The Real Conflict with Islam

Ten years after 911, the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City, Robert Reilly provided the structure for identifying and defeating the enemy that had declared war on the West. That structure unfolded in the pages of his ground breaking 2010 book, The Closing Of The Muslim Mind—How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (ISI Books, Wilmington, DE). There he defined the threat as “Islamism” and offered what he considered to be the best hope to defeat it—Islamic revival in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas who wedded Christianity to Greek philosophy.

Reilly provides a tour of Islamic history well worth the time, showing how two strains of Islam battled for ascendency from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. He identifies those strains as Mu’tazalite and Ash’arite. The Mu’tazalites believed that man had free will because without it, he would be unable to know God’s justice. Morality requires the freedom to choose one’s course of action. Therefore, people are free and obligated to interpret sacred texts in the context of their time in history. They proposed that the Qur’an was created, which implies that it is subject to reason—an idea that is in direct opposition to the orthodox belief that the Qur’an is eternal, the belief held by the Ash’arites. The Mu’tazalites provided the first Greek-inspired Islamic school of thought, championing the idea of reason and rational morality.

The Ash’arites came about for the explicit purpose of defeating the Mu’tazalites and opposed them in several ways. They argued that the Qur’an was coeternal with Allah, making it unalterable and not open to interpretation. The Mu’tazalites held that God was reasonably required to reward and punish as he had promised, which supported the idea of God’s justice. But the Ash’arites countered that God is not required to do anything because any requirements would limit God’s freedom and sovereignty, which is an argument in support of God’s grace. Where justice requires that one get what one deserves, grace means not getting what one deserves, or getting what one does not deserve—mercy.

The Ash’arites, being textual literalists, believed that any apparent inconsistencies in the Qur’an must not be questioned. The Mu’tazalites, applying Aristotle, believed that analyzing these inconsistencies is in accordance with the necessity of reason. Understanding God is not intuitive or the result of any physical process, therefore we must apply reason to understand Him. But the Ash’arites argued that human beings cannot understand God, and that all attempts to do so will ultimately fail, and are unnecessary. They believe that simple obedience to the Qur’an is all that is needed, and that the effort to probe deeper issues from sin.

Over time the Ash’arite position was accepted by the Sunnis and the Mu’tazalite position by the Shias, and 85-90 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and 10-15 percent are Shia.

Reilly’s analysis is quite helpful, except when it isn’t. He wants to talk about the dehelenization of Islam, however the truth is that at this point 85-90 percent has never been helenized. So, the effort to dehelenize will be perceived by them as flagrant apostasy. What he really suggests is the helenization of Sunni Islam. And the likelihood of that happening any time soon is slim to nil.

He correctly identifies the problem to be fundamentally theological, and is right to offer a theological answer. However, the answer he provides—the rehelenization of Islam—is both unrealistic and theologically wrong. It is unrealistic because the Bible engages in and is supportive of reason, but the Qu’ran does neither. So, the Ash’arite Sunni position is more faithful to the Qu’ran, which is supported by Sunni scholarship. The Mut’zalite position is an effort to impose reason upon the Qu’ran, to read into the Qu’ran what it repudiates. So, Reilly’s proposition is not intellectually viable.

In addition, Reilly’s understanding of Christianity makes the effort by Christians to be faithful to the text of the Bible to be in the same category as being faithful to the Qu’ran in the sense that Thomas Aquinas saved Christianity from irrationality by wedding it to Greek philosophy. And this makes Greek philosophy the primary guide to understanding the Bible. Reilly’s solution is to wed the Qu’ran to Aristotle, which he suggests because he doesn’t see any substantive difference between the Bible and the Qu’ran, or at least the Old Testament and Qu’ran.

Reilly commits two important errors. First, he suggests that Islamism is not faithful to Islam, that it is not a product of the faithful representation of the Qu’ran. From what I know, he is wrong. Yes, there was—and may still be—a Mat’zalite effort to bring the Qu’ran into line with reason. But that effort could be likened to the effort to bring God into conformity with human reason, which faithful Christians and Jews recognize to be contra biblical. Sorry, God does not conform to man, but visa versa. This was the effort of Western Enlightenment, which is the (or a) foundation of modern liberalism—and that is the tradition which Reilly seems to identify with Christianity. Reilly thinks that the answer is for Muslims to become like modern liberal Christians.

For Christians who are familiar with the modern liberal churches, this is anathema! As it would be for Muslims. The liberal churches are not bastions of faithfulness, but have lead the deterioration of Christianity in America. Thus, Reilly is asking Christians to choose between the militancy of Islamic revival or the degradation of Western liberal civilization—which is the product of liberalism. His answer omits the only real solution—the advance of Christian faithfulness to the Trinity. I mention that the real solution is Trinitarian because Reilly doesn’t seem to understand what that means.

The second error Reilly makes is to associate faithful Christianity with the patterns of militant Islamism.

“Most religions, in fact all monotheistic ones, put before man a revelation from God that is similar in certain essential respects. The revelation contains a moral code by which man is expected to live if he wishes to achieve eternal life in paradise. Paradise is located in the hereafter—never on this earth. So is the hell to which man will be sent if he is disobedient. The terrestrial and the transcendent are distinct—the city of man and the city of God, as St. Agustine put it. Life here is a test. The ultimate resolution to the problem of justice is not in this vale of tears, but before the throne of God in the next world. Man’s ultimate destiny is in the transcendent. This general view is shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all of which see perfect justice as being established by God’s final judgment.”

This quote shows that Reilly has no understanding of Christianity apart from the widely popular, comic book caricature of modern fundamentalism. He is wrong because he does not account for Christianity’s Trinitarianism. The Trinity makes all the difference and puts Christianity in a class of its own. It’s not that Christianity shares this view with Judaism and Islam, but stands as an alternative to the monstrosities of monotheism.

While Reilly provides a valuable history lesson about Islam, his solution stands as an insult Islam and the further degradation of Christianity. The only thing that it actually does is to support a modern liberalism of the academic variety—which is the vary thing that Paul disparaged in 1 Corinthians.

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

Paul called the academic efforts of the Greeks “foolish.” How could Reilly miss this? As far as I can see the entire US strategy against ISIS is based on Reilly’s analysis and prescription, and because he has failed in the task he set.

Roger Scruton in the Forward warns policy makers:

…unless you are ready to admit that you are facing an essentially theological problem in the Middle East, do not go about prescribing solutions, for you may actually make matters worse ….”

Reilly’s solution substitutes one wrong theology with another. What is needed is not Greek philosophy, but biblical faithfulness on everyone’s part. Defeating ISIS should not require the abandonment of faithful Christianity, but will require the abandonment of faithless Christianity.

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