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Forgotten Islam 

Gabriel Said Reynold’s review of Mustafa Akyol’s book, Reopening Muslim Minds, makes fascinating reading (“Liberal Islam,” March). Instead of focusing on what is wrong with Islam, Akyol calls Muslims back to forgotten graces and truths in the Islamic tradition. Akyol names what he considers the crux of the crisis in Islam—namely, the rise of movements skeptical of human reason and secular science and eager to use coercive political power to suppress dissent—and calls for a return to the fundamental sources.

Akyol makes a compelling case that focusing on revelation to the exclusion and suppression of reason in Islamic orthodoxy is at the heart of the crisis in Islam. The challenge with Akyol’s thesis, in my view, has to do with some of the fundamental sources he is drawing attention to, especially Mu‘tazilite thought. As the author himself points out, the Mu‘tazilis are roundly condemned as heretics, and recommending their thought to Muslims can be likened to recommending Arianism to Western Christians. Such recommendations will certainly be a tough sell, to put it mildly.

A better approach is to look within mainstream Islam for acceptable sources. For instance, the four main sources of law in Sunni Islam include the use of analogical and independent reasoning. Similarly, whereas Christian orthodoxy tended to enforce uniformity during the Christological controversies, Sunni orthodoxy allowed for four Schools of Law in Islam. Sunni orthodoxy ­also accepted six collections by six different jurisconsults of the Hadith, the account of Muhammad’s life. Akyol is right that the role of reason and plurality in Islamic thought was frozen in later scholarship when difference became heretical. My point is that contemporary Muslim scholars do not have to return to marginal and discredited sources to re-­envision Islamic thought.

 John Azumah
accra, ghana 

I appreciated the eloquent review of my book, Reopening Muslims Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance, by Gabriel Said Reynolds of the University of Notre Dame. He gave a good account of some of my key arguments and made a gracious comment on their spirit: I “pull no punches” with some troubling views in the Islamic tradition, but only with a “sincere faith in a loving God.”

While I object to nothing in ­Reynolds’s wise remarks, there is a nuance I would like to stress. “The solution for Akyol,” he wrote, “is a return to the fundamental sources of Islam.” That is certainly true, but it also may not sound too ­creative, as ­many movements in the Muslim world, including the most militant ones, preach a “return to the fundamental sources.” My difference from them is that in those ­sources—­especially the Qur’an—I find an inspiration for universalism, based on a sense of natural moral law.

The Qur’an, for example, defines ethical goodness as ma’ruf, which means “the known,” and it commands Muslims to do “justice,” often without stipulating what these terms exactly entail—leaving them, arguably, to human conscience and open-ended moral reasoning. Unfortunately, later Sunni tradition, under the influence of theological voluntarism, didn’t build much on these precepts. It rather assumed that goodness is known only by divine command, namely the Sharia. This leads to blind textualism, as I show in my book, with grim results for religious freedom, rights of women, or even religious morality itself.

Yet there were alternative views in Islam, which I highlight in my book. One was from the great Muslim philosopher-jurist of Cordoba, Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), known in the West as Averroes, whose massive commentaries on ­Aristotle ­reintroduced Greek wisdom to Western Europe. A lesser-known truth about Ibn Rushd is that he had synthesized his philosophical insights with his interpretation of the Sharia. The latter is a “written law,” he suggested, which should be always interpreted in the light of “unwritten laws” of human nature, such as love for the family or gratefulness. He illuminated a natural law tradition in Islam, which begs to be rediscovered today, for “reopening Muslim minds.”

Mustafa Akyol
washington, d.c.

A Struggle for Reason

Matthew Rose’s piece should make us reflect upon a central mistake that permeates René Guénon’s thought and pollutes the thought of all anti-Christian reactionaries (“The Imagined Citadel,” March). Witnessing the dismemberment of traditional structures, Guénon blames modern malfunctions on rationality itself without differen­tiating between the rationality of the Enlightenment and the rationality of the Church. Against the former, Guénon’s critique is devastating: The philosophers’ fetishization of instrumental reason does delegitimize faith and revelation, both of which find themselves constrained on the path of ultimate extinction. This deracinated rationality, which underpins the invisible hand, reigns supreme in commercial societies wherein a firm belief in economic, technological, and moral progress has long replaced religious eschatology in the public mind. 

Nonetheless, as Guénon himself admits, rationality is not the property of the secular mind. Ernest Renan once wrote that “every victory of the Church is a step in the advance of Reason.” From its inception, Catholicism has put reason at the service of permanence, tradition, and order. The Romans saw Catholicism as a rationalizing faith, as did various paganisms within the Roman world. To this day, legal scholars recognize the role that Catholicism played in rationalizing the abstractions of Roman law, which brought order to a proliferating chaos of local jurisdictional rules. Historically and philosophically, the rationality of the Church has nothing to do with Enlightenment rationality. The former operates within the bounds of the tradition that the latter subverts; the former serves the divine that the latter despises; the former codifies an order against which the latter revolts. In a sense, the history of the modern West is the history of the struggle between the juridical rationality of Catholicism and the calculating, instrumental rationality of Enlightenment thought. Instead of picking a side, Guénon deludes himself into thinking that he can escape from the fight itself. Mistaking the rational for the modern, he fetishizes foreign cultures in the most ­orientalist of fashions, seeks refuge in the third world, and abandons the rigor of his early works. Whether Guénon likes it or not, the relics of Catholic rationality underpin and animate his own critique of our modern predicament. Ultimately, his writings serve as a warning for rightists who may be tempted to throw the rational baby out with the modern bathwater: To deny man’s nature as a rational animal is to strip him of the permanent essence that Guénon seeks to preserve.

Mathis Bitton
new haven, connecticut

Trads and Charismatics

In “Tradismatic Trentecostalism” (March), I hear a tone of needed urgency and a pressing question: How can people who disagree over the liturgy learn from and love one another?

As the letter and spirit of Clement Harrold’s piece demonstrate, antagonizing one’s perceived opponents and insisting stridently on one’s own way in our present Traditionis Custodes context is unproductive and dangerous. In light of the Great Commission to make disciples, and the efforts of secular humanists within the Church to make her into an NGO instead, we cannot waste time trying to shut down legitimate liturgical practices (or practitioners) we don’t like.

While Harrold sought to find common ground among trads and charismatics, I would caution against overreaching to find that common ground. I still am not sure what to make of applauding after the consecration, but I definitely don’t think praise and worship music belongs at Mass. Since Eucharistic adoration is a kind of ­extra-liturgical extension, ­Christian radio hits and other contemporary evangelical worship songs are ­acceptable there. However, a renewal of music in the liturgy itself must come from a return ad fontes—in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, it should be located “in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.” And, I might add, in Harrold’s beloved Latin languagethat language in which the Bride of Christ has spoken for ages of her love for her adorable Spouse.

John T. Knowles
irving, texas

Clement Harrold replies: 

I am grateful to John Knowles for the kind words, and I am sympathetic to the view that praise and worship music does not belong in the liturgy. At times it seems that charismatics fail to properly demarcate praise from worship. Personally, I love these songs as prayers of praise and find them inspiring when studying or running, but that does not make them appropriate for liturgical worship.

Whether a wholesale return to the Latin language is advisable for the Church today remains, for me, an open question. In the developing world, in particular, I fear this could be taken the wrong way. We should vigorously reclaim our ­Latin patrimony without ­jeopardizing the Church’s pastoral outreach (or what little of it remains). Doing away with the Old Mass catalyzed a veritable crisis of faith among the faithful: The Mass of the Ages was ditched overnight, seemingly without warning and certainly ­without accompanying catechesis. For ­many, it was sad confirmation that Holy Mother Church was just as human as ­every other institution, conforming herself to the pattern of this world. A liturgical return to the Latin language would certainly be countercultural—which I ­applaud—but we must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and ’70s. Sometimes a more gradual approach is required. 

Finally, we should be careful not to overstate the appeal of the Traditional Latin Mass. The entire African continent—236 million Catholics strong—boasts a grand total of nine Latin Mass venues, according to the Latin Mass Directory. South America has closer to eighty, but they remain a minority. No doubt the arrival of Traditionis Custodes is evidence of the ­traditionalist movement’s rapid growth, but there remain many orthodox Catholics worldwide who do not see a full-blown return to the Latin Mass as the only solution to the present crisis. Tradismaticism can take a variety of forms.