Islam & Tradition

In my position as a pastoral leader of a church, I have been frequently asked lately, “What is a Muslim? What do they believe? Are terrorism and violence part of their religion?” Although my expertise is not in world religions, I do know from my reading that the “Five Pillars” of Islam are most central. The concept of jihad, which has featured so prominently in world events of late, seems central to Islam also. The Muslim voices we hear are not unanimous. Some claim that Jihad is an internal struggle against the forces of sin and evil. Others characterize it as in external struggle against the enemies of Allah. Which voice is the authentic voice of Islam? The best answer, I believe, is “We’ll see.”

 Alasdair MacIntyre defines a tradition as an “argument extended through time in which the fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretive debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.” My assumption in this essay is that whatever else we say about Islam (or Christianity for that matter), it can be seen as a tradition in MacIntyre’s sense. Thus answering the question, “What is Islam?” entails identifying both the central agreements within the tradition as well as the conflicts that are in progress both internally and externally. Seeing Islam in this way raises a number of questions for our current situation.

First, from our perspective outside the Islamic tradition, we see what looks like an internal argument about the nature of jihad, and argument that is variously related to other internal arguments, especially those regarding the relation of Islam to democracy, free market capitalism, secularity and modernity. Some affirm that each of these is compatible with Islam, while others claim they are of Satan. Though as outsiders we are not part of the argument, my guess is we would prefer those who argue for jihad as internal spiritual struggle to some out on top. Our daily news features those who argue for external jihad; we also hear local Muslim leaders publicly identify jihad as internal. My question is: where is this debate taking place within Islam? How important is resolution of the question for those within the tradition? How are the arguments taken beyond the theoretical to the practical, i.e., to the protesters in Pakistan and Gaza City? What are the consequences of the perversion of jihad in the eyes of both sides? Whom can we outsiders observe to see the pursuit of the “jihad as internal struggle” position within the Muslim world, i.e., those who frame the issue for internal audiences?

Second, what role ought we on the outside to take in this struggle? On the one hand, we have no more business telling Muslims what to believe (and practice!) regarding jihad than they do in helping us refine the doctrine of the Trinity. On the other hand, however, the position that becomes constitutive of “true” Islam has a direct bearing on we who are outside the tradition. If  jihad as external” becomes central to Islam in a way analogous to the role now played by their confession or by fasting during Ramadan, then the stance of those outside Islam will already be determined – friendship and cooperation will become impossible. Since we don’t want this to happen, what course of action ought we to take?

Perhaps political partnerships with Muslims ought to be pursued. But with which Muslims? From a political point of view, do we partner in Egypt with President Mubarak’s government or with Islamic Jihad? In Pakistan do we partner with the government of president Musharraf or with the crowds of protesters (and where do we stand with the country as a whole that applies Sharia law in a way that leads to the persecution of Christians)? In Palestine do we partner with Arafat or Hamas? We don’t have to go very far in the Muslim world to discover that they have demagogues and poor leadership just as other countries do.

Perhaps we ought instead to simply side with those who proclaim Jihad as internal struggle, regardless of their nationality or political affiliation. But how would such a partnering be seen by Muslims on the other side of the argument? Would it make our apparent allies guilty of heresy through association? I can easily imagine someone, perhaps Mullah Omar of the Taliban arguing with an adherent of the “jihad as internal struggle” position something like this: “You say that jihad is merely an internal spiritual struggle. The Americans say that your interpretation is correct. If the Americans take that position it must be wrong. Therefore your position is discredited.” My original question – what ought we to do in light of this internal argument within Islam – is no closer to an answer.

Third, what resources for the pursuit of peace with outsiders can one find within Islam and its history? Obviously this question can be asked of any major tradition with socio-political significance in today’s world. Christians first observed jihad in the 7th century when the Muslims conquered Christian North Africa. They continued to experience holy war in the next century as Muslims moved into the heart of Europe. The church in the west decided to try holy war on its own during the crusades. Sometime in the centuries since the crusades, however, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has come to see holy war as repugnant to the core of that tradition. This is not to say that nations identified in some way as Christian nations no longer pursue war – they do so for a myriad of reasons. Religion simply tends not to be one of the rationales offered. (I would say that killing in the name of progress, capitalism or the nation state is not an improvement over killing in the name of God.)

That a “Christian” nation can go to war with no consideration of their actions in terms of Christian teaching is likely to make little sense to traditions, like Islam, that either see no distinction between church and state, or see such a distinction as horribly misguided. Is it possible for there to be a peace tradition within Islam that can critique the actions of Islamic governments in the name of Islam? There are plenty of recent examples of traditions within Islam of critiquing Islamic governments in the name of Islam – the Muslim Brotherhood built on the idea of Sayid Qutb is a prime example – but the difference in this case is looking for a focus on peace with outsiders. One candidate for such a tradition is the movement of ijtihad – a focus on independent, critical thinking – espoused by Irshad Manji. Whether this becomes a tradition within Islam depends on whether Manji can build a following that will outlast her own life. Perhaps a better example is the work of Fethullah Gulen in Turkey. His development of ijtihad seems to go farther than Manji’s. As he employs the concept, it functions as an explicit realization that Islam can be characterized as a MacIntyrean tradition. Ijtihad is then the process of engaging with differences within and without to discern the proper way to be Muslim. How does this tie in with a quest for peace? Traditional Islam divides the world into dar-al-Islam and dar-al-harb – the House of Islam and the House of War. The differentiating factor is whether Muslims rule or not. Where Muslims rule, one finds dar-al-Islam. Where non-Muslims rule, one finds dar-al-harb. Gulen has proposed that in place of dar-al-harb, we ought to think of dar-al-hizmet – the House of Service. When Muslims are not in control, it is their job to demonstrate loving service.

But these are arguments internal to Islam. I suspect most of my readers are neither Muslims nor inhabitants of a Muslim country. What are we outsiders to make of jihad  as it now exists? What are the social implications for us? The position that jihad refers to external conflict clearly has public and political consequences. Once such a position is taken, certain courses of action seem clear. But what if one takes the other position? What public and political actions would an internal view of jihad entail? As moderns who assume the privatization of religion we have no trouble understanding such in internalization. But what are the communal consequences of this internalization?

Fourth, what does the ideal outcome of each position look like? If the Taliban and their ideological partners within Islam prevail in every way, what would the world look like? Perhaps we could ask this another way. If Allah were to be satisfied with life on earth, what would it look like? Would the description of such a world center on internal dispositions and the actions of individuals? Or would it center on a picture of society and culture? To some of us on the outside it looks like the Taliban and their allies would like the world to look like 7th century Arabian culture. Dare we ask if a world with our current population patterns would work if ordered along the lines of such a culture?

This fourth question has become that of the relation between religion and culture. In the west we tend to speak – simplistically, I believe – in terms of church and state. The broader categories of religion and culture are much more helpful. Through the outworking of the doctrine of the Incarnation the Christian tradition has become wildly multicultural. There are Christians in almost all cultures in the world – and they all look different, significantly shaped as they are by their host cultures. To what degree can Islam be multicultural? Certainly insofar as Islam has a doctrine of Creation akin to Christianity, a universality similar to that found in Christianity can be found. But at the heart of Christianity is the Creator become human while at the heart of Islam is the revelation of the Quran. From this initial “translation” event onward, translation has been a normal and expected part of the tradition. I am told than in Islam, however, the Quran is most truly the Quran in Arabic, its original language.

This raises a further related question. One way to understand what is going on in fundamentalism is to see such movements as a denial of MacIntyre’s claim that traditions are constituted by arguments extended through time. In other words, they view the tradition at its origin at its purest in its founding. Any deviation from what it was in the beginning is at best a degradation, at worst the foulest heresy. (I heard that sentiment expressed today by someone who said that Islam simply is about killing non-Muslims. He, a non-proponent of Islam, took the actions of Muslims from the news as expressive of the true essence of Islam.) The only way to progress, given such a conviction, is by going backwards. What is the place of such a position in Islam? I know through experience that such a position – the denial that Christianity is a tradition changing through time, not merely an eternal essence –  exists within the American Christian tradition, yet I also know that there are rich and varied resources for understanding and guiding the development of the tradition in a changing world. What is the role of fundamentalism (as I’ve defined it) in Islam? Is there room for a conviction that a community can be faithful to Islam and develop some form of a modern economy, democratic institutions, and live at peace with non-Muslim countries? Can Islam today look different from the Islam of Mohammed (or of the Caliphate) and still be faithful? Leaders like Irshad Manji and Fethullah Gulen think so. Only time will tell.

This entry was posted in Alasdair MacIntyre, Clash of Civilizations, Current events, Globalization, Islam, War. Bookmark the permalink.

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