Thinking About Islam

A couple of pieces I’d like to bring to y’all’s attention.

First, in First Things (I love where this publication has gone post-Richard Neuhaus, and it’s no longer the neoconservative rag that it once was), John Azumah has a solid and thoughtful “explanation” of Islam aimed at reasonably well-educated Christians (and quite possibly non-Christians, though who can tell):

Islam is similar to Judaism in the importance it gives to legal interpretation. As one Muslim scholar put it, “Shari‘ah instructs man on how he should eat, receive visitors, buy and sell, slaughter animals, clean himself, sleep, go to the toilet, lead a government, practice justice, pray, and perform other acts of [worship].” Unlike Christianity in the West, where divisive debates often have focused on theological doctrines, in Islam the most important schools of thought reflect differences in jurisprudence. There are four main schools of law for Sunnis (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali schools) and one for Shi’ites (Ja‘fari). The main distinctions between these schools lie in divergent opinions about authoritative sources or roots of law. All accept the Qur’an and the sunnah (Muhammad’s example) as foundational but differ on the importance of consensus in collective scholarly reasoning (ijma) and individual analogical reasoning (qiyas). The most conservative school, Hanbali, tends to emphasize the Qur’an and sunna and is suspicious of ijma and qiyas, while the most liberal, Hanafi, tends to emphasize qiyas and individual opinion.

Azumah goes into some detail as to how jurisprudence works, and where the ideology of jihad comes from. And the struggle within Islam between scholars, various popular schools of thought, and the jihadis themselves over authoritative interpretation. Read it for yourself.

He wanders to his conclusion with this very important thought:

Those who argue that jihadi groups represent the “essence” of Islam actually reflect a very Western way of thinking. Wittingly or unwittingly, they presume a scripturalist interpretation of Islam, imagining that we can explain Islamic terrorism by drawing a straight line between authoritative texts and the actions of jihadists. To prove their point, these Islam-is-the-problem critics tend to link specific acts of jihadi groups to a string of references from Islamic scripture, traditions, legal texts, and Muslim scholarly opinions. Perversely, this sola scriptura approach is no different from the jihadists’ own “Qur’an and sunna alone” approach.

The truth about religious lives is not so simple. The vast majority of Christians and Muslims don’t live by sola scriptura, or by Qur’an and sunna alone—and this is the case even when they claim to do so. A complex, shifting web of sociopolitical, geopolitical, racial, ethnic, cultural, economic, historical, and existential realities inform the way all of us live out our faith. My own view is that Islamic texts contain seeds of violence. In the corruption, illiteracy, poverty, and oppressive governments that plague many Muslim societies, those seeds find fertile ground in which they take root, sprout, and flourish—as well as in historical memories, foreign-policy missteps by Western governments, and alienation felt by Muslim youth in Western societies.

I’d add the role of the West of here, particularly in fostering what many Muslims intuitively understand as injustice — Israel’s brutal and humiliating subjugation of the Palestinians, Western wars on Muslims who have struggled to fight back (Lebanon, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, Iraq, and now the American campaign that stretches from Libya through to the Pasthun lands of Pakistan), and the role of the West in fostering and supporting those very governments as the West seeks a social and political order that serves the West’s ends, and those of the people who actually live there — and the difficulty, especially in Europe, of adapting to large numbers of fairly poor and not well educated Muslim immigrants (either because of empire, in the case of France or the Netherlands, or to accept labor or refugees). The modern nation-state has a problem with pluralism, and this is especially hard on Muslims in the West. (This is an issue I will deal with in a future blog post.)

Second, Robert Leiken says some interesting things over at The National Interest as he considers where the anger come from that prompts attacks like that in Paris last week. Mostly, he talks about identity problems among second and third-generation immigrants (as well as differing unskilled labor pools for Europe and North America), but it’s when he talks about Revolutionary Islam as a type of modernity that he gets really interesting:

The radical Salafist second-generation’s adoption of an austere, literal, scriptural fundamentalism is oddly a kind of modernization. The radical convert embraces a portable, “de-territorialized,” migrating creed based solely on the Holy Book, rather than immobile local shrines, a faith more convenient for an urban, literate congregation. And just as oddly, these conversions recall Europe’s 16th-century Reformation, when another urban religion emerged, one that likewise rejected the “hypocrisy” of the clergy and the mediation of rituals, priests and saints and other “innovations” in favor of an unmediated worship centered on another Holy Book that led to a century and a half of Holy War in Europe, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War. We should expect this Salafist war and its Sunni vs. Shia component to last just as long, and there is little we can do to stop it.

I’m always wary of “reformation” talk in Islam (for these reasons), but to talk of jihadism as a type of modernity is spot on. It is an ideology, seeks to bend the world to a desired shape (rather than governing it as it finds it, which is more or less what all pre-modern states and governments did), has a definite problem with pluralism (again, the problem with pluralism is a modern problem, as modern states sought to create confessional, linguistic and ethnic unities; Christendom also never had room for non-Christians in it, and when the nation-state inherited the church’s monopoly on truth and meaning following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the nation-state also inherited that lack of room for “non-citizens” or people who did not or could conform to the desired confessional and cultural unity). Jihadism is an attempt to turn Islam into an ideology, and this will eventually fail because, as Islamists have discovered since they unleashed the revolutionary violence upon the world in the 1980s, not enough Muslims want to live under their rule. Even if there is broad (but shallow) sympathy for their grievances and their critique of modernity.