A Rational Islam?

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge Robert Reilly's favorable remarks about Sharia Versus Freedom in his recent review ("Arab Winter," Summer 2013), especially since my book includes an uncompromising critique of his own book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

Unfortunately, Reilly's presentation of my critique is a rather disingenuous misrepresentation of the actual arguments I make in Sharia Versus Freedom. I must also take issue with Reilly's absurd conflation, first expressed in his book and repeated in his review, of Mutazilism—a fanaticized, iconoclastic version of Islam—with Greek Hellenism and the broader traditions of Western rationalism. Reilly's specific comparison of the Mutazilites with the more traditionalist Asharites is grossly oversimplified and ahistorical. The Mutazilites were pious Muslims motivated by Islamic religious concerns, first and foremost.

His wistful presentation of "Mutazilism" as a "squandered" modernizing force for Islam is the re-packaging of an untenable mid-19th-century hypothesis, debunked a century ago by the great scholar of Islam Ignaz Goldziher.

Although Goldziher acknowledges in his landmark Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law the "one salutary consequence" of the Mutazilites' ruthless endeavors was to bring reason "to bear upon questions of belief," he also demonstrates that the Mutazilites exhibited no real manifestation of liberated thinking or any desire "to throw off chafing shackles, to the detriment of the rigorously orthodox [Islamic] view of life." Moreover, the Mutazilites' own orthodoxy was accompanied by fanatical intolerance—they orchestrated the "Mihna," or Muslim Inquisition, under their brutal 9th-century reign during the Abbasid-Baghdadian Caliphate.

As Goldziher demonstrated, the Mutazilites advocated jihad in all realms where their doctrine was not ascendant while being fully prepared to assassinate those who refused to abide their formulations. The Mutazilite Caliph al-Mamun brutally subdued a Coptic Christian uprising in Lower Egypt, exterminating those who were not among the thousands enslaved and deported. Historian Moshe Gil notes how in the later stages of al-Mamun's rule, he "used a strong hand" in his dealings with the subjected non-Muslim dhimmis—Jews and Christians—living under the sharia.

Reilly's Mutazilite hagiography opens—and closes—with a paean to the 20th-century Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman, credited with tracing Islam's purported "intellectual suicide" to the predictably bloody rejection of this violent, autocratic movement's so-called rationalism. But as Rahman himself later admitted, he had "revised" the admitted "weaknesses" in the ostensibly noble, rationalist legacy of his Mutazilite forbears in order to comport with "modern ethical philosophy and theology."

As Goldziher had already explained,

authors of sophistic fantasies about hypothetical developments in Islam at times draw pictures of how salutary it would have been to the evolution of Islam if the Mutazila had successfully risen to spiritual dominance…. It was truly a piece of good fortune for Islam that state patronage of this mentality was limited to the time of those three [Mutazilite] caliphs. How far would the Mutazilites have gone if the instruments and power of the state had been longer at the disposal of their intellectual faith!… [T]he inquisitors of liberalism were, if possible, even more terrible than their literal-minded colleagues. In any case their fanaticism is more repugnant than that of their imprisoned and mistreated victims.


Goldziher's sagacious words remind us that in our zealous desire for an Islamic Enlightenment, we must not rewrite past history as a prologue to perceived modern "solutions."

Andrew G. Bostom
Providence, RI


I was pleased to see Robert R. Reilly's thoughtful review of Andrew C. McCarthy's Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracyin the CRB's Summer 2013 issue. Reilly cites the "lack of footnotes" as the "only major defect" of the book. I thought your readers (and Reilly himself) might be interested to know thatin its primary electronic incarnation Spring Feveris bedizened with notes in the form of clickable URLs. The book was the inaugural title in our new EncounterDigital initiative. Because the series puts a premium on timeliness, we publish its titles first of all in e-book format, which allows instant access to the power of the internet. A "legacy" paperback print edition comes later as a subsidiary production. Modern hyperlink citation is impracticable in print format. There is no way to click through to the indicated citation. The lack of footnotes in the print edition is simply a concession to the evolution of publishing technology.

Roger Kimball
Encounter Books
New York, NY


Robert R. Reilly replies:

I want to thank Roger Kimball for explaining the latest technology in publishing to a non-techie, long-hand writer, who otherwise would not have understood where the footnotes went.

Andrew Bostom apparently thinks that because both Asharites and Mutazilites were pious Muslims, therefore, the essential differences I laid out between them are insignificant. This is like saying the differences between the voluntarist theological teachings of Duns Scotus and the rational theology of Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages were insignificant because, after all, both were pious Christians. Yet it is because the teachings of Aquinas prevailed against those of Scotus that the West was able to develop in the way it has. And it is because the views of the Asharites prevailed over the Mutazilites that Sunni Islam is in its current dysfunctional predicament—even though the Mutazilites, as Bostom correctly points out, "were pious Muslims motivated by Islamic religious concerns, first and foremost."

Although Bostom claims that Ignaz Goldziher (whom I much admire) debunked my view of the Mutazilites a century ago, my view is largely based upon manuscripts of their teachings—by far the fullest yet available—that were not discovered until the 1950s, long after Goldziher was dead.

Bostom's other tactic is to attempt to discredit the views of the Mutazilites by emphasizing the force used by the Caliph al-Mamun. The fact that force was used does not necessarily discredit a cause; it very much depends on the nature of the cause for which force was used. When it comes to the life-and-death struggle between the Mutazilites and the Asharites, Bostom seems completely incapable of making a moral judgment based upon the nature of the principles for which each side fought—or, to the extent to which he does, he actually endorses the Mutazilite defeat. Where is Bostom's denunciation of the "fanatical intolerance" with which the Mutazilites were treated and philosophy banned? What does he think about the first Arab philosopher, al-Kindi, having his library confiscated and then being beaten through the streets of Baghdad?

If Bostom understood my work, he would have a deeper comprehension of several things he mentions in his book. For instance, in his introduction, he quotes the late P.J. Vatikiotis regarding "the absence of a concept of ‘natural law' or ‘law of reason' in the intellectual-cultural heritage of Middle Eastern societies." As mentioned in my review of Sharia Versus Freedom, it was the defeat of the Mutazilites, who embraced the notion of natural law, that caused its extirpation and the consequent absence of which Vatikiotis speaks. Later, Bostom writes that, "Contra Judaism and Christianity, Islam's history never compelled Muslim religious leaders to reexamine their basic assumptions concerning power and faith…. The independent existence of objective universal truths is not acknowledged by normative Islamic doctrine. Unless decreed to be so by a notoriously mercurial Allah, nothing is either good or evil." But, as I show, Muslim religious leaders werecompelled to re-examine their views and, ironically, this is exactly what Bostom objects to in the Mutazilites. Bostom is trying to have it both ways, but he cannot.

It is also extraordinary that Bostom seems unaware that many of the Muslim intellectual reformers who do want to change the very things he objects to most in the prevalent form of Islam—like the late Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd or recently deceased Lafif Lakhdar—appeal to the Mutazilite past as a means for Islam to start thinking its way out of the theological prison in which it has placed itself. Lakhdar eloquently called for "the revival of Mutazilite rationality, philosophy and the interpretation of the Text in the light of reason."

Here is a more recent sample from Sohail Hashmi: "One of the first tasks in this process is to assert the possibility of natural law and natural rights within an Islamic framework. This will require a resurrection and dissemination of the early Mutazili emphasis on ethical objectivism, that is, that all human beings possess the rational faculty—as a God-given faculty—to discern right from wrong and to form moral conclusions on how to order their communal lives apart from reliance on one or another revelation."

Who knows, once out of the theological prison, rational Muslims might even be able to reason over the morality of violent jihad, a prospect foreclosed by the victory of the Asharites.

One last note. Bostom repeats here the claim that, as he put it in his book, "Reilly's contemporary Mutazilite hagiography opens—and closes—with a paean to the 20th century Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman," whom Bostom excoriates. After an extended quotation purportedly from Rahman, Bostom accuses him of perpetrating "a thoroughly bowdlerized view of ‘Mutazilism.'" The problem is that a careful reading of the page from which the quotation comes would have revealed that it was not from Rahman, but from the late George Hourani, a distinguished Lebanese British scholar of Islam and professor of Arabic studies. In fact, since the quotation clearly states that it is "looking at Islam from outside," if Bostom understood Rahman as well as he claims to in so virulently dismissing his work, he would have immediately known that Rahman, a believing Muslim, could never have said it. This error does not strengthen Bostom's charge that my work is a misrepresentation.

Congressional Reform

It was a pleasure to read Christopher DeMuth's reflections on "the growth of executive government," a long-term trend which has accelerated during the Obama Administration ("The Bucks Start Here," Summer 2013). I am particularly interested in his concluding remarks on the need for congressional renewal. Surely, no other institution is capable of arresting the administrative state's seemingly irresistible growth. But I wonder if DeMuth overlooks the need for realigning electoral victories first. Winning an extraordinary majority makes comprehensive reform possible by overcoming the resistance of entrenched congressmen or sclerotic executive agencies. Franklin Roosevelt's landslide victories ushered in the New Deal and Ronald Reagan's remarkable electoral achievements paved the way for economic revival and victory in the Cold War. Nevertheless, I think DeMuth is on the right track. A 435-member House of Representatives for 50 states is simply too large for effective deliberation. In the First Congress, there were only 65 members for 13 states. As The Federalist had noted,

[I]n all legislative assemblies the greater the number composing them may be, the fewer will be the men who will in fact direct their proceedings…. The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic. The machine will be enlarged, but the fewer, and often the more secret, will be the springs by which its motions are directed.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when numbers approached the current level, power in the House accrued in the hands of the Speaker until, following a revolt against Speaker Joseph Cannon in 1910, it shifted to the committee chairmen. Midwestern and Northeastern Republicans before 1933 and Southern Democrats since then gained seniority, which guaranteed them extraordinary power over congressional legislation. The Democrats' revolt in 1974 against this system has enhanced the power of the Speaker once again. Because Democrats are the main supporters of executive growth, DeMuth's proposal to strengthen the committee chairs, however meritorious, waits upon a convincing Republican electoral triumph. A reduction in the number of House members is not in the cards, but the public might be convinced of the virtue of congressional renewal if the GOP makes a good case.

Richard H. Reeb Jr.
Helendale, CA


Christopher DeMuth replies:

I appreciate Richard Reeb's thoughtful letter but would say that a sweeping electoral victory is neither necessary nor sufficient for legislative revival and executive retrenchment. A serious crisis—the opposite of an election triumph—such as a bond default resulting from partisan miscalculations could also be the inducement for congressional reform (already, in our current fiscal impasse, tax and appropriations chairmen in both House and Senate have become increasingly rebellious against their party leaders). And a government-unifying election could easily produce increased congressional deference and presidential dominance. Let us remember, too, that Ronald Reagan's presidency was a time of pronounced growth in both deficit spending and regulation (following a regulatory pause in his first term).

I am not convinced that the House of Representatives is too large to be an effective legislature. Today's Senate is much smaller than the House; it is accordingly less regimented and more individualistic and deferential—but it is scarcely more deliberative. I believe that the key to rebalanced government is powerful legislative committees based on representation of states and localities, in place of today's partisan hierarchies representing national constituencies that support or oppose the president. And, as suggested by the history that Reeb relates, we could certainly have powerful legislative committees in a 435-member House. My personal nirvana is the 1920s—with powerful conservative committee chairmen and legislative loyalists in both houses, and skinflints in the White House. Should unified Republican government come again, I look forward to working with Mr. Reeb in order to use it as the occasion to press for congressional reform as well as policy reform.