Moderate Islam is Not the Solution
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?