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10 Questions with ‘The Closing of the Muslim Mind’ author Robert R. Reilly

Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist. A former director of Voice of America, he now serves as a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

Reilly recently agreed to answer 10 questions about his book and other topics of interest for The Daily Caller:

1)   Why did you write the book?

I was fascinated by Bernard Lewis’ book What Went Wrong, in which he chronicles the decline of the Muslim world. I wanted to find out why it went wrong. And, like most Americans, I was galvanized by 9/11 and wanted to search more deeply into the wellsprings of violence in Islam. Since 9/11, I was also working professionally in the area of the Middle East, most particularly on Iraq for the Defense Department.

After years of study and work, I concluded that the Islamism we see today is a spiritual pathology based on a deformed theology that has produced a dysfunctional culture. That is a lot to say in one sentence, but I take 200 pages to explain it. I trace the roots of Islamism back to an intellectual crisis in Islam in the ninth century.

2)   What do you mean by your title, The Closing of the Muslim Mind? When did this closing begin?

By “closed,” I mean that access to reality has been blocked. I do not mean that the minds of every individual Muslim are closed, or that there are not varieties of Islam in which the Muslim mind is still open. I do mean that a large portion of mainstream Sunni Islam, the majority expression of the faith, has shut the door to reality in a profound way. Today, this can be seen in the highly dysfunctional character of the Arab world in particular.

The great twentieth-century Muslim scholar, the late Fazlur Rahman, said that, “A people that deprives itself of philosophy necessarily exposes itself to starvation in terms of fresh ideas — in fact, it commits intellectual suicide.”

This is the source of the subtitle of the book. In his Regensburg address, Benedict XVI said something similar. He spoke of dehellenization — meaning the loss of reason, the gift of the Greeks — as one of the West’s main problems. Less well-known is the dehellenization that has afflicted Islam — its denigration of and divorce from reason. (The pope alluded to this only briefly, though it became a source of major controversy.) The dehellenization of Islam is less well known because it was so thorough and effective that few are aware that there was a process of hellenization preceding it — especially during the ninth and tenth centuries. It was a pivotal period for Islam and the world. It was then, toward the end of this period, that the Muslim world took a decisive turn in the wrong direction.

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 dominant Ash’arite theological school. As a consequence, a fissure opened between man’s reason and reality — and, most importantly, between man’s reason and God. My book contends that the fatal disconnect 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 Qur’an but in early Islamic theology, ultimately led to the closing of the Muslim mind.

My book is an account of Sunni Islam’s intellectual suicide — in Fazlur Rahman’s meaning of the term — and the reasons for it.  As I mentioned, the book attempts to relate not so much how it happened, but why it happened; what its devastating consequences have been, and how the Muslim mind might possibly be reopened (as suggested by Muslims themselves), an endeavor fraught with repercussions for the West, as well as for the Islamic world.