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September 16, 2003

Ibn Calvin

A few years ago Jonah Golberg[1] got crapped on when he wrote about why Islam needs a Pope. Now, a few weeks ago Aziz Poonwalla tweaked when he noted that another Muslim who supports Dennis Kucinich framed it around whether it was good for the Ummah. This crystallized an idea of mine-Muslims need a Calvin, not a Pope! Unfortunately, the Calvins of Islam tend to be a little wack-but my point is that congregationalism needs to be fostered, not a pan-Muslim identity. Catholicizing Islam under an ecclesiastical elite would only replace the problem of fundamentalism with that of dual-loyalties!

A congregational focus on religious life would diffuse some of the organizing power of a transnational religious international. To me, it is ironic that Islam, which emphasizes the primacy of a unitary god and does not sanction any official mediating structures between the divine and the individual, also fosters a group identity which might trump national loyalties. True, Islam does seem to sanction a mixing of the temporal with the sacred, but, remember that Calvinism began as a theocracy. A tendency that reasserted itself in the New World-but the congregational focus of the Calvinist tradition eventually trumped the ecclesiastical absolutism.

fn1. If you care, though his father is Jewish, Goldberg's mother is of Irish Catholic background, and his wife is a Catholic as well.

Posted by razib at 03:28 PM

It's pretty obvious that the only reason Laura is supporting Kucinich is cuz of the Middle East. "Muslim values" have nothing to do with it, as he is a far leftist, one of the few in the Congress.

Posted by: Diana at September 17, 2003 11:50 AM

Not really relevant to contemporary history, but Ibn Rushd / Averroes' theory of two truths could have paved the way to a kind of Muslim secularism, and as an influence on Abelard and other nominalists did have somewhat that kind of effect in the west. The dominance of al-Ghazzali and the other orthodox, plus Sufism, minimized the rationalizing trends. (Sufism is great fun, but irrationalist and often militarist). I have also been told that the Muslim and Turkish conquests reinforced dogmatism (along with authoritarianism) in the Muslim world. (Even though the founders of those empires were either not Muslim or else rather poor Muslims.)

This doesn't provide much grounds for contemporary optimism, though I think it kills the essentialist idea that Islam was always bad and never could have been any good.

The theology of early modern Europe was, Biblically speaking, extremely twisted and unlikely. Calvin, etc. came out of a mess of humanism (Latin and Greek classics, few of them Christian), early science, secular non-theological literature expressing mostly martial ideals, and scholastic theology with a strong Muslim/Jewish influence. You just couldn't get Calvin or anything modern out of the Bible w/o a lot of help. Likewise, you couldn't get any form of secularity out of the Koran without a lot of help, but that doesn't mean it could never have been done.

Posted by: zizka at September 17, 2003 12:38 PM


i think that you mean mongol & turkish, not muslim & turkish! i think that characterization is a way to kiss ass with arabs frankly-and it comes from the disputes over holy sites that began to occur with the rise of turkish rulers circia 1000....

i think you are on the right track though looking for ancient justifications for modernist trends....

Posted by: razib at September 17, 2003 01:13 PM

zizka: I dunno...I think that rationalism in Islam, as in Judaism, is like a man and his mistress. She may be more beautiful and more intelligent than one's wife, but when caught in the act, as Lenny Bruce said: "deny it." Not sure how the Christians managed to fit it in their religion, which on the surface is more magical than either J or I.

Posted by: Diana at September 17, 2003 01:49 PM

"Muslim" -- definitely a mistype.

My point is really that rationality and secularity were highly unlikely both in Islam and Christianity. The fact that it is actual in Christianity makes that statement seem like special pleading, but I think that it isn't. (I'm frimly convinced that if Bible scholarship had been more honest, we'd still be living in superstition, etc.)

I read something recently about the Dutch, who pioneered tolerance. The reason the Catholics tolerated the Protestants and vice versa was that there was an enormous swing vote whose religion was "whatever". Can't remember their name but they were a recognized force.

Wherever the Mongols went they established religions indiscriminately. They strongly favored priesthoods of all sects, partly for literacy and more from superstition. For whatever reason, there was a threshold there (ca. 1300 1400).

I have a secular Jewish friend who's being proselytized by the Hasids. I try to explain to them that those people are crazy. (Note: I am a secular Protestant). They even have some Muslim-seeming rules about male-female stuff. But then look at the Mennonites, Mormons, etc. etc.....

Posted by: zizka at September 17, 2003 06:30 PM

Christianity was born in the Hellenistic world of the East Mediterranean. Judaism and Islam are the creation of tribal peoples who had not been touched (at the time when these religions took form) by rationality.

It should also be remembered that Christianity's acceptance was in many ways a victory for reason, e.g., in its fight against the superstitions of astrology and divination which were accepted by the religions it replaced.

Posted by: Dienekes at September 17, 2003 10:38 PM

"Modern" Christianity was born in the Hellenistic world (as a product of a misunderstanding of the Socratic philosophy of logos and iedos), parts of Chrisitanity are still untouched by rationality. For example, there are many historical and modern sects of Christianity which rejected the concept of the "soul" and "other-world" which are products of these hellenistic ideas, and instead believe in a physical god and physical rebirth of believers.

Posted by: scott at September 17, 2003 11:47 PM

er...i think for dienekes christianity ~ the one true true church (eastern orthodoxy)-so no point in bringing up heretical christian sects. also-it might be pointed out that there is some truth in the assertion that christianity beat back the explosion of magical sects in the late pagan era-the victory of the eastern emperor zeno who was seen as more tolerant of the last pagans for instance resulted in their temporary re-emergence into the light of day. but, with the penetration of christianity into germanic europe post 600 it was rather quickly re-magicalized, and the christianization of many of these northern european peoples was rooted in the defeat of "black" magic by "white" magic. as an example, note the tale of the christian priests who showed harald bluetooth how powerful their faith was against pagan magics.

Posted by: razib at September 18, 2003 02:16 AM


I don't disagree w/you but I'm coming up with different conclusions, and different questions.

From what you are saying, I conclude that Christianity's DNA includes a combination of mystical and rational, and I can accept that, because I think that is what Christianity is today.

I still don't understand why Judaism & Islam, which are a combination of tribal and rational, and which are highly formal and legalistic codes, would have a harder time with the rational part than Christianity.

And that's not special pleading. It's a question from a perplexed skeptical Jew. Cuz I think it's true.

Posted by: Diana at September 18, 2003 06:31 AM

It's supposed to be an outdated doctrine of XIC c positivism, but I'm tending toward the belief that the medieval laity never quite was Christianized -- peasantry, nobility, townfolk. They were devout and usually orthodox, but true Christianity was reserved to the priesthood. As a result when lay literature arose in the nobility and bourgeouisie (can't spell it today), it was somewhat irregular from the beginning.

The first Christian rulers were superstitious brutes and the church's demands of them were few. Each generation probably got a little more doctrine, but practices like concubinage and duelling never disappeared at all. (In Don Quixote the unabsolved laity are referred to as pagan.)

What the bourgeouisie and nobility brought in was a kind of empirical rationality though, not Platonic or Aristotelean Reason. And all through history many major scientists have a mystical tinge. I think that traditionalist consensus is the worst enemy of progress, regardless of its origin.

Posted by: zizka at September 18, 2003 11:41 AM