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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.