Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Robert Reilly on Lafif Lakhdar: Call for Islamic Rationalism

Robert R. Reilly

In looking for more information about the Tunisian Muslim reformer Lafif Lakhdar, whom I quoted in a post two days ago, I came across some of his remarks on rationality and Islam cited in an interesting interview that Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch conducted with Robert R. Reilly, author of a recently published book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, which dates that intellectual closing to Islam's early rejection of Mu'talizite rationalism and emphasis upon Allah's nature as pure, omnipotent will, limited by nothing, not even by rationality.

Mr. Spencer had asked about the possibilities for reviving the "period of Mu'talizite domination in Islam," which by virtue of its rationalism was"a kind of golden age of philosophical reason, intellectual innovation, and openness" in the Muslim world. Specifically, Mr. Spencer asked if there were any "Islamic thinkers today who are trying to do this," i.e., to revive Muslim rationalism. In response, Mr. Reilly cited Mr. Lakhdar as an example of one such Muslim thinker:
Reformist Tunisian-born thinker Latif (sic. Lafif) Lakhdar calls for a revival of "Mu'atazila and philosophical thought that subjected the holy writings on which the religion is based to interpretation by the human mind." He said "it is absurd to believe the text and deny reality."
Mr. Reilly is quoting from two different articles. The first is from Aluma Dankowitz's summary of Mr. Lakhdar's views in "Tunisian Reformist Thinker: Secularism is Vital for the Future of the Arab and Muslim World" (Memri, May 19, 2005, No. 222):
In addressing the question whether secularism means disconnection from Islam, Lafif Lakhdar explains that it is disconnection from the negative autocracy and theocracy in the Muslim world, but is also a revival of the connection with other elements in Islam -- such as mu'atazila [rationalist] and philosophical thought that subjected the holy writings on which the religion is based to interpretation by the human mind.
The second is from the article by Mr. Lakhdar that I cited a couple of posts ago, "Moving From Salafi to Rationalist Education" (Meria, Volume 9, No. 1, Article 3, March 2005):
Open religious rationalism -- subjecting the religious text to rational investigation and research -- ought to become the core of the aspired religious education in the Arab-Islamic region, since it is absurd to believe the text and deny reality.
Both of these Lakhdar citations appear to be related, given their chronological proximity (Spring 2005) and their mutual emphasis upon rationality applied to religious texts. Mr. Reilly -- in speaking of the 'de-hellenization' (expulsion of reason) that took place in Islam with the rejection of Mu'talizite rationalism -- goes on in the interview to make a point that I have also made:
If reason is illegitimate, how are differences to be adjudicated? Force will decide. The stronger will decide. Why does Islam use violence to affirm its theology? Because it is the theology of power, of the doctrine that "right is rule of the stronger," raised to the level of God. The primacy of the will always seeks success through force.

Benedict XVI told his audience in Regensburg that not only is violence in spreading faith unreasonable and therefore against God, but that a conception of God without reason, or above reason, leads to that very violence. This is the problem in Islam. That which is unreasonable is against God only if God is reason. This is not so in majority Sunni Islamic theology. He is pure will and power, unconstrained even by his own word. Therefore, there are no solid barriers between the statement that God is pure will and power, and the startling declaration of Abdullah Azzam, which Osama quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11, that "Terrorism is an obligation in Allah's religion." This can only be true -- that violence in spreading faith is an obligation -- if, as Benedict XVI said, God is without reason. This is why the problem we are facing is primarily a theological one.
In September 2006, I made much the same point as Mr. Reilly:
The Pope's larger theme lay in his subtle argument that Islam might have a problem with violence because it has a problem in its theology. If God's nature is defined centrally by his radically free will, then believers cannot appeal to reason in their aim to convert nonbelievers but must demand submission to an arbitrary God who cannot be rationally understood. If the force of reason cannot be used in converting nonbelievers, then the force of violence will be.
If Mr. Reilly and I are correct, then this problem at the heart of Islam will be very difficult to rectify, for an appeal to reason can be met by a resort to force, so how does one go about restoring rationality to the irrational?

Let us not give up hope, however, for even Christian theology had to overcome a radically voluntarist conception of God . . . and generally succeeded.

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At 4:02 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Yep! The Divine Comedy, birth-poem of Italian literature, would be unthinkable without the neo-Aristotelian Arab philosophers, who in fact are honored by Dante.
And more than that: I have recently read a brief essay on the many influences of muslim culture on this "holy Christian poem". (What about Milton?)

It must be honestly added, however, that both Dante and then the great poets in the Renaissance (Ariosto, Tasso) showed the enlightened muslims as a minority.

I sometimes think that the muslim world, in the 21st century, will surely have to change, though mainly not because of the impact against the western/christian civilization but against the 'ecomomic and cultural wall' of China. They are the two competitors.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Muslim world will probably need to change with respect to the various other world civilizations.

Samuel P. Huntington argued that the seven or eight extant civilizations will have to work harder to understand each other if conflict is to be avoided.

Islamic civilization might have to work harder at understanding itself . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:13 AM, Blogger Martha Werneck & Lícius Bosslan said...

Dear Professor;
I am a teacher and researcher in Visual Arts from the University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I am researching the game Lineage II for my thesis. This game is very popular in Brazil. I knew your blog through Professor Charles La Shure´s articles. I decided ask you a question because you work with medieval history and lives in Korea. The game that I research is fantastic –medieval themed and I would like to know how Koreans understand the medieval European history and if you see similarities between medievals European´s myths and South Korean´s myths. It is very important to me to know about your personal point of view, cause you live in Korea and have knowledge in this area.
If you could give me a clue about other articles related to this subject, I thank you very much.
Thank you for your attention and sorry about my poor english. Martha Werneck

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dear Ms. Werneck,

Unfortunately, I am utterly ignorant of the game Lineage II. Koreans seem to play a lot of computer games, so they undoubtedly play that one as well.

I don't know how familiar Korean players are with medieval myths of the West. I think that they've picked up some things from Hollywood movies, maybe also from fantasy literature, a bit from English literature courses -- and probably a lot from computer games.

I wonder if a look at Japanese players would prove interesting. Japan went through a feudal period, unlike Korea, so the figure of the knight can be seen in the samuri warrior . . . perhaps.

I wish that I were more helpful, but I'm too ignorant.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:54 AM, Anonymous Tom Ball said...

I am really behind in my studies on Islam, but this post today makes me think of one seeming contradiction. If a God of Reason is not the preferred image, whence comes the nearly obligatory formula when referring to Him..."Allah, the merciful, the compassionate."

At 7:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Tom, I've often puzzled over these words as well, but I wonder this invocation, "Allah, the merciful, the compassionate," isn't less a description and more a matter of flattery, words uttered in hopes of placating an unpredicatable ruler.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:02 AM, Anonymous Tom Ball said...

"O Lord please don't burn us,
don't grill or toast your flock.
Don't put us on the barbecue,
or simmer us in stock."

At 7:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perfect: "O Lord please don't burn us . . ."

And that goes in spades for Islam . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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