The Closing of the Muslim Mind – Robert R. Reilly

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Synopsis:

In his somewhat polemical book on early Islamic history Robert Reilly analyzes the dichotomous relationship between the Sunni theological schools of Mu’tazila and Ash’ari Islam. Mu’tazila held early primacy, and centered on rationalism as well as a sort of Monophysite understanding of the Godhead. By comparison, the Ash’arite school favored orthodoxy and dogmatism. Ultimately, Ash’arism triumphed, and historical counterfactuals abound relative to how Sunni Islam may have evolved had the Mu’tazila school prevailed.

Excerpts:

“In 750, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads, along with their doctrine of predestination. The Abbasids had cause to embrace the Mu’tazilites, who succeeded to the Qadariyya position. The Mu’tazilites agreed with the Qadariyya that, without man’s freedom, God’s justice is unintelligible. To be held justly accountable for his acts, man must be free. The political implications of this position favored the Abbasid attempt to rein in the power of the ulema (Islamic jurisprudential scholars), whose monopoly on the interpretation of the Qur’an gave them great influence.

“The freedom to interpret revelation was based upon the Mu’tazilite teaching, shocking to the traditionalists, that the Qur’an was created in time. The standard orthodox belief was that the Qu’ran is uncreated and exists coeternally with Allah.

“The Mu’tazilites held that man’s freedom is a matter of God’s justice, as is reason’s ability to apprehend an objective moral order.

“How does reason lead man to the conclusion of God’s existence? It is through his observation of the ordered universe that man first comes to know that God exists, says ‘Abd al-Jabbar. As he sees that nothing in the world is its own cause, but is caused by something else, man arrives at the contingent nature of creation. From there, man reasons to the necessity of a Creator, an uncaused cause; otherwise one is caught in an infinite regress of contingent things, a logical impossibility. (This was a familiar argument from both Greek philosophy and Christian apologetics.) It is through the observation of nature – the ways in which the world seems to move according to certain laws – that man comes to know God. God’s laws are the laws of nature (tab’), which are also manifested in divine law, the shari’a.

“The Ash’arites were particularly offended by the Mu’tazilite claim that unaided reason could discern good and evil. They vehemently denied this, and said that the Mu’tazilites were undermining the need for scripture by saying all men had access to this knowledge. If this were so, what would be the need for the Qu’ran (even though the Mu’tazilites held that revelation was necessary for God to make His way clear to man)?

*All excerpts have been taken from The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, ISI Books.

Empires of Trust – Thomas F. Madden

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Synopsis:

Empires of Trust was published in 2008 during the low-point of the United States war in Iraq, and perhaps because of that war it sought to examine the evolution of American power in comparison with the Roman Empire. Ancient and medieval historian Thomas F. Madden goes into considerable detail propounding the complexities of Roman culture, and explaining how that empire emerged. Although Madden identifies many similarities between American and Roman civilizations he unexpectedly unmasks many more differences.

Excerpts:

“The U.S. military is larger than the militaries of all other NATO allies combined. American military bases are planted in many NATO countries, while no allied bases are in the United States at all. Yet, Americans will still insist that NATO is an alliance of equals, not a structure of an empire.

“Doubt among allies regarding the trustworthiness of the Empire of Trust is toxic. Americans cannot allow it and neither could the Romans. Hannibal understood that very well. As a result of the failure to defend Saguntum, Rome’s word already meant nothing in Spain – something that Roman envoys learned when they arrived to seek allies in the war against Hannibal.

“We believe that the normal human condition is peace, periodically disrupted by war. That illusion is the product of a large and historically rare superstructure built to keep lasting peace in existence. Without the perfect functioning of that superstructure, peace disappears.

“If it was truly the UN that was responsible for the growing peace, then the continued warfare in Africa makes little sense. UN missions to Africa are numerous. In truth, it is American apathy for the region that allows it to continue to remain violent, provided that the warfare does not affect American assets or security. Just as the Romans had only a passing interest in Germans or Celts outside of their empire, so Americans tend to ignore a sub-Saharan Africa that, while frequently in a state of crisis, poses no security threat to the United States or its allies.

“For some years the military strategy of the United States has included the ability to project significant power anywhere in the world. For the most part it has achieved that goal. These facts, in and of themselves, represent an extraordinary disparity in power. That is not to say that the United States has the power to fight the world and win. It does not. Nor does it need it. An Empire of trust only requires sufficient power to defend its allies and deter or punish aggression. In short, it must have ‘military strengths beyond challenge.’

*All excerpts have been taken from Empires of Trust: How Rome Built – and America is Building – a New World, Plume.

War – William Graham Sumner

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Synopsis:

Written during the era of the Spanish-American War the essay “War” was William Graham Sumner’s endeavor to examine the normative human dispositions which fuse into conflict. As a pioneering intellectual in the field of sociology, Sumner used group social dynamics and frictions as the keystone of his assumptions.

Excerpts:

“If we assume a standpoint in one group we may call that one the ‘we-group’ or the ‘in-group’; then every other group is to us an ‘others-group’ or an ‘out-group.’ The sentiment which prevails inside the ‘we-group,’ between its members, is that of peace and cooperation; the sentiment which prevails inside of a group towards all outsiders is that of hostility and war.

“War arises from the competition of life, not from the struggle for existence. In the struggle for existence a man is wrestling with nature to extort from her the means of subsistence. It is when two men are striving side by side in the struggle for existence, to extort from nature the supplies they need, that they come into rivalry and a collision of interest with each other takes place. This collision may be light and unimportant, if the supplies are large and the number of men small, or it may be harsh and violent, if there are many men striving for a small supply. This collision we call the competition of life.

“We can now see why the sentiments of peace and cooperation inside are complementary to sentiments of hostility outside. It is because any group, in order to be strong against an outside enemy, must be well disciplined, harmonious, and peaceful inside; in other words, because discord inside would cause defeat in battle with another group. Therefore the same conditions which made men warlike against outsiders made them yield to the control of chiefs, submit to discipline, obey law, cultivate peace, and create institutions inside.

“The sentiment of cohesion, internal comradeship, and devotion to the in-group, which carries with it a sense of superiority to any out-group and readiness to defend the interests of the in-group against the out-group, is technically known as ethnocentrism.

“The United States presents us a case quite by itself. We have here a confederated state which is a grand peace-group. It occupies the heart of a continent; therefore there can be no question of balance of power here and no need of war preparations such as now impoverish Europe. The United States is a new country with a sparse population and no strong neighbors. Such a state will be a democracy and a republic, and it will be ‘free’ in almost any sense that its people choose.

*All excerpts have been taken from War and Other Essays, Yale University Press.