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February 02, 2004

How do you define what is "Islamic," and other questions

I mentioned earlier that simply asserting that system of belief A has n plural views is not precise enough, in that n views might not be equally represented among those who espouse system of belief A (in this case, I am speaking about Islam, but this problem is common). Scott in the comments for the above post notes that "Muslim refusenik" Irshad Manji does not believe that the Koran is the literal word of God. Is she a Muslim? She calls herself one, and I am not going to contradict her. But should we behave as if Islam does not imply a belief that the Koran is not the literal word of God? I believe that as a first aproximation that such a characterization, that "Muslims" believe the Koran is the literal word of God, might be justified.

For most readers this is obviously a somewhat esoteric discussion. So let me move to a more familiar terrain for readers, Christianity.

How about the following statement:


Christians believe in the Trinity, as defined in the Athanasian Creed.

There is a problem with this though. Three major "Christian" groups reject this Trinitarianism.


Many "mainstream" Christians would simply assert that these groups are not Christian, and a rejection of the Athanasian Creed is a major part of this. But, it is a fact that the Athanasian Creed was not fixed as mainstream Christian doctrine until three centuries after Christ. The Arian confession among the Gothic peoples preserved an explicit non-Athanasian Christianity until the 7th century. Over the centuries, many Christian intellectuals, such as Isaac Newton, came to reject the Trinity. Religious pluralism in the wake of the Reformation and the sundering of the Western Church quickly resulted in the rise of Unitarianism.

I believe the above shows that belief in the Trinity is not always synonymous with profession of Christianity. But, Muslims will sometimes behave as if belief in Trinity is one of the major achilles heels of Christianity, that it is shirk (multiplying the nature of God). Are Muslims justified in this?

I think they are. At the present time the vast majority of Christians are Trinitarians, likely over 95%. Over the 2,000 year history of Christianity, the vast majority of that period has seen the dominance of Trinitarianism as a central concept of Christianity. I do believe there is nothing foundational that implies that Christianity must be Trinitarian, but in practice it has been. Operationally, I think anti-Christian apologists, Muslim, Jewish, etc. can make a first aproximation, and speak as if Christians were Trinitarians by definition.

Now we move back to Islam and Scott's original question: can one be a Muslim that does not believe that the Koran is the literal word of God? Strictly speaking, of course, if someone professes the shahada (the statement of faith that there is no God but God and Muhammed is his prophet). So where does Scott's query come from?

In the 9th century there was a dispute in the Muslim world. The details are confusing, but eventually, the position that Koran is the Uncreated word of God, transmitted to Muhammed from God through the intermediation of the angel Gabriel, became a "central dogma" of Islamic theology. There are major dissenters, especially the Shia tradition, which because of its anti-establishment tendencies and separation from the temporal powers, allowed room for greater pluralism on this issue. But among the mainstream Sunni tradition, the consensus that the Koran is the word of God was the overwhelmingly dominant position from 900 CE onward. Before this time, the consensus was not established, and for a brief period liturgical "liberals" (though politically despotic) who argued for a created Koran that was not necessarily the literal word of God were ascendant.

This position about the Koran is one reason that many Muslims give for why prayers are uttered in archaic Arabic, a translation of the words of God Himself is simply not possible, and translations of the Koran into vernacular tongues are spiritually not equivalent to the Arabic original.

Historians like Bernard Lewis and intellectuals and thinkers hostile to Islam will often use this position to argue for why literalism is prebuilt into the Muslim religion, why it is by its very nature averse to change and susceptible to fundamentalism. There is of course a problem with this in that a non-trivial minority of Muslims have always dissented, primarily within the Shia tradition, and this theological position has been "orthodox" only since the 10th century.

There is an order of magnitude difference between Islam's position on the Uncreated Koran that is the literal word of God and Christian Trinitarianism. The Trinitarian position has a longer history of near complete dominance, and even today holds under its way a greater percentage of Christians than the Uncreated Koran and the literal word of God among Muslims. So can one assert that Muslims are by definition fundamentalists?

Well, that depends, and personal judgement on where to draw the line is obviously crucial. If you assume that the 10% of Muslims who are Shia are not literalists (this is only partly true I suspect), you are left with the 90% who are Sunni. Some of these, such as the abangan Muslims of Indonesia are not very orthodox, but these groups do not contribute much to the international discourse in Islam, their faith being locally rooted, rather than a transnational ideology. Sufi groups are somewhat difficult to characterize, but are often inward looking if their thinking deviates much from conventional norms. How many among the Sunni are articulate defenders of a Created or non-literal Koran? My personal experience is very few. I was taught the Uncreated Koran theology as a child, and my mosque was certainly not a "fundamentalist" (fundamentalist as in wild-eyed fanatic) hub. Aside from its historical dominance, it has a certain simplicity in its appeal, the power of the words of God Himself uttered during prayer must be part of the attraction.

I suppose the question must go to how many Irshad Manji's of the world there are. In the West, among the acculturated and assimilated, they are a non-trival presence. But unlike Manji, most of these Muslims are not participants in the Islamic subculture as active voices for theological change and a diversification of the status quo monopoly of the Uncreated Koran. In the Dar-al-Islam, theological liberals, defined as those who accept that portions of the Koran must be interpreted figuratively are probably a trivial minority (see the case of Abu Zeid, and Egyptian professor that was declared an apostate for somewhat liberal interpretations of the Koran).

At this point, I think non-Muslims engaging in dialogue with Muslims must simply admit that the vast majority of Muslims are adherents of a literalist position. Obviously this is not foundational in Islam, but it is the reality on the ground and how Islam is experienced and expressed at this moment in time. The Shia alternative is something that non-Muslims should keep in mind, for even though operationally most Islamic discourse is literalist, the fact that a minority are amenable to interpretation and "modernizing" can not be forgotten. Many more universal generations have been falsified by the march of time, but that is not to declare that the future is present now.

Posted by razib at 12:19 PM