April 19, 2010

Religion and Approaches to History (A Peoples History of Monotheism?)

Picking up where A. Thompson left off in his insightful discussion of monotheistic religion: One thing all religions need to do, above all, in order to make themselves more relevant and less reactionary, is to avoid making essentializing statements about their history. Notwithstanding the enormous positive impact Christianity and Islam (to name the two major examples) have had on world culture and world society, there is an almost unbearably facile tendency on the part of some of their adherents to engage in a complete whitewashing of the more 'unsavory' aspects of that history. The violence and corruption of the medieval church, the at times rapacious conquest of the early Muslims--these histories are either conveniently forgotten or, if they are mentioned at all, made external to the faith, i.e. they were just a few bad apples. This tendency was aptly described by Wilfred Cantwell Smith:

"This process [of recovering lost history] turns disruptive only when, as has sometimes happenned, the grip of the need to defend is tightened to the point where this delight in greatness, this compensatory self-satisfaction, becomes the compulsive cause rather than the honest result of historical reconstruction. Historiography is then designed alsmot explicitly to nourish and to support one's predelictions. It seeks not to analyse or to understand the past, but to glorify it; that is to glorify oneself. The purpose is not investigation but aggrandizement, not intellectual accuracy but emotional satisfaction."
Smith, as usual, has a penetrating insight here. There is a certain approach to religion and history which sees religion as being 'under attack' by secular forces (Although such charges are usually trumped up, since religion did far more to indict itself than secularism ever could, the motive power of the perception is nevertheless real) and thus rushes to write a history absolving X religion, showing it to be the perfect way, the answer to all our problems, WAAAY better than those other religions, and what would we do without it? While I cannot accept the ignorant rantings of such blowhard atheists as Christopher Hitchens, I equally cannot accept these canards employed in religion's defense. Bottom line, since I cannot accept either approach, I need a new method. Simply defending religion through idealizations and essentializations of its quite checkered history is not only intellectually dishonest, it is bad for the soul.

I define religion as a way of getting closer to God. This obviously includes a great deal under its umbrella. The difficulty comes when X religion claims Y religion just 'doesn't get it'. They are infidels or kaffirs, or they worship cows, or they drink the blood of Christ, or they are going to hell because they don't have the right belief ABOUT God. The sincerity with which these views are propounded do not lessen their incredible shortsightedness. Christians claim Islam is the 'religion of the sword'. Muslims accuse Christians of deifying Christ without bothering to understand what the faith of a Christian might mean for him/her personally. Jews and Christians also battle it out over the divinity of Christ. Now there is nothing wrong with believing in something and standing to defend it. But such an approach has a law of diminishing returns. Instead of trying to get closer to God, many religious adherents are frantically trying to convince everyone else how naturally great and superior their own belief is! And in doing so, they strain logic and credulity.

As a convert to Islam, I wondered for a long time what it truly 'meant' to be Muslim in an ultimate sense. And the best and most general idea I could come up with, after considering all the evidence, both internally and externally, is that Islam is a joyful response to a Divine Reality. I have my own reasons why I consider it 'better' than other religions in this respect, but these are mostly private and personal. Nevertheless, in actual fact, there is a practical tension between Islam as an inner response and Islam as a public cultural matrix one shares with and participates in. Thus the most forward thinking intellectuals now working in the Islamic tradition are those who propose that a distinction should be made between the nucleus of the Islamic revelation (the Meccan revelations), and those rules (the Medinan revelations) which were brought to the early community, and thus constitute an integral part of the social milieu of the Prophet.

The need for this approach becomes clear if we compare the ideals of an Islam touted by its public boosters (The "Islam is the solution for everything" people) and the actual treatment of human beings under modern day Islamic state experiments. Without engaging in an essentialization of Western values, I think it is safe to say that the three foremost examples of Islamic state implementation today--Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran--have an absolutely horrible record with regard to the treatment of religious minorities, not to mention women. All obfuscations aside then, if Islam is in its essence aiming for what is supremely right and completely just, then it cannot justify such things as the penalty for adultery, the equivalence of a man's testimony with that of two women, slavery, the status of the 'other' under shari'a, and so forth.

Now apologists will argue in response that we cannot ignore context, and it is certainly true that the penalties outlined in Quran and hadith were not always applied. It is true that manumitting a slave was considered an eternally meritorious act in Islam, unlike the on-the-ground reality of the institution of chattel slavery in the West. It is true that at the time of the Prophet, Islam actually improved the rights of women in that society. But it is the height of foolish arrogance to assume that
, for all times and places, implementing these legal penalties and rules as a legal code in will result in the emancipation of women or the establishment of God's justice. Islamic countries, even those where shari'a is implemented through the judicial code, have outlawed slavery, admitting that the Prophet's pronouncements about it were aimed at its eradication. This is patently a social and contextual judgment, so why is it so difficult to undertake the same move when it comes to rights of women or other ideas?

Getting back to my original statement, it is obvious that Christian and Islamic histories have distinct and unique approaches to politics and political theory. Their histories overlap significantly but, as Carl Brown has explained, they developed into world religions out of vastly different social situations. Along the way, power became an emblem to implement Divine Reality, and Divine Reality became the de facto and often de jure explanation for an excercise of political power, however arbitrary. In the process the two were thoroughly confused. Therefore one step towards removing the confusion and telling an accurate history of religion is to untangle the two. Let the Divine do its work, as it continues to do, in the lives of people across the globe. Inshallah, if religious people can learn to think more historically they will recognize what M. Kane called "A Peoples History of Monotheism". That is, the histories of those who opposed rigid dogma, corrupt authority,
and worship of idols. Those who eschewed violent conquest for power's sake, but promoted active resistance to authoritarian government. Those who felt compelled to respond to a Divine calling, something irresistible which called them, not to withdraw from the world, but to engage it in the most wholistic and organic way they were capable of.


Sammy August 5, 2010 at 12:01 PM  

might I only point out the rhetorical implications of a statement like "I define religion as a way of getting closer to [capital G] God" as being subtlety yet assertively exclusive of a wide range of possible and actual personal and cultural religious belief systems. The feeling of such a statement is that of imposing a monotheistic bias on the idea of religion. Might not this be resented by some, not just as a narrow definition, but as an imposition of a certain type of religious ideology (that which is implied with the term capital g God, and the idea that the goal is an intimate personal relationship with him/her/it) as a representation of all religious belief or practice? In terms of a discussion of engaging in the act of constructing history responsibly, I thought I might point that out.

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