The Pope and the Prophet

Finally, a leader has spoken about the real, essential lam, as it emanates from a contest within Islam itself over the most important things. With startling—indeed alarming—clarity, Pope Benedict XVI told his audience in Regensburg, Germany, 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. To ensure everyone knew what he was talking about, the pope quoted from a 14th-century Byzan­tine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who was besieged by Islamic forces attempting to conquer Constantinople. The emperor denounced the effort to “spread by the sword the faith he [Mohammed] preached.”

The pope has raised a very volatile question: Is, in fact, the God of Islam without reason, or above it? Is the Muslim God unreasonable? Is Islam, therefore, based upon a theo­logical deformation? The pope’s allusion to the teachings of eleventh-century Islamic philosopher Ibn Hazn—”God is not bound even by his own word”—suggests that pos­sibility. However, it is more than a possibility. It is a core teaching of one of the predominant strains of Islam, if not the predominant strain. Has this always been so? How did such a conception of God develop? Is it still possible to talk about this without threats of murder? Benedict is trying to start a conversation with Islam, and it is the only one really worth having.

The pope’s remarks require a good deal of explication in the context of Islamic philosophy and theology. They need to be understood within the broader perspective of a struggle that has taken place since Islam’s inception over the status of reason and revelation. Benedict has essentially taken sides in the most fundamental debate that has ever been held within the Islamic world, and that is why his words generated such vehemence.

According to the pope, making either reason or revelation autonomous leads to a distortion of what each is. Rea­son raises questions that it cannot answer, and revelation’s answers cannot be understood without reason. Divorcing reason from faith, or faith from reason, leads to catastrophe; they must be in partnership. Benedict speaks of dehelleniza­tion—meaning the loss of reason, the gift of the Greeks—as one of the West’s main problems. Less well-known is the dehellenization that has afflicted Islam—its denigration of and divorce from reason. This took place over an argument, already begun in the seventh and eighth centuries, about the status of reason in relation to God’s omnipotence, and decisively affected the character of the Islamic world. The struggle had its roots in a profound disagreement over who God is.

The side in this debate most easily recognizable to a West­erner was the Mu’tazilite school, composed of the Muslim rationalist philosophers who fought for the primacy of rea­son. The Mu’tazilites held that God is not only power; He is also reason. Man’s reason is a gift from God, who expects man to use it to come to know Him. The status of reason determines man’s relationship to revelation. God, being reason, would not expect man to accept anything contrary to it. Through reason, man is also able to understand God as manifested in His creation. God’s laws are the laws of nature, which are also manifested in the Sharia (the divine path). Therefore, the Mu’tazilites held that the statements in the Qur’an must be in accord with reason. This means that the Qur’an, a document revealed in history, is open to interpretation. If this sounds familiar, it should: It reflects the same powerful influence Greek philosophy had upon Islam as it had upon Christianity, and which carried within it the impetus to reconcile reason and revelation.

The Mu’tazilite advocacy of reason succeeded to the extent that the teaching of a created Qur’an was enshrined as a state doctrine, proclaimed in 827 under Caliph al-Ma’mn. The Mu’tazilites fought for the primacy of rea­son and actually required religious judges to swear an oath that the Qur’an had been created. Their opponents, who believed in the primacy of power and the uncreated Qur’an, were punished and imprisoned. However, after the reign of Harun al-Watiq, the tables were turned on the Mu’tazilites by Caliph Ja’afar al-Mutawakkil (847-861), who made hold­ing the Mu’tazilite doctrine a crime punishable by death. This did not end the Mu’tazilite school of thought (some fled to the more hospitable Shia areas), nor did it prevent the flourishing of the Greek-influenced faylasufs (philoso­phers) who followed them, such as al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes. However, the long process of dehellenization and its resulting ossification had begun.

The victorious view developed a theological basis for the primacy of power by claiming that the revelation of Mohammed emphasizes most particularly one attribute of God—His omnipotence. Although all monotheistic religions hold that, in order to be one, God must be om­nipotent, this argument reduced God to His omnipotence by concentrating exclusively on His unlimited power, as against His reason. God’s “reasons” are unknowable by man. God is not shackled by reason; He rules as He pleases. He is pure will. There is no rational order invested in the uni­verse upon which one can rely, only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s will.

God is so powerful that every instant is the equivalent of a miracle. Nothing intervenes or has an independent or even semi-autonomous existence. In philosophical language, this view holds that God is the primary cause of everything, and there are no secondary causes. Therefore, what may seem to be “natural laws,” such as the laws of physics, grav­ity, etc., are really nothing more than God’s customs, which He is at complete liberty to break or change at any moment. As Benedict points out, this is called “volunteerism.”

The consequences of this view are momentous. If crea­tion exists simply as a succession of miraculous moments, it cannot be apprehended by reason. Other religions, includ­ing Christianity, recognize miracles. But they recognize them precisely as temporary and extraordinary suspensions of the natural law. In fact, that is what defines them as miracles. One admits to the possibility of a miracle only after discounting every possible explanation of its occurrence by natural causes. In this school of Islamic thought, there are no natural causes to discount. As a result, reality becomes incomprehensible. If unlimited will is the exclusive constit­uent of reality, there is really nothing left to reason about, and the uncreated Qur’an is not open to interpretation.

The early-tenth-century thinker Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari elaborated a metaphysics for the anti-rational view by using early Greek atomistic philosophy to assert that reality is composed of atoms. The configuration of these atoms at any given moment makes things what they are. In Islam in the World, British analyst Malise Ruthven explains: “The Asharis rationalised God’s omnipotence within an atomistic theory of creation, according to which the world was made up of the discrete points in space and time whose only connection was the will of God, which created them anew at every moment.”

For example, there is a collection of atoms that is a plant. Does the plant remain a plant because it has the nature of a plant, or because Allah wishes it to be a plant from this moment to the next? The Asharites said it is only a plant for the moment. For the plant to remain a plant depends on the will of Allah, and if you say it has to remain a plant because it has the nature of plant, this is shirk—blasphemy.

The catastrophic result of this view is the denial of the relationship between cause and effect. In The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), per­haps the single most influential Muslim thinker after Mo­hammed, vehemently rejected Greek thought: “The source of their infidelity was their hearing terrible names such as Socrates and Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle.” AI-Ghazali insisted that God is not bound by any order, and that there is, therefore, no “natural” sequence of cause and effect, as in fire burning cotton or, more colorfully, as in “the purging of the bowels and the using of a purgative.” Things do not act according to their own natures but only according to God’s will at the moment. There are only juxtapositions of discrete events that make it appear that the fire is burning the cotton, but God could just as well do otherwise. (This doctrine is known as occasionalism.) In other words, there is no continuous narrative of cause and effect tying these moments together in a comprehensible way. In attacking the Mu’tazilites, the Asharites, in the words of Mohammed Khair, wished “to free God’s saving power from the shackles of causality.”

Equally as damaging to the status of reason, al-Ghazali wrote in Moderation in Belief that reason is so infected by man’s self-interest that it cannot know moral principles; they can only be known through revelation. Since reason is not a source of moral truth, concludes al-Ghazali, “No obliga­tions flow from reason but from the Sharia [the divinely ordained path].” With this, he despatches Aristotle’s Ethics and all other moral philosophy.

To outsiders, this capricious dimension of Islam was clear as long ago as the Middle Ages when the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) spoke of his experi­ences in Cairo to illustrate the way some Muslims think. Every morning the caliph rides through Cairo, and every morning he takes the same route. However, said Maimo­nides, tomorrow he could take a different route. Why? Because he is the caliph and he can do as he wills. Every morning the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It has happened for years; it happened today. But tomorrow it might rise in the south and set in the north. That depends on the will of Allah, and there is no saying that it will not. As the Qur’an states, “Dost thou not know that God has the power to will anything?” (2:106). Maimonides concluded that “the thing which exists with certain constant and per­manent forms, dimensions, and properties [in nature] only follows the direction of habit . . . . On this foundation their whole fabric is constructed.”

This conception of God directed man’s relationship to the Almighty in a specific way. A God who has no reasons cannot be known by reason. This view can and did lead to a rich vein of mysticism, most especially in the Sufism of al-Ghazali, but it also presents a problem. How should one behave toward an unreasoning God? Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), a medieval Muslim thinker who profoundly influenced the founder of Wahhabism and who has been resuscitated by the Islamists today, answered: Man’s task is not to know God. God is unknowable; do not even try to know God. Man’s job is not to love God. Man cannot love what he does not know. Man’s job is to obey. Submit. Reason plays no role, and free will is denigrated. In his at­tack on philosophy titled Kuzari, Judah ha-Levi, a Jewish follower of al-Ghazali, reached the logical conclusion as to how man ought to approach the revelations of such a deity: “I consider him to have attained the highest degree of perfection who is convinced of religious truths without having scrutinized them and reasoned over them.” (One wonders how one becomes “convinced” of something with­out having thought about it.) There could hardly be a more radical rejection of what Benedict calls “the reasonableness of faith.”

Compare this relationship to the standard definition of a Christian vocation, which is expressed in this logical order: to know, to love, and to serve God. First, knowledge of God is required. How can one love what one does not know? Of course, it is assumed that a finite creature such as man can only comprehend a small part of an infinite God, but he can know enough to inspire love. God is knowable. If one knows God, then one loves Him because God is goodness. In turn, the impulse of that love is to serve. One is naturally drawn to serve what one loves. The expression of this voca­tion is internally coherent and logically ordered. It is based upon a certain view of who God is and how man is capable of freely responding to Him through the use of his reason and free will.

To understand the ultimate significance of the Ashar­ite and al-Ghazali’s teaching of an unreasoning God, it may be helpful to contrast it to the Christian teaching that was similarly tempted to such extremes, but resisted them. Why, for instance, did this exclusive preoccupation with God’s omnipotence not afflict Christianity, which is also monotheistic? Christianity holds that God is omnipo­tent and the primary cause of all things, as well. In fact, as Benedict pointed out in Regensburg, there were strong tendencies within Christianity to move in the very same direction, including in the teaching of Duns Scotus. The anti-rational view was violently manifested in the mille­narian movements of the Middle Ages, and within the move­ment that was known as fideism—faith alone, solo scriptura. In its most radical form, this school held that the Scriptures are enough. Forget reason, Greek philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas. However, the anti-rationalist view in its more ex­treme forms has never predominated in Christianity, and it was considered broadly heretical.

As Benedict makes clear, the reason Christianity was insulated from an obsession with God’s omnipotence was the revelation of Christ as Logos in the Gospel of St. John. If Christ is Logos—if God introduces Himself as ratio—then God is not only all-powerful, He is reason. While the Mu’tazilites claimed something similar, they had no scriptural authority to confirm their position, while their oppo­nents had many to oppose it.

In addition, Christian revelation claims that everything was created through Christ as Logos. Since it was through Logos that all things were created, creation carries the imprint of its creator as reason. Nature bespeaks an intel­ligibility that derives from a transcendent source. Benedict recently reiterated this view when he referred to the “world as a product of creative reason.” The laws of nature are not a challenge to God’s authority but an expression of it. Reason and Christian revelation are compatible.

Ultimately, this theological view developed into the re­alist metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, which then became the foundation for modern science, as Rev. Stanley Jaki, a Hungarian theologian and physicist, has explained in his voluminous writings on the origins of modern science. He has laid out the reasons modern science was stillborn in the Muslim world after what seemed to be its real start (see his extraordinary monograph, Jesus, Islam, Science). No one offers a more profound understanding of the consequences of the view of God as pure will than Father Jaki has.

The metaphysical support for natural law not only laid the foundations for modern science, but also provided the basis for the gradual development of constitutional govern­ment. The primacy of power in Islamic thought undermined a similar prospect. If one does not allow for the existence of secondary causes, one cannot develop natural law. If one cannot develop natural law, one cannot conceive of a con­stitutional political order in which man—through his rea­son—creates laws to govern himself and behave freely. Be­cause democracies base their political order on reason and free will, and leave in play questions that Islamists believe have been definitively settled by revelation, Islamists regard democracies as their natural and fatal enemies.

The curious thing is that it does not matter whether one’s view of reality as pure will has its origin in a deformed theology or a totally secular ideology, such as Hegel’s or Hobbes’s: The political consequences are the same. As Rev. James V. Schall has shown, the notion of pure will as the basis of reality results in tyrannical rule. Disordered will, unfettered by right reason, is the political problem.

Radical Muslims translate their version of God’s omnipo­tence into a politics of unlimited power. As God’s instru­ments, they are channels for this power. Once the primacy of force is posited, terrorism becomes the next logical step to power, as it did in the 20th-century secular ideologies of power: Nazism and Marxism—Leninism. This is what led Osama bin Laden to embrace the astonishing statement of his spiritual godfather, Abdullah Azzam, which bin Laden quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11: “Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.” This can only be true—that violence in spreading faith is an obligation—if, as Benedict said in Regensburg, God is without reason.

The problem today is that the side of reason in Islam lost. The ultimate consequences of the rejection of reason and the loss of causality are playing themselves out across the Muslim world. As Fouad Ajami recently observed, “Wherever I go in the Islamic world, it’s the same problem: cause and effect; cause and effect.”

It is not that the side of reason is not still there—there are some extraordinarily intelligent Muslim scholars who would like to see a neo-Mu’tazilite movement within Islam, a restoration of the primacy of reason so that they can re­open the doors to interpretation and develop some kind of natural-law foundation for humane, political, constitutional rule. According to Iranian thinker Abdolkarim Soroush, “Some of the understandings that exist in our society today of the Imams… or even of the concept of God are not particularly compatible with an accountable state and do not allow society to grow and develop in the modern-day sense.” Reformist Tunisian-born thinker Latif Lakhdar calls for a revival of “Mu’tazila and philosophical thought that subjected the holy writings on which the religion is based to interpretation by the human mind.” There are Muslims who will say these things, but many of them, like Soroush and Lakhdar, are in the West for their own protection.

Is there a constituency within the Muslim world that can elaborate a theology that allows for the restoration of reason, a rehellenization of Islam with Allah as ratio? It is idle to pretend that it would take less than a sea change for this to happen. If it does not, it is hard to envisage upon what basis the dialogue with Islam could take place. There are many Muslims (in Turkey and in the developing democra­cies of Indonesia and Malaysia, to say nothing of the demo­cratic life followed by the huge Muslim population in India) who want to enter the modern world—with its modern sci­ence and modern political institutions—and also keep their faith. Unfortunately, the ideas gaining traction today are not theirs. That is the crisis, which is now spilling over into the West. In order to meet it, Benedict is telling us we have urgent reason to regain our own faith and to raise these all-important questions with them.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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