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Cause & Effect:
The Closing of the Muslim Mind

[1]2,884 words

Czech version here [2]

I call for an immediate ban on the movie Gravity as it shows “Earth” to be spherical, which is against the Quran, and thus insulting to Muslims. — Dr. Zakir Naik

Robert R. Reilly
The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis
Wilimington, Del: ISI Books, 2010

I remember smiling at the quote above when the film in question first came out nine years ago. Presumably, I thought, that’s why there hasn’t been an Islamic Copernicus. Dr. Naik is a thoroughly entertaining Muslim version of a televangelist, and if you are not mindful of the Islamic sense of humor (Ayatollah Khomeini: “There is no humor in Islam”), you might feel your leg being pulled.

But the mainstream media across the Muslim world regularly matches Dr. Naik’s many outlandish claims and demands. Here are some genuine headlines from the Islamic press:

For we kufr, these headlines are comic. Put them into context, however, and the comedy turns quickly to tragedy.

Robert R. Reilly’s 2010 book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (with an introduction by the much-missed Roger Scruton), provides that context, and we may be surprised to learn why such headlines, along with others sourced in the book, appear daily in the Muslim press. It isn’t the Mohammedan world’s version of the vapidity of Western media, but is instead the result of a philosophical battle waged over a thousand years ago, and its decisive result.

Classical philosophy did not bypass Islam on its route to Europe, a journey which began with the Roman aristocracy and led all the way to the Renaissance. Greek thought came as unintended spoils of Islam’s early Byzantine conquests. But the effects the rebirth of the classical world had in the West were not replicated in Islam, and for a very specific reason: “The dehellenization of Islam had its roots in a particular idea of God that took definitive shape in the ninth century, though a large portion of Islam had embraced a version of it far earlier.”

Although Muslim scholars were initially attracted to practical Greek wisdom, an encounter between Islam and what is now classed as seminal Western philosophy was inevitable. The outcome of this encounter, effectively the end of any philosophy worth the name in the Muslim world for a thousand years, a Reich of ignorance, was a result both of the battle between two sects, which is the theme of the book, and a dialectic of distrust of the other natural that is familiar to any people, but not always with such ruinous effects over such a long span of time: “Muslims were also called upon to defend and advance their faith against Christians and others who used philosophical methods in their apologetics.”

The opposing sides in this fateful debate were the schools of the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites. Among their differences, the former believed that the Koran came into being with Mohammed’s transliteration, while the Ash’arites believed that the book had always existed, will always exist, and is coeval with Allah. The Mu’tazilites likewise believed in free will and the primacy of reason, while the Ash’arites held with predestination and the ultimate impotence of man’s intellectual capacities. In the ninth century, the Mu’tazilites held the upper hand as the Caliph, al’Ma’mun, both enshrined the teaching of a created Koran into law and made his attachment to the fount of Western philosophy clear:

Al-Ma’mun was the greatest supporter of thought in Islamic history and the creator of the famous Bait al-Hikmah, the House of Wisdom, a great library and translation center, which opened in 830. According to Arab historian Ibn al-Nadim, Aristotle was supposed to have appeared to al-Ma’mun in a dream.

Anyone inclined to a Whiggish view of Islamic history is invited to imagine such a building being opened in the Islamic world today. Whereas the Medieval Church in the West also had to contend with Aristotle’s relation to God, they adapted and found conceptual space in their metaphysics for the Stagirite. In the Islamic world, Aristotle was ultimately banished.

The ninth century was philosophy’s last stand in the Arabic world, an ascendancy fated to end in the following century, and I would have liked more fiber in Reilly’s book about the political machinations that led to this turnaround. But, as Reilly observes, the problem with Islamic history — and doubtless that of other cultures — is that the victors in any dispute tended to erase their opponents’ intellectual legacy by burning their books.

The philosophical atmosphere under al-Ma’mun’s Caliphate also produced the first Muslim Arab philosopher, Abu Ya’qub. One of his bold statements is of interest today: “We ought not to be ashamed of appreciating the truth and of acquiring it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races different and nations different from us.”

From our standpoint, over a millennium later and wearily facing a resurgent Islam, we can see that Abu Ya’qub would face opposition today for sanctioning the idea that worthwhile thought both took place in the Dar-al-harb and that it was worth appropriating. Also, the quote above neatly illustrates the attitude of the Dar-al-Islam today, provided you substitute the word “technology” for “the truth.”


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By the end of the tenth century, however, there had been philosophical regime change. The Mu’tazilites were removed from court and government positions, their works burned, and the holding of their doctrines punishable by death. The philosopher Al-Kindi’s library was confiscated and the heretic himself given 60 lashes before an enthusiastic crowd. Just as today people are punished for things they did not themselves write but merely r-posted or retweeted, transmission of proscribed doctrine was also outlawed: “In 885, all professional copyists in Baghdad were required to promise under oath to exclude from their professional activities the copying of all books of philosophy.”

Some Mu’tazilite philosophers fled to Shi’a Persia, and Reilly makes clear at the start of his book that he is referring throughout to Sunni Islam, still of course the dominant strand of what is a very sectarian religion.

Reilly terms the process undergone by Islam “dehellenization” (and appears to attribute the word to Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial 2006 Regensburg address), and by the twelfth century Islamic thought was anti-rationalist, occasionalist [5] (or voluntarist), and fully given over to the concept of itjihad, or Koranic interpretation, meaning that any intellectual problems which might arise can be settled simply by consulting a book whose contents were delivered by an angel and which has existed and will exist for all eternity. What became known as the school of fiqh made into a motto: “Abandon debate and surrender to the text.” There is nothing outside the text, as Jacques Derrida is reputed to have written. Here is one of history’s greatest — and surely its most troublesome — religions saying mutatis mutandis; exactly that.

And today, even tricked out with all the razzmatazz of the Western world and its trinkets, modern Islam remains thoroughly dehellenized. So much so, in fact, that its central poles have been reversed. Reilly begins with a quote from an Islamic scholar from 2005: “Wherever I go in the Islamic world, it’s the same problem: cause and effect, cause and effect.”

Just as Al-Ghazali thought, so Muslims think today. Sneakers may be worn under distashas in Jalalabad, but what is inside the Muslim head has essentially remained unchanged since Muslims burnt the great library at Córdoba in Spain in 1013.

The texts which best represent the poles of the debate appeared around a century apart. Al-Ghazali, who died in 1111, wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers (IP). The book codified the Ash’arite position, which is radically dogmatic and opposed to reason as a valid source of revelation. Reality is religious territory, not philosophical: “If these things were true, the prophets would know them through inspiration or revelation; but rational arguments cannot prove them.”

The Islamic world was about to enter the biggest circular argument in history, but IP does make provision for valid (i.e., permitted) intellectual enquiry. Al-Ghazali makes a division within philosophy, whose systems he claims to reject, and finds a scapegoat among the questionable pursuits of the falsafa (the Arabic word for philosopher, still with its echo of the Greek): “While admitting the validity of mathematics, logic and physics as inoffensive to faith, Al-Ghazali charges that metaphysics is the most offensive because it is ‘the breeding-ground of the errors of the philosophers.’”

Al-Ghazali here introduces the seeds of a schism which would also affect the West during its Enlightenment, when metaphysics was left behind by other sub-disciplines of philosophy — basically those named by Al-Ghazali — which better lend themselves to the service of science.

The riposte to IP was by Ibn Rushd (better known to the West as Averroes) in his publication The Incoherence of the Incoherence in 1180. This is a line-by-line exegesis of Al-Ghazali’s text, stressing both the primacy of reason and its compatibility with understanding God. It reiterated Al-Kindi’s promotion of all the avenues of investigation Islam would prohibit: reason, free will, causality, metaphysics. Al-Ghazali is often called the second most important Muslim after Mohammed, while Averroes’ books were burned in the square, again at his birthplace of Córdoba, in 1195. Averroes’ statue remains in Córdoba, but not his books. As noted, from 1013 there was already no library in which to keep them.

The central supporting wall in the house of Western philosophy is reason, and it is a structural necessity Islam destroyed. Reilly shows concisely the rejection of reason by the Ash’arites and their champion Al-Ghazali, and how the close the Islamic world came to a history-changing choice:

Al-Ghazali’s influence was, and is, so important that a modern thinker of Fazlur Rahman’s stature could say that “without his work . . .philosophic rationalism might well have made a clean sweep of the Islamic ethos.” One can only imagine how different the world would have been had that happened.

The author’s background is impressive, Reilly having been a tank platoon leader, a White House defense strategist, a talk show host, and a personal advisor to President Reagan during his second term. In this book he seems absolutely at home on philosophical territory, although I was surprised to see unremarked a very close methodological parallel between Al-Ghazali, who very much closed the door of Muslim philosophy, and another ex-army man who could be said to have opened the door to Western philosophy half a millennium later: René Descartes.

I begin partway through the passages which link Al-Ghazali with Descartes for a very specific reason: “I then examined what knowledge I possessed, and discovered that in none of it, with the exception of sense-perception and necessary principles, did I enjoy that degree of certitude which I have just described . . .”

So far, so Cartesian, and the evidence of the senses is next called into question, as it will be again in 1637 in the Discourse on the Method. Again foreshadowing Descartes, Al-Ghazali is in need of a methodology which is not susceptible to doubt: “Fundamental principles, such as the following axioms: Ten is more than three. Affirmation and negation cannot exist together . . .”

Simple arithmetic truths, the law of excluded middle — these are all consonant with Descartes’ use of mathematics as the ultimate arbiter of truth, the model of what truth should look like, and how to proceed towards it. There is one more proto-Cartesian scenario which Al-Ghazali considers; dreaming. Dreams seem real until you wake, when

you recognize them for what they are — baseless chimeras. Who can assure you, then, of the reliability of notions which, when awake, you derive from the senses and from reason?

Descartes’ answer, of course, was supplied by the cogito argument and its surety as a fixed point of indubitability. Even though you are dreaming, your existence cannot be in doubt. There are problems with Descartes’ rebuilding of certitude with regard to external experience, but the centrality of the cogito is clear. What is Al-Ghazali’s version of the cogito?

Surah 2:2 — This is the book about which there is no doubt . . .

Surah 102 — If you only knew with the knowledge of certainty.

Never has a question been so begged. For Descartes, the world exists because a rational procedure, guaranteed by the rigorous methodology of mathematics, can be shown to prove what was previously able to be doubted. For Al-Ghazali, it was much simpler. To answer any speculative question, simply open the Koran, itself an Arabic word whose root means “to read.”

As for the effects of Al-Ghazali’s triumph on democracy (or its possibility), Reilly sees democracy as reliant on reason. Modern Islam, however, dethroned reason in the eleventh century, recognizing power as its primus and philosophy as at best worthless and at worst seditious. The transcript of an Al Qaeda tape recording from 2005 makes that ideology clear:

The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates, Platonic ideals, nor Aristotelean diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine-gun.

This is an extremist Islamist viewpoint, but its essential dismissal of philosophical reason in favor of a type of psychosis in the mindset of Sunni Islam shows up the hopelessly naïve attempts by the American-led West to bolt democracy on to the Arab states as easily as one might build a conservatory onto one’s house.

Reilly’s book is not a philosophical history of a time too long ago to be of any relevance to us, and part of its thrust is that it does affect us; very much so. What is happening now to reason in the West is a sorry tale for another day, but one example suffices to illustrate the importance of Al-Ghazali’s influence over today’s world. And not just the Islamic world.

The following is not from Reilly’s book, but a 2012 book about censorship, You Can’t Read this Book, by veteran British Left-wing journalist Nick Cohen. Here, he is describing the notorious Islamic backlash to Britain’s Salman Rushdie controversy in 1988, when an international fatwa called for the death of the Indian-born British author of The Satanic Verses. We detect the resounding echoes of the war between the Mu’tazalites and the Ash’arites and the resulting cloud of unknowing:

He [Rushdie] had not grasped that reactionary mobs and those who seek to exploit them have a know-nothing pride in their ignorance. It was sufficient that clerical authorities said that the book was blasphemous, and could quote a passage or two to prove their case.

The West never will understand that the bottom line for Islam is not reason, but power. Who is doing what to whom?, to unpack Lenin’s famous dictum. One of Reilly’s sources also reminds us of Stalin: “The problem for the side of reason, as expressed by an Indonesian Islamist, is that ‘liberal Islam has no cadres.’”

We recall Stalin’s famous question: How many [army] divisions does the Vatican have? Reilly uses neither of these quotes, but does draw a parallel between Lenin’s cheery mission statement and that of Islamism: “We must hate. Hatred is the basis of Communism.”

Two neat bookends illustrate Islam’s dilemma, which is swiftly and once again troubling the West. Reilly quotes Fazlur Rahman, a Muslim philosopher (a dangerous profession in Islam, but increasingly a risky one in the West, as Kathleen Stock [6] can attest): “A people that deprives itself of philosophy necessarily exposes itself to starvation in terms of fresh ideas — in fact it commits intellectual suicide.”

Unfortunately for over a billion Muslims — and by extension the West –, Islam still regulates itself according to eleventh-century writer Abu Sa’id ibn-Dust’s curt dismissal of the discipline which led to the West’s scientific and technological dominion over Islam: Philosophy is a lie.

The West may not think it is at the start of a crisis of reason — or even quite well advanced into it –, but nor did the Mu’tazilites of the ninth century, whose most famous contemporaneous Western philosopher was probably Duns Scotus, who was more constrained by the Catholic Church than the Mu’tazilites were by the Caliphate. All it needs is for one side to dominate a debate at the core of which is reason, and for the other side to be vanquished. This is happening now in the West. I have just witnessed four politicians, of both major British parties, refuse to define a woman. It isn’t because they can’t, either through native stupidity or the complexity of the question, but because they won’t. They are afraid to. At present, those who define a woman as an adult, human female are not whipped in the square like Al-Kindi. But, as Robert R. Reilly’s excellent book shows, reason can turn and face in the opposite direction with unnerving speed. Islam jettisoned reason a long time ago; the West may be about to experience its equivalent to the reign of the Ash’arites. It may be some time before we can once again heed the invitation in Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together.”

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