October 29, 2010


Faith Without Reason: The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis By Robert R. Reilly (Matthew Kenefick, October 2010, American Spectator)

Reilly is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a well-published writer with substantial government service, including a stint as director of the Voice of America and senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Information in 2003. As a sideline, he is also one of our finest classical music critics. [...]

[H]e marshals convincing historical evidence of the likelihood that the Christian West and the Muslim countries will remain incompatible, because we believe in man's power to reason -- and they don't. And barring some sort of Islamic Reformation (which theologians such as Michael Novak do not rule out as impossible), jihadist Islam and the Christian West will remain in mortal conflict, as we have intermittently in the past. The difference now, however, is that Islamic nationalists may already be capable of using nuclear weapons, or else are on the verge of that capability, whether in war or as instruments of terror. Most worrisome, they have the will and the irrational theology to use them. In short, dialogue is not possible with those who are incapable of religious tolerance.

At the heart of Reilly's book is his argument that the

denigration of dialogue is due to the demotion of reason that took place in the ninth-century struggle between the rationalist theologians, the Mu'tazilites and their anti-rationalist theologians, the Ash'arites. Unfortunately, for those who prefer dialogue, the Ash'arites won.

The Ash'arites' position was that reason is so infected by men's self-interest that it cannot be relied upon to know things objectively. What is more, there is really nothing to be known because all created things have no nature or order intrinsic to themselves, but are only the momentary manifestations of God's direct will. Since God acts without reason, the products of his will are not intelligible to men. Therefore, in this double disparagement, reason cannot know, and there is nothing to be known.

All of this may prompt memories of the Islamic world's outrage when the just-elected Pope Benedict XVI told his audience in Regensburg, Germany, that not only is violence in the service of evangelization unreasonable and therefore against God, but that a conception of God without reason or above reason leads to that very violence. The then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2005 Subiaco address said:

From the beginning Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the "Logos," as the religion according to reason. In the first place, it has not identified its precursors in other religions but in the philosophical enlightenment which has cleared the path of tradition to turn to search of the truth and toward the good, toward the one God who is above all gods.

Reilly writes, "Ultimately this theological view developed into the realist metaphysics of Aquinas which became the metaphysical foundation of modern science, as Fr. Stanley Jaki, a Hungarian theologian and physicist, explained in his voluminous writings on the origins of modern science. Jaki laid out, as well, the reasons modern science was stillborn in |the Muslim world after what seemed to be its real start." Fr. James Schall of Georgetown University states that "Jaki saw much of the rage in Modern Islam as due to its failure or inability to modernize itself by its own powers."

Reilly asks, "Are [the Islamists of today] something new or a resurgence from the past? How much of this is Islam and how much is Islamism? Is Islamism a deformation of Islam? If so, in what way and from where has it come? And why is Islam susceptible to this kind of deformation?" You will have to read his book to find the answers.

The point is that Islam will be modernized by our powers.

The Closing of the Muslim Mind: A deformed theology has produced a dysfunctional culture. (Michael Cook, MercatorNet)

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 God 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.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 29, 2010 6:21 AM
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