Robert Reilly’s Dilettantism and Played-Out Impressionism

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge Robert Reilly’s favorable remarks about Sharia Versus Freedom in his brief overall commentary on the book. This is especially praiseworthy, because, as he noted, Sharia Versus Freedom included an uncompromising critique of his own book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

Unfortunately, Reilly’s presentation of my alleged critique—to which he devotes much of his commentary—is a rather disingenuous misrepresentation of the actual arguments I make. The full review-essay of mine, as it appears in Sharia Versus Freedom, has been posted in its entirety (with notes) here, for reference.

But in addition to my original detailed critique, whose essential points I will summarize, there is another matter worth noting given Reilly’s own re-emphasis in his commentary: the conflation of Mutazilism—a fanaticized, if iconoclastic version of Islam, with Greek Hellenism, and the broader traditions of Western rationalism. This conflation is counterfactual, and frankly absurd.  Reilly’s specific comparison of the Mutazilites and their alleged “Islamic antithesis,” the more traditionalist Asharites, is grossly oversimplified and ahistorical. The Mutazilites were pious Muslims motivated by Islamic religious concerns, first and foremost.

Reilly’s wistful projection of “Mutazilism” as a “squandered” modernizing force for Islam is the re-packaging of an untenable mid-19th century hypothesis, debunked long ago by Ignaz Goldziher, the great late 19th through early 20th century scholar of Islam. Goldziher (1860-1921) has been widely acclaimed as one of the most profound and original European Islamologists from an era that produced seminal investigators. The English translations of his major works published between 1967 and 2006, include: Muslim Studies, A Short History of Classical Arabic Literature, The Zahiris, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, and Schools of Koranic Commentators.

Goldziher’s landmark Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law acknowledges the “one salutary consequence” of the Mutazilites’ ruthless endeavors was bringing “aql,” reason, “… to bear upon questions of belief.” But 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.

The Caliph al-Mamun … acting as kind of high priest of the state, ordered his subjects, under pain of severe punishments, to adopt the belief in the created Koran. His successor al-Mutasim, followed in his footsteps. Orthodox theologians and those who refused to make open declaration of their position were subjected to harassment, imprisonment, and torture. Docile qadis and other religious authorities ready to assume the office of inquisitors, in order to vex and persecute the stiff-necked supporters of the orthodox view, and also those who were not sufficiently unambivalent in declaring themselves for belief in the created Koran, the sole belief in which salvation lay.

[T]hey were intolerant in the extreme. A tendency to intolerance lies in the nature of the endeavor to frame religious belief in dogma. During the reign of the three Abbasid caliphs, when the Mutazilites were fortunate enough to have their doctrines recognized as state dogma, those doctrines were urged by means of inquisition, imprisonment, and terror …

And Goldziher has also shown how 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.

How some of them [the Mutazilites] envisioned matters appears, for instance, from the teachings of Hisham al-Fuwati, one of the most radical opponents of the admissibility of divine attributes and predestination: “He considered it permissible to assassinate those who rejected his doctrines, and to lay hands on their property in violence or in secrecy; for they were unbelievers and their lives and goods were free for all to take.” These were naturally only theories from a schoolroom, but they were followed out to the conclusion that territories in which the Mutazilite beliefs did not prevail were to be regarded as dar-al-harb, “lands of war.”

H.S. Nyberg summed up the Mutazilites’ more general call for jihad in his Encyclopedia of Islam essay: “[T]he faith (Islam) must be spread by the tongue, the hand, and the sword.” Thus, the Mutazilites’ jihadism was hardly confined to their internal Muslim antagonists. 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. A prototypical example of a Mutazilite-led bloody jihad against the non-Muslim infidel in a neighboring area of the Dar al-Harb—Byzantine Christian Anatolia—was the 838 CE Muslim conquest of Amorium in Byzantine Anatolia (the current Turkish village of Hisarkoy) by the Abbasid Mutazilite Caliph al-Mutasim, who succeeded Al-Mamun, and ruled from 833-42. Historian Moshe Gil further 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, especially the former.

Robert Reilly’s contemporary Mutazilite hagiography opens—and closes—with a paean to the 20th century Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988), credited with tracing Islam’s purported “intellectual suicide” to the predictably bloody rejection of this violent, autocratic 9th century movement’s so-called rationalism. But we also have Rahman’s own additional writings—apparently unknown to Reilly, and regardless not cited by him—to gauge how Rahman, this paragon of the modern Muslim philosopher, “revised” the admitted “weaknesses” in the ostensibly noble, rationalist legacy of his Mutazilite forbears, to comport with “modern ethical philosophy and theology.” Unfortunately, Fazlur Rahman’s Weltanschauung, expressed for example in his 1986 essay “Non-Muslim Minorities in an Islamic State” is profoundly disconcerting. Rahman declines, specifically, to discuss Koran 9:29, and its classical, mainstream exegesis for almost 1400 years. Moreover, in lieu of such an honest discussion he repeats the dishonest modern Muslim apologetic that,

The Muslim jurists in the early centuries of Islam conceived of the jizya as a tax imposed upon the people of the book [i.e., the Bible, originally non-Muslim Jews and Christians, and later expanded to include Zoroastrians, and even “idolatrous” Hindus] in lieu of military service [Note: This is a completely false claim as non-Muslims vanquished by jihad, and living under the Sharia were prohibited from bearing arms, or defending themselves against Muslims]…Jizya, per se, does not have any insinuation or consequences of a person being a second rate citizen [emphasis added; Note: another patently false claim]

This doctrinally whitewashed and historically deficient apologetic even includes the remarkable (and remarkably mendacious) claim that the well-known 20th century Muslim traditionalist ideologue Mawdudi was “…on record that in the modern state all citizens should be regarded as equal citizens…before the law.” Contra Rahman, as per Koran 9:29—the Koranic jihad verse which underpins Islamic law mandates vis-à-vis non-Muslims, but is not discussed at all in Rahman’s disingenuous presentation —Mawdudi openly supported dhimmitude, for non-Muslims. Thus, Mawdudi’s exegesis of Koran 9:29, reaffirmed the classic formulation of dhimmitude in an Islamic state—replete with payment of the debasing, often pauperizing jizya or Koranic poll-tax (etymologically,  jizya is “the tax paid in lieu of being slain”), and maintained with full bellicose and discriminatory medieval resonance.

Notwithstanding the latest Mutazilite revisionism, Nyberg’s authoritative Encyclopedia of Islam entry states plainly,

Nothing could be less justifiable than to regard the Mutazila [Mutazilites] as philosophers, freethinkers, or liberals. On the contrary, they are theologians of the strictest school; their ideal is dogmatic orthodoxy.

However, Ignaz Goldziher’s even more sobering conclusions, published a century ago, and gleaned from informed, serious, and thoughtful analyses of the Mutazilite’s doctrine and history, merit particularly careful review.

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.

Ignaz 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.”

Reilly’s championing of the 9th century Mutazilites, and his updated, modern apotheosis of their “rationalist Islamic legacy”, Fazlur Rahman—absent the requisite expansive, critical investigation of either—illustrates a dangerous trend in Western analyses of Islam identified 90 years ago by Louis Betrand, a French historian, and essayist. Bertrand warned such naïve Western analysts, with firm eloquence:

The times are too serious for us to engage any longer in the antics of dilettantism and played-out impressionism.



Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism " (Prometheus, November, 2008) You can contact Dr. Bostom at

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