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November 20, 2003

Look to the Yehudi

A few days ago I commented on slavery and Islam in response to Zack Ajmal's manifesto on the same topic. I was mildly hopeful that progressive & heterodox Muslims could change the outlook of the faith in The United States. I'm not the only one, and since 9/11 the questions regarding the possible future evolution or revolution in Islamic practice and belief have been explored by all parties from every angle.

The first model that surfaced was the idea of an "Islamic Reformation." There were a few problems with this. The first was that the original Christian Reformation developed in large part as a reaction against the humanistic excesses of the quasi-pagan Renaissance Catholic Church. I suspect that a puritanical and iconoclast evangelical faith is not what we are looking to aid and abbett. The indulgences that Martin Luthern inveighed against helped to fund the construction Saint Peter's Basilica-the sort of baroque and artistic achievement that is likely to turn any Wahabbi's day sour. Like Muhammed, Martin Luther also turned against the Jews when they were no longer of use to him. I have argued at length that the historical circumstances of the Germanic and Protestant peoples did have something to do with the emergence of modern liberalism (this is actually somewhat tautological insofar as we do know that the English people seem to have given rise to much of the liberal tradition), but that particular historical pathway took centuries and was not without its bloody episodes.

Because the West is in origin a Christian society we have looked to Christian models to make analogies and suggestions for Islam. I think this is wrong headed. Though there are differences, the similarities are much greater with Judaism for Islam. Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam are religions of practice as much as religious of faith. Neither religion has a true priestly class, rabbis, muftis, ghazis and ayotollahs are ad hoc creations in response to natural needs of the masses for spiritual guidance (and please, Cohens and Levys don't do jack). Even in the "founders" of these faiths the similarities between Moses and Muhammed, spiritual and temporal leaders, are striking, at least in comparison to the enigmatic and other-worldly figure of Jesus.

At this point, I will cut to the chase and assert that what Islam needs is a Haskalah, its own form of the Jewish Enlightenment. Here is a quick description:


The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, was an intellectual movement in Europe that lasted from approximately the 1770s to the 1880s. The Haskalah was inspired by the European Enlightenment but had a Jewish character. Literally, Haskalah comes from the Hebrew word sekhel, meaning "reason" or intellect" and the movement was based on rationality. It encouraged Jews to study secular subjects, to learn both the European and Hebrew languages, and to enter fields such as agriculture, crafts, the arts and science. The maskilim (followers of the Haskalah) tried to assimilate into European society in dress, language, manners and loyalty to the ruling power. The Haskalah eventually influenced the creation of both the Reform and Zionist movements.

The Haskalah model might not be appropriate for the Dar-al-Islam as a whole, but it is surely appropriate for Muslims who live in Western society. The abandonment of strict halakhah and the adaptation of Protestant forms of worship in Reform Judaism were crucial in the integration of the Jewish people into European culture. Similarly, Muslims must fully abandon their adherence to most elements of shariat, or more properly, their attempts to have Western nations recognize the norms of shariat in the public space. They must also acculturate their religion to Protestant norms of practice and civility-the discarding of foreign religious clerics would be a good start to indigenize the faith. The re-interpretation of Islamic belief on a modern Protestant model is already occurring.

Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Posted by razib at 04:29 AM