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ISIS the Irrational

ISIS the Irrational

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate ReviewCheck out the rest of the issue here.


Why does the Islamic State (ISIS) behave in the strange ways it does? What inspires it to rampage through the libraries and museums of Mosul, Iraq, destroying priceless manuscripts and artifacts? Why does it take jackhammers to priceless archaeological relics from the Assyrian Empire? Why does it line up Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, face them north across the Mediterranean, and then slit their throats? Why is it so keen on reestablishing the caliphate? Why, in short, does it behave so unreasonably?

Of course, one can answer these questions by simply quoting ISIS spokesmen and repeating their justifications, which are laced with quotations from the Qur’an and the hadith (the canonical accounts of the sayings and doings of Muhammad). But that is not a great help, because other Muslims have lived under the same injunctions without wreaking the havoc that ISIS does. There must be a deeper reason.

And there is.

ISIS and its al-Qaeda predecessor are incomprehensible to most Westerners because they are unaware of a pivotal theological struggle waged within Islam more than a millennium ago. It was a battle over the nature of God and the role of reason—and the side of irrationality won. The resolution of that conflict has had profound consequences for much of Sunni Islam—and the rest of the world—ever since.

The Battle over Reason

Two theological schools emerged within Sunni Islam in the ninth century. The first, the Mu’tazalites, said that God is reason and justice. The Mu’tazalites held that man’s first duty is to reason because the existence of God is not self-evident. Once man arrives at the existence of God through his reason, he examines the claims of revelation that God has spoken. If anything in revelation appears to go against his reason, he must either bring the revelation into accord with reason or discard it. Through reason, too, man comes to know the difference between what is right and what is wrong, and he must choose what is right through his free will. God is just insofar as He will reward those who do what is right and punish those who do what is wrong.

The second theological school, the Ash’arite school, opposed all of this. God is not reason and justice, the Ash’arites said. Rather, He is pure will and power—unbound by anything, including His own word. Man must abandon reason and submit to the text of revelation, no matter what it says or how unreasonable it may appear. Man’s reason is incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong. Nothing is right or wrong in and of itself; it is right or wrong only according to what God says.

Does God forbid murder because it is wrong? Or is it wrong because He forbids it? The Mu’tazilite answer was that God forbids it because it is wrong. The Ash’arite answer was that it is wrong only because God forbids it, and God could change his mind and require ritual murder, if He so chose. Also, according to the Ash’arites, God is not required to reward those who obey Him and punish those who disobey. He may reward those who disobey Him and punish those who obey, and no one can gainsay Him. Whatever God does is just—because right is the rule of the stronger, and God is the strongest.

The Mu’tazalites and the Ash’arites also fought over the nature of the Qur’an. The Mu’tazalites said that the Qur’an was created in history and therefore needs to be understood in terms of the linguistic and cultural circumstances in which it was revealed. The Ash’arites claimed that the Qur’an was not created but has existed coeternally with God in heaven. Therefore, the Qur’an is not contingent on the circumstances in which it was revealed, and Arabic is the language of God (which is why all Muslims have Arabic names and must pray in Arabic, though the majority of Muslims in the world do not understand this language). Obviously, the Mu’tazilite understanding of the Qur’an allows for greater breadth of interpretation, while the Ash’arite understanding tends toward literalism (which finds its harshest expression today in Saudi Wahhabism).

The Mu’tazalites had a conception of natural law that allowed man to come to know the difference between right and wrong through his reason’s apprehension of the essences of things. Since the Ash’arites asserted that man could not obtain moral knowledge through his reason, they constructed a bizarre atomistic metaphysics to defend their position and to destroy the possibility of natural law. Basically, man cannot know the nature or essence of things because they have no natures or essences. Everything is constituted by time-space atoms that momentarily come into existence directly through the will of God. Whatever exists is an agglomeration of these atoms specifically configured for a brief moment by an act of God. These same atoms are then annihilated almost simultaneously by another direct act of God’s will. God then reconstitutes reality with an entirely new set of atoms that may be similar to the previous ones or completely different—that depends only upon Him.

Therefore, a Mu’tazilite could know that a horse would remain a horse because it has the nature of the horse. But the Ash’arite could possess no such knowledge, because God might wish to turn the horse into a giraffe, and there is no reason why He could not. In fact, to say that the horse must remain a horse because it has the nature of the horse would be an act of blasphemy for an Ash’arite. It would place a limit on God’s omnipotence.

The atomistic metaphysics of the Ash’arites created a fatal breach between cause and effect in the natural world. Fire does not burn cotton; God does. Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does. To say that a rock falls because of gravity is an act of shirk, blasphemy—assigning a cause to something other than God. In other words, there is no continuous narrative of cause and effect tying these moments together in a comprehensible way. Each thing stands separately as an individual act of God, unrelated to what preceded it or to what follows it.
Anything can come of anything, and nothing necessarily follows. Reality becomes unintelligible.

The Consequences Today

The Mu’tazilite rational theological school was suppressed by force in the second half of the ninth century, and the Ash’arite school became the majority in Sunni Islam. To this day, everything that happens is assigned to the first and only cause, Allah; secondary causes simply do not exist.

Understanding that this teaching became entrenched in the Sunni Muslim world is the key to unlocking such puzzles as why scientific inquiry is nearly dead there; why the Arab world stands near the bottom of every measure of human development; why Spain translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years; why some people in Saudi Arabia still refuse to believe man has been to the moon.

Whether it is an Asian tsunami or American hurricane, Ash’arite Muslims will explain it in terms of God’s punishing sinners for their disobedience. Therefore, Allah punished the United States with Hurricane Katrina for its interference in the Muslim world. Also, Allah placed the oil under the sands of the Arabian Peninsula as a reward to Saudi Arabia for following strict sharia law.

Most Westerners find all of this ludicrously improbable, but it is the daily gist of the Arab Muslim press (as anyone can see by going to the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute and reading the translations).

The denial of causality manifests itself in practical ways. Speak with any American soldiers who have served with Iraqi troops, and you will find that the Iraqis resist things as simple as wearing seatbelts or Kevlar vests. The thinking goes something like this: if my time has come as decreed by Allah, the seatbelt or the Kevlar vest is not going to save me. If my assigned time has not come, why do I need to use a seatbelt or wear a Kevlar vest?

In 2009 the founder of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, said: “There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it.”

Similarly, in the mid-1980s the Pakistani media suspended weather forecasts after Muslim clerics objected to them as blasphemous. After all, if God causes rain, how could man presume to predict it?

No Time, No History

Let us return to the question of why members of the Islamic State are destroying priceless relics from the Assyrian Empire. They explain that it is their religious duty to destroy idols. But the human-headed winged lions they are smashing are no longer idols, because they are no longer idolized. No one has believed in the gods of Assyria for several thousand years. The same is true of the Egyptian pyramids, which Islamists occasionally suggest need to be destroyed for the same reasons. But no one has been embalmed and buried in the pyramids for thousands of years. While destroying parts of the ancient city of Nimrud, one ISIS militant declared, “God has honored us in the state of Islam by removing and destroying everything that was held to be equal to him and worshipped without him.” He may be a couple of millennia too late, but that does not matter to the adherents of an ahistorical religion.

Islamists do not live in what we might call historical time. Recall that for them the Qur’an is an ahistorical document. It exists in eternity. Also keep in mind that Ash’arite metaphysics guts historical time of its narrative meaning: time is a succession of unrelated events. ISIS adherents live in sacred time, which is static. In sacred time, everything is present all at once. This is why Islamists refer to Westerners in their literature as “Romans,” which is what seventh-century Muslim warriors called their Byzantine opponents. They are not being quaint. The past is present to them; that is why they must smash it if it does not conform to their beliefs. Ahistory fights history. This is why the Coptic Christians were faced north across the Mediterranean toward Rome when their throats were cut, as a warning that ISIS would next conquer Rome as Muslims once took Constantinople. This is all part of the resuscitation of the caliphate, the necessity of which exists in their minds now much as it did in the seventh century.

A Theological Prison

The Ash’arite school remains the majority in Sunni Islam to this day. It is Ash’arite theology that continues to be taught at Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious teaching institution in the Arab world. It is therefore appropriate that Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addressed his warning about the extremism tearing apart Islam to the religious scholars and clerics at Al-Azhar in a speech on December 28, 2014.
The speech is worth quoting at length, particularly for anyone who thinks I may be exaggerating the extremity of the situation. Al-Sisi said:

It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world. . . . It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of 7 billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at Al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion. Honorable Imam [the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar], you bear responsibility before Allah. The world in its entirety awaits your words, because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed, and is heading to perdition. We ourselves are bringing it to perdition.

A Muslim intellectual reformer recently told me that he felt he had been living in “a theological prison.” With the help of the French language to get a “look from outside,” he broke out of it and found a way to reconcile faith with reason. I have tried to sketch out the contours of the theological prison. Given al-Sisi’s heartfelt cry, one can only hope for a major jailbreak.


Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (ISI Books). He is director of the Westminster Institute.

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