the cultural underpinnings during the Islamic “Golden Age” and could they be
rekindled to save the Middle East from the ravages of Islamism? The answer to
the second part of this question is a qualified yes. This is not my opinion (as
a pro-Israeli Jew, I possess a huge skepticism that such a difficult
transformation is even possible), but it was the opinion of one of the
shrewdest and most moderate leaders in the contemporary history of the Arab
Middle East. In one of his last interviews, and with the prospect of an
untimely death as a backdrop, the late King Hussein of Jordan was asked this
all-important question: “Would you agree that the Muslim decline can be dated
from the 9th century when Islam missed the chance to become the religion of
reason and moderation by the crushing of the Mu’tazilite movement?” King
Hussein responded: “That is essentially correct, and we must do what we can to
change that now.”
Hussein was a practical politician, but also a visionary when it came to his
religion. The theological inheritance that this king left to his progeny will
(if acted upon) have tremendous positive political impact in the very near
future. Or, if is left dormant, the Arabs will be subject to events with
unparalleled consequences. This is true not only for the Jordanian royal family
but also for everyone in the Middle East.
Age” of Islam was an age unprecedented in world history for its learning and
wisdom. If today’s Arabs and Muslims are to meet the Herculean challenges of
the modern age, it can only happen through a deep understanding of the Golden
Age, an age whose philosophical antecedents have spread out in many directions.
But the very demise of this crucial period is still being sorely felt. Because
the moral compass of Islam’s golden heights has been so lacking in the vital
renewable energy of reason, the world now suffers from a dearth of moral
comprehension, which is leading to greater and greater human antipathy.
In order to
understand why humanity has found itself in such dire straits, all the peoples
of the world would be wise to acquaint themselves with this Golden Age. For it
is not only the Arab-Islamic world that faces such titanic challenges in the
near future. All of us face the future with a deep apprehension in all aspects
of the human social sphere, including the very environment of the earth upon
which we reside.
Hashemite monarchy has known for the last one hundred years that a Jewish
presence within the Middle East was a positive step forward. But until the very
moment that the rest of the Arab world (or at least the Palestinians) could
agree formally, the various Jordanian leaders held their political cards in
close proximity to what was openly possible. This was especially true of King
Hussein. It was not until the Palestinian Liberation Organization met with
Israel, on the Clinton White House lawn in 1993, that the Jordanian king felt
he had enough proper cover in order to sign his own peace treaty with Israel.
twenty years later, the negative currents within political and traditional
Islam (Sunni and Shiite) have proven far too strong for any Israeli Jew to
believe that peace between Israel and the Islamic world can ever be a lasting
and permanent proposition. Peace, now, does not depend on an Israeli withdrawal
from a territory enshrined through the League of Nations and incorporated into
the Charter of the United Nations as a homeland for the Jewish people. On the
contrary, peace is now dependent on an Arab-Muslim world that seeks an
interfaith understanding with the world’s only Jewish state. This can only
happen through the wisdom of the late King Hussein. He, alone among modern
Islamic leaders, understood that the rational Islam of its theological Golden
Age would be welcoming toward its Jewish brethren. He learned this essential
truth from his great-uncle Faisal, who was the first to recognize that the
weakness of the Arab-Islamic world could be overcome through a shift in their
political and theological orientation.
But such a
turn in Islamic religious reality has never had a hearing within the
traditional Islam of the modern Islamist political movement. From Iran in the
east, and throughout the entire Islamic world, the demonization of the Jewish people
has been unrelenting in its vile contemptuousness. Meanwhile, the Islamic
search for the utopia of a revelatory moment in history has led to a blind
alley of complete unreality. Reason alone would teach that the leadership of
the original Ummah could never be duplicated, and that the political quest for
such an endeavor can only lead to an unending despotism. Unfortunately, the
Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan under the direction of King Hussein never had a
chance to challenge the traditionalist Islamic model by thoughtfully engaging
the entire Islamic world in a modern understanding of the Mu’tazilite
But now is
not too late for the heir of King Hussein, or any modern Islamic leader, to
step forward. Currently, most of the Middle East is in the direct firing line
of an extremely negative Islamist offensive, an offensive which has now
engulfed the entire Middle East in a war of all-against-all. Sectarian division
is only part of the problem. Moderate Jordan faces danger from any number of
places. ISIS would like nothing better than to bring it down, but so too would
Shiite Iran, certainly Sunni Hamas within the Palestinian camp, and even
Jordan’s own Muslim Brotherhood.
course, there is Syria and the myriad of Islamist parties whose goals are not
only to bring down a dictator (Assad), but also to establish a most cruel form
of Islamist despotism. ISIS is the very worst of many varieties within this
camp. But such despotism has been a function of traditional Islamic politics
ever since the demise of rational Islam. How did Islam come to such a
situation, where innocent people are blown up in their mosques and wars have
become endemic throughout a region which was once considered the very gate of
civilization? These are precisely the questions implied within the visionary
warning that King Hussein challenged all believers to grapple with.
untimely death nearly seventeen years ago, Jordan’s king was wise and prescient
about the future. I’m certain he understood that when absolute truth is
proclaimed without serious dialogue, and the community is left without choice
or reason, then coercion inevitably reigns and the law becomes an empty shell.
of Islam can be traced to the crushing of the Mu’tazilite movement. King
Hussein, a most admired leader throughout the entire world, sincerely
understood. But the king never lived to see the utter religious madness now
afoot within the borders of the first Islamic Caliphate. This religious madness
has become nothing less than an insane attempt by many persons — claiming
Islamic legitimacy but engaged instead in a global war against all who would
disagree with them (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) — to stifle rational dialogue.
So who were the Mu’tazilites and what was the nature of the contribution that
they made to the Islamic Golden Age?
Mu’tazilites were followers of a school of early Islamic theology that
emphasized free will and the role of reason in the understanding of revelation.
Like Judaism, within Islam there is no direct authority to interpret
revelation. The Koran is credited as the direct word of the Divine, but to
understand the Koran depended on the facilities of human understanding. Humans,
of course, have their limitations, and those limitations can be distinctly
identified from the added experience and knowledge of each passing generation.
The arbitration of understanding therefore becomes a project for history, as
the Ummah of yesterday passes the torch of revelatory knowledge forever
forward. The Ummah is always a living, breathing and organic community composed
of individuals wrestling with their own conception of morality through
revelation. As individual and historical circumstances change, so too must our
understanding of revelation. This is true of all the Abrahamic religions.
speaks definitively for the true word of the L-rd? The answer can only be no
one and everyone. When individuals sinned against Allah, the Mu’tazilites
believed that no human intermediary had the right to intercede. However, when
individuals sinned against their fellows, crimes were made to be punishable by
law — that is, in order for justice to be served. But who was to make the laws?
And how were the Koranic interpretations of law to be decided? In the original
Ummah, it was Muhammad who made all the decisions. But as time passed, the
question of the nature and application of the law became paramount.
In the eyes
of the early Mu’tazilites (called the people of reason) Muhammad was not
superhuman but was understood to be the first Muslim. He was respected as the
Prophet and a great man, but like everyone else he was expected to be a
practitioner of the Koran. Undoubtedly as the first Muslim, Muhammad had a
clearer understanding of Koran than anyone else, but even as the Prophet, he
was not considered Divine. Because Muhammad was a man, and because he used his
own judgment in his application of Divine injunction, the Mu’tazilites believed
that all Muslims should follow in the same pattern — that is, to use their own
rational judgment. After all, the Koran constantly calls on humans to use the
one facility inherent in humans, the ability to reason.
But not all
Muslims agreed. Instead of the human faculty of reason, they looked for an
alternative authority to explain revelation. They sought an authority whose
judgment rarely wavered, and whose legal understandings would exhibit little
change into the future. For these traditionalists, reason in the service of
Koranic understanding, by use of autonomous human decision, needed to be
replaced by the example of Muhammad’s life. The emulation of the life of the
first Muslim became more important than an individual Muslim’s own judgment.
This had incredible implications for all of society, but especially for
politics and law.
remains stagnant without the circulation of reason through consensual authority
and individual responsibility. The absence of individual autonomy through the
application of reason has had a deleterious effect on political advancement and
economic initiative. The impulse toward democratic norms becomes politically
stillborn within the stultifying confines of any tradition without the crucial
ingredient of reason.
Golden Age declined as reason was replaced by the authority of a rigid example.
Instead of reasonable dialogue and individual judgment, society became
stultified by doctrinaire authoritarianism. The dynamism of free will was
replaced by the traditional fatalism of the desert tribe, as innovation
receded. In this process, the Islamic Golden Age retreated theologically,
politically, and economically. An age of learning and religious tolerance was
superseded by a millennium of slow, yet steady decline.
moral authority of traditional Islamic culture has reached its nadir in the
aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring. Political Islam has proved to be much
more than just a “minority movement” within traditional Islam. It is now clear
that this stultifying Islamism represents the unfortunate culmination of a long
and steep historical decline. But the Islamic world cannot live without Islam,
just as Europe cannot live without Christianity or little Israel cannot live
without Judaism. Secularization, modernization, and pure reason without a moral
foundation are not replacements for a long-held revelation. But without the
unique context of human capacity — that is, the ability to reason — even
revelation loses the presence of social vitality.
combination of reason and revelation is the very antithesis of all forms of
coercion. For it is a truism of all religion that coercion of any kind is an
unwelcome and utterly divisive intrusion on the human pathway to a partnership
with the Divine. Until we can all pray together, it is very doubtful that we
can ever learn to live together.
Islam is in
need of democracy within a rational pluralism, just as secularism needs to
contain a religious moral component. Religious authority must continue to be
flexible if it is to remain relevant. While secular social structures without a
religious moral foundation always risk the dystopia of relativism, religion
without reason risks its own violent dystopia.
precisely where the world is today. The freedom of the West is perceived by
Muslims as a purely materialist structure without a moral foundation. How could
such a place have created the conditions for two world wars, an unprecedented
genocide, and now a potential ecocide? If the West truly had a living moral
foundation, how could these events have happened? However, in a similar vein
the West views the Muslim Middle East as a place of religious intolerance,
fascist dictatorship, civil war, chaos and mass murder. Can both East and West
What is the
answer? Only a rational approach to religion can save us from ourselves. If we
are all made in the image of G-d, what then seems to be the problem? Simple
logic should suffice to give us a very easy answer. Perhaps what we are really
lacking is an enlightened leadership to provide a pathway toward that answer.
At this late stage in history, perhaps the wise words of the late King of
Jordan can enable the courage in other leaders to challenge the entrenched
traditionalism of all closed minds, wherever they might reside.
people (like myself) can only pray that King Hussein’s words can finally be
given a new life of their own. After all, the Hashemite kings are blood heirs
to the Prophet Muhammad himself. I would certainly like to see a return of a
“Golden Age” (including a secure Israel) in the Middle East. As the Christian
Bible says: “With God, all things are possible”. So let us all pray (together)
that free will can trump blind determinism, and reason can once again
illuminate revelation. With free will, Divine injunction, and reason, political
reality must by logical necessity shift toward a moral democratic
superstructure — a structure which is in very short supply both in the modern
Middle East and in the very confused and frightened secular West.
Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years.
He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz
in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he
was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international
essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to
the World" (MIT Press).
Headline: Rational Islam Is The Answer
Source: The Times of Israel