The world today sees a sudden aggressive presence of Islam in a way not seen since the defense of Vienna in 1532. Large numbers of Muslims are now aggressively present in the West and on all Islam’s world borders. They insist on retaining their religion and customs wherever they reside. They present internal problems in Western nations that they have not had to face before. The leading forces in Islam seem to have decided that the best way to expand through and defeat the west is not by imitating modern science and technology, but by establishing and enforcing Muslim law everywhere, either gradually or quickly.

Yet, a hard-headed Muslim intellectual today, if there be such, would have a sense of the history of theology and of the military means by which Muslim expansion originally took place. He might well judge that, everything seems to be falling into place.

Yet, two dangerous “technical” developments could undermine the present Muslim rigid hold on its own people and on its recently renewed determination to expand. A long dormant Islam, but one that lost few followers in the five centuries since it lost world political power, has overcome its inferiority complex against Western modernity. It has, in various ways, symbolized by the bombing of the World Trade Center by primitive means, developed a new way to defeat advanced technical power that is no longer morally confident of its own principles.

The first caution to this advancement thesis is the realization that vast undeveloped quantities of oil and gas are known to exist outside of Islamic borders. These rapidly developing resources, plus several significant nuclear energy advances, might well, if used with political shrewdness, make Arab oil considerably less important and profitable to the world economy. Arab power and religious expansion have been fueled by oil money. But little in the Arab world itself was the cause of these oil-based riches. Islam sat on oil, protected by Western theories of sovereignty, but it did not develop the economy or the tools that made oil valuable. Much of Arab oil wealth, moreover, has gone into the private hands of rulers and their families. Arab countries themselves are quite poor and comparatively backward.

The second threat to Islam stems from studies, especially in Germany, of the technical background and actual history of the Qur’an, a study forbidden in Islam itself, probably out of fear of these very findings. The claim is that the Arabic Qur’an came directly from an eternity next to Allah. It was given to Mohammed. It had no pre-history on earth.

Such views cannot be reconciled with variant Qur’anic texts, many of which were deliberately suppressed. The Qur’an was never subject to the methods of scientific criticism. The work on a critical edition of the Qur’an promises to show that the Qur’an is not what it claims to be. It had prior texts which were later woven together in a fashion that revealed internal contradictions in the Qur’an itself. It was out of these latter contradictions that the philosophic theories of voluntarism arose as the only way to defend what the Qur’an actually said. The crisis will occur when Muslims finally understand that the Qur’an cannot possibly be what it claims to be. And this claim rests on clearly examined grounds that anyone can understand.

But while these two approaches are well advanced and foreshadow serious crises in Islamic culture and politics, an even more basic issue is that of the philosophic suppositions on which Islam has had to base itself in order even to imply that its revelation made sense. Few have looked into this background more acutely than Robert Reilly. His book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, presents his basic arguments and the grounds for them.

However here, I want to comment on a more recent and shorter booklet that Reilly has written assessing the possibilities of any meaningful dialogues between Catholics and Islam. Reilly’s reading of Muslim texts and arguments in this area are wide-ranging. I will not here attempt to reproduce them. His presentation of what Muslim authors say and do is clear in any reading of The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue.

What I wish rather to do is to summarize the issues themselves. Reilly argued effectively in The Closing of the Muslim Mind what he here restates. A school of Muslim thinkers, the Mu’tazilites, did accept the validity of the Greek notion of reason. This acceptance was something that Christianity itself did almost from its very beginning when Paul was called to Macedonia. A later school of Muslim thought, the Ash’arites, whose major figure was al-Ghazali (d. 1111), rejected any relationship between the Qur’an with human or divine reason. This school became the main school of Islamic thought. It dominated almost all Muslim thinking. It is this background that Reilly presents so effectively.

How much do Christians and Muslims have in common?

The context of Reilly’s analysis is based on Catholic efforts to enter dialogues with Islam about their acknowledged areas of agreement and disagreement. The initiative for these conversations is almost never from the Muslim side. Some attention was paid to Islam by French and German thinkers as by Belloc in the 1900s.

But it was Vatican Council II and subsequent Catholic initiatives to converse with Islamic leaders that set the stage of Reilly’s analysis. Catholics often assumed and stated that Islam and Catholicism had many things in common. At first sight, they all believed in justice and love; they wanted peace and disliked war, they believed in the one God of Abraham, and they respected each other’s religion. So it seemed sensible to spell out in further detail their disagreements in the light of common principles or words on which both sides could agree.

It turned out not to be so simple. The single most significant reason for this inability to come to agreeable terms is rooted in the philosophical presuppositions that Islam chose to accept if it was, in its own eyes and those of others, to be consistent with itself. In case after case, Reilly shows that Catholic-Muslim dialogue fails or is dangerous because Muslims usually know exactly what they mean in their own theoretic terms, while many Catholic participants tend to assume that words have the same meaning in Islam and in the western tradition.

If a Muslim and a Catholic agree that they should work for “peace,” for example, the Catholic means simply a condition of non-war or non-violence. By true “peace,” however, the Muslim means a world in which everyone is Muslim. Less than that, we have a state of war between the Muslim seekers of “peace” and those who are not yet Muslim. It is important to realize that the Muslim is not necessarily seeking to trick the Catholic here if the Catholic has not gone to the trouble to know what Muslims mean by peace and war. Muslims understand “dialogue” to be a practical means to further Muslim goals of a world at “peace” where everyone worships Allah. Those who do not accept this understanding are seen to be in opposition to Islam.

Obstacles to dialogue

Reilly argues that Benedict XVI, in his Regensburg Lecture and other comments on Islam, is one of the few thinkers who really grasped what is at stake here. He understood that no “dialogue” of any sort could exist between Islam and Catholicism so long as Islam completely “dehellenized” itself, that is, so long as it rejected reason as based in God and in nature. Benedict also realized that because of the resulting emphasis on a will based understanding of God, many strands of Western thought were converging to the same philosophic conclusion, namely, that no order could be found in nature.

The one flaw in the Reilly book, I think, is not to point out that the Hobbesian understanding of “rights” and the Muslim understanding of the power in Allah have the same intellectual presuppositions. Only if we give a completely different account of “rights” from that which is mainly operative in modern philosophy can we argue that Islam ought to accept the “rational” basis of “human rights.” “Human rights” in the West have become themselves to mean a relativism whereby any “right” that the individual or state decides is, on that basis alone, a human “right,” however much it may be opposed to what Catholics call “natural law.”

Benedict thought there might be a few social or moral issues on which Muslims and Catholics could agree, but until Islam formally rejected the notion that Allah can do whatever he wants, including the opposite of what he said before, no real dialogue with Islam is possible. Pope Benedict insisted that the Muslim world needs to reject “violence” as contrary to God’s Logos, or reason. It had to affirm and enforce within its borders a “religious freedom” that did not mean Islam’s “right” to use violence in the name of Allah or give second-class status to non-Muslims. Both sides had to agree that what is unreasonable cannot be maintained. For a Muslim, the notion of “reason,” whereby God can prohibit what is unreasonable, is said to “limit” the “power” of Allah. Hence, to claim the primacy of reason in God is blasphemy because it denies to God the “power” of contradicting Himself.

The “freedom” of Allah is such that he can will the opposite of what he willed yesterday. He can command violence to propagate Islam without contradiction because no contradiction is possible. This issue is what Benedict was getting at in the Regensburg Lecture when he cited the Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm who affirmed precisely this “power” in Allah. In this context, as Rémi Brague has recently observed in his book, On the God of the Christians: (and on one or two others), it is very difficult to identify what God means to Christians with what Muslims mean by Allah. So long as this radical difference was not recognized, real understanding between Muslims and Catholics was impossible.

In the history of Islam, we see a continual use of force. Originally, Islam expanded by conquest of Christian lands, which, except for Spain and the Balkans, it was never forced to give up. Once a land is Muslim, it must remain Muslim. Moreover, force can be used to expand religion and to prevent Muslims from changing their religion. Indeed, originally, everyone was said to be Muslim, including Adam. If someone was not Muslim, it was because some parent or body interfered. By right, everyone is and should be Muslim.

If a Muslim suicide bomber dies while killing others, he is considered to be a martyr of the faith. By dying trying to terrorize unbelievers, he shows his piety. Christians and Jews are said to be treated with a special tolerance because they believe in the Book. This special treatment means, in practice, that they are second-class citizens who must pay a special tax. They can have no real part in the public order. No Christian or Jewish books or symbols are allowed. This arrangement is considered to be “just,” or even “kind.” Islam has no real notion of citizenship or civic equality or freedom. The mosque is not separated from the state. The state is an instrument in the expansion and protection of Islam. The state and the mosque operate together, even though, at times, military rulers prevent extremes. At the price of death, no Muslim can convert to another religion.

A fascinating section of Reilly’s essay concerns the careful manner in which Muslim apologists deal with the “One” that is Allah. The Qur’an specifically denies as possible the Trinity, a life of otherness within the one Godhead, and the Incarnation of one of its persons. These positions are contrary to the Oneness of Allah. No distinctions of reason or theology are allowed. Moreover, the Bible itself is said to be corrupted. Abraham was originally a Muslim. Mohammed came to rewrite the Scripture so that these Christian blasphemies against Allah could be removed. While Jesus is said to be a Prophet (something Islam shares with modern liberalism) and Mary a holy lady, nothing divine hovers about them. Thus, it is quite difficult to see how a dialogue could take place when the very thing that needs to be discussed is denied and said to be blasphemy.

The basic principles of reality

All of this background leads to the Muslim need of a voluntaristic metaphysic if there is hope of making Islam seem anything other than utterly incoherent. Basically, its “logic” ended up accepting the incoherence in the name of emphasizing Allah’s complete power and man’s complete powerlessness. This view leaves to man only the obligation of complete submission to Allah. The purpose of Muslim jihad is ultimately to accomplish this world-wide submission which is claimed to be the will of Allah. And it is not complete until everyone else makes this same submission. If no reason or order is found in Allah, this means that we can find no secondary causes in ourselves or in things. Nothing follows from anything.

In the end, Reilly points out that no such a thing as “authority” exists in Islam. We do find, out of the limelight, certain Muslims who understand their civilization’s backwardness and the incoherence of voluntarism. The need for the “rehellenization” of both Islam and the West ironically comes to a head at the same time. In insisting that Allah can do the opposite of what he did yesterday, in allowing that violence is permitted by Allah’s will, Islam is very close to the modern liberal democratic position that we can have a “right” to what is against reason. What counts is only what Allah or the Leviathan wills.

What is at stake in the Muslim-Catholic dialogue, which this essay of Robert Reilly makes vividly clear, is the importance of understanding that God is Logos, that what is created in His image follows from this understanding of God. When God or nature becomes simply “will,” everything is permitted to reach our end, whether it be a utopia or in a world submissive to Allah. Robert Reilly supplies, in clear terms, what has long been lacking, a straight-forward explanation about why Muslim and Catholic dialogues achieve very little. It is because, when they do manage to understand each other, they cannot agree on the basic principles of reality.

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.