Posted: April 6, 2011
hat was the origin and character of the religion called Islam and of the early polity, and ultimately the empire, to which it gave rise? Did it undergo some development in its essential characteristics and if so how, why, and with what effect? These questions are typically regarded as belonging to history, even somewhat ancient history. After all, Islam was founded, by its own understanding, in 622 A.D. on the occasion of its founder Muhammad's hijra or emigration from Mecca to Medina and the establishment there of a new political community under his rule. But in recent years—and for Americans especially since September 11, 2001—these are questions that have come to seem, correctly, to have an important bearing on contemporary events.
Two recent books address these historical questions, providing very interesting and partly new interpretations of the founding of Islam and its early development. Although grounded in considerable scholarship they are meant for the general reader; both have a bearing on contemporary circumstances, though only for one is this a primary focus.
Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam is devoted to explicating the character and meaning of the earliest years of Islam down through the 7th century, though it touches on developments as late as the middle of the 8th century. Its author, Fred Donner, is a distinguished academic historian of the founding period of Islam; he is well-known for his study of the first Muslim polity's early and spectacularly successful conquests.
Robert Reilly, author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, is a student of both the Western philosophical tradition and Christian, especially Catholic, theology who has also had a career of distinguished government service. His primary historical focus is roughly the late 8th through 11th centuries, a period during which, as he correctly observes, Islam was still finalizing its self-understanding. His concern is both narrower and broader than Donner's: His narrower focus is what he regards as Muslim "theology"—principally though not exclusively its doctrine regarding God—what it is, how it came to be formulated, and its impact on Muslim thought and life. His broader focus is more explicitly contemporary and includes an extensive discussion and interpretation of the last two centuries of Islam. The link between these concerns is Reilly's view that the classic formulation of Muslim theology had a decisive impact—via a "closing of the Muslim mind"—on subsequent Muslim history and that it is especially important for the Muslim world's and our own current predicament.
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Of the two interpretive tasks, Donner's is for chronological reasons more fundamental. It is also more difficult, because for the period of Muhammad's life and the following century and a half we lack much in the way of reliable contemporaneous Muslim documentation.
Donner's response to this difficulty is three-fold. First, like some predecessors he tries to present and examine for clues the religious conditions of late antiquity within which Muhammad's mission arose. This as he knows carries the risk of understanding Muhammad's mission as too continuous with other religious movements of late antiquity, so that one misses Islam's distinctive character. Second, and most fundamentally, he relies on a careful explication of the Koran to help define the precise character of Islam as Muhammad himself understood and presented it. Donner is aware that doubts have been raised about the contemporaneity of the Koran. Nor is he unaware of the Koran's ambiguity in certain respects. But he does not regard them as decisive for his purposes. Third, he has reference to non-Muslim—especially Christian—accounts of the rise of Islam which were undeniably contemporary with it.
What is the result? One that will appear rather curious to the general reader. According to Donner, Muhammad was not the founder of Islam in the strict sense we mean today of a completely separate "religious confession." Islam in that sense emerged only somewhat later, beginning in the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (685-705), the Fifth Caliph or ruler of the Ummayad Dynasty (and the Ninth Caliph overall).
What then did Muhammad found? According to Donner, he established the Community or Movement of Believers whose original character "can best be described as a monotheistic reform movement rather than as a new and distinct religious confession" (my emphasis). It arose in circumstances in which "many if not most of the people of the Near East were already ostensibly monotheists." Its purpose was to reform existing monotheism—regarded as corrupt, by Muhammad or the Koran—by a purist reaffirmation of monotheism's fundamental principles. These were understood to be two-fold: the absolute oneness and uniqueness of God and the prospect of a Last Day of Judgment, with promised rewards and punishments, a prospect that certain Koranic passages suggest might be realized in the very near future. In accord with these fundamental principles and necessarily joined to them was a certain "pietism" reflecting a demand for virtuous behavior—both moral and ritual—as the ever appropriate response to human sinfulness but especially needful in light of the possible approach of the Day of Judgment. Both the monotheistic principles and the pietism—in the form of prescriptions for prayer, charity, and religious pilgrimage among other things—constitute the core of Muhammad's original teaching as one may see from the fact that they are repeated many, many times in the Koran.
Muhammad may have reflected an existing impetus for reform that already had considerable force among the monotheistic inhabitants of the Near East and expressed itself through the power of various earlier and contemporary "pietistic" movements. Nevertheless, the early Community of Believers did—according to Donner—seem to have a sense of themselves as a "unique community" guided by the purpose of renewal. An important characteristic of this uniqueness was the notion of hijra or emigration. Muhammad had founded this community through his own hijra from Mecca to Medina, which enabled the spread of this reform within his lifetime to all of Arabia and even somewhat beyond. The communitarian basis was essential if the reform was to be effective for all in light of the approach of the Last Day, and Donner stresses, more than some, the apocalyptic element in Muhammad's preaching. This too resembled preceding Near Eastern apocalypticism. After Muhammad's death, the community he founded continued to pursue this mission through further hijra—namely the spread of its rule beyond Arabia, most immediately through warfare with the neighboring Byzantine and Sassanian Empires, the massive defeats of their armies, and the extension of Muslim rule to their territory.
One very important corollary of Donner's interpretation is what he calls Muhammad's "ecumenism." By this he means that during Muhammad's lifetime and for some period thereafter the Community of Believers could and did embrace other monotheistic "believers"—chiefly Jews and Christians—on a more or less equal footing. Only somewhat later in the 7th century did "Muslims" emerge as a group of believers distinct from Jews and Christians. Donner attributes this development partially to the consequences of the two early, and very traumatic, civil wars that tore apart the Muslim polity from 656 to 692 and ultimately gave rise to the great division of Islam into Sunnism and Shiism. The differentiation of Islam into a "new and distinct religious confession" was a result of the attempt of the Ummayad ruler Abd al-Malik to establish the legitimacy of his rule and that of the dynasty to which he belonged, and thus end the civil wars. This required at least two things: a definition of Islam that would permit a rejection of Shiite claims to rulership; and a renewal of Muslim hijra or expansion and therewith a sharp distinction between Islam and Christianity (in the form of the Byzantine Empire, Christianity was a most obvious field for such expansion). Of the two, Donner places the greatest emphasis on the renewed struggle with Christian Byzantium.
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His argument has considerable force, but it is also exposed to serious difficulties. His most generally helpful emphasis is the claim that Muhammad originally conceived his venture as a movement of monotheistic reform. Muhammad's earliest and most fundamental teachings are in their very simplicity supportive of that conception and might offer a certain "ecumenical" embrace of Jews and Christians who saw the need for reform. Moreover, the Koran is explicit that earlier monotheists—i.e., Jews and Christians—had distorted the true revelations that were bequeathed them, and so needed reform. Although Donner does not note this, the conception of "reform" is also helpful for understanding Islam's subsequent history. Down to the present day important Muslim movements have presented themselves as movements of "reform," evoking Muhammad's original reform and even imitating it through the practice of "emigration."
Still, Donner's account neglects at least two questions: whether the majority of the Jews and Christians saw or could ever see the need for reform in the same way and still remain in any meaningful sense Christians or Jews, and whether in the event of Jewish and Christian rejection of "reform" a certain logic would necessarily lead to a new religious confession claiming to be both distinct from and superior to the previous forms of monotheism.
Islam certainly did become such a religious confession and certainly does continue to make such a claim. But as it happens the logic that might lead to this is already evident in the Koran in both general and specific terms. Donner partially, but only partially, indicates this, observing, for example, that the Koran is replete with rejections of Christian teachings, both the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarian understandings. But even if, as Donner argues, much of eastern Christianity in the form of the Monophysite churches was less committed to Trinitarian teachings and thus less hostile to Muhammad's purer monotheism, there was a residual difference regarding the status of Jesus which could only keep the two faiths distinct.
But there is another, more general way, ignored by Donner, in which the Koran argues a need for monotheistic reform, one which might very well be taken as its fundamental justification for Islam as a reform movement of a distinctive and even final character. This is embodied in important passages in which Jews and Christians are characterized and criticized as "dividers," referring partly to specific corruptions of the purity of monotheism by, for example, the Christian teachings cited above, but apparently referring also to the notion that by the very fact of their separate existence Judaism and Christianity violate the intellectual and practical requirements of pure monotheism. For the Koran seems to ask: does not the belief in the one and only true God imply a community of believers all affirming an identical faith, and even practice? Perhaps Muhammad's founding of a political community—described in the Koran as the "best of communities designed for man"—was meant to establish that very commonality.
Such "ecumenism" as the Koran presents would seem then not much more than an initial and perhaps merely prudential ambiguity, which in the end could only be resolved by the strict differentiation of Islam as a superior religion and the subordination of other forms of monotheism to it. Of course had the Last Day of Judgment occurred either in Muhammad's lifetime or shortly thereafter, such a development might not have occurred as it did. But in lieu of the Last Judgment, what remained was the political community Muhammad had established and the mission he had bequeathed to it. The character of that mission as a political enterprise is further suggested by Koranic passages describing Muhammad as the last or "seal" of the prophets.
This is not to deny that this polity's subsequent history, especially the civil wars and the renewal of major armed conflict with non-Muslim neighbors, was crucial to the development of more precise definitions of Islam—and Donner ably shows this. He also shows that the definition of Islam had very much to do with political legitimacy. Inasmuch as the distinctive mission of Islam was bound up with being the "best of communities," disputes about political legitimacy and rule were not only practical but religious issues. This was reflected at the time in the dispute between the Ummayads and their Shiite opponents, and in the emergence of non-Shiite pious circles that entertained their own doubts about the piety and hence strict legitimacy of the Ummayyads. It is reflected down to the present day in the abiding division of Muslims into Shiites and Sunnis. Indeed a certain weakness of Donner's book is that he makes too little of the role of the political in the definition of Islam, and has relatively little to say about the impact of the Shiite claims.
Although this is beyond the purview of Donner's book, as it happened the problem of political legitimacy was not resolved by the restoration of order by Abd al-Malik and his Ummayad successors. They were relatively quickly swept away in a revolution in 749, known as the Abbasid Revolution after the dynasty that succeeded them. This revolution arose out of pious discontent, both Shiite and non-Shiite, with the Ummayyads. It inaugurated the era of the great debate that is the focus of Robert Reilly's book: the debate concerning the theological issues common to all forms of monotheism—God's being and power, justice, reason, and human freedom—as well as some issues uniquely Islamic, such as the eternity or createdness of the Koran.
This debate came to the fore during the 9th century under Abbasid political auspices. It played itself out until approximately the end of the 11th century when a more or less authoritative and final perspective was formulated for Sunni Islam by the most famous Sunni Muslim thinker, al-Ghazzali. As Reilly observes, this was a period when certain important features of Sunni Islam received their more or less final formulation. Thus his account continues in a way the interpretative history provided by Donner.
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Reilly devotes a large part of his book to a description of this debate and the parties engaged in it—especially the two theological schools known as Mutazilism and Asharism. With regard to this era we are reasonably well supplied with contemporary accounts and documents and there are fewer interpretative disputes. But Reilly provides an exceptionally clear, accessible account of this debate, well supported by generous quotations from the most relevant figures.
He is not concerned, however, primarily with the 11th century outcome of this debate but with its impact on Muslim circumstances in our time, and in particular with the "closing of the Muslim mind." By this Reilly means the rejection of the authority and use of reason as such. To this he ascribes the Muslim world's failure to embrace various aspects of modern progress—especially democratic politics, market economics, and science. He further reasonably argues that this failure is responsible for the Muslim world's malaise, including its envy and resentment of non-Muslims and the anger that expresses itself in the violent, radical Muslim movements now attacking the United States and other nations. Reilly traces both the failure and the radicalism to the theological debate of the 9th century.
Reilly brings to bear not only the record of the early debates but the comments of recent Muslim scholars, especially the late Pakistani theologian and scholar Fazlur Rahman who is a great and reliable authority on these subjects. But he also brings to bear his very considerable knowledge of Christian theology and Western philosophy. This is a great strength of the book, inasmuch as it helps clarify the distinctive character of Islamic belief and theology. But it also introduces some risks not all of which he successfully avoids.
Reilly's very powerful, crucial point is that the theological debate of the 9th century issued, through the victory of the Asharite view, in an understanding of God and man which banished reason not only from man but from God Himself. God's essential characteristics were understood to consist entirely of His will and power—or almost entirely because as the Koran frequently asserts, God is also just and merciful. But both His mercy and His justice were understood to be entirely derivative from His will. Moreover, this general theological understanding embraced as its "physics" a form of ancient atomism that denied any intrinsic causality to the world other than the continual but unknowable and unpredictable exercises of God's will.
As Reilly points out, this theology was implicitly hostile to that pursuit of philosophy or science that had begun to flourish under the early Abbasid rulers, nurtured by their great project of translating ancient Greek but also Indian and Persian texts. Though this project continued for some years through the efforts of men like al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, it was expressly attacked by Islam's greatest theologian, al-Ghazzali, in the 11th century. As a result it died out in western and especially Arabic-speaking Muslim realms only surviving in the Muslim East, especially under Shiite auspices. To the extent that anything replaced philosophy in Sunni Islam it was Sufism or Islamic mysticism, which had the imprimatur of Ghazzali.
Taken together these theological developments have made it very difficult for Islam to assimilate modern thought and life. As argued by Pervez Houdbhoy, a Pakistani physicist quoted several times by Reilly, the effects of theological "atomism" constrain if they have not totally rendered impossible the pursuit of modern science in Muslim countries. And the effective denial of human freedom renders Muslims resistant to modern forms of political life, all of which, notwithstanding their differences, rest on modern doctrines of human liberty. Historically, it has also produced a certain political passivity somewhat leavened by violent revolutions.
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In reaching these conclusions, Reilly relies heavily on a contrast between Islamic theology on the one hand and the Western tradition of philosophy and theology on the other. Crucial to this contrast is the Western appreciation of the role of reason. This derives not only from the Greeks some 2,500 years ago but from the founding documents of Christianity collected in the Greek Bible. Particularly important is the Gospel of John, which lays stress on "logos"—that is speech or reason—as an essential feature of divinity and one especially associated with the mission of Jesus. Reilly could perhaps emphasize even more than he does that this difference has a still earlier foundation in the Hebrew Bible, beginning with its first two chapters. There it is first asserted that God made man in His image and suggested that the likeness consists primarily in man's possession of speech or logos.
The Koran does not assert this relationship between God and man, and it might appear from this that Islam fundamentally and irrevocably proscribes reason. Perhaps the strict closing of the Muslim mind in the 9th to 11th centuries was unavoidable. If so, this would bear very important practical consequences both for the present and for any conceivable future. But as Reilly's account of the 9th-century Muslim debate makes clear, Islam at the outset was not simply closed to the claims of reason, at least in the form of the theological school known as Mutazilism. Indeed, his solution to current travails (if one might hope for such a thing) would seem to be to revive this school or something like it, informed perhaps in some ways by the Christian monotheistic tradition and its mode of dealing with reason. This bespeaks a generous spirit for which Reilly is to be commended. But his account of the original debate does not show sufficient regard for the historical and political context and the origins of that debate. This is a considerable weakness of his treatment.
The weakness stems from two related features of his analysis. The first is his more or less exclusively "theological" framework, i.e., his focus on theology as a formal discipline and as the distinctive key for understanding Islam. This makes eminent sense for understanding Christianity, but it is problematic when approaching Islam, whose essential framework is not simply theological but "politico-theological," as we have seen. Thus Islam's essential "theological" framework is deeply intertwined with its political history. Reilly's approach leads him largely to abstract from this political history and when he touches upon it to sometimes misinterpret it and its impact on Islamic "theology." This is the second problematic feature of his approach.
For example, though Reilly touches upon the very first theological schools in Islam which emerged prior to Mutazilism and Asharism, he neglects the fact that they did not arise from a direct interest in clarifying the Islamic conception of God, but rather within the context of and in response to the great political struggles of early Islam, and were most immediately inspired by debates about the issues of human freedom, justice, and punishment. The discussions worked so to speak backwards from political and moral issues raised by intra-Muslim wars.
More importantly, as Reilly remarks, the great theological debate of the 9th century was set in motion and even presided over by the Abbasid ruling dynasty. Why? Reilly does not say or even ask. But it is tolerably clear that from the outset the Abbasid dynasty aimed at a definition of Islam that would somehow reconcile and transcend the political-religious factions that had emerged earlier, especially Shiite sectarians, and thus provide the Abbasids with a solid basis of legitimacy. One might also say that less selfishly they aimed at the restoration of the unity of the "best of communities"—a unity intrinsic to Muhammad's original mission of monotheistic reform in light of the "corruption of division." This one might say was the original and abiding "theological" imperative of Islam.
But Reilly is especially concerned with the meaning of Islamic history for present day problems. To use his formula: Could the Muslim mind reopen? If so, how and what would it look like? Would this contribute to a healthier Muslim world and greater comity with non-Muslims?
Near the beginning of his book, he asserts that "abstruse theological points can have the most practical and devastating consequences." He is certainly correct, and his book demonstrates it. He proposes that "the key contemporary question may be this: if one's theological assumptions about reality are incorrect, can one recover from them if these assumptions have been dogmatized and made pillars of one's faith?" His implied answer: a "reformed Muslim theology" might be helpful to Muslims, if available. Efforts at such reform have not been altogether lacking. For example, Fazlur Rahman attempted to reopen the question of the Koran, arguing for its createdness. He did so both because he believed it to be true on the basis of the Koran itself, and because he regarded it as the ground for fruitful new interpretations that might deal with the problem of modernity. Today other Muslim thinkers have taken up this cause and perhaps it may succeed. As the rising young scholar Ahmed al Rahim has observed about the 9th century debate, Ibn Hanbal, who remains an important authority for contemporary Muslims, did not initially affirm the doctrine of the uncreated Koran; rather, he refused to take a position.
Still, given the essentially political-theological character of Islam, it is far more likely that a reopening of the Muslim mind would occur through political reflections rather than strictly or narrowly theological ones. Among other things a strictly "theological" approach would for reasons Reilly ably elaborates resemble too closely a Christian way of doing things, which would be difficult for Muslim tradition and pride to embrace. Nor is the Muslim world lacking for people who are inclined to characterize modern or Western ways of doing things as essentially "Christian"—for example Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
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In a way the importance of the political is borne out by the experience of Islam in the last century, in particular the rise of what is called political Islam—or Islamism, militant Islam, or radical Islam—and especially the fact that it is the only Islamic movement with great vitality. This movement understands itself to be one of "reform" and as such the heir to earlier reforms, especially Muhammad's. It attempts to imitate Islam's founding, and in seeking to operate on a political plane indicates how fundamental politics is to Islam. Of course, the results to date have been unhappy in the extreme—certainly for non-Muslims but also for Muslims themselves. Moreover, the thought that has informed this movement has been immensely crude in comparison with earlier Muslim thought. Reilly's book may be understood as a generous attempt to solicit and revive greater Muslim thoughtfulness, for the sake of the fruit it might bear.
Nonetheless, it remains likely that the subject matter of such thought would have to be heavily weighted to the political. For this to have any depth and consequence it would require a thoroughgoing reflection upon Muslim politics—and especially political history, including the founding generations that are the subject of Donner's book and the early Abbasid period that is the context for Reilly's. This has yet to take place. For the moment what passes for such reflection is political Islam's abstract evocation of the 7th century and abstract reflections on contemporary politics.
But the kind of reflection that is required remains possible, for at least two reasons: First, it is clear that the movement for Muslim reform—including radical reform—of the past two centuries was originally inspired by the fact of Muslim political decline as compared with its earlier success. This decline is frequently cited by radical and other Muslims as the framework of their preoccupations. Second, such reflections have available an important entry point in the form of the dispute between Shiites and Sunnis, which was the original theme of Muslim political-theological debate and remains not only alive but very potent. This makes the issue of "the best of communities designed for man" an abiding question.
In light of this the present condition of Shiites may prove to be consequential. For the Shiite world is engaged in its own very serious, interesting, and potentially fruitful debate about the relationship of Islam and politics. The terms of the debate are partially set by the dispute between the radical Twelver Shiism founded by the late Ayatollah Khomenei, and traditional, so-called "quietist," Twelver Shiism today represented by Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq. At least since the June 2009 Iranian elections, a subset of that debate has been going on even among the adherents of radical Shiism. It is true that this debate has not yet borne much fruit. It is also true that Shiites form only a minority of Muslims. Nevertheless it would appear that certain portions of the Muslim mind have not completely closed. Nor is it impossible that this would have a bearing for Sunnis as well.
In fact, it is not as obvious as Reilly seems to suggest that in pursuing comprehensive political-theological reflections rather than strictly theological ones Muslims would be departing completely from that Western experience which gave rise to the modern world. Perhaps because of the necessary constraints of his book, Reilly tends to treat modernity as a more or less straight line extension of the Western marriage of classical philosophy and Christian thought, especially the synthesis effected by Thomas Aquinas. But in fact the path from Thomas to today was very tumultuous and remains unclear, and was so even in the Middle Ages. In strictly theological terms, Thomism was assaulted almost immediately and even supplanted by the nominalism of William of Occam. But perhaps even more importantly for subsequent modern developments, the Middle Ages launched an enormous, ferocious, and very rich debate—both practical and intellectual—about theological-political questions beginning already in the 11th century with the investiture crisis, a dispute between the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope over who would appoint church officials. There are today many competing historical interpretations of the path between this debate and our present understandings. Among other things and curiously, the contemporary natural sciences would seem to have more in common formally with Asharite atomism than Thomistic Aristotelianism. But one thing is clear: the path toward modernity depended upon the vitality of the medieval debate, including a debate about the relative authority of religious faith and philosophical reason, which to this date has never been fully resolved in the West.
As it happened, the medieval Christian debate did not go completely unnoticed in the Muslim world. It was remarked upon in the 14th century by Ibn Khaldun, the last great Muslim student of the philosophical tradition in the western, Arabic-speaking Muslim domains. Ibn Khaldun is most famous for his comprehensive analysis of politics, especially Muslim politics. He is often cited as a model by Muslim reformers eager to present an alternative to radical Islam. Nevertheless, Ibn Khaldun did not express envy of the Christian debate and certainly did not attempt simply to imitate it in his own works. He had his reasons, but at this juncture his decision would seem to have been unfortunate. At all events such a debate is what the Muslim world and mind most needs now. Of course this is a task for Muslims themselves. But they may find much to help them in these two books, and especially Robert Reilly's.
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For Correspondence on this review, click here.