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August 30, 2003

Understanding The Religious on Their own Terms

Howdy all. First off, I am quite flattered that I have been offered the privelege of posting here on Gene Expression while my own blog is down. That having been said I'm a grad student working towards an M.A. in Medieval Studies, and I should probably be studying for my Latin exam right now. Here, then, are my thoughts on how we understand (or rather do not understand) the Islamic world.

The modern west has always had a hard time understanding the Islamic world on its own terms. The Orientalists regaled their readers with tales of the dark-eyed Musselmen, hot-blooded and quick to anger, a people that were inherently sensuous and accustomed to ease, luxury, and fatalism. In our own day, the right wing polemicist (who probably knows less of Arabic and of history than the Orientalist before him) denounces Muslims as backward savages who understand only force and must ruthlessly be crushed lest they overwhelm our civilization in a brown tide. The left-wing polemicist, on the other hand, sees the Muslims as oppressed people of color, allies in the war against whiteness, patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and Zionism. None of the above pictures are fully accurate, and all instead serve as a projection of our own fantasies and fears.

I bring up the image of Islam as serving as a projection of what we would like Islam to be to bring up the question of Medieval Islam. When debate emerges about the nature of the current religious revival underway in the Islamic world, it is only a matter of time before the inevitable, “Islam was an advanced civilization in 800 when westerners were still living in thatched huts! So there!” crops up. Strangely enough, while the trope of “Advanced Islam/Backward Christendom” often comes from the perspective of the left, it is nonetheless a product of the same sort of projection and misrepresentation that Edward Said and his disciples disparage.

Before going into detail, I need to back up a bit. Americans, sadly, have little acquaintance with history. Even amongst those Americans with a College or University education, most contact with history comes from introductory survey courses. Now then, survey courses are excellent in their own way, especially in that they will introduce people to subject matter with which they were earlier unfamiliar. They do, though, have a key weakness—a survey course, due to the breadth of the subject matter covered in a single course must by necessity deal in generalizations. Unfortunately, generalizations are much easier than the particulars of history to shoe-horn into pre-held conceptions.

Now then, over the last few centuries Jacobin and Protestant historiography have combined to, more often than not, make the Roman Catholic church the Big Bad Villain of western history, to the extent that neither secularists nor protestants realizing that they are borrowing one another’s myths[1]. As such, the Church is often presented in High School history classes and histories for popular consumption as an oppressor of totalitarian dimensions, one that smothered all free thought, all inquiry, all science, and all knowledge until the bright light of the Reformation brought tolerance and pluralism. Of course, when you set up a villain, you need likewise to set up someone good and upright to counteract him (or, since I am speaking of the Church, her). So it is that we see the brave young rebel Martin Luther serve as the early modern voice of tolerance facing down the almighty Church.

The wrong-headedness of such a view of the Protestant Reformers is a topic for another essay; when we go back before Luther, though, we see people like the Cathars presented as the heroes standing against Rome, people practicing a pure and virtuous faith that are crushed by the corrupt and power mad Roman Church. Both Protestants and freethinkers (I shall avoid the sneer quotes around the latter since I am being allowed to post on a blog run by atheists) wind up making doomed heroes out of folks who believe that since matter is evil, you shouldn’t have sex, but if you just can’t control yourself, then you need to have oral or anal sex so that no babies get made. While the Albigensian Crusade was a great horror, I must say that I would think that Cathar beliefs would be bothersome to Protestants and freethinkers alike. I bring such advocacy up merely as a case study of the tendency when writing history to idealize Rome’s enemies. Such a tendency finds its full flowering in the western portrayal of Umayad Spain.

The Umayads appeal to different people for different reasons: the Orientalist dreaming of Arabian Nights-style splendor is wowed by their opulence, the freethinker sees tolerance, and the bookworm sees a love of learning. So it is, then, that Umayad Spain is presented in general histories as the Platonic ideal of Islam. See? we are told. Islam is urbane, enlightened, and tolerant. Much, though, is left out of this picture. We are rarely told that one of the reasons that the Umayads were driven out of Syria was this very splendor and moral laxity that the Orientalist finds so appealing. We are not told that in this haven of tolerance of all faiths, pogroms against Jews did, in fact, occasionally break out, and that the penalty for converting to Judaism or Christianity from Islam was death.

Am I writing these things to smear Islam? Far from it. If you want a smear of Islam, you can easily go to Little Green Footballs. Indeed, in spite of its weaknesses, Umayad Spain was a center of immense learning, brilliant culture, thriving commerce, and astoundingly beautiful architecture. I must also say that if you are trying to run a state on the principle that there is but one God and that His perfect revelation must be obeyed, and that to do otherwise is an affront to the sovereign of the universe, then the system of dhimmi status and like civil disabilities for Jews and Christians that at the same time fall short of outright persecution is the best way to handle recalcitrant unbelievers without forcing obedience to Allah that is a mere sham, having come under fear of death. Indeed, the Muslim system of dealing with non-believers who nonetheless came credally close to Islam was much better organized than anything Christendom had. Christendom’s system of dealing with unbelieving monotheists was always fairly ad hoc, and could range from the urbane tolerance of the Norman kings of Sicily to the fanatic persecution of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Why then am I writing this? I merely write to make the point that Islam is a monotheistic religion that differs by time and place depending on the historical contexts, and must be understood as such. The book Europe and the People Without History makes the excellent point that Europeans, when looking at the Other[2], have a disturbing tendency to view them as existing in some sort of timeless never-never land like insects trapped in amber and existing apart from the vicissitudes of history. So it is that the character of the Muslim was often portrayed as fixed and unchanging by the Orientalists, and so the people and religion of Islam were seen to exist in something of a timeless past/present, in which Islam and Muslims are always the same. It is exactly such thinking, though, that causes people to say that Muslims cannot possibly be intolerant based on a Spain that was, to be honest, a geographically small part of Islam that existed for two hundred of Islam’s fourteen hundred years of existence.

Such discussion brings me to Saladin. Ever since the Third Crusade, the man has captured the western imagination. Even chroniclers hostile to Islam saw the man (a Kurd, incidentally) as the exemplification of the courtly ideals of chivalry and honor. Here was a man who showed magnanimity towards his defeated enemies, respect for an opponent who fought bravely, and, in general, and urbane and diplomatic demeanor in all things. He was certainly a better character than Richard the Butcher of Acre.

His taking of Jerusalem is often presented in stunning contrast to Godfrey de Boullion’s close to a century earlier. Godfrey left no unbelievers alive, Saladin allowed the Christians to remain and worship as they pleased. Saladin took prisoners and ransomed them, Godfrey showed no quarter. This glaring contrast must demonstrate that Islam is superior to Christianity, right?

Here, though, is the problem of looking at the story outside of its context. Yes, Saladin did allow Jersulam to surrender (though the fact that Jeruslam’s defenders threatened to kill every Muslim in the city if not allowed to surrender might have had something to do with that), and yes, Godfrey left blood flowing ankle deep in the streets. But suppose we look for more than two examples of the magnanimity of one faith and the bloody-handedness of another. Let us look, then, to Baibars. While most everyone who has had general history is familiar with Saladin, very few are familiar with Baibars. It ought to bear mentioning that when Baibars took Antioch in 1268, he slaughtered the Christians and sacked the city so thoroughly that it has not recovered to this day. Suppose we look to German Emperor Frederick II, who negotiated a peaceful return of Jerusalem in 1229 (though admittedly the fact that he did this peacefully infuriated the Pope and all of the Latin clergy in Outremere) and left the Muslims their holy places. I could then say (dishonestly) that the contrast of Frederick II and Baibars proves that Islam is more bloody and intolerant than Christianity.

I am bringing up this counter-example to make the point that it is foolishness to cherry-pick historical anecdotes to attack the Catholic Church, for one could just as easily cherry pick anecdotes to make Muslims seem bloody handed savages. History is complicated. Examining single historical vignettes outside of their larger context to prove some sort of eternal truths about one culture or another is foolishness. There have, after all, been three Romes (and there will not be a fourth!)—history and peoples change. Moreover, using Islam to make a point against the Catholic church does a great disservice to the actual history of Islamic civilization. Now the reader may say, “But really, Andrew, these are just introductory histories taken by semi-literate freshmen. The specialists know better.” Unfortunately, semi-literate stoned freshmen grow up to be semi-literate sober politicians and journalists, and so when encountering something like “Islam” (as if millions of people across a millennium and a half could be reduced to a single entity), all they will have to go on is what they picked up from Western Civ.

What if, though, we were to try to examine the Islamic world on its own terms? What might we find? We would find a religion, like Christianity, that believes itself to be the final revelation, and that the Koran is the sole repository of this revelation. As such, dar al-Islam will have most of the same quirks, peculiarities, and great accomplishments that that other monotheistic religion had. We will find a faith that believed that it had superceded all that had come before and yet needed to reach some sort of accommodation with the faiths it had replaced. As I have said above, system of dhimmitude was a perfect system if one accepted as a given that there was but one true religion, but that remnants of those who had almost gotten it right remained. Likewise, in states that believe Christianity is the Final Revelation, the Jews were allowed some sort of grudging tolerance.

In both cases as there was little tolerance for the believers in religions that came after, since, after all, if you have more than one final revelation, people will start to ask questions. So it is that Christian officials extended little tolerance to Islam, and Islamic officials extended little tolerance to groups like the Bahai. In both cases, the state sought to bring itself into line with what men assume that God wanted, as any man would do if he believed in God.

The two faiths went their separate ways after the seventeenth century. Christendom lost its faith and found pluralism, while today there is a religious revival underway in the House of Islam. Marxists and fools (though I repeat myself) attribute this revival to economic circumstances, colonial oppression, or any of the other bugbears that they believe actually caused what goes on in history. What if we look on the religious revival as a genuine religious revival? In such a case, understanding Muslims as religious men and women—the vast bulk of whom are decent people—would greatly facilitate our own understanding of what’s going on. After all, most of us know deeply religious people from work, school, or our own flirtations with religion.

Many have the deep conviction that they are absolutely right, and that God wants society to reflect His own wishes. Most probably believe that European and American women are unnecessarily wanton and want their daughters and wives to dress modestly. And while they usually make good neighbors, we would make damn sure that they are not allowed to threaten pluralism. In that way, then, we ought to deal with Muslims the same way we deal with Christians—“I respect your right to believe and practice (with obvious exceptions) as you see fit. Try to impose your religion on me, though, and we will have problems.”

I will come back with another entry on the nature of religious reformations what they mean for war, peace, and the like. Now, I suspect that I really ought to bet getting back to my Latin.

[1]My favorite example of this is in Cradle of Filth's song "For Those Who Died." Despite the Band's Satanic motif, they nonetheless basically reproduce the Protestant mythology of the Inquisition.

[2]I'm a grad student in the humanities. I had to use the term at least once.

Posted by schizmatic at 02:23 PM

Insanus omnis furere credit ceteros-Syrus
nice post.

Posted by: martin at August 30, 2003 02:52 PM

phat post. keep posting after you get schizmatic back....

Posted by: razib at August 30, 2003 03:05 PM

All the rhetorical tools are there, gleaming on the tray...but the left doesn't use them because this is a nonwhite religion...

The whole leftist notion of "people of color" in glorious harmony against the white oppressor is absolute nonsense, and I think it takes willful disbelief (or deception, as in I, Rigoberto Menchu) to blind onesself to the fact that a great many non-whites indeed have social views closer to Archie Bunker than that of some dreadlocked white kid in Berkeley.

That is one reason why I actually prefer the way medieval Christians write about Islam. They're polemical (and intolerant) as hell, but at least see Islam as a religion, though it might be a competing one. Such is much more honest than, for example, "Shut your mouth! Criticising Islam is racist!"

Posted by: Andrew Reeves at August 30, 2003 03:58 PM

Good post, you deserve that MA. GC, isn't interesting that since, by leftist logic, Islam is the ultimate religion of people of color since it opposes capitilaism (in leftist views, not reality) globalism and america, any religion it's extremists oppose (including hinduism) is considered evil?

Posted by: scott at August 30, 2003 09:51 PM

Coming back front and center though the problem as I see it is Governments controlled by religious zealots. We could just as easily be in the same pathetic boat as the Islamic world if we didn't have secular western societies. Religion itself isn't a problem as long as it is in the proper place. Its when the religious nuts get guns and power, control of governments etc that we're all in danger IMO.

Very interesting post.

Posted by: Katy at August 31, 2003 02:22 PM

Schizmatic--what a fine post. This is what scholarship should be. Depth of understanding, breadth of perspective allied to names, dates and places. I have always known of these things, but you have your ducks in a row, so to speak; hopefully they will survive the gleaming weapons on GC's tray (they never really beheads anybody anyway--it's all his fancy, that) Marxism lasted how long? Compared to Christianity? To Islam? To Judaism?

Posted by: MaryClaire at September 1, 2003 08:02 PM

the weapons didn't kill christianity-it killed christendom. that is a distinction with a difference ;)

Posted by: razib at September 1, 2003 09:31 PM