The most eye-opening book of 2010


If ignorance really is bliss, then no one should read The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

But since I prefer to know the truth, even when it is distressing, I found Robert Reilly's study of Sunni Muslim thought to be the most enlightening book of 2010.

Reilly tells the sad story of how a great philosophical battle within Islam, between the Mu'tazilites and the Ash'arites, shaped the history of the faith and led inevitably to the crisis of Islam today. This intellectual battle – which was settled by the middle of the 9th century – was no dry academic discussion; it was a high-stakes contest, with implications that should be obvious to thoughtful Christians of the early 21st century.

Major philosophical disputes ordinarily run for centuries. Platonists and Aristoteleans are still arguing today. Echoes of the debates from the Council of Nicea can still be heard in the theology departments of Catholic universities. But the Mu'tazilites are no longer arguing with the Ash'arites. In Islam the debate has been closed – not because one argument proved more persuasive than the other, but because one school invoked its authority to silence criticism. 

The Mu'tazilites attempted the same synthesis of faith and reason that medieval philosophers accomplished within Christianity. While fully accepting the authority of the Qu'ran, the Mu'tazilites believed that the Islamic faith could be subjected to logical analysis, and the works of Allah would conform to the demands of human reason.

Not so the Ash'arites. This school of thought insists that Islam requires utter subjection to the will of God. To think that Allah is subject to reason is impudent, even blasphemous, in the Ash'arite view. The Ash'arites do not accept even the most fundamental logical analysis of the Qu'ran; they demand unquestioning obedience to the word of Allah.

When some passages of the Qu'ran contradict others, the Mu'tazilites say that reason should guide the faithful to the truth. The Ash'arites make no such concession to human reason. If Allah wishes to be contradictory, they argue, who are we mortals to question the almighty? Thus the principle of non-contradiction, the most fundamental principle of rational thought, is wiped off the boards, and Islam enters the province of unreason.

The triumph of the Ash'arites, Reilly tells his readers, represents the final closing of Islamic mind. With Mu'tazilites, some inter-faith dialogue would have been possible. But with Ash'arites, there is no basis for a reasoned discussion because reason itself is held in disdain.

So Islamic thought since the 9th century has been marked by a disinterest in consistency, in analysis, in scientific exploration. It is no coincidence, Reilly observes, that the great discoveries of the Arab world occurred before the rise of Islamic power. Nor it is surprising that the development of the Islamic nations lags far behind that of their Western counterparts.

Regrettably, the Ash'arite victory was apparently definitive, because once reason has been overthrown, there is no way to resolve disputes other than the imposition of power. Islam became a faith defined entirely by the exercise of the will: Allah's will. If a Mu'tazilite dared to suggest that the Qu'ran should be examined through the prism of reason, then that Mu'tazilite was charged with a blasphemous offense against the faith, and his life was in jeopardy.

Pope Benedict was playing a very interesting gambit, then, when he suggested in his famous Regensburg address that Islam, like Christianity, should be held to the standards of reason. The Holy Father was offering a serious dialogue with any Muslim leaders who might be willing to take up the Mu'tazilite cause.

Surely the Pope knows that it would be dangerous for any Islamic scholar to head down that road. But as things stand, the entire world is headed down a dangerous road, toward a confrontation between Islam and the West. It would be best, surely, to avoid a violent confrontation. But if we hope to avoid violence we must have some other means of resolving disagreements. Before we can engage in productive dialogue with Islam, we must find interlocutors who will treat that dialogue seriously – who will treat reason seriously.What I mean by judgment here is clear and unambiguous truth telling, the placing of things, both good and bad, in the light that permits them to appear as they really are.




Philip Lawler. "The most eye-opening book of 2010." Catholic Culture (December 31, 2010).

Reprinted with permission from Philip Lawler and Catholic

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Philip Lawler is Director of the Catholic Culture Project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. Phil Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate.

As a journalist, Philip has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.

Philip Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics most recently The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.

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