“The Christian Example for Modernizing Islam”

Kevin Madigan revisits a theme that is anathema to many on the Right but deserves serious consideration:

As Pope Francis recently remarked, reflecting this relatively new attitude of tolerance and pluralism, “Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation.” It has been said, and not without reason, that the church changed more from 1960-2000 than in the previous millennium. Yet even today, outside Western Europe and the U.S., predominantly Christian states—Russia and Uganda, for instance—have notoriously repressive laws.
All of this is to say that traditionalist Islamic states and Muslims have not, historically speaking, had a monopoly on authoritarianism, violence against apostates, the wholesale rejection of religious pluralism, and the manipulation of religion to realize political agendas. But in the same sad set of facts lies some good news: The startling changes experienced by Western churches over the past several centuries suggest that similar changes might occur within the world of Islam.

Madigan’s piece is worth reading in full.

Bernard Lewis pointed out that the fascist authoritarianism we take for granted in today’s Arab world is itself a European import. Who’s to say that the direction of future political changes there must be negative.

One strong takeaway from this analysis is that the West should support Muslim moderates and modernisers. We don’t do that consistently, which may be an indirect cause of the Middle East’s current dire condition.

23 thoughts on ““The Christian Example for Modernizing Islam””

  1. “fascist authoritarianism we take for granted in today’s Arab world is itself a European import.”

    Adolf Eichmann hoped his ‘Arab friends’ would continue his battle against the Jews.

    ‘Eichmann refused to do penance and longed for applause. But first and foremost, of course, he hoped his “Arab friends” would continue his battle against the Jews who were always the “principal war criminals” and “principal aggressors.” He hadn’t managed to complete his task of “total annihilation,” but the Muslims could still complete it for him.’

  2. “the West should support Muslim moderates and modernisers. We don’t do that consistently, which may be an indirect cause of the Middle East’s current dire condition.”

    I reject any attempt to assign responsibility for the current state of Muslim society to outsiders. This is something Muslims have been working hard to create for centuries.

    Wahhabism was created in the 18th Century when Arabia had little contact with the West. It’s spread is the baleful result of the Saud’s becoming the richest family in the world. The oil was an accident, it was discovered and developed by Westerners. The Sauds are just the real Beverly Hillbillies with a nasty fundamentalist streak.

    An even deeper wound in the Muslim world was the reception of the doctrines of al-Ghazali (1058-1111 C.E.) as orthodox. Al-Ghazali was a “philosopher” (he actually wanted to destroy what was then regarded as philosophy) who rejected the ability of human reason to understand the world, and even the possibility of cause and effect.

    This leads to a cosmology where in each moment God assigns the accidents to bodies in which they inhere. When one moment ends, God creates new accidents. None of the created accidents in the second moment has any causal relation to the ones in the earlier moment. … In every moment, God re-arranges all the atoms of this world anew and He creates new accidents—thus creating a new world every moment.


    After al-Ghazali, science as we know it became heresy. To analyze cause and effect became an insult to Allah in Muslim eyes.

    It is impossible for Muslims, who hold al-Ghazali to be authoritative, to accept the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was the political corollary of the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. Newton’s Principia was published in 1687, followed closely by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Bill of Rights in 1689, and John Locke’s Two Treatises that same year.

    But, the radical rejection of cause and effect and of human reason is completely congruent with the anti-Liberal European political theories of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Nazism, Fascism, and Leninism. Muslim thinkers like Qtub, seized upon them to create modern political Islamism. In turn, it explains why modern Western Leftists, who also reject reason and cause an effect, have come to see Muslim Jihadis as their ideal revolutionaries.

  3. We can’t social engineer the people in the Detroit ghetto to be like white Iowans but we think we can social engineer the Middle East to be like Iowa. We’re nuts.

    Polynucleotides are not affected by social engineering.

  4. “Bernard Lewis pointed out that the fascist authoritarianism we take for granted in today’s Arab world is itself a European import.”

    Whether or not Lewis actually said that, it is false, insofar as authoritarianism is concerned (it is true that fascism is a 20th century ideology that was imported, but not all authoritarianism is fascism). Islamic societies have always been authoritarian, although the level of brutality has varied in different places and different times. And, contrary to politically correct apologetics in which some conservatives engage, Islam has always been anti-Judaic (again, with the degree of virulence varying from place to place and time to time). I wish we could dispense with the notion that the West somehow corrupted Islam and therefore the threat to the world from Islam is the West’s fault.

  5. “the radical rejection of cause and effect and of human reason is completely congruent with the anti-Liberal European political theories ”

    And it is a basic tenet of Islam. Allah dictated the Quran therefore it is perfect and any variation is heresy. The Christian Church went down this path for a while and murdered Albigensian heretics.

    Eventually, the Reformation and the Enlightenment turned the Christian Church away from this dead end. Part of this was because the Bible was not considered perfect by the Roman Catholic Church. The Muslims do not hold that view. The Quran is perfect and no deviation is permitted. There is an interesting book called For the Glory of God , which makes the point that Christian and Jewish theology encourage attempts to understand God and therefore philosophy. This has led to inquiries in science and other subjects that led to the Enlightenment. From a review:

    contrary to many historical theories, Stark claims that religion may have been the driving force behind the emergence of modern science. Stark’s fascinating conclusions may rile conventional historians. Indeed, Stark was dismayed to discover how many historians “dismiss the role of religion in producing ‘good’ things such as the rise of science or the end of slavery, and the corresponding efforts to blame religion for practically everything ‘bad.’” While certainly weighed in defense of religious beliefs, especially Christianity, Stark offers a respectable and intelligent argument for church leaders, theologians, and maybe a few history buffs to ponder.

    He also asserts that Islam does not have this capability to make inquiry and is therefore a dead end.

  6. Robert,

    I wrote “an indirect cause of the Middle East’s current dire condition”, not “the indirect cause”. It’s like saying the Versailles treaty contributed to the rise of Nazism and the second world war. I’m not blaming the West, I’m saying that we have exacerbated the problem by inadvertently undermining the people we should support.

    Christianity has moderated a great deal in the recent past. Why is it inconceivable that Islam will also change?

  7. The Versailles treaty did make Hitler more possible. The Allies should have marched on Berlin if the Germans tried to back out of the armistice. The treaty gave them the myth that they had not lost. That way they could blame the Jews in the Weimar government.

  8. The OT is full of cruel and bloody deeds,BUT, there is no command that obligates anyone to commit such genocidal deeds. There certainly is no such thing in the NT. Christians may have acted bloody minded,but they were acting on their own and not with the authority of the NT.

    Such is not the case with Islam. The Word of God commands cruelty; this is the essence of Islam. Without coercion this sanctification of brigandage called Islam dies. It is ethically and spiritually barren, but persists because it legitimizes a criminal mentality. Allah is more like Moloch than God. Islam reforming itself seems as likely as cats learning how to bark.

  9. Renminbi – It isn’t the words of the Koran that are important. It’s written in Classical Arabic and few Moslems have read it. The important thing is the genetic nature of Midd;e Eastern populations. Modernity is not for them. Indeed modernity is an evolutionary deathtrap.

  10. The Old Testament prescribes death for people who engage in homosexual behavior. When did a Jewish or Christian community last follow that mandate? For that matter, when was the last major anti-Jewish pogrom perpetrated by Christians? I don’t see why Muslims or Islam are immutable.

  11. Just When You Thought they couldn’t be anymore depraved than they were

    ISIS comes up with something new:

    Islamic State video shows Jordanian pilot being burned alive by Jim Michaels, USA TODAY, 1:21 p.m. EST, February 3, 2015

    WASHINGTON — The Islamic State released a video Tuesday showing a Jordanian pilot held captive by the group being burned alive.

    * * *

    The final minutes show the pilot in a cage with flammable powder on the ground around and under him. A line of powder runs from the cage about 20 yards to a militant, who lights the powder. The man in the cage is quickly consumed by flames.

  12. I am utterly horrified to read about the torture-death of the Jordanian pilot. ISIS is building their own funeral pyre.
    It was the Jordanians, wasn’t it, who utterly crushed rebellious Palestinians in 1970, after they tried to overthrow King Hussein? They ran Arafat and the PLO out of Jordan, and basically destroyed every shred of a base that the Palestinians had in Jordan.
    I don’t think I need a crystal ball to see this will not end with hugs and kisses …

  13. “The Old Testament prescribes death for people who engage in homosexual behavior. When did a Jewish or Christian community last follow that mandate?”

    Jonathan: As I am sure you are well aware, Jewish Law begins with the Torah, but it does not end there. Any commandment needs to be understood through the study of a couple thousand years worth of interpretation.

    The subject of capital punishment is a fraught one. From the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until the establishment of the State of Israel, 19 centuries later, there was no Jewish authority that could pronounce a capital sentence. After the creation of the State of Israel, the question of capital punishment was raised. Many Rabbis argued that despite the creation of the State, capital punishment could not be imposed until the Temple was rebuilt and the Sanhedrin (the highest court of ancient Israel) reconvened. That is to say, before the coming of the Messiah. Israel has eliminated capital punishment for crimes other than genocide, and the only person executed in Israel since 1948* was Adolph Eichman.

    I just spent an hour spinning my wheels trying to find out if the prohibition of Lev 20:13, was regarded as being enforceable by a civil authority. This is the best I could come up with and it is not very good:

    The Jewish Oral Law states that capital punishment would only be applicable if two men were caught in the act of anal sex, if there were two witnesses to the act, if the two witnesses warned the men involved that they committed a capital offense, and the two men — or the willing party, in case of rape — subsequently acknowledged the warning but continued to engage in the prohibited act anyway. In fact, there is no account of capital punishment, in regards to this law, in Jewish history.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_and_Judaism consider the source.

    However, many things regarded as capital offenses in the Torah were trammeled up with procedural issues like those discussed above by the Rabbinic authorities, to remove them as subjects of the real world. Further many things that would occur in private were decreed to be punishable by death caused by God, also neatly removing them from reality.

    I do not know whether Christian authorities have ever literalised Lev 20:13. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere somebody had, but if they did, it has been a while.

    * In 1948 a poor sap in the Israeli army was executed on an accusation of treason, that was later disproved. Eichman and that guy are butcher’s bill.

  14. “I don’t see why Muslims or Islam are immutable.”

    No one is immutable, but somethings can only be changed with great difficulty or at a high price.

    That said, I don’t see anything that will change Islam in the short term. As pointed out above. They have formidable intellectual defenses against change, and they are willing to kill people who advocate change.

    The Christian example is inapposite for a couple of reasons. Intellectually, Christianity has a richer and more varied history than Islam. Islam was the religion of a state and a conquering army from the get go. Christianity was obscure and persecuted for its first three centuries. It had to be adapted after that to be a state religion. But, there is a lot of scriptural cruft that makes that difficult, e.g. Sermon on the Mount and turn the other cheek.

    The subject of the reformation is raised, but I don’t think it really helps. Wahhabism was a reform movement, so are the Iranian revolution, and the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t see anybody playing the hippie card here, as the Anabaptists did in 16th Century Germany.

    If real change is to come I think it would come from one of two possibilities. One is that they provoke some power into a massive nuclear attack. It could be Russia or China, or they might just start slinging nukes at each other. The other one is that the oil runs out, and they sink into sub-African standards of living.

    Sorry, I don’t see good news. I hope I am wrong, but, I fear that I am correct.

  15. I don’t see a “reformation” of Islam short of a catastrophe, like an Iran-Israel nuclear war which would kill millions. That would also destroy the middle eats oil fields as they would be “hot” for a generation. It would be nice to believe that this would deter the Iranian leaders, as Obama obviously has convinced himself. I fear it would not and we must act accordingly. With Obama as he is, I doubt he could be convinced to change his mind short of disaster. He lives in a fantasy world, along with his supporters.

    I wonder if the coming measles epidemic among their children will shake their hold on unreality ? The deepest blue areas of California have the lowest immunization rates.

  16. From the news article about Jordan executing two ISIS prisoners after the pilot video was shown:

    In Jordan, a tense situation was developing as protests erupted in Amman and the pilot’s home village of Ai on Tuesday night. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets, chanting against Abdullah. “There is no god but God and the martyr is beloved by God,” protesters were heard chanting.

    They are supporting ISIS.

    Time for another Black September.

  17. Robert,

    I take your points. Maybe you and Michael are right, I don’t know. I still think a Muslim reformation is possible, since other religions have changed and Islam itself has changed within living memory. The groups represented by the Wahabis and Iranian mullahs weren’t always ascendant. Maybe the question is whether these groups can be beaten without a “three conjectures” type of ending.

  18. There are counterbalances to fundamentalism such as the Sufis, who emphasize rituals and saints and mystical experiences over rigid literalism, or non-violent Indian Ahmadis who see jihad as a personal struggle against inner demons. The real question is how to modernize Arabs.

  19. Mike K: Muslims had a Martin Luther, his name was Ayatollah Khomeini.

    Gurray: please read my entry above. Arabs have formidable intellectual resources to deploy against modernization. We can’t change them, unless they want to change. And, it will take a lot more than hand wringing to make them want to change.

  20. Robert, you could as easily say that ibn Abd al Wahhab was the Martin Luther, or at least the Sunni Martin Luther. Maybe Khomeini was the Shiite equivalent. Andrew Young called him “a saint” to Carter.

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