Page 1 of 2 BOOK REVIEW Reason to pause The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern
Islamist Crisis by Robert R Reilly
Reviewed by Spengler
(Note: I am shocked and saddened by untimely death of Allen Quicke, the
Editor-in-Chief of Asia Times Online. This column exists because of his
editorial vision. In 2003, Allen cajoled me into turning my occasional essays
into a regular feature, condemning me to seven years of subsequent hard labor,
and more readers than I ever expected. It is the sort of debt that one cannot
repay except by remaining loyal to his purpose).
Mainstream Islam rejected Greek-derived philosophy at the turn of the 12th
century, when Abu Hamid al-Ghazali established a
theology of divine caprice. In the normative Muslim view of things, Allah
personally and immediately directs the motion of every molecule by his
ineffable and incomprehensible will, according to the al-Ghazali synthesis,
directly and without the mediation of natural law. Al-Ghazali abolished
intermediate causes, that is, laws of nature, leaving great and small events to
the caprice of the absolute tyrant of the universe.
In place of Hellenistic reasoning, Islam turned to a literal reading of the
Koran. Robert Reilly recounts Islam's abandonment of Hellenistic reason, and
blames it for the subsequent decline of Muslim civilization and the rise of
Reilly argues that Western civilization, is founded on reason, whereas
normative Islam embraces irrationality. Citing Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 address
at Regensburg, he notes that the 11th-century Muslim theologian Ahmad Ibn Said
Ibn Hazm taught that Allah was not bound even by his own word, and should Allah
will it, we should have to become idolaters.
The importance of this turn in Muslim thinking cannot be exaggerated. The
absence of scientific accomplishment in the Muslim world after the 12th century
should make clear that something is amiss in Islamic thinking. But there is
something missing in Reilly's account. Even those who agree with his contrast
of rational Christianity and irrational Islam may be baffled by his leap from
12th-century philosophy into 21st-century politics.
"What Thomas Aquinas did for Christianity, someone needs to do for Islam,"
Reilly concludes. Sound theology, he appears to believe, would fix the problems
in the Muslim world. But the influence of doctrine on the daily life of faith
communities is subtler than he suggests. We have to consider not only what
people think, but also how they think.
Danish philosopher, theologian and psychologist Soren Kierkegaard distinguished
between two kinds of thinking: objective knowledge (the way a doctor reads a
dark spot on a patient's chest x-ray) and existential knowledge (the way the
patient thinks about the dark spot on the chest x-ray). The doctor analyzes the
spot with scientific detachment; not so the patient who is told that she has
only months to live.
Our knowledge of God is existential, not objective (excepting of prophets who
have direct communication with God, of whom none has walked the Earth since
ancient times). The Catholic natural theology that Francisco Suarez taught
during the Counter-Reformation claimed an objective knowledge of God, but has
few defenders today. We do not recite the long-discredited proofs of God's
existence, but stand in fear and trembling before our mortality and enter a
faith community that promises to help us to defeat death.
Objective thinking does not persuade anyone to commit suicide (except perhaps
at the point of capture by the Gestapo). Jihadis do not blow themselves up in
mosques and marketplaces because they study al-Ghazali instead of Aquinas, but
because they think that death is preferable to life in an alien civilization.
Not only jihadis kill themselves. No one better exemplifies a life dedicated to
reason than Western mathematicians. Yet a mathematical puzzle elicits a
different kind of thinking than the question, "Is my life worthwhile?" A
distressingly large number of great mathematicians committed suicide, including
Alan Turing, Paul Ehrenfest, Ludwig Boltzmann and G H Hardy.
To make sense of what a religion teaches and what the faithful actually
believe, we must both understand theology objectively - as a statement about
God and the world - as well as existentially, that is, as the faith community
lives its religion in ordinary life. There is a deep identity between
al-Ghazali's rejection of rationality and the deterioration of Muslim life, but
it is not as simple or direct as Reilly appears to think.
The doctrines taught by religious authorities may or may not penetrate into the
life of that religion's adherents. The Catholic Church teaches that all
Christians are reborn into the People of God, and that this new spiritual
allegiance takes precedence over their gentile origin. Nonetheless, the
Christians of Europe slaughtered each other during the 20th century while the
Church watched helplessly. Muslims well might retort that whatever their
deficiencies, they never created a comparable disaster. Christian civilization
survived the world wars and the expansion of communism only because America
defeated first Nazism and then communism. Yet American Christianity does not
quite fit the Hellenistic model that Reilly offers as the alternative to Islam.
Although Catholicism has become the largest American Christian denomination, in
part due to Hispanic immigration, America's religious character remains
Protestant, scriptural and enthusiastic rather than Catholic and philosophical.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is beside the point. The point is
that a charismatic Biblical literalist in rural America has a great deal in
common with an American Catholic like Robert Reilly, but neither has much in
common with Muslims.
A rationalist (by which Reilly means a Thomistic and Aristotelian) approach to
theology is not what distinguishes Massachusetts from Mecca. The Massachusetts
Bay Colony was founded by radical Protestants who poured contempt on "Popish
Authors (Jesuites especially)" who "strain their wits to defend their Pagan
Master Aristotle", in the words of the Puritan leader Increase Mather
(1639-1723). American evangelicals, the most devout segment of the Christian
population, tend to be fideist rather than philosophical.
What is it that unites Catholic Thomists and evangelical fideists (as well as
observant Jews), but divides all of them from Muslims? It is the Biblical
belief that God loves his creatures. Heavenly bodies are not deities, but
rather lamps and clocks for human benefit. That is a dogmatic assertion on the
strength of Biblical revelation, not a logical conclusion. A loving God, in the
Biblical view, places man in a world that he can comprehend, which is to say
that God establishes order in the universe out of love for humankind. We live
in the best of all possible worlds (that is, a comprehensible one), Leibniz
argued, because a good God would not maroon us in the second-best version. This
implies that if God were not good, the world might not be as hospitable to
humans as it is. This is unimaginable to Christians or Jews, but not to
Muslims, who think that Allah can make any sort of world he wants, or indeed a
different world from one day to the next.
Reilly is well aware of this, but wades into deep water in addressing it.
Al-Ghazali (Reilly notes) abhors the idea of divine love: "When there is love,
there must be in the lover a sense of incompleteness; a recognition that the
beloved is needed for complete realization or the self," he wrote. But since
Allah is perfect and complete, this notion of love is nonsensical. "There is no
reaching out on the part of God ... there can be no change in him; no
development in him; no supplying of a lack in Himself." The trouble is that in
this case, al-Ghazali simply reproduces Aristotle's definition of God as the
unmoved mover. In this case it is Reilly who must fall back on scripture, and
al-Ghazali who defends the rational view of Greek philosophy.
Objectively speaking, the answer to the question, "Are Muslims less rational
than Christians?," is a flat "no". The Jewish idea that the maker of heaven and
earth cares with his creatures and suffers along with them seemed idiotic to
the Greeks, and still seems idiotic to the vast majority of philosophers today.
The trouble is that we cannot speak objectively about human reason. Reason is
not an abstraction floating in some intellectual ether, but rather our reason,
the reason of our lives. Whether it is demonstrable or not, the Judeo-Christian
notion of divine love is what makes possible the rational ordering of human
existence. Whether al-Ghazali was a bad philosopher compared to Aquinas is
beside the point: Muslim life is irrational because of the concept of divine
love as expressed in the covenant between God and man. Existential rationality,
the rationality of ordinary life, proceeds from the Biblical concept of