Muslim terrorism is a baffling phenomenon. How
can indiscriminate slaughter of fellow human beings – Christians and Muslims,
men, women and children – be justified in the name of God? As Osama bin Laden said
shortly after 9/11 in one of his videos, “Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s
religion.” For many Muslims this is insane – not to mention his opponents in
the West – so what gives Islamists moral legitimacy, at least in their own
It is vital for the West to diagnose this
moral delirium. Three strategies are being used currently to cure it:
exterminating the terrorists, promoting economic development, and integrating
Muslim cultures into Western mores.
The disheartening message of Robert R.
Reilly in his clear and concise book The Closing of the Muslim Mind is that none
of these is likely to eradicate the infection. The terrorists’ fanaticism is so
deeply embedded in the dominant interpretation of Muslim theology that it may
take an intellectual earthquake to shake it loose.
What terrifies Westerners is the admonition
of the sacred book of Islam, the Qur’an, to wage jihad upon non-believers. But
“jihad”, like other fundamental notions in Islam, is equivocal. It can be
interpreted as moral struggle as well as brutal violence, depending upon who is
holding the Qur’an.
What Reilly suggests, based on abundant
modern scholarship, is that the first fully developed theological school in
Islam, the Mu’talizites, would probably have despised bin Laden’s ravings. The
tragedy of Islam is that the Mu’talizites, after a brief flowering in the 9th
and 10th centuries under the Abbasids in modern Iraq, have become anathematised
The fundamental questions in any culture
are: who is God and who is man? Christianity responds that man has been created
in the image and likeness of God. The universe is rational and comprehensible
because it reflects the rationality of its creator. The Incarnation – the
assumption of a human nature by God – is the capstone of the metaphysics of
Christian culture. The God-Man dignifies human nature and confirms that God’s
actions are ultimately humanly comprehensible.
The Qur’an’s teachings are not altogether
clear. On the one hand, many verses — such as “When you shot, it was not you
who shot but God” — support determinism. But others do not, like “Each soul
earns but its own due.” How did early Muslims cope with this? Is the sacred
text God’s inalterable word, or can it be interpreted by his creatures?
Influenced by the rationalism of ancient
Greek philosophy, the Mu’tazilites taught that the Qur’an had been created
in time and was therefore subject to human interpretation. God had endowed man
with reason so that he can know the moral order. Reasoning is essential for a
good Muslim. The great philosophers Averroes and Avicenna, who influenced Christians
like Thomas Aquinas, belonged to this school.
Unhappily, by the 12th century, the
Mu’talizites were almost exterminated. The victorious Ash’arites taught that
the supremacy of the revelation of the Qur’an was absolute. Reason was useless
for discerning good and evil and God was incomprehensible, supreme Will.
The Ash’arite conception of God’s
transcendence has been unimaginably important in shaping Muslim thought. “God
is so powerful,” says Reilly, “that every instant is the equivalent of a
miracle.” Science becomes almost impossible because there are no natural laws
which govern the universe – only God’s eternally renewed decree. One scholar
summarised it as follows: “to search for ends and reasons in His laws is not
only meaningless but also grave disobedience to Him.”
The Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez
Hoodbhoy observes, almost in despair: “Many, if not most orthodox ulema [Islamic
scholars] contend that prediction of rain lies outside of what can be lawfully
known to man, and infringes on the supernatural domain. Consequently, between
1983 and 1984, weather forecasts were quietly suspended by the Pakistani media,
although they were later reinstated.” Causality, the foundation on which
science rests, is meaningless in such a philosophy.
What about morality? God is beyond good and
evil for the Ash’arites. Whatever he commands is good; whatever he forbids is
evil. Ed Husain, a British Muslim who was a member of a fundamentalist group
for several years, recalls in his 2007 book The
Islamist that his leader “always taught that there was no such thing as
morality in Islam; it was simply what God taught. If Allah allowed it, it was
moral. If he forbade it, it was immoral.”
Consequently there can be no freedom of
conscience. How could there if our reasoning power is suspect? “Good and evil
are foreordained,” wrote the great philosopher Al-Ghazali. “No one can rebel
against God’s judgement. No one can appeal His decree and command.”
As Hoodbhoy says, “the gradual hegemony of
fatalistic Ash’arite doctrines mortally weakened… Islamic society and led to a
withering away of its scientific spirit. Ash’arite dogma insisted on the denial
of any connection between cause and effect – and therefore repudiated rational
thought.” It was, in Reilly’s words, intellectual suicide.
Muslim thought and society entered a long,
sad decline under influence of Ash’arite dogmas. The Islamic Golden Age, when
Muslim science, philosophy, medicine and technology were the best in the world,
is long, long past. Today, Spain translates more books in a single year than
the entire Arab world has in the past thousand; scientific inquiry is nearly
dead in the Islamic world; the Arab world stands near the bottom of every
measure of human development.
Arab politics, too, bears the mark of Ash’arite
philosophy. It inevitably leads to despotism, not democracy, because it
privileges power over reason. There is no lack of terrifying quotes from intellectuals
on this score. According to a Kashmiri militant leader, “the notion of the
sovereignty of the people is un-Islamic — only Allah is sovereign.”
The notion of universal human rights is
absurd. According to Ali Allawi, a former minister in the government of the new
Iraq, “the entire edifice of individual rights derived from the natural state
of the individual or through a secular or political theory is alien to the
structure of Islamic reasoning.”
Equipped with this background, it is easy
to see how terrorist groups find fertile ground for their fevered theories. Reilly
emphasises that it is not Islam itself, but a particular interpretation of
Islam which makes this possible – but unfortunately it is the dominant
interpretation. “What we are witnessing today is the ultimate consequences of
the rejection of human reason and the loss of causality as they are played out
across the Muslim world in the dysfunctional culture engendered by them.” It is
easy for extremists to turn terror into a moral obligation, an expression of
the will of Allah, however cruel and irrational it may seem.
There are eminent Muslim thinkers who are
calling for a return to the worldview of the Mu’tazilites. But many of these
are exiles in the West. The dismaying reality is that the heirs of Ash’arite
unreason dominate, not the Mu’tazilites. Can this change? Insha’Allah! But
Reilly’s book gives little reason to hope that it will.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.