Robert Reilly

Modern America’s closest approximation to the dapper Ronald Coleman, Bob Reilly is familiar to many Imaginative Conservatives: I have enjoyed knowing him for 35 years. This respected academic, Pentagon advisor, and former director of the Voice of America has written a clear and fascinating book on Islam that connects an early medieval theological dispute to the modern architects of Al Qaeda’s terrorism.

Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, tracks the murderers of Muslim philosophy in 9th Century Baghdad, when Hellenistic Reason and analysis were slain by a brutalist movement called Asharism: Osama bin Laden’s Suslov and the last Emir of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, still refers to Asharites and related allies. If you think that half-forgotten theologies don’t matter anymore, brace yourself.

In the mighty empire that ruled Islamic lands from Morocco to Afghanistan, just before the Caliph Haroon al-Rashid of The Arabian Nights, the prevailing Muslim orthodoxy was in some ways more strongly influenced by Ancient Greeks than were Europeans until almost the Renaissance. Islam led the world in science due to its respect for Reason, inquiry, and adaptation: even their Prophet Mohammad once ordered the faithful to seek knowledge “as far as China”—almost akin to modern space travel. Yet their Caliphs were often brutal and a revolution triumphed with grave repercussions.

The Asharites, their allies, and progeny, believed it blasphemous that anything could limit the power of omnipotent God: even God could not limit His own power, they said. It was worse than presumptuous to suppose that God would create Natural Laws which made events predictable, effectively tying His own hands. No, the theologians insisted, every single thing that happens on earth or in the heavens—from a falling leaf to the rising moon—occurs because God consciously wills it to happen. Suddenly, there were no more rational, physical causes of repeatable, dependable, and predictable events, only Divine actions willed individually. Suddenly, there was no justification to study the movements of the planets or the medicinal effects of plants, because tomorrow God may change His mind and make the planets revolve in the opposite direction or turn a cure into a poison. There was no room for moral analysis based on Reason because God was unknowable apart from His commandments in the Koran, instructive tales of His final prophet in the Hadith, and Sharia law derived from the two. No rational causes meant no inquiry; no inquiry meant no science or philosophy; and no science or philosophy meant “shut up and do as you’re told”—which must have appealed to monarchs and clergymen. “The gates of Ijtihad (interpretation),” they declared famously, “are closed.”

From there came theological deductions rendering Free Will, self-determination, and human rights anti-Islamic, at least by Asharite interpretation, and Reilly makes the thought-process clear. Sufism arose as a mystical and anti-authoritarian counterbalance, but like similar movements among the Hassidic Jews, the Hindu Bhaktis and modern Christian Charismatics, it focuses primarily on the transformational effects of Love and so, while ever popular, it never resurrected Reason and thus the Asharite Establishment did little to oppose it.

Asharism may remain, crudely speaking, the orthodoxy of the Sunni Muslim majority. However, since the end of the powerful Sunni Caliphates almost a millennium ago, Sunnis lack any formal structure through which to amend their theology. They have no College of Cardinals or Lambeth Conference, and every congregation can select its own imam (preacher) for any reason. The Shia Muslims, whom Reilly ignores unfortunately, have a formal mechanism for debate, theological review, and adaptation but Sunni Islam is a daily election with no mechanism for counting the ballots, so it remains theologically paralysed in the Asharite Dark Ages. Thus, Reilly contends, Spain translates more books in a year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years.

Reilly guides us to the mouth of Osama’s cave: through retrograde ‘advances;’ past the radical, 18th Century, Wahabi movement that still seeks to ‘restore’ an idealised Islam that never existed; beyond the 20th Century Islamist groups so logically attracted to European Fascism. He quotes dissident Sunni scientists, but never says how Sunni reform may be introduced perhaps because no mechanism survives.

Nor does he fully address the vast majority of Sunni Muslims for whom Asharite orthodoxy plays little appreciable part. Coleridge tells us that, “The great majority of men live like bats, but in twilight, and know and feel the philosophy of their age only by its reflections and refractions.” So, like the bumblebees supposedly unable to fly, many Sunni Muslims still go to work at the hospital or the university, the bank or the laboratory, unaware that there is supposedly no Reason, no predictable Cause and Effect, no Man created in the image of God and neither rights nor democracy, just mute obedience. Yet millions of them demonstrate for democracy—not clerical rule—on the streets of Tunis and Cairo, Sanaa and Benghazi, Amman and Manama. Theology can be ignored.

Asharism may retard Sunni Muslim thought but neither always nor everywhere, nor among everyone equally. Believers may choose comfort among the contradictory advice given by any religion while their masters are more calculating: Seneca said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Asharism may suit those who aspire to power while it is ignored by the multitudes embracing diverse or even contradictory influences. C.S. Lewis said, in Mere Christianity, that different religions may look at God through dustier or clearer lenses—individuals may too.

Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order describes the unique patrimony of American values and structures, priorities and attitudes bequeathed by the Ancients and Churchmen, Enlightenment figures and Founders. Reilly mentions correctly, but in passing, that the largely-Sunni Turks, Indonesians, and others have their own approaches to Islam coloured by their own histories and cultures. But his book focuses on the modern threat of Asharism: especially on Arab Sunni Islam; more especially on encroaching, Saudi-defined, Sunni Islam; and primarily through the draconian if fanciful Wahabi-Saudi interpretations that inspire Al Qaeda and are now so dangerous to East and West alike. Thus he may underplay several distinctions: first that Asharite-Wahabi-Saudi Islam remains quite foreign—and sometimes repulsive—even to many Sunni Arabs (so far).

Next, while crafting a new myth for wartime England, Tolkien knew that Jerusalem and Athens, Rome and Christianity are foremost but not the only influences upon Northern European culture. We have legacies of our pagan forbearers: Celts and Saxons, Norsemen, Ostrogoths, and others whose mythologies he adapted. In every Muslim land ancient, pre-Islamic cultures still affect modern thought and behaviour. Pushtoons retain their pre-Islamic, tribal code of hospitality and vengeance (described elsewhere on this website), to the point of naming a village after a pig—a beast which is anathema to all Muslims—just to prove that their ethnic traditions of honour can outweigh the strictures of their faith.

My Dutch Orientalist friend, Dr. Kees Rietveld, corresponds that our own notions of Free Will began in Transoxiana east of the Arab lands. Zoroaster, born in Afghanistan perhaps 900 years before Christ, revealed a dualistic religion in which our every action represents a vote for either Good or Evil, which collectively determine whether the universe will ultimately be controlled by God or the Devil. Lacking mechanisms for redemption, this places a fearsome moral burden upon every believer in every waking moment. From parts of Iraq to all of Iran, to Afghanistan and beyond, the religion of most of these non-Arab, Aryan peoples (related linguistically and otherwise to Europeans) was Zoroastrian until the advance of Islam during Europe’s Dark Ages. Enclaves of Zoroastrians still practice in Iran and the environs, and devout Muslim Iranians and Afghans nevertheless celebrate the Zoroastrian New Year (March 21st on a solar, not their usual Muslim lunar, calendar), during which some still leap over a small fire, recalling sacramental fires, to purify the past year’s sins and leave sorrow behind.

Among the non-Arab, West Asian Muslims with whom I have worked for 25 years—rather than Arabs of whom I know less and Saudis not at all—I see attitudes that may be coloured by Asharism but perhaps not importantly. Either their pre-Islamic influences, such as Free Will and causality, are rooted more deeply than this one aspect of Sunni orthodoxy, or conflicting values co-exist.

My pious and intelligent Afghan driver, Fatah, tells me every night that he will collect me at 6:30 on the following morning, “Insha’llah (God willing), if we are still alive,” now ritualised to the point that one of us laughs and finishes the other’s sentence. We both expect that he will drive me to work, but we both recognise that the Almighty may have other plans. ‘Man proposes, God disposes,” he often adds, (quoting Thomas à Kempis in his c. 1450 Imitation of Christ, which I told him in return for his many splendid tales of the Prophet of Islam). Does Fatah believe in Causality, and for that matter do I? A Christian prays for a miracle, asking God to interrupt His Natural Law to cure a naturally-occurring cancer, while a Sunni Muslim prays for a miracle to sustain the usual order. Both of us believe that God holds all power: the Christian expects the status quo while the prudent Muslim takes nothing for granted and seeks God’s permission.

Maulana Jalaludin Balkhi (1207-1273), the Sufi poet buried in Turkey and known outside of Afghanistan and Iran as Rumi, provides a clue. Early in his Masnawi, a masterwork of mystical poetry in nearly 27,000 couplets, he tells of an arrogant physician who neglects to ask for God’s favour and so his patient sickens further: then another doctor applies the same remedy but asks God for help and the patient recovers. The difference is God’s doing, consistent with doctrine, but then why bother with the medicine and not just pray without it? And why administer that particular potion instead of making the patient swallow, say, a collar-button or a piece of 13th Century Turkish Delight? The Prophet of Islam said, “Trust in God but tie up your camel.” Clearly, Maulana Jalaludin and his vast audience (of medieval Anatolian Muslims, Christians, and Jews) understood that curing a certain disease requires applying a certain remedy: this is causality. Then God may, or may not, require a prayer: is this also causality or simply God demanding remembrance? It leaves room for the poet’s fellow Sunnis to engage in reason and causality, medical investigation, and analysis, as they do today.

It reminds me of driving with my Irish-American grandmother, who conducted a litany of mandatory Hail Maries that seemed to take longer than the journey itself. Reason and causality let her rely upon duplicable phenomena from the Buick’s internal combustion engine; experience let her rely upon Grandpa to keep the fuel-tank full; and the Hail Maries were “just simple good manners respecting the Mother of God, so stop fidgeting, pipe down, and say your prayers like a decent Catholic! Now repeat after me…” Prayers were also insurance: she reasoned but hedged her bets. My Muslim friends and acquaintances seem similar, and I doubt that even the most inflexible Asharite would swallow the collar-button instead of the penicillin tablet because only God’s Will matters and causality does not exist (only a Christian Scientist would be happier eating the collar-button). To risk raising Richard Weaver’s ghost, ideas may not always have consequences.

There is no denying Islam’s fall from scientific leadership as Reilly reports, but is Asharism the reason? Neither do the Humanities thrive in Muslim countries which are often poor and spend little on education, like many poor, non-Muslim or partially-Muslim nations. In many Muslim countries today, as in Ireland a century ago, the choice for an ambitious young man is often the seminary or emigration.

Citing considerable spending on (usually mediocre) scientific research facilities in most Muslim countries, contrasted with benighted Sudan and Pakistan ‘Islamicising’ the paucity of science there, The Middle East Quarterly explains that Islam is not “the key problem facing scientific achievement in the Muslim world. Rather, the low level of achievement results from the cumulative effect of multiple factors, and not from a single dominant cause.”[1] They cite reasons including ‘turn-key,’ foreign-made, industrial projects staffed by expatriates that eclipse skilled local jobs and discourage developing expertise; few English-speaking students and little scientific material available in indigenous languages; a lack of resources caused by poverty and other spending priorities; government incompetence and suppression of enquiry and dissent (everywhere, not in science alone); and disinterest.[2]

Disinterest may be encouraged by a lack of scientific facilities, schooling and jobs: in my own experience, Muslim youth studying abroad prefer the applied sciences, such as medicine or engineering, over all other disciplines. In America in 1996, Muslims were more likely than the average to have university degrees (67% to 44%), and 43% of US Muslims were either students or engineers, doctors, or dentists (engineering and medicine employed 23% of working US Muslims).[3] While their presence in America may imply immigrants with a secular bias, it does not sound as if Asharite Sunni orthodoxy is a major deterrent to scientific or other secular educational advancement in most Muslim lands. It sounds to me like a common development problem requiring material and attitudinal changes.

Yet ideological Islamism, Asharism, or Wahabism is clearly an aggressive, backward, messianic movement imperilling Muslim and Western civilisations alike. Thought to have first spread with Saudi funding during the rise of oil prices and OPEC in the early 1970s, and still alleged to be financed primarily by Saudi Arabia’s private and public sectors, it has already wrought great damage while, as Dr. Rietveld observes, we invest in development and they invest in conversion. Even in many advanced countries the sons of Western-educated Muslim lawyers and physicians, who could be studying at Harvard or Oxford, prefer to memorise the Koran in a language that they cannot read while being misinformed by radical Islamists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan this foreign, implanted radicalism is more widespread, virulent and violent. But there may soon be a forum for Sunni reform in a pan-Islamic Caliphate perhaps to be re-established by the Turks as part of a democratised Neo-Ottoman Empire (described on this website), and pro-democracy uprisings may hasten it. Meanwhile, to our vast peril, our masters refuse to confront Pakistani-led Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan because its military protectors have nuclear weapons, and we ignore the engines of Asharism because Saudis have oil.

Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind is essential reading for anyone interested in the radical beliefs which threaten 1.2 billion Muslims and the rest of the world. It should, however, have been called “The Closing of the Islamist Mind” for it does not wholly speak for Sunni Muslims, less for the non-Arab Sunni and any Shia.

If one lacks a general understanding of Islam, start with Karen Armstrong’s brief and very readable Islam: A Short History, or the fuller and thoroughly-rewarding Islam in Our Time by Malise Ruthven. Otherwise, go straight to Reilly.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now


1  “Does the Muslim World Lag in Science,” Aaron Segal, Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2, June 1996, pp. 61-70.
2  Ibid.
3  “Muslims American Demographic Facts,” Allied Media Corp, Alexandria, Virginia, (data circa 2001-2003),

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