AN INTERVIEW OF ROBERT REILLY AUTHOR OF “THE CLOSING OF THE MUSLIM MIND”
I mean what the Pope meant when he spoke of the dehellenization of Islam – its loss of philosophy and reason. I mean that the premise from which many Muslims start is unreasonable in the sense that it is not subject to critical examination. It is not subject to critical examination because the principal theological school of Sunni Islam discredited reason.
In other words, a paranoid person behaves reasonably once you accept the paranoid delusion upon which he is acting. But it is his delusion that is unreasonable, not his behavior. The problem is getting him to see that his delusion does not comport with reality. In the majority of Sunni Islam today, access to realty is blocked because of the abandonment of reason. The premise on which reason was discredited is the delusion from which they are suffering. It is very hard to get them to realize this because the premise is a theological one – that God is pure will and power, not reason.
In your book, you identify several turning points in the intellectual development of Islamic thought. I would like you to expand on them:
1) The rejection of free will on the part of Islamic exegetes, and their embrace of predestination–their assertion that man’s actions are not in fact free, but are infallibly dictated by the divine will. How and why did this counter-intuitive position win out over the theory that man acts freely? Are the Islamic texts more weighted in favor of absolute divine sovereignty?
You refer to the oldest argument within Islam, which was about predestination and free will. The advocates of free will were called Qadarites, or Qadariyya, after the Arabic word qadar, which can mean divine decree or predestination, or power. They stood for the opposite to predestination: man’s free will and consequent responsibility for his actions. Man has power (qadar) over his own actions. If men were not able to control their behaviour, said the Qadarites, the moral obligation to do good and avoid evil, enjoined by the Qur’an, would be meaningless.
Contrary to this view, the Jabariyya (determinists; from jabr – blind compulsion) embraced the doctrine that divine omnipotence requires the absolute determination of man’s actions by God. One of the names of God in the Qur’an is Al-Jabbar, the Compeller (59:23), whose power cannot be resisted. God alone authors man’s every movement. To say otherwise ties God’s hands and limits his absolute freedom. One of the exponents of this view, Jahm b. Safwan (d. 745), argued that man’s actions are imputed to him only in the same way as one imputes “the bearing of fruit to the tree, flowing to the stream, motion to the stone, rising or setting to the sun – blooming and vegetating to the earth.” As twentieth century Muslim thinker Fazlur Rahman summed up the dispute, “In the eyes of the orthodox, this freedom for man was bondage for God.” Their theology made free will anathema. Reality was distorted to fit a deformed theology. Thus we have statements such as this from Ibn Taymiyya, the medieval thinker so in favor with Islamists today: “Creatures have no impact on God since it is God Himself who creates their acts.” So freedom for God ended up meaning bondage for man.
The Qur’an offers support for both positions. It is the Hadith that weigh decisively in favor of the predestination position but, as you know, the Hadith were not codified until around the ninth century and after. The struggle between these two views was particularly intense at that time.
2) The abandonment of reason as a tool for understanding the divine nature–and indeed, the insistence that it was blasphemous to assert that Allah had any consistent, knowable “nature” at all, that might constrain his absolute, arbitrary freedom of action. What Qur’anic texts were adduced to support this radical voluntarism? What effect did this have on the development of an Islamic theology?
It had a very dramatic effect on Islamic theology. It ended it. How can theology explore a God who acts for no reasons? By definition, He becomes incomprehensible. “Allah does what he wills.” – Qur’an 14:27 “Dost thou not know that God has the power to will anything?” – Qur’an 2:106 This aspect of Allah was also remarked upon by the Islamist radical Sayyid Qutb in The Shadow of the Qur’an: “Every time the Qur’an states a definite promise or constant law, it follows it with a statement implying that the Divine will is free of all limitations and restrictions, even those based on a promise from Allah or a law of His. For His will is absolute beyond any promise of law.” You may also recall the famous remark by Ibn Hazm that the Pope used in the Regensburg Lecture that “God is not bound even by his own word.”
Also, God is unknowable in Sunni Islam because of God’s utter transcendence. This is the doctrine of tanzih. There is nothing comparable to Him. God does not reveal Himself to man; He reveals his rules, and that is all. This is another reason why Islam reduced itself to jurisprudential matters only. The only thing that matters is knowing the law.
3) Western multiculturalists eager to praise Islamic achievements frequently cite Averroes and Avicenna as pioneering philosophers who recovered the insights of Aristotle–and served as the transmitters of the defunct Aristotelian tradition to the West. What was the fate of these philosophers within their own cultural sphere? Why were they rejected? Was “philosophy” as a discipline itself dismissed in orthodox Islamic circles?
I just returned from Cordoba, Spain, where Averroes lived and worked. It was a thrill to walk the same streets as he and Maimonides had. Avicenna and Averroes represent the highest attempt to assimilate Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy into Islam – to reconcile reason and revelation in the Muslim world. Averroes did have a huge impact, but it was mostly on Europe, not Islam. If you want a date on which the Muslim mind closed, 1195 A.D. might serve as the marker. It was then that Averroes’s books were burned in the city square, that he was sent into exile, and that the teaching of philosophy was banned. His works in Arabic today have been back translated from either Latin or Hebrew, the languages in which most of his books were preserved.
Reason was rejected because it is too corrupted by self-interest. But the real, deeper reason is because there is nothing for it to know. Reality is composed of a series of instantaneous miracles directly caused by God’s will. Everything is directly done by God, who acts for no reasons. The catastrophic result of this view was the denial of the relationship between cause and effect in the natural world. Therefore, what may seem to be “natural laws,” such as the laws of physics, gravity, etc., are really nothing more than God’s customs, which He is at complete liberty to break or change at any moment. The consequences of this view were momentous. If creation exists simply as a succession of miraculous moments, it cannot be apprehended by reason. As a result, reality becomes incomprehensible. If unlimited will is the exclusive constituent of reality, there is really nothing left to reason about. In The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), perhaps the single most influential Muslim thinker after Mohammed, vehemently rejected Greek thought: “The source of their infidelity was their hearing terrible names such as Socrates and Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle.” 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 colorfully, as in “the purging of the bowels and the using of a purgative.” Things do not act according to their own natures – they have no natures – but only according to God’s will at the moment.
What was the fate of the great philosophical legacy in Islam from Averroes, Avicenna, Al-Razi, Al-Kindi, etc.? Here is a stark assessment by reformist thinker Ibrahim Al-Buleihi, a current member of the Saudi Shura Council: “What I wanted to clarify is that these [achievements] are not of our own making, and those exceptional individuals were not the product of Arab culture, but rather Greek culture. They are outside our cultural mainstream and we treated them as though they were foreign elements. Therefore we don’t deserve to take pride in them since we rejected them and fought their ideas. Conversely, when Europe learned from them it benefited from a body of knowledge which was originally its own because they were an extension of Greek culture, which is the source of the whole of Western civilization.”
In fact, the rejection continues to this day. Muslim scholar Bassam Tibi states that “because rational disciplines had not been institutionalized in classical Islam, the adoption of the Greek legacy had no lasting effect on Islamic civilization . . .” Indeed, “contemporary Islamic fundamentalists denounce not only cultural modernity, but even the Islamic rationalism of Averroes and Avicenna, scholars who had defined the heights of Islamic civilization.”
4) You go into considerable detail in the book on how the rejection of philosophy, and the radical voluntarism asserted of the divine nature–God’s freedom to make anything happen, in any way, at any given moment–impaired the development of empirical science within the Muslim world. The connections among those things might not be immediately apparent to all readers. Can you explain how that worked?
The denial of natural law removed the very objective of science from the Muslim mind. Since the effort of science is to discover nature’s laws, the teaching that these laws do not, in fact, exist (for theological reasons) is an obvious discouragement to the scientific enterprise. How can science proceed without cause and effect? You must say that a rock falls because God made it fall at that instant. To say gravity did it becomes a blasphemous statement. The extent of the discouragement and the paucity of scientific research this has produced is, if predictable, still astonishing. Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy has noted the major scientific contributions of Islam’s Golden Age in the 9th to 13th centuries. Then he writes, “But with the end of that period, science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now.” I give the statistics from the UN on the paucity of science in the Arab Muslim world in my book.
5) Central to the triumph of the anti-rationalist strain in Islam was the conflict over the nature of the Qur’an, its status as either an uncreated, perfect book co-eternal with Allah–or a human manifestation of a divine truth that can be interpreted in the light of cultural factors. Can you tell the story of how these conflicting interpretations were defended, and point to the reasons why the anti-rationalist faction won out? Were the texts more on their side?
Yes, part of the dispute about free will concerned the nature of the Qur’an. Was it created in time, or has it coexisted with Allah in eternity? The Qur’an does not say either way. If it had, the dispute could not have arisen in the first place. Doctrinally, the traditionalist school held that the Qur’an was not created in time; the Qur’an has forever co-existed with Allah on a tablet in heaven in Arabic, as it exists today. God, in other words, speaks Arabic. The Qur’an is outside the scope of history; it is ahistorical. The time at which it was revealed and the culture into which it was received are irrelevant. Although coeternal with God, the Qur’an is somehow, like his attributes, distinct from God’s essence. The profound problem with this position, which the Mu’tazilites pointed out – that this made the Qur’an another God, and those who held this position were therefore polytheists – was dismissed by Hadith collector al-Bukhari (d. 933), who said, “The Qur’an is the speech of God uncreated, the acts of men are created, and inquiry into the matter is heresy.”
Nevertheless, to the utter dismay of the traditionalists, the Mu’tazilites did inquire into the matter, and this difference between them became the most bitter and costly of their disputes. The Mu’tazilites held that the Qur’an had to have been created; otherwise, the historical events it relates would have to have been predetermined. The doctrine of Khalq al-Qur’an, the createdness of the Qur’an, means that room would be left for free human choice. And why, asked the Mu’tazilites, would commandments exist before the creation of the human beings to whom they apply?
The Mu’tazilite teaching was made state doctrine by Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833), a great supporter of free will and Greek thought. However, three caliphs later, al-Mutawalkil (847-861) reversed the teaching and made it obligatory to hold that the Qur’an is eternal. Since then, this has become the general orthodox view. Unless it changes, Islamic reform is not going to get very far.
6) You point to the period of Mu’talizite domination in Islam as a kind of golden age of philosophical reason, intellectual innovation, and openness–followed by a very long dark age of irrationalism, mysticism, intellectual rigidity and intolerance that culminated in the 19th century with the backwardness and subjugation of the Islamic world. You suggest that the Mu’talizite precedent can be used today by Muslims who wish to “re-open” the Islamic mind. Can you point to Islamic thinkers today who are trying to do this? How are they faring?
There are some extraordinarily intelligent Muslim scholars who would like to see something like a neo-Mu’tazilite movement within Islam, a restoration of the primacy of reason so that they can re-open the doors to ijtihad and develop some kind of natural law foundation for humane, political, constitutional rule. They know that the issue of the status of the Qur’an has to be reopened in order to create some latitude in interpreting the Qur’an. They point to this precedent to show that Islam was once open to this position. In fact, Indonesian scholar Harun Nasution (1919-1998) was willing to wear the neo-Mu’tazilite label openly, despite the imprecation of heresy that it carried. He explicitly called for the recognition of natural law and opposed Ash’arite occasionalism and determinism as inimical to social, economic, and political progress. He insisted on man’s free will and accountability. Reformist Tunisian-born thinker Latif Lakhdar calls for a revival of “Mu’atazila and philosophical thought that subjected the holy writings on which the religion is based to interpretation by the human mind.” He said “it is absurd to believe the text and deny reality.” In Egypt, Nasr Abu Zaid tried this. Unfortunately, he was declared an apostate and had to flee the country with his wife, whom he would have been forced to divorce (or rather she would have been forced to divorce him). Safely in exile, he said, “One important school of Koranic scholarship, Mutazilism, held 1,000 years ago that the Koran need not be interpreted literally, and even today Iranian scholars are surprisingly open to critical scholarship and interpretations.” Unfortunately, Zaid died last year. So, the model is there but it is a dangerous one to use.
How are they faring? Unfortunately, as Bassim Tibi has warned, “Those intellectually significant Muslims who . . . still hope to apply reason to Islamic reform, had better do so in their Western exile, be it Paris or London or Washington. Their ideas are discussed in Scandinavia, but not in the Islamic world.” Even in Europe, such Muslims have problems and have to confront the dangers of being labeled apostates. For several years in Germany, Tibi himself required armed body guards provided by the German state to protect him from assassination. Taj Hargey, a British imam, laments that “iconoclastic thinkers, liberals, and non-conformists who dare to challenge this self-assumed religious authority in Islam by presenting a rational or alternative interpretations of their faith are invariably branded as apostates, heretics, and non-believers.”
7) Critics of your book have argued that the Mu’talizite movement is almost universally vilified as rank heresy in Islamic circles–and suggested that attempts to revive it are as likely to succeed in the Muslim world as a push to revive the Arian heresy would fare at the Vatican. How do you answer that criticism? Are there real grounds for hope?
My book attempts a diagnosis of the problem. Like the Regensburg Lecture, I believe the most profound woes in the Muslim world stem from its dehellenization. If this is so, then the prescription for recovery would be its re-hellenization, which is also what the Pope says. Does this mean that it is likely? No, it does not. It would require a sea-change in the Islamic world for this to happen. Unfortunately, things are headed in the opposite direction. However, the diagnosis is still valuable for understanding the nature of the problem we are facing. The correct diagnosis shows at least that most of the solutions proffered by Western governments in terms of social and economic reforms are a waste of time and resources because they do not touch upon the fundamental theological problem.
Still, outside of prayer, I think it is the only hope, and by this I don’t mean only a neo-Mu’talizite movement, but also a resuscitation of the heritage of Muslim philosophy, especially Averroes. As Fatima Mernissi says so poignantly, “the fact that the rationalist, humanistic tradition was rejected by despotic politicians does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Having an arm amputated is not the same as being born with an arm missing. Studies of amputees show that the amputated member remains present in the person’s mind. The more our rational faculty is suppressed, the more obsessed we are by it.” As a twentieth century Moroccan Muslim philosopher put it, either the future of Islam will be Aristotelian or it will not be. That is how critical this matter is.
8) What is the connection between the rejection of philosophical reason, and absolute voluntarism regarding Allah, and political/cultural supremacism, intolerance, and jihadi terror?
If reason is illegitimate, how are differences to be adjudicated? Force will decide. The stronger will decide. Why does Islam use violence to affirm its theology? Because it is the theology of power, of the doctrine that “right is rule of the stronger,” raised to the level of God. The primacy of the will always seeks success through force.
Benedict XVI told his audience in Regensburg 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. This is the problem in Islam. That which is unreasonable is against God only if God is reason. This is not so in majority Sunni Islamic theology. He is pure will and power, unconstrained even by his own word. Therefore, there are no solid barriers between the statement that God is pure will and power, and the startling declaration of Abdullah Azzam, which Osama quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11, that “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, God is without reason. This is why the problem we are facing is primarily a theological one.
The Closing of the Muslim Mind tells the extraordinarily dramatic story of the struggle within Islam over the relationship between God and reason – in other words over who God is – and of the dreadful effects of embracing a conception of God without reason. The deformed theology that resulted from this produced a dysfunctional culture. It has also produced a spiritual pathology that seeks it success in death.
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