Is the Muslim world and its bonding substance, Islam, in the throes of its own self-destruction or is it just in the early stages of a dramatic conflict which will ultimately end with its defeat of the civilization it has been at war with since it first emerged from the Arabian Desert in the 7th century?
The third option is of course that it is simply in another phase of that war and that this one, like all the others, will end in a tacit stalemate. Will its core states will once again barricade themselves behind new borders and slumber on until the next phase of this seemingly eternal struggle begins again?
If one were to draw a map of the world today and identify on it all the significant human conflicts currently in progress and further identify the source of each of those one would notice that some expression of Islamic jihad is at the heart of the majority of them – from Nigeria in the west of the African continent to the horn of Africa in the east, from the southern shores of the Mediterranean through the middle east over to the subcontinent itself, the Muslim world is either tearing itself apart or is tearing into its bordering territories, giving new life to that sad geo-political reality, the “bloody borders of Islam”.
A world at war
What does all this signify? Does it not justify the question of Manuel II Palaiologos, one of the last Christian rulers before the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which he put to his Islamic interlocutor in a conversation dealing with such issues as forced conversion, holy war, and the relationship between faith and reason in Islam? This of course was the question quoted by Pope Benedict XVI when he alluded to this same problem in his famous Regensburg address, provoking an Islamic response which clearly underlined with pathetic accuracy the very problem he pointed to. The Emperor said, “show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
But need Islam have been this way? Robert R. Reilly in his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, sees a pattern of events in history which suggests that it might have been otherwise. Had that process of development which Benedict XVI saw as such a pivitol and providential factor in the development of Christianity, its enculturation with the thought and traditions of the Greek world, been allowed to work in Islam then its history might have been very different. It almost did but in the end the power of the contrary forces which eventually triumphed in Islam’s internal conflicts thwarted it. Islam is what it is today, Reilly asserts, because reason was vanquished in the crucial battle for the minds and hearts of Muslims which took place between the ninth and eleventh centuries.
Muslims today are to be found in every country in the world. The vast majority of them are at peace with the world but a crucial element within that international religious community is not. It is crucial because it is the segment of Sunni Islam which is true to the essential theological tenets of the religion which were set in stone for its adherents by the end of the 11th century and which kept it imprisoned there until the late modern age. That peace is the reason for the war which is being waged in so many parts of the world. It is this peace, perceived as a deadly threat to Islamic orthodoxy, which ultimately gives rise to the rage which is driving the Sunni jihad wherever it is found. That peace is seen as a virus which will ultimately undermine the central tenet of Islam’s 11th century theology. This tenet is that reason is the enemy of Islam, that reason is alien to God himself and the man who dabbles in reason as a guide for his life is rejecting the principle of unquestioning submission to the will of Allah. For the jihadists the battle is the battle to preserve and defend to the death this doctrine and to do all in their power to destroy the peace that is corrupting faithful Muslims throughout the world.
In the early years of Marxist Communism the great internal struggle was between those who compromised their cause by accepting the principle of the practicality of communism in one country as a stepping stone to world domination and those who saw this as folly. They argued that Communism could only succeed ultimately if the struggle was global. Peaceful co-existence was a formula for disaster and accepting it was going to lead to failure. They were right. Communism could not compete with freedom and only by extinguishing freedom and all memory and experience of human freedom could Communism dominate the world. “Communism Limited” ultimately spelled the death knell of Communism. It is still in its death throes and is still inflicting suffering on millions of human beings but the end is inevitable.
The Islamic jihadist knows the same. Islam sealed itself off from the world that it could not invade and conquer for the best part of nine centuries. Then in the 19th century, as its major power-house, the sclerotic Ottoman Empire, was dying it began to reach out for help. Help came but with it came the price of contamination. This contamination by an alien culture has ultimately provoked the backlash which is the modern jihad. That jihad knows that unless it can destroy the sources of all those influences which are corrupting the pure Islamic product, as defined by the theologians of the ninth and tenth centuries then their cause is dead. Unless they are victorious then Islam will succumb to reason. Reason is their enemy. If and when reason is allowed its rightful place it will be their undoing. Reason will reveal the truth about man which will ultimately bring about the unraveling of the flawed fabric of Islam which was woven in the early middle ages by the desert tribes who spread east and west from Arabia creating one of the greatest empires which the world had seen.
Historian Tom Holland has put his life on the line by questioning the very provenance of the Koran in his book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (2012). The religion of Islam, as it emerged from the desert into the light of history in the eighth century, in his view may be little more than the initial bonding element adopted by the conquerors of the Middle East in those centuries to cement their conquests into an empire. It then took on a life of its own and its rules and regulations acquired their later theological identity and force to become what we know it is today. But whatever its origins, by the ninth century it had become a powerful religious force. It was then that its theology became the subject of the bitter disputes and bloody warfare described by Reilly in his book.
For a period in the ninth century the embryo of Islam was moving towards the Hellenic world and Hellenic influences. Had it continued to do so its understanding of the Divine would have been different and history might well have witnessed a great ecumenical movement which would have brought together two great religious movements of the time, Islam and Christianity, which had common roots in Judaism. But something happened in the tenth century which was to fatally thwart this development. An Iman, Al-Ghazali, rose to prominence in the Ash’arite sect of Islam.
As we know the Arabs of the early Islamic era are responsible for the preservation of extensive elements of Greek culture and philosophy. To them we owe the preservation of the works of Aristotle. Two Islamic scholars, Avicena and Averroes, are giants in the history of philosophy. Al-Ghazali was a brilliant philosopher but he was also a mystic and like many mystics he found it hard to stay rooted in reality. In the end he turned his back on philosophy and in a celebrated book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he rejected Plato, Aristotle and all their works and pomps, proclaiming that they lead to nothing but darkness and confusion. Averroes was his contemporary and he responded with his book, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But it was too late. The leaders of Sunni Islam espoused the Ash’arite doctrines of al-Ghazali and persecuted and murdered all who denied them. The Ash’arite faction triumphed over the Mu’tazalite faction which had followed a Hellenic approach. The battle between them might be seen as a foreshadowing of the Protestant/Catholic divide of the 16th century – with one vital distinction: the Ash’arites triumphed totally over their rivals and the Mu’tazalite tradition died for all intents and purposes.
Reilly quotes the verdict of a twentieth century Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman, on the outcome of the battle: “A people that deprives itself of philosophy necessarily exposes itself to starvation in terms of fresh ideas – in fact, it commits intellectual suicide.” Reilly argues that the flight from the hellinization of Islam began with a particular idea of God which took definitive shape in the ninth century. When this idea began to encounter Greek philosophy the confusions inherent in the Koran began to demand explanations and the explanations which eventually triumphed proved incompatible with the rational approach of Greek thought. Then the battle royal began and the As’arites prevailed.
Today they still prevail in the heart of every jihadist. There is no doubt but the sword of Islam is lethally unsheathed again in today’s world as it was in the early middle ages. The question now is whether it will prevail again in the wider world as it did in the medieval world or whether the hellinization of Islam will eventually be allowed to resume, triumph and reap consequences which might bring a peace to the world which it has not know since the days of the Pax Romana.