You are here

The Mohammedan mind and ours

I just finished an advanced review copy of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist, by Robert R. Reilly. It’s a clear and informative book that quotes lots of primary sources and deals with basic issues in an intelligent way.

Like any book it has certain limitations. Although sober and sobering it’s not as pessimistic as the facts the author lays out would warrant, and it scants serious problems with the modern West that makes the situation worse. Still, the author has to connect with his readers, he can’t cover every possible issue, he wants to encourage people to do something, and he believes in the enduring message of the Declaration of Independence, which makes him more optimistic about the modern liberal West than I am.

According to Reilly, the closing is longstanding. It began in earnest with the overthrow of the Mutazilites by the Asharites in the Abbasid caliphate around 848 A.D., and was pretty much completed by the 12th century.

The Mutazilites were theologians who read the Greeks and liked what they saw, so they made reason primary in understanding everything, including God. The Asharites, in contrast, believed in God as absolute will, so that His uniqueness and unity meant that His arbitrary decision determines everything. If you said that reason determines God’s actions you were denying His supreme freedom and omnipotence, and if you said that something that wasn’t God (like human decision or the essential nature of things) had any effect on anything you were a polytheist.

The Asharites had more Hadiths and Koranic verses on their side, and they had much more support from the people and their rulers, who soon got in the habit of killing Mutazilites. So they won. That victory was sealed in the intellectual sphere by Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), who is often considered the greatest Muslim philosopher but whose thought resulted in the permanent exclusion of philosophy from mainstream Sunni Islam.

The line of thought that triumphed makes sense in its way: God does what he feels like doing and there’s nothing more to be said about it, so there’s not much to reason about. On such a view all that’s left of the life of the mind is Islamic jurisprudence and Sufi mysticism—the study of God’s arbitrary commands, and the cultivation of a nonrational sense of God’s presence. What else could thought possibly attend to?

Hence the closing of the Muslim mind. The reason Spain translates more books in a year than the Arabs in a thousand years, Pakistan edits physics textbooks to get rid of references to causality, and the Arab world is at the bottom of every measure of development for the world outside sub-Saharan Africa, is that at bottom Muslims don’t believe that looking into things and thinking about what you find makes sense.

So what to do now? Reilly is bigger on problems than solutions (which does him credit, given the topic). He believes that the only possible solution to the Muslim problem would be reappropriation by Muslims of the openness to reason that characterized the Mutazilites. They have an absolutely fundamental problem, and they have to deal with it on its own level.

He often talks as if that would enable the Muslims to reconcile Islam with modernity and become good scientifically-minded democrats like us. His view of ultimate goals is a bit unclear, though, since he does not say that the Muslims need an Islamic Reformation or Enlightenment, and for good reason. He doesn’t emphasize the point, but he makes it clear that there are basic tendencies that come out of the Reformation and Enlightenment and define modern Western thought that align with troublesome features of Islamic thought, e.g.:

  • Cartesian doubt about the possibility of knowledge.
  • Humean denial of intrinsic causality in favor of “causality” as mere habitual sequence of events.
  • Metaphysical nominalism and denial of essential natures, so that words and concepts become extraneous to what things really are.
  • The view that the world consists of arbitrary arrangements of atoms in space, or some such.
  • Nonrational spirituality that tends toward noncognitive mysticism.
  • Denial of rational ethics in favor of ethics based on arbitrary will.

He notes that 20th century Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb picked up on tendencies common to modern Western thought and traditional Sunni thought, and the results have not been good. He doesn’t use the expression, but evidently accepts the notion of Islamofascism as a merger of Islamic extremism with Western elements. He points to distinct Nazi and Nietzschean elements in Islamism, for example, and asserts that it is more single-mindedly concerned than previous versions of Islam with this-worldly success to be achieved through violent action.

His basic point, then, is that Islam needs to pay more attention to themes both modern Western and traditional Sunni thought reject. In short, as he says, it needs an Islamic Thomas Aquinas to naturalize Aristotle in the Islamic world. That’s not very different from the Pope’s view in the Regensburg lecture, and indeed Reilly cites the Pope several times.

He notes, however, that a thousand years of irrationalism is hard to overcome, especially since longstanding consensus is a source of authority in Islam, and the recent tendency has been all the other way. Nineteenth and twentieth century attempts to make Islam more rational have all petered out, and the crazies are back, crazier than ever.

An issue he doesn’t discuss is that the Asharites and al-Ghazali may well have been correct in the way they worked out the implications of the Koran and Hadiths, and indeed the basic features of Islam. His language sometimes suggests that scriptures and the like are raw materials that theological decision can shape into almost anything. I doubt that’s so, although nominalists might disagree with me.

For example, the created or uncreated nature of the Koran is probably the most basic point at issue between the Mutazilites (created) and the Asharites (uncreated). But the Asharites seem right on the point. It seems clear that God’s final word must exist from all eternity. If there’s something He really means to apply forever, then He shouldn’t have to wait until some particular time to make up His mind what it is. Christians and (I believe) many Orthodox Jews agree with mainstream Muslims on the point. So if that final word is the Koran, then the very words of the Koran must be eternal and uncreated, and literalism and simple submission (“Islam,” as they say) seem called for.

It’s also worth noting, as Reilly does in passing, that those who continued to pursue Greek philosophy in the Muslim world always seemed to end up adopting materialistic pantheism and denying basic doctrines like the creation of the world ex nihilo and the resurrection of the body. So there seems to be a problem with Greek philosophy from a Muslim point of view, or with Islam from a Greek philosophical point of view. The two don’t mix. And in any event, the branches of Islam where Mutazilism retained influence, like Shia Islam, don’t seem to have ended up much more rational than mainstream Sunnism.

Some additional points that occurred to me:

If the Muslims reject rational thought and the concept of cause and effect to the extent Reilly suggests, how seriously should we take them as a military threat? Is “War on Terror” the right conception? The jihadist threat is diffuse and enduring, there’s no definable agency to do battle with, and in any event there don’t seem to be many Mohammed Attas with enough grip on cause and effect to bring off a major operation. So it’s not much like war, as war is normally conceived.

Thinking of the struggle with Islam as a war is problematic in any event. War centralizes, secularizes, and simplifies. The tendency of the War on Terror has been to simplify the conception of the West and identify it ever more single-mindedly with diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance, secularity, and enlightenment. From a basic philosophical standpoint, it has made us more like the Sunni Ummah, a community defined by the abolition of essences and particularities in the interests of a single universal nation based on will, force, and a universally obligatory legal scheme.

If that’s so, and if what the Muslims need is an intellectual revolution that changes their basic philosophical outlook, how is a war that promotes principles resembling the ones they have to reject going to help them bring it off? It seems that what would make most sense is keep the Muslims at a distance (e.g., by immigration reform) and emphasize our own greater jihad (spiritual struggle, like getting rid of liberalism) over our lesser jihad (military struggle, like invading Muslim countries). That would help us, and it would also give the Muslims a model in their own very difficult internal struggle—if that struggle is to take place at all—to overcome mindlessness and violence with natural law.

Reilly is aware that the struggle with Islam or Islamism is basically a struggle of ideas, and he has protested against the tendency to fight the war of ideas by broadcasting pop music and images of happy American Muslims to the Muslim world. Instead, he wants to broadcast the principles of the Declaration of Independence: man as endowed with God-given rights and government as vindicator of those rights. It’s hard to see how the proposal can work though when those in authority in the West don’t believe any of that. You can only give what you have, and what we have now is happy talk, Britney Spears, and advertising images.

Another thought: in Reilly’s telling the Muslim world did seem to suffer a real death of thought after the triumph of Asharism and al-Ghazali. Is something similar what we’re seeing around us in the West? Will it get that bad for us? All the more reason, I’d say. for emphasizing our own greater jihad.



Thanks very much for making it available.

Thank you for this very insightful review. I share all the concerns you mentioned, and have written about some of them elsewhere. There is no question that we are repelling much of the Muslim world with our moral relativism.

Below are some recent thoughts, just publishded by the National Strategy Forum.

Rebranding America?

By Robert R. Reilly

Robert R. Reilly is a former director of the Voice of America and a board member of the Middle East Media Research Institute. His forthcoming book (May, 2010) is The Closing of the Muslim Mind (ISI Books).

So you would like to rebrand America, would you? We are misunderstood throughout the world, and this rebranding will help win the “war of ideas” in the Muslim world, right? Okay, first try this thought experiment. Read the following statement and then guess who said it.

“This great America: What is its worth in the scale of human values? And what does it add to the moral account of humanity? And, by journey’s end, what will its contribution be? I fear that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of its people. And I fear that the wheel of life will have turned and the book of time will have closed and America will have added nothing, or next to nothing, to the account of morals that distinguishes man from object, and indeed, mankind from animals.”

Is this Billy Graham speaking? Solzhenitsyn? The Pope? When I was recently lecturing to a group of mid-career American officers, one of them guessed it was Winston Churchill. Wrong – on all counts. The answer is Sayyid Qutb, the chief Egyptian ideologue of the radical Islamist movement that seeks our destruction. In Arabic, qutb means the pole around which the world revolves on its axis. The entire Islamist world revolves around the thinking of this man, who was hanged by Nasser in 1966, but whose thought has spread from the Philippines and Indonesia to Morocco. You can be sure to find his writings at the foundation of any radical Muslim group today, including al-Qaeda.

The value of Qutb’s quote is that it so clearly illustrates the moral judgment on America that is behind the Islamist movement. This is such an important point that it deserves a few examples of more recent provenance.

One member of the team that carried out the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, Mahmoud Abouhalima had this to say in an interview: “The soul, the soul of religion, that is what is missing.” The 17 years he had lived in the West, Abouhalima said, “is a fair amount of time to understand what the hell is going on in the United States and in Europe about secularism or people, you know, who have no religion. I lived in their life, but they didn’t live my life, so they will never understand the way I live or the way I think.” Abouhalima compared a life without religion to a pen without ink. “An ink pen, a pen worth $2000, gold and everything in it, it’s useless if there’s no ink in it. That’s the thing that gives life, the life in this pen … the soul. The soul, the religion, you know, that’s the thing that’s revived the whole life. Secularism has none, they have none, you have none.”

More recently, we have this statement made on Al-Nas TV (Lebanon) on February 16, 2010 from a show featuring Egyptian children preaching about Jerusalem: “The West has industry, tourism, and sights that tempt us, but it is devoid of faith. The West is still a graveyard for principles.” (

Statements like these are easy to find and appear almost daily in the Muslim media. Notice that none of the critiques above addresses any policy problems. Those who insist that America’s public diplomacy nightmare in the Middle East is only due to its policies mistake the fundamentally moral nature of the attack. In fact, there is no policy the U.S. could change in the Middle East that would reverse this moral condemnation, including the abandonment of Israel. When Qutb wrote his statement in “The America I Have Seen” in the early 1950s, Israel was not the major issue it is today nor were we seen as the sponsors of the autocracies in the region.

Why, then, have we ended up in this situation? Most of us do not see ourselves as immoral and materialistic; why do others? Why has America itself become the problem?

As long ago as 1952, Lebanese philosopher and one of the authors of the UN Declaration of Human Rights Charles Malik gave this answer: “The West did not offer the highest good of its positive tradition, but the false gods of modern Western civilization: nationalism, materialism, Communism.” Around the same time, Palestinian Arab Fayez A. Sayegh blamed the West for not having presented its true values – he listed Plato, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Dostoyevsky, which “represent the authentic character of the West … more boldly and persuasively …” Since the West failed in this way, he said, the Arabs also failed to make a distinction between an imperialist and economically exploitative West and the “authentic West.” Consequently, they rejected the chance the West offered for their improvement and progress, thereby courting “spiritual stagnation.” Professor Harry Jaffa expresses what has been wrong with the U.S. approach to the Middle East in another way. He says that we are “telling others to accept the forms of our own political institutions, without any reference to the principles or convictions that give rise to those institutions.”

If Malik and Sayegh were right and the United States (as the chief representative of Western civilization) has failed to present its true self, that problem has only gotten worse with the spread of American pop culture through globalization. Instead of using public diplomacy and its powerful broadcasting tools, like the Voice of America (VOA), to counter the impression of America that pop culture creates, the United States has chosen to reinforce this impression by officially embracing it. Thus, in 2003, the Broadcasting Board of Governors shut down the 12-hours of daily programs in VOA’s Arabic service to the Middle East and substituted Radio Sawa, which concentrates on pop music, to include Jay Lo, Eminem, and Brittney Spears. How do we hope to be taken seriously when this is seen as our response to 9/11?

Many Muslims see globalization (particularly of the media), and the pop culture of “anything goes” that it carries with it, as an aggressive attempt to destroy the moral basis of their society, which is why they react so strongly against it. Since the whole purpose of Islam is the construction of a virtuous society, such a danger to it is easily seen as an attack on Islam itself. We must understand that the thing Muslims loathe most is not Christianity or Judaism, but unbelief. As Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir has written, “Muslims are not offended by religious symbols, but by secularized culture, by the fact that God and the values that they associate with God are absent from this (Western) civilization.”

In many Muslim minds, democracy has become equated with unbelief. In fact, this is a message we have inadvertently helped to spread. Therefore, the promotion of democracy is seen as the most dangerous challenge to their faith.

To attack Islam is to assault the source of meaning in Muslims’ lives. As many Muslims have clearly demonstrated, they would rather die than live without this meaning. When you have nothing to lose but the meaning of your life, you will fight with everything you have. The recognition of evil naturally leads to efforts to overcome it – to remove it or destroy it. Since it is we who are seen as evil, we have been targeted for destruction. We can say that those who see us this way have a false moral calculus, but can we convince them of that? Not by playing music.

In other words, if you are going to rebrand America, the first thing you had better do is address the moral critique of the United States as a godless, secular society immersed in materialism. Just when the moral basis of American life may be eroding, it is precisely this basis that we most need to present to the Muslim world if we are to defuse the contempt and anger our popular culture provokes.

With this in mind, there should be a version of the Hippocratic Oath required of all practitioners of public diplomacy – “first, do no harm.” As it is, we are haplessly inciting the very thing we are fighting. All U.S. public diplomacy programs need to be reviewed with this in mind. If we want to win the “war of ideas,” only those programs that are in some way engaged in providing a moral defense of the United States and its principles should be continued and increased. We used to able to do this in the Cold War, and do it very well. If we are no longer able to, we had best remain silent.

I hadn’t known, before reading your book and looking around to see what else you had written, that VOA in effect responded to 9/11 and our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by getting rid of substantive programming for the Arab world and substituting J-Lo. I understand why they would do that, and that of course makes it worse. I’m glad though that you’re pushing to see what can be done under the circumstances. The world can’t be all nay-sayers.

Also—I did like the book very much, even though my review included more criticism than praise. It’s a fascinating history and deserves to be much better known.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.