Saturday, December 19, 2009

Favorite book of 2009:
When conflicting worlds meet

Tamim Ansary's descriptions in Destiny Disrupted of the very early days of Islam when the religion was being revealed by Mohammed and just afterward help me understand what seems very foreign to a member of a pluralistic secular polity such as ours. As the story goes, the Prophet's revelations created an equitable community that approximated the hopes of its members and brought a degree of peace very new among the tribes of the Arabian peninsula. But after his death, local leaders thought they, personally, ought to be able to replace the Prophet as the source of moral authority. Ansary explains:

They claimed they were receiving revelations and had permission to issue divinely authorized laws. These upstarts thought to use the model pioneered by Mohammed to forge sovereign "sacred" communities in competition with the Umma [the Muslim community].

Had Abu Bakr [Mohammed's successor as leader of the Umma] allowed these departures, Islam would surely have gone in a very different direction. It might have evolved into a set of practices and beliefs that people embraced individually.

But Abu Bakr responded to the crisis by declaring succession to be treason. The Prophet had said, "No compulsion in religion," and Abu Bakr did not deny that principle. People were free to accept or reject Islam as they pleased; but once they were in, he asserted, they were in for good.

In response to a political crisis, Abu Bakr established a religious principle that haunts Islam to this day -- the equation of apostasy with treason. Braided into this policy was the theological concept that the singleness of God must be reflected in the indissoluble singleness of the Umma. With this decision, Abu Bakr even more definitively confirmed Islam as a social project and not just a belief system. A Muslim community was not just a kind of community, of which there could be any number, but a particular community, of which there could be only one.

It's worth thinking about the contrast with Western Christianity. For the Jesus movement's first couple of hundred years, it was a blasphemous
Jewish cult (on account of denying the Emperor's divinity) that attracted subversive outsiders in the Roman world. When the apostle Paul called the Christian community "one body" in Christ, he was exhorting, not laying down the law because he had no power except persuasion. No Christian leader had state power behind his dictates until the emperor Constantine (306 CE) converted; the early ethos involved individuals turning away (repenting) to form an outlaw community among the Roman empire's many niche groups. Until Constantine and his successors began enforcing credal orthodoxy, probably every bishopric and local group had their own emphases among the traditions.

The era of Christendom (324-1521 CE) did try to mandate a universally authoritative Christian community that enforced peace and justice in addition to providing a path for individual salvation. But the Reformers, beginning with Luther, Zwingli, Calvin -- and abetted by rulers chafing under a declining Papal claim to state authority -- blew the unity of that Christian community to bits. The bits claimed and delved into their particular ways of knowing God in Jesus, but universal Christianity became impossible to imagine (though popes and some bishops still try, anachronistically).

According to Ansary, Muslims not only can imagine a universal community sharing belief and law, but consider the existence of such a community necessary and normative. The Umma community is the embodiment of God's will for humanity.

Modern Westerners simply cannot find mental houseroom for such a conviction. We expect to find our truths individually -- and to maintain whatever social cohesion we value by tolerating the individual beliefs of others. In the realm of religion, we have little room for imposed orthodoxies. In the realm of law, we place our hope in socially negotiated group consensus arrived at more or less democratically.
Ansary concludes that real differences been the European world and the Muslim world have been so exacerbated by Western domination and contempt that we talk past each other.

One side charges, "You are decadent." The other side retorts, "We are free." These are not opposing contentions; they are nonsequiturs. Each side identifies the other as a character in its own narrative.

... The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a "clash of civilizations," if that proposition means we're-different-so-we-must-fight-until-there-is-only-one-of-us. It's better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting. Muslims were a crowd of people going somewhere. Europeans and their offshoots were a crowd of people going somewhere. We the two crowds crossed paths, much bumping and crashing resulted, and the crashing is still going on.

...Islam is not the opposite of Christianity, nor of Judaism. Taken strictly as a system of religious beliefs, it has more areas of agreement than argument... It is, however, programmatically misleading to think of Islam as one item in a class whose other items are Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Not inaccurate, of course: Islam is a religion, like those others, a distinct set of beliefs and practices related to ethics, morals, God, the cosmos, and mortality.

But Islam might just as validly be considered as one item in a class whose other items include communism, parliamentary democracy, fascism, and the like, because Islam is a social project like those others, an idea for how politics and the economy ought to be managed, a complete system of civil and criminal law.

This is a challenging thought within our Western civilization that assumes that our material mastery proves we've got the only way.

Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes was the most interesting book I read during 2009. What's your nominee for that position from your reading?

(Photo is of Ansary speaking at a peace vigil in San Francisco. This is the third of three consecutive posts about this fascinating book.)

1 comment:

Kay Dennison said...

I think I need to read this book. I studied Eastern religions in college and Mohammed is probably sitting up in heaven with Jesus and and Moses and the Buddha marveling at what we have done to their ministries and shaking their heads. And certain Christians need to remember that Martin Luther never meant to start a new church.

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