Can western democracies have successful dialogue with the Islamic world? As both a Westerner and a Muslim, I might be someone who could answer that, yet almost everything I hear and read leads to bewilderment. I search in vain the libraries and bookstores for new scholarship and sensible social commentary on Islam but find myself being led into a maze of ideology. To most leftists, Muslims have become another protected class under the aegis of multiculturalism; to some on the right, Islam is a monolithic and implacable enemy, as bad as or worse than communism or Nazism.
Then I picked up Robert R. Reilly’s new book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Finally some clarity!
Mr. Reilly has written a work of precise and exhaustive research about Islamic theology and philosophy. And he superbly explains that foul and unbearable perversion of the faith called Islamism.
I often hear that Christianity and Islam will never be able to reason together because Islam is inherently unreasonable, and this is certainly true today in many Muslim countries. Christianity’s doctrinal roots in Hellenism allow faith and reason to flourish together, and, for a student of Catholicism as I am, it is one of the most significant aspects about the faith. I now understand why what is happening in much of the Muslim world leads many to assume that that Islam (in both its early development and its current manifestations) is irrational. What will surprise readers of The Closing of the Muslim Mind is that Islam also has Hellenistic roots. In order to defend their faith in encounters with Christians and Jews, Muslim scholars employed the philosophical methods of the Greeks, and this led to conflict among Muslims over the question of whether and to what extent God may be known rationally.
Those who welcomed the question and answered it affirmatively were rationalist theologians known as Mu’tazilites. According to Mr. Reilly, they “created the first fully developed theological school in Islam.” For them, reason had a significant place in faith because Man is endowed with free will. Al-Kindi, an important Mu’tazilite philosopher, said that “nothing should be dearer to the seeker after truth than truth itself.” The Mu’tazilite school believed that God gave us the use of reason so that we can “come to know moral order in creation and its Creator.” Mu’tazilite teaching agreed with St. Thomas Aquinas that man “can apprehend the created things with his mind because they were first thought by God.” In other words, the fact that God is intelligible gives rise to the intelligibility of creation.
What a difference from what we encounter with Islam these days! How is it that the Muslim world (primarily Arab) seems to be so backward? Mr. Reilly discusses the emergence of another theological school, the eleventh-century Ash’arites. In contrast to the Mu’tazilites, they denied the primacy of reason and free will and placed God’s will at the center of Islam: Allah is the “Doer” and “Effecter” of anything He wills. If God wills it, only He can change it. As Mr. Reilly points out, an all-powerful God is part of all monotheistic religions, but the Ash’arite interpretation pits God’s omnipotence against God’s reason. Unity between faith and reason is impossible, and God becomes a kind of “legal positivist.”
If God wishes to misguide us, He will. Al-Kindi would certainly disagree with this, but by the thirteenth century, the Mu’tazilites lost standing as an intellectually vigorous authority, and the Ash’arites triumphed.
It is, of course, Ash’arite Islamism that is the source of contemporary terrorism. But a distinction must be made. Islamism’s strange theology (or lack thereof, depending how one looks at it) is really an ideology, not a religion. In fact, Mr. Reilly writes that Islamism is structurally quite similar to Marxism.
The most significant modern philosopher behind Marxist Islamism was Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood. He saw the West as a debauchery that must be saved and obliterated by Islam. He applied Marxist rhetoric to a religion, calling Islam an “emancipatory movement” with “an active revolutionary creed.” Such an unreasoning and ahistorical view yields nothing but the most dire consequences for the world.
In its emphasis on political salvation, Islamism is in many ways similar to liberation theology, which was also comfortable with Marxism. Coercion through “salvific politics” is the way to achieve the “inner perfectibility of history” and with it justice. But we cannot have justice without truth.
The Closing of the Muslim Mind generates many questions: How much of the current situation in Islam is merely a cultural and political trend? Is Islamist ideology limited to Arab nations and their satellites? How can Islam most effectively and quickly enter the democratic public square?
The answer to the last question is to recognize individual liberty and, above all, human dignity. But in order to adopt and accept such ideas, many Muslim groups (perhaps Islam as a whole) will have to undergo a kind of reformation.
As Mr. Reilly suggests, someone needs to do for Islam what Aquinas did for Christianity. But can anyone do this? Being fully aware of the evil and hatred behind the terrorism that has seared our imaginations and altered our lives, I am inclined to skepticism. But I also believe there is always hope.