Monday, August 08, 2005

Moderate Islam is Not the Solution

Is Moderate Islam viable? Or should Muslims seek a secular alternative? Today we are urging Muslims to seek the guidance of their religion in a manner that befits a just and ethical member of the world community. But what if Islam is incurably militant and intolerant? What if Islam can’t change? In that case, a viable long-term solution is secularization and reason in human affairs – which becomes less likely as we push Muslims in the opposite direction.

Let’s make this distinction clear. Moderation can be achieved in two ways: lessen the practice of a religion or create a moderate version of the religion. The first is always possible for any religion – adherents can become lax or mere nominal members of the faith. The second is more problematic. Not every doctrine can admit of a moderate version. To remain honestly devout and embrace modernity, the original doctrines must be devoid of major obstacles and elements antithetical to individual liberty, universal ethical principles, and reason in human affairs.

What are the prospects for a reformed Islam? It is assumed, a priori, that Islam is just like Christianity in its ability to modernize. After all, aren’t all religions the same? Of course, the category religion implies something in common. Religious philosophies metaphysically embrace the supernatural and epistemologically uphold faith as grounds for the acceptance of belief. However, beyond the defining element of methodology, religions may differ in content as much as secular ideologies when addressing the issues of what to believe, what is moral, what kind of society is just, etc.

Religions can also differ on the domain of faith and the domain of reason. Faith may apply to the question of God’s existence, the afterlife, and cosmological questions of the origin of the universe. Or faith and dogma (ideas accepted on faith unquestionably) may determine every aspect of living this life in minute details. Does faith contradict reason – and how often? A natural theology may uphold faith in God but believe by using our reason we discover His laws – in both science and human affairs – by studying nature. On the other extreme, religion can declare reason impotent and blind faith supreme; and demand submission to dogma as revealed by authorities.

Islam has significant obstacles – in both ethical content and the scope of faith – that creates a significantly greater challenge to the creation of a new robust religion that can sustain a liberal order without being undermined by glaring contradictions. Let’s examine the reasons.

The differing examples of Jesus and Muhammad.

Muhammad preached tolerance as he struggled for acceptance in Mecca. His subsequent rule in Medina, however, is marred with violence. He funded his nascent religion by raiding caravans on route to Mecca even during periods held sacred by regional custom. He encouraged the assassination of his critics, establishing a reign of terror that culminated in the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Medina. In general, he conquered and subjugated most of Arabia. In doing so he created a supremacist warrior religion that is imperialist in nature.

Did Jesus create this kind of example? Of course, in the history of Christianity we find figures whose martial exploits were horrific. But Christianity started as a persecuted minority religion until it was legalized by the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD. An old cliché describes Muhammad as Jesus and Constantine combined, reflecting the dichotomous nature of Muhammad’s tolerant Meccan period and his role as a political/military leader in Medina. Of course that’s just a way of saying that oppressive warrior-like violence is congenital to Islam.

The order of the Holy books and their emphasis.

Muhammad’s change from Mecca to Medina creates a religion that culminates with a harsh intolerant spirit similar to parts of the Old Testament. This supersedes the early Meccan writings by their temporal sequence and by a formal process of abrogation according to orthodox Islam.

Jesus’ teachings tend to have a peaceful aura with an emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of the law. St. Paul furthered this transformation by exempting Christian converts from specifics of Jewish law. Thus, the Old Testament can, if one wishes, be seen as a historical document of Jesus’ people, the Jews. Its harsh passages are superseded by the spirit of the New Testament.

The Different Focus of Jesus and Muhammad.

Jesus, in his brief four years of itinerant preaching, had a spiritual focus concerning redemption and salvation of the individual soul. There is no worked-out political philosophy. The apostolic Christians expected Jesus’ imminent return, making worldly planning virtually irrelevant. In the course of history devout Christians embraced different political doctrines: from those of Rome, the Divine Right of Kings, the liberalism of John Locke, or variants of socialism.

Muhammad, on the other hand, was a political figure that gave a very concrete example of how to live this life and subjugate others. Muhammad embodied a political philosophy leaving little room for variations.

Content vs. methodology.

In terms of content, there is far more play in Christianity with regards to the temporal order without extensive logical contortions to the core of the religion’s beliefs. Thus, compared to Islam, we see greater variation among Christian sects today and great differences between contemporary Christianity and past variants.

In terms of methodology, Christians have embraced reason in human affairs starting from the time of Aquinas. Christianity has progressed from the Dark Ages with respect of individual liberty and conscience; can Islamic societies do the same?

Islam’s achievements are limited.

The 1400 years of Islamic history were punctuated by periods of tolerance in which Muslim scholars, with the aid of Christian and Jewish scholars, managed to salvage some of the ancient Roman and Greek wisdom. Under Islamic rule, mathematicians adopted Hindu numerals and advanced algebra. However, the greatest minds of the Islamic world, Avicenna and Averroes, were persecuted.

Averroes (ibn Rushd), one of history's preeminent Aristotelian scholars, was banished by the Caliph; his books burned. Aquinas did for Christianity what Averroes couldn't do for Islam: he reconciled Aristotle with Christianity - thus setting the foundation for the secular, rational, scientific (and Hellenic) worldview, with its emphasis on living well in this world, that, with the Renaissance, became the dominant worldview in Europe; and via the Enlightenment, America. Along with the growth of secularism, religion also transformed. The work of Aquinas reformed Catholicism and ultimately set in motion the questioning spirit that led to Protestantism.

Reason and Science in Islam.

As historians point out, Islam had a golden age where scientific work was respected. The problem isn’t science – even today’s terrorists have scientific degrees in civil engineering and medicine. The problem is applying reason to human affairs: ethics and politics. Do we take heart that Pakistan can develop a nuclear bomb and its lead scientist gives advice to al-Qaeda?

The integration of reason in human affairs and the respect for the reasoning individual to cultivate his ability to act morally in thought and action cannot occur in the straight-jacket of Islam. The logical contortions required to integrate Mohammad’s example to the liberal respect for universal rights requires extensive cognitive damage - if one is to remain devout. One can, however, become lax or lapsed to develop a civilized disposition. Many Muslims take this route.

An Example of the Transformation of Islam.

The construction of a new Islam that is vigorously religious requires coming to grips with the Koran and Hadith. In Christianity there were several transformations solidified by major theologians – Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc. In Islam the greatest theologian after Muhammad, al-Ghazali, is credited with the establishment of Sufism as a respected option in Islam. Sufism is a mystical practice with an eclectic mixture of Islam and other religions. Some, like Stephen Schwartz, see Sufism as the spiritual alternative: Islam with a heart. But this heart transplant comes at a stiff price. Al-Ghazali had to attack Hellenic rationalism and natural causality to advance his cause and in the process dealt the decisive blow to Islam’s openness to reason. You might say that to gain a heart and soul, Islam had to lose its mind.

The question remains: can Islam still be Islam and introduce reason into human affairs?

32 Comments:

Blogger beakerkin said...

There is a book that stresses the differences between Jesus and Mohammed The Great Divide by Alvin Schmidt.

At some future date I will prepare the anti 167 reading list. The focus will be twofold a section dealing with Marx and a section that deals with the facts of Islamic history.

8/9/05, 1:50 AM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Jason,
A superior article!

Three points:

1. You wrote "Moderation can be achieved in two ways: lessen the practice of a religion or create a moderate version of the religion. The first is always possible for any religion – adherents can become lax or mere nominal members of the faith. The second is more problematic."
Overall, Islam moved from moderation to militantism when MTP moved from Mecca and Medina. As far as I know, that trend has never been significantly overturned for long. And what will reformers do with all those Koranic verses which advocate the expansion of Islam by military means?

2. You make an excellent observation in pointing out that Jesus was concerned about the state of the individual soul. He taught "My Kingdom is not of this world" when some of his followers wanted him to establish an earthly kingdom. Of course, later Christians erred and tried to do otherwise, but the fact remains that Christianity is not primarily a geopolitical system.
Islam, on the other hand, IS a geopolitical system.

3. Sufism cannot dominate Islam, at least not under the present conditions. Many religions have a sect which is basically mysticism. I may be wrong here, but I think that never has mysticism dominated the mainstream version, if the mainstream version came first.

Now, I'm not a Muslim, but I believe that the answer to the question in your final paragraph is "No!" I've thought about that question, off and on, since December of 2001. I keep HOPING to see a different answer expounded, but I haven't yet.

8/9/05, 4:15 PM  
Blogger LASunsett said...

I am with AOW, Jason. But I have add, I think this is one of your best.

Thanks. I enjoyed reading it.

8/9/05, 10:15 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

Thanks, guys and gals for the praise and additional facts and suggestions.

8/9/05, 10:20 PM  
Blogger Wintermute said...

Muslims, in fact, have an inherent right to interpret the teachings of the Quran, in many respects they will do so more liberally than the catholic church ever allowed, even after Aquinas. I think what your article shows, more than anything, is exactly how biased modernity is in favour of the christian way of life. And Jesus had a violent phase aswell, its just not talked about and some of the gospels that talk about it are banned by the church. I know lots of moderate muslims, women that speak english and where a hijab (head scarf) rather than a burka (body wrap). Islam is different in many places, and it can change and adapt, but globalization processes may be making her think that she doesn't want to change into what we have become. And if we try to force it on her followers in the name of making them civilized, many muslims might just end up fighting back almost out of reflex.

Islam can change, it can adapt. We just have to give her time and attention, to appease her concerns about being brought into the new world order, and to make that order such that all peoples can feasibly live together in peace. But if we try to impose our christian inspired system on another group of people, it is not so surprising that they may disagree with what is happening. Radical fundamentalist Islam is a reaction to Western influence, and a lessening of this influence and perhaps some more understanding, empathy, and humanitarianism might settle the inflamation like a good old fashioned fire-fight never could.

8/10/05, 6:19 AM  
Blogger Wintermute said...

still, very excellent post, even though I think that your idea that Islam can't change (and indeed, that it is at present homogenous and unchanged) is wrong.

8/10/05, 6:22 AM  
Blogger VARepublicMan said...

Wintermute, please post more information about the violent phase of Jesus' life.

Nobody is trying to force an undesired change on Islam. Americans are more than willing to live and let live.

You say, "Radical fundamentalist Islam is a reaction to Western influence, and a lessening of this influence and perhaps some more understanding, empathy, and humanitarianism might settle the inflamation like a good old fashioned fire-fight never could."

The United States is not culpable in this. We are who we are. Just because some Muslim clerics are miffed that some of their members choose to adopt western principles on their own, they have no right to blame the people of the United States.

When people adopt an Islamic system they are happy. When people adopt a western system, they are angry. Kinda' sounds like the influence of a militant interpretation of the Koran to me.

8/10/05, 8:07 AM  
Blogger G_in_AL said...

Jason, funny I just read this post. I have commented on my own site lightly about the difference between Christianity and Islam before, but to me you really captured the difference in this part

"Jesus’ teachings tend to have a peaceful aura with an emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of the law. St. Paul furthered this transformation by exempting Christian converts from specifics of Jewish law. Thus, the Old Testament can, if one wishes, be seen as a historical document of Jesus’ people, the Jews. Its harsh passages are superseded by the spirit of the New Testament."

This is covered exactly in the Bible, Romans 4:12.

Jesus released people from the curse of the Law, where Islam still teaches that Allah is a wrathful God that you must preform sacrafice to please.

8/10/05, 9:14 AM  
Blogger Jeff Perren said...

Jason,
A truly fine piece. Obviously you've done your homework and then some. I strongly recommend you turn this into an article and seek wider distribution. I'd start with TNI, but this piece could be usefully reproduced many places.

Congratulations.
Jeff

8/10/05, 3:41 PM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...

"Jesus’ teachings tend to have a peaceful aura with an emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of the law. St. Paul furthered this transformation by exempting Christian converts from specifics of Jewish law. Thus, the Old Testament can, if one wishes, be seen as a historical document of Jesus’ people, the Jews. Its harsh passages are superseded by the spirit of the New Testament."

How do the Jews cope with this violent history, set laws and religious doctrine? They have not been freed from their obligations to the history and the law.

Judaic semites are successful in the secular world, is there a lesson from their success that Islamic semites can learn?

8/10/05, 5:37 PM  
Blogger Wintermute said...

unaha-closp has a point with the jewish example. In regards to the suppressed gospels that show jesus as in part violent, check out the Gospel of Thomas for starters. It was found along side an early copy of what we traditionally call the new testament. I'll bet there is a copy on-line somewhere. I have a paper copy, here's a sample:

"People think that it is peace I have come to impose on the world, but they do not know it is dissension I have come to cast on the earth: fire, sword, war."

Sounds kinda violent to me (and fairly anarchic). There is more, and some more in the standard new testament. I'll have to find the exact passages, but I thought that this was fairly well acknowledged. Admittedly he was no Muhammed, but he still preached tactics other than pacifism. And if Jesus was peaceful, how come his 'followers' kill lots of people everyday? If 'peaceful' and rational christianity can start crusades or wars or become irrational facists, then 'violent' and irrational Islam can become peaceful, rational, and democratic in some sense (though perhaps not exactly in our sense).

8/11/05, 4:00 AM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

You’re missing my point. I’m not arguing that Christianity guarantees a peaceful society with tolerance and respect for individual rights. My argument aims at something more modest: that Christian doctrine and the example of Jesus are not great impediments to the option of such a peaceful society. Thus, the choice, which I hope Christians will take, of creating liberal democracy doesn’t require tremendous logical contortions and self-deception.

John Locke could argue for the sovereignty of the individual without believing he was in great contradiction to his being a Christian. Others argued for monarchy or socialism – also without believing they are in contradiction to their religion. Christianity just does have a pre-packaged political philosophy or an example of Jesus’ ruling over others.

Islam is a political ideology and Muhammad ruled oppressively. Can Islam choose individual rights and liberty with universal respect in a pluralistic society? Not without great contradiction to the ideology. It’s just not an option in Islam.

People can contradict themselves or be lax in their practice. I argue for Muslims that's good - very good. But it's not a new type of Islam called "moderate Islam." And others will read the truth, see those lax as hypocrites, and demand a return to the true jihadist religion.

Islam just has too much baggage.

8/11/05, 7:08 AM  
Blogger Dymphna said...

Moderate Islam? The oxymoron of the day.

In Saudi Arabia, they're pouring concrete over what remains of Mecca and Medina...the source of most of the trouble with Islam is the Wahhabis, no?

Here's what they're doing. Un-bee-lievable:
Bulldozers for Allah

Soo... to propose an answer to your question --
can Islam still be Islam and introduce reason into human affairs? --

I would answer: not while Saudi Wahhibis have all the money.

8/11/05, 2:45 PM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...

Okay, Jason - point taken.

8/11/05, 6:00 PM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Jason,
CAIR is "at it" again with regard to Michael Graham, and I posted on the topic again this morning.

CAIR presents itself as moderate Islam. Hooper and others within CAIR don't sound "moderate" to me. They want both Michael Graham and Geoff Metcalfe (The latter said, "The Koran teaches that Muslims can lie to infidels") silenced and have accused both of them of hate speech. But Metcalfe's statment was THE TRUTH.

Are we going to come to the point where telling about the hate-filled verses of the Koran and of the haddiths amounts to a crime? CAIR's recent commentaries suggest so.

8/12/05, 9:25 AM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Wintermute,
You wrote, "Muslims, in fact, have an inherent right to interpret the teachings of the Quran, in many respects they will do so more liberally than the catholic church ever allowed, even after Aquinas."

Muslims can interpret the Koranic and other teachings any way they want, but acting on jihad-promoting verses, i.e. mass slaugher of infidels, is unacceptable.

You're wrong about Muslims' liberally interpreting the Koran AND being able to maintain that type of interpretation. When such a movement has started in the past, it's been squashed. One such example of many examples: Anwar Sadat (not really moderate, but he tried to take some conciliatory steps, even though he wore a Nazi tie to a meeting with Israel) was murdered by one of Osama's associates.

As to "violent" verses in the New Testament, they are few and far between, and most Christians today interpret those verses allegorically. Not so in the Koran.

Also, most Christians dispute the validity of The Gospel of Thomas; it's not part of mainstream Christianity--at least as I know mainstream Christianity. You don't see Christians today sawing off heads or flying planes into buildings, do you? And when a so-called Christian DOES commit an act of violence, the vast majority of that country's Christians condemn that act. Not so in Islam.

8/12/05, 9:35 AM  
Blogger Timothy Birdnow said...

Great work here, Jason! I`m going to link this up at Birdblog!

8/12/05, 6:23 PM  
Blogger Billy D said...

Excellent Jason. I will link your site to mine on my next round.
As far as the Jesus having a violent phase, they'll probably cover that in the "Da Vinci Code" movie, along with His voyages around the world with Captain Crunch.

8/13/05, 9:45 AM  
Blogger beakerkin said...

Wintermute

Please stick to Dungeons and Dragons and leave the heavy thinking to Jason and Always on the Watch. I am spending my holiday reading Bat Yeor and Robert Spencer. Alas such reading is too heavy for self described anarchists.

Dr Beaker prescribles Alvin Schmidts the Great Divide and a dose of reality.

8/13/05, 10:43 PM  
Anonymous GM Roper said...

Jason, a seminal work. Well done!

8/13/05, 11:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Really nothing to argue with. Still, all religion is BS and thus all can be "reformed" via ignoring the worst of the BS. The problem with Islam is it was created in a truly uncivilized time and place. Plus they never had a centuries-long Reformation. So Muslims have really dug themselves a big hole to crawl out of. "Moderate" Islam is like moderate communism and nazism i.e. not really worth much. It's maybe easier to drop Islam than to fix it.

8/14/05, 8:01 PM  
Blogger Wintermute said...

Jason, The reason that christians can be free to change their ideology and fillin their own political philosophies comes from historical events, I think, more so than from Jesus's teachings. The reformation allowed people to excersice the right to interpret, and this restructuring of belief systems has come to the point where blatent contradictions to the christian ideology are made every day.

The allowance of contradiction may be a christian thing, since we cannot kill but do anyways. If Islam cannot exist contradictorily, then this seems more of a virtue than a vice. I know many muslims who decry 9/11 openly, and to say that they all cheered for OBL is misleading.

There ARE moderate muslims. Period. They may not be able to change their politics to suit the demands imposed by modernity at will like apothetical christians can, but they can change their beliefs if they find them to be out of tune with reality. Islam is not homogenous either, as you know, so how are none of them moderates?

It may be true that our conception of a liberal democracy may not fit their needs, but that does not mean that they cannot be a liberal democracy, just that theirs won't be exactly like ours. Which is good, because Allah loves variety. :)

Many hardlined Christians accuse their moderate counterparts of straying from the true path, but not many of them are going back. Sure there with be fundamentalists criticizing more secularized muslims (some of my muslim friends tell me this is how their parents criticize them) but that doesn't mean that reformed moderates will submit when others "demand a return to the true jihadist religion."

Christianity had a lot of bagagge, much of which we are still carrying around, even in our legal system. But we got out on our own, and I think the muslim populations could as well. But only if they want to, and they'll have to do it on their own, because if we force it on them they will likely give a mass knee-jerk reaction to the tune of "stop forcing us to do things your way and get out of our lands, infidels." Democratic ideas will come about on their own, and the most we can hope for is that the people will topple the de facto governments that rule them. However, since capitalist arms manufacturing has facilitated the militarization of many of the dictatorships, we may have to help some revolutionaries (in a similar way to how the French saved our butts during our revolution). Without our help revolutionaries will be put down by tanks and guns and bombs sold to these governments by our arms manufacturers.

So, yes, we should go in and institute democracies in the ME and elsewhere, but only if the people are crying out for it. If muslims are fine with living under dictatorship, who are we to say, "no, this is what you want, this is the good free life."? I think that Rawls, if he were still alive, would support something like this. A sovereign nation is a sovereign nation, and so long as it appears to have a supportive population we should not interfere. 'But', you might say,'The kurds rebelled against Saddam' Yes, back in 91, when we asked them to and then left them to die under the hand of the undeposed Saddam.

8/15/05, 7:47 PM  
Blogger Aussiegirl said...

An excellent post and one which should get a wider audience. I have always said that the problem with a Reformation of Islam is its very foundational document. T

8/15/05, 10:13 PM  
Anonymous Sean Giovanello said...

Excellent post indeed!

The one point I will make is that Islam has always faced a tension between modernization/secularization/tolerance and a more conservative/militant Islam.

The problem has been compounded by the ability of the more militant members of the religion to make the claim that deviants from their true path are apostates and deserve death. This has happened in era after era and is occuring again today. The lack of a central figure like, say, a Pope to determine and centralize doctrine leaves more than one locus of religious power and makes condemnation difficult. Further, many Islamists (who are not members of the clergy) have turned even on the imams themselves and argued that they themselves are capable of interpreting and acting themselves with religious justification.

8/17/05, 11:49 AM  
Anonymous The Heretik said...

Unfortunately overt attempts to moderate any institution of dogma or politics are met with a fierce reaction from more extreme elements, whether it is the Wahabi in Mecca and Medina or the Provo IRA in Belfast.

While often considered absolute, religions over time prove themselves to be fluid systems open to evolving change.

How long it will take for a moderate Islam to evolve will take centuries to see. In the short terms the cauldron will grow hotter, not cooler.

8/17/05, 10:44 PM  
Anonymous Foxy said...

It's great to see so much harmony breaking out, with so many people in agreement that islam can't be changed.... primarily due to the literal intrepretation of the koran.... so if it can't be modernized what's the answer folks?

Do we wipe out over 1 billion muslims from the face of the earth, if they refuse to modernize and or revoke their belief system??

come on lads bring on the nukes...... what are we waiting for

8/20/05, 7:12 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

You didn't read the previous article in this series that suggests an alternative the myth of Moderate Islam.

8/21/05, 9:10 AM  
Anonymous foxy said...

I have now, but it still appears from the comments that most people are of the opinion that secularisation won't work or at least the threat posed by islam radical or not is of the "clear and present danger" type, therefore requiring immediate action....

Secularization won't work, as you point out islam is a complete way of life, and not a just a religion!!! This leaves little room for secularization.

If we rely on muslims becoming lapsed, but then if we believe islam is the problem and not just radical elements, this leaves us with the threats we face today may rear their ugly heads again sometime in the future when muslims are less lax in practice....

With this rigidity to change or evolution built into and imposed mainly by koran and hadith my question remains the same, if most of the world believes that islam is the issue and not a radical interpretation of it. What is to be done......?

Bring on the nukes..... Mass conversions or some other “final solution”

8/21/05, 11:52 AM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

This kind of extreme language, foxy, is out of place.

What should we do? I address the problem here to the extent appropriate.

8/21/05, 10:49 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

This comment has been removed because it linked to malicious content. Learn more.

1/19/06, 3:27 PM  
Blogger darrell said...

Very good article. However, in the 17 years that I have lived in the Muslim world, I have seen many religiously lax Muslims are fully committed to fundamentalist ideals when it comes to the big issues. So a Muslim who drinks or is adulterous may well still feel that killing an apostate or infidel is a good idea. Look at the ayatollahs of Iran or the princes of Saudi and you will see how the personally non-pious Muslim can still be politically fundamentalist. We should not invest much hope in Muslim religious backsliders revolutionizing Islam. - darrell

3/7/06, 10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winterminute misses the point. Christianity does not have a political component; when governments of primarily Christian nations do something against Christian ideology, there is no contradiction.

Referring to the "changes in Christianity being due more to historical events than to Christ's teachings," I assume he is referring to the arrival of Protestantism, because Christianity and Christendom are different; Christendom has changed without Christianity changing.

The differences between Protestantism and Catholicism are not those that need to be instituted in Islam; i.e. we would prefer if Muslims read "Muhammad beheaded people" in the hadith as "Muhammad subjugated vice in himself" or some other impossible nonsense.

Christianity did not have baggage in the sense that Islam does, because Christianity and Christendom are different. When we talk about Islam's baggage we're talking about what its books say, its ideology, and what its Prophet (the example for Muslims to follow) did. We're not thinking about the Muslim atrocities over the years.

10/23/06, 7:23 PM  

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