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    Middle East
     Aug 24, 2010
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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 radical Islam.

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 covenant. 

Continued 1 2  


1. Mission assassination in Afghanistan

2. Medvedev's wishful thinking

3. Golden rule

4. Deep reasons for China and US to bristle

5. In Tierra del Fuego, Darwin still rocks

6. BOOK REVIEW: Reality check for Asian titans

7. Why don't Americans like Muslims?

8. Rising China tests the waters

9. Beyond the great wall of mistrust

10. Last sultan gets a modern makeover

(Aug 20-22, 2010)


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