Islam and Other Religions

star-and-crescent“Islam is not like other religions,” said Bill Maher to Charlie Rose exactly a month ago. And since then, it’s been one firestorm after another. Frankly, I think Maher and Sam Harris have been talking plain enough sense that they shouldn’t be controversial. But they are. Meanwhile, Reza Aslan and Ben Affleck make fools of themselves to astonishing praise.

This post is an attempt to clear the table of nonsense to make room for more productive dialogue about Islam. I’m grateful to the following people for lively discussions through Facebook and elsewhere: Zeba Crook, Jeff Hinman, Mike Grondin, Robert Spencer, Matt Bertrand, Antonio Jerez, Chris Zeichman, and James Crossley. Some of them will be less than pleased by what I present below, but all inspired the issues in some way. Some speak for the bolded objector; others will agree more with my replies.

Conflating jihadism with Islam is like conflating abortion-clinic bombings with Christianity. Most Muslims are peaceful.

That peaceful Muslims are the majority doesn’t make jihadists the fringe. There are many Islamic extremists, and they have huge influence. Jihad and sharia remain official doctrine; they are mandated in all four schools of Islamic law. They are to Islam what the resurrection is to Christianity.

Abortion-clinic bombers, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and lone rogues like Timothy McVeigh are undeniably fringe. None receives endorsement from any group of mainstream Christianity. For every one of them are thousands of jihadists who are routinely active. There’s no comparison here at all.

Okay, fine. But surely the problem isn’t with Islam itself. The Qur’an has peaceful and violent passages, like the Judeo-Christian Bible. Scriptures can be cherry-picked and emphasized however you want. They can be re-interpreted or distorted, for good or ill.

It’s disingenuous to pretend that Islam’s scriptures are as malleable as those of other religions. In the Qur’an, the ratio of violence to peace, and of intolerance to benevolence, is distressingly high. You can’t cherry-pick the Qur’an like Karen Armstrong does in order to understand Islam. You have to read it cover to back, and take it comprehensively.

Even worse: the Qur’an’s peaceful passages are cancelled in advance by the Qur’an itself. Only when Muslims are weak and in a minority position should they behave according to the very few peaceful passages (which reflect the early time when Muhammad was vulnerable and building his power base). When strong, Muslims are obligated to wage war according to the huge number of violent passages (which reflect Muhammad’s later rise to power). When passages are in conflict, the later ones supersede the earlier ones. This is called the Doctrine of Abrogation in Islam.

Say what you want: there are loads of bad ideas in other holy writings.

Yes, plenty of bad ideas can be found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Vedas, the Sutras, the Tao Te Ching, and other canons. But Islam, as Sam Harris says, is the motherlode of bad ideas. Most of the bad ideas in other scriptures carry within themselves the seeds of their own transformation, thanks to enough positive supplements.

For example?

Consider the apostle Paul’s homophobia. It’s strong. But the New Testament (including Romans, where the most offending text resides) is tempered by pervasive requirements for universal charity, which has allowed much of Christian thought to evolve on this point. Pope Francis has extended benign principles to homosexuals found abundantly in the New Testament. In all four schools of Islamic law, homosexuality still carries the death penalty — and neither the Qur’an or hadiths are fertile soil for a new transformation. Liberal Muslims try, and we should applaud them. But they aren’t making an impact where it matters most. It’s doubtful they ever will.

But scripture requires interpretation, and interpretation involves importing one’s cultural and social prejudices. There’s more hope for Islam than you allow, because people shape their scriptures. Scriptures don’t shape them.

It cuts both ways. Texts have impact on human behavior, and it’s absurd to suggest that they have no essential content or character in themselves. Scriptures don’t just depend on what believers bring to them. Believers are shaped by what they teach. But yes, holy writings can also become tools used to justify unexpected beliefs and behaviors against their own grain. That doesn’t undermine the opposite flow: people are galvanized by textual ideologies and abstract ideas. Interpretation can be wildly creative, but it more often aligns with what’s already there.

Jihadists, in fact, interpret their scriptures quite well. Whatever spin they put on it, whatever cultural and political baggage they bring to it, whatever political grievances accentuate it, and whatever distance they have from Muhammad’s original situation in the 6th century, the fact is that they are naturally extending the prophet’s message. Their interpretation of the Qur’an is as objectively “correct” as pacifist interpretations (esp. Mennonite, Quaker, and Amish) of the Christian scriptures. Both draw inspiration from an overall texture.

Medieval Christians ignored that texture when they started their own holy wars. They even justified them by claiming that Jesus came “not to bring peace but a sword”.

Yes. The crusades are exhibit-A for the malleability of scripture. They prove that you can indeed justify something that cuts entirely against the grain of your tradition. (Especially since that “sword” is metaphorical, as the medievalists well knew.)

So you admit the jihad is analogous to the crusades? That if a man who taught loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, and letting whoever is without sin throw the first stone can mutate into a religion of holy wars, then the opposite can be achieved by a religion founded by a war-monger?

Not really, no. The crusades were similar to the jihad only for their premise of sacred violence, and the zealous mindset they fostered for security of one’s salvation. In just about every other aspect — how essential they were to Christian doctrine (not), how mandatory they were on Christian believers (not), how difficult they were to justify theologically (very) — they were opposite phenomena.

The crusades were a creative solution to the problem of medieval knights. Popes had been trying for decades to curb knightly violence (telling knights they couldn’t fight certain days of the week, etc.) but to no avail. A knight’s profession depended on warfare, and warriors lived in a constant state of guilt, told by the church they were sinful for violating the peaceful example of Christ. In response to Islamic offensives, the pope suddenly went the opposite route, and gave Christian warriors full rein to their violent impulses, by making bloodshed sacred if they channeled their aggressions against Muslims and reclaimed the holy lands. Only with the intersection of these issues — jihad offensives, Islam’s control of the holy lands, and uncontrollable Christian knights — were holy wars made possible in Christian thinking. Even then, justifying them was acknowledged to be a problem.

Islam has never had problems justifying the jihad, because it has been essential to the faith (a sixth pillar of Islam) since it was formulated in the earliest years of the 7th-9th centuries. It shows no sign of going away. There has never been anything close to a reform movement to spiritualize it away, reinterpret it, or make it obsolete. All four schools of Islamic jurisprudence affirm the necessity of jihad warfare to this day. In sum, the jihad is an ingrained impediment to progressive evolution. The crusades undermined Christianity’s tenets, and were foreordained to pass.

What about Islam’s golden age (8th-13th centuries)? Islam was light years ahead of Christianity, especially its treatment of women.

Islam was not “light-years” ahead of Christianity during this time. At its best, in the so-called golden-age, the Muslim regions around Baghdad, Cordoba, and Cairo were relatively pluralistic. But there was plenty of intolerance too. Anti-semitic pogroms flared up; Jews and Christians were second-class citizens who had to pay a head tax (the jizyah) from which Muslims were exempt. As for women, they were certainly not held in higher esteem than elsewhere. Those who write about women being treated well during this period are the same kind of romanticists who claim that Anglo-Saxon women of the 11th-century enjoyed more democratic freedoms prior to the Norman conquest. Neither is true.

Muslims had things going for them in this period: medicine, math, science, poetry, and architecture. But most of this was inherited, not generated, in their conquests across the Byzantine empire, the Near East, and the Christian regions of North Africa. The “golden age” of Islam also happens to be the period when jihad warfare was formulated, and prosecuted in various degrees, long before the crusades took wing.

In sum, weighing the frequent claims about Islam’s best period — non-jihadist peace (false), cultural pluralism (half true), better treatment of women (false), cultural and scientific achievements (only superficially true) — make its relative advantages virtually meaningless in assessing the potential for Islam today.

So the crusades were a burp, and Islam’s golden age is overrated, but there are religious militants today across the globe who are not Islamic.

Of course. You can point to Jewish militants on the West Bank, Buddhist scourges in Burma, and Christian who murder in Nigeria. But they are exceptional, and none comes close to approaching the pervasive menace and violence of Islam. Exceptions like these — precisely because they are so exceptional — do not show that Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism lend themselves to violence. Just the opposite: on whole, these religions tend to constrain humanity’s impulses to violence. Islam encourages it.

I still have a hard time accepting that Islam is so incomparable to other religions. It sounds like you’re stacking the deck against it.

We can certainly compare Islam to other religions, but we need to use proper analogies. Holy wars, terrorism, and militant supremacism aren’t the place to look. A better example would be contraception in the Catholic church. Unlike the crusades, but like the jihad, contraception has been a consistent Catholic obsession and its prohibition is mandatory on all believers. Most Catholics ignore the mandate and use contraceptives anyway, because they choose to live responsible lives. But there are also Catholics who do as the church teaches and shun birth control.

Ditto in Islam. Most Muslims are peaceful and just want to coexist in the world as normal people. But that’s not reform. Too many other Muslims take the obligation for jihad and sharia seriously. If Catholicism is going to start teaching responsible birth-control behavior, and if Islam is going to embrace humane civilized thinking, they have uphill reformist battles ahead of them. Though even here, of course, Islam’s is far steeper.

So where do we go from here?

This post, as I said, is a table-clearing. Dialogue about Islam needs to move beyond bargain-basement talking points. The question of essentialism is worth pursuing. We’ve become very sophisticated in our use of social and economic models to understand the evolution of religions, and this is obviously a good thing. Readers know that I rely on such models myself. But these should be supplements, not replacements, to whatever essentialism can offer. When people parrot the idea that religion is entirely “what you make of it” — that it’s shaped purely by human agency, social and political forces, and the accidents of history — we’re clearly in an over-reactive mode. Even the theater of the absurd.

9 thoughts on “Islam and Other Religions

  1. Loren – I think this is an important discussion to have, but I would urge the utmost of balance. There is some truth on both sides, though that is not to say there is the same amount. Aslan hasn’t made a fool of himself, though he does minimize some important factors. On the other hand, I’ve recently read a piece by Glenn Greenwald that quotes some extreme statements about Islam from Harris and his books. I would include in the category of questionable (or hyperbolic) Harris’s claim that Islamic scriptures are “the mother lode of bad ideas”. It’s not at all clear to me that the Tanakh shouldn’t be considered that, or at least a close second. One would have to look at that very carefully to justify any such generalization. Beyond that, however, the waters are muddied by political considerations (perhaps you’re clearing the way to get to those?) Harris is firmly on the side of Israel, Greenwald equally firmly on the side of the Palestinians. Furthermore, Harris endorses pretty much all US military activity since 9/11 while Greenwald decries it (indeed he takes a rather extremist anti-US view). I don’t find much nuance in either view, nor in much of the media debate.

  2. Thanks for this, Mike.

    Caution is generally sound advice, but in some ways the time for caution is past. It’s become too difficult to have honest discussions about Islam for misplaced fears of bigotry, which I’m sure you know none of this is. I’m aware of Harris’ political leanings (which I don’t share), but that’s irrelevant here. Whatever biases drive him, his assessments of Islam have to appraised for what they are.

    I mean what I said about Aslan. He really has made a fool of himself, whether by lying, distorting, or parroting empty cliches. I’m not saying that anyone on “his” side of the debate is a fool. Nicholas Kristof is certainly more intelligent, though he still gets plenty wrong.

    With regards to the Tanakh… I think the only way to get a handle on how pernicious religious texts are, is to read them cover to back. (I still have to get through all of the Vedas.) When you do this, bad ideas emerge from all of them (as I said above). It’s not surprising, because these are documents from the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, or shortly after. We shouldn’t expect any of them to align with our secular wisdom in the 21st century. But what I find intriguing is that with the Tanakh, NT, Uppanishads, and others is that for all the primitive anachronisms, I can turn a few pages and be surprisingly enlightened. A few books admittedly hold almost no redeeming value — like Obadiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum — and they’re small. II Peter and Jude might be potential “discards” from the NT. With the Qur’an, however, very little impresses me. It’s a whole other world.

    Nor would I even call the Tanakh a “close second” to the Qur’an on the subject of holy wars. The slaughter commanded by Yahweh is invariably situational, and for centuries Jews and Christians have interpreted them to mean that unless you are a Hittite, Amorite, Jesubite, etc. these violent passages don’t apply to infidels. The Tanakh records God’s commands to make war on people-x in situation-y. It doesn’t provide “marching orders” for believers. By contrast, most of the Qur’an’s injunctions to slaughter infidels aren’t presented as situational, but generalized and abstract. That might just help explain why significant numbers of Muslims continue to take them as such.

  3. Loren, a really really good post. I agree with about 98 % of the content. But I think Harris is a bit off when he calls the Quran the “motherlode of bad ideas”. I’ve pointed out to Robert Spencer and his entourage of muslim hating trolls on his blog that the mother of all holy wars is found in the Tanakh, more specifically in Deuteronomy. Muhammads inspiration for the way a prophet should behave against God’s enemies came from Moses in Deuteronomy. Just as pope Urban got his sanctification for a Christian version of Jihad from Moses in Deuteronomy.
    I would also disagree with Loren that the divine command for a Herem (Holy War) against the pagans in Deuteronomy is just “situational”. On the contrary. The author(s) of Deuteronomy knew very well that he was writing a phantasy that was meant to be an inspiration for future generations of Jews. The message to future generations was clear: the Holy Land must be cleaned from all impure things (which included even the animals of the pagans) NOW and also in the FUTURE. The Jewish zealot settlers from Brooklyn who live in places like Hebron have caught the message of Deuteronomy all too well. Even the muslim zealots of Isis have caught the message of Deuteronomy all too well. I was astonished to read in a newspaper today that the Isis jihadists had walked around the beseiged kurdish city of Kobani killing not only the humans in the city, but also the animals,

  4. Hi Antonio,

    I hope things are well in Sweden. I agree that Deuteronomy’s vision can be seen more timelessly in certain contexts especially regarding the Land, but in most cases where God commands people to slaughter in his name, it’s situational. Harris’ “motherlode” comment is admittedly provocative, but I think accurate. I suspect Harris was trying to provoke reactions by saying it in his usual mild-mannered way, and he certainly got them.

  5. Loren – I didn’t use the word ‘caution’. I was talking about the normal scholarly carefulness and balance that is especially important in this area, and I don’t see that “the time is past” for any way (why would you say that?) As to the “motherlode” comment, I see so many problems with that that I hardly know where to begin. It’s not a matter of reading front to back; it’s a matter of defining what’s being looked for. What’s the definition of “bad idea” that’s being employed? We can’t define it, but we know one when we see one? But is that really so? Can it be generally agreed, for example, that the idea that God had given certain lands to a supposed “chosen race” is a bad idea? I think it is. Do you? How bad is it on the badness scale? Or one might think to ask why Mein Kampf isn’t the motherlode of bad ideas? How does one compare two texts of different genre with respect to the number and severity of their “bad ideas”? To my way of thinking, Harris’ provocative generality is unprovable, unscholarly, and counter-productive. I would agree (against Aslan) that Islamic scriptures provide significantly more fodder for violent extremists than do Christian scriptures proper (i.e., not including the Tanakh), because I think that can be fairly easily proven, but I can’t see that Harris’ statement does anything except arouse everyone’s fears and inflame their passions. This is not something that scholars ought to be doing. Even if they speak with calm reason, as Harris does, they might as well be leading the mob with a torch if they’re given to inflammatory generalities.

  6. Mike, I disagree. I don’t see Harris as being anywhere close to inflammatory in the manner that you imply. That some of his comments have had that impact (not least on Affleck) is precisely the problem we’re dealing with – but that’s a problem with the listener, not the speaker. The point is that in the post 9/11 climate it has become difficult to speak plain truths about Islam, and when you do, it comes across not only as bigoted, but somehow unbalanced and unscholarly. It’s time to stop worrying so much about people’s feelings (which people wouldn’t be anyway, if it were, say, Christianity under fire) and that’s what I was getting at about the time being past for caution. Enough already. People like Harris (and even Maher) point to reasonable evidence regarding beliefs in the Islamic world, while supposed scholars like Aslan equivocate behind falsehoods and half-truths.That the end result might appear “unbalanced”, or that we’re somehow not playing fair-ball with Islam, simply means there are truths in this world that are dispiriting.

    I would submit that if more people cracked the Qur’an and spent time with it, it would go a long way toward clearing up confusion. I’ve no idea why you bring up Mein Kamp in this context. We’re talking about the writings of major world religions.

    And yes, I agree with you that the ethnic supremacism (“chosen land for a chosen people”) in the Tanakh falls in the stew of bad ideas. In fact, I wrote a post explaining why the figure of Abraham in all three faiths is a supremacist figure. But some supremacisms are more dangerous than others. Judaism’s Abraham is an ethnic supremacist; Chrsitianity’s is a spiritual supremacist; Islam’s an intolerantly militant supremacist. That last is the most odious; the other two have problems, yes, but they at least carry supplements in their theology that facilitate moving beyond it. That Abraham is ultimately the “father of all nations” in Judaism and Christianity makes room for ignoring the conditions that constrain it (whether biological descent or faith). In Islam, Abraham isn’t even the “father of all nations”, and his role doesn’t allow for much pluralism, even on the most liberal of re-interpretations

  7. Thanks for the exchange, Loren. I’d be interested in your comments on Islamophobia. As I recall, Harris and Maher ran away from this charge, but I don’t know why. Given what the Qu’ran has to say about violence, and given the large number of radical Muslims (Greenwald quotes “only 7%”, but of 1.3 billion, that’s 91 million according to my calculations), isn’t fear of Islam a rational response? If not, why not?

  8. There are genuine Islamophobes (who have irrational reactions to the sight of people wearing turbans/scarves, or who spy a jihadist under every rock), and I’ve known a couple. But yes, there’s plenty in Islam to rationally fear. I certainly don’t see Maher and Harris as Islamophobes, at least not based on what they say; I can’t get into their heads. I do wonder about Richard Dawkins though, based on his irrational sentiments expressed on other subjects. He gets a lot right about Islam, but he could also be a true Islamophobe; I’m only speculating.

  9. Ah, I see. I had thought that ‘phobia’ meant simply ‘fear’, and that is evidently all that the original Greek word meant. But traversing some dictionaries, I see that ‘irrational’ or ‘illogical’ is almost always there in the primary definition. Unfortunately, the secondary definition (typically ‘strong dislike’) is loosey-goosey enough to allow the term to be used as a debate weapon by the unscrupulous. (I’ve seen this tactic used in judicial and Congressional hearings, BTW. Where a word X has two or more meanings, the one side uses one meaning, the other another, and they argue back and forth about whether so-and-so is an X, without specifying exactly what they mean by ‘X’, or – if they do specify – they both insist that their chosen meaning is the correct one.)

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