Review: The Closing of the Muslim Mind, by Robert R. Reilly


The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, by Robert R. Reilly. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2010. 244 pp. $18 (paperback)

muslim-mind

About the Muslim Middle East, Robert R. Reilly, author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind, says, “I am trying to understand the situation as it is and the reasons for it. I am simply offering the conclusions to which I have come after searching for years to make sense of what I have seen, experienced, and read” (p. 9).

Reilly worked in the Near East/South Asia section of International Security Affairs in the Office of the U. S. Secretary of Defense and interviewed Middle Eastern Muslim students while teaching at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Drawing from these experiences and a wide range of literary sources, Reilly, in The Closing of the Muslim Mind, explores the historical and philosophical origins of the mostly dysfunctional society of today’s Muslim Middle East and then suggests paths that Muslim reformers might take.

Reilly’s account of the roots of the problems involving Muslims in the Middle East—and the threats they pose to the West—generally proceeds as straight as a railway track from the anarchic society in which Muhammad (570–632 CE) fought, to the Middle East today, with all of its failures, including the eruption of Islamism, the “Muslim totalitarian ideology” (p. 175) that has in modern times sprouted from the religion of Islam. As the subtitle—How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis—suggests, the main point of the book is to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between old ideas and the present state of the Muslim world.

This book is about one of the greatest intellectual dramas in human history. Its landscape is the Muslim mind. How man regards his powers of reason has been a decisive influence on the shape and destiny of civilizations, including the Islamic one. . . .

This is the story of how Islam grappled with the role of reason after its conquests exposed it to Hellenic thought and how the side of reason ultimately lost in the ensuing, deadly struggle. . . . (p. 1)

Throughout, Reilly distinguishes between fundamental ideas and consequential ideas. He argues that certain fundamental ideas have caused other ideas, which in turn have led to individual actions and attitudes ranging from shunning scientific studies to support for jihadism. “What may seem abstruse theological points can have the most practical and devastating consequences” (p. 5).

In the Introduction, Reilly outlines his approach.

I propose to sketch briefly the early Muslim world and its first theological controversy [Ch. 1], then to introduce the first fully developed school of theology, the Mutazilites [who were advocates of reason, Ch. 2], then their opponents, the Asharites [Ch. 3], and then the pivotal figure of . . . al-Ghazali (d. 1111) [Ch. 4]. In the latter part of the book, I will suggest the profound consequences of the triumph of al-Ghazali and the Asharites [Ch. 5], including the extirpation of philosophy, and then trace the effects of this to modern-day behavior [Chs. 6 and 7]. This will include an examination of the susceptibility of Islam today to Islamism, which is driving Sunni Muslims back to nowhere [Ch. 8]. Throughout, I try to keep the crucial issue of the status of reason—and the effects of its decline—in the forefront. (p. 8)

A brief overview of Reilly’s argument demonstrates the book’s simplicity of structure and clarity of presentation. The book begins with an unusual and understated dedication to the individuals who are the most immediate victims of today’s Middle Eastern Muslim culture, “the courageous men and women throughout the Islamic world . . . who are struggling for a reopening of the Muslim mind” (p. v). That dedication carries by implication an element of hope, first because there are Muslims who want to change their culture, and second because what closed at one time in history might reopen again if the corresponding causes can be reversed.

Of special interest to pro-reason activists today, whether in Islamic countries or in the West, is the author’s intention to suggest why the works of relatively pro-reason Islamic thinkers, both ancient and modern, “gained little if any purchase on the Sunni Muslim mind, then or now” (p. 8).

The root of the problem in Muslim culture, Reilly shows, is the dominant idea of the nature of God: the idea that God can will anything at anytime, even contradictions and injustices, such as punishing the good. (At the start of the Introduction, Reilly quotes the Quran, Chapter 2, Verse 106: “Dost thou not know that God has the power to will anything?”) Given the usual Muslim view that such an arbitrary God created our world and can change it at any moment for motivations unknown, our limited ability to reason is impotent to understand such a world. “The fatal disconnect,” Reilly says, “between the Creator and the mind of his creature is the source of Sunni Islam’s most profound woes. This bifurcation, located not in the Quran but in early Islamic theology, ultimately led to the closing of the Muslim mind” (p. 4).

Reilly argues that, in the Islam shaped by Asharites, Muslims cannot use their reason to develop ethics as a guide for living on earth. They must instead resort to faithfully following revealed truths as written in the sacred text, the Quran, or in trustworthy traditions passed down through the centuries. Those truths are codified in detailed rulings under religious law, sharia, covering every aspect of life.

The right path had been set [by the orthodox schools of religious law]. Within it, all human actions were categorized as: . . . “duty” . . . “recommended” . . . “permitted” . . . “reprehensible” . . . and “forbidden” . . . . There was nothing one could do [in life] for which [religious law’s] guidance was not [both] available and necessary. One needed only to follow the prescriptions as instructed by the ulema (Islamic jurisprudential scholars). (p. 45)

By 1200, Reilly shows, the Muslim world saw no need for reason in ethics. The door to ijtihad—individual judgment of holy scripture based on individual study—was now slammed shut. Taqlid (blind faith, imitation) was settling in, and bidah (innovation in interpretations of the scripture) became an offense. Muslims saw no need for ethics, the branch of philosophy that develops ideas about how to act; indeed, they saw no need for philosophy at all. The orthodox interpretations of the Quran and other documents covered all issues (pp. 46–47).

The delegitimization of ethics as a field of rational inquiry has also led, quite logically, to the moral infantilization of many Muslims, who are not allowed to think for themselves as to whether an act is good or evil, lawful or forbidden. If one is without the required knowledge of the law regarding a specific act, one must consult jurisprudential authority. In contemporary Islam, this has resulted in such things as dial-a-fatwa programs in places like Cairo, where a mufti [a judge of religious law] stands by on the phone lines . . . to meet the moral quandaries of the day. (p. 76)

Reilly cites an example fatwa from Egypt in 2006: “‘If a woman gets out of the bath naked and there is a dog in the apartment, has she done something forbidden?’ Answer: ‘It depends on the dog. If the dog is male, the woman has done something which is forbidden’” (p. 76).

Thus Reilly, proceeding boldly from the widest philosophical principles in the distant past to the narrowest rules for Muslim behavior in our time, identifies the nature of Muslim culture in the Middle East, the very culture from which jihadism springs.

To gain the most value from the book, and in the most efficient way, secular readers who support reason and reason alone as a means of gaining knowledge need to be aware of the author’s own worldview, hints of which appear throughout the book. For instance, Reilly cites a wide range of thinkers, not only in Islamic culture, but also in the European stream. He cites European thinkers sometimes for purposes of contrast or similarity with Muslim ideas, and sometimes simply for background information. As the Index shows, he cites older thinkers such as Heraclitus, Socrates, Protagoras, Thrasymachus, Plato, and Aristotle—but also Catholic theologians such as Luke (the gospel writer), Tertullian, Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, and John Duns Scotus. Among moderns, he references Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, G. W. F. Hegel, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Oswald Spengler—but also Catholic intellectuals such as George Weigel, Father James V. Schall, Father Stanley Jaki, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Contrasting Islam—in its various theological forms that appeared after Muhammad—to Christianity is helpful to the reader, who then learns about differences and parallels between the two religions. One example is that, in both religions, the ideas of ancient theologians still affect people’s thinking today, even if the theologians are unknown to nonintellectual practitioners. “No doubt,” Reilly says early in the book, “the average Muslim may be as unaware of the teachings of the medieval-era Islamic thinkers like al-Ashari and al-Ghazali as the average [Catholic] Christian is of the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas” (p. 5).

Toward the end of the book, Reilly’s own worldview becomes more apparent. In “The Choice,” a subsection of Chapter 9, “The Crisis,” he quotes a source he apparently considers authoritative:

In conversation with a student in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI made a statement that neatly summarizes the core of what is at stake for both Islam and the West. I will omit only one word from it, indicated by empty brackets. He said: “There are only two options: Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of [God’s] creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things . . . or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would be only accidental, marginal, an irrational result—[in which case, human] reason would be a product of [God’s] irrationality. One cannot ultimately “prove” either project, but the great option of [___________] is the option for rationality and for the priority of reason. This seems to me to be an excellent option, which shows us that behind everything is a great Intelligence to which we can entrust ourselves.”

Of course, the missing word in the bracket is Christianity. The question is whether the word Islam could be inserted in its stead and still have the statement read correctly. (pp. 202–203)

Here and at various points throughout the book Reilly implies that Muslims would improve their culture if they were to convert to Catholic Christianity. He is partly mistaken. It is true that Christianity as practiced by many Christians today, especially in European, American, and similar cultures, has to some extent assimilated the secular ideals of the Enlightenment, such as its acceptance of science as the rational study of a lawful, intelligible universe. For this reason, adopting Enlightenment-influenced Christian culture would indeed improve conditions in the Muslim Middle East. At its historical and philosophical roots, however, the Christian worldview still upholds supernaturalism and mysticism. These very fundamentals, which have wrecked Middle Eastern Muslim culture, still lie at the base of even the dominant forms of modern Christian culture, albeit substantially suppressed and dormant for now.

Reilly not only fails to acknowledge such fundamental similarities between Islam and Christianity; he also fails to evaluate Islam by reference to such characteristics. He offers no criticism of Islamic supernaturalism, the mystical belief that there are two worlds, the natural one and the supernatural one, with a gap between the two. He offers no criticism of mysticism itself, which is any claim to knowledge other than through reason (for example, faith and revelation). Indeed, the author of the Foreword, Roger Scruton, cites “the mystical laughter of the Sufis” (p. x) as an achievement of Islamic culture before it went into its long decline. In “The Solution of Sufi Mysticism,” in Chapter 4, Reilly discusses the complex historical relationship between Sufism (a form of mysticism in which an individual, independent of the Muslim community as a whole, makes direct contact with God) and al-Ghazali, the destroyer of the use of reason in Islamic theology and therefore in Islamic law. Here Reilly makes clear that he does not reject mysticism as such.

One may object to the conclusion that Sufi mysticism denigrated reason. Something “beyond reason” is not necessarily unreasonable, and this is certainly true. Sound reason admits its own limits. God is infinite and the human mind is finite.* [Reilly’s footnote: Beyond reason does not necessarily mean against reason unless it insists on the acceptance of something directly contrary to it—such as that the world does not really exist, as is the contention of some Sufis.] Some form of mysticism exists in all religions. But al-Ghazali’s mysticism has to be seen within the context of his having first undermined the authority of reason to know reality at all. Reason is not left as a safeguard against potential delusions in mysticism; only the dogma of revelation is. (p. 114)

The solution Reilly offers is a combination of mysticism and reason. This is the mainstream Catholic view, as stated authoritatively by Pope John Paul II in his little book, Fides et Ratio (1998), which means faith and reason, not as mutually exclusive alternatives but mysteriously working together.

As significant as its flaws are, however, The Closing of the Muslim Mind remains a substantial value for its historical and philosophical analysis of the nature of Islam and the Muslim world. Reilly’s writing is clear and well organized, and his probing of the philosophical depths of one of the world’s major problems is fascinating.

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