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

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

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.
3) Describe the current state of Human Development in the Arab world?

Abysmal. Highly dysfunctional. The condition of underdevelopment in which the Arab world finds itself has been bluntly reported by Arab scholars in the series of invaluable UN Arab Human Development Reports that began in 2002. The UN was wise in choosing Arab intellectuals as authors so that the reports could not be dismissed out of hand as biased by “Orientalists.”  The second report from 2003 states that, “In being connected with and at the same time contradictory to knowledge, Arab intellectual heritage nowadays raises basic knowledge problems.” It is exactly the source of these “basic knowledge problems” in the Arab intellectual heritage that has been the subject of my book.

The UN reports show that the Arab world today would be at the bottom of every measure of human development but for sub-Saharan Africa — in education, health care, literacy, productivity, GDP, science, number of patents, etc. In one year alone, Spain translates more book than the entire Arab world has in nearly 1000 years.

The 2003 UN Report is bold enough to refer to a lack of scientific perspective and “sometimes a disregard of reality” in the Arab heritage. It gets closer to suggesting that the origin of the “knowledge problems” is fundamentally theological in nature, by saying, “Finally, it [Arab consciousness] has been cloaked in the supernatural, which in reality signified an absence of consciousness and an abandonment of the scientific and intellectual basis that underpinned the Arab classical cultural experience (Jada’an, in Arabic, 1998).” This is exactly right.

However, the problem does not really consist in being “cloaked in the supernatural,” rather it is the kind of supernatural in which consciousness is “cloaked” that is decisive for science and everything else. As The Closing of the Muslim Mind shows, it is the denial of natural law and causality, occasioned by a certain conception of God, which removed the very objective of science from the Muslim mind. Since the effort of science is to discover nature’s laws, the teaching that these laws do not, in fact, exist (for theological reasons) is an obvious discouragement to the scientific enterprise. The regnant Ash’arite theological school, by diminishing the worth of the world as having no status in and of itself, marginalized the attempts to come to know it.
4)   How is The Closing of the Muslim Mind a threat to us all?

The closure of the Muslim mind has created the crisis of which modern Islamist terrorism is only one manifestation. The problem is much broader and deeper. It enfolds Islam’s loss of science and of the prospect of indigenously developing democratic constitutional government. Without understanding this story, one cannot grasp the essence of what is taking place in the Islamic world today, or of the potential paths to recovery, foreshadowed by some Muslims’ rejection of the particular idea of God that produced this crisis in the first place.

The Muslim divorce from reason also leads to irrational behaviour, the evidence for which is unfortunately abundant (including in the close-to-insane conspiracy theories that dominate the Islamic world). It also enshrines power alone as the adjudicator of disputes. There is no basis left on which to “reason together.” This problem seems intractable because it has a theological basis in the Ash’arite conception of God as pure will and power, rather than as reason and justice. And if God is pure will and power, then there are no theological barriers between this conception of God and the endorsement of violence in spreading faith. And we know that this was the primary way Islam spread historically.

Benedict XVI made this point in his Regensburg talk — that not only is violence in spreading faith unreasonable, but that a conception of God without reason leads to this very violence. Once the primacy of force is posited, terrorism becomes the next logical step to power, as it did in Nazism and Marxism-Leninism. This is what led Osama bin Laden to embrace the astonishing statement of his spiritual godfather, Abdullah ‘Azzam, which Osama quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11: “Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.” This can only be true—that violence in spreading faith is an obligation—if God is without reason and therefore acting unreasonably is not against his nature.

5)   How can we the Muslim world change its current trajectory?

That’s a tough one. The crisis sweeping the Islamic world is exacerbated by the explosion in global communications. The hundreds of satellite TV channels are more or less rubbing their noses in the inferior material conditions of the Islamic world and challenging their conception of Islamic worth. The Islamist revival is a direct reaction to this.

How are they supposed to respond to this situation? The answer proposed by Bin Laden is very appealing: You have left the path of Allah, which is why you are in this deplorable situation. If you return to the true path of Mohammed and his Companions, the glory of the caliphate and the supremacy of Islam will be restored to you; the scandal will be over and justice will be restored. This is a very compelling message, which is why it is popular.

One can easily understand the appeal of this over against the deeper call for Muslims to return to the fundamental question of who God is, as it may have been misconceived in a way that deformed Islamic theology and consequently left Muslims in a blind alley. If you get the idea of who God is wrong, you will get many other things wrong as well. Therefore, the question of reason has to be reintroduced in terms of it status and authority. The questions that were foreclosed back in the latter half of the ninth century need to be reopened. There are Muslim thinkers who are calling for this.
6)   Are there any Muslim reformers or leaders that you are particularly impressed with?

Yes, I dedicate the book “to the courageous men and women throughout the Islamic world, here nameless for reasons of their own security, who are struggling for a reopening of the Muslim mind.”

These include people like Bassam Tibi, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Fatima Mernissi, Latif Lakhdar, the recently deceased Hamid Abu Zayd (driven out of Egypt as an apostate for having suggested that the Arabic language is a human artifact), Abdelwahab Meddeb, and Tarek Heggy. I was very impressed by the thinking of Abdurrahman Wahid, the late president of Indonesia and the spiritual head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the world. Also, Fazlur Rahman was a very bright light. On the Shi’a side, I am attracted by Abdulkarim Soroush. Many of these people live in exile.

Anyone interested in this issue, should visit the web site of the Middle East Media Research Institute’s Reform project, where the writings of people like this can be read in translation.

7)   What can the U.S. do, if anything, to help spurt reform in the Muslim world?

Let’s start with what the U.S. should not do. It should not have the president’s counter terrorism advisor, John Brennan, making silly remarks that “jihad is a holy struggle, an effort to purify for a legitimate purpose.” I’m glad Charles Martel, King Sobieski, and Don Juan of Austria did not feel this way. Also, Muslims couldn’t care less what Brennan or any other non-Muslim thinks jihad is. So the only people Brennan is confusing is the American people.

We should be forthright in our message that using force to impose religion, any religion, is unacceptable to our Founding principles and to the basic human right of freedom of conscience. We should say that we respect Islam as a source of moral and spiritual order in the lives of millions of people but that to the extent Islam cannot itself respect peoples’ freedom of conscience, it is not acceptable to us. Saying things like this strengthens the hand of reformers in the Muslim world. Neglecting to say it weakens them.

Instead of our currently counter-productive public diplomacy, the US should facilitate the creation and reinforcement of an anti-totalitarian social and intellectual network in the Islamic world. We must help the people – with printing presses, transmitters, and security – whose ideas we wish to see prevail in the contest for the future of that world. That we have not done so yet is one of the most puzzling aspects of the past nine years. Muslim leaders like the late Abdurrahman Wahid have called for a counter-strategy (“Right Islam vs. Wrong Islam,” Wall Street Journal, p. A 16, 12/30/2005) that would include offering “a compelling alternative vision of Islam, one that banishes the fanatical ideology of hatred to the darkness from which it emerged.” He advocated a partnership with the non-Muslim world, an alliance of civilizations, in a massively resourced effort to uphold human dignity, freedom of conscience, religious freedom, and the benefits of modernity before the juggernaut of Islamist ideology swamps the Muslim world. It is a compelling summons. It has yet to be answered.
8) What is your take on the current controversy surrounding the Ground Zero Islamic center and mosque?

I think the Cordoba project is a very imprudent and provocative act. It so clearly does not meet Imam Faisal Rauf’s announced objective of reconciliation that one naturally seeks other explanations for it (especially in light of his statement in Arabic that “I don’t believe in interfaith dialogue). The one that immediately comes to mind is expressed by the Arab word siyada, which means Islamic supremacy. Achieving siyada is the goal of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Rauf’s father belonged. The construction of mosques with minarets taller than the tallest spires of any nearby churches is the most common architectural expression of siyada.

We know that the twin towers were destroyed as a symbol of the U.S. That symbol is now being replaced by another symbol. What is its meaning? The likely answer, or the most likely way in which it will be understood by Muslims overseas, is siyada.

I am also very wary from having read that Imam Rauf’s most admired Muslim thinkers are al-Ghazali, ibn Taymiyya and ibn Wahhab. That is a disturbing intellectual genealogy. As I show in my book, it is these thinkers who led to the closing of the Muslim mind.

9)   What are the three most important books that have influenced your thinking on this subject?

It’s extremely hard to narrow down to three; so I am going to cheat a little.

George Hourani, Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Stanley Jaki, Jesus, Islam, and Science (Pickney, Michigan: Real View Books, 2001).

Bassam Tibi, Islam’s Predicament with Modernity (New York: Routledge: 2009).

Richard C. Martin and Mark R. Woodward, Defenders of Reason in Islam (One World, Oxford, 1997).

Also, an indispensible article:

Imad N. Shehadeh, “The Predicament of Islamic Monotheism,” Biblotheca Sacra 161(April-June, 2004).

And, of course, The Regensburg Lecture, by Benedict XVI.
10) Any plans to write another book? If so, what about?

No, I have suffered enough.

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