In my post “Islam – 1” (June 28) I promised further “musing” about this fraught topic. Of more than 130 in this blog thus far, these posts on Islam involved the most time and led to the most consternation. Americans’ predominant concerns about Islam are religion-inspired violence and threat to church/mosque-state separation. Despite all that I’ve learned, still the most obvious preparation I bring to the subject amounts to troubled ignorance.
There is far too much to Islam for an amateur to explain, of course, but let me relate some of my preparation, augmented a bit from what I claimed in “Islam – 1”. I’ve read the entire Quran (Mohammed’s recording of Gabriel’s messages from Allah) and some of the extensive Hadiths (doctrinally important stories, though clearly secondary to the Quran). I’ve read modern books critiquing the faith and its history, visited a mosque for its afternoon prayers and an Islam orientation, and had a brief discussion in Washington with the executive director of Ex-Muslims of North America. I visited Tunisia shortly after the start of the ill-fated Arab Spring. (Having drinks—yes, alcoholic—in a bar in that almost 100% Muslim country was experientially useful. At least I told myself that.)
Islam is like other theistic religions in that it is based on nothing that can reasonably be considered evidence. From my humanist perspective, however, current Islam is immeasurably worse than current Christianity (excluding Dark Ages Christianity and Islam’s milder periods). It is not that Christianity has avoided cruelty and violence, but that most of its bad behavior was curbed by martyrs and philosophers of the Enlightenment. It is also not that the Christian God is a kinder character than Islam’s Allah, for (a) the two religions share the same Old Testament with its brutal Jehovah and (b) Jesus’s introduction of eternal punishment by fire was arguably more cruel than Mohammed’s message of killing humans. So I’ll regard that as a toss-up.
There are disagreements within Islam so great as to lead to violence. That’s nothing new to Westerners since our 2003 attack on Iraq taught Americans about Shia/Sunni antagonism. It seems to me, however, the more important distinction for non-Muslims to recognize is the one between Salafism and Sufism—essentially a distinction of severity of interpretation. Although radical Islamist extremists can arise from either Sunni or Shia groups, extreme aggressiveness is more in line with Salafism. (Osama bin Laden and Wahhabis are examples of Sunni Salafists.) Being opposed to separation of civil authority and religion, Islam is theocratic in the extreme, a characteristic that should be of concern to Western democracies. Further, while charity is important enough to be one of the “pillars of Islam,” the charitable attitude is not extended to religious liberty or blasphemy.
Islamic texts and discourse focus on the importance of monotheism. They refer repeatedly to Christianity as polytheistic. Muslims consider Christianity’s Trinity to prove their point. (Judaism, without the Trinity doctrine, is not so considered.) If you wonder why Muslims shout that only God is god, that is a refutation to religions that claim more than one god, such as (in their view) Christianity.
The Quran and spoken references to Allah are frequently strewn with honorific language for Allah, far more than is normally the case with Christians. The “Most Gracious,” the “Most Merciful,” the “Living,” the “Self-Sufficient,” the “Infinitely Enduring,” the “Most High,” the “Supreme,” the “Protector,” and on and on repeatedly. Of course, one would have to admit that if there were an Allah, no amount would be too much. So I point it out not as a criticism, but to distinguish it from normal Christian language.
Well, that, and for one other reason. Muslims are known to pray five times a day (there are variations) and to do so as a group when convenient or when it is time for Friday prayers. Much of the prayer is prescribed, enhancing the psychological effect of an oft-repeated mantra. Christians have a prescribed prayer as well—the “Lord’s Prayer”—but it is not used with nearly the frequency of prescribed Muslim prayers. Taking time to pray several times a day seems to me to keep even the typical Muslim more in touch with his or her religion than the typical Christian. I offer that as a gut feeling rather than an assumed fact—and, at that, a gut feeling about a group statistic, not individuals. These things, along with the theocratic design of government, prescribed gender roles, dress, and speech may have much to do with what a Westerner would experience as the Islamic entanglement of virtually everything with religion. Again, an opinion: so much immersion in Islam would have a suffocating effect upon any new thing, custom, action, or thought, due to having first to be strained through an Islamic filter.
A word about that filter. The primary book, as everyone knows, is the Quran. Muslims point out that it is truly and literally the Word of Allah. The Bible is not; it is a book by men who often claim to be speaking for God. The Quran, on the other hand, is the product of Mohammed’s taking down dictation from on high—communicated through Gabriel, but directly from Allah nonetheless. Moreover, it is only officially the Quran when in the original language, Arabic. Translations into English and many other languages are convenient and, they claim, largely accurate, but not the real thing.
That “real thing” is the master filter, even though there are disagreements about how it is to be interpreted. There are even more disagreements about the many Hadiths written not by Mohammed, but by others often about Mohammed. Hadiths are graded as to their reliability (genuineness in reflecting the true faith) and, consequently, not all Muslims agree as to their reliability “scores.” It is hard to get an accurate count of Hadiths. Some estimates go as high as 80,000, but those widely considered to be Sahih (“authentic”) Hadiths number just in a few thousand. (These are divided into Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadiths and Sahih Al Muslim Hadiths, depending on the imam who selected them). Got it? There’ll be a test…or, at least, you might expect one if you are Muslim.
Thus Muslims can boast, with a formidable case, that the Quran has a more direct line to its source than the Bible. The New Testament, for example, reached us despite several major obstacles, each of which threaten what many Christians claim it to be. That is another discussion, but suffice it to say, not only do we have no original writings of what became the New Testament, we don’t even have copies of copies of copies, some of which crossed from one language to another, all of which depended on scribes’ grueling attempts at accuracy and freedom from bias. In fact, it wasn’t until the fourth century that a selection of the eventual 26 New Testament “books” was largely accepted and the numerous competitors tossed aside. Unfair comparison or not, you can see why Muslims contend that the Quran more certainly comes from God/Allah than does the New Testament.
But all these considerations leave unanswered whether Americans should be worried about the spread of Islam and, if so, what can be done about it. As I stated in my opening paragraph, arguably the greatest of those concerns are whether (a) religious violence present in much of the Islamic world will become a feature of American life and (b) sharia law will become widespread in America.
Very few non-Muslim Americans think that all Muslims excuse or are prone to violence. Many understand that some Muslims do not support sharia as the civil law. (For this post, I gathered a great deal of data about the percentages of Muslims living in a couple of dozen countries who support having sharia as the law of the land in their own countries. That and reams of other data have been omitted in order to avoid making a book out of this.) Yet there is a fear in America that fundamentalist Muslims exert greater influence over other Muslims than their numbers warrant. In other words, bad apples spoil the whole bushel . . . and most good apples seem to be reluctant to speak out.
A point about sharia law: Sharia law is not a specific body of laws. It can be viewed as the religion of Islam converted into the civil law. In a theocracy, that is the natural state. I’ve never seen the case made, but I suspect one could say that much of Europe had a similar overlap of religion and civil laws during the Dark Ages, rather like we had our own Christian sharia. The reason it is not a specific body of laws is that its form depends on whose interpretations of Islam are being used. In other words, it varies—to put this in only slightly strained Christian terminology—with which denomination is proclaiming it.
Muslims do not unanimously find Sharia desirable and, to my surprise, are split on whether it should apply to non-Muslims even if adopted as general law. Moreover, some Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim countries may be willing to leave murder and other serious offenses to the non-Muslim courts, while assigning family disputes and such to a Sharia process. Islam is theocratic, to be sure, but in a more nuanced way than I would have believed. (For persons interested in the details, I recommend research done by the respected Pew Research Center for Religion in Public Life.) It is only partially comforting that internationally most Muslims say that suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam are “rarely or never” justified (92% in Indonesia, 91% in Iraq, 86% in the US). These numbers appear to be shifting with time.
Whatever the actual percentages about Americans’ comfort with religious violence and with religion-based law, we are still presented with large policy quandaries. Sure, your next door neighbor Muslim is probably as offended by religious violence as you are. Quite likely he or she is no less or no more bothered by local laws that aren’t patterned after Islam as your Baptist neighbor is about local laws not modeled on Christianity. But in sociology and in politics it is the group statistic that is important. If Islamic proportions in the population were increased—say, to 60% Muslims (or 60% Baptists)—the political tone would undoubtedly be different, with profound effects on non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
In other words, there is a foreboding group issue here that cannot be overlooked, even while we are committed as ethical, caring persons to be tolerant, accepting, and liberal about individual Muslims.
Consequently, I feel compelled to write an “Islam – 3” post before I can let go of this topic. I want to share one further thought concerning the central question that spawned this Islam series: What can current Americans do to lessen at least one source of the fears, with minimal or no sacrifice of ideals fundamental to America?