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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.

One tragic consequence of this mode of thinking was the complete withering on the vine within Islam of the spirit of scientific inquiry. Reilly quotes a prominent Pakistani scientist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, on this subject:

Science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for over seven centuries now. That arrested scientific development is one important element—although by no means the only one—that contributes to the present marginalization of Muslims and a growing sense of injustice and victimhood.

Another, of course, is the alternative universe in which many Muslims continue to live. Conspiracy theories about 9/11—it was all the Mossad’s doing, or Seventh Day Adventists, not to mention the CIA—are widely believed, even in “secularized” countries such as Turkey. Where is the evidence? It doesn’t matter. What has evidence got to do with cause and effect?

Reilly has mischievous fun in citing question-and-answer columns from the Egyptian media as recently as 2006. One reader’s question: “If a woman gets out of the bath naked and there is a dog in the apartment, has she done anything forbidden?” Answer from the expert on Islamic law: “It depends on the dog. If the dog is male, the woman has done something which is forbidden.” Another conundrum: “While I pray, a woman goes by. Is my prayer valid or not?” Answer: “If a donkey, a woman, or a black dog goes by, the prayer must be repeated. Why? The donkey is an impure animal, the black dog could be Satan in disguise; women are impure regardless.” But while such anecdotes can be amusing to outsiders, they illustrate a lunar landscape of the mind where rational thought itself is difficult, if not actually dangerous. The significance for political freedom of Islamic philosophy’s intellectual suicide is well stated by Reilly:

The primacy of reason, theologically and philosophically understood, is the prerequisite for democracy. Otherwise, what could serve as its legitimating source? .  .  . In such circumstances, man will not go about writing constitutions, for constitutions by their very posture imply a belief in a stable external order, in man’s rationality, and in his ability to formulate and establish a rational mode of government, founded in a rational creation.

The absence within Islam of any ontological basis for belief in the equality of human beings is what led to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, signed in the Egyptian capital by 45 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1990. The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that such rights apply to the entire human race, without exception. The Cairo declaration added the chilling stipulation that all rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration were subject to Islamic sharia: In other words, they were null and void.

Islamism, or the transformation of the Islamic faith into a political ideology, is the end result of the refusal to apply reason to either scientific or political problems. Ed Husain, a young, onetime British Islamist who abandoned the quest for totalitarian political victory, recalls how his superiors at Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic organization seeking to reestablish a global Islamic caliphate, ruled that buying insurance polices was haram—Islamically unclean—because all natural events such as car wrecks were “acts of God.” That was the wake-up call for one Islamist; but what use is reason in the face of the Iranian education ministry official who claims that the Tom and Jerry cartoons were concocted in the United States to improve the image of mice because, during the 1930s in Europe, Jews were called “dirty mice”?

Ultimately, as Reilly demonstrates, the whole human race is in the same boat when it comes to issues like science or the equality of all human beings. “To say that there is an Islamic (or a Christian or Hindu) science is, of course, to deny that there is such a thing as science, as what stands scientifically must be the same everywhere for everyone. Is hydrogen Islamic? Is there an Islamic light bulb?”

No. But that didn’t stop some Muslims, in the 1980s, in their attempts to render science sufficiently Islamic, from trying to measure the temperature of hell or study the chemical composition of heavenly djinns. As Hoodbhoy (cited by Reilly) notes dryly, “None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment or even formulated a single testable hypothesis.” Or even observed that, to live in a politically temperate climate, you need to employ reason.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.

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