Some might find the title of this book ‘problematic’ or ‘condescending’ but I thought it was a pretty apt title for a book that discusses the evolution of theology and religious thought in Islam. There is a plethora of literature that tries to demonise Muslims without any logically or empirically valid argument. However, this book is an exception. It tries to dig deep into the theological underpinnings of fundamentalism and fanaticism to lay bare the core principles of Muslim thought that stagnated the growth and liberalisation of Muslim social, political and religious thought. So if the reader is stubbornly persistent in believing that nothing is wrong with either Islam or Muslims, they are bound to be offended by the very title of the book. But those for whom the quest for truth and primacy of reason holds some value, this book will be an articulate and thought provoking analysis of Islamic philosophy.
Islam and Muslims are in a state of crisis right now. Educated and liberal minded youths are deserting the faith because it simply doesn’t appeal to them anymore. Some of its tenets are incongruent with the realities of science and modern life. So while some have deserted it for a life of scepticism, many still hold on to these beliefs. And these conservative Muslims give precedence to faith over reason and modernity. Robert Reilly believes that there was a point in history when it all changed. A point where reason was defeated by faith. This book discusses that very turning point from where the Islamic Civilization started its descent from the zenith of progress and modernity to fundamentalism and intellectual stagnation.
When Islam was exposed to Hellenic thought after its conquests, the role of reason became the centre of debate in philosophical circles. The traditional way of thinking was confronted by the Hellenic philosophy with its rich literature and gigantic mentors. There was a need felt by the Muslim intelligentsia to re-evaluate the role of reason in the matters of faith and God.
Two groups emerged as a result of this conflict. The Mu‘tazilites believed in primacy of reason and the capacity of human faculties to understand and analyse God and nature. While the Ash’arites believed that God was ‘unknowable’ and that reason was incapable of ‘knowing’ God and reality.
There are two fundamental ways to close the mind. One is to deny reason’s capability of knowing anything. The other is to dismiss reality as unknowable. Reason cannot know, or there is nothing to be known. Either approach suffices in making reality irrelevant. In Sunni Islam, elements of both were employed in the Ash‘arite school.
Al-Ghazali was the most significant of the Ash’arites and his opponent Averroes (Ibn e Rushd) was the leading philosopher of the Mu’tazilite school. The debate centered around the conception of God as the sole and supreme deity posed some serious questions. Mu’tazilites perceived God as the supreme fountainhead of reason, and we as his creations are hence blessed with reason and critical faculties capable of understanding him and natural phenomena. The Ash’arites deemed this to be blasphemous. According to them God was pure will and we are a result of his will. Our duty is to follow him and not to understand him. The creation, they held, cannot claim to have anything in common with the creator. This was one of the many instances where the traditional conservatism of Ash’arites confronted Mu’tazilite liberalism with regression.
For the Ash’arites, revelation was the only source of wisdom and knowledge. It was beyond our capacity to understand God or nature without the aid of revelation.
The autonomy of reason was anathema to them. Revelation was primary and supreme. In Ash‘arism, as we shall see, the primacy of revelation over reason rises from the very nature of what is revealed: God as pure will and power. The response to this God is submission, not interrogation.
To inquire is to blaspheme, according to the ash’arites. God and his will cannot be scrutinized by man for it is beyond his capacity to do so. Man must only submit to the divine will.
This unsettled the Mu’tazilites. How could a God, so intelligent and all-knowing, create a man incapable of knowing and understanding Him? Surely God must have given man some ability to investigate and conceive natural order. But this line of questioning bought man too close to the critical question of ‘Why’ rather than ‘How’. So the only way to ensure that ‘man does not go astray’, all inquisition into this divine phenomenology must be abandoned.
In the introduction to his translation of Averroes’s The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Simon Van Den Bergh quipped: “One might say that, for the [Muslim] theologian, all nature is miraculous and all miracles are natural.”37 In other words, every “natural” event is the result of a particular divine act. If this is true, if divine intervention is used to explain natural phenomena, then rational explanations for them or inquiries into them become forms of impiety, if not blasphemy.
Rather than accepting morality as within the reach of reason, the Ash‘arites seemed to suffer from an underlying fear that if man could autonomously reach an understanding of good and evil, perhaps he might become autonomous, as well. This possibility could not be allowed, as it would directly challenge the radically contingent status of man as totally reliant on an all-powerful God. God is not “like” anything, or comparable to anything. If man could ascertain morality through his reason, he would be, in a way, God-like or in His likeness. Such a proposition was sheer shirk.
Then there was the denial of cause and effect by Ghazali. The Ash’rites viewed this Hellenic theory with great skepticism and found it inimical to the narrative of traditional religion. This complete repudiation of Greek thought lead to an absurd and illogical stance that God willed everything, everywhere all the time. So God doesn’t really cause anything to happen, but he “Wills” it to occur. To cause a thing to happen would be too humane and simple for the divine and it would make the divine irrelevant in the presence of natural order. So there is no natural order as per Ash’arites but a constant divine intervention that makes everything happen. From Sunrise to ocean tides, from gravity to rain, everything happens because God makes it happen and not because he has put in place a system that does so. God is omnipresent and omnipotent, and his Will is the prime instigator for everything.
Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist and professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, said that “it was not Islamic to say that combining hydrogen and oxygen makes water. ‘You were supposed to say that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together then by the will of Allah water was created.’”
The result of this obscurantist approach has left the Muslim Mind completely numb to sciences and modern reality. Scared of transgressing, a Muslim Mind must follow the rules enshrined by the the traditionalists and enquire only as far as his conclusions are conforming to what he already knows through revelation.
Adonis, the great Arab poet sarcastically remarks that, “If we are slaves, we can be content and not have to deal with anything. Just as Allah solves all our problems, the dictator will solve all our problems.”
In past fourteen hundred years, Muslim civilization has utterly failed in evolving a counter narrative to confront this retardation. Today, Muslims are languishing far behind the rest of the world in Science and Philosophy. Our universities have become the new hotspots for radicalization of the youth. A cursory look at the textbooks being taught in schools would be enough to see the destructive influence that Ash’arism has had on the Muslim mind. Recently, an Arab student was awarded a PHD for his thesis that the Earth was flat. Every chapter of every science book begins with the declaration that God is the creator of the universe and all that we know for certain can only come from revelation. Then what is the point of teaching Science? Free inquiry and modern education is being sacrificed at the stake religious fanaticism. This, in Reilly’s view, a continuation of the regression that Ghazali precipitated in the Muslim Culture.
Jews comprise less than 0.2% of the world population and yet they have won the greatest number of Nobel prizes. The contribution of Jews to philosophy, medicine and every other field of modern sciences is too great to ignore. And yet Jews are adherents of a conservative religious culture. If they can manage to get past the obstacles of dogmatic belief, why have Muslims failed to do the same? My view is that there is a great emphasis on reason and critical inquiry in the Jewish culture that has made them the most prolific contributors to human prosperity and growth. While the same is lacking in the Islamic culture.
Religious extremism also finds its roots in the belief that reason is not good enough to abide by and that morality is only what religion tells us it is. The zeitgeist of the medieval age became the code for the 21st century. And the de-humanization of those who do not follow this path, regardless of what they call themselves, has led to moral sanctification of violence. And thus begins an endless circle of violence and genocide, which is not by any means unrelated to this tradition of theology.
So long as some part of the world eludes the control of the Islamist revolutionary, conflict continues—with the dar al-harb (the abode of war)—just as perpetual revolution was proclaimed by Marxists until the complete overthrow of the bourgeois order or by the Nazis until the eradication or enslavement of inferior races. Since total control is never achieved, an excuse is always available for why the kingdom has not arrived, just as it was with the ever-receding prospects of a classless society for the Marxists. The excuse for not having achieved the utopia of God’s kingdom on earth, or of the Thousand-Year Reich, or of the classless society, is always the same, and roughly analogous: An infidel has escaped our grasp, a Jew has escaped, or a capitalist has eluded us. Thus, paradise is forever postponed, and the war continues as part of a permanent revolution. As Qutb proclaimed, “This struggle is not a temporary phase but a perpetual and permanent war.” And Hassan al-Banna said, “What I mean with jihad is the duty that will last until the Day of Resurrection.”
Reformers in the Muslim world have a monumental and almost Insurmountable task of reforming an intellectual culture that is jealously sitting on the ashes of its dubious past.