Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mervyn F. Bendle on the Muslim Mind's Closing

Mervyn F. Bendle

My online friend Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, recommends this review by Mervyn F. Bendle of Robert R. Reilly's Closing of the Muslim Mind. I've not read Reilly's book, though I've half a mind to, for Bendle's review makes the book sound remarkably cogent. Here's Bendle's summary of how Reilly accounts for Islam's rejection of reason (the pages cited being from Reilly):
Islam encountered Hellenic thought in the Byzantine and Sassanid (the last pre-Islamic Persian empire) territories that it conquered in its early years . . . . [This Hellenic thought] 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).
The basic point, and Islam's fundamental problem, is that Allah's will came to be understood as superior to His rationality, what Bendle and Reilly call the "dehellenization" of Islam, an outcome that I think could only lead to the denigration of reason in an irrational appeal to fideism, the consequence of which is that all issues must, ultimately, resort to superior force for justification. Insha'Allah, after all.

But the more fundamental question for me -- and I haven't read the book by Reilly -- is why Islam made this choice to elevate Allah's will above His reason. Similar debates took place in early Christianity, and still take place, but Christian theology generally defines God's nature as supremely rational, thereby subordinating His will to His reason.

I suspect that the reason for this difference lies in the different historical circumstances in the early era of these two religions. Christianity lacked political power for it first 300 years or so and had to rely on persuasion, which included rational persuasion, to find converts among educated classes. Islam, by contrast, grasped political power within the lifetime of its founder, Muhammad, and thus had little need to rely on the force of reason to persuade educated nonbelievers when a more immediately effective type of force lay ready at hand.

For early Islam, the sword was mightier than the pen, and the religion spread rapidly that way, but there was a long-term price to pay for such intellectual bankruptcy in the closing of the Muslim mind: imperial decay and worldly powerlessness.

Or so I gather, but I need to read the book . . .

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At 6:48 PM, Anonymous sunni said...

A nice post.

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks . . . I think. But are you perhaps an advertisement?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As if....

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If as you anonymously and cryptically imply . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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