Inside Obedient Islamic Minds

Ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims listening to a speech by Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the northern coastal town of Marsa Matrouh, May 2012
Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims listening to a speech by Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the northern coastal town of Marsa Matrouh, May 2012


“Throw reason to the dogs—it stinks of corruption” read a slogan written on the wall of the Ministry of Justice in Kabul when the Taliban were in control before the US invasion of 2001. A crude slogan perhaps, but it seems as good a summary of the challenge of Islamist terror as one is likely to find in nine simple words. Attacks on innocents everywhere from Paris to Bamako, Madrid to Beirut, Brussels to Ankara, and now San Bernardino, added to the videos of deliberate cruelties uploaded onto the Web, seem to defeat any rational explanation.

The horrors suffered by the victims—beheadings, shootings, beatings, torture, even crucifixions—are not the collateral damage of a shock-and-awe blitzkrieg executed by generals, but deliberate acts of savagery aimed at inciting revenge. Bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq appears to confirm its end-of-world expectations. However, there are many strands in this horrific ideology that need to be unraveled before policymakers will find the right strategy to overcome it. Bombing may work when facing “rational actors.” Can it be successful against a combination of fanaticism and “unreason”?

In the Islamic world the struggle between reason and dogma is almost as old as the faith itself. As Mustafa Akyol noted in The New York Times, when Saudi officials and Muslim critics argue about the responsibility for recent disasters in Mecca, including the collapsing crane that killed more than a hundred pilgrims and the horrific stampede that may have killed more than a thousand (including hundreds of Iranian citizens), they evoke ancient debates between rival Islamic schools going back to the ninth century CE.

Ranged on one side were scholars known as Maturidis and Mutazilites, who believe that God does not violate His own cosmic laws, that humans possess free will as “creators of their own deeds,” and that reason must be used to interpret the scriptures and establish moral truths. The rationalist theology—comparable to ideas of natural law adopted by Catholic theologians following Saint Thomas Aquinas—is still adhered to by the Shiites. Their opponents, the Sunni Asharites and the even more rigid Hanbalis—precursors of the modern Wahhabis who hold sway in the Saudi kingdom—insist that human agency and natural laws of cause and effect impiously limit God’s omnipotence.

The struggle for rational thought within the Islamic world is part of the wider struggle for power in the Middle East, as is shown by all three books under review. In his fine overview, The New Threat, Jason Burke, the Guardian’s South Asia reporter formerly based in New Delhi, and one of the shrewdest observers…

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