In The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, Robert R. Reilly argues that the Islamic theological doctrine of predestination (your fate is sealed even before you are born) and other Ash’arite principles have driven Muslims to a fatalistic, anti-intellectual dead-end, a “suicide” as Reilly quotes Fazlur Rahman as having described it.
Reilly makes the error, that I too have made, of thinking that the ulema (religious scholars) are somehow largely responsible for what Muslims think, what they value and how they behave. Reilly’s thesis is that scholarly theological positions hamper Muslim curiosity and intellectual openness. He thinks that religious scholars and their doctrines have the power to put a damper on the freedom of thought of Muslims. In his dystopian vision, intelligent Muslims are almost mind-controlled by a fatalistic Islam, and if only they would abandon this version of Islam, they would, as if by magic, acquire the ability to stop being closed-minded.
As is typical of Western discourses on Islam, Reilly compares the very worst examples of the people of the Middle East with the best of the West, and from this highly skewed comparison he concludes that Islam must be the reason why the Middle East is not doing as well as the West. Taking apart the many unfounded premises of his thesis to show why his conclusions are fatally flawed will take some doing, and I will attempt it in this review.
We must first take an important source of confusion out of the way; that the majority of people in Europe and the Middle East are not interested in intellectual achievement. Construction workers and truckers are not interesting in reading books and talking about philosophy whether they are European or Egyptian. Such people judge things according to their own senses, and it would be the height of fantasy to think that a Baghdad street grocer is going to be any less cynical and world-weary than a European one due to some theological doctrine.
It is only a minority of people who have libraries in their homes, who are interested in philosophical discussions, who think of the long-term good of their societies and come up with ways of achieving said good. The majority are happy to spend their time watching football and films and engaging in other non-intellectual pursuits. It is the intellectual minority, to whom I will refer as the “elite”, who are responsible for a country’s intellectual progress. These are middle and upper class people whose children go on to work in medicine, engineering, science and other demanding fields.
If Reilly is right that the presently dominant version of Islam causes closed-mindedness and is tantamount to “intellectual suicide”, then we’d expect this most important demographic when it comes to intellectual progress, this elite, to be severely affected by this suicidal doctrine. Men and women who would have been scientists and inventors in a different reality would instead be closed-minded and anti-intellectual worshipers at the feet of the religious scholars.
It sounds like the set-up for a good novel to be the one to free this neglected intellectual capital from the yokes of religious unreason to cause an explosion in creativity and genius that should cause seismic changes in the fabric of the Middle East. But is there any reality to this scenario? The question to ask is:
Are the elite of the Muslim world hampered in their intellectual curiosity by Ash’ari doctrine?
Reilly’s answer should be yes. These people would be responsible for intellectual progress; but there is supposedly little intellectual progress, therefore these people are instead closed-minded anti-intellectuals who need to be freed from harmful Islamic doctrines.
But the answer, in my experience of Muslims in various countries, seems to be a resounding “No!” The Muslim elite either create their own personal theological syntheses that are as rationalist, humanist and intellectually curious as that of any Westerner, or they become secular if they cannot find a way to reconcile the version of Islam they have received with their intellect and conscience.
Throughout the world, the religious scholars have very little power over actual, living and breathing Muslims. In the Western imagination, Muslim hordes listen to their religious scholars then zealously go on to implement whatever backward thing said scholars recommend. In the world of reality, Muslims politely listen to the preachers at the Friday sermons, then go out to think whatever they themselves choose to think. For over a thousand years generations of scholars have complained about how little power they have to enforce right-thinking over their populations.
There are people in Saudi Arabia today who still do not believe man has been on the moon. This is not because they are ignorant; it is because accepting the fact that man was on the moon would mean also accepting the chain of causal relationships that put him there, which is simply theologically unacceptable to them.
Reilly keeps quoting things like the above, thinking that they are somehow representative of Muslims, when in reality 1. the majority of Saudi’s educated Muslims find that laughably stupid, and 2. there are perhaps tens of thousands of Americans who do not believe the moon landings ever happened; is this because of Christianity’s incompatibility with science? and 3. Saudi Arabia, this supposed capital of Islamic backwardness, now produces more scientific research1 than Hungary, Thailand, New Zealand, Israel or Romania.2
A good illustration of this independence of the Muslim mind from religious scholars is the way Iran’s middle class reject the Shiite practice of temporary marriage, rightly recognizing it as legalized prostitution3, despite scholarly approval of it.
The Quran says:
There is no compulsion in religion… (The Quran, verse 2:256)
That is not just a prescription, but a prediction. In Islam, religious scholars universally have no power to prescribe, they only have the power to persuade, and failing to persuade, they get nowhere with the people. Regardless of what the religious scholars say, cosmopolitan Muslims continue to think what they consider to be correct and sensible, as best seen in Iranian middle class’s rejection of temporary marriages.
I respect Reilly’s valiant effort to explain an important issue within Islamic theology, but his error, that the religious scholars and their prescriptions and ideas make up the core of Islam and determine Muslim thought, is a very much fatal error, because it does not accord with reality. It sounds very sensible, it just doesn’t explain Muslim experience. This error is thoroughly critiqued by Shahab Ahmed in his What is Islam? He calls Reilly’s position (which is also that of many Western and Eastern scholars and intellectuals) the “legal-supremacist” position, the idea that the religious scholars somehow control Islam and the Muslim mind. While this sounds natural from the way we tend to conceptualize how a religion functions, it fails to explain the reality of Islam, in which religious scholars have little power and the Muslim elite only think and act after being persuaded by reasoned argument.
Most Muslims come from low-IQ nations and their thinking reflects this. But if you want to verify my view, simply talk to Muslims working in high-IQ fields; doctors, engineers, mathematicians. Talk to them, to these real-life Muslims, and you will find that they are just as rational and intellectually curious as the Europeans next door.
This does not fit with the way most Europeans envision Muslims simply because their (often negligible) experience of Muslims has been of low-IQ immigrants and news reports and documentaries about the horrors of the third world. These low-IQ immigrants are not interested in pursuits of the intellect similar to low-IQ Europeans. Philosophy is that last thing in the minds of the low-IQ populations of America’s Appalachian country. The error of considering Muslims closed-minded is very much the error of comparing high-IQ Europeans to low-IQ Muslims, an invalid comparison.
Compare high-IQ Europeans to high-IQ Muslims, and then tell me about closed-mindedness and other problems that Muslims supposedly suffer from, which they do not.
Islam has real theological problems, but these problems are largely limited to the religious scholars, who have little power over their cultures compared to the non-scholarly Muslim elite, who are often adept at Islamic reasoning and can argue with and critique what religious scholars say. These high-IQ Muslims rarely challenge the religious scholars in public, since this always leads to unpleasantness, therefore instead, Muslims by and large think whatever they want, practice Islam according to their own personal syntheses and the syntheses of their better educated relations, and let the preachers continue preaching what they preach unchallenged.
This situation is not ideal, but it is a far cry from the intellectual captivity of Muslim minds imagined by Reilly and others. Egypt is a very conservative country, yet its scientific output has increased from 4515 scientific papers published in 2005 to 17300 in 2016. It is common to brush such data aside by saying this progress is happening despite Islam. But have you actually visited the research institutions of Cairo and Alexandria and talked to the devout Muslims who work at these institutions and love and appreciate science and scholarship for their own sake? The next step in brushing these data aside is to say that these Muslims are suffering from some horrible cognitive dissonance as their faith and reason fight wars of attrition inside their heads, but are you a Muslim yourself or do you just really like psychological thrillers?
Among the Muslim elite there is no conflict. They dislike what they are told by the preachers when it contradicts reason, but they are perfectly capable of ignoring it and, again, creating their own personal syntheses; they read the Quran and see the vast room for interpretation contained therein; they pray and fast and follow Islam to the best of their ability, then maintain their own intellectual independence and love for reason despite what the scholar say, but not despite Islam, because their Islam has no conflict with reason.
This is a very complex sociological situation and unfortunately very few people have the sophistication to appreciate it the way it is instead of forcing their own Hollywood-inspired dystopian visions onto it.
And as is so common for Western scholars (and secular Middle Eastern scholars), he considers Wahhabism somehow a natural form of Islam that has the danger of spreading to all Muslim minds, despite the fact it is only practiced by a few percentage points of Muslims, largely sponsored by Saudi Arabia due its usefulness in justifying the Saudi family’s rule, and despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims consider it a limiting and unrespectable form of Islam. Wahhabism has no attraction for the majority of Muslims. The reason why Reilly has to focus on Wahhabism is that he is trying to explain why Islam is causing so much terrorism. Like almost all those who try to answer this question, he tries to find the reasons for Islamic terrorism within Islamic cultures and societies, when Islamic terrorism is always a political tool for different groups that seek power. Islam is not the cause for terrorism but the pretext for it, the way that “national security”, “democracy” and “freedom” are the pretext for the CIA’s murder of innocent people and its toppling of democratically elected governments. And the proof for that is that most devout Muslims are not terrorists and find terrorism repulsive.
Another reason for Reilly’s and other scholars’ mistaken understanding of the way Islam-the-sociological-phenomenon functions is the need to explain why Islamic science flourished for a few centuries then died out. The rise of the rationalist Mu’tazilites coincided with the rise of Islamic science, and the fall of the Mu’tazilites and the rise of Ash’arites coincided with the fall of Islamic science, and this correlation is taken as causation by such scholars.
It is just as likely that the rise of the Mu’tazilites was due to demand for it and its fall due to the end of that demand and the rise of demand for Ash’arite thought. The true start of the Islamic golden age was with al-Ma’mun, as is recognized by Reilly, who was a half-Persian surrounded by Persians, and who recreated the Persianate court culture of the non-Muslim Persian emperors before him. Al-Ma’mun started the process of the Indo-Europeanization of the Abbasid Empire, so that for over a century the caliphate was ruled by emperors who were over 90% Indo-European (Greek and Persian).
Think of almost any great “Islamic” scientist, thinker or scholar and there is a 95% chance or higher that they are Persian. Persians demand philosophy and rationality. The greatest patrons of Islamic intellectual efforts were the Indo-European Abbasid caliphs, their rich Pesian viziers (such as the Barmakids, who would be billionaires in today’s US dollars), and the Persian Samanid and Buyid rulers. The fall of Islamic intellectual culture started from around the year 1000, just as the Islamic world’s Persian elite were replaced by a Turkic military elite. The Turkic Mahmud of Ghazni started the trend of Muslim rulers ruling by force of arms and depending on war booty to survive rather than on economic development. Reading the history of the Medieval Islamic world, it can be seen that the Turkics demanded orthodoxy and promoted it; the Ghaznavids, the Seljuks, the Khwarezmians, the Mamluks, the Timurids, the Mughals, the Safavids, the Ottomans, the Qajars, all of these Turkic dynasties were staunch defenders of orthodoxy as a matter of national security, while also being patrons of the aesthetic and sensual arts (architecture, calligraphy, poetry, music) but ignoring intellectual pursuits. The Turkic military elite had little interest in philosophy while loving wine, poetry, massive buildings and sex with male concubines.
Therefore the story of the “closing of the Muslim mind” may actually be a story of the collapse of the demand for intellectual pursuits caused by an increasingly Turkic elite. The slaughter of perhaps more than half of the world’s Persian Muslims by the Mongols in the 13th century may have put the final nail in the coffin, preventing the rise of Persian dynasties or elites within the ruling Turkic Muslim dynasties.4
And things are changing. History has not stood still. The Turkic stagnation continued until 1799 when Napoleon crushed the Turkic Mamlukes, it also continued in the Turkic Ottoman Empire until some time later when the superiority of the Europeans in most areas become undeniable and painful enough to require change. The Turkic Qajars of Iran and the Turkic Mughals of India continued to staunchly defend their backwardness until, again, external forces caused their collapse.
And now that the Turkic control over the Islamic world is finally gone, we can see what instead is happening; throughout the Muslim world there is vast interest in philosophy, in science, in literature. Iran now publishes more scientific papers than Sweden, Poland or Belgium. Muslims, actual living and breathing Muslims, have thoroughly embraced the modern world and everything it offers. It is true that the religious scholars have yet to update their thinking, that their frameworks and paradigms are in some ways thoroughly out of date and clash with the modern world, but that is a problem for the religious scholars, not for Muslims. It is only a problem or crisis for Muslims if one buys into the falsehood that religious scholars have the power to prescribe and control culture. They have no such power. The only thing they can do is persuade, and faced with the Muslim elite, they very much fail at persuasion when what they say is unreasonable.
Reilly and many others make the error of reading the Islamic texts and listening to what the religious scholars say then going on to conclude that this explains Muslim behavior. It does not. It is time we abandoned this myth. Make an actual sociological study of the determiners of Islamic culture (the elite) and you will find that reason and common sense abound, and that the religious scholars and preachers are not taken seriously whenever they do not make sense—whenever they clash with the very-European modes of thinking of educated high IQ Muslims, whether in Malaysia or Morocco.
Reilly and many others have blamed people like al-Ghazali for their denial of causality; that causes do not necessarily lead to effects, as in the following passage that he quotes from al-Ghazali:
The connection between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually believed to be an effect is not necessary, according to us. For example, there is no causal connection between the quenching of thirst and drinking, satiety and eating, burning and contact with fire.
Al-Ghazali and others were doing their best to describe what a simulation is; they were in fact amazingly ahead of their time. They reconciled theology and science through this concept. Think of this universe as a simulation, similar to the universe inside a video game. In a video game, a tree does not burn because the fire touched it, it burns because the video game engine decided to run the tree-burning sequence when the apparent cause for the burning happened (The fire touching it). This is an incredibly advanced thinking that teaches that this universe, like the universe inside the film The Matrix, is entirely under the control of a higher power that can do with it whatever He wishes, but who maintains its integrity for His own purposes. Thinking of the universe as a simulation is in no way anti-science, and in fact is a hobby of certain advanced scientists and thinkers. Al-Ghazali goes on to say:
…it is within [divine] power to create satiety without eating, to create death without decapitation, to continue life after decapitation, and so on to all connected things…
What he is saying is that the one who is in control of this simulation can make any change to any variable from the outside, without having to follow the rules of causality within the simulation, the way that a video game engine can cause a tree to burst into flame without a fire touching it. What al-Ghazali was reaffirming was God’s absolute power; the theological idea that God is not limited by the laws of physics or any other limits existing within our universe, because our universe is like a simulation, and the One in charge of it is outside of it, not limited by it. This in no way discourages one from studying the world and appreciating it; one merely appreciates that there is a God beyond it all who has absolute power over it. Al-Ghazali was vastly ahead of his rationalist competition who couldn’t think outside of the box of the universe, imagining that God would have to obey the laws of physics.
The rationalist Mu’tazilites said that God cannot be unjust, that He is incapable of it. The Ash’arites said that God is capable of willing anything. This argument was a product of the limits of the imagination of the time; God can will anything, and He can make it obligatory upon Himself to be just even though He can be unjust if He wants. The Quran, in fact, gives us a clear pointer on this matter:
…He has prescribed mercy upon Himself… (The Quran, verse 6:12)
God can make things obligatory upon Himself, and reading the Quran, we get the sense that God has made a perfectly rational and logical universe, ruled by a perfectly just God who is capable of willing anything, but who, inside our simulation is the way He has described Himself in the Quran.
Reilly thinks that al-Ghazali’s doctrine impeded reason and rationality. He uses the example of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami’s criticism of the acknowledgment of causality in science textbooks as an example of its “profound effect”, when this is a political party who only has a minor following in Pakistan and whose opinions are not taken seriously by the majority of Muslims. This is very much like saying that the attack of certain Christians on Darwin’s theory proves that Christianity is anti-science. Reilly says:
The elimination of cause and effect makes prediction epistemologically impossible and theologically undesirable. This can result in some unusual behavior affecting everyday matters. Thus, points out Hoodbhoy, “Many, if not most, orthodox ulema contend that prediction of rain lies outside of what can be lawfully known to man, and infringes on the supernatural domain. Consequently, between 1983 and 1984, weather forecasts were quietly suspended by the Pakistani media, although they were later reinstated.
The above passage actually disproves Reilly’s thinking; even in a traditional and supposedly backward country like Pakistan, the ulema couldn’t get predictions banned for more than a year. What does that tell you? That Muslims by and large respect their own reason far more than scholary abuses of theology. The scholars won for one year and consistently lost every single year before and after that, despite Pakistan remaining a very much Muslim country.
Reilly takes side with Averroes (Ibn Rushd)’s misunderstanding of al-Ghazali, who says “whoever repudiates causes actually repudiates reason.” That’s only true if you cannot imagine what a simulation is. God is perfectly capable of maintaining a simulation that functions according to reason without Himself being bound by the simulation, and that is al-Ghazali’s point, and it is only the failure of Averroes’ and Reilly’s imagination that they cannot get this point.
Again, he [Averroes] points out that if causality is denied, “there is no fixed knowledge of anything,” because “true knowledge is the knowledge of the thing according to what it is in itself.”
Not necessarily. True knowledge can be an accurate description of how the simulation functions, and that is science. You can have exact knowledge of the functioning of a simulation without requiring the simulation to be “real”, realness is not necessary.
In this way, Ash‘arite metaphysics makes epistemology impossible and closes off its adherents from knowledge of reality.
Absolutely not at all.
I do not deny that Ash’arite ideas have been used to discourage and discredit science, but that is merely the pretext for it, it is done by anti-intellectual people, and their thinking is easily rejected by upper class Muslims who are the determinants of culture. In fact, whenever there has been a need for science and technology, the Ash’arite anti-intellectuals were summarily dismissed, as in the use of the cutting-edge of European thought in the development of guns and cannons in all modern Islamic empires (Ottomans, Safavids, Mughals).
When religious scholars abuse Islamic theology to attack science, the majority of Muslims will not say “They have the right idea, let’s turn back the clocks!”, they will instead exasperatedly say “God save us from your stupidity!” and in this way nearly the whole population will decidedly not abide by the unreasonable requests of the religious scholars, while remaining authentic, pious Muslims.
My point here is not to defend Ash’arite theology, which I believe needs updating, but it should be criticized for real faults rather than supposed faults. Reilly continually uses the excesses of certain minor sects and political groups in their support for unreasonable policies using Ash’arite theology as proof of its extreme influence on Muslim thought, despite the fact that the majority of Muslims consider these groups unrespectable and unworthy of being taken seriously. He ignores the opinion of the majority in favor of the minority, then considers the minority representative of the majority.
What will happen if Islam’s theological problems were resolved?
The sense one gets from Reilly and other writers is that if Islam’s theological problems were to be resolved, this would open wonderful new vistas to the minds of us limited Muslims. In reality, those vistas are already totally open to us, and all that would be accomplished by solving Islam’s theological problems would be the removal of an annoyance. We would hopefully hear fewer things at the Friday sermon that make us want to cringe.
It is very tempting for an intellectual, especially a Westerner, to think of himself or herself as a knight in shining armor chosen to rid the Muslim world of its backwardness, chosen to bring the Muslims out of the darkness of faith into the light of reason. But such a person, if they were to go to a cosmopolitan place like Cairo or Tehran, and if they were to have dinner at a devout upper middle class Muslim’s home, they will find that there is no need for the battering ram of reason and rationality they brought with themselves to break the closed gates of the Muslim mind, because there are no such gates. This can be quite disappointing, since it is so pleasurable to our egos to be knights and saviors.
Look at the books sold on the streets of Cairo, Tehran or Baghdad. The openness of the Islamic world of today to ideas from around the world would shock Medieval Islamic theologians (and Medieval Christian theologians). In the Islamic theocracy of Iran the books of freethinkers like al-Razi (Rhazes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Western thinkers like Nietzsche and Weber are read and talked about and no one bats an eye. This alone should be sufficient to show that the idea of “closed” Muslim societies and minds is uninformed fantasizing.
Islamic Egypt vs. Latin Christendom
Reilly quotes many Arab intellectuals lamenting the way Ash’arite theology caused backwardness and stagnation. Arab intellectuals, regardless of their position on the political spectrum, seem to be invariably almost Marxist in their trust in the infinite malleability of human nature. If only we could plant the correct ideas in the heads of the Arabs, we could create such a utopia! Islamic scholars share a similar belief; thinking that with indoctrination comes utopia.
What these Arab intellectuals are actually lamenting is that most Arabs are not as smart and skeptical as themselves, then, searching for the reason for this, they conclude that it is Islam’s teachings. This amateurish sociology of Muslims is emblematic of 20th century Arab thought, every Arab intellectual seems to consider himself or herself qualified to diagnose society’s ills and prescribe cures.
Human nature is not infinitely malleable, and a person’s IQ, which is largely genetically-mediated, is crucial to their patterns of thought and their ability to receive and adopt new knowledge.5 Arab intellectual achievement is in line with non-Muslim populations of similar IQ, therefore a professional sociologist who does not willfully choose to ignore IQ will see that the issue likely lies more with genetics than culture.
Arab intellectuals compare Egypt (IQ 81) with Sweden (IQ 100), then say that it must be some problem within Islam that is causing Arabs to not be like the Swedes in their intelligence and accomplishments. But if we were to actually make a fair comparison, we’d compare Egypt with countries of similar IQ, such as Nicaragua (IQ 81). In 2016 Egypt’s scientific output was one paper for every 5531 citizens, while for Nicaragua it was one paper for every 54166 citizens (according to SJR). Nicaraguans, despite not being limited by Ash’arite theology, despite being blessed with Christianity, are performing ten times worse than Egyptians at this important measure of intellectual achievement, despite similar IQ. If we were amateur sociologists like Reilly and the Arab intellectuals he quotes, we could conclude that Ash’arite theology improves intellectual output; Egypt, with its Ash’arite theological beliefs, is ten times more productive intellectually compared to a Christian country of equal intelligence. Should I write a book calling Nicaraguans to embrace Ash’arism so that they end their Christian closed-mindedness?
In fact, there isn’t a single non-Muslim country in the world that has an IQ similar to that of Egypt that is doing better intellectually from that data that I have looked at. Egypt, with all of its supposed Arab-Islamic mentality/backwardness, is outdoing all non-Muslim competitors of equal intelligence. Egypt is even outdoing Venezuala, Paraguay and Peru despite these countries’ higher IQs.
Iran’s average IQ is 84. Christian Armenia’s average is is 94. Guess who is outdoing who in intellectual achievement? Iran publishes 41% more scientific researcher per capita than Armenia6, despite its Islam and despite its IQ being lower by 10 points!
A hasty look at these data would suggest that Islam improves intellectual creativity. Egyptians are Muslims, yet they are outdoing non-Muslims of equal or higher intelligence at producing peer-reviewed scientific papers, a very difficult and intellectually demanding task. These data should be sufficient to show that Reilly and the Arab intellectuals’ belief that Islamic beliefs are holding Arabs back is likely all in their imagination; it is a hasty jump to conclusions that ignores the science of intelligence and its effects on intellectual outcomes.
[Note that saying Arabs have a lower IQ than Swedes does not mean that all Arabs have lower IQs than Swedes. It means that the frequency of high IQ people among Arabs is lower than among Swedes. If out of every fifty Arabs you meet, only one is interested in reading books, out of every 20 or 10 Swedes you meet, you will be able to find a similarly intellectually motivated person. Higher IQ nations have more high IQ individuals, lower IQ nations have fewer high IQ individuals, but they still have them.]
Reilly delves into the typical discussion of how Islam and democracy are incompatible, apparently totally unaware that Christian countries of similar IQ have equally dysfunctional systems of governance. He quotes Arab poets making fun of the Arab trust in God, unaware that Latin Americans have been saying very much the same things about their own countries and cultures, despite their being overwhelmingly Christian (see Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 for criticisms of Latin American culture).
The fact that Malaysians have a proper democracy and legislature has nothing to do with Islam, it must be despite Islam. It is almost as if all negatives are of Islam and all positives despite it. There is no way that Muslims, as intelligent humans, could make up their own minds about the proper way to organize their societies to maximize the good of the whole.
When Latin America’s problems are talked about by Western pundits, problems such as child brides and very high crime rates, they are treated as complex sociological problems; Christianity is never even considered as a potential contributor. Christians are treated as humans and their problems are treated as sophisticated human problems. Muslims are extended no such kindness; they are Muslim, this is more than enough to explain everything that is wrong with them. The reason for this bias is likely the fact that Westerners never compare like for like, instead of comparing a Muslim country to a non-Muslim country of similar IQ, they compare it to a Western European country, and of course the Muslim country always falls short, and from this, being amateur sociologists, they conclude that Islam must be the reason why these countries are not similar to Western Europe, not realizing that Muslim countries are actually outdoing many non-Muslim countries of similar IQ when it comes to intellectual achievement, and that these “backward” Arab countries totally put Christian Latin America to shame when it comes to crime; Brazil’s homicide rate is 26 per 100,000, Egypt’s is 3. Should we call Brazil to abandon their homicide-promoting Catholic Christianity for Islam?7
The presence of petroleum gives credence to the Saudi claim that its Wahhabi form of Islam is the legitimate one. It is because of the oil that other Muslims are willing to give this claim consideration. This is why Wahhabism has spread so significantly, even in parts of the world like Indonesia that would seem, from their cultural backgrounds, to have little sympathy with its radical literalism. Therefore, it is not only through Saudi oil largess but also because of where the oil is that Wahhabism enjoys such prominence.
Wahhabism does not enjoy “prominence” except in the heads of Western pundits (and Middle Easterners who have something against Islam), who love having such a convenient straw man. The majority of the world’s Muslims likely do not know a single Wahhabi except from TV where they are always given prime time due to their usefulness for pushing agendas about Islam. And not just that, but among the Muslim elite, Wahhabis are almost entirely non-existent; you cannot have a high IQ and be a Wahhabi unless someone is paying you. There has never been an organic Wahhabi growth anywhere in the world as far as I know, wherever they exist, it is because someone sponsored them, starting with the original sponsorship of the Saudi family for the founder of Wahhabism. Saying they are somehow representative of Muslims is one of the most ignorant things a person can say about Islam, it is like saying some crazy West Virginia Christian sect represents Christianity; it is breathtakingly out of touch with the realities of life for the overwhelming majority of Muslims.
It is very easy to blame Islam for the problems of Muslims. Non-Muslims almost invariably conceive of Muslims as automatons having swallowed books of scripture. This naive sociology is a disease that infests almost all discussions of Islam; real-life Muslims are ignored in favor of imaginary Muslims existing entirely in the heads of the speakers. We Muslims are often given the nonsensical choice of either choosing to be human or choosing to be Muslim, and in Western works like S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment and Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment, the writers make it amply clear that they could never see eye-to-eye with a faithful and devout Muslim, who is invariably an enemy of rationality and intellectual progress, they cannot conceive of someone as intelligent as themselves (or God forbid, more intelligent) being a faithful Muslim. The more secular a Muslim is, the more human they are.
With the increasing participation of Muslims in Western discourses about Islam, there is hope that this reductionist view of Muslims will be corrected.
Islamic scholars are no more in charge of the minds of the Muslim elite than novelists are. High IQ humans take their knowledge from diverse sources then make up their own minds, creating their own personal syntheses. Every Western scholar admits this about themselves and their own personal way of life (that they read from a vast selection of sources and reserve the right to act according to what their reason and conscience finds to be best), it is time they admitted it of Muslims as well. Humans are not blank slates and they cannot be controlled by ideas; they are agents who think, reason and decide, and this power cannot be taken from them. The Marxists thought that humans were blank slates who could be beaten into becoming communist creatures, but they failed. Communist propaganda could not override human nature. In the same way, unreasonable theological ideas cannot be forced upon Muslims despite the best efforts of scholars.
Caught between Western scholarly and casual discussions of often imaginary Muslims are actual, living and breathing Muslims who are experiencing no crisis, who are perfectly happy to engage in intellectual pursuits, and who while respecting the religious scholars, do not take them seriously when what they say goes against reason and conscience. Are Muslim doctors systematically avoiding studying philosophical ideas because of their Ash’ari indoctrination? Are Muslim parents systematically forbidding their children from reading Western classics and studying the humanities at Western universities because of their theological beliefs? No. They see no conflict between intellectual pursuits and Islam because to them there is no conflict, and it is their opinion that matters; it is they who make Islam’s history. What the religious scholars think in their ivory towers is of little concern to them when there are Quranic verses that sound more reasonable and better fitted to their own experience of the world than scholarly doctrines.
Imaginary Muslims live in Muslim “no-go zones”, do not read except strict religious literature, do everything the scholars tell them, and keep their women in cages. Real Muslims live wherever they want, read whatever they like, are respectful but inwardly skeptical toward the religious scholars and treat their women according to whatever is their human instincts and culture. It is time that we started considering real Muslims in our discussions of Islam.
Robert R. Reilly’s thesis is flawed due to the fact that it does not fit the observable facts of actual, lived Muslim experience, which is vastly more sophisticated, and far less dependent on or derivative of scholastic theology, than Reilly believes.
The crisis that Reilly talks about is largely a theological war between ivory towers that has little bearing on the lives and motivations of modern Muslims, especially the educated elite, who moved on to embrace the virtues of the intellect and philosophical inquiry long ago. What remains is for the traditional Islamic scholars to catch up, but whether they do or do not is of little historical importance; the train of reason left long ago, the cat is out of the bag, and the entire elite of the Muslim world lives and acts as if science and philosophical inquiry are worthy pursuits. Imaginary Muslims need to be taught reason, rationality and humanism. Actual Muslims do not, they have already embraced these ideas and integrated them into their own lives.
In just a single century the Islamic world’s scientific output has increased by orders of magnitude, nearly all Muslim families have started to send their children to secular universities that have popped up all over the Muslim lands, and almost all Muslim countries have adopted some form of constitutional democracy. Isn’t this sufficient progress for just one century? Isn’t it the height of injustice to blame Islam for the problems of the Middle East when Christian Latin America suffers from the exact same problems?