The Long View 2006-10-17: Refutation of the Refutation

The Long View re-posting project took a back-seat while I struggled through J. G. Ballard’s short stories, but we are back!

An interesting bit that I missed at the time this was going on in 2006 was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio publicly criticized Pope Benedict for his Regensburg address, and some behind the scenes maneuvering occurred, possibly a rebuke of the then Cardinal Archbishop. Mostly interesting in retrospect, since nothing major came out of it.

Refutation of the Refutation

Spengler has been naughty, as many of his fans discovered when they saw this post this afternoon on The Free Republic message board:

Yesterday, the Asia Times rejected Spengler's latest essay [which argued that the very idea of "Reason" was fundamentally incompatible with the competing idea of Islam as a religion revealed to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel], so Spengler posted the essay on his forum:

My Monday essay, refused by AToL

Now today the forum is off-line:

Sorry, but this board is currently unavailable. Please try again later.

So anyone got any contacts at the Asia Times? Anyone know what's going on?


I have never, at any time, known what is going one, but a quick look at Asia Times shows that the editors have relented. The new column is up: Reason to Believe, or Not

Pope Benedict XVI has drawn a collective response from the Muslim world, in the form of an open letter from 38 Islamic leaders regarding his September 12 address in Regensburg. "All the eight schools of thought and jurisprudence in Islam are represented by the signatories," according to a press release hailing the letter as "unique in the history of interfaith relations"....The pope provoked outrage by suggesting that Islam rejects reason: the open letter proves him right. They argue that there is no dichotomy in Islam between reason and faith, which turns out to mean that there is no role for reason. ...Reason, the Muslim clerics aver, is one more of the "signs in the horizon" that God sets before us to reveal His presence, like sunsets and rainbows. Now, I suppose that sunsets, rainbows, cellular mitosis and one's capacity to bisect an angle all might serve as inspiration....[In contrast, the Judeo-Christian tradition has it that the] core of the issue is human freedom. Reason is a gift from God, to be sure, but it is a parent's gift of love to a child: the capacity to doubt and even to rebel, in the hope that grace will overcome man's obstinacy.

I think Spengler's account of the role of reason in Christianity actually understates the case, at least for Catholic theology. As I understand the doctrine, reason is constituent of reality, at least in part, and even of the divine nature. Be that as it may, Spengler's list of things for Higher Critics of Islam to criticize may be what got Spengler in trouble:

1) There are numerous variant versions of the Koran, making it quite unlikely that the Archangel Gabriel dictated the entire document to the Prophet Mohammed;
2) Approximately a fifth of the Koranic text is "just incomprehensible" according to Professor Gerd R Puin of the University of Saarbruecken; 
3) Much of what is incomprehensible in Arabic makes good sense if one reads the text instead in Syriac, the liturgical language of pre-existing Christian communities in the Middle East, according to "Christoph Luxenburg";
4) The archeological evidence (assembled by Yehuda Nevo) from the Koranic period strongly contradicts the notion that a finished text of any sort existed within a century of Mohammed's death.

The text of the letter to which Spengler refers can be found here. It is extremely polite, even irenic. Among other things, the authors had the grace to acknowledge that Benedict XVI's expressions of regret about the violence that followed the Regensburg Address were just that: expressions of regret, and not apologies. Nonetheless, to read the letter with a measure of attention is not to be reassured:

You [addressing Benedict XVI] mention that "according to the experts" the verse which begins, "There is no compulsion in religion (al-Baqarah 2:256) is from the early period when the Prophet "was still powerless and under threat," but this is incorrect. In fact this verse is acknowledged to belong to the period of Quranic revelation corresponding to the political and military ascendance of the young Muslim community.

The letter's authors are correct when they say that the injunction to "no compulsion" was not made at a time when Mohammad was physically vulnerable. However, as I previously discussed on 18Sept06 and (by way of amendment) 20Sept06, it is also usually conceded that the "no compulsion" verse from Sura 2 was abrogated or at least modified by later verses. The letter does not mention the verses from Sura 9 about using force to make infidels pay the tax on dhimmis.

In the Islamic spiritual, theological, and philosophical tradition, the thinker you mention, Ibn Hazm (d.1069 CE) is a worthy but very marginal figure...If one is looking for classical formulations of the doctrine of transcendence, much more important to Muslims are figures such as al-Ghazali (d.1111 CE)...There are two extremes which the Islamic tradition has generally managed to avoid: one is to make the analytical mind the ultimate arbiter of truth, and the other is to deny the power of human understanding to address ultimate questions...

In reality, a glance at the philosophy of al-Ghazali (Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazālī) supports Benedict's argument:

[Al-Ghazali] is also viewed as the key member of the influential Asharite school of early Muslim philosophy and the most important refuter of Mutazilites. His 11th century book titled "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" marks a major turn in Islamic epistemology, as Ghazali effectively discovered philosophical skepticism that would not be commonly seen in the West until George Berkeley and David Hume in the 18th century. The encounter with skepticism led Ghazali to embrace a form of theological occasionalism, or the belief that all causal events and interactions are not the product of material conjunctions but rather the immediate and present will of God. The logical consequence of this belief in practice, and an outcome that has developed in part from it over the subsequent centuries, is a turn towards fundamentalism in many Islamic societies.

The Incoherence also marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy in its vehement rejections of Aristotle and Plato. The book took aim at the falasifa, a loosely defined group of Islamic philosophers from the 8th through the 11th centuries (most notable among them Avicenna) who drew intellectually upon the Ancient Greeks. Ghazali bitterly denounced Aristotle, Socrates and other Greek writers as non-believers and labelled those who employed their methods and ideas as corrupters of the Islamic faith.

I am at a loss to understand why apologists for Islam always try to finesse the meaning of "jihad":

We would like to point out that "holy war" is a term that does not exist in Islamic languages. Jihad, it must be emphasized, means struggle, and especially the struggle in the way of God....When God drowned pharaoh, was he going against His nature?

In any case, the authors of the letter claim to know better than Emperor Manuel II Paleologous what form "jihad" actually took around 1400 when his empire was being eaten alive by it. They do offer what might be a minor concession, however:

Had Muslims desired to convert all others by force, there would not be a single church or synagogue left anywhere in the Islamic world. The command "There is no compulsion in religion" means now what it meant then. The mere fact of a person being non-Muslim has never been a legitimate casus belli in Islamic law or belief. As with the rules of war, history shows that some Muslims have violated Islamic tenets concerning forced conversions and the treatment of other religious communities, but history also shows that these are by far the exception that proves the rule....

Reading the letter, I was struck how it mirrored what less eminent apologists for Islam have been saying since the Regensburg Address: item by item, evasion by evasion, omission by omission. Sounding for all the world like Dan Rather complaining about criticism of network news by the blogosphere, the authors reproach the pope for using unapproved sources:

You refer at one point non-specifically to "experts " (on Islam) and actually cite two Catholic scholars by name, Professor (Adel) Theodore Khoury and (Associate Professor) Roger Arnaldez. It suffices here to say that whilst many Muslims consider that these are sympathetic non-Muslims and Catholics who should truly be considered "experts" on Islam, Muslims have not to our knowledge endorsed the "experts" you referred to...

Despite the flaws in its content, this letter marks a great improvement in the Muslim responses to the Regensburg Address. Certainly it is better than murder, pillage, and death threats. In fact, this is just the sort of response that Benedict was trying to elicit. Now let's see what he does with it.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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