March 16, 2002

Adil Farooq has posted an insightful account of the differences between Christianity and Islam. It contends that

mainline Christianity, as opposed to the fundamentalist sort, has much to teach Muslims, not just the radical Islamists but also the mainstream Muslim community too.
In constructing his argument, Farooq puts his finger on one of the critical distinctions between Christianity and Islam (and Judaism): According to Christians, Jesus, not a book, is God's definitive revelation. People who lump the two traditions into the common category of "religions" typically miss how profound that distinction is, as well as others.

I want to nuance the distinction Farooq emphasizes, and add a few others.

Farooq is following writers like Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who has made a helpful analogy between Jesus and the Mary on the one hand, and the Quran and Muhammad on the other. Muhammad bears the Quranic revelation as Mary bears the human revelation.

However, even here the analogy breaks down at a critical point. Whereas Jesus is the definitive interpreter of both the Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) and the Church (i.e., Jesus' original disciples), Muhammad is the definitive interpreter of the Quran. For Islam, the Quran is not merely the seal of the prophecies; Muhammad is "the Seal of the Prophets." This makes him far more than a "Muslim Mary." At the very least, he is something like the Catholic Magisterium and his judgments like the ecumenical councils. Typically his traditions function more as a Muslim New Testament: an inspired tradition of interpretation so authoritative that his Sunna is canonical for Muslim practice.

Non-Muslims who equate Islam with the Quran rarely have a sense of how important the Prophet is to Islam. Essential reading here is Annemarie Schimmel's And Muhammad Is His Messenger: Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Muhammad's importance in effect locks Islam into a certain vision of itself and its revelation. This vision is too authoritative for moderns to cast aside without reinventing Islam in radical, unpredictable, and unstable ways. It would be like Christians dispensing with the New Testament or Jews dispensing with the Talmud.

(These things have been done – Jefferson the Unitarian took scissors to the New Testament, and modern Jews have relativized the Talmud – but only with great effort, and at great cost to the traditions themselves. Jefferson lives on in the Jesus Seminar; but then again, the Jesus Seminar is a joke among distinguished biblical scholars. Western liberal Judaism has been accommodating itself culturally to the point of assimilating almost without remainder into its wider societies. Modernity has been terrible to both the mainstream and fundamentalist forms of these traditions.)

A second distinction: Whereas Judaism and Islam both had periods in political power during the ages when their canons (Old Testament, Quran and Sunna) were being formed. Christianity did not. The New Testament begins with Jews surviving in a Palestine occupied by Romans and ruled by a puppet king. It ends with the church flourishing in the midst of a basically unchanged Israel and a pagan empire. So there are few canonical resources feeding Constantinianism, which formally allies spiritual and temporal power, and abundant canonical resources for reversing its trajectory. Furthermore, for those Christians who do remain Constantinian, the lack of direct canonical support for Constantinianism makes temporal "Christian" political rule far less important to their Christian life.

The Jewish Tanakh (Christians call it the Old Testament) ends with 2 Chronicles where Cyrus of Persia orders Israel back into the land from which it had been expelled. The Septuagint, like the Christian Old Testament, ends with Malachi's prophecy of the coming of Elijah to restore the land's purity. Traditions like these gave rise to messianic expectation and political ferment in the centuries between then and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. After 70, rabbinical Judaism made Jewish exile the normative status of Judaism, and exile the normative mode of interpreting the Bible. It took a cataclysm like that to change the tradition. And even 1800 years later, the force of the Tanakh's vision of Jews in political power fed the Zionist movement, first among secularized nationalistic Jews, and later even among religious Jews, most of whom today support Zionism. The pull of political rule is strong, even after centuries of contrary tradition.

By contrast, the Quran ends triumphantly with Muslims in power under Muhammad, and the normative Sunna reinforces the desirability of Muslim temporal power. The seal of the prophets is also the model of the caliphs.

It took centuries of abuses of papal and temporal "Christian" power to reorient and create non-Constantinian Christianity, even though the canonical basis for it is weak – and it is still a minority position. It took destruction of the Jewish temple, loss of the Jewish throne, and the fleeing of much of Palestine's population to reorient and create rabbinic Judaism – and for 150 years Zionism has been reversing its direction. What catastrophe would be great enough to reframe the Medinin dream? It may be that the last few centuries are the kind of slow cataclysm that can change the tradition, and 2001 may have been a decisive moment in that cataclysm. But so far a nonpolitical Islamic vision still seems to be truly a minority position, only acceptable as a step on the way to Medinan dominance.

A third distinction: In Christianity, Jesus spiritualizes the law. He doesn't abolish it, but he does fundamentally transform it. Sin becomes not a matter of what you eat and whether you wash your hands, but a matter of the heart (Mark 7:1-23). This is a radical change, that leads Christian spirituality and law in a fundamentally different direction from rabbinic Judaism (which after 70 pursues its vision of a holy society at the communal rather than national level). When it comes time to apply the Old Testament law to a hardened sinner in Corinth, rabbi Paul applies Deuteronomy (17:7) not to put the evildoer to death, but merely (!) to excommunicate him from the Christian assembly. When the young Church faces the question of what to do with baptized, uncircumcized Gentiles, the Church is able even without explicit words from Jesus to distinguish between ritual observance and Christian faith (Acts 15, Galatians). Jesus' work of legal reinterpretation exercises an awesome authority for Christians. (The precise conclusions of Mark, Acts, and Galatians come from the Church rather than straight from Jesus' lips. But the early Church is unanimous that the interpretive principles driving them come from Jesus, and it is hard to see a group of Jews reaching such radical conclusions apart from his clear precedents.)

For Jews, the spiritualizing of the law has come only through the force of modernity, which posited a standard of rationality beyond (and in a sense above) the rationality of the Jewish tradition itself. This "achievement" happened for a minority people in a confidently modern wider culture, and undermined its faith as much as it revived it. But confidence in modernity is waning in the West; confidence is returning to the traditions that had long felt themselves subordinate to the Enlightenment's supposed universality. Furthermore, few Muslims live in minority cultures where the pressure to conform to another people's standard of reason is so keenly felt. My question here is the same: Where is the irresistible incentive for Muslims to reinvent their own tradition so radically?

A fourth distinction: The dominant reaction to modernity in Christianity and Islam, and now in Zionist Judaism, is fundamentalism. This needs to be understood as a synthesis of modern epistemology and religious tradition. Fundamentalist Christianity has long been an attractive option for modern Christians. What has been keeping it from totalitarianism so far is (a) the power of modern secularism to fight it, and (b) the fact that, at least for Protestants, there is so little canonical basis for a total Christian society. "Bible-only" fundamentalism has a strong apolitical streak; it sees itself more like a rabbinical Judaism that lives in pockets of a hostile wider culture. Constantinianism has to creep into it from that wider culture, unnoticed and uncriticized.

It seems too convenient to hope that Islam will necessarily incorporate modernity's liberalism but not its totalitarianism. It seems, if anything, more vulnerable to the latter.

To sum up: When it comes to such basic changes in a tradition, it takes a lot to change the mind of a community. I am not denying either the existence of modern, liberal Islam. I have dear friends who subscribe to something like it, and I have seen it in print in the work of Shabbir Akhtar, Mohammed Arkoun, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. I just don't yet see the necessary conditions for it really to establish itself as more than a fringe position.

I do certainly think Muslims have something to learn from Christians. (It's called the Good News!) I also think Christians can learn plenty from Muslims. (It's called discipline!) But I remain skeptical that modernity's encounter with Islam can or should parallel its encounters with Christianity or Judaism.

11:30 AM

March 12, 2002

A colleague and I have been conversing about an editorial, "Exposing the Roots of Hatred," from Capital Commentary. There Keith Pavlischek contends that the true root causes of Islamist terrorism are "complete lack of religious freedom in Muslim countries governed by Islamic Sharia" and "corrupt economic and political regimes in the Arab and Islamic world." He thinks the solution may come only when "Islamic governments halt widespread religious persecution and embrace religious freedom."

It's a nice thought: Replay Europe's embrace of religious tolerance and economic liberty at the dawn of modernity, and peace will follow. (Well, replaying European history is a nice thought so long as you try to keep from thinking about replaying 1793, 1848, 1914, 1917, 1939....)

Pavlischek is right to point to internal causes for Muslim political decline since the late 1600's. I think the reason so many people (mainly on the left) immediately identified "root causes" of exclusively Western origin is that it fit their ideology, and they didn't know the history. The Middle East (and, to a lesser extent, the wider Muslim world) is a mess for lots of little and big reasons. Only some of these are external. It was behind even before Europe began slowly to learn the idea of religious tolerance. It restricted un-Islamic business activity in ways that left places like Genoa and Venice in the financial driver's seat. Its Quranic inheritance laws didn't allow incorporation, so businesses couldn't grow beyond small partnerships. (This proved to be easy to fix without compromising the faith, but by the time governments realized it was necessary, they had lost a lot of ground.) It suffered from colonialism. Its brightest students came to the modern West to study political economy, learned Keynesianism and socialism at places like the London School of Economics, went back home, and messed things up even more. It increasingly disenfranchised women. Its patron empire, the Ottoman, was defeated in World War I and broken up into little fiefdoms populated by rulers beholden to colonial Europe.

Furthermore, Muslim polities have looked forever back to a triumphalist history in which many strategies that are failing today once worked well. Once upon a time, excluding Christians and Jews from military service and full political participation concentrated power in Muslim hands. Once upon a time, Muslim financial law liquidized the static assets of the eastern Mediterranean and rejuvenated a world economy. Once upon a time, "taxation without representation" (apologies to Bernard Lewis) worked beautifully. Once upon a time, the intellectual resources of antiquity could find homes in Muslim civilizations. Once upon a time, a world history where Islam spread inexorably seemed plausible. Once upon a time, brazen attitude (from the Quranic jitzah to the Ottoman devshirme system) strengthened empires rather than just feeding tyrannies. If the West needs to learn a little more history, the Muslim world could stand to learn a little less – at least less of the history it finds most attractive.

The editorial asks, "is there an inherent feature of Islam itself that hinders or prohibits the development of a robust religious liberty and equal treatment of diverse faiths in the public law of predominantly Muslim societies?" Anyone who knows Sunni and Shi'a Muslim history knows there is – just as anyone who knows Constantinian Christian history knows that there are inherent features of Christianity that do the same things. Non-Muslims who insult the Prophet and Muslims who renounce the faith both quickly learn the limits of Muslim pluralism and tolerance.

Therefore, saying that Muslim governments need to embrace religious diversity is basically saying that the Muslim world needs to reinvent itself – even more fundamentally, in fact, than Europe reinvented Christianity under the Enlightenment. I know of nothing in the Muslim narrative to let it celebrate a retreat of Islam from political control (except perhaps the tragic Shi'i remembrance of 'Ali's demise). Christianity's golden years were years out of temporal power. Islam's golden years were years of conquest and empire. Pinning Western hopes on Muslim "reformation" only demonstrates how poorly Westerners understand the Muslim faith (and the European reformations!). Wahhabism and other forms of Islamism are Muslim reformations. Wahhabis are the Calvinists of Islam, and Saudi Arabia is their Geneva. Islam without political ambitions is a different Islam.

Making the Muslim world tolerant in the modern Western sense means taking it not through the Reformation, but through the Enlightenment. Making political Islam tolerant means making it secular. It means embarking upon policies that are emphatically religiously intolerant. It means doing what Mexico, Turkey, and the communist world have spent decades doing to their religious establishments. It means not an American revolution, but a French one.

Can this be done? Modernist Muslims believe so. Revisionist scholarship is producing new historical pictures of Quran and Sunna that may inform a new (a)political vision. But I am not so sure. Even if the Quran is not historical in the modern sense, a revisionist Islam will still be able to affirm the canonical authority of the Quranic Medina.

After centuries of modern critiques, my own conservative Christianity has all the resources it needs to reconcile revisionist history to traditional theology. Why would Islam not be similarly resourceful?

The political horizon is as cloudy as the scholarly one. Once a secular state were economically developed enough to allow or demand real religious tolerance, why would the traditional Muslim political logic not reassert itself? The faith seeks political hegemony, whether in Mecca or Paris or London. That is its character. That, not Unitarianism, is the Medinan vision.

And why should people find liberal Islam more attractive than traditional Islam? Traditional Islam is more Islamic. Modernist Christians have been predicting the demise of conservative Christianity for centuries. Yet even as conservatives appropriate liberal scholarship, liberals dwindle and drift into the growing ranks of both religious conservatives and the unchurched. (I am a living example: born into a liberal Episcopal context and educated by secularists, evangelicals, and postliberals, I now happily attend a Pentecostal church.)

I am ready and willing for Muslims to show me otherwise, but I can't yet see the Muslim world embracing religious pluralism for Muslim reasons. Turkish, Singaporean, and American policies may offer other reasons, even compelling ones, to abandon the Medinan vision. But only a newly creative and courageous Christian witness to another master narrative can really stop the suffering.

UPDATE: My friend answers back with a simple historical question: "Has pluralism been supported in Islamic states?"

Well, if by "pluralism" one means systematic toleration and selective (dis)empowerment of Christians and Jews, then yes. The big "Muslim" empires actually remained minority-Muslim for centuries. Their toleration of non-Muslims kept Muslims in positions of power (e.g., Christians and Jews were forbidden from serving in the military; Christian women could marry [dominant] Muslim men, but not vice versa). The slow conversions of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others were motivated at least in part by a desire for that power and a succumbing to the gentle force of the structural persecution of Muslim societies. But these are religious Jim Crow systems, not true pluralism.

The trouble with citing historical examples of genuinely pluralist Muslim societies is that these have only existed since the rise of modernity, and their goal has seemed to be Westernization and modernization, not a return to something classically Islamic. That's why Turkey, Singapore, and pre-Zia Pakistan are secularist, not Islamic, projects.

I am ready to be shown otherwise, but so far I have failed to find anything substantial in learned Islam, folk Islam, mystical Islam, or political Islam that can affirm pluralism as anything but an intermediate step in the creation of a thoroughly Islamic society. In theological language, Christians speak of "Church" and "world" as two politics. The most common distinction in Islam is between dar al-harb ("house of war") and dar al-Islam ("house of submission"). In other words, pluralism is a concession to disunity. It is institutionalized war. The goal of all things Muslim is tawhid, "unification," because God is absolute unqualified Unity. Where is the theological space for "Muslim pluralism"?

Here the contrast between Islam and non-Constantinian Christianity is absolute, because their eschatologies are fundamentally different. Furthermore, there is really no room for non-Constantinian Islam, because Muhammad was Constantine.

EXCURSUS: Modernist Islam and Westernized Islam may be another matter. But one should not be too quick to believe that Islam must fare under modernity as Christianity and Judaism have. The different content of Christian and Muslim faith makes modernity work differently in each. While the modern vision has been deeply destructive of Christian vision (a note I strike so often that my students now roll their eyes every time I use the word "modern"), it did at least pretty much stop Christians from killing each other over theologies and church memberships. It gave pedobaptists the critical distance they needed to see some of the most blatant weaknesses of Constantinianism. Yet fundamentalist Islam is a form of Islamic modernism, and it is hardly spreading a message of nonviolence – because nonviolence is not part of the Muslim message.

Furthermore, Christians reject modernity because it is incompatible with the priority of special revelation and the Christian understanding of the noetic (that is, epistemic) effects of sin. Islam, by contrast, has a much stronger tradition of natural theology. With its much lighter doctrine of sin, Islam also has much more theological ground for optimism about unaided human will and intelligence. Both modernity and Islam agree that you and I can reason ourselves into absolute truth by accurately reading the signs of God in nature. This should produce greater sympathy with the Enlightenment project.

Where the Enlightenment poses problems for Islam is that it agrees with Muslim assumptions, but not Muslim conclusions. When Medieval Mutazilites pursued Islamic natural theology, they came to conclusions that opposed centuries of tradition, including the Quran and the Prophet's Sunna. So in the thirteenth and fourteenth century the traditionalist Asharites squeezed out the rationalists – at about the same time that the Muslim world began its decline.

Since then Muslim tradition has been living with an internal tension verging on contradiction. What will happen when modern liberal Islamicists expose it again? Don't expect a smooth transition to the kind of Islamized liberalism that would make political pluralism or any other feature of the secular West attractive to truly Muslim sensibilities. Instead, expect a replay of the Mutazilite (rationalist)/Asharite (traditionalist) battles of centuries past, with the past now looking over the shoulder of the present.

4:46 PM

March 6, 2002

DAVID BROOKS THINKS George W. Bush's good judgment since 9/11 is a product of his faith. This vexes the journalism community, he thinks, since faith has been analytically off limits for some time out there in the public square. Says Brooks,

So what does Bush have that has enabled him to judge so well? I have a feeling the answer is encapsulated in a phrase Bush uses himself: guided by faith. In the secular world of the media, and the hyper-secular world of the university, we have a poor understanding of how faith informs judgment. But this seems to be the key.

If anybody knows any really good books that explain how faith informs judgment, I hope they will e-mail me with the titles.

My pleasure, Mr. Brooks.


9:53 PM

March 2, 2002

I have just posted a brief Christian critique of Steven Den Beste's case for utilitarian "tit-for-tat" foreign policy.

10:36 AM


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