« Generation game | Gene Expression Front Page | Century City »
March 12, 2004

Here I Stand

In response to my negative response to godless' post/query about the Sunni-Shia split and its correspondence to the Protestant-Catholic division Aziz has offered his own defense of it from a personal angle (he is Shia). Here is the part of Aziz's post I find most interesting:


However, as a Shi'a myself, though, I still find the analogy useful when discussing religion with Christians, because there are some string parallels that I think Razib overlooked....

(My emphasis)

In The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science, "the passion for analogy" is fingered as the one great trait that has allowed sapient humanity to explode beyond its static past. Analogy allows various domains of intellect to communicate and cross-fertilize in a way that leads to further insights. I myself often use chemistry or biology analogies when thinking of public policy. These former are areas where I have a clear and coherent base of systematic knowledge which I can export to reduce unfamiliar concepts and phenomena into pieces that I can get a grip on (the use of diffusion equations in population biology after their extensive application in engineering and physics is an example of method exporation in the sciences).

Aziz is doing this for others when he uses the Protestant-Catholic analogy for the Sunni-Shia split, it leverages a familiar context and maps methods over so that Christians do not need to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, and begin from first principles. Unfortunately, I think the conflations and confusions simply outweigh the insights, this is a case where first principles (studying Islam before being exposed to these analogies) are crucial.

The analogy serves to convey information in a familiar way, and evoke common impressions and gestalt understanding over the bridge of disparate experience and perspective. Ends justify the analogy, if it serves as a valid short-cut, and allows one to have an accurate conception of an unfamiliar topic, the analogy works.

But sometimes things go wrong. To use an analogy-imagine that a civil engineer has two equations, both with some predictive power as to the state of a bridge under stressed conditions. Both are approximations-they are models that encapsulate salient variables, not exact replicas of every aspect of the bridge and the various conditions, and the equations might even simplify nuances of behavior or process to the point where someone might assert that it is an inaccurate description of reality. Nonetheless, one equation might be far better at modelling the reaction of the bridge under stress. In this case, the equation that one picks has important ramifications, lives hang in the balance, literally.

In this way-one might see how it is important that the analogies we use can have dramatic long-term consequences. The Islam & Reformation duet, closely tied to the Protestant-Catholic /Sunni-Shia analogy, shows up 30 times since 1996 in The New York Times, the United States' premier middle-brow journal. Sometimes you get columnists popping off about how Islam needs a Pope. These analogies and ideas are real, in wide currency, and sometimes permeate middle-brow discourse, and wend their way downward toward the masses in a dilute and spare form.

Back to Aziz's assertion that Shia resemble Catholics. His points seem to be centered around the quasi-clerical tendencies of the Shia, their mediation between lay and Lord via a clerical caste, the heirs to Ali. To me, this smells of a "look & feel" sort of argument. As someone who has always been rather secular, if not atheist, but from a Sunni background, I will admit frankly that Protestant houses of worship stink less of idolatry than Catholic houses of God. Sunni faith is often presented as starkly simple, a relationship between Allah and the believer, mediated by scripture alone (though as in Protestantism in practice "clerics" have as much power over believers as their more imam-ridden co-religionists).

But scratch further. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, and Protestantism has traditionally had a tendency to educate believers to read their scripture in the vernacular. There is nothing like this (at least traditionally) in the Sunni tradition. While The King James Version was compiled 400 years before the present, the Koran is a crystallization of 8th century Arabic. The lack of mediation between believer and God in Protestantism was facilitated by the lay being encouraged to study the Bible and absorb it first-hand. There is no real correspondence to this in much of the Sunni world, where only those of great piety or religious vocational aspirations read the Koran with meaning in mind.

I could go on, but to me this is one of the big flaws in pushing forward the prominence of "look & feel" when there are deep substantiative differences between Protestantism and any form of Islam. Those in the know will take points of substance in Protestant disputes with Catholicism and try to map them into Islam-when they are simply not relevant or not-applicable. Those who are less religiously rigorous will take their "general impressions" and transfer them over, with even more strange beliefs being ascribed in an alien religious landscape than in their putative spiritual homes.

Finally, to make an analogy between A and B, at least one party should know A and B inside out. My personal impression is that most Muslims simply do not understand the history and nuances of Christianity do this with the subtlety necessary. Perhaps more importantly, in the American context, many Protestants and Catholics simply do not have a very good conception of the historic relationship of their faiths to make any sense of the analogy in the first place.

Let me elaborate. Many Protestants (often conservative evangelicals) I know speak of "converting Catholics to Christianity." Some of the radicals still speak of Rome as the Whore of Babylon. Many American Catholics have little deep understanding of their faith, it is simply a cultural accoutrement, their religious life resembling middling Protestantism, their spiritual-talk being very similar to their Protestant colleagues.

In sum:

1) Most Muslims do not know enough about Christianity to communicate any possible analogy very well.
2) Many American Christians are rather fuzzy as to the axiomatic elements than define their faith as distinct within their religious tradition.
3) Even if 1 & 2 are not problematic, the analogy tends to convey an aesthetic/emotional sensiblity, when policy makers and "thinkers" should be exploring deep structural fault lines, they will get confused by the cosmetic typologies, and might make decisions as variance with the equation-of-best-fit.

Solution? Let's dump these analogies, and take the long hard path of learning Christianity and Islam from first principles. Individuals can then make their own decisions as to the applicability of these analogies.

Addendum: As a historical point highlighting the importance of mental analogies, when Jesuits first arrived in China, they saw their counterparts in the Buddhist clerics who were a prominent part of the life of the Orient. Soon enough they realized that these men had low status, and their switched their garb to that of Confucian Mandarins. In a similar confusion, many easterners viewed the Catholics in their garb to simply be attempting to propogate a new form of Buddhism. I have also read that in China Protestants and Catholics initially used different words for "God" (that is, appropriate translations of God into Chinese vernacular), resulting a larger chasm between the two faiths than might have been their intention.

Also, as to my suggestion to "go back to first principles," that does not preclude that these analogies might resurface, though in a more strictly defined fashion. One thing we need to look at are the definitions that we take for granted. Here is the definition for "catholic" from dictionary.com:


  1. Of broad or liberal scope; comprehensive: “The 100-odd pages of formulas and constants are surely the most catholic to be found” (Scientific American).
  2. Including or concerning all humankind; universal: “what was of catholic rather than national interest” (J.A. Froude).
  3. Catholic

    1. Of or involving the Roman Catholic Church.
    2. Of or relating to the universal Christian church.
    3. Of or relating to the ancient undivided Christian church.
    4. Of or relating to those churches that have claimed to be representatives of the ancient undivided church.

Posted by razib at 11:43 PM