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Perish the Thought

Who killed the spirit of inquiry in Islam?

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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The Closing of the Muslim Mind

Protest against Salman Rushdie in Paris

Alain Nogues / Corbis Sygma

How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis

by Robert R. Reilly

ISI, 244 pp., $26.95

What happened to Islamic culture?

Why did a civilization that may have produced more books in Muslim Spain alone in the ninth century than existed in the entirety of the rest of Europe subside into a civilizational torpor that is the wonder even of the U.N.? Why do countries of the Arab world always come close to the bottom of a global list that measures things like literacy or schooling for women? Why, in Freedom House’s annual compilation of countries that are “free,” is there not a single Arab country listed? (The closest to the coveted description are Lebanon, Morocco, and Kuwait, which are only “partly free.”) Why, in 2006 to take a recent example, were there more foreign books translated in one European country, Spain, than were translated in the entire foregoing millennium in the entire Muslim world?

These are hard questions, and they call out for a rational, unemotional answer. Robert R. Reilly comes closer to providing a persuasive explanation than any other account I have seen. As Reilly succinctly shows, Islamic civilization, not just in the Arab world but later in Anatolia, in the Indian subcontinent, and then throughout Southeast Asia, threw out of the intellectual window the principles of rational inquiry that the Greeks had first introduced to the West half a millennium before Christ. The collective Muslim ulema—theological leaders—decided that it would be too “dangerous” to allow free inquiry—not just of the Koran itself but of the daily reality before our eyes.

The reason, as Reilly makes clear, was a theological controversy within Islam. Formalized Islamic doctrine holds that the Koran existed from all eternity with Allah, and that it was only when the Angel Gabriel revealed its contents to Muhammad that the world was able to hear, through the Koran, what Allah was saying. A sect of Islamic philosophers called the Mu’tazilites, who had great influence in the court of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad in the first half of the ninth century, held that the Koran must have been created at a specific point in time. Otherwise, they said, where would free will be, since the events described in the Koran itself must have been foreordained? The Mu’tazilites believed both in free will and the ability of human reason to discern truth and justice. They considered that Allah must be subject to the moral laws that he, himself, created, and that humans themselves, not Allah, were responsible for any evil they committed.

The Mu’tazilite philosophy at first proved useful to the Abbasid caliphs as they attempted to assert the primacy of their political power over the influence of the ulema. But these first caliphs overplayed their hand, requiring all clerics to swear loyalty to the concept of a created Koran, on pain of imprisonment, torture, or worse. Inevitably, there was a reaction, and it then became the turn of traditionalists to insist on the “eternal” Koran and the associated idea that nothing in all of creation could be philosophically or scientifically examined without challenging Allah himself. The opposing school to the Mu’tazilites were called Asharites, after their founder, Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari (873-935). The Asharites completely denied that good and evil could be discerned by human reason. Instead, they argued, Allah’s nature was, quite simply, his will. Will precedes knowledge itself—which is the exact opposite of Christian thought, as it developed in the West. Christian thought proceeded from the assumption that God himself was reason, and that since all creation had come into being through Christ, the Logos, reason could and should be applied to the examination of all creation.

The Asharites would have constituted a serious blockage to Islam’s philosophical development, but even they were topped by a Muslim theologian who nailed down the hatch on the use of reason even more tightly than the Asharites. He was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), one of the most influential thinkers, if that is the right word, in all of Muslim history. Al-Ghazali vehemently rejected Plato and Aristotle in The Incoherence of the Philosophers and insisted that, in nature, there was no such thing as cause and effect: Everything is a direct consequence of Allah’s particular will at a particular time. He also said, “Nature is entirely subject to God: incapable of acting by itself; it is an instrument in the hand of the Creator.” To question this, subsequent Islamic jurists averred, was to commit blasphemy by implying that there were limits on Allah’s power and authority.

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