A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part IV: The Triumph of Islam

Those of us raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition are always going to have problems comprehending Islam, in part because its foundation in the Abrahamic beliefs and traditions puts it so near to us, while its rejection of some of the key dogmas of Judaism and Christianity puts it so far away. And, truth be told, the essence of Islam, the Koran, is so difficult for us to approach. It is, as Wright says, "unlike the religious text westerners are most familiar with, the Bible. For one thing, it is more monotonous.... The Bible came from dozens of different authors working over a millennium, if not more. The Koran came from (or through, Muslims would say) one man in the course of two decades.

Suppose, Wright says, "the whole Bible had been written by Jesus." By which he means the "historical" Jesus -- "the Jesus who, so far as we can tell, was ... a fire-and-brimstone preacher who warned his people that Judgment Day was coming and that many of them were a long way from meriting favorable judgment.... [T]his book would have the flavor of the Koran. Jesus and Muhammad probably had a lot in common." The Koran "shifts in tone, from tolerance and forbearance to intolerance and belligerence and back," Wright says. And this reflects the changing circumstances in Muhammad's life. "By the time of his death, Muhammad had gone from being a monotheistic prophet, preaching in the largely polytheistic city of Mecca, to being the head of an Islamic state with expansionist tendencies." And as Wright has shown in writing about Judaism and Christianity, theology and morality "are ultimately obedient to the facts on the ground."
From the standpoint of high-status Meccan polytheists, if there was one thing worse than someone who denounced the wealthy and preached monotheism, it was someone who did the two synergistically. That was Muhammad. Like Jesus, he was intensely apocalyptic in a left-wing way; he believed that Judgment Day would bring a radical inversion of fortunes. Jesus had said that no rich man would enter the kingdom of heaven. The Koran says that "Whoso chooseth the harvest field of this life" will indeed prosper; "but no portion shall there be for him in the life to come."

We're also so used to referring to Muhammad's god as Allah, that we sometimes forget that Allah is the same god as the one worshiped by Jews and Christians: "Muhammad's basic claim was that he was a prophet sent by the god who had first revealed himself to Abraham and later had spoken through Moses and Jesus." So Wright chooses to refer to Allah as "God" in his discussions of Islam. Moreover, there is some evidence that Allah was the Judeo-Christian God, who had been "accepted into the [pre-Islamic] Meccan pantheon some time earlier to cement relations with Christian trading partners from Syria, or maybe brought to Arabia by Christian or Jewish migrants.... This explains the rhetorical thrust of the Koran -- not to convince Meccans to believe that Allah exists or that he is the creator God, but to convince them that he is the only God worthy of devotion, indeed the only God in existence."

Of course, in the post-9/11 world, what bothers us most is the question of tolerance versus belligerence, the problem of the Koran's attitude toward "infidels." Here again, Wright sees the inconsistencies in the Koran as reflective of "the facts on the ground." "At one point Muhammad is urging Muslims to kill infidels and at another moment he is a beacon of religious tolerance. The two Muhammads seem irreconcilable at first, but they are just one man, adapting to circumstance." In his years in Mecca, which produced most of the writings in the Koran, Muhammad often counseled his followers to be patient and "resist the impulse of vengeance."
When you encounter infidels, says one sura, "Turn thou from them, and say 'Peace:'" Let God handle the rest: "In the end they shall know their folly." Another Meccan sura suggests how to handle a confrontation with a confirmed infidel. Just say: "I shall never worship that which ye worship. Neither will ye worship that which I worship. To you be your religion; to me my religion." ... This theme is constant through Muhammad's days in Mecca. In what is considered one of the earliest Meccan suras, God says to Muhammad: "Endure what they say with patience, and depart from them with a decorous departure."
As Wright says, this is entirely consistent with Paul's admonitions to bless one's persecutors and the Hebrew Bible's advice to the Israelites, when they were on the losing side, to practice tolerance of non-believers. "After moving to Medina and mobilizing its resources, Muhammad would, like the Israelites of Deuteronomy, find war a more auspicious prospect.... But so long as Muhammad remained in Mecca, fighting was unappealing and religious tolerance expansive."

Wright sees "the difference between Muhammad in Mecca and Muhammad in Medina" as "the difference between a prophet and a politician." As his political success grew, he tried reaching out to Jews and Christians: "the Jewish ban on eating pork was mirrored in a Muslim ban on eating pork, probably first enunciated in Medina." And he accepted the Christian belief in the virgin birth, although he drew the line at Jesus's divinity, believing it was a step toward polytheism. On the other hand, he wanted Jews and Christians "to accept that their own scriptures, however sacred, had been a prelude to the Koran; that their own prophets, however great, had been preludes to himself. Any merger of religions he may have envisioned wasn't a merger of equals." And that would be too much to ask.

And so the Koran is, like the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, filled with ambiguities, with the result that "Even today, some Muslims like to emphasize [Muhammad's] belligerence -- they wage holy war and say they do so in the finest tradition of the Prophet -- while other Muslims insist that Islam is a religion of peace, in the finest tradition of the Prophet." Today, much interpretation of the Koran centers on the word jihad, which means "striving" or "struggle," but actually appears in the Koran only four times. "And depending on which of those four verses you pick, you could make the case that jihad is either about an internal struggle toward spiritual discipline or about war; there is no 'doctrine' of jihad in the Koran.... If the Koran were a manual for all-out jihad, it would deem unbelief by itself sufficient cause for attack. It doesn't."
Muhammad pursued an expansionist foreign policy, and war was a key instrument. But to successfully pursue such a policy -- and he was certainly successful -- you have to take a nuanced approach to warfare. You can't use it gratuitously, when its costs exceed its benefits. And you can't reject potentially helpful allies just because they don't share your religion.... Indeed, if the standard versions of Muslim history are correct, he was forging alliances with non-Muslim Arabian tribes until the day he died. Once you see Muhammad in this light -- as a political leader who deftly launched an empire -- the parts of the Koran that bear on war make perfect sense. They are just Imperialism 101.
Wright observes that Muhammad took on, at various times in his career, the character of many of his "Abrahamic predecessors." In Mecca, where he was the leader of "a small band of devotees, warning that Judgment Day was coming," he resembled Jesus. Like Isaiah, he prophesied that his persecutors would suffer the wrath of God. Like Moses, he led his followers to the promised land: Medina. Like Paul, he proselytized among the Jews. And when he gained power, "he started to resemble King Josiah, the man who put the ancient Israelites on the path toward monotheism in the course of gathering power."
To be sure, Josiah's moral compass seems to have been more thoroughly skewed by his ambitions than Muhammad's. The prescription in Deuteronomy for neighboring infidel cities is all-out genocide -- kill all men, women, and children, not to mention livestock. There is nothing in the Koran that compares with this, arguably the moral low point of Abrahamic scripture. Still, if Muhammad never countenanced the killing of women and children, he did countenance a lot of killing.

In some regards, the Koran is more generous than the Bible when it comes to salvation. It "says more than once that not just Muslims but Jews and Christians are eligible for salvation so long as they believe in God and in Judgment Day and live a life worthy of favorable judgment." On the other hand, the Bible is a more cosmopolitan work than the Koran. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament "captured ideas of great civilizations, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Christianity's Hellenistic milieu. The Koran took shape in two desert towns on the margin of empires, uttered by a man who was more a doer than a thinker and was probably illiterate." Still, Wright sees Muhammad as "a more modern figure than Moses and Jesus." He had "no special powers. He can't turn a rod into a snake or water into wine.... [T]he Koranic Muhammad, unlike the biblical Jesus and Moses, doesn't depend on miracle-working for proof of proximity to God."

And the question remains about whether the teachings of any of the Abrahamic religions remain relevant to the circumstances of our century. This is where Wright is headed next: to a discussion of "the effect of changing circumstance" -- the facts on the ground -- "on
human moral consciousness." The Koran, Wright observes, oscillates from "To you your religion; to me my religion" to "Kill the polytheists wherever you find them." "All of the Abrahamic scriptures attest to the correlation between circumstance and moral consciousness, but none so richly as the Koran. In that sense, at least, the Koran is unrivaled as a revelation."