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National Observer, Australia, No. 83 (June - August 2010)National Observer, Australia No. 83 (June - August 2010)



How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis
by Robert R. Reilly

(Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010)
Hardcover: 244 pages
ISBN: 9781933859910
RRP: US$26.95

Reviewed by Mervyn F. Bendle

National Observer
Australia's independent current affairs online journal
No. 83 (June - August 2010).

As Islamism gathers force across the world, supported by vast flows of petro-dollars, it is difficult for opponents and supporters alike to grasp how profoundly flawed it is. Despite its contemporary success in gaining acolytes, supporters and promoters, Islamism has a basic contradiction at its very core. As a form of religious fundamentalism and radical politicisation of Islam it seeks to sweep away modernity and impose a comprehensive totalitarian ideology in every area of life while excluding all other values and systems of belief as heresy and unbelief.

However, at the same time that it opposes modernity it aspires to appropriate and deploy for its own uses all the scientific and technological achievements that are products of modernity, and it seeks to achieve this while rejecting the philosophical framework within which such achievements become possible.

In fact, it replicates the mistaken assumptions of an earlier totalitarian ideology. As Lenin once famously responded when he was asked to define his new Bolshevik regime: “Communism equals the Soviets plus electricity.” Underlying this response is the mistaken belief that the hard-won achievements of science and technology could be torn free from the economic, social, cultural and political context of the Western tradition and simply appropriated by an alien system. The same error lies at the root of contemporary Islamism, i.e., the presumption that the economic and intellectual dynamism of liberal democratic industrial societies will continue under a stifling religious ideology ruling through an authoritarian theocratic state routinely employing systems of terror against its citizens.


Mythologised golden age

Islamists are blind to this presumption, for theological reasons that Robert R. Reilly identifies in The Closing of the Muslim Mind (unless otherwise stated, all references are to this book), and for psychological reasons that other scholars have also analysed. Aghast that they and their religion do not dominate the world, Islamists seek to resolve their issues of identity crisis, low self-esteem and indiscriminate rage — impacting at both the personal and civilisational levels — by deluding themselves that they can reach back thirteen centuries to a mythologised golden age of Muslim history to resurrect a Islamic theocracy that they can now impose on a global scale. And they imagine that they can do this while nevertheless retaining all the benefits of science and other accoutrements of modernity, of which they remain great but ungrateful beneficiaries. As the French scholar, Olivier Roy, concluded in his pioneering sociological and psychological study of Islamism, The Failure of Political Islam, Islamists pursue a theocratic fundamentalist agenda while still nourishing “the dream of access to the world of development and consumption, from which they feel excluded. Islamism is the sharia plus electricity”.[1]

The Closing of the Muslim Mind addresses the ancient intellectual roots of this situation. Reilly begins his account of “how intellectual suicide created the modern Islamist crisis” by claiming that “this book is about one of the greatest intellectual dramas in human history”, which began to unfold in the ninth century (p.1). He details how the emerging religion of Islam initially embraced the rationality and scientific orientation of the Hellenic world to which it was a successor before it abruptly turned its back on this heritage and embraced a quite primitive form of theological irrationalism. The resulting world-view fundamentally undermined Islam’s capacity to embrace science, democracy and economic development down to the present day.

At the centre of this seminal event was a struggle a millennium ago between two theological schools, the Ash’arites and the Mu’tazilites, which not only had opposing views of the value and role of Hellenic thought but totally different conceptions of God, which they both believed they found present in the Qur’an (Koran): “On one side was God’s will and power, and on the other his justice and rationality. The argument … took place over the status of reason in relation to God’s revelation and omnipotence. The questions involved: What has reason to do with man’s encounter with God? Is there any relationship between reason and revelation? Does reason have any standing to address God’s revelation, or must reason remain outside of it? And perhaps most importantly, can reason know the truth?” (p.3). Initially the Mu’tazilite rationalist view prevailed, but eventually Ash’arite irrationalism was victorious, with dire consequences.

Islam encountered Hellenic thought in the Byzantine and Sassanid (the last pre-Islamic Persian empire) territories that it conquered in its early years. It took the form of various ancient works in logic and philosophy, natural science, medicine, engineering, mathematics, alchemy and astrology, often in translations made by Christian scholars. Muslim scholars felt compelled to engage with this thought and to marshal philosophical arguments in support of their own faith. “Thus, by the late eighth and early ninth centuries, a new kind of discourse began to affect Islamic thought that had hitherto been largely doctrinal and jurisprudential. New words were created in Arabic to take in Greek concepts. Philosophy opened the Muslim mind in a way in which it had never been before in the spirit of free inquiry and speculative thought” (p.14).

The Mu’tazilite school emerged as champions of Hellenistic philosophy and of reason and rationalism with all that this entails about the nature of God, the universe and humanity’s place within it, especially with regard to humanity’s capacity to use reason to come to knowledge of the universe and of God. They were also advocates of free will who questioned predestination. When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 this became a politically useful position and the Mu’tazilites gained the support of the regime. Crucially, they also insisted that humanity was free to interpret revelation, and that the Qur’an was created in time — claims that outraged traditionalists. However, once again these were politically useful views as they enhanced the authority of the Caliph and reduced the influence of the clergy. Soon the Mu’tazilites had established the first fully developed school of Islamic theology, one that felt comfortable enough to allow learned debate with Christian theologians about the relative views of the two faiths and issues of joint interest.

This triumph proved to be short-lived, and by the mid-ninth century the Ash’arites were entrenching themselves and their opposing views of God, scripture, the universe and humanity within the Sunni Muslim tradition. The emphasis shifted in all key areas; above all, God came to be seen in terms of Will alone, outside and above any notions of reason, rationality and natural law, which were all seen as subsidiary and contingent, and subject always to the divine Will. The Ash’arites were also wreaking their revenge for their previous poor treatment: “holding the Mu’tazilite doctrine became a crime punishable by death. The Mu’tazilites were expelled from court, removed from all government positions, and their works were largely destroyed” (p.41). By the end of the century, copyists and booksellers were prohibited from trading in works of theology, philosophy and dialectical disputation associated with the Mu’tazilites: “the long process of dehellenisation and [intellectual] ossification had begun” (p.42). As the Pakistani physicist and historian of science, Pervez Hoodbhoy, concludes: “Thus ended the most serious attempt to combine reason with revelation in Islam.… By the twelfth century the conservative, anti-rationalist schools of thought had almost completely destroyed the Mu’tazilite influence”,[2] and so violent over time was the reaction that the Ash’arites eventually came to seem comparatively moderate compared to the Hanbalites and the more recent Wahhabis, who of course now dominate Saudi Arabia and all Islamist and other fundamentalist Muslim groups that enjoy the massive Saudi funding that is available on a global scale.


Science and technology

Contemporary Islam is the intellectual heir to the Ash’arite victory, and central to its outlook is a refusal to acknowledge the basic implications of science and technology, i.e., that the world and the universe are rational realms governed by physical laws that remain constant and stand outside the contingent behaviour not only of human beings but also of any supernatural agency. Instead, science and theology are conflated, and the claim is promulgated that the former is completely subsumed within the latter, so that the very influential medieval Muslim scholar, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111), could confidently insist that “the science that the Qur’an brings is all science” (The Closing, p.162). This principle extends to all forms of knowledge, so that when the Muslims conquered Persia, according to the great Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, the Caliph directed that the huge quantity of captured books and scientific papers should be destroyed because, “if what they contain is right guidance, God has given us better guidance. If it is error, God has protected us against it”; or, as it was put in the apocryphal account of the destruction of the great library of Alexandria: “These books either contain what is in the Qur’an or something else. In either case, they are superfluous” (pp.13, 44). In recent times, once it had the power, the Taliban ordered the destruction of all books in Afghanistan except the Qur’an, while book production and translation are still extremely constrained throughout the Muslim world, as we shall discuss below.

Moreover, the view prevails within Islam not only that science and all useful knowledge are completely contained within theology, but that scientific laws do not even exist, because this would entail a limitation upon the Will of God. Similarly, there is no rational order to the universe that God must observe; no secondary causes; and no relations of cause and effect. Instead, the universe is governed by the principles of occasionalism, according to which any and all events happen purely as a result of God’s Will at the moment concerned. As Reilly observes, “Creation is not imprinted with reason. It [therefore] cannot reflect what is not there. As a result, there is no rational order invested in the universe upon which one can rely, only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s Will” (p.51). He also quotes the eminent modern historian of the Arab peoples, Albert Hourani, who observed that Arabs “tend to see acts in themselves, as fitting an occasion rather than as links in a chain of cause and consequence” (p.142). It is therefore “not Islamic to say that combining hydrogen and oxygen makes water. You are supposed to say that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together then by the will of Allah water is created” (p.142).

Occasionalism applies in every area of life according to this world-view, so that, for example, the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir disapproves of such safeguards as insurance and seatbelts as presumptuous, unnecessary and ultimately futile in the face of God’s sovereign Will: “If one’s allotted time has arrived, the seatbelt is superfluous. If it has not, it is unnecessary. One must realise that the phrase, ‘God willing’, is not simply a polite social convention, but a theological doctrine” (p.143). In summary, according to this view, we do not live in a rationally ordered universe governed by scientific laws but in a realm utterly subject to the Will of God, as disclosed in the Qur’an, and it is incumbent upon all humanity to live entirely and solely in accordance with this revelation of the divine Will, as interpreted, of course, by the Islamists.

It is the great achievement of The Closing of the Muslim Mind that the author has been able to explore so comprehensively the ancient roots of this attitude, while also vividly describing its contemporary manifestations. For example, Reilly cites (p.162) the findings of Hoodbhoy, who had described in a 2007 article in Physics Today how a special “Islamic science” has now emerged:[3]

“In the 1980s an imagined ‘Islamic science’ was posed as an alternative to ‘Western science’. The notion was widely propagated and received support from governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Muslim ideologues in the US … announced that a new science was about to be built on lofty moral principles such as tawheed (unity of God), ibadah (worship), khilafah (trusteeship), and rejection of zulm (tyranny), and that revelation rather than reason would be the ultimate guide to valid knowledge. Others took as literal statements of scientific fact verses from the Qur’an that related to descriptions of the physical world. Those attempts led to many elaborate and expensive Islamic science conferences around the world. Some scholars calculated the temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly djinnis [spirits].”

As Hoodbhoy continues, although none of these Muslim scholars “produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment, or even formulated a single testable hypothesis”, they were regarded as honoured practitioners of “Islamic science”. Inevitably, many Muslim academics professing an expertise in “Islamic science” have found senior positions in Western universities, including in Australia.

Two points may be made here in passing. First, an earlier form of totalitarianism, communism, also found widespread support in the universities, and, like Islamism, it also believed that it was based on a higher form of science. This was dialectical materialism, and it was claimed that this was superior to the “bourgeois” science of capitalism and would lead socialism into a new utopian age. This was heralded by the infamous pseudo-science, Lysenkoism, which marginalised real scientists and devastated agriculture in communist countries. Second, the West itself is not immune to powerful irrationalist forces, and Reilly cites the observation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 that the “dehellenisation of the West” — involving the rejection of science and embrace of irrationalism — is now proving to be a grave affliction throughout our culture. Indeed, irrationalism is increasingly prominent amongst intellectuals and academics, and modern universities offer refuge to many disciplines that eschew any scientific or rational basis to their knowledge claims. It is likely that such factors partly explain why Islamism and “Islamic science” find considerable hospitality on our campuses (although copious funding from Saudi Arabia and other overseas sources also helps grease the wheels).


Muslims and modernity

The consequences of promoting and sustaining a fundamental disregard for the cognitive basis of modern science are obvious. For example, Reilly cites the 2003 UN Arab Human Development Report (prepared, it should be emphasised, by Arab scholars), observing that the persistence of archaic intellectual commitments “raises basic knowledge problems”, including “a lack of scientific perspective and sometimes a disregard for reality”; and that 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” of contemporary thought (p.160).

Consequently, even such a senior figure as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia from 1993 to 1999 “completely rejected the idea that the earth orbits the sun”, and indeed declared that “those who say that the earth is round and orbits the sun are apostates” (p.142). Similarly, many Muslims and Islamic scholars reject the claim that man landed on the moon. As one Muslim commentator reflects:[4]

“Muslim reaction to Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon nearly 40 years ago was true to form. It passed through various stages. At first, the vast majority of Muslims refused to accept it as a fact. Mullahs vociferously argued, and the majority of people accepted, that the claim was a western hoax, for conventional Islamic wisdom emphatically rejected the possibility of man ever conquering the moon.

“In a few years, most Muslims conceded that the moon landing was a fact. Some went so far as to say that it was foretold in the scriptures. The new line of reasoning was that nothing was beyond the reach of man, since he is God’s supreme creation (ashraf-ul-makhluqat).

“Later, Muslims were elated with the baseless rumour that Neil Armstrong had converted to Islam as he had heard the call to prayer (azan) on the moon. Another version attributed his conversion to his having seen signs of the ‘parting of the moon’, as believed by Muslims.

“But when, a year or so ago, some American conspiracy theorist(s) claimed that the moon landing was not for real, many Muslims happily reverted to their original position of denial.”

Inevitably, the result of such an irrationalist orientation to knowledge is that the scientific productivity of Muslim countries, measured in terms of articles published in reputable academic journals; patents registered; money spent on research; and numbers of scientists and technically trained personnel, etc, falls far below that of the West, other industrial societies and even other developing countries. For example, between 1980 and 2000 South Korea alone registered 16,328 patents, while nine Middle East countries registered only 370 between them, and many of these were by foreigners; and India and Spain each produce a larger proportion of global scientific literature than do 46 Muslim countries combined (p.161). Greece alone translates five times more books annually than does the entire Muslim world; while in the past millennium the entire Arab world has translated only the same number that Spain translates in one year. The impact of this scientific backwardness on levels of economic development is devastating, as a leading Syrian philosopher laments, “Look at the Arab world from one end to the other; there is no true added value to anything” (p.165), and as Reilly observes, according to another UN report, “only sub-Saharan Africa did worse than the Arab countries”, despite the advantage these had of massive oil revenues (p.163).

Other Muslim scholars agree. Ali Allawi, a former minister of both finance and defence in the new Iraq, has observed that “the creative output of twenty or thirty million Muslims of the Abbasid era dwarfs the output of nearly one-and-a-half billions of the modern era” (p.166), and the prominent Islamic intellectual, Abdelwahab Meddeb, is moved to conclude that the subordinate position of science within Islam has left the latter in a piteous position compared to the world’s other great civilisations in terms of human achievement. He asks what would happen if Islam were to be called to account for what it has accomplished: “What could the Muslim Arab offer? Nothing”, and therefore, unless it takes a new direction, Islam, “constrained by the framework of Islamic faith, will join the great dead civilisations” (p.158).

As the past decade reveals only too clearly, this new direction has not been taken, but rather it has been deliberately rejected and violently denounced as even a possibility by the militant Islamists who dominate contemporary Muslim societies and public discourse. Consequently, aside from the hideous violence that Islamist militants and terrorists regularly inflict on Westerners and other Muslims in their increasingly indiscriminate rage, they continue to nurture an archaic, pre-scientific (indeed, anti-scientific) world-view.


Contemporary Islam

Politically, this world-view now expresses itself in various forms of Islamism that represent one of the most dangerous challenges to any form of civilisation in a century that has already witnessed several devastating onslaughts from two very powerful totalitarian ideologies, Nazism/fascism, and communism (which have fundamentally influenced Islamism, as Reilly points out). This situation was not pre-determined and Islam had a choice about which direction to follow. Indeed, the history of Islam itself can be understood in terms of four main phases that can be briefly stated: the Islamic (c. 7th-13th centuries); the Ottoman (c.1453-1918); the nationalist (1918-91); and the current, post-nationalist (1991-), phase, in which Islamism is flourishing.

The first two periods saw great success in expanding the Muslim world, but the past two centuries brought conflict and decline. During the penultimate nationalist phase the Muslim world, and particularly the Arab states, tried to implement various policies of modernisation, secularisation, socialism, nation-state nationalism, pan-Arab nationalism, pan-Islamism, regional cooperation, non-alignment, anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, but with very limited success. Starting with the disastrous war with Israel in 1967, the last third of the 20th century witnessed repeated defeats and setbacks in the Arab-Israeli conflict, increasing conflicts between Arab nations and the final failure of most of these political models, the ideals and aims of which were largely identified with the West. The subsequent post-nationalist phase is currently unfolding, dominated by Islamism, a revulsion against the West, and aspirations to re-establish the Caliphate. It can largely be seen as a reaction to these earlier disappointments, and above all to the failure of Islam to fully reassert itself as a great world religion and civilisation, a situation that is very deeply resented throughout the Muslim world.

In the light of this history, Islam had two distinct choices in the twentieth-century, as Reilly points out. One was to recognise that Islamic thinking had “calcified, and this was the cause of its decline”, that “it needed to modernise and to learn from the West”, and “had to reclaim its [intellectual] legacy from the West and develop it further” (p.167). This option was tried and various influential Muslim intellectuals emerged to promote this option, including Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Muhammad ‘Abduh. Ultimately, however, this effort failed because it retained underlying scripturalist commitments and dogmatic constraints on where thought might lead. As the leading scholar on the Arab world, David Pryce-Jones, concluded, “[al] Afghani built into the definition of progress a contradictory regression to the Islamic past” (quoted in The Closing, p.172). Consequently, through their retention of these archaic irrationalist impulses, these would-be reformers laid the foundations for Islamism, “the lineage [of which] goes from al-Afghani to Muhammad ‘Abduh to Rashid Rida to Hassan al-Banna to Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri”, as Reilly recounts (p.172).

The second choice available to contemporary Muslims allowed them to deny that the dire contemporary plight of Islam reflected its debilitating intellectual heritage and antiquated theological commitments, and permitted them instead to embrace the conviction that “the crisis [was] a rebuke from Allah because Muslims had not followed His way”, and that success and ultimate global ascendancy are dependent upon a return to His path (p.173). Consequently, “a narrative of grievance and potential recovery exists throughout the Muslim world, but particularly among the Islamists” (p.173), for whom the re-establishment of the Caliphate and the resurgence of the Muslim world is contingent upon the return to the path of Allah, as represented by the most rigorous re-assertion of the Ash’arite tradition as represented generally by Wahhabism and particularly by Islamism.


Hatred of the West

It is this ideological convergence of religious messianism, hatred of the West, scriptural fundamentalism, and political violence that explains the difficulty that many experts initially had in getting beyond the clichéd notion that Islamist terrorism is yet another expression of economic and political injustice, to comprehend that the homicidal intensity displayed by Jihadi terrorists has deep religious roots. Jessica Stern describes this type of realisation in Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill: “When I began this project, I could not understand why the killers I met seemed spiritually intoxicated. Now I think I understand. They seem that way because they are [spiritually intoxicated]. Apocalyptic violence intended to ‘cleanse’ the world of ‘impurities’ can create a transcendent state”.[5] As the Mumbai police commissioner observed of the surviving terrorist from the murderous 2008 attack: “He was led to believe that he was doing something holy” (The Closing, p.183). More than that, he harboured the belief that such atrocities bring divine reward and that he will enjoy special heavenly delights denied other believers because he has committed mass murder in the name of God.

At the core of all this lies hatred, as Reilly easily demonstrates with various passages from bin Laden and other prominent Islamist ideologues (p.187-90): “As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels … Enmity and hate shall ever reign between us … Battle, animosity and hatred — directed from the Muslim to the infidel — is the foundation of our religion”; “We are not fighting so that you will offer us something … We are fighting to eliminate you”; “The real matter is the extinction of America”; “America is evil in its essence”; “Those who think that they can change reality, or change societies, without blood sacrifices and wounds … do not understand the essence of our religion.... Glory does not build its lofty edifice except with skulls … on a foundation of cripples and corpses”. And this hatred of Islamism for the West is not merely political, as Reilly’s exhaustive analysis shows, but is indeed “metaphysically necessary”, with the weight of a thousand years of theological irrationalism driving the confrontation with modernity and the West (p.189).

Ultimately, the choice made within Islam a millennium ago to embrace the Ash’arite world-view has had a stunting and deforming effect throughout its history, traditions and institutions, and its implications are now coming to frightful fruition in the present day. The roots of this now pervasive attitude are deeply buried and shrouded in time, denial and ignorance, and it is the principal achievement of Reilly’s book that he provides a comprehensive account of this momentous event, written in a lucid fashion that is accessible to both experts and the general public.

However, it is before the Muslim world that the challenge lies. As Reilly makes clear in his final pages, citing the Muslim academic, Bassam Tibi: “If that Islamic medieval rationalism that recognised the universality of knowledge continues to be declared a heresy … then Muslims in the twenty-first century will continue to be unsuccessful in embarking on modernity” (p.205). Or, as another contemporary Islamic scholar, also cited by Reilly, concludes: “Those eager to make a new beginning must accept beforehand that the traditional mind will lead them to nowhere. A new Muslim mind is the minimum to start with. Without reactivating our brains we would even fall short of realising in full the nature and extent of our malaise” (p.7). Whether the will or capacity to confront this challenge exists in the Muslim world remains to be seen.

Mervyn F. Bendle PhD is senior lecturer in history and communications at James Cook University, Queensland, Australia. He is the author of “Global jihad and the battle for the soul of Islam”, Australian Religious Studies Review, 16(2) Spring, 2003; “Militant religion and the crisis of modernity”, Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, 14, 2003; “Existential terrorism: civil society and its enemies”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 52(1), 2006; and many other articles on Islamism and terrorism.


[1] Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), p.52.

[2] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (London: Zed Books, 1991), p.100.

[3] Pervez Hoodhboy, “Science and the Islamic world — The quest for rapprochement”, Physics Today (American Institute of Physics), Vol. 60, Issue 8, August 2007, p.54.
URL: http://ptonline.aip.org/journals/doc/PHTOAD-ft/vol_60/iss_8/49_1.shtml?bypassSSO=1

[4] Razi Azmi, “Moon, Muslims and modernity”, Daily Times (Pakistan) November 16, 2006.
URL: www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2006\11\16\story_16-11-2006_pg3_2

[5] Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (New York: Harper, 2004), p.281.

National Observer, Australia, No. 83 (June - August 2010)