Closing of the Muslim Mind

The Closing of the Muslim Mind
(Robert R. Reilly, October 17, 2016)

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About the speaker

Robert R. Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Office of The Secretary of Defense, where he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006). He participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of information. Before that, he was director of the Voice of America, where he had worked the prior decade.

Mr. Reilly served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985), and in the U.S. Information Agency both in D.C. and abroad. In the private sector, he spent more than seven years with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, as both national director and then president. He was on active duty as an armored cavalry officer for two years, and attended Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University. He has published widely on foreign policy, the “war of ideas”, and classical music.

Reilly spoke at St. Mary’s Lyceum in Alexandria, Virginia on The Closing of The Muslim Mind.

He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of:

Not What Went Wrong, but Why it Went Wrong (January 19, 2019)

Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong (February 9, 2016)

Information Operations: Successes and Failures (September 6, 2013)

Dangerous Embrace: The United States and the Islamists (May 22, 2012)

The Challenge of Islam to the Catholic Church (February 4, 2010)



Robert Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute, and in his twenty-five years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University, and served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he was senior adviser for information strategy. He participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Information. Before that, he was Director of the Voice of America, where he had worked the prior decade. Mr. Reilly worked in the White House as Special Assistant to the President, and in the U.S. Information Agency both in D.C. and abroad. In the private sector, he spent more than seven years with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute as both National Director and President.

He was on active duty as an Armored Cavalry Officer for two years and attended Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University. He has published widely on foreign policy, the War of Ideas, and classical music. Among his many publications are, “The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue,” “Assessing War,” and the topic of tonight’s talk, “The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.” So please join me in welcoming Mr. Robert Reilly.

Robert R. Reilly:

Let me read to you this prayer. “O God, I ask of thee a perfect faith, a sincere assurance, a reverent heart, a remembering tongue, a good conduct of commendation, and a true repentance, repentance before death, rest at death, and forgiveness and mercy after death, clemency at the reckoning, victory in paradise and escape from the fire, by thy mercy, O Mighty One, O Forgiver, Lord increase me in knowledge and join me unto good.”

What do you think of that prayer? Any problem? No, I do not think so. That is the prayer Muslims say on the Hajj in Mecca the seventh time they go around the Kaaba. And the reason I read it is because it gives an insight into Muslims in the way in which they seek to do the will of God and why. And many of the Muslims I have known are tremendously pious people, prayerful people, observant people, good people, and I have seen without question, particularly in the lives of those who I know have gone through horrors I could not have endured, including limb amputation. It is their faith in God that sustains them, I have absolutely no doubt, the presence of God in their lives.

So the first thing we remember is they are seeking the will of God in the best way that has been given to them to do, which is always a matter of respect.

The subject of tonight’s talk, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, and the general thesis I laid out in this book, generally takes about three hours to cover in the theological, philosophical, epistemological, and moral realms. And that is about how long I have tonight, Melanie, isn’t it, three hours? Well, let’s see if I can sum the whole thing up in one dense sentence. Islamism is a spiritual pathology based upon a deformed theology that has produced a dysfunctional culture: a spiritual pathology, a deformed theology, that has produced a dysfunctional culture.

Well, that is about it. Any questions?

Alright. By the way, my publisher did not think that the title of the book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, was sufficiently incendiary, so we came up with this subtitle, “How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.” But I would like to tell you from where we got that subtitle. It is from a Muslim, in fact, from one of the best Muslim thinkers of the twentieth century, Fazlur Rahman, who was a Pakistani, who in the first government of the Pakistani state had a ministerial role in education and tried to reform education in Pakistan. He was too controversial, he had to leave the country, and he went to the University of Chicago, where some of my friends got their Ph.D.s in Islamic Studies under him.

So let’s hear what Fazlur Rahman said: “A people that deprives itself of philosophy necessarily exposes itself to starvation in terms of fresh ideas. In fact, it commits intellectual suicide.” So what we are going to talk about is how – and I should be specific in saying that I am only going to talk about Sunni Islam, which of course, is the vast majority of the Muslim world, 85-90 percent Sunni rather than Shia. And within the Sunni world, I am going to concentrate on one theological school called Ash’arism, but that is the majority theological school of the Sunni world.

Now, how many of you remember Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address? Several of you do. If you did not read that great address, maybe you will remember the reaction to it, which was explosive in parts of the Muslim world because what he said was deeply resented even though most of the Regensburg Address was about this term he used, de-Hellenization, the de-Hellenization of the West, meaning the loss of reason, the loss of philosophy. In our case, due to moral relativism, cultural relativism, the abandonment of the idea that our minds can come to know objective truth, which after all, was the great discovery of Greek philosophy back in the 4th century BC.

So Benedict XVI talked about the de-Hellenization, the loss of reason, in the West, but he also spoke of the de-Hellenization of Islam, and as if to prove the point concerning the loss of reason in Islam, there was rioting and violence, and a nun was killed. I forget the specifics of what happened. QED. There could not have been a more powerful illustration of the de-Hellenization of Islam.

Now, one way to proceed here with some of these very complex issues is, I think, to take you from something you do know, which is the Bible, to something that you may not know which is the Qur’an. Let me ask, how many of you have read the Qur’an? Okay, we have a couple. Well, it is a very difficult book, particularly for someone of a Western orientation, because it is not a narrative. It does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is not a story. It tells stories, most of which come from the Bible, but it itself is not a story. In fact, the principal organization in the Qur’an is of 114 surahs or chapters from the longest to the shortest, that is it. They are not arranged chronologically. They are not arranged according to any narrative. That is the way it is, so it is a tough, tough book for a Westerner to read.

And I am going to point out to you some of the things that were particularly prominent that struck me the first time that I read the Qur’an. One is the account of Creation. And by the way, in the Qur’an, they do not tell the story once, there are repetitions of the story, each varied in a slightly different way in different parts of the Qur’an.

Now, in the Qur’an, man is emphatically not made in the image and likeness of God. That is the first thing that will strike you as being radically different from Genesis, where of course, we read that God made us in His image and likeness. That statement is almost like the air we breathe. Even in a secular culture such as it is today, the Revelation in Genesis that we were made in the image and likeness of God is the foundation of our civilization to the extent to which we observe the inalienable human rights that our Founding Fathers pronounced in the Declaration of Independence. We know those were developed on the foundation of the Genesis Revelation. That we are made in God’s image and likeness is what makes us inviolable in our persons. This is absent from Islam.

And of course, this is not just Genesis, this is a statement that is repeated throughout the Bible. Just to give you a little sample elsewhere in the Old Testament in the Book of Wisdom, “For God formed me to be imperishable. The image of His own nature He made me.” And of course, in the New Testament we hear from Saint John in his extraordinary statement, “Now we are children of God.” Children? We have a familial relationship with God? He is our father? And as Jesus spoke Aramaic when he talked of ‘our father,’ he used the word aba, which is more familiar than father. It is closer to daddy, our daddy who art in heaven. Think of the level of intimacy that suggests between this infinite, transcendent God and these little, finite people, who are nonetheless made in His image and likeness.

Later, we hear in Saint John, “What we shall be later is not yet clear, but when we see Him, we shall be like Him for we will see Him as He is.” We will be like whom? Like God? We will be like God? And then, of course, at Mass during the offertory, the priest says in the offertory prayer, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the Divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Share in the Divinity of Christ? I cannot possibly tell you how shocking everything I have just said is to a Muslim. It is considered blasphemous in the extreme to suppose we are in any way like God, that we are in any way comparable to Him, or that we will somehow be like Him and actually share in God’s life. No, no, no, this is blasphemous.

So that is the first thing, the image and likeness of God. By the way, what would you say is that image and likeness of God in us? What do we mean? I see, someone pointed to reason, right? Good, reason, that is God-like, is it not? And what else? Free will. So reason and free will are God-like. And you can imagine if there is no imago dei in Islam, you will not be surprised to see both of those things, reason and free will, seriously diminished in the status of human beings.

Now, what is the next thing that you might find particularly striking when you are reading the Qur’an? There is no original sin. There is the first sin, but it is no different than the second sin or the third sin. In each of these cases, Allah, who was always addressed as the All Merciful, may forgive and we move on, or he may not forgive and simply destroy you, but there is no original sin in the biblical sense of a cataclysmic dislocation in the relationship between man and God, such that man is totally bereft by the loss of this relationship. And of course, he is expelled from the Garden, subject to death.

And worst of all, he has nothing within his means of sufficient worth to offer this infinite God, whom he has just egregiously offended. So the situation seems hopeless until slightly later in the revelation. God says, in effect, you cannot do this. You do not have a means to restore this relationship, but I can do it for you. I will send someone who will do it for you, and thus begins, in revelation, the prophecies of who this person may be and what he may do, the suffering servant of Isaiah and so forth.

And here begins salvation history, unique within the Western world, in the sense that time now is no longer circular. Things do not just simply move in a loop, as the ancients thought. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end to things, all of which can be tracked from both Creation, original sin, and the promised restoration of the relationship between man and God through a messiah, a savior. That is what begins salvation history.

Now, in Islam, there is no salvation history. There is no savior. There is no messiah who is going to restore the relationship between man and God because there was no relationship to begin with. There is nothing to restore. There is just this Almighty God and this finite creature, who has no ability to know this incomparable, transcendent, omnipotent God, who acts for his own reasons unknown to us. So there was no relationship to restore.

Now, in the West we can say our sense of history is a secularization of salvation history. The idea of progress in the West, this linear way we track things – that we have a narrative of beginning, middle, end, the culmination of things – that is a secularization of salvation history.

And since Islam had no salvation history to secularize, it is also absent to an alarming degree of the idea of history itself. In other words, the narrative, there is no narrative there, and this may give you a little insight. And because of this, by the way, there is even a different notion of time in Islam. Why do you suppose it is?

By the way, I know we have one Army veteran here, but what do you think, in this literature from the Middle East and Afghanistan, what do they call American soldiers? What does Al Qaeda call us? What does ISIS call us? Crusaders, yes, but that is infrequent. Infidels, yes, but there is a more common term, Romans. We are the Romans.

How could that be? We are from Northern Virginia. So how can we be the Romans? Because when Islam thundered out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, that is whom they were fighting, the Byzantines, who called themselves Romans and who were known as Romans. And because of this lack of history as we understand it, as a progression through time in a linear way, we are the Romans still. So they understand us as Romans, just as they understand their mission is not to conquer Washington, D.C. but Rome.

[I have] another little example before I move on. Why do you suppose that the ISIS folks so busied themselves in Syria with explosives and jackhammers, destroying Assyrian, human-headed, winged bulls from the Assyrian Empire, from 3,500 years ago? Why were they doing that?

The answer is idols; they have to destroy the idols. But for something to be an idol, it has to be idolized, and no one has been around worshiping human-headed, winged bulls for 3,500 years. Can’t they just leave them alone in museums as part of the historical-cultural record? No, because all things exist in this sacred time for them simultaneously. They cannot make the distinction that they are no longer idols because they are not idolized. There is no history in that way.

Someone once said that Islam’s end is its beginning. It is kind of looped. These people want to be back in the seventh century and live as they did back then in Medina. Does that provide a little insight into what is going on? We are Romans; destroy the idols. Occasionally, you will hear from the Islamists in Egypt that they need to blow up the pyramids and the Sphinx for the same reason. And of course, the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan – same kind of thing. They have to destroy history. They do not understand history other than as something that has to be destroyed.

Here is an interesting little thing that if you have read the Qur’an, you might have overlooked. Who names the animals in the Qur’an? Okay, who names the animals in Genesis? Adam names the animals, and they are what he names them. They are paraded before him. It is Adam who gives them their names. Just as God gave Adam dominion over them, that dominion is expressed by his naming them.

So who names the animals in the Qur’an? Man? No, Allah names the animals. Man hasn’t the power to name the animals.

Now, naming things is the means by which reality becomes intelligible to us. It is through our naming of things that we apprehend them. If you cannot name things, can you understand them? No, so man in the Qur’an hasn’t the power to name things.

Now it gets even more interesting because the angels complain to Allah, and say: why did you make this man from out of a clump of dirt when all he is doing or going to do is cause mischief in your creation? Allah is miffed that the angels would have the nerve to remonstrate with Him in this manner. So he says in effect to them, ‘Oh yeah? Well, if you are so smart, you tell me the names of the animals.’

Surely, you would think the angels would know them – these pure spirits, pure intelligences. And what does the angel say? “Oh, you who know all, Allah, you know we do not know the names of the animals. We only know what you tell us.” So, not even an angel has the rational capability of apprehending reality through naming. What can they know? They can only know what Allah tells them. In other words – please pay attention to this point because it is going to become very important shortly – their only source of knowledge is revelation, not their intellects, not their reason.

Let us talk very briefly about how the Qur’an considers itself and what it thinks of us and the Jews. Much of this is laid out in the fifth Surah in the Qur’an. Allah says to the Jews (I paraphrase), “I had a covenant with you, I gave you my word.” It is implied that they were given the Holy Land as part of this covenant. And what did the Jews do then? “They changed my words.” The Jews had the temerity to change Allah’s words, as a consequence of which, as it says: “cursed be the Jews forever.”

Then Allah says, alright, the Jews did this terrible thing. I will do it another time. So I gave the Christians my revelation, the original revelation before the Jews changed it. Now the Christians have it. And what did the Christians do? They came up with this cockamamie idea that I had a son. I have no son. You may be surprised to learn that Jesus, ‘Isa, appears more in the Qur’an than does Muhammad. And more often than not, at every appearance of Jesus in the Qur’an, he will say to Allah, “I never said I was your son. I would never say I was your son.”

And you may know that the first extant, written record of Islam is on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. At the base of the dome in Arabic script it says, “I have no associates.” Islam, if anything, is radical monotheism in the affirmative, and, if anything, it is a denial of the Trinity and of the Incarnation. If you read Islam, it is constantly full of [Allah’s declarations] “I have no associates, I have no partners.” Every time that is said, it is meant there is no Trinity and there was no Incarnation.

And another interesting thing, what do you think the Trinity is in the Qur’an, how it is mentioned in the Qur’an? Father, Son, and Mary. No wonder they are upset by what they think is the Christian notion of the Trinity. I would find that absurd, too. Where did Muhammad get the idea that Christians think the Trinity is Father, Son, and Mary?

Well, there was a heretical sect in northern Arabia called the Collyridians that believed something like this, and no doubt Muhammad on one of his [travels] – you know, he was a trader and he traveled a great deal, probably ran into the Collyridians, and there it is in the Qur’an.

So Allah says, ‘I am going to do it one last time. I am going to give you my original revelation, undiluted by the Jews and the Christians, one last time to you, Muhammad. You are the Seal of the Prophets. You are the last one. I am not going to do it again. [This is] my final revelation.’ Therefore, Muslims regard our [Christian] religion as superseded because now they have the original. And how do they regard the original?

There was a huge dispute in the early ninth century about the Qur’an amongst Muslims. One side of the dispute said, well, the Qur’an was revealed in history. It is a historical document, just like we regard the Bible, right? It was revealed at a certain time in a certain place to certain people in the language they spoke. And to understand it, you have to understand all of the circumstances on which it was contingent – the culture, the customs, the things they were referring to. And that is how you can finally come to an understanding of what it meant. So there was one school in Islam that regarded the Qur’an very much the way we regard the Bible, still God’s word, but it is an historical document. The other side said, oh no, it is not an historical document, it is ahistorical. It has existed as it is today in the Qur’an in Arabic, coexisting with God, Allah, in heaven forever.

So, God does speak Arabic. I mean that literally. So, in other words, that school of Islam that says the Qur’an has literally coexisted with God forever as it is today, changeless, means it is not contingent on any historical circumstances. It is ahistorical. It is outside of time. It is not in the historical narrative – just as I was explaining, this loss of any sense of history. Therefore, the interpretive range, you see, is vastly diminished.

And by the way, that means you do not examine the words etymologically. I have a great friend in England who is a wonderful scholar. He knows all the Semitic languages. When I have a question about the Qur’an, he will tell me about this word. And he will say, well, this word has Aramaic roots, [or] there is a Hebrew thing here. He will trace the etymology of the word back to its origins.

In the latter school regarding the Qur’an that I just told you about, you cannot do that because there is no etymological development in a document that has coexisted coeternally with Allah, right? Because there is no before, during, and after. It has always been that way.

By the way, there was a wonderful German theologian [Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz] much beloved by Benedict XVI, whom I met several years ago, who came up with wonderful term to use regarding the concept of the Qur’an versus Christianity. In Christianity, she said, we have the Incarnation, God-become-man. In Islam, they have the inlibration, God-become-book.

So, the Qur’an plays a role in Islam analogous to the role of Christ in Christianity, “inlibration” as opposed to Incarnation. That, by the way, is why you see the reactions in the Muslim world from any desecration of the Qur’an, like that idiot pastor in Florida who with his congregation of ten people burned a Qur’an. The reaction would be the same if you saw someone desecrating the Eucharist. We would be very upset, wouldn’t we? Of course, we would. This is analogous to a desecration of the Qur’an for a Muslim. I am not excusing it. I am just explaining that so you can understand what is the holiest thing to them.

Now, there is another interesting thing that [the German theologian] pointed out, and that is the character of the revelation. She contrasts Gabriel’s appearance in the Qur’an to Gabriel’s appearance in Luke to Mary. So, what happens to Muhammad when he has his first experience? First of all, he thinks it is demonic. He thinks this alien force has him in its grip and it is going to crush him and capsize his chest.

And this presence says to him, write. And he says I cannot write. Then it happens again, and again he thinks he is going to be extinguished by this force. Write! I cannot write. It happens again. Finally, this presence, who he is now convinced as Gabriel, says recite. And of course, that is what Qur’an means, the recitation.

This is contrasted then with the appearance of Gabriel to Mary. By the way, the condition in which Muhammad describes himself – and of course, he was described by others when he was having his visions, some of which seem to suggest he might have had epilepsy – in any case, he is in a trance. His rational faculties are suspended. In a typical oriental encounter with the divine, it is just totally mystic. You are not engaged intellectually with it. You are overwhelmed, overpowered by it.

Now, when Gabriel comes to Mary, she, of course, is startled, she is surprised, and she is frightened, but she is not overwhelmed. She is not in a trance. Her rational faculties are not suspended because when she is given this announcement, what does she do? She asks a question: how can this be? And only when it is answered in a way satisfactory to her, as mysterious as it was, that she assents. She gives a rational assent and says let it be done according to your will. So, she rationally consents as, within Christianity, faith is considered a rational assent of the will, not so in the submission that is depicted within Islam.

So do you see the different character of these things?

Now with the little time that we have left, I have got to quickly tell you about this amazing history in Islam in the ninth century, and this is a story I laid out in detail in my book The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

When the Muslims conquered such a large part of the Byzantine Empire, and all of the Persian Empire, they encountered civilizations vastly superior to theirs. And in the case of Christianity, not only did they encounter Hellenic Greek standards of learning, but also a Christian apologetics that was suffused with Greek philosophic ideas.

So how were they going to defend their faith in the face of this sea of Christians in whom they were living? So the questions first arise within the Muslim world: What is the relationship between our revelation and reason, and what is the relationship between reason and God? [These are the] same questions Judaism asks; the same questions Christianity asks. Now Islam begins asking them.

And the first answers came from the first theological school in Islam, called the Mu’tazilites. There answer was as follows. God is rationality and justice. He gave us our reason to come to know him through the rational order of His creation. He gave us our reason to discover right from wrong, the just from the unjust. And He gave us our free will because it is incumbent upon us to choose the good and the just. And this is not just an obligation for Muslims, it is an obligation for every person because every human being has the gift of reason and free will.

Does that sound like the Islam you know? But it sounds familiar, doesn’t it, because the clear influences of Greek thought and Christianity are there.

This reached its apogee in the beginning of the ninth century with Caliph Al-Ma’mun, the greatest exponent and supporter of Greek thought in the history of Islam. He sponsored the first Arab philosopher, Al-Kindi. He started the House of Wisdom in Baghdad to translate all of the Greek philosophical texts.

Aristotle came to Al-Ma’mun in a dream, and he asked Aristotle, what is the good? And Aristotle said, it is what is rationally good. And that is the answer he embraced by sponsoring Arab philosophy, by sponsoring the rational school of theology called the Mu’tazilites.

Now, the leading Mut’tazilites said the first obligation of man is to reason, not to submit, but to reason. Why is that? It is because the existence of God is not self-evident. Therefore, you must engage in speculative reason to consider whether or not He exists. And when you read these Mu’tazilite theologians, you see they come up with reasons for the existence of God that sound very much like the ones Thomas Aquinas came up with in the thirteenth century.

Then they ask themselves, well, how do we know He exists. We can reason to that through observation. Has He spoken? Well, He might have, but what about this claim to revelation here in the Qur’an? Is it genuine? How would we know? Again, their answer was through reason. Does it say anything unreasonable or anything that would make us deny our reason to accept it?

And sure, they found things in there that did not make sense because it says God has hands and feet, and He sits on a throne. That cannot be true because He is a pure spirit. So they said that must not be meant literally. It must be meant metaphorically. So you bring what is not in accord to reason in accord with reason. Again, does that sound familiar? Of course, that sounds very familiar to a Christian in respect to understanding the Bible.

By the way, Al Ma’-mun as caliph made free will a state doctrine, against the strong vein of predestination that was already present in Islam. He said no, man is free; he will be held to account. He also made it a state doctrine that the Qur’an was created and did not coexist coeternally with God.

The next school of theology that arose were the Ash’arites, who denied every single point of the Mu’tazilites. God is not rationality and justice, He is pure will and power. He has nothing to do with reason. He is above and beyond reason. Man does not have the capability of knowing good from evil, or the just from the unjust. His reason is incapable of knowing that, first of all, because man is corrupted by his self-interest, and second of all, because there is nothing to be known.

God, Allah, is the first and only cause of all things. There are no secondary causes. There is no cause and effect in the natural world. Here we go. What is happening here? What just happened? Gravity. Okay, everyone here has committed the sin of shirk, which is to assign a thing to something other than God. To say that there is a law of gravity means that you have associated a cause to a natural force that is not God himself.

So according to Ash’arism, it is God who raised my hand, God who released my hand from the pen, and God who made the pen fall down. Now, the next time he may cause it to fly sideways or up to the ceiling because He can do anything. There are no natural laws. He does everything individually, specifically, and momentarily.

Now what do you think is happening here? I am moving my hand? Shirk again. You committed the sin of shirk. That is how it is really happening: Everything is constituted by time/space atoms that have no nature. And whatever something is, [that] is what Allah agglomerates it into for an instance. Then all of these time/space atoms are annihilated, and then they are reconstituted, and they can be reconstituted as anything Allah wants because things have no nature.

So will this handsome young man stay a handsome young man while I finish this sentence, or will he change into a potted plant? And if you say no no, he will remain as he is, and your reason is because he has the nature of a human being, shirk again.

I see a few grey beards like myself in the audience who would remember 9mm films and the fact that each separate frame was a distinct shot separate from the next frame but slightly different from it, and only when it moved on the sprocket did it create the illusion of movement. That is a good analogy to the metaphysics of these Ash’arites. That is what is happening in their metaphysics. Things are being annihilated and reconstituted almost instantaneously. It is only Allah who does it. Nothing is anything in and of itself, so there is no nature and there are no laws of nature.

The Declaration of Independence would have been impossible here. And obviously, there is nothing you can know about good and evil through your reason because you can only know those things through the laws of nature. So what do you have? What do you have in order to know good and evil? Remember the angels? You only know what He told us. All we have is the revelation of the Qur’an, and of the Hadith, [and] the Sunnah in Islam. So these kinds of Muslims, the majority of Sunni Muslims, follow the Ash’arite school. Al Azhar in Cairo, the most important educational institution in the Sunni world, follows the Ash’arite school. [They] believe that you can only know right from wrong through revelation.

And what you will see in Islam, in Sharia law, is that every potential thing you might think of doing has been codified in one of five ways from halal to haram. And the only way you will know whether what you are going to do will send you to hell or to paradise is by knowing this Islamic revelation and law.

But since everything you do, including bathroom habits and dietary things, is covered by these laws, it is very hard for any single individual to know them. So what you do is you seek a ruling from an imam or a Qadi for them to tell you in a fatwa, I can do this or I cannot do it, because your reason cannot tell you.

There is a famous principle in Islamic jurisprudence: reason is not a legislator. Reason is not a legislator. By the way, if you are wondering why constitutional democratic government never developed indigenously in the Muslim world, this principle can help you get there because if reason is not a legislator, why have legislatures? Just as you can understand why science was stillborn in much of the Muslim world. If there are no laws of nature, why go looking for them? Why try to discover them? If God is doing everything directly, there is nothing for you to find out.

Now, how far does this kind of thing go?

In Pakistan, when General Zia ul-Haq was the [president/dictator, the imams got very upset about the weather reports on Pakistani media, on television, and demanded that the weather forecasts be removed, which General Zia did for several years.

Now what is the problem? The problem is if God directly creates the weather, it is an act of giant presumption on your part to predict it because no one knows what God is going to do. If God is incalculable, if he acts for no reasons, then you should not be able to calculate the weather. Do you see how far this thing can go?

Unfortunately, this school of thought triumphed. After Al Ma’-mun, there were three more caliphs who followed his school of thought, the Mu’tazilite school of thought. Then Caliph Mutawakkil in the middle of the ninth century suppressed the Mu’tazilites, and they had to run for their lives. By force, the Ash’arite school of Islam prevailed, the school that denies cause and effect are natural, denies you can know good and evil, and denies that you can know anything outside of revelation regarding morals. They won.

Philosophy was extirpated from the Muslim world. Poor Al-Kindi, the first Arab philosopher – his library was confiscated, and he was driven through the streets of Baghdad with whips, and the teaching of philosophy [was] forbidden.

I am just going to give you a couple of more contemporary incidents to help you grasp the effect of this culture that became dysfunctional because of this distorted theology, this distorted idea of who God is.

I have a young, Kurdish acquaintance who went on the Hajj in Mecca with a very pious friend. As they were circling the Kaaba, and his very pious friend reached over and touched the famous black stone. And it was cool to the touch, and he exclaimed, “Look, this is a miracle directly from Allah. Under the hot, blazing, Saudi sun, the black stone is cool.”

So my more skeptical Kurdish friend touches it. Indeed, it is cool. How can that be? So he goes around the Kaaba until he finds a set of stairs going down, at the bottom of which he discovers a refrigeration unit. So he takes his pious friend, walks him down the stairs, points to it, and says, “Look, this is why the black stone is cool.” What was the reaction of the pious friend? Outrage. Outrage. It was a direct assault on his theology.

Now, some of my friends who have trained the militaries in the Middle East and with our Iraqi allies would encounter this kind of problem. When you try to get an Iraqi soldier to wear his Kevlar vest, when it is 110 degrees, the attitude was: if my time has come, the Kevlar vest will not save me. And if my time has not come, why should I wear the Kevlar vest?

In trying to get them to pay attention to marksmanship and things like this, weapons maintenance – once again, [there is a] famous passage in the Qur’an [in which] Allah says, it was not you who shot the arrow, it was I. So if the bullet is going to hit the target, Allah is going to put it there, not because you have aimed it correctly, right?

[There is the] same problem with seatbelts in the Middle East. Friends of mine who have lived in the Middle East all of their lives encountered this. If your time has come, the seatbelt is not going to save you. If it has not come, why wear the seatbelt? And so, you also see the exclusive concentration on Allah as the first and only cause of things in the interpretation of events: the giant tsunami in South Asia. What happened there on the beaches of Indonesia and India? Well, it turns out that was high tourist time, people were drinking and fornicating on the beaches. So Allah sends this wave to destroy them. They have to understand it through the first cause.

I actually went to an Islamist website and saw a satellite photo of this tsunami. Superimposed on it was the Arabic script for Allah, which, you see, was completely congruent with the tsunami. So the tsunami itself spelled Allah. You can imagine the Muslim press about Katrina, punishing these materialistic, atheistic, sex-obsessed, imperialistic Americans. Directly, Allah is punishing them.

So I know it is getting late, and I do not want to go on too [long]. But is this all of Islam? No, it is not all of Islam, but it is a major portion of it, and why it is dysfunctional.

I would simply point out to you the Arab-UN Human Development reports, written all by Arabs. They are very powerful documents. [They] found that the 300 million plus Arabs come in next to last in every area of human development (education, healthcare, GDP, number of books translated, number of patents registered, and in one instance even at the bottom). The only thing that keeps them from being at the bottom is sub-Saharan Africa.

So you have to ask yourself: how is it that this once great civilization has ended up in this dysfunctional fashion? In the first half of the ninth century in Baghdad, the court of Al-Ma’mun was one of the most resplendent in the world. At that time, maybe a Chinese emperor could have competed, but it was a marvel. When you hear about the Golden Age of Islam, this is what we are talking about. But what happened is Islam de-Hellenized itself, and has now suffered the catastrophic consequences of that, just as we shall suffer the consequences if we continue to de-Hellenize ourselves.

Now, just so you know, there is nothing Islamophobic about this. I want to read to you from King Hussein’s last interview, King Hussein of Jordan. Of course, he was a descendant of Muhammad. And he was asked by a journalist the following question: “Would you agree that the Muslim decline can be dated from the ninth century when Islam missed the chance to become the religion of reason and moderation by crushing the Mu’tazilite movement?” King Hussein [replied], “That is essentially correct, and we must do what we can to change that now.” There you have it.

At the Westminster Institute where I work, three of the four most recent speakers were Muslims. We do a lot of work with Muslim intellectual reformers, all of whom give it the same diagnosis that King Hussein did and know that Islam needs to reopen fundamental theological questions about who God is and what is his relationship to reason, and to restore the role of reason in that debate. I will tell you that one Muslim philosopher said that the future of Islam will be Aristotelian, or it will not be.

In the political aspect of it, let me refer to this brief statement by Abdolkarim Soroush, a Muslim philosopher. He is addressing the question of whether you can have democracy in Islam, the way it is currently thought of. Here is his answer, “you need some philosophical underpinnings, even theological underpinnings in order to have a real democratic system. Your God cannot be a despotic God anymore. A despotic God would not be compatible with a democratic rule, with the idea of rights. So you even have to change your idea of God.”

Needless to say, that is a very tall order.

And unfortunately, the idea of God, which has gained such purchase in the Muslim world today is the one that was expressed by Osama bin Laden when he quoted his spiritual mentor in that first tape after 9/11, “Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.” When I read that, I thought: I think I had better study Muslim theology. How could that be? It could only be if God is not a god of reason and justice but is only a god of pure will and power because then there is nothing to stop making terrorism an obligation in bringing all things into submission to him.

Please let me stop there and entertain any questions you have. You have been very patient. Thank you very much.


Audience member:

How is it that the United States goes and makes treaties with a group of people who do not have an obligation because of the way they think to keep their word with infidels? So why make a treaty with them? This does not make sense to me.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I mean there are responsible governments in the Muslim world. And there are models even within Muhammad’s lifetime of at least temporarily keeping a treaty, but when you are dealing with a kind of Islam which does not acknowledge the grounds for keeping a treaty, you are a fool to make them. For instance, the current agreement with Iran, which is not a treaty, by the way. Only John Kerry and President Obama know what it is. All we know is that the Iranians will not keep it, which makes the greater fools of us. So there is not a uniform answer to your question.

You know, I worked for President Ronald Reagan, and I would repeat, trust but verify.

Audience member:

Are democratic elections compatible with the philosophy of Islam?

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, that depends. That depends on which form of Islam you are speaking of. For instance, in Great Britain with the Islamists, the fundamentalist Muslims, when it comes time for parliamentary elections, the imams tell people, you may not vote, because voting is contesting God’s law. Man’s law is illegitimate. Only God’s law is legitimate. Therefore, voting in an election for people who are going to make man’s laws is haram; it is forbidden.

On the other hand, you have countries like Indonesia, which are culturally different from the Arab world, and you also have many Muslims in India, who, of course, are living in a larger democracy where some compatibility has been found. So I do not think you can give a blanket answer, but the whole intellectual impetus in the Muslim world is against that and not for it. So the changes that are sweeping through the Islamic world are against democratic, constitutional development, not for it. And it has its roots, as you can see, in this school of theology that has dominated.

Audience member:

If there is no idea of progress in Islam, if there is no sense that man has a relationship with God, then what is even the purpose of humanity?

Robert R. Reilly:

What is the purpose of humanity? [It] is to submit and obey.

I have to tell you, you know, because I have worked with Muslims for years, I forgot to do something I usually do when I begin that may help you answer that question, despite all of the enormous problems I have pointed out. If by the way, we went outside of Mass here at Saint Mary’s on Sunday, and we stopped people coming out from the church, and said, by the way, are you an Augustinian or a Thomist? What do you think they would say? To keep this in perspective, if we went out and stopped a Muslim and said, are you a Mu’tazilite or an Ash’arite, [they would say] what? In other words, they are just trying to live life as best they can with the God they know, and these metaphysical and philosophical things, many Muslims do not even know this stuff. Needless to say, [this is to] know far more about Islam than many Muslims do at this philosophical and theological level. So does that help answer at all the part about [humanity]?

Audience member:

It is to obey God in a sense for fear of damnation?

Robert R. Reilly:

Yes, he is a very fearful God, that is true, but also you have to remember every surah of the Qur’an, except the first one, begins with, Oh Allah, the all merciful. Now, Allah can be merciful or not, and no one can say when He will be one, and when He will be the other. When He is pure will and power, He does not have to be. You can simply hope for it. So it is very problematic, and, in many manifestations, it is a religion of fear.

As much as Muslims love God, it is a one-way street. I mean that literally. In Ash’arite theology, God cannot love man even though man has a duty to love God. That is because God is perfect and complete in Himself. Therefore, He would not love this little creature down there. So that is part of the complexity of this.

On the other hand – I have to just say this very quickly – if you have this arid, stark theology, what happens to that thirst for union with God that is in almost every human soul? Well, you have heard of Sufism, have you not? This is frowned upon by Orthodox Sunni, but Sufism is the mystical side of Islam. And there are Sufi mystical orders in Turkey and North Africa, and they concentrate on this mystical union with God, which is not copacetic with Sunni Muslim theology. But the thirst for that, let’s say, overcomes the theology, which is why the Muslim imams are not happy with Sufism. But that is a very beautiful side of Islam. And Sufi mystical poetry is extremely beautiful and also, by the way, heavily influenced by Christian mysticism, as well.

Audience member:

How does this align itself with totalitarian regimes?

Robert R. Reilly:

That is the next to last chapter in The Closing of the Muslim Mind. Very quickly, first of all, those totalitarian regimes are usually anti-Christian and anti-Western, so that would make, perhaps, for a natural alliance even though they are atheistic regimes. Number two, those regimes, whether Nazism, which was much admired in the Arab world and still is, or Communism, which is based on the primacy of will, pure will, over reason – and since this form of Islam is also based on the primacy of will over reason, you can see at that level there is a natural alliance. Does that help? If not, the book is there. I am happy to sign books for you.

Audience member:

When we were in Israel, we saw a sign, huge, as large as that screen, and it was essentially saying that if you are not Muslim, you are doomed to damnation. Do they honestly believe that if you are not a Muslim, you will be damned?

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I have bad news for you, in particular. In the hadith, [Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 29, Book 2, Number 22, it is said that] Hell is filled primarily with women.

Audience member:


Robert R. Reilly:

Why? I am going to have to call your attention to the Qur’an and the hadith. But do they seriously believe that if you are [not a Muslim, you are damned]? Yes, I think so. Well, technically yes, you see you have to understand this. It is called the din al-fitrah, the religion natural to man. It is the religion. So in other words, you were born a Muslim. Everyone here was born a Muslim. Adam was a Muslim. Abraham was a Muslim. Jesus was a Muslim. It is din al-fitrah. You are born a Muslim.

In fact, I said this to a Catholic Cardinal once. I said, Your Eminence, you were born a Muslim and your mother apostatized you. You should have seen the look he gave me. So if someone converts to Islam, they do not convert, they ‘revert’ to Islam. You see what I mean? In other words, you have denied the religion that is natural to you. It is a substitution for human nature, the din al-fitrah, so that you are obstinate in not accepting Islam. Plus, the fact that you are a woman. It does not look good for you, I am afraid. But if you buy the book, you can find your way out of this. Thank you very much.