Saturday, September 16, 2006

Gods of the sword   posted by Razib @ 9/16/2006 03:15:00 PM

Over at my other blog I have a long post Spread by the sword, which analyzes the perception that Islam is a religion of the sword. I was influenced by some of Robert Pape's insights to offer two parameters which I think are important

1) The spread of Islam was often accompained by herrenvolk. In the early centuries Islam and Arab rule were coterminus. The Ummayyads were the "Arab Kingdom." Later the Turks took up Islam as their national ideology, and in places like the Balkans and India to be Turkic and Islamic was synonymous (many South Asian Muslims are "Khans" after all). In contrast, both Buddhism and Christianity tended to spread via elite co-option. Kings and nobles converted to the new religion and over time. This leads me to my suggestion that one reason the historical memory of Islam as a religion of the sword is going to be inevitable when the herrenvolk are expelled, in places like the Balkans, Spain and India non-Muslim elites returned to power and of course the memory of Islamic rule grates. In contrast in places like Japan or England the fall of the Christianizing dynasty was irrelevant because the whole elite had converted (I did think of a major example of where Buddhism was more like Islam in the way it spread, see the other post for details).

2) Which brings me to a second important point: Christianity & Buddhism spread into "pagan space" on the western and eastern edges of Eurasia. Interestingly World War II was an example where the pre-Christian and pre-Buddhist aspects of nations converted in the second half of the 1st millenium drifted toward a more "pagan" sensibility (e.g., Himmler's neo-Paganism and State Shinto). But by and large the pagan response was attenuated, and, to some extent both Buddhism and Christianity integrated with their pagan substratum and absorbed it (more with Buddhism I would argue, as pagan religious traditions like Bon, Shinto and Taoism all exist in ostensibly Buddhist cultural contexts, while explicit non-Christian traditions except for Judaism disappeared in the West). The contrast with Islam is clear, Islam spread into Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish and Hindu lands. I think that Manuel Paleologus's question as to what Islam brought that was new is actually not inaccurate: both Buddhism and Christianity introduced wholly new lexicons and acted as civilizational mediators. In contrast, Islam was civilized, both by Greek Byzantine and Sassanid models. In short, the fact that Islam has bloody borders is a natural consequence of its expansion into cultures which need no civilizing and have religious ideologies which are naturally resistent to marginalization and offer compelling narratives to elites. The best analogy for the spread of Islam is that of Protestantism, not Christianity or Buddhism (interestingly, if you look at the works of may Byzantine thinkers [e.g., John of Damascus] there is a tendency to via Islam as simply a heresy that is wholly derivative of Christianity, which I think is one reason that Paleologus was so dismissive).

These aren't the only parameters, but I think they are not irrelevant.