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Why Islamic Moderates Are So Scarce
It goes back to a ninth-century theological dispute.


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As past statements of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf continue to surface, many Americans have concluded that the would-be builder of a mosque at Ground Zero is lying when he calls himself a “moderate” representative of his faith. The more disturbing possibility, however, is that he’s telling the truth — that Rauf is indeed the voice of mainstream Islam.

One indication is the resounding silence from the rest of the Islamic community. If that community were truly moderate — as we in the West understand the term — one might expect it to distance itself from a man who blames the U.S. for the 9/11 attacks, says we have more innocent blood on our hands than al-Qaeda, and refuses to disown the genocidal agenda of Hamas.

A few brave Muslim individuals have indeed come out against the mosque, but they are exceptions. Where are the large numbers of Muslims who find Rauf’s statements offensive? Where are their organizations and institutions? Why aren’t they weighing in to repudiate Rauf and his apparent aims?

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It’s a common problem. Each time some new offense is perpetrated in the name of Islam — whether it’s the latest suicide bombing in a public square or a woman’s being beaten and mutilated by her own family — it is mostly Western leaders and the press who voice their disapproval. The more one looks for the larger Muslim community to denounce the violence, the more “moderate Islam” seems to vanish like a mirage in the desert.

Why this is so — what happened to moderate Islam and what sort of hope we may have for it in the future — is the subject of Robert Reilly’s brilliant and groundbreaking new book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind. Reilly is a veteran of the Reagan White House, director of the Voice of America under George W. Bush, a board member of the Middle East Media Research Institute, and a frequent contributor to numerous national publications. He has made a deep dive into Muslim thought and history to discover the sources of the present Islamic condition.

The result is anything but dry. Closing is a page-turner that reads almost like an intellectual detective novel. It is among those few brave books on Islam — others would include Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Andrew McCarthy’s recent The Grand Jihad — that should be read by anyone who wants to understand one of the most fundamental causes of conflict in the 21st century.

Reilly does in fact locate the elusive moderate Islam — back in the 8th and 9th centuries, when the rationalist Mu’tazilites dominated Islamic thought under Caliph al-Ma’mun. The period is often referred to as the “golden age of Islam,” when that civilization produced some of its highest achievements in philosophy and science. It didn’t last. In 849, the second year of the reign of Caliph Ja’afar al-Mutawakkil, the Mu’tazilites were overthrown. Holding Mu’tazilite beliefs became a crime punishable by death, and the decidedly anti-rationalist Ash’arites soon came to dominate the faith, as they would continue to do, in one form or another, through the modern era.

What makes Closing so compelling is Reilly’s ability to tie seemingly arcane questions of Islamic theology to many of the characteristics of Islamic civilization that we in the West find so hard to fathom. Fundamentally, Ash’arism was a rejection of “natural law” and reason in favor of an all-powerful God of pure will and power. The idea of an ordered universe that behaves according to certain ordained laws — whether moral or physical — would have been understood by the Mu’tazilites. For the Ash’arites, this was blasphemy, an outrage against God’s omnipotence.

In the language of philosophy, this way of looking at the world is known, somewhat confusingly, as “voluntarism.” To quote Reilly, it “holds that God is the primary cause of everything and there are no secondary causes. There is no causal mediation. Therefore, what may seem to be ‘natural laws,’ such as the laws of gravity, physics, etc. are really nothing more than God’s customs or habits, which He is at complete liberty to break or change at any moment.”



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