Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ruminations Continued

Another hiatus appears to have seized this blog, and by "appears to have seized" I mean I became preoccupied with a lot of other things. I didn't want it to continue into February and a lot of people have reminded me in the last week that real people do read this blog. I had some observations on the state of our world that I wanted to make in the interim, but if I don't finish what I started in the last post, I probably never will, and I did say I would continue it. That's not to say that it is intended to convince anyone of anything, or to even make a modicum of sense to anyone outside my own head.

4. Enemies

I use the term to denote those who, whether out of good intentions or outright malice, will only foster continued division and oppression in our world. I don't mean this to be exhaustive - both Muslims and non-Muslim "Westerners" tend to be arrogant enough to think that they are the only peoples who matter in the world, and that everyone else is just a spectator. This is, in some ways, part of the problem, but since I tend to spend more time thinking about the relationship between the two groups, and have a great deal more experience with it than with anything else, I'm going to talk about it here.

The problems amongst the Muslims are manifold, but are largely compounded by the fact that most of the Muslims aren't literate. Now, it is possible that a majority of them can, in fact, discern the words that are formed by letters in their native tongues (the CIA World Factbook gives Indonesia's literacy at 90.4%, which might be a comment on the Factbook), but by literacy I mean more than this, I mean an appreciation for new ideas that come to them through written materials. Misogyny and an attachment to tribal power structures are representative of an attempt by some individuals to maintain their power - no group is a better example of this than the Ibn Saud - and this tends to make understanding between the Muslim world and the West even harder. A large number of Muslims are convinced that a purely technical education is all they need to surpass the "West," but this does nothing to help them free themselves as a society, as that technical knowledge still depends on a framework of ideas that is the product of other minds.

On the other side of the coin, we have the rise in anti-Islam sentiment in the West. Groups which promote such an agenda tend to break down in two groups - Christian or Atheist. The Christian groups tend to buy into the "Clash of Civilizations" argument, spuriously ascribing the "West"'s greatness to Church teachings. They are inevitably virulent zionists, and tend to view the conflict in Palestine with a zealous unreasonableness, even the Catholics amongst them, along with viewing the Prophet Muhammad as an almost Satanic figure, referring to Islam in their literature as a "death-cult."

The Atheist groups and individuals tend to be overall less dogmatic. They see religion as the root of all conflict, and the Muslim world as the most religious portion of humanity. Consequently, they are predisposed towards hostility towards Islam. Despite streaks of liberalism, they still tend to buy into nationalistic ideologies, and believe strongly that "9/11 changed everything" and similar exceptionalist crap.

Of these two groups I'm actually coming to believe that the latter is the more dangerous of the two. Fundamentally, Christianity still compels people to behave in selfless ways, and is a pan-human movement in the same way that Islam is. It also has a rich tradition of Scriptural interpretation; the Old Testament provides all sorts of harsh punishments for people who commit offenses against tradition and ritual, but I have never heard of a Christian or Jewish man actually trying to punish someone for working on the Sabbath. There is, of course, a rationale for this way of interpreting the scripture, but I think that the result of such a process of interpretation is that Christians are better equipped, intellectually, to come to terms with Islam as a religion than atheists are, since the latter considers the entire enterprise to be, a priori, bogus.

If ethics is, as many atheists vociferously argue, an evolutionary adaptation to promote group survival, then nationalism is a ethical quality. There is no reason to be concerned for the rights of someone in the Congo if doing so would jeopardize the prosperity and Darwinian fitness of the people in one's North American social circle. Whether or not this logic will play out in full remains to be seen - North America and Europe are still societies with a powerful Christian heritage, and it will take at least another two generations before its echo dies out, if at all.

5. Interpretations

I used to be told two things about Islamic jurisprudence, and my views upon both have changed.

1) People should accept the guidance of scholars.
2) Bukhari and Muslim are sahih, and shouldn't be questioned.

The first once caused me to scoff. If I had wanted to be led by a priesthood, I'd become a Catholic. The whole beauty of Islam was that it wasn't an institutionalized, organized religion, but an enterprise that attempted to connect the individual personally and directly with God, without any man-made intermediary whatsoever. I still believe that, but I think there was a certain wisdom in the creation of a class of people who were, by convention, considered qualified to issue opinions on various pressing issues. Ultimately, moral responsibility lies with the individual, as the Qur'an makes clear. That however, doesn't diminish the value of having people whose knowledge of the history of the field is expansive, and who can apply its lessons to the present. This is important, because without it, more and more people start to believe in 2) .

The attempt to make Bukhari and Muslim seem like canonical books of Islam has been largely spearheaded by adherents of Wahhabi-Salafism, literalists whose thinking abolishes all the old schools of jurisprudence, founded only upon the Qur'an, any historical evidence of the Prophet's example (peace be upon him), and logical deduction. It is a modernist school of thought. In reality though, the hadiths in Bukhari and Muslim are themselves only statements of probability - it is highly likely that they are true, but non-acceptance of one of them does not equate to a fundamental repudiation of Islam as a whole. The issue is spelled out very well in this paper I found on IslamOnline (I don't endorse the entire thing, but its a nice overview).

That said, there must be limits to interpretive freedom. While most Muslims tend to deride the Irshad Manji types, I have gained a perhaps back-handed respect for her, since only tremendous faith could overcome that depth of contradiction. At the end of the day, there are some things which will seem relatively harmless to the liberal, irreligious mind, but which simply cannot be reconciled with Islam. Western society generally accepts (rather than merely tolerates), alcohol, fornication, and increasingly, homosexual intercourse; Islam repudiates them, regardless of the degree of empirical harm that each can be shown to cause in the secular sense. The scripture consistently views them in a negative light -the specifics may change, and specific situations may necessitate what is forbidden becoming permissible, but that doesn't change the fact that the default prescription is to forbid. Otherwise, we run the risk of worshiping not God, but our own desires; avoidance of this is central to the message of Islam.


I think that will be it for this two-part series; although I might make similar ruminations and observations at a later date. If you read all the way, I hope it was worth your time. I'll be back with more of my usual fare as we move into February, when I hope to be a little more regular than I was this month.

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