Thursday, August 18, 2005

Karen Armstrong's Muhammad, part 2

I'm picking things up in the middle here … if you feel lost, please see the previous post. (I have cleverly named it "part 1".)

3. Integration of religion and politics

By the end of Armstrong's book, it was this subject which troubled me most.

The separation of church and state is one of the core principles of modern governance, and with good reason. Much harm results when church and state are integrated. There can be no individual freedom of conscience and religion. Women and other groups may be relegated to second-class status, or no social status whatsoever. Criminal law may be excessively punitive and pitiless. Scientific inquiry is closed off at certain points, where received "truths" may not be questioned. And the stage is set for continuous warfare in the name of God, as each nation tries to impose its religious norms on its neighbours (or uses religion as a pretext to pursue war for other, less "noble" reasons).

The separation of church and state also provides an important check on state power. For example, as Hitler was consolidating power, the Church was one of a handful of social institutions that might have opposed him. Within six months, other potential sources of opposition — journalists, political parties, universities, labour unions — had been co-opted or forcibly silenced. But the Protestant Church briefly maintained a stubborn independence. Hitler responded by demanding the consolidation of the twenty-eight main Protestant denominations, and installing a bishop of his choosing:
Every church in Germany was to be decorated with Nazi flags and a proclamation read from the pulpit, stating that "all those who are concerned … feel deeply thankful that the state should have assumed, in addition to all its tremendous tasks, the great load and burden of reorganizing the church." [Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict]
If this unexpected trip to Nazi Germany seems like a digression, it's only to make the point that the separation of church and state is not such a bad idea. Among Christians (and conservatives in general) the principle is facing a lot of criticism recently. In my view, the Church is properly positioned when it is independent of government.

But this is a modern ideal, and one which most Muslim nations have yet to embrace. Turkey is the exception that proves the rule.

The integration of church and state is thoroughly entrenched in Islam, dating back even to the lifetime of Muhammad. Muhammad was a warrior and a ruler, more like King David than Jesus.

(David was a spiritual man, known for his Psalms, but he was also a warrior-king. He wanted to build God's Temple, but God forbade it because of the blood David had shed in the preceding years; 1 Chr. 22:7-8. Jesus, on the other hand, was a pacifist who meekly accepted death at the hands of his enemies. See, for example, John 18:10-11. The passage is of doubtful historicity but representative of a tradition which is consistent throughout the Gospels.)

Armstrong says that Muhammad did not plan to become a political leader. During the early part of his career, he was only a prophet; others wielded political power. The political role was thrust upon him because the nomadic, tribal society which was traditional in Arabia was disintegrating.

Eventually the warring tribes embraced Islam, and Muhammad united the Arab people under his spiritual-political leadership. To some extent, Muhammad maintained a distinction between "church" and state. Vanquished foes were forced to submit to Muhammad as a political leader, but they were not forced to submit to Islam. But the distinction was hardly watertight.

When opposition to Islam was still strong, Muhammad's military success was viewed as a confirmation of God's approval. The battle of Badr, when Muhammad's comrades were victorious against all rational expectation, was a crucial development:
Suddenly [Muhammad] emerged as a good military tactician. He had lined them up in close formation and they began by bombarding the enemy with arrows, drawing their swords for hand-to-hand fighting only at the last moment. By midday the Quraysh, who had expected only to have to make a show of force, panicked and fled in disarray. …

The moral effect of Badr cannot be overestimated. For years Muhammad had been the butt of scorn and insults, but after this spectacular and unsought success everybody in Arabia would have to take him seriously. … After the victory the Qu'ran depicted him and his companions as God's agents: 'You did not slay them, but God slew them.'
To this day, Muslims fast during Ramadan to commemorate the battle of Badr, when God endorsed Islam.

Muhammad was a remarkable man. He was a prophet, a military tactician, and a shrewd governor of his people:
When Muhammad had made the hijra [exodus from his hostile tribe] in 622 the little Islamic community had taken its first step forward to political power:  ten years later it dominated almost the whole of Arabia and had laid the foundations for a new Arab polity which would enable Muslims to govern a huge empire for over a thousand years.
Military success followed soon after the revelation of the Qur'an, and continued even after Muhammad's death. The connection was forged in Muslim minds:  submission to the true religion results in political success. And why not? Surely it is God's will for human society to be conformed to the pattern revealed to Muhammad:
Unlike so many of the earlier prophets, Muhammad had not only brought individual men and women a new personal vision of hope, but he had undertaken the task of redeeming human history and creating a just society which would enable men and women to fulfil their true potential. … Muslim jurists developed a theology of the jihad to meet the new conditions.
Re the word jihad:  though it is commonly translated "holy war", its basic meaning is "struggle" or simply "exertion". It can refer to a spiritual struggle:  e.g., against sin. In this context, however, it plainly refers to a military struggle against non-Muslim enemies. Islamic jurists
taught that, because there was only one God, the whole world should be united in one polity and it was the duty of all Muslims to engage in a continued struggle to make the world accept the divine principles and create a just society.
Armstrong portrays this interpretation of jihad as a passing phase in Islam's history:
This martial theology was laid aside in practice and became a dead letter once it was clear that the Islamic empire had reached the limits of its expansion about a hundred years after Muhammad's death.
But Armstrong's assertion seems to be contradicted by current events. Some Islamic fundamentalists are carrying out a war against Western nations. Armstrong says this militancy is a recent development. Its cause:  Muslims do not know how to respond to the overwhelming success of Western secularism:
Muslims continued to respond creatively to the challenge of modernity until relatively recently. They were able to respond to catastrophes like the Mongol devastations in the thirteenth century and rise again to new power and achievement. …

During the eighteenth century, the Islamic empire began to decline, and this time it found it particularly difficult to rise again to new life. … This has not just been a political humiliation but has touched the core of the Muslim identity. If Islam is, for the first time in its history, no longer successful how can its claims be true? …

It has produced a religious crisis in the Islamic world similar in gravity to that experienced in Europe when the scientific discoveries of Lyell and Darwin seemed to undermine the foundations of the Christian faith.
It is the crisis within Islam that brings us to our current geo-political crisis.

Turkey presents one option:  embrace the Western principle of the separation of church and state. Allow other nations to continue in their secular ways, however contrary they may be to God's will for the ordering of human society.

Militant Islamic fundamentalism presents another option — an option that arguably is rooted in the conduct of Muhammad. In this tradition, Western nations are rivals whose political supremacy is intolerable. The validity of the faith will be suspect until Islam rises, once again, to a place of global dominance.

As I said in part one, a critical reader will likely have reservations about Islam at the end of Muhammad, based on information provided by Armstrong herself. Although the biography sets out to defend Islam against some oft-repeated accusations, legitimate concerns remain.
  • The revelation of the Qur'an
  • As explained in part one, the Qur'an (like other scriptures) is the product of a mixed divine/human initiative. After reading Armstrong's biography, I am left with the impression that the later revelations came more from Muhammad and less from God. Armstrong mentions a few occasions when Muhammad received revelations that conveniently resolved social controversies in a way that directly benefitted him.

    It is the later revelations, received after Muhammad had begun to assume political power, that are quite hostile to the Jews. There were specific Jewish tribes that cooperated with Muhammad's enemies at a juncture when he was very vulnerable. Muhammad's justifiable anger at those political developments has been preserved for perpetuity in the Qur'an.

  • Prescripts with respect to women
  • As explained in part one, the veiling of women is an entrenched practice in Islam. It goes back nearly to the time of Muhammad, and Muslim women face an uphill struggle for full equality with men.

  • Integration of religion and politics
  • It is by no means clear that a majority of Muslim nations will adopt the separation of "church" and state anytime soon. There has never been a time in the history of Islam when the two were entirely distinct. As with the veiling of women, the practice is undeniably orthodox and therefore difficult to discard.
    Thus the battle for the soul of Islam has been joined. After reading Muhammad, my main conclusion is this:  the road to peace in the Middle East and security in the West will be neither short nor easy.

    Hardly a new insight, I know. But now I better understand the history which has brought us to this place.


    At 12:50 AM, August 19, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

    I beg m'lord's leave to pick a small nit, if I may.
    "Among Christians (and conservatives in general) the principle is facing a lot of criticism recently."

    Possibly this is true in societal circles with which you are more familiar, but among the Christian conservatives whom I know the criticism is directed toward governmental (and sometimes liberal) enforcement of a "freedom from", rather than "freedom of" groupthink position. And the two are not synonymous.

    I shall read deeper and comment further on the morrow.

    At 6:59 AM, August 19, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

    I should tread cautiously, because the American situation is likely different from the Canadian situation in ways that I do not fully appreciate.

    In Canada, Christians complain, with some justification, that any values which arise from one's Christian faith are supposed to be completely excluded from the political domain. And I agree that there's a kind of double standard at work. Aboriginals, Sikhs, feminists, etc. — people bring their special interests into the legislature with them. But Christians are supposed to check their religion at the door. I don't think the double standard is appropriate.

    But, too often, the real concern of Christians is that their conservative social agenda no longer dominates. My pet example at the moment is same sex marriage. (You're probably not with me on this, I know.) I think Christians are within their rights to refuse to perform same sex marriage in their churches, and to refuse to ordain homosexual ministers, etc. That's their domain to order as they see fit, without governmental interference.

    But if the Government of Canada decides, as it has, to legalize same sex marriage in the secular realm, it's really no business of the Church. Sure, Christians can write their local representatives, and defend the traditional definition of marriage in the news media, etc. But there is no reason why the Church should have any more influence over the policy than other Canadians. And that's what Christians seem to want. Any view other than theirs is immoral, and society should therefore uphold religious values.

    In the USA, I think the Church is in danger of allowing itself to be co-opted by the Republicans. That's where the two freedoms overlap. (Freedom of the government from Church interference and freedom of the Church from government interference.) Whenever Christians have the ear of the government, they obtain it at a price. Government will be back, like the Godfather, expecting a favour in return. And the Church won't want to lose its privileged position, so there's a lot of pressure to tow the government line. It comes down to horse trading, which is clearly not how the Church should function.

    At 9:00 PM, August 19, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

    Good writing and interesting POV.

    If you will permit me to parse a little: "Any view other than theirs is immoral, and society should therefore uphold religious values." My view would be "They want others to know that to them SSM is a moral issue, and they wish to not be disrespected because of their view."

    Christians are usually taught when a government rules it must be obeyed, except when the "rule" is contrary to God's laws - which few are. As long as they are not being personally "forced" into SSM's, most believers should have little problem with civilly accepting that unbelievers would have contrary beliefs and understandings, and might take advantage of positions for which the government has held they are eligible. No matter a Christian's personal beliefs, we are not taught to be uncivil. Forthright, but not uncivil. (You know, the old "Love thy enemies.....bit").

    But there is another side to this coin. And in my opinion it may be the "acorn" that was planted and watered for several decades - remember, I'm quite ancient of days compared to the average pyjama-clad blogger - by the individual in the GLT community who first came up with the appelation, "homophobic". [Disclaimer: There are homophobics! They exist. I know that. I know some. I have heard of others. But just because an individual disapproves of the GLT lifestyle, doesn't make that person "phobic"]

    That giant oak tree now provides so much more shade than before, and makes it easier for believers to react to false accusations. I suspect most Christian conservatives are up to "here" with being repeatedly and falsely labeled "homophobic" by someone spewing illogical thinking and verbal garbage in a manner that sounds suspiciously "hetrophobic", just because they disapprove of something or sure would have reservations in hiring a member of that class as a professional plumber (no offense intended).

    And this, "In the USA, I think the Church is in danger of allowing itself to be co-opted by the Republicans."

    There may be "Electronic Pastors" -with or without followings - that think this. (Many suffer from a terminal case of scriptural self-delusion). It is a certainty the MSM fully subscribes to this view. The same MSM which is too lazy and twisted to actually report "news", but instead would rather render "opinions'.

    But in the average evangelical Christian church across the lower 48 states there is no true connection with the repubs. Most believers I know think the GOP has totally blown it and will not be returned to power for at least a couple of decades. There is no love affair existing betwixt believing "conservatives" and the elephant loving crowd. So to think we believe we are in a ‘favored position’ is to see something invisible to the average believing bear.

    The critical and foolish mistakes republican’s have made for over a decade in my home state are now being repeated ad homen in DC. They are suffering from critical folly, and criminally negligent gross failure to govern.

    Why should anybody want to re-elect them? As a group? No way. As weak and impotent as Jimmy Carter was as a president, IMHO the current GOP are even worse "girlie-men" in 2005. They are a disgrace to party of Lincoln and T. Roosevelt.

    At 12:47 PM, August 20, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

    49er, I really appreciate the point of view you're bringing to the dialogue here. It's value added to my blog — thanks!

    I understand why the pejorative, "homophobic" is a sore point with you. As far as I can recall, I've never called anyone that. For fifteen years I was an evangelical Christian. Although my beliefs have changed (I would say "evolved", but my former associates would beg to differ), I understand that most Christians are not speaking from hate-filled hearts.

    And I strongly support the impulse to uphold clear moral standards. I try to do the same in my own life. The only issue is, regrettably, we have contrary opinions on what's moral.

    On the relationship between Republicans and Christians in the USA, I'm sure I'm out of my depth. You're right to assume that my views are largely based on mainstream media reports. E.g., Bush's faith-based initiatives, his opposition to stem-cell research, and the exit polls after the last vote that showed "social issues" to be a key determinant of Bush's re-election.

    At the very least, I assume evangelicals are more comfortable voting Republican. I doubt they will turn, en masse, to the Democrats, but I could be wrong. I'm forming this opinion from a very far remove, and there's growing anger over the Iraq mess. However evangelicals may vote, I think the Republicans are in trouble.


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