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Reason and Islam

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In an interview about his recent book The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, Robert Reilly spoke about the Islamic way of perceiving reality in a clear way for those who do not as yet appreciate the mindset. He spoke with the Editor of Inside Catholic, Brian St Paul.

Reilly explained that Islam arose as a nomadic religion not interested in philosophical issues and how the initial first caliphs kept their soldiers quarantined outside the cities they had conquered so they would not be contaminated by other cultures. He [Reilly] then described the difficulty of maintaining this quarantine and how inevitably some reacted to the Judeo-Christian ideas they came across. He says:

 After the founding of the Umayyad caliphate around 660, the center of the new empire moved to Damascus, and then later the Abbasids moved it to Baghdad. They couldn't maintain the quarantine, and they encountered peoples for whom philosophy had been second nature, as it was infused in Christian apologetics at the time. So in their conversations with Christians, they felt the need to develop philosophical tools to advance or defend the Muslim faith. They needed their own apologetics. The question then arose: Is it legitimate for us to use these tools, like logic and philosophy, and what is permitted for us to know through these means? (source)

A group then arose, strange to say, within Islam who recognised the central fact of reason in the life of human beings. This group was the Mu'tazilites

The Mu'tazilites asserted the primacy of reason, and that one's first duty is to engage in reason and, through it, come to know God. They also thought it their duty to understand revelation in a way that comported with reason, so that if something in the Koran seemed inconsistent with reason, it should not be read literally. It should therefore be taken as metaphor or analogy. The Mu'tazilites held that God Himself is Reason, and that man's reason is a gift from Him so that he can come to know Him through the order of His creation. Abd al-Jabbar, one of the great theologians, made the statement, "It is obligatory for you to carry out what accords with reason." (source)

Reilly goes on to explain in this interview that The Mu'tazilites were sponsored by the Caliph al-Ma'mun, who was the greatest supporter of Greek thought in all of Islamic history. He is even said to have had a dream in which the Greek philosopher Aristotle appeared to him.  He asked the philosopher, "What is the good?"[which is once of the central questions of all philosophy] and Aristotle answered, "It is what is rationally good." And so al-Ma'mun embraced this rational school of theology -- the Mu'tazilites -- and also sponsored al-Kindi, the first Arab philosopher. He then adds:

And when reading Abd al-Jabbar, one is struck by how similar it is to Christian apologetics, or to what we might call Natural Theology. In fact, his arguments for the existence of God are very much the same as those we find in Christian Natural Theology. This should not surprise us, as they were influenced by the same Greek sources. (source)

It is important to note how significant reason is to both Judaism and Christianity – the Creator reveals himself through the design, the order and the extraordinary patterns of the universe. The psalmists acknowledge this all the time. It is also important to note that Christianity and Judaism saw the philosophical realism and rationality of Greek philosophy as a good thing, and incorporated it into their method of argumentation about the spiritual realities. When Christianity arose in the Roman empire it allied itself, not with the other mythical pagan religions which had a strong superstitious dimension to them, but in particular to Greek philosophy which was the rationalist’s philosophy par excellence. Christianity, Judaism and Greek philosophy saw themselves as opposed to the pagan mythic cults of the Roman Empire, even though these pagan cults were ‘religious’. Thus Christianity, Judaism and Greek philosophy say it is possible to know good and evil  through natural reason. Thus theology in the Christian world was initially a rational exploration of the divine realm and then saw revelation as further enlightenment from God, of the reason and law that pervades the universe. St John calls Christ the Logos – a word taken from Greek philosophy. (reference)

But this Islamic inclination to reason did not last long as Reilly explains:

Not all of this went over well with the more traditional Muslims. Out of this opposition arose another school of theology that came to be known as the Ash'arites, after its founder al-Ash'ari. They denied, point by point, everything the Mu'tazalites said. They claimed God isn't reason but pure will and power. He can do anything He wants -- He's not restrained or constrained by anything, including His own word. There is no way one can know what is good or evil through reason, but only through revelation.Al-Ghazali, the great Ash'arite theologian, said that "no obligations flow from reason, but from the Sharia." So nothing you can know through your reason can guide you in your life as to what is good or just. There is no moral philosophy. (source)

And further Reilly explains that this rejection of reason has a heavy consequence when it comes to the objective morality of things. Jews and Christians don’t follow the Decalogue simply because they are told to do so, they are to follow it because it is objectively good, and always remains so. The revelation of the Decalogue is the revelation of what already exists, not a set of prescriptions taken at whim out of the blue. But according to the Islamic mind it is different:

The key here is that [for Muslims] God does not forbid murder because it is bad; rather, it is bad because He forbids it. He could change His mind tomorrow and demand ritual murder, and no one could gainsay Him, because things are themselves neither good nor evil, but are only made so by God's commands. Therefore, for salvation, you have to know His commands, and you cannot come to that knowledge through reason. In interpreting God's laws, there is a principle in Islamic jurisprudence which states, "Reason is not a legislator." In other words, the only laws that apply to you are the ones God gave you. Reason has no authority or status in creating laws, or even in interpreting them. The political consequences of such a view are easy to see: If reason is not a legislator, then why have legislatures at all? They have no standing, because reason has no standing. (source)

The result of the Islamic abandonment of reason we see in the actions of many Muslims in the world today and in the failure of any democratic system of government to arise in an Islamic country. It is nothing less than heroic for the’ coalition of the willing’ to try to establish democracy in Islamic countries. One has to wonder why they are trying, or whether it is a delaying tactic or genuinely meant. In any case, the question remains, whether the fundamental inclination to reason can ever be extinguished in a person. The evidence of so many conversions of Muslims out of Islam, shows that the natural inclination has not been extinguished and that people respond to reason, despite adverse circumstances. When an imam converts after seeing a contradiction in what he has been told and what the Qu’ran says, he is confronted with the law of contradiction, which is a very Aristotelian challenge. When he/she responds to the contradiction by leaving Islam, Aristotle has defeated Mohammed and we all rejoice in the victory of reason.

Last Updated on Sunday, 22 August 2010 07:46  

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