Closed from the Start

Robert Reilly’s account of a ninth-century debate within Islam is illuminating and informative, but he draws a misleading conclusion from that debate.

Robert Reilly’s recent book The Closing of the Muslim Mind is a highly informative and penetrating analysis of a ninth-century debate within Islam, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. At the same time it is a deeply misleading book. It’s misleading because it holds out a false hope for the reformation of Islam.

The hope is based on the fact that for a brief period in the ninth century, Islam began to open itself to reason as a result of its contact with Hellenic culture and philosophy. During the reign of Caliph al-Ma’mun, the Mu’tazilites— a rational school of theology—sought to subject revelation to reason, and did so with official approval. The influence of the Mu’tazilites was, however, short-lived. They were challenged and overthrown by the Ash’arites, an orthodox and fundamentalist school of theologians who rejected natural law, free will, and the primacy of reason. According to Reilly, today’s Sunni Muslims, including what he calls the radical “Islamists,” are the intellectual heirs of the Ash’arites—although “intellectual” might not be the right term for a tradition that rejects reason.

So far, so good. The trouble comes when Reilly keeps insisting that the Ash’arite understanding of Islam is “deformed”—with the implication being that the Mu’tazilite reformers were closer to the true spirit of Islam. In fact, a much stronger case can be made that the Ash’arites were far closer to the traditions of Muhammad and the Koran than the Mu’tazilite “reformers.” If anything, it was the Mu’tazilites who deformed Islam and the Ash’arites who restored it.

Why is any of this important today? It’s important because Reilly reinforces the erroneous notion that the true Islam has been hijacked by a minority of extremists—or, as Reilly calls them, “Islamists.” According to him, the initial hijacking was accomplished by the Ash’arites in the ninth and 10th centuries, and the second was effected in the 20th century by Sayyid Qutb, Hasan al-Banna, and the other theorists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Reilly’s suggestion that the Muslim mind can be reopened and re-civilized rests on the assumption that the Mu’tazilite reform in the first half of the ninth century— the “opening”—represented a valid interpretation of original Islam.

But it didn’t, and ironically, much of the evidence that it didn’t is contained in Reilly’s own book. For example, on page 56, he notes that in Christianity “God is not only all-powerful, He is reason”; and then goes on to say, “While the Mu’tazilites claimed something similar, they did not have a scriptural authority of similar signifi cance to confirm their position in an unassailable way, while their opponents had ample scriptural material to oppose them.”

In fact, on every interpretation that the Mu’tazilites championed, the Ash’arites had the bett er scriptural case. And the same is true today. The hard-line “Islamists” are able to quote copiously from Islamic scripture, while the Islam-is-a-religion-of-peaceand- reason apologists cannot. Watch enough televised debates between critics and defenders of Islam and after a while a pattern emerges: the critics can cite dozens of warlike passages, the defenders of a peaceful Islam seem confined to a three-quote playbook.

The Mu’tazilites may have had reason on their side but Islamic scripture seems to be on the side of the Ash’arites and their modern successors. In places, Reilly discusses the Koran as though it were some kind of Rorschach ink blot that can be interpreted any way one likes. But objective observers can be forgiven if they see a lot of ominous forms in those blots. Regarding the dispute between the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites, Reilly observes that the Koran “offers support for both positions.” Yes, but as content analyses of the Koran reveal, it offers far more support for the Ash’arite/Islamist position.

Moreover, when you add in the evidence from the Sira (the life of Muhammad) and the Hadith (traditions of Muhammad), the case for the Ash’arite position becomes even more compelling. The Hadith are reports of the sayings and doings of Muhammad which were first transmitted orally, and later put into written form. Like the Sira, the Hadith confirm that the more fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran is thoroughly consistent with the thoughts and actions of Muhammad. Thus, as reported by Reilly, al-Bukhari, the most highly regarded of the Hadith compilers, dismissed the Mu’tazilite position that the Koran was created. Considering that the Koran itself claims to be uncreated, that seems a reasonable position.

Coincidentally—or perhaps, not so coincidentally—the six major Hadith collections were put together during the same ninth century that saw both the opening of the Muslim mind and its closing. Although Reilly doesn’t address this possibility, it seems likely that the Ash’arites were able to win their “debate” with the Mu’tazilites in part because they had the evidence of the newly compiled Hadith to back them up.

The debate Reilly describes might be compared to a debate between strict constructionists and broad constructionists on the proper interpretation of the Constitution. Suppose that such a debate took place several decades after the Constitution was signed, and further suppose that few other documents from the founding era remained. Then suppose that the Federalist Papers and numerous other writings of the Founders were uncovered. It would, of course, change the debate. With the original intent of the Framers revealed, it would be that much harder to press for a broad interpretation of the Constitution. The introduction of the comprehensive Hadith collections into ninth-century Islamic culture would have had a similar deflating effect on the broad constructionist Mu’tazilites.

Of course, the analogy is a bit strained by the fact that the Koran is not a humanly constructed document, but a direct revelation from God. Or is it? That would seem to be a basic question, yet Reilly hardly raises the question, and then does so only in an indirect and offhand fashion. Much of his book is about the relation between reason and revelation, but his whole discussion misses the point that some revelations are compatible with reason, and some “revelations” are not. In several places Reilly encourages Muslims to undertake a reconciliation between reason and scripture similar to the one undertaken by Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas was able to do what he did because he had something unique to work with—a true revelation from God. Reilly’s thesis only makes sense if you assume that God actually dictated the Koran to Muhammad. If that didn’t happen, what would be the point of trying to reconcile reason with Islamic scripture?

In his conclusion, Reilly says, “what Thomas Aquinas did for Christianity, someone needs to do for Islam.” But that’s like saying, “What Thomas Aquinas did for Christianity, someone needs to do for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The application of reason and analysis to the Koran—as to the Protocols—would quickly lead to the conclusion that it is a fabrication. The Ash’arites wisely chose not to go that route.

It’s regrettable that Reilly chooses to absolve Islam of the sins of the Islamists because in all other respects The Closing of the Muslim Mind is an illuminating work. Reilly has many useful and intelligent things to say. His analysis of the philosophical affinity between 20th-century Islamism and 20th century totalitarian ideologies is alone worth the price of the book. In both cases the fatal flaw is a Nietzsche-like emphasis on the primacy of the will which leads, in turn, to a program of “might makes right.” In addition, Reilly offers fascinating explanations of how Islam’s rejection of reason has led to Islam’s current dysfunctionality. And in one entertaining section he shows how the proliferation of conspiracy theories in the Muslim world stems from Islam’s denial of cause and effect.

Still, his contention that the Mu’tazilites represented true Islam, and that the rejection of the Mu’tazilites was a “deformation,” needs to be challenged. To say that the Ash’arites and— more to the point—today’s Islamists have hijacked the true Islam is practically equivalent to saying that Muhammad himself hijacked Islam. There is abundant evidence that the fundamentals of Islam believed and practiced today were already in place in Muhammad’s time.

According to a content analysis done by the Center for the Study of Political Islam, at least 75 percent of the Sira is about jihad, and “61 percent of the Koran talks ill of unbelievers or calls for their violent conquest and subjugation, but only 2.6 percent talks about the overall good of humanity.” Muhammad was involved in murderous attacks, an average, every six weeks during the last nine years of his life. He once ordered the beheading of 600 captured prisoners. It’s difficult to come up with a symbolic interpretation of the Koran’s numerous calls to make war on unbelievers when you consider that that literally was what Muhammad did. It’s just as difficult to make the case that today’s violent jihadists are misinterpreting his intentions.

During the week of August 29 to September 4, about a week before this writing, Muslims killed 296 other Muslims and injured 700 in attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iraq, Somalia, India, and other places. It was a typical week in the Muslim world. But body-count aside, there are other ways to determine if extremists make up only the tiny sliver of Islam that Reilly suggests. Take the Pew Global Attitudes Survey of Pakistani public opinion conducted in 2009. Among the results of the survey are the following items: 83 percent of Pakistanis favor stoning adulterers, 80 percent favor whippings and cutting off hands for thieves, 78 percent favor death for those who leave Islam. Stoning adulterers? Killing apostates? Aren’t those rather extreme measures? Yet roughly 80 percent of people in the sixth most populous nation in the world are okay with these and other barbarities. Anyway you look at it, 80 percent is not a tiny sliver.

Reilly seems to define Islamists as those who are actively planning to impose Islamic law on the rest of the world. Since most people aren’t actively planning to do much beyond paying the bills and putting food on the table, the Islamists would almost by definition fall into the “small minority” category. On the other hand, many, if not most, Muslims seem to have no problem with the system that their more radical cousins are trying to impose. It’s called Sharia law, and it’s the essence of Islam. The killing of apostates, for example, is not Islamism, it’s Islam. Another stipulation of Sharia is that jihad, defined as “war against non-Muslims to establish the religion,” is the duty of every Muslim. Fortunately, most Muslims are lax about this duty, but, on the other hand, they seem to have respect for those Muslims who put it into practice. Very few Muslim leaders have been willing to condemn Hamas and Hezbollah, and almost no Muslim has a bad word to say about the “martyrs” who blow up innocent Israeli citizens.

Reilly is not alone in his attempt to disassociate Islam from Islamism. In a recent National Review Online column, Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, writes: “Misled by the Islamists’ insistence that there can be no such thing as ‘moderate Islam,’ my allies often fail to distinguish between Islam (a faith) and Islamism (a radical utopian ideology aiming to implement Islamic laws in their totality).” It would certainly be convenient if Muslims could neatly be divided into those who have the faith and those who have the ideology. But what if the faith is inextricably bound up with the ideology? What if the content of the faith is that Islam must rule and others must submit?

“As I often note,” writes Pipes, “radical Islam is the problem and moderate Islam is the solution.” But what is the evidence for a moderate Islam? The most moderate Muslims always turn out to be people who have little
involvement in their faith. Or, alternatively, they turn out—like Imam Feisal Rauf at Ground Zero—to be not so moderate, after all.

In this regard it’s interesting to note that Reilly locates the beginnings of modern Islamism with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1920s and with the writings of its chief theorists, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. As portrayed by Reilly, the Muslim Brotherhood is the quintessential extremist ideological group. Yet, next to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Muslim Brotherhood is probably the largest Islamic organization in the world. And despite its extremism, it is in effect the face of moderate Islam in America. All the major mainstream Muslim organizations in the United States—the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim American Society, the Islamic Society of North America, and others—are either extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood or have close ties to it. These are the groups that the government and the media go to when they want a representative Islamic spokesman, or a consultant, or someone to provide sensitivity training to soldiers or airport security screeners. It’s difficult to understand how the Muslim Brotherhood can be at one and the same time a tiny extremist group, and also the official voice of Islam in the US. The truth is, Islam and Islamism are joined at the hip.

For the better part of a decade the Western world has been lulled into complacency by the myth that the true Islam has been misrepresented by a tiny minority of extremists. During that time Islam has greatly expanded its power in Europe, and in the United States Islamic pressure groups have exerted an outsized influence on politicians, courts, the media, the military, textbook publishers, and universities. It took a long time, but it now appears that ordinary Americans and Europeans are waking up to the fact that, although there may be moderate Muslims, there is no moderate Islam. The groundswell of opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is one indication of this awakening, the campaign to ban the burqa in Europe is another.

The main question is whether theWest becomes fully awake in time. Sooner or later almost everyone will recognize the mortal danger posed by Islam. But, as Lawrence Auster puts it, “they can have that recognition sooner, and prevent much violence, or they can have that recognition much later, only after Muslims have gained substantial power over our societies.”

The thesis that there is a world of difference between Islam and Islamists only serves to delay that final awakening— as does the thesis that Islam is reformable. Both ideas keep alive a false hope. And the time that Westerners waste pursuing that false hope is time that Muslim activists and stealth jihadists will use to extend the reach of Islam deep into our society.

It may be that for one brief shining hour in time Islam experienced a Camelot moment, but there is little reason to suppose that that moment—if it really was so golden—can ever be recaptured. There is even less reason to pin the fate of the West on that exceedingly remote possibility.


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About William Kilpatrick 81 Articles
William Kilpatrick is the author of several books on religion and culture including Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press) and What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Institute Press). For more on his work and writings, visit his Turning Point Project website.