of science in the Arab world. Since that does not cover the non-Arab Muslim world, I refer you to physicist Pervez Hoodhboy’s book, Islam and Science, which covers the rest of the disaster, as well.

The denial of causality in the natural world is mainstay Ash’arite doctrine, which is the majority theological school within Sunni Islam. Read al-Ash’ari, al-Baqilani, al- Ghazali, etc. If you are a student of Islamic theology and you are unaware of the denigration of reason by these thinkers and the extirpation of philosophy that resulted from it, you have a long way to go in your studies. If it is not too self-serving, I suggest you read The Closing of the Muslim Mind, which is actually not the product of prejudice or ignorance but of many years of hard work.
written by Bob Reilly, December 19, 2011
Ms. Johnson, You might also reflect upon the oddity that, while Adam had "the intelligible forms of things impressed into his consciousness (see Tafsir al-Razi) and thereby learn(ed) to attain knowledge discursively," Allah had apparently neglected to do this for the angels who were unable to name the animals. How is it that reality was unintelligible to the angels? Either because reason cannot apprehend it, or because reality itself is unintelligible – it must be one or the other.

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