The Closing of the Muslim Mind:
How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis
by Robert R. Reilly
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
When the topic of Islam is broached on, say, Live Journal, the following sequence of events usually takes place:
In The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Robert R. Reilly, I believe, has found a way out of this logjam. Islam need not be violent and backward, Reilly argues; it has turned out that way in much of the Muslim world in part because of the result of a Medieval dispute about the nature of Allah and in part because of the intrusion of Western Marxism and Fascism.
Here, Reilly has incidentally provided the means to refute the claim that the Bible indicates the violent potential of Christendom. It is true that there is violence – even genocide – in the Bible, particularly in the historical books of the Old Testament. But the dominant interpretative tradition of Christianity does not consider these passages prescriptive. Centuries ago, Christianity incorporated the Greeks’ respect for human reason and consequently enabled the growth within Christendom of both science and philosophy as fields of study that are wholly independent of theology. Though there are Christians today who are Biblical literalists, most mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians have concluded that the Bible is both a divine and a human creation. Most Christians believe that the Bible was created in time for an ancient audience and that one should always keep this in mind when engaging in scriptural exegesis.
Sunni Islam, Reilly states, went in an entirely different direction – and the point of divergence can be found in the outcome of a doctrinal debate that arose in the Muslim world in the Middle Ages. On one side were thinkers such as Averroes and Avicenna, Muslim equivalents of Thomas Aquinas who worked to incorporate classical philosophy into the practice of Islam. (Incidentally, these writers would also play an instrumental role in reintroducing Medieval Europe to Aristotle.) These men believed that the universe was created through God’s Logos (reason) and thus can be penetrated at least in part through rational inquiry. They argued that men have free will. They believed that the Quran was created in time and thus has to be interpreted according to the literary traditions of the time in which it was revealed. And they stated that any statement in the Quran that seems to contradict reason is a statement that is insufficiently understood.
On the other side of the dispute, meanwhile, were thinkers such as Al’Ghazali. According to Reilly, Al’Ghazali argued that concepts such as free will, natural theology, and the like have the effect of limiting the omnipotence of Allah. To counter the Muslim rationalists, he stated that God is not Logos but Will and that the changes and movements we observe in the universe are driven by Allah, not by natural law. If you fire an arrow and it hits its target, this does not happen because of natural physics, but because Allah moves the atoms of the arrow and target in such a way that they eventually meet. If you lift your arm, it is not because of nerve impulses originating in your motor cortex, but because Allah moves the atoms of your body so your arm will rise from its position at rest.
In this cosmology, there’s no such thing as causality. You cannot say that putting a lit match to paper will definitely start a fire. In your ordinary life, you may have observed that this happens, but this is only because Allah habitually moves the atoms of the universe in such a way that fire results. Allah could very well change His Almighty Mind one day and decide that matches will not cause fire. That is His province. He is Allah.
And Allah’s absolute power extends to the Moral Law as well. Al’Ghazali also argued that good is good and bad is bad because Allah has decided what is good and bad, not because good and bad are intrinsic to particular actions. If Allah commanded you to murder newborn babies, you would have to obey. To put it in very basic terms, Joss Whedon’s notion that the Christian God is a “Sky Bully” is actually far more applicable to Al’Ghazali’s vision of Allah’s Divine Nature. In a way, Al’Ghazali anticipated Nietzsche by several centuries; in his view, we are all subject to Allah’s Will to Power.
Unfortunately for the Muslim world, Reilly continues, by the time the smoke from the above-described dispute cleared, Al’Ghazali had won – and the spirit of rational inquiry that drove the Islamic civilization at its height began to disappear. That is why – SABR Matt, take note – between 1983 and 1984, the Pakistani media suspended their weather forecasts. Attempting to predict phenomena that are wholly subject to the Will of Allah was considered to be theologically suspect.
The consequences of this fundamentally irrational worldview are incalculable. Reilly states that in a world in which God is pure Will, people – leaders especially – behave as if might makes right, science is quashed, and superstition reigns supreme. It is because of Al’Ghazali’s influence that Muslim soldiers sometimes display a curious indifference when it comes maintaining their firearms; they believe that they will hit their target if Allah wills it. It is because of Al’Ghazali’s influence that the number of patents issued in Europe dwarfs the number issued in the Middle East. And it is because of Al’Ghazali’s influence that today’s radical Islamists have eagerly incorporated both Marxist and Fascist political thought into their millenarian ideology; totalitarianism is well supported by Al’Ghazali’s cosmology (though, to be fair, Reilly takes pains to stress that Al’Ghazali would be shocked by the actions of today’s Muslim terrorists).
Reilly points out that there are neo-Mu’tazilites – Muslim rationalists – who wish to reverse the damage Al’Ghazali and his school of thought have wrought, but they have found it extremely difficult – even perilous – to air their views in public. Indeed, many of the neo-Mu’tazilites Reilly quotes are currently living in exile in Europe. If we wish to combat Islamist terrorism, Reilly concludes, we will have to throw our support behind these beleaguered reformers and actively encourage a Muslim Enlightenment that stresses the interdependence of faith and reason.
I found this book quite illuminating and constructive. Unlike other critiques of Islam I have seen, it digs deep into Muslim intellectual history and discovers a long lost tradition that has the potential to save the Muslim world from its dysfunctions.