For much of my life, there was a clash between two dead philosophers: John Locke and Karl Marx. I’m speaking figuratively, of course, since it was merely their proponents who were clashing. On one side was Locke’s world, the free world, and on the other side was Marx’s world, the communist world. This clash is mostly over, with John Locke having won, but it has largely been replaced by a new clash, involving on one side Thomas Aquinas and on the other al-Ghazali (full name: Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali). Actually, I could have chosen Aristotle or Descartes (or almost anyone from the West) instead of Aquinas, but I have chosen Aquinas because he is closer in time to al-Ghazali (1058-1111) than those two, and because Aquinas and al-Ghazali are on opposite sides of a dispute about reason in relation to religion. Aquinas famously reconciled the use of reason (associated with Aristotle) with Christianity, while al-Ghazali banished the use of reason from Islam.
Robert R. Reilly’s book The Closing of the Muslim Mind recounts how the philosopher al-Ghazali (and others like him) had a stultifying effect on the Muslim world, one that even after several hundred years endures to this day, for he not only banished reason from Islam but from Islamic culture. Reilly makes it clear that he is talking almost exclusively about Sunni Muslims, but much of what he says seems to apply to the Shi‘ites as well.
The story begins when the Muslims had conquered territory where Greek culture was dominant. How were they supposed to react? An initial period involved burning books, but when the capital of the Muslim world was moved from Medina to Damascus, the new Umayyid caliphate found themselves “surrounded by an alien culture” (13). They readily absorbed the more practical advances in learning from Greek culture; in addition, some of the new converts, who were versed in logical argumentation, began employing logic and philosophy in defense of Islam.
This led to the high point of Islamic philosophy, which began when the Abbasids replaced the Umayyids in 750, allowing a group called the Mu‘tazalites to flourish. The Mu‘tazilites favored the use of reason and promoted the study of philosophy and science, particularly under the Caliph al-Ma‘mun (full name: Abdullah al-Ma‘mun ibn Harun), who ruled from 813-33. The Abbasids were willing to champion the Mu‘tazilites because it allowed them to take away power from the ‘ulema, the Muslim scholars who ruled on Islamic jurisprudence. The Mu‘tazilites believed that the purpose of the human mind was to learn about Creation and the moral order. Their opponents – at first, traditionalists, and later a group called the Ash‘arites (after Abu Hasan al-Ash‘ari, 873-935) – favored a different view of God: God as will.
The clash, then, was between God as reason and God as will. The Mu‘tazilites claimed that God was bound in certain ways. For example, they believed that God could not do evil and that if God promised us salvation if we did certain things, then God was bound by that promise. This stuck in the craw of their opponents, who believed it limited God’s omnipotence. Let me digress and say that it is strange that people steeped in Aristotelian lore as the Mu‘tazilites must have been would not have dealt with this very simply by making a distinction. They could have said, “Of course, God is not limited in terms of omnipotence. God can do anything, but that doesn’t mean that God will do anything. It’s God’s goodness that sets the limits here, not God’s omnipotence.” Such a response wasn’t made, apparently, and so to some extent the battle seemed to boil down to the question in Plato’s Euthyphro: Does God love the good because it is good, or is the good good because God loves it? The Mu‘tazilites chose the former, while the Ash‘arites chose the latter.
Eventually the Mu‘tazilites lost this battle. The Ash‘arites and their allies, once in control, had an enormous effect on the subsequent history of the Muslim world. Al-Ghazali, their most brilliant exponent, argued as a skeptic like Descartes, except that unlike Descartes, he never found an initial starting point from which he could advance using reason. Instead, he used mysticism to guarantee the truth of the Qur’an. He also blew to smithereens the Aristotelian assumptions used by the philosophers of his day, and although several decades later Averroes (ibn Rushd) tried to counter al-Ghazali’s influence and reconcile reason with Islam, the damage was done.
And what damage it was. The basic idea that God could change his mind at any time, because he was not bound by anything (not even by promises he had made) meant that there was no natural order as we know it. Everything that happened happened because God willed it. Instead of God setting things in motion and intervening only occasionally (which we dub miracles), we find God intervening all the time. There are no miracles, because there is no natural order to work against. It’s simply God doing things in a different way.
Since God is constantly intervening in the natural order, there is no point in doing science since there is no reason to believe that regularities will occur or that we can penetrate God’s consciousness to see why things happen the way they do. Reilly begins his book by quoting from a statement made to him by Fouad Ajami: “Everywhere I go in the Muslim world, it’s the same problem: cause and effect; cause and effect.” Initially, I didn’t know what this was supposed to mean, but by the end of the book it was clear. Since the Muslim world thinks of God as constantly intervening, the normal idea of cause and effect is absent and so scientific ideas are viewed with skepticism. In the most extreme instances, a Pakistani television station for a while broadcast no weather forecasts because that would be deemed impossible (67). Also, a former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia believed that the sun goes around the earth, and as a Syrian philosopher complained, “no one dared to tell [him] what nonsense he clings to in the name of the Islamic religion” (143). Anyone who has looked at some of the videos on MEMRI TV knows that this is not particularly outlandish. Even the use of seatbelts is seen as worthless since if one’s time is up, it’s up and they won’t help, and if one’s time is not up, it’s not up, and so they are unnecessary (143). Likewise, soldiers don’t bother to clean their guns.
Events are believed to happen not as a result of cause and effect, but through magic or mysterious forces. Belief in conspiracy theories is rife as a result, and many are mentioned. One is that the movie Saving Private Ryan must have Zionist themes in it since “Ryan” rhymes with “Zion.” Moreover, the success of Wahhabism, the Islamic school from Saudi Arabia, not only has success because of all the money it has, it also has success because the very fact that it has money is seen as some sort of divine gift, which naturally encourages other Muslims to follow it or at least respect it.
Not only do philosophy and science get eliminated under this mindset, but God is seen as the real actor in everything – because if we were free to do things, then God’s omnipotence would be limited – and since that is so, there is no point in talking about all sorts of things that we ordinarily talk about concerning morality, like blame and responsibility. Even the word “conscience” doesn’t appear in Arabic (77). Also, since reason is denigrated, we are not considered capable of knowing the good, so all morality is reduced to the question of whether it is sanctioned by the Qur’an, and one asks the experts about that.
In politics, democracy is hardly possible if people don’t know the good, so dictatorships become the norm. (Accordingly, Reilly agrees with many leftists who argued in connection with the Iraq war that there was no point in giving democracy to the Muslim world since it wouldn’t work anyway.) Moreover, tyrants often justified their actions by saying that since they could do it, it must be God’s will. This easily leads to the idea that might makes right, and so when Muslims borrowed from the West, what they borrowed was what they were used to, namely the less enlightened forms of government rather than the more enlightened ones. This has always been distressing, but Reilly shows why it is almost inevitable.
Likewise, the idea of human rights is completely foreign to the Muslim world, and in fact, Saudi Arabia is seen as the highest model for protecting human rights, since everything is done according to shari’a, which is God’s law (135).
What’s ironic in all this is that the Ash‘arites were seen as holding the middle ground, for they were attacked by the traditionalists simply for using the tools of their enemies, the Mu‘tazilites, to destroy them (that is, they used logic and philosophy to destroy logic and philosophy).
While the Muslim world was trying to hold to the Muslim ideal, the West was going in a very different direction, and when it became clear to Muslims that they were vulnerable to Western imperialism, they had two reactions. One was the sensible reaction of using reason to try and determine what went wrong, while the other was the idea that somehow the Muslim world had strayed from its pristine state, an idea that almost inevitably (given everything else that such people believe) leads to terrorism. Naturally, those who have chosen the former course of action have an uphill battle, while for those who have chosen the second course, all the forces seem aligned with them.
These, then, are the roots of the behavior of Muslims, roots which go back a millennium or more.
The first thing to say about this book is that it’s better than Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? It’s better at least in the sense that Lewis never really answered the question that constitutes the title of his own book, while Reilly gives a very detailed answer in terms of how various philosophical schools contended with one another, and the huge implications for society once the Ash‘arites had won.
The second thing to say, or rather to ask, is, Is his portrayal correct? And I have to answer, I don’t know. This isn’t my area, so I can’t be sure. Now I’m sure there are many who will say that this isn’t Reilly’s area, either, so there is no point in even reading it. Reilly, after all, isn’t a scholar, but part of the defense establishment. I was able to learn that he attended grad school at Claremont, but not what he studied in grad school, or even if he graduated. That seems to be enough for our mainstream media not to bother with this book, for their implicit assumption is that the only people who can be experts in an area are those who have a Ph.D. in it, and even that is usually not enough. One must have a Ph.D. from the right institution.
I’m going to try to steer a middle course here, between the bias against people like Reilly that our leftist elites hold and the bias in favor of Reilly that perhaps elites in the defense establishment and conservatism have (for the back cover of his book contains praise from many such people).
So let me point out that in fact there is an Arabic word for “conscience,” namely Dameer. Dameer means lots of other things, but “conscience” is listed among its meanings, so Arabic does have a word for “conscience.” Reilly was being naive here – he relied on someone else for this piece of information – because there were both Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews before Islam came along, and it is naive to think that they didn’t invent words for important concepts in their own religions. (These Christians and Jews, I’ve been told, used the word “Allah” for God, so this isn’t exclusively a Muslim word.)
Instead of getting his facts wrong about this, he ought to have mentioned something else that I myself have noticed, namely the fact that Arabic has eight words for “cousin,” while “library” and “bookstore” must share a word (namely, maktabah). My slogan for this is “kin, not ken.”
Beyond this, I believe his account is good to a first approximation, at least. From what I’ve read elsewhere, it seems about right. Presumably, there is a lot that has been left out, but there’s also a lot that I have left out simply in writing this review.
Let me make a few comments on this topic:
1. Under the Mu‘tazilites, philosophy would have been the handmaid of theology, but under the Ash‘arites, it wouldn’t even get that low status.
2. It’s easy to see why violence is so often the chosen solution in the Muslim world, while followers of Gandhi are almost non-existent.
3. An obvious contradiction in all of this is that Muslims are quite happy to blame the Jews or Israel and America for various things, when by their own beliefs it is really God who is doing those things. They should be blaming God.
4. Averroes had so little influence in the Muslim world that we know of him because Christians preserved his works (121).
5. One of the annoying features of modern life is that if one talks about the development of science without mentioning the Muslims, some leftist is sure to take you to task for this. (It was quite different twenty years ago, as I observed here.) What is ironic is that Reilly mentions Muslims who don’t even like this aspect of Muslim history. On p. 125 he quotes one Saudi reformer who says that Muslims don’t deserve to take pride in Muslim scientists and philosophers since “we rejected them and fought their ideas.”
6. One of the reviewers on Amazon.com, while giving it four stars, insisted that Reilly had neglected to mention that it was the impact of the Crusades which sent the Muslim world in the wrong direction. Actually, most of what Reilly is talking about took place long before the Crusades. The only conceivable influence would have been on al-Ghazali, who lived during the Crusades. But his The Incoherence of the Philosophers was written from 1091-1095, while the first Crusade didn’t really get going until 1096. I suppose one could argue that the Crusades affected his autobiography, The Deliverance from Error, but as far as I can tell this was more of the same sort of thing, so the Crusades could hardly count as influence here.
7. One could argue that in fact the arguments of the philosophers didn’t mean much because there was a lot of momentum in the Muslim world on the side of the traditionalists and so the Mu‘tazilites were bound to lose sooner or later, if not from other philosophers, then from the sort of public condemnation that killed off Socrates. Or one could go the other direction and argue that in fact al-Ghazali didn’t kill philosophy for the Muslim world because it made Muslims interested in what the Greeks had to say, just as banning a book makes people want to read it, or else that somehow the West destroyed philosophy and science in the Muslim world (as the Amazon reviewer seems to think). The middle position here is that held by Reilly (as well as by other people). I’ll be curious to know what our leftist Islamophiles will say about this book, if they ever get around to reading it.
Let me conclude by saying that this book is not only well worth reading, but may be the best book out there for understanding the Muslim world. Those who have studied philosophy but know about Western philosophy only shouldn’t have any trouble understanding it. The main difficulty is in assessing it, in deciding whether Reilly has emphasized what deserves to be emphasized and ignored what deserves to be ignored. That is something for an expert to deal with, though these days experts tend to be so immersed in Islamophilia that one cannot trust them. But in any case, someone who wasn’t an expert and who wasn’t even an academic took the time to study as much about the subject as he could in order to tell the rest of us about it, and I for one very much appreciate it.