RRR: Al-Ghazali boxed himself into mysticism; in cutting himself off from reason, he had no other way to move forward. He made the transition in such a way that it became more palatable to the Sunni world, and he is thought to have revived Islam through his embrace of mysticism. But this mysticism is itself irrational, and only reinforced the attacks on reason that al-Ghazali had made in his famous work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. It's kind of a double whammy, really.
Sufism did spread but was always suspected by the Sunni orthodox, because the mystics sometimes excused themselves from the mandatory rituals of Islam. On occasion, they'd also make extravagant claims about merging with God, which is an absolutely forbidden notion in Sunni orthodoxy. As a result, Sufism, despite its p;op;ularity, was on the fringes.
BSP: Modern Muslims aren't particularly mystical, but they do carry the rest of al-Ghazali's baggage. Is there a connection between the anti-rationalism of Ash‘arite theology, and the violence found in so much of contemporary Islam?
RRR: 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.
BSP: How so?
RRR: Because this view of God is like the statement of Thrasymachus to Socrates that "Right is the rule of the stronger," taken to a theological level. God's rule is right because He, by definition, is the strongest. Whatever He says is right -- it's almost a form of divine positivism.
But if God is right simply because of His power and pure will, then there are no theological barriers between that conception of God and the endorsement of violence in spreading faith. And we know that this was the primary way Islam spread historically.
One of Osama bin Laden's spiritual mentors was Abdullah Azzam, who made the notorious statement that "Terrorism is an obligation is Allah's religion." Bin Laden repeated this remark in one of his post-9/11 videos. 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.
Now, there are certainly grounds in Islamic jurisprudence for forbidding the killing of unarmed women and children. But the Islamists of today reject the Muslim jurisprudence of the Middle Ages, and want to dispense with all those rules. And they have.
BSP: In reading through your book, two thoughts struck me. First, you make your case very well, to the point that I've revised my own position in light of the things I've learned from you. And second, the problems with Islam may be even more intractable than we think, and will only be eliminated through a wholesale shift in the Muslim worldview.
How do you go about changing a rival religion's understanding of reality?
RRR: The problem is ultimately theological, and any solution needs to be at that level. That's why economic and political approaches don't work.
One of my friends is a leading pro-reform Muslim intellectual in Europe. I asked him: if I could give you all the funding and power you needed for ten years to fight the war of ideas within Islam, what would you do? His answer was very interesting: He said he would undertake a re-Hellenization of the Muslim world. Just as Benedict pointed out that the problem in Islam today came about because of its de-Hellenization, he was saying the solution is to reverse the process.
BSP: But how do we do that, practically speaking? Philosophy and Greek thought are so plainly associated with the West in the Muslim mind, that that they carry a taboo. How do we overcome that?
RRR: Well, these things are part of Muslim history. Islam has rejected that history, but it's there nevertheless. That's what Muslims need to revisit, and that includes the fundamental question about who God is. They need to rediscover some of the ideas that were closed off by Ash‘arite thought.
That includes the idea that the Koran was created at a certain time and place. Most Muslims believe that the Koran has existed co-eternally with God -- that it has been inscribed on a tablet in heaven forever, exactly as it appears today in Arabic. That was the Ash‘arite position, and it prevailed. In other word, the Koran is ahistorical.
The Mu‘tazilites saw the Koran much the same way that Christians regarded their own Scriptures. Yes, it is the word of God, but it was created in time and needs to be interpreted in light of the circumstances of that creation. Thus, the need for interpretation.
Without reopening this question in the Muslim world, it's hard to see any kind of reform succeeding.
BSP: Does the U.S. government have a role to play in re-Hellenizing Islamic theology? Or to put it more broadly, should the government be involved in a theological dispute at all?
RRR: Insofar as the U.S. is a product of Hellenic thought, I would think we should be involved. We obviously won't be heard if we try to interpose ourselves in a Muslim theological debate, unless the primacy of reason is restored, and then all reasonable people could participate.
There are a number of Muslim thinkers who understand the problem in these terms, and who are trying to do something. They require help and protection. The Muslim intellectual I mentioned earlier required German police protection and an armored Mercedes for five years, because of threats against his life. And of course, in many parts of the Muslim world, if you were to say the Koran was created in time, you would be in great danger.
Because of the explosion in communications -- the hundreds of satellite channels beamed from around the world into their homes each day -- Muslims can see that their situation is not a good one. So how do they account for this once great Islamic civilization in the Arab world has now ended near the bottom of the heap?
It's a hard thing for Muslims to come to the realization that they took a wrong turn 800 years ago and need to revisit some fundamental questions regarding their theology. It requires a tremendous amount of work and learning and self-examination and critical thinking.
The easy answer -- which is proliferating through the Muslim world -- is the Islamist answer, that Muslims find themselves in this position today because they have left the path of God. According to this popular view, if Islam returns to the path of God, they will see their past glory restored.
Unfortunately, what really needs to be done is a lot of hard intellectual and spiritual work. It's no surprise that the people engaged in that are having such a difficult time in the face of Osama bin Laden's easier program for Islamic restoration.
And of course, we in the West are not helping the people engaged in re-Hellenization. They're on their own -- we don't give them protection, or printing presses, or radio stations.
BSP: But wouldn't they be disqualified as legitimate participants in this Islamic debate if they were seen as proxies of the West?
RRR: If the support were openly known then there is that danger. There are ways to do it three or four steps removed, but we're just not intelligent enough to do that. Also, these people are already accused of being in the pay of the West, so they might as well be. They get the blame but not the benefit.
As things stand now, we have allowed the Islamists a theological safe haven, which is far more dangerous than the physical safe havens they enjoy in parts of Pakistan and elsewhere.
There is a contest on for the soul of Islam. If we don’t help the side that we wish to see prevail in that struggle, we had better get ready for things far worse than 9/11.
Click here for more information on Robert R. Reilly's new book, "The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis."