Islam's Lessons for Liberalism

The last two decades have produced a library of books analyzing what went wrong with Islam, who stole it, and now who was responsible for closing the Muslim mind. For all the ink spilled, the contentions are remarkably similar: while Islam went well for its first millennium or so, something, somewhere took a foul turn. Previous works assigned the error to Islamic conservatism or colonial oppression. In his new book, Reopening Muslim Minds, Mustafa Akyol blames a particular theological school of medieval Islam for the fly in the ointment. Akyol’s focus makes this book a significant lesson for the intersection of religion and political thought. Its importance lies as much in the implied lessons it holds for non-Islamic circumstances as it does for learning what closed the Muslim mind, providing timely warning against “postliberal” Christian conservatives today.

Akyol asserts that a fatal struggle between two main schools of theology, the Asharites and Mutazilites, dominates Sunni intellectual history. The Asharites eventually won the contest, fully vanquishing their Mutazilite rivals. He associates the victorious Asharites with blind faith and unquestioning obedience to religion while claiming that the Mutazilites were devoted to reason and philosophy. The conquest of blind faith over reason closed Muslim minds to the latter, which denied liberalism the chance to restore a political balance between religion and reason.

So far so good, but to evaluate this argument’s full significance, we must understand something about Islam as a religion and its central theological skirmish between reason and revelation.

Reason and Revelation

Reason and revelation share a tense existence in many religious traditions, but Islam’s claim that the Qur’an is God’s literal words creates outright conflict. An exemplary problem is God’s attributes. The Qur’an describes some as corporeal, such as God’s hands. Corporeal attributes pose a problem to a God who is transcendent and without limitations. How to square this omnipotent circle?

According to Akyol, the Islamic tradition resolved this problem in two ways. The first, adopted by the Mutazilites, held that God’s traits are metaphorical. His hand refers not to an actual hand, but to power. The second, adopted by the Asharites, held that God’s traits must be as they are described in the Qur’an, since to be otherwise (even by metaphor) would imply the text is flawed for not meaning precisely what it says. Their solution was to hold that God’s nature was beyond reason, so he could have the attributes the Qur’an describes while simultaneously transcending them because his nature differs from human experience.

This argument formed only a part of the debate, which ran deeper than we can explore. It held serious consequences for whether human reason might understand God. If reason played a significant role in interpreting revelation, then reason might also be able to discover certain aspects of that revelation unaided. If reason were subject to inevitable error, however, it couldn’t be relied upon. The consequence of this debate held serious consequences for humanity’s relationship with God. If human reason can reach God alone, then reason partakes of some divine nature. If not, it is an inferior and wholly subordinate thing that must rely on God’s communications with humanity to apprehend truth.

This dichotomy, which Akyol puts at the center of his argument, is accurate but too simplistic. The split between the Mutazilites and Asharites was not really about reason and unreason but how to apply reason. The Mutazilite view is that reason might circumscribe and critique revelation. Reason and revelation, therefore, are tightly related and potentially equal.

Likewise, the Asharite view isn’t a rejection of reason, but an acceptance that reason is weaker than revelation, so while reason cannot supplant or critique revelation, it is necessary to understand and interpret it. However, Akyol argues that when the Sunni world embraced Asharite theology, it consciously and deliberately rejected reason. Because reason is central to liberty, Akyol believes that Asharite thought foreclosed any possibility of liberal government.

This argument is not wrong, but neither is it completely right. Its errors are nonetheless informative. Developing a more nuanced understanding of Asharite thought and its interplay with politics is helpful because Islamic fundamentalists’ rejection of rights outside of revelation parallels many of the arguments made by contemporary American “common good” thinkers. The abject failure of political Islam to realize a just social order therefore suggests the threat that political ideas rooted and bounded by theological premises pose to the real common good.

Al-Ghazali, The Reasonable

Al-Ghazali plays the center role in Akyol’s discussion of Asharite theology’s impact on Islam. While Al-Ghazali’s exact position vis-à-vis the school is more ambiguous than commonly recognized, his thought became fundamental to Asharite discourse. Al-Ghazali is a complex thinker, but Akyol presents him largely as anti-rationalist. Al-Ghazali does warn about the reason’s limitations vis-à-vis revelation, but he doesn’t separate them.

Al-Ghazali’s most famous work in this regard is The Incoherence of the Philosophers. A note of caution about this title: Akyol assumes it is anti-philosophy. This isn’t entirely correct. In the medieval Islamicate world, “philosophy,” or falsafah, was a technical term. It referred not just to mathematics, logic, and other disciplines, but also a metaphysical system based on Neo-Platonism that equated philosophical reason with prophetic revelation. Some philosophers even suggested their powers were as potent as prophets’. Their system of metaphysics consequently posed an alternative religious system threatening orthodox Islam. This argument, the equating of revelation and reason, caused Al-Ghazali to reject “philosophy,” but only its metaphysics. In fact, the Incoherence formed the second part of a four-volume work, the first of which was a textbook on philosophy itself and the last was called A Moderation of Belief, which harmonized Avicennian thought with Qur’anic revelation. Al-Ghazali wasn’t as anti-reason as it seems.

Al-Ghazali insists on two points in the Incoherence: first, that philosophy should be learned and could be valuable, maybe even indispensable, if it remained simply a tool of reasoning. Second, that revelation would always trump reason; therefore, when philosophers provided alternative or contradictory arguments about the divine, revelation must triumph. Akyol, like many scholars, flattens these two points, compounding the first into the second and describing Al-Ghazali as a narrow-minded, hide-bound thinker. This composition is a grave error.

Al-Ghazali’s works are comparable to St. Thomas Aquinas’s two centuries later. Both theologians engaged in mystical practice. Both were interested in developing systematic theoretical knowledge of the world reflected through the prism of their religion. Both wrote central theological works that continue as cornerstones of religious thought. Both wrote works on non-religious topics. Both wrestled with the same central struggle: how to marry Athens and Jerusalem. In doing so, their message is the same: one can apply the tools of reason to revelation, but that revelation must guide the activity of reason.

Reason, exercised without proper discipline or context, allows the basic, inner passions and prejudices of its believers to run amok.

Revelation guides reason when one acknowledges the supremacy of God while at the same time holding that God enabled human reason and spoke to humanity in a way that uses reason’s tools. Therefore, reason must be used to understand the divine, but divine nature also has its own unique properties which cannot fully be explained by reason. The nature of the Qur’an is an example in Islam. The Trinity is one in Christianity. One can and must make each explicable through reason but can never fully understand or discover them without revelation’s dominance.

Reason therefore interacts with revelation in Al-Ghazali’s thinking. Reason fills the gaps that revelation leaves since revelation is incomplete by nature since it is revealed during and in response to specific, limited circumstances. This incompleteness makes reason necessary to extend revelation. Thus, Al-Ghazali’s theology is far more reasonable than Akyol presents. The issue of its effects on politics is still open, however. Here we see that Akyol’s analysis is far more telling, both for the world of Islam and our own. It reminds us that religion and government are two swords best kept in separate sheaths.

Islam and Politics

Islamic political thought is often portrayed as being unconcerned with personal liberty. Akyol makes this argument central to his book. This assumption, however, isn’t true. Not even for fundamentalists. That Islamic political thinkers are very concerned with liberty is often overlooked because the practical consequences of contemporary Islamic political thought result in highly authoritarian states (we set aside the most extreme, like ISIS or Al-Qaeda, and focus on countries like Saudi Arabia or Malaysia and political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood). The tyrannical practices of actual Islamic political thinkers betray the often liberty-minded pretensions of the body of theory as a whole. This occultation presents a paradox: how can a liberal theory produce illiberal results? The problem lies in how fundamentalist Islamic thought conceptualizes liberty.

The tension between reason and revelation informs the tension between freedom and tyranny. If one presumes reason is subordinate to revelation and that reason primarily detracts from rather than informs revelation, then one must bind one’s reason to revelation. Revelation, not pure reason, reveals God’s destiny for mankind, which is made to follow God. Mankind, therefore, fulfills its destiny only insofar as it realizes God’s desires, which is goodness. Evil is deviation from these plans.

Goodness enables human action while evil detracts from human action. Because of this dichotomy, a human being can only be free when he is good since one only realizes the full extent of human action when being good: i.e., living according to God’s will, and a person is freest when most capable of acting. Since a human being can only be good when following the divine plan, freedom rests solely in the enactment of divine will manifest through revelation, a point with which Thomas Aquinas agrees in his own understanding of freedom, an understanding implicit in common good’s “classic law” canon.

This chain of reasoning ultimately leads to the conclusion that one obtains freedom only when one follows the will of God regardless of individual will. In the ideal state, everyone will follow this will and perfect liberty will exist, as Qutb argues in Milestones. But, as many other thinkers, both Islamic and integralist and otherwise, indicate, a perfect world doesn’t exist. Therefore, a government must be instigated to establish society’s common good, which requires obedience and submission to religious moral rule to achieve ultimate freedom, falling away from Madison. This moral rule is realized through the application of the powers of the state which encourages the good and forbids the evil, an Islamic moral-cum-political principle popular among Salafists with increasing American converts (who may even operate in secret to subvert secular powers).

In other words, religion’s freedom is political slavery.

While Akyol doesn’t follow this exact line of logic, its inertia undergirds the systems of thought he critiques. Given the same, facile moral reasoning emerging from the American right today, his warning is salutary even beyond the confines of Islam.

The Danger of Post-Liberal Rationalism

Ultimately, Akyol’s argument is misplaced but not incorrect. However, to pretend that the villains of his piece are anti-rationalists is too simple. The problem is that they are often too rationalistic, but, rather than exercising their reason prudently, they defer to a religious and intellectual tradition that blinds them to how reality functions, turning them into ideological hucksters seeking political power to impose flawed, personal convictions which they pass off as representative of the “common good” and true “freedom.”

Ideologues can be highly rational and educated, as America’s own integralist scene demonstrates. The problem with ideology isn’t its lack of reason. It’s that its reason, in being exercised without proper discipline or context, allows the basic, inner passions and prejudices of its believers to run amok, defaming the projects of purity they seek to realize, turning them into little more than vanities of self-aggrandizement; a selfish individual seeking for fortune, fame and power disguised with concern for others but truly characterized by love of self.

In other words, anything but godly.

Our own American tradition, which was largely premised on defeating these kinds of ideologues, has perhaps the best retort to their little game. It was written by a then-obscure, 30-year-old Boston lawyer, titled “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.” In this essay, John Adams clearly lays out the danger of uniting the two most powerful forces for oppression in human society: government and religion.

While necessary and salutary to human flourishing when working on parallel paths, they turn against society when combined, providing “the two greatest systems of tyranny” that ever gained “ascendency over the consciences of the people, in impressing on their minds, a blind, implicit obedience to civil magistracy” that could survive only so long as the people “were held in ignorance…in herds and clans, in a state of servile dependence on their lords…in a state of total ignorance of every thing divine and human,” the combination did little but advance the interests of the tyrannizers over their oppressed subjects, as we see too often in Islamicate countries today.

The only solution the oppressed found to this great conspiratorial tyranny, Adams holds, wasn’t “religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal Liberty, and an hatred, a dread, an horror of the infernal confederacy” of temporal and religious power. A dread that impelled the Puritans to escape England to found a new, liberty-loving country, paving the way for the liberal, enlightened American republic that ironically was and remains far more religious and spiritual than any of the lands from which its refugees fled, a “nation with the soul of a church.”

Akyol’s book confirms the universality of Adams’s sentiments centuries later and reminds us of the price paid when righteousness, even when posing as reasonable godliness, wins political power.