Islam, Reformation, the West

Andrew McCarthy proposes that we start asking politicians whether or not they think Islam needs reform. McCarthy's a thoughtful guy, and he has a point, but he hasn't reflected philosophically on the question. What does it even mean to ask "Does Islam need reform"? Islam is a religion. A religion either points to the true ground of the divine or it does not. If it does, then what sense is there to reform it? The structure of right and wrong, whatever it looks like, follows from the divine expression.

If it does not, then of course it ought to be reformed -- which is not to say that "it" needs reform. A religion that does not point to the divine is just a set of conventions, and a set of conventions has no needs. It's just something people do. People have needs. A longing for the divine is one of those needs for many people.

So the question really ought to be, "Do you think Islam is true?"

And, then, only if they answer in the negative, the second question is, "How should Muslims reform their faith so that they do in fact genuinely connect with the divine?"

Now, the proper thing to say about the second question is that anyone who is not a Muslim can only have an advisory opinion. We're not going to be the ones reforming Islam -- we're just going to be giving advice about it. Of course, what I said before holds for these. Even Muslims who want to reform Islam must first reject that it correctly captures the divine expression. They also must first admit, however tacitly, that they do not in fact believe what is taught by their faith.

The first question is the one that matters. It's only even sensible to talk about reform if you deny that Islam is true. Saying that has consequences we should face honestly.

18 comments:

jaed said...

I'm not sure I believe this. Any reformation divides the religion into true, central elements and problematic but non-central elements.

Suppose one believes Islam is true in its basic structure (examples: radical singularity of the divine, Muhammed as the greatest and ultimate messenger of the divine, falsehood of other religions, requirement for ritual worship in various forms) but not in some specifics. Suppose you think the scholars are mostly crooks, for example, and their opinions are useless. You would believe in Islam, but also believe it requires reform.

In this case, of course, the question of greatest interest to non-Muslims will probably be the attitude toward jihad. Specifically: Does the true Islam accept jihad in its sense of the conquest and subjugation of non-Muslims? Does the reform they suggest end up with this form of jihad as a central tenet of the faith, as an optional thing, or as something that arose out of misunderstandings of scripture and should not be practiced or encouraged in the present day? A reformation that included the first option would be very different than one that included the first.

Cass said...

I've always thought of religion as an attempt to know/understand God. God's will is seldom clear to stubborn and self-interested humans. We have Scripture (which has been translated by humans over and over again, and about which said humans often don't agree as to the interpretation). But it requires a level of hubris I'm not willing to endorse to claim that any one person or group fully understands Scripture. And based on history to date, God's not likely to come down any time soon and issue a ruling.

To jaed's point, I am far less concerned about what people believe in their private hearts than how they treat others (of all faiths). It's that outward behavior that society and law seek to regulate.

This ambiguity is why every religion has sects and denominations: we can't even agree on what God wants us to believe/do. Or even what God has said through prophets or through Christ.

This is the problem I have with people of one faith wanting to tell others they know the truth. It's one thing to believe you have uniquely (or collectively) found The Truth. It's quite another to expect (or demand) that others agree with you - that they acknowledge their beliefs to be false and yours to be true.

At any rate, "Islam", like Christianity and Judaism, isn't monolithic.

Cass said...

Well that got mangled in editing.

This para was supposed to come last:

To jaed's point, I am far less concerned about what people believe in their private hearts than how they treat others (of all faiths). It's that outward behavior that society and law seek to regulate.

Grim said...

Suppose one believes Islam is true in its basic structure (examples: radical singularity of the divine, Muhammed as the greatest and ultimate messenger of the divine, falsehood of other religions, requirement for ritual worship in various forms) but not in some specifics.

That's what the Christian Reformation looked like -- they believed in Jesus as the son of God, and at least some of the message of the Bible (some of them were indeed even more intensely interested in the scripture, and others had very strange ideas).

Nevertheless, in order to reform the Catholic Church, they had to admit they were not really Catholics. The drive to reform meant setting up what were, in practical terms, new religions. Some were closer and some less close to the Church, but all of them were different from it essentially and formally.

Reformers can't succeed here either until they reject the Islam that exists today. They may have to say, "I am not a Sunni Muslim," or "I am not a Shi'ite Muslim," rather than "I am not a Muslim." But they won't be able to switch from one form of Islam to another. They're going to have to reject all the forms of it that exist currently, and start something genuinely new.

And if we who want them to do that are serious about that, we also have to admit that the only reason it would be sensible to want it is that we don't believe the faith is true. If Islam were true, submission would be the right path.

To jaed's point, I am far less concerned about what people believe in their private hearts than how they treat others (of all faiths). It's that outward behavior that society and law seek to regulate.

That's one of the things that any reformation will likely have to tackle. Not just particular Islamic laws -- death to gays, for example -- but the general idea that their religion should determine the law over against secular modes of legislation, or anyone else's religion.

james said...

As far as Islam is concerned, it may be easier than "creating a new religion" (not that the Reformers thought they were doing that). There are 5 schools which are nominally supposed to respect each others devotees--though the Shia don't get along so well with the Sunni schools. And extremists don't get along well with anybody--no matter what school they're from. And Gadaffi tried to create a new school of his own: that didn't go over so well.

But at least in theory they could develop a new school of Islamic law, without any dastardly innovation. Perhaps it could even incorporate a saying of their nominally second-most-honored prophet "By their fruits you will know them."

Jurisprudence is supposed to rely on the Koran, the Hadith, and the customs of the day in Muhammad's time--in that order. And on precedents, of course. In order to cite the prophets of the Bible, they'd have to indulge in a kind of higher criticism of the Bible to purge away all the "corruptions:" Jesus Seminar or Thomas Jefferson style. Or use a variety of isnad to figure out which quotes they think they can rely on. They might be able to consider this a continuation of the theme of figuring out what the Arab customs were...

I think they could do it.

They've a much better choice, of course, but that involves rejecting Islam.

Tom said...

I tend to agree with Jaed that there are two aspects: the theology, and the practice. It's possible to believe that the theology is true but the practice is wrong, in which case, you reform practice to conform to theology.

The problem I see with any reform of Islam is that it was always intended to be a state as well as a religion. Mohammad was a military and political leader as well as a religious one, and his immediate followers set about creating an Islamic empire through conquest. I think it must be difficult to reinterpret that and say Islam should co-exist instead of conquer, or to say that the conquest should be peaceful and through persuasion rather than through force. When force looks like a viable option, why wouldn't they take it? It's what Mohammad would do.

In contrast, Christianity originated in Roman occupied territory and did not try to dictate what the state should do. It was a minority religion in a great pagan empire. It was not until 300 years after its origin that it became entwined in politics.

Imagine if Jesus had been what many Jews at that time were looking for, a military savior who liberated Israel from Rome through force of arms and re-established Israel as an independent nation. Imagine that the apostles and their disciples had gathered armies and created a Christian empire in the Middle East through conquest. How would Christians today think differently?

Tom said...

A bit more on that point. McCarthy states: First, reform is essential because the broader Islamic religion includes a significant subset of Muslims who adhere to an anti-American totalitarian political ideology that demands implementation of sharia — Islamic law. This ideology and the repressive legal code on which it rests are not religion. We are not talking about the undeniably theological tenets of Islam (e.g., the oneness of Allah, the acceptance of Mohammed as the final prophet, and the Koran as Allah’s revelation).

This is where he is wrong. Theology absolutely can include political organization and legal codes. It has in most places in most times. Just look at the Old Testament nation of Israel for one example we may all be familiar with. Look at the belief in many ancient nations that their leader, whether pharaoh or emperor or king, was of divine descent, or the old Chinese idea of the "Mandate of Heaven."

Whether it was a good change or not is debatable, but one change the Reformation brought was destruction of the holistic nature of religion in the West. Before that, religion united all aspects of individual and community life. Religion included everything else.

To different extents, we still see this in the branches of Christianity that follow the liturgical calendar with its feasts and fasts and saints days.

This is what we see in Islam today. It's fine to say that Muslims should make this change, too, but to say these things cannot be part of religion is simply wrong.

Tom said...

To further quibble ...

A religion either points to the true ground of the divine or it does not.

I don't think it's binary. It's probably a spectrum, with some truer than others. For example, Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, so (to take the Christian perspective) we wouldn't say Islam is completely false. They have that right.

We can look at different Christian denominations the same way; some are closer to the truth than others. The Catholic and Orthodox positions are really pretty close, while the Catholic and Baptist positions are further apart.

So, maybe the question should be, "Which parts of Islam do you think are true?" And that probably gets pretty complicated.

Grim said...

For example, Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, so (to take the Christian perspective) we wouldn't say Islam is completely false. They have that right.

They would say that you have it wrong, because Christianity is not properly monotheistic at all -- it's trinary. There's a sense in which God is one, and a sense in which God is three. For Islam, there is no sense in which God is not one.

This philosophical debate about the first principle of reality actually predates both Christianity and Islam, by the way. We have taken the Neoplatonic position that God is absolutely one -- and that means three, since creation requires both the Thing Thinking Itself, the Thing Thinking, and the Thing Thought About. There's a way in which these are all the same, and a way in which each is distinct, and you can't make sense of the multiplicity in creation without at least these three principles. (You need the thinker, the thought, and the thing that unifies them.) The Neoplatonists were nevertheless emphatic that this was really a One, in a way -- just at a higher level than it was three.

The Islamic principle is the one Parmenides defended. But how does a pure oneness produce the multiplicity of what we see around us? Also, why would it? If this unity is perfection, and creation would necessarily mean a falling away both from unity or perfection, what's the point?

I don't think you can get away with endorsing monotheism, even, as a common ground. We don't use the word to mean the same thing.

Tom said...

That's pretty interesting.

However, I'm not sure it addresses my point. I wasn't saying Christians and Muslims agree, but rather, from a Christian point of view, Islam's one god is still closer to the truth of Christianity than the polytheistic pagans.

Also, I really don't know the answer, but what about the Jewish God? I don't think Judaism has the same Trinitarian concept of God, but Christians would still say they worship the same God as the Jews do.

Grim said...

Maimonides agreed with you. He thought that the Muslims were wrong on the edges, but that the Christians were really incoherent. What sense did it make to talk of a Trinity?

Maybe it helps to recognize that this is a philosophical dispute that really is prior to the religious dispute. Maybe not.

Grim said...

James:

But at least in theory they could develop a new school of Islamic law, without any dastardly innovation. Perhaps it could even incorporate a saying of their nominally second-most-honored prophet "By their fruits you will know them."

Even this theory requires recognizing that they are rejecting every school that has ever existed heretofore. "We are Muslims, but not like the Prophet and his Companions" is itself tantamount to a declaration that you reject Islam -- at least, every version of Islam that has existed since the Prophet and his Companions walked the earth.

It's not like some bureaucracy -- the FBI, or some bank -- where you can say, 'We have a mission, and aren't accomplishing it as well as possible.' If God is directly governing you, as Islam claims is happening through the Koran (and, more hopefully, the Hadith), attaining to that is itself perfection. There is nothing better. What it says about women or gays or whatever must simply be done.

Anything else starts from a rejection of that premise.

I'm more interested, though, in what this means for those of us asking for reform from the outside. If you or I ask for a reform of Islam, does that not entail a rejection of Islam as it is? So if any of our leaders wants to call for a reform of Islam, must they not first admit that they reject Islam (as it is)?

jaed said...

"We are Muslims, but not like the Prophet and his Companions" is itself tantamount to a declaration that you reject Islam

I think here's where you make a mistake. Consider the Protestant Reformation as an example: they didn't think they were "Christians, but not like the Apostles." In fact, they said and believed that they were restoring the Church to its primitive purity, removing accretions that had built up over time. They weren't starting a new religion, in their own eyes, but reclaiming the original Christianity.

I think you've gotten stuck on the idea that reform implies rejection of the original religion, but reform—by the very nature of the term—indicates going back to the original, and a rejection of more recent practices as corruptions of that original belief system.

(Now it's a commonplace that Islam is already having its Reformation, and what we're seeing—jihadism—is it: that the war of Islam against the dar al Harb is in fact the original Islam, and that any reformation to reclaim the original religion is going to end up more of a problem for non-Muslims than the "corrupted" tolerant version. That's a practical problem with calling for Islamic reform. But it's separate from the idea that reformers must abandon their religion. A reformation isn't a new religion, particularly in revealed religions where there is no new revelation offered, just reinterpretations of the old one.)

Grim said...

That commonplace you cite is correct, as far as it goes. Movements that are attempting "reform" in that sense are already common, and indeed the source of much of the problem.

That's not at all what McCarthy is talking about, though. When he says that politicians should be asked if Islam needs reform, he's not asking if they think Islam should return to the true faith of Muhammad and his Companions.

So there may be a equivocation at the root of the dispute you and I are having at the moment. It's true that you can reform an institution that has drifted from its principles by calling it back to those principles. However, that's not the kind of "reform" being asked about here. What's being asked about is adapting the faith towards a new idea of what God wants, especially with regard to women, gays, and non-Muslims.

To say that the faith is wrong about those things is not to say that has drifted too far from its original principles, but rather that it needs to drift a lot harder.

jaed said...

A more precise formulation, then, might be that we should ask politicians whether Islam needs to be "changed", or perhaps "updated". This is a tougher ask, because Islam is a revealed religion: it is based on the word of God, and the word of God is not something a believer will contemplate "updating". (Unless that believer has received a new revelation... but in that case we're not so much talking about "reform" as "introduce a new religion", and new religions normally don't supplant the old one... see Christianity and Judaism, or LDS and Christianity, or Bahai and Islam.)

Talking about Sharia, McCarthy says: "This ideology and the repressive legal code on which it rests are not religion." He goes on to contrast the political tenets of Islam with what he calls "theological", such as monotheism. Here I think he badly misunderstands Islam, perhaps through looking at it through a Christian lens: Christianity doesn't set down a political system as part of its revelation, but Islam certainly does. Christian legal and political thinking is derivative, growing from interpretations of Christianity via application and interpretation, but Sharia is part of the original scripture. It's not interpretation so it can't be reinterpreted.

So I think this is the root of our disagreement (or perhaps we end up in violent agreement): McCarthy is thinking as though Islam is like Christianity and can somehow reform away its legal and political system without losing its essence. But a "reformation" of Islam that drops Sharia law completely would be like a "reformation" of Christianity that drops monotheism.

In other words, I think you're right that McCarthy is asking Muslims to create a new faith, but I don't think McCarthy realizes that's what he's asking.

jaed said...

i should also add that I think there is some room in Islam for not taking jihad—in its specific sense of the obligation of conquest of non-Muslims—as a current requirement. But that's a much narrower reform than dumping the whole political and legal system out of Islam.

Grim said...

I think it turns out we agree completely, and it was just that equivocal word that was causing us issues. :)

Jihad (as war) is often said not to be a requirement incumbent on the whole body of Muslims, as even in Muhammad's day some people stayed home to mind the flocks and herds while the rest went to war. In theory that's an exception that could swallow the whole, almost: the ruler would retain an obligation to war against the infidels, but no one else would have a personal duty to do so, and the ruler would have wide discretion.

But that still takes place within the confines of a formally religious government with Islam as the official state religion. That's not really what McCarthy wants either.

james said...

Grim,
I agree that you and I do not have standing to ask for reform in Islam.

It isn't obvious that older schools would be rejected outright by a hypothetical new school. Because a school is both religious and political, the same question can be answered, within the same school, in somewhat different, even antithetical, ways. World of Fatwas and others.

With careful selection, a team of scholars could probably find precedents for their decisions in all the schools.

The rub is that a school is only as influential as other Muslims want it to be.