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Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

A Response to Robert R. Reilly

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Robert R. Reilly (AFPC)

Robert R. Reilly pleads insanity on behalf of Sunni Islam.

When I read this post by Robert R. Reilly, author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind, I intended to respond to it, as it did not make sense based on what I had read of Sunni Ash’arite theology. But after my written request to post a response on The Catholic Thing was ignored, I convinced myself that it was simply not worth responding to.

Since then, I have been finding Reilly’s view—that today’s Islam is inherently unreasonable—more prevalent, and thereby more worthy of attention.

I would first like to emphasize, before addressing his argument, that my response is not a philosophical vindication of Sunni Ash’arite theology but a practical endeavor. The practical implications of the view that Sunni Islam is unreasonable is that the ideas and actions that result from it are incoherent—unexplainable. If we accept this, then there is no use in trying to explain or justify anything that the Muslim world does. Suddenly, all the things that we cannot understand are not even worth understanding. Suddenly, the proximate cause of everything (disagreeable) that happens in the Islamic world becomes misguided fundamentalism. Consciously or not, Reilly is justifying the ultra-expedient “talking to a wall” mentality that has pervaded Western foreign policy—and the violence that naturally comes with it. The additional fact that he “has taught at the National Defense University and served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense” is telling, and perhaps worrying.

For the sake of space, I will provide no synopsis of Reilly’s post, so before I continue, I encourage the reader to read his argument.

Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram

In his post, Robert Reilly is seeking to explain the murderous practices of Boko Haram, an Islamist group in northern Nigeria. He does so by describing their practices as consistent with the theology of Sunni Islam—specifically the dominant Ash’arite school. The implication of this consistency is, significantly, that mainstream Islam is supportive of the terrorism of Boko Haram and organizations like it. But Reilly bases this supposed consistency on two troublesome premises: (1) an oversimplification of Ash’arite theology and (2) an unprecedented assumption.

The logic of his argument is as follows:

1. The Ash’arite school claims that there is no rational order in nature (no cause and effect) because it would impinge upon God’s omnipotence.

2. Since there is no rational order in nature, the Ash’arite school must think that God is not logos, or “reason” (rational).

3. “If God is not reason, then there is no barrier to the employment of violence in advancing faith.” Thereby, the Ash’arite school condones the actions of Boko Haram.

First of all, the Ash’arite school does not make the claim that there is no rational order in nature. We need look no further than al-Ghazali, the Ash’arite theologian most famous for addressing this topic, in order to understand it more clearly. In the Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali says that to claim that there is no rational order in nature as absurd:

“Indeed, God has created within us knowledge that he will not bring about everything that is possible and we do not assert that everything possible will necessarily come to be.”

This knowledge that God has created within us is the knowledge of real, predictable regularities in nature. It is our recognition—granted by God—that our books and jars of water will probably not turn into horses and apple trees, respectively, by the time we get home (his example, not mine). What al-Ghazali is trying to get at is merely that there are no necessary (independent-of-God) causal connections between natural events, even though we recognize patterns. God—being omnipotent—can turn books into horses on a whim (al-Ghazali argues this in order to prove that miracles are possible), but God—being rational—simply does not do that.

Which leads us to Reilly’s second premise: (2) Ash’arite belief in a necessarily non-rational God. This should, by now, be obviously incorrect, but it may help to see just how Reilly formulated this premise from a distinctly non-Islamic thought process, doing Ash’arite theology a great disservice.

“Reflecting upon the order in nature, the Greek philosophers concluded that God is logos. It was the rational order inherent in created things that led to an apprehension of the order in God as reason itself.”

By substituting Greek thought for Islamic theology, Reilly makes the argument that since the Ash’arites perceive no order in nature (a premise already falsified), they must also perceive no rational nature in God. But even with the truth of the first premise, that the Ash’arites see no order in nature, this conclusion does not follow. A nature without apparent order does not guarantee a God without reason.

With this said, I do not believe that there is any logical reason to conclude that that the Sunni Ash’arite school would condone the actions of Boko Haram, at least not for any of the reasons that Reilly gives.

Unfortunately, I do not think that a logical refutation of Reilly’s post—which was arguably meant to simply pander to a particular Western audience and encourage book sales—is enough to debunk his argument. I expect that (1) a more sophisticated argument is to be found in the paperback that he wants you to buy and that (2) Reilly’s ideas merely serve as a theological justification for peoples’ prior conclusions, and that there’s no arguing these points in reality.

But for those who are swayed by logical argument, I urge a close reading (and some healthy criticism) of what Reilly has to say. The practical consequences of his ideas are significant—as I hope I have demonstrated—and the currency of such ideas should be worrying, especially in the foreign policy sphere.

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