Guest Columnist There is no democracy if God and reason are separated

“At a certain point in its history, Islam abandoned reason in the belief that the human mind cannot know good and evil without divine revelation. Thus, the only people qualified to distinguish right from wrong are the experts who have studied the sacred texts their whole lives. This has infantilized the vast majority of Muslims.”

This is the statement of Robert Reilly, an expert from the American Foreign Policy Council and author of the book The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist. Reilly’s thoughts reflect Benedict XVI’s speech in Regensburg, where he compares the Christian conception, according to which “not to act in a rational manner is contrary to the nature of God,” and the Muslim conception, in which God transcends concepts such as rationality.

Mr. Reilly, what do you think of this distinction?

What the Pope said is exactly the correct diagnosis, and I try to demonstrate that through the important example of the de-Hellenization of Islam of which the Pope spoke in the Regensburg Lecture. I refer to the medieval theologian Al-Ghazali, considered by Muslims the second most important person after Muhammad. Prior to Al-Ghazali, the rational school of theology called Mu’tazilite, held that it is obligatory to do what accords with reason because through it we can come to a knowledge of good and evil, and we have the freedom to choose that good. Otherwise God could not hold us accountable for something we could not know. This was the Hellenized Islam, the golden age, but it did not last long. Al-Ghazali, belonging to the Asharite movement, destroyed the integrity of reason in Islam through his book "The Incoherence of the Philosophers”. According to him, there is nothing that is obligatory by reason, but only by Sharia, divine law. Reason, instead, is incapable of coming to knowledge of good and evil, justice and injustice. Those who are not Muslim, and do not adhere to these sources of revelation, are lost because they have no mental capacity to come to moral knowledge. These views formed the culture of Sunni Islam, and this was a catastrophic change.

What happens to reason in this conception?

The denial of the integrity of reason and the ability to know good and evil outside of revelation was responsible for the closing of the Muslim mind. Al-Ghazali said, “Once you arrive at knowledge of the Quran, the mind must cease to act”. This is because there is no correspondence between your mind and God because he is not a rational truth. This opened a fissure the Islamic world, a bifurcation between the creator and the creation. There was no word for conscience in Arabic because they had no conception of freedom of conscience. That is why the concept of freedom of religion is alien.

Then, those who do not use their reason can be easily influenced …

I can illustrate this in a story told to me by an Egyptian friend. When he was in medical school in Cairo, he was recruited into the most violent terrorist group in Egyp, al Gama’a al-Islamiyya and he was assigned a person to indoctrinate him. This person got annoyed at my friend because he kept asking questions. My friend was told to stop thinking because “to think is to become an unbeliever”. “Your mind is like a donkey. You can ride your donkey to the gates of the palace of the king, which would be Allah, but you must leave your donkey outside when you go in”.

What is the consequence of this type of thinking?

This is catastrophic, and I think it is responsible for the most profound woes in the Arab World, a theological deformation has produced a dysfunctional society. It has made Islam into a juridical religion, and the denigration of reason has infantilized Muslims morally. Since reason can tell you nothing about the goodness or evil of anything you do, you must find a mufti to give you a fatwa that says whether what you are doing is forbidden or not. This is why there is a fatwa industry in Egypt today, with hundreds of thousands of fatwa a month, because unless you spend your life studying the sacred texts, you have no way of knowing if you are doing right. They even have "dial-a-fatwa" services.

What about the Al-Azhar University?

First of all, Asharite theology still prevails at Al-Azhar, and predominates in the Arab world. Second, though Al-Azhar is the most prestigious university in the Arab world, it has been a reactionary force. They do not allow the incorporation of certain Muslim philosophers and historians into their curriculum. Then, when the Pope made statements last year, raising concern over the treatment of Christians in Egypt, Al-Azhar terminated the dialogue with the Vatican, telling them not to interfere in their internal affairs.

If the Islamic world rejects reason, will democracy be possible?

Whether or not it is possible is for Muslims to decide. I had the privilege of meeting Gus Dur, the first democratically elected president in Indonesia. He was also the President of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the world. He is like the Thomas Jefferson of the Muslim world, a person who finds democratic constitutional rule, equality before the law, equality of all people, as principles that are compatible with his beliefs. Therefore, it is certainly possible.

What made him different from the other Muslim leaders?

In my meeting with him, I asked him if he thought that the Islamic world took a fatally wrong turn in the last part of the 9th century and he hesitated to answer this, for fear of being labeled a heretic, but he said, “One day I was in Fez and I went into a mosque. There in a glass case was a copy of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Averroes’ commentary. I looked down at it and I began to weep, and I thought, without this book, I too would be a fundamentalist”. He went on to say that his father had taught Aristotle in his madrasa, and that is what made it possible for him to develop into the champion of democracy that he was. At the same time, he was the harshest critic of Wahhabi Islam, and thought that the forces of civilization should combine against that anti-rationalism.

The Muslim Brotherhood has also declared that they are in favor of democracy …

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For more than eight decades they have been dedicated to the objectives of expelling Western influence and establishing Sharia law. It takes almost ten years to become a full member, years of training, indoctrination, programming, etc. This is not simply a political party. They have used certain rhetoric to persuade the Egyptian people that they will follow the democratic path, but their own principles are against that. They said they would not field candidates for a majority of the Parliamentary positions, but they did. They said they would not advance a candidate for the presidency and they did.

Now that they have taken power, what will they do?

Mr. Morsi is acting without a Constitution or any authority, and is like a new dictator in Egypt. He is going to constitute the new Constitutional Assembly that will write the Constitution. Ask yourself: do the majority of Egyptians, do the Muslim Brotherhood members, believe that all people are created equal, the fundamental underlying principle of democratic constitutional rule? Do they believe that Egyptian Muslims and Copts are equal? That women and men are equal? There was a survey in Egypt that found that about 77% of Egyptians were in favor of the death penalty for apostasy. There are obviously some very courageous, young and liberal people in Egypt who want a constitutional democracy, like Wael Farouq, but that is still a foreign notion for the majority. Egypt is also in a very dire economic situation, and this could lead to a political crisis. In such a revolutionary situation, the man on the horse, the one who has control of the best organized force, can seize power. This is a very dangerous period and I am afraid it could mean that perhaps one set of oppressors will just replace another set in Egypt.

This interview originally appeared on and was reposted with permission of the author.

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