Christendom and Dar al Islam Were More Alike Than Different

Over at The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid has a fascinating and very long essay on the appeal of Islamic political movements, and what they share. There’s a lot to like about this essay, particularly the differing approaches that groups like ISIL and The Ikhwan al-Muslimin (The Muslim Brotherhood) take to the state. (The discussion about fierce states and weak states reminds me of Nazih Ayubi’s  Overstating The Arab State, one of the more important readings I had while I was at Georgetown 15 years ago. I’d say more about this, but the book is in the bottom of a box and I’d rather not go spelunking for it right now…)

It’s an informative essay that gets some important things right. But Hamid also gets some things wrong. Like this:

In contrast, the early Christian community, as Princeton historian Michael Cook notes, “lacked a conception of an intrinsically Christian state” and was willing to coexist with and even recognize Roman law. For this reason, among others, the equivalent of ISIS simply couldn’t exist in Christian-majority societies. Neither would the pragmatic, mainstream Islamist movements that oppose ISIS and its idiosyncratic, totalitarian take on the Islamic polity. While they have little in common with Islamist extremists, in both means and ends, the Muslim Brotherhood and its many descendants and affiliates do have a particular vision for society that puts Islam and Islamic law at the center of public life. The vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion. However, the vast majority of, say, Egyptians and Jordanians can and do.

Well, no. What Hamid misses here is Christendom, the intrinsically Christian state Christians quickly and naturally created once they became a ruling majority wherever they were. Westerners have long emphasized and over-stated the distinction between the way Christianity and Islam developed and spread, and between their approaches to empire. Christianity spread throughout Rome fairly slowly, eventually capturing the empire in a top-down maneuver. Islam burst out of an “ungoverned” portion of the Arabian peninsula (a place between empires) and conquered several decaying states — a Greek-speaking Levant and Sassanid Persia — in a bottom-up maneuver. But both end in Empire.

Hamid also seems to assume, as do modern Islamists and Muslim revolutionaries, that sharia sprang up, full blown, during the Prophet’s time governing the small (rapidly growing) community of believers in Yathrib (soon to become Madinah). Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sharia took many centuries to evolve, not truly emerging as a full-fledged law code until the expansion of Ottoman rule in the 15th and 16th centuries. Early Muslims (and later Muslim states) easily adopted and used the laws of the places they conquered, only altering them when they were significantly out of sync with the injections of Qur’an as they understood them. (All of my sources for this are books in boxes; this comes, if I remember correctly, from Richard Bulliet’s Conversion to Islam in The Medieval Period.) The Christian approach to governing the Roman Empire was similar (from Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine). You take the laws, and the assumptions about the world, you have at hand. I cannot think of a form of conquest (or even revolutionary state-building) where laws and legal systems were tossed out and redone wholesale. Revolutionary France, maybe, or Russia after 1917.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1077 doing penance so he can have his excommunication lifted, and be a proper Christian emperor again.

Implicit here in Hamid’s essay is that presumption — church and state were always separate in Christendom (the medieval struggle between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor as one example) in ways they were not in Dar al Islam. Perhaps, but I’ve always found this to be a difference without a distinction. Christians hang this on Jesus telling his disciples to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” but that’s a tiny phrase to hang a lot of doctrine that is more dependent on the accidents of history than it is on the worlds of Jesus. (Assuming Jesus says anything besides the coin in question actually belongs to Caesar, which is debatable.) While Islam lacked a formal “church” structure (no Pope to struggle with a recalcitrant Caliph), the whole corpus of hadith — the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad — upon which much of the sunnah and sharia is based was compiled by scholars who sought to keep the Caliph accountable (with some suffering significantly for their efforts). And failed.

If Muslims truly had a sense of what an intrinsically Islamic state looked like in the way Hamid is claiming here, they would not be arguing over what political form it would take. And yet, Muslims have struggled historically with their political arrangements — the morality, effectiveness, and scriptural validity of those arrangements — as much as Christians have. Because in neither case is scripture a particularly good guide to the shape of God’s desired form of government for the community of believers (absent the charismatic, prophetic leader). Much less for all of humanity.

And there was, in both Christendom and Dar al Islam, an understanding as to what it meant to be faithful people living together. As Benjamin Kaplan noted in his book Divided By Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, the Christendom communities, principalities and states of pre- and post-Reformation Europe saw themselves as organic wholes, in which faith, and public adherence to a shared confession, was essential to the well-being of the entire community:

For Europeans, every town and village had a spiritual dimension: more than a convenient, worldly arrangement for human cohabitation, it was a religious body—a “corpus Christianum.” Viewed through the prism of Christian piety, its unity was an expression of Christian love, its peace godly, and its provision of mutual aid an exercise in charity. The communal welfare it existed to promote was spiritual as well as material. Indeed, the word welfare and its cognates, like the Latin salus and German heil, meant both, for no one dreamed the spiritual and material could be kept separate. God rewarded those who deserved it, and the blessings he bestowed included peace and prosperity in life as well as salvation after death. The fate of entire communities, not just individuals, depend on divine favor. Gaining it was therefore a collective responsibility. Protestants and Catholics did not differ on this point, except where Protestants focused their prayers and hopes on the divine will, Catholics directed their supplication also to the Virgin and saints. (Kaplan, p.60)

And this

Just as the welfare of town and villages depended on God’s favor, Europeans believed, so did that of countries. A kingdom such as England was not, in Christian teaching, merely an arrangement of convenience, fashioned by humans for purposes of dominance or defense. Rather, it was part of the divinely appointed order of this world. As all human affairs were directed by divine providence, so were the formation and fate of states. “Ordained” in their office by God, acting as his “vicars” and “lieutenants,” their rulers preserved the peace and dispensed divine justice—or, if they were wicked, inflicted divine retribution. They, as heads of state, and subjects as “members” of the state, formed a single “body politic.” Mystically united, head and members formed a Christian community that would prosper of suffer, depending on whether it earned God’s blessing or wrath. In that recurrent encounter with divine justice, the fate of the realm hinged on the piety and virtue of its ruler and all its people. In short, like a town or village, a Christian state was a corpus Christianum.

So too, on a vast scale, was Christendom, which Europeans still on occasion saw God’s hand stretching out to punish. (Kaplan, p.100)

Clearly, Christians had a sense of an intrinsically Christian state and the purposes it should be put toward.

As to Hamid’s claim that the “vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion,” what to make of Conservative Catholics arguing for a Natural Law understanding of marriage in their opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage? Or the entire corpus of Natural Law itself, which is can be looked at as a kind of Catholic form of sharia? (I’m going to assume, for a moment, that Christian Reconstructionism is not a serious endeavor. But it also seeks a comprehensive arrangement of human society based not on church teaching, as in the case of natural law, but on scripture itself.) Or what of the attempts by pious American Christians to place the Ten Commandments in public spaces (like schools) and practice very public forms of sectarian prayer? Are these not also attempts to, if nothing else, at justify the existing legal-social and in some way anchor it in religion? Western Christians have not stopped seeing their legal-social order buttressed by religious faith. But they have tended to look to other forms, such as technological and social progress, to be the evidence of that faith.

In fact, my guess is that Baghdad and Aix la Chappelle in A.D. 1000, or Cairo and Paris in 1400, were probably more alike than different. Piety would have been similar, the day broken up by worship services (with Christians ringing bells while Muslims had a human voice call the faithful to prayer), and little difference in technology or even, for that matter, law and governance. Except Cairo and Baghdad were bigger cities, and nicer places to live.

A more interesting question, and one I won’t even try to answer here (but one that takes up a fair amount of space in my head) is what does the secular state inherit from the Christendom state? What does secular society inherit from Christendom? Because the secular state was hardly the state made anew, an arrangement for human governance written on a blank piece of vellum without any reference to the past. What assumptions and understandings do secular moderns bring with them that they don’t even know about or comprehend?

And how similar is an “intrinsically secular state” to an “intrinsically Christian” one?