Thursday, August 26, 2004

My Problem with Islam

Religion, sincerely held, tends to make individuals more intense in their native qualities. It's difficult to deny the stamp of individual character in a single religious tradition with devoted followers as diverse as Tammy Faye Bakker and Dorothy Day.

When a religion has a collectivist, communal ethos, that quality is magnified, into the national and international community. Civilizations driven by monotheistic religion tend to have a fiercer certainty than those without such a faith. Certain monotheisms hold this quality more prominently than others. That has consequences.

My sainted mother, who calls herself a Christian and often attends the local UCC church, lives her life according to her own ethics, right and wrong, mostly highly utilitarian. Where she disagrees with the Bible or the minister, she simply ignores them. I tell her that's not true Christianity. She tells me to get a haircut.

She suits Ambrose Bierce's definition of a Christian as, "One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin." There's a lot of her in the world, in any religion. That, not unbelief, is the behavior behind the English word often used wrongly to translate Arabic kufr -- "infidel." "Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving;" Tom Paine wrote, "it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe."

I respect Christianity; I take the Bible seriously. That's why I don't practice it or call myself a Christian. I feel spirituality in the Catholic Mass and a Quaker meeting, but I don't believe in dabbling in a faith.

Islam gives me the same reaction, in its own way, with its legalistic logic and mathematical art. When I immerse myself in study of it for a time, it becomes exhilarating to feel, not the free-fall sensation of free will in the wide-open world, but a path through a defined space, with firm walls and open courses.

Some people would instantly feel stifled there. That's fine. Not all traditions fit all people. Huston Smith, the great religious scholar, writes a telling anecdote in an introduction to a book on Islam by Seyyed Hussein Nasr. Smith writes that he felt an instant affinity for the supple music of the Upanishads, but was repelled by the legalistic rigidity of Islam. Then he met another Western religious scholar who confessed he had no idea what the Hindu texts were talking about, "but when I read the Koran, I'm home."

Like most people of basically secular, Western outlook, I have a suspicion of religion when it rises out of the personal and becomes a political experience. Not all religions are equally prone to this. Hindu nationalism and Roman civic paganism aside (and I think those are more political/tribal than religious), polytheisms seem less prone to the "jihad/crusade" quality than monotheisms.

If there are many gods, the god of that tribe or nation is as valid as the god of mine. But if there is one God and only one, and He has spoken to me and my people in our language, then the god of that other tribe or nation is a demon or a lie.

In the modern world, such tribal cults can be deadly. (A-religious or atheist systems can be even worse, of course: Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia proved more murderous in the 20th century than all the monotheisms in history.) Certain people in every religion always will attempt to make it the core of the civilization. Some have political motives, primarily. But I believe many are sincere in their fundamentalism. They will try to twist all society -- politics, economics, education, science -- into subservience to God. We in America know this type well. Those of us with the longer tenure here are descended from boatloads of such people. And we also see how they falter, every time.

Because you cannot devise a code of laws based on the Gospel of Christ, even if you include Paul's letters. There's just not enough law-stuff in there. And you can't devise a Christian foreign policy -- it would be suicide.

Attempts to formulate a Christian government invariably have to go back to the Old Testament, and call themselves "Judeo-Christian" and bring in all sorts of niggling Leviticus rules that Christ made a point of telling his followers to ignore.

Islam is different. Amid the religious and moral prescriptions of the Qu'ran are many pieces of outright legislation, dealing with such topics as treatment of unbelievers, homicide, property inheritance, eating swine flesh, and sexual intercourse.

Muslim jurists count 500 verses with legal content. Their proportion in the Qu'ran is even greater than that appears, because the rest of the Qu'ran often repeates itself, both thematically and verbatim, but the legal subject matter in it almost never does. And the average length of the legal verses is two or three times that of the average non-legal verses. Some have argued, and it would be difficult to refute them, that the Qu'ran contains "no less legal material than does the Torah."

Even in Mecca, Muhammad was organizing his followers into a community, a political and social unit. In Medina, he not only set up a "constitution" for governing the city, he served as an arbitration judge. "Law can never be deemed Islamic without being somehow anchored in these two sources (Qu'ran and Sunna)" [Wael B. Hallaq, "A History of Islamic Legal Theories"]. But taken altogether, the legalistic aspects of Islamic tradition fall short of a full code of laws. And they fail to take into account, obviously, anything that has gone on in the world since about 800 C.E.

"In propounding his message, the Prophet plainly wished to break away from pre-Islamic values and institutions, but only insofar as he needed to establish once and for all the fundaments of the new religion. Having been pragmatic, he could not have done away with all the social practices and institutions that prevailed in his time." [Hallaq]

That leaves Islam in the worst possible situation, commitment to religious law, but with an incomplete and badly dated system of law. A tendency toward legal structure without a finished form. That leaves it vulnerable, eternally, to determined minds that would install their own dark, bloody, reactionary, anti-humanist desires into the word of God.

There are other ways to interpret Islam. Brilliant minds and brave hearts in the Islamic world have advanced them from time to time. But they never seem to make much headway. Even in the modern-day "crisis" of Islamic thought, the bid to give reason a place alongside revelation must be rooted in God, not man. When humanistic and positivist tendencies collide with the imperatives of revelation, in the Muslim world, revelation wins. Even among those who reject the medievalism of the old ways as irrelevant to the modern age. "Except for a minority of secularists, the great majority of modern Muslim thinkers and intellectuals insist upon the need to maintain the connection between law and the divine command." [Hallaq]

The failure to break through that impasse, I think, is why many Muslims reject the liberalizing tendency to try to align revelation with reason, and turn in the opposite direction, and reject rationalism and modernity as Western corruptions, and seek a "puritan" Islam. And since Islam was born in a time of war to the death against unbelievers, only a few small steps stand between fundamentalist Islam to jetliners plowed into skyscrapers.

Until the reformers start to get some traction, I -- and we -- have a problem with Islam. It's not that Christianity is good and Islam is evil. But if you find fundamentalist Christianity to be a bad influence on George W. Bush and America generally, show me one such quality that fundamentalist Islam does not promote in a measurably more intense degree. Yet too often my fellow Western liberal secularists, who articulately skewer the relatively benign "religious right" in America, throw their arms in warm embrace around hate-spewing imams.

The greatest gift from the Gods, I think, is the one even a good Christian or Muslim or Jew uses when you read those blood-curdling Old Testament genocide stories, or those Qu'ranic beheading commandments, and say, "that is cruel" -- say it even in the face of God, before you correct yourself. The discernment of right and wrong that can weigh even a god's actions is a holy power.