The Closing of the Muslim Mind
by EDWARD CLINE
November 3, 2011
Even if one has read the Koran, or sampled its most outrageous verses, injunctions, and imperatives, or discussed Islam with other concerned individuals, nothing could better guarantee a fundamental and essential grasp of the utter irrationality of Islam than Robert R. Reilly’sThe Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamic Crisis.* This work can help one understand precisely why Islam is so intractably irrational and inherently violent. It renders irrelevant any hope or notion that Islam can be “tamed” or rendered “moderate” or redeemed as a benign faith.
What one will grasp is that Islam, that berserker ideology in a cilice rampaging around the world in pursuit of a global caliphate of totalitarianism, leaving countless dead and maimed and incalculable destruction in its wake, is irrational by intent, that is, it is explicitly, unapologetically, and irrevocably irrational and beyond the realm of reason. As Reilly brilliantly explains it, the Islam we know and fear today is a product of a deliberate, conscious rejection of reason, of causality, of reality, of comprehension.
Reilly delves into the intellectual history of Islam, going back to the so-called “golden age” of Islam when it nearly conquered Europe, not long after Muslims had secured the Arabian Peninsula and spread their power over North Africa.
No review of Reilly’s book would do it justice. Reilly has performed an intellectual feat and service of incalculable value. What follows here are merely highlights of some of the more salient points Reilly elucidates.
In this early jihad, Islamic thinkers and theologians encountered Hellenic thought: Plato, Aristotle, and the surviving works of other Greek thinkers. Reading these works opened up the minds of many of these men and allowed them to venture tentatively beyond the strictures of the Koran, the Hadith and other Islamic documents. Up until then, inquiry into the nature of Allah and the universe had not been an issue, because the minds of most Muslims were already closed to the possibility that the universe or reality was comprehensible and explainable.
Along came the Mu’tazilites who dared to uphold reason and claim that Allah was a benevolent god who meant well, rewarded a volitional man for his good or evil character and actions, and could be known, and that reason could lead men to a knowledge of him or his revelation. It is interesting to note (though Reilly does not dwell on the point) that the Mu’tazilites became influential under the Umayyad caliphate that existed a little after Mohammad’s death, became controversial and then dangerous, and fled to Spain where the school of enquiry thrived under the caliphate-in-exile of Córdoba (until extinguished, after a civil war, by its enemies, traditionally the Berbers of North Africa).
Most learned men in these sciences [medicine, mathematics, natural science, alchemy, and astrology], however, were also schooled in philosophy and theology, which meant that Muslim interest began to spill over into philosophical and theological issues. Muslims were also called upon to defend and advance their faith against Christians and others who used philosophical methods in their apologetics. Some Muslim converts in these new territories were already versed in Greek learning and prepared to deploy it on behalf of their new faith. Thus, by the late eighth and early ninth centuries, a new kind of discourse began to affect Islamic thought that had hitherto been largely doctrinal and jurisprudential. New words were created in Arabic to take in Greek concepts. Philosophy opened the Muslim mind in a way in which it had never been before in the spirit of free inquiry and speculative thought. It is at this juncture that the greatest intellectual drama of Islam took place.
Opposing them were the Ash’arites (and their doctrinal allies), who asserted that reason had no power to “know Allah” (or God), that reason could not lead to the revelation of his existence, and that it was an illegitimate means on which to found one’s faith in Allah. Of the two general schools of Islam at that time, the more consistent school won. These were the Ash’arites, who chose faith over reason and banished actual thought and speculation and deemed them heretical if not blasphemous. The less consistent school was the Mu’tazilite, because its proponents attempted to reconcile reason and reality with faith and a capricious and literally unknowable deity, Allah. Reilly narrates this conflict with an adeptness that belies the intricacies of the conflict.
The Mu’tazilites differed from their opponents in their teaching that God had endowed man with reason specifically so that he can come to know the moral order in creation and its Creator; that is what reason is for. Reason is central to man’s relationship to God….Therefore, reason logically precedes revelation.
The Mu’tazilites wished to retain a Supreme Being and at the same time claim that reason not only can aid man in his establishing what is good or evil, but that it must, among other things, aside from enabling men to lead virtuous lives of their own volition, lead to faith in God. The Ash’arites vehemently objected to this line of thinking, claiming that man is unable to formulate what is good or evil – chiefly because such an ability would allow men to hold Allah in judgment for his actions, and Allah, they claimed, is beyond judgment. Ultimately, they feared that men would even question Allah’s existence, if allowed to follow a logical train of thought.
The Ash'arites’ solution was to shut the door on all speculation and substitute literal faith and submission to the unknowable. To use novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand’s term, the Ash’arites argued in favor of a complete, universal, across-the-board “blank out.” They were the equivalent of the Islamic thought police, who answered to any queries about what was going on: There’s nothing to see here. Move along, or we’ll poke out your eyes.
Reason integrates man’s perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man’s knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification. (“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 20)
The senses, concepts, logic: these are the elements of man’s rational faculty—its start, its form, its method. In essence, “follow reason” means: base knowledge on observation; form concepts according to the actual (measurable) relationships among concretes; use concepts according to the rules of logic (ultimately, the Law of Identity). Since each of these elements is based on the facts of reality, the conclusions reached by a process of reason are objective. The alternative to reason is some form of mysticism or skepticism. (“The Left: Old and New,” Return of the Primitive, 162)
Reilly explicates these observations and demonstrates how the Ash’arites waged a consistent and merciless campaign against man’s perceptual and conceptual faculties. They claimed, ultimately, as they developed and honed their arguments, that no one can be certain of his knowledge, because Allah has the power to change things whether they are stationary or in motion, that he controls everything’s existence from second to second, that he makes things exist, and can change their perceived nature at whim. An arrow flying through the air could wind up being a Playboy bunny or a flea. Furthermore, they claimed that Allah controls every atom in the universe – that he is the universe, and because he is beyond judgment of mortals, is essentially an amoral entity. Allah is pure Will. As Reilly demonstrates, Islam in its Ash'arite form is a species of pantheism.
The Ash’arites and their allies preceded philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Hegel and the rest by a millennium. The Ash’arites motive in opposing the Mu’tazilites differed not a whit from Kant’s, who fashioned a brain-cracking system of philosophy to save religion from the Enlightenment. The Ash’arites wished to save Islam from the first steps away from faith and mysticism.
The Koran itself was central to the dispute between the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites. The Mu’tazilites contended that the Koran was an act of creation by man via Mohammad. Thus it was open to correction and interpretation. The Ash’arites contended that the Koran and Allah are one and the same and had always existed. They were a single unity. They were eternal and so could not be changed, corrected, or interpreted. To say otherwise was to suggest that Allah could be changed, corrected, or interpreted. Which, of course, is heresy or blasphemy.
One must ask oneself: So, the Koran was never “created” but always existed and was Allah himself, inseparable in “unity,” and Allah won’t be merciful if you burn one in protest? Was the original Koran a mass of rolled-up parchment? Or a book? Or an iPod?
And the Hadith? Wikipedia notes that “Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections during the 8th and 9th centuries. These works are referred to in matters of Islamic law and history to this day.” So, the Hadith is a collection of rumors, gossip, and apocryphal sayings and episodes of Mohammad collected long after his death. Can you imagine Muslim scribes having a lot of fun making this stuff up in the Koran and the Hadith? Picture the comedic ancestors of Jay Leno and Dave Letterman: “Did you hear the one about Mohammad and Aisha…?”
As Reilly explains it, in contrasting the Mu’tazilite position that God does not have reason but is reason (and therefore can know good and evil and instruct man in what are good and evil), with the Ash'arites’ position:
Therefore, He cannot do anything unreasonable. This is not a constraint; it is freedom. The ability to negate who and what you are is not freedom; it is nihilism. For the Ash’arites, however, God, as pure will, is not bound by anything, including Himself. His freedom of will is absolute. He has no ‘nature’ to deny. He has reason, but is not reason. Therefore, by removing God’s attributes from His essence, the Ash’arites made these attributes products of His will. In other words, God was not mercy, but merciful when He wished to be. Likewise, there was no impediment to His acting unreasonably when He wished to do so.
The Mu’tazilite position is closer to the Christian idea of man’s relationship with God, as an individual in charge of his own life, thinking and actions, with God conceived as a deity who wishes him to be good and who establishes comprehendible moral behavior (in order to save his own, and not anyone else’s soul). The Ash’arite position requires that individuals erase their own identity to merge themselves with a “community” whose sole purpose is to submit to and worship Allah, who is not beholden to any comprehensible measure of morality, his own or man’s. (One is strongly reminded of theBorg Hive in the Star Trek TV and movie series, in which Borg-conquered races are given two choices: absorption and assimilation into the Hive to serve it without thought, or death.)
Free will, volition, thought, choosing to be moral or not (according to Koranic injunctions, that is) – these are the bane of the Ash’arites’ version of Islam (chiefly the Sunni or Saudi brand, Reilly does not focus on the Shi’ite side of Islam). This is the brand of Islam that dominates the Muslim world today.
No injustice can be conceived on the part of Allah because, according to al-Ghazali, justice means performing an obligation – something that would cause serious harm if not performed. God has no obligations, and cannot be harmed. Good and bad, justice and injustice, pertain to whether something achieves or frustrates a purpose. Since God [Allah] has no purpose, these terms are superfluous to Him. He can do anything, and there could not possibly be any blame. As the Qur’an states, ‘He cannot be questioned concerning what He does’ (21:23.
If Allah is pure will, good and evil are only conventions of Allah’s – some things are halal (permitted/lawful) and others are haram (forbidden/unlawful), simply because He says so and for no reasons in themselves. Evil is simply what is forbidden. What is forbidden today could be permitted tomorrow without inconsistency. God, in short, is a legal positivist.
This explains the ubiquity of beheadings, mutilations, child marriages, wife-beatings, censorship, 9/11, suicide bombers, and every jihadist atrocity on record emanating from the Muslim world. The Koran, which is one with Allah, says so; ergo, it is to be without question or hesitation or reference to any moral code whatsoever.
The Immanuel Kant of Islam was Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (died 1111), who pounded the final nails into the edifice of Islam as we know it. In his various works, according to Reilly, he codified Islam’s final and permanent stance on all matters, personal, political, and social, including what he claimed was the ephemeral nature of reality itself. Man perceives reality through the evidence of his senses, but because Allah controls not only what man perceives but his means of perceiving, reality is illusory, because Allah can change things at will. For man, there is not even a “primacy of consciousness” (as opposed to the primacy of existence, which is the rational position) that allows him to see things as they are not or as he wishes. At first glance, that would seem to be the privilege of Allah. Reilly writes of the Ash’arites:
They began with a conclusion received from revelation, and then deduced what they thought was necessary to support it in metaphysical terms. This drove them to abandon causality in the natural world. In short, the Ash’arites were compelled by their theology to deny reality.
But the possibility of Allah “seeing things as they are or are not” would mean that reality is apart from Allah, whether or not he created it. This the Ash’arites would not allow. Only Allah is “conscious” and everything is him. Ergo, he is conscious only of himself and of everything he “created.” But this is too “logical.” Allah “created” nothing. He just was and everything in the universe just was. This conception of Allah obviates the concept of time, of eternity, and even the argument from the primacy of consciousness. Allah is just “the One.” Period.
Reilly relates that al-Ghazali compared reason and the evidence of the senses to dreams. When one awakens from a dream, once “…in that new sphere you will recognize that the conclusions of reason are only chimeras.” Reilly remarks:
Of course, speculations such as these reduce everything to gibberish and make it impossible to think. Once you negate the reliability of the senses and jettison the principle of contradiction, all meaningful discourse comes to a halt.
It should not be surprising that Reilly writes that al-Ghazali, towards the end of his life, having dispensed with reason, rationality and reality – with epistemology and metaphysics – found solace and refuge in Sufism, or a “spiritual” union with Allah which required not the intellect or the mind or theological sophistry, but “experience” or pure emotion. Writing about al-Ghazali’s conversion to Sufism, Reilly notes:
This, then, was not so much an intellectual as a spiritual exercise. “It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy, and the transformation of the moral being.” Therefore, says al-Ghazali, “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions, and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.”
This is the Islamic version of “rapture,” in which emotions are used as tools of cognition. To “be one” with Allah one must have a temporal “out of body” experience, and lose one’s mind. Allahu Akbar, indeed. If the 9/11 hijackers were really “perfectly united” with Allah, if Allah had predestined 9/11, and if everything and every human action was of a piece and non-discrete, then Islam ought to be condemned as the most nihilistic faith that ever was. But, then again, Islam is more an ideology than it is a faith.
I have very few reservations about Reilly’s opus, and they are so minor I will not mention them here. The only major fault with his book is that it does not include a glossary of Arabic and Islamic terms. One does tend to lose the train of thought if one encounters such a term several pages after a first encounter, and must hunt it up again.
That being said, The Closing of the Muslim Mind should be required reading for anyone who hopes to argue effectively against Islamic jihad. I think it would also be indispensible in formulating arguments against statism and collectivism, for many of the fallacies, mystical, and collectivist concepts to be found in the book have doppelgangers in modern secular political and philosophical thought. If you can grasp the insidious nature of Islam in Reilly’s book, grasping the ends and means of Obama, the Democrats, and their own jihadist agenda for this country then ought to be a cinch.
*ISI Books (Intercollegiate Studies Institute), Wilmington DE. 2010. Paperback 2011.