Islamic Philosophy and the Future of the Arab Spring
Published on: January 4, 2012
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  • Les Hardie

    Great article. When I hear someone say,”the Bible is full of killings and crimes, so it isn’t different from the Koran which, for example , talks of killing Jews wherever they can be found”,I respond: “the basic difference is that the Bible tells a story about what happen in the past, while the Koran is in the present tense. If Jehovah told the Israelites to slay their enemies, nobody thinks it is a command to do the same today. But Muslims believe Allah’s commands to slay enemies apply today. It is therefore wrong to say that the Bible justifies murder, while the Koran does.”
    do you agree that this is a fair summary of the issue?

  • Jbird

    Les: I disagree, I just haven’t been able to find any Jebusites or Amorites.

  • WigWag

    Thanks for the interesting essay, Professor Berger.

    I think that a perfect illustration of the difference in how Christians view the Bible as opposed to how Muslims view the Koran can be found by comparing how the Christian world treated Dante and Milton on the one hand and how the Islamic world treated Salman Rushdie on the other.

    Dante, Milton and Rushdie were all engaged in essentially the same enterprise; they were rewriting and reinterpreting ancient sacred scripture as contemporary literature. While the three authors differed in the form they adopted (Dante and Milton wrote epic poems while Rushdie’s book took the form of a modern novel) “The Divine Comedy,” “Paradise Lost” and “The Satanic Verses” all embellish the stories told in sacred texts.

    There is no question that that “The Divine Comedy” and “Paradise Lost” are every bit as profane as the “Satanic Verses” is. Dante’s famous poem in three volumes lays out a detailed geography for hell, heaven and purgatory based on only the slimiest biblical references. Dante cedes to himself the power to determine who belongs where and he sets up his former ceceased love interest, Beatrice, as a virtual competitor to the Virgin Mary.

    In “Paradise Lost,” Milton presents Satan as a magnificent and wronged hero, while his God is presented as an arrogant bully and God’s son is described as an officious oaf. Milton’s Eve is a luscious vixen whose sexual allure is difficult to resist not only for Adam but also for Satan and the archangel Gabriel. According to Milton, even before the fall, Adam and Eve have an active sexual life and Satan is envious when he happens upon them in the Garden of Eden making love. While Milton doesn’t come out and state it explicitly, he strongly implies that Eve samples more than the forbidden fruit at Satan’s suggestion. Milton’s implication is that Eve “cheats” on Adam by having a sexual liaison with Satan.

    To make matters worse, both Dante and Milton were on the wrong (losing) side of political conflicts; in fact, Dante was exiled for it.

    Blasphemy was obvious in both “The Divine Comedy” and “Paradise Lost” yet even with the political handicaps of their authors both works were published with little to no objection from the censors and neither author was excommunicated or faced difficulties from the ecclesiastical authorities.

    It is informative to compare all of this to Rushdie’s experience. Rewriting the Koran as a novel was an obvious motivation for “The Satanic Verses” and regardless of how Rushdie tried to retreat from that motivation in his subsequent writing in the vain hope that it would quiet everyone down, Islamic ecclesiastical authorities, especially in Iran, would not be deterred.

    Speaking of Milton, the Romantic poet William Blake famously said,

    “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God and at liberty when of devils and hell is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

    Regardless of how Christian authorities down through the ages have viewed the inerrancy of the Bible, there has been room for the likes of Dante and Milton in the Christian world for more than 500 years; unfortunately the same thing cannot be said of the Islamic world. Salman Rushdie still needs to tread carefully when traveling to a new place. Ayaan Hirsi Ali still needs to travel with bodyguards.

    The Christian world learned to accommodate itself to heterodox religious views centuries ago; the Islamic world still hasn’t figured it out.

  • Ken Smith

    Professor Berger:

    This is on target, timely and relevant, but very difficult for westerners to grasp.

    The best accessible exposition of the thesis you have laid out is found in Robert R. Reilly’s _The Closing of the Muslim Mind_. I cannot think of a more beneficial book to recommend for anyone concerned about the civilizational challenges presented by the dominant philosophical view in Islam.

  • I.M. Mutazil

    Excellent article! The debate is as relevant today as it was during the Mutazilite period. Unfortunately the Muslim clergy that contrived against the Mutazilites is currently engaged in propagating a mechanistic form of Islam devoid of any intellectual debates on liberalism. Their Friday sermons place more emphasis on Hadith than on Quran in preaching their message, which is often dictated by authoritarian regimes.
    I grew up in the west and considered myself fortunate to be born a Muslim since my readings of the Quran led me to feel that it is created and is the constitution of a dynamic and liberal faith. However, when I moved to the Middle East, I was disillusioned with how there seems to be a conspiracy to hijack the religion from its pure form to a means to an end. Clergy were picking Hadiths that supported their agenda and discounting those that do not. A nightmare scenario would be if corrupt clergy, brotherhoods or the likes of Hezbollah actually gain power arising from the Arab Spring.

  • Richard Butrick

    On Les Hardie’s comment.

    Excellent point. The Quran is basically an instruction manual while the Bible is much more a collection of parables:

    parable of the sower
    parable of the prodigal son
    parable of the good samaritan

    parables are meant to be interpreted.

    in the imperative while the Bible is basically intthe declarative.

  • John

    The Mu’tazilites were a tiny minority of early medieval Muslims, thirty guys who’d read a bit of Aristotle in Arabic translation. They caught the fancy of a few caliphs, before being suppressed for their heresy. Impact on the history of Islamic thought and jurisprudence? Slightly greater than Nil.

    Soroush is interesting, smart, a good writer, but irrelevant. He’s Shi’ite, and from Harvard: neither attribute likely to endear him to salafi jihadis, or those supplying the millions upon millions of textbooks needed by Saudi, Egyptian, and Pakistani schools.

    Besides, you’ll only make ’em mad. Crazy kuffar want to undermine ‘true’ Islam, by reintroducing a heresy that’s been good and dead for over 1,000 years?

    Oh, and who is gonna pay for the reeducation? Saudis have spent some 50 billion USD on the global spread of their version of Islam, since the early 1970s. They done good, too. So much so, that one hardly ever hears Wahhabi Islam called a heresy any longer. It’s the new normal. It’s like waking up one day and learning that one can’t run for Congress without being a Scientologist…. And where to put the camps? China? Siberia?

    Also, there’s that little problem of the non-establishment clause. Alternatively, you can go with the one party that has a proven track record, and subcontract to the Soviets. They invented a whole new form of patriotic Islam in the 1930s and 1940s.

    But if we’re serious, here’s my four part plan:
    1. Free access to American entertainment and news media;
    2. Kindles with free access to all university presses;
    3. Massively-funded instruction in English, or French, or German.
    4. Patience.

    American culture and now global culture is like the Borg. Resistance is futile. Muslims, too, will be assimilated. Just be patient. First they dress like us, then use our weapons, then start to listen to our music and watch our TV, then talk like us, use our internet, come to our schools, etc. Soon enough, they’ll be part of the Collective.

    Soon, if you listen close, you’ll hear the Saudi grand mufti himself humming and tapping his toes to that Madonna tune he just can’t get out of his brain.

    The Arabic-speaking Middle East, at least, really has no real choice in the matter. Either surrender to the Collective, or watch their region turn into a cross between Somalia and Mad Max. If Egypt wants to roll time back a millennium, that’s their business. If we really feel bad, we can send some food, now and again. Either way, sans CBR, the U.S. just doesn’t have much to lose. Corsairs still aren’t a match for a Marine Expeditionary Force.

  • Saad

    Thank you for your balanced informative article in regards to Islam. I look forward to reading part 2: a discussion of Islam (in light of your theory above) during the Islamic Golden Age as Islamic government peacefully led civilized Europe and the Middle East.

  • A couple of points in response: one, the “periphery” and “core” concept that the author advances is, in a sense, already present in orthodox Sunni and Shi’a interpretive praxis, through the idea of naskh, “abrogation” (though abrogation is an imperfect translation). As Muslim exegetes recognized very early on, there is a great deal within the Qur’an that simply does not align. Take the consumption of wine: there are verses that command moderation, others that commend wine as a gift of God, and others that prohibit its consumption outright. The prevailing opinion that emerged among medieval Muslim exegetes held (and still holds for the most part, so far as I know) that the various revelations were historically contingent to the early Muslim community- stages of revelation, basically, not unlike the Christian Patristic idea of successive revelation of matters such as the Holy Trinity. This did not, in the minds of these exegetes, vitiate the divine origin and uncreated nature of the text, but rather manifested the power and mercy of the divine author. The author could have benefited from reading some tafsir, though unfortunately English-language resources for tafsir are still rather thin on the ground.

    Second, and related to the above, holding to the divine origin of the text does not calcify the text into an inert object. In fact, if anything, it does the opposite. If a text is merely the result of historical contingency, then its meaning is pretty fixed. This is true of Western Biblical scholarship as well. Compare early modern and modern approaches to the Bible to medieval and late antique approaches: for the modern exegete (conservative or liberal) there is at root one meaning, the literal-historical, whether the exegete considers the text inspired or not. For the medieval or Patristic exegete, on the contrary, there are, at the very least, four potential levels of meaning, and maybe more; furthermore, because of the divine origin of the text, fixing it down is not simply a matter of historical inquiry and philological work. Rather, the Bible, for Patristic or medieval commentators, must be read in the community of the Church, prayerfully and meditatively, as a text with multiple layers of meaning and possible directions, not a historical artefact. Likewise with medieval Islam: the Qur’an must be read in the context of the ‘Ummah, the community; for any given verse there are many possible directions an exegete can take, meanings to be explored. For mystically-minded Muslims, there are even more layers, though even “exoteric” minded exegetes could still discover allegorical and tropological meanings.

    Finally, it is interesting that the author of this piece picks the Mu’tazilites as his heroes, so to speak. The Mu’tazilites, besides being known for their “rationalist” theology, where also known for their close association with the ‘Abbasid government, culminating in the famous Mihna, or “Inquisition” as it often gets translated, directed against Muslims who held to the uncreated nature of the Qur’an. This repressive act of the government, and the opposition sustained by Abu Hanbal among others, was as important as anything else in cementing the doctrine of the uncreated nature of the Qur’an in Sunni Islam.

    But all of the things I’ve described can be summed up in one major problem that most contemporary authors face (regardless of confessional affiliation or lack thereof) in thinking and writing about these sorts of things. Modern presuppositions and categories cannot simply be juxtaposed on medieval and late antique worlds, Christian or Muslim. We live in a world dominated by the structures- physical and epistemic- of modern states and modern capitalism, which simply did not exist before early modernity. These structures have completely changed the world, no matter where one lives. When looking back at pre-modern societies, our tendency is to replicate these structures and hence distort the pre-modern past. In this case, categories of “liberal” and “conservative” simply cannot be imposed upon medieval people. Comparing medieval shari’a and modern legal regimes enforced by centralized states is not a simple matter; they are vastly different things. If we want to get at the past without replicating the present, we must work very hard at it, recognizing first the sort of world we live in and how very different it is in many respects from the worlds of the pre-modern past.

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  • robert reilly

    The problem here is that the Mu’tazalite school was suppressed by the Ash’arites in the latter half of the ninth century. Al Ghazali then completed the de-hellenization of Sunni Muslim thought by the early twelfth century. In the Sunni world, Ash’arism, with its extreme forms of occasionalism and voluntarism, prevailed.

    When the late Nasr Abu Zaid so much as suggested that Arabic was a human convention and that the Qur’an was created, he was declared an apostate in Egypt and he and his wife fled to the Netherlands. Calling someone a Mu’tazalite today is the equivalent of declaring him a heretic. This does not leave much room for hope.

    Thank you for your recommendation, Mr. Smith.

  • Infidel

    Excellent article. Thank you.

    However I don’t understand something. How can so fragmentary and discoordinate a collection of aphorisms be regarded as a unitary whole in the first place? I’m referring to the piecemeal, evolving, and finally self contradicting evolution of the koran of course. Leaving aside the strange biblical references, which, doubtless, were drifting around Bedu campfires, there’s the conflict of the Meccan and the Medinan suras. Somehow these are brought into line with muhammad’s enunciation of the abrogation principle (2:106) which, tellingly, was broached in the first of the Medinan suras. And clearly abrogation prepares the ground for the aggressive, violent islam we experienced most vivdly on 9/11. I just don’t understand how the liberal muslims get around this.

  • Excellent analysis and followup post & comments.
    In the world of absolutes there is right or wrong /correct and incorrect. There is also varying degrees of correctness which is the point I’d like to make. Scripture says there will be many imitations:

    “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. 2 Peter 2:1-3
    One needs to decide whether he/she believe the Old & New Testament IS in fact correct in its entirety – the Word of God. I cant see how oil and water will ever mix. Therefore, my opinions of the Arab Spring is nothing more than empowering the Muslim Brotherhood to do as they wish as it grows through the region. Both Muslims and Christians believe in an end time conflict and unfortunately I believe Islam will take steps to evoke the false promises given to them as things continue to escalate as they are right now. The liberal Muslims will continue to be attacked by their own. Iran with a nuke is right around the corner pushing the biblical timeline forward. . By our actions, we’ve learned nothing from history. What a time to be alive

  • Inga Leonova

    Excellent article, Mr. Berger. I think a useful “companion piece” to it would be a paper by Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub “The Word of God in Islam” presented at the Orthodox-Muslim conference at the Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, MA in, I believe, 1983. It does a great job exposing the essence of the Islamic perception of Q’uran as the pre-eternal Word of God.

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  • Musa

    A fairly written essay on islam. But the comments on this article reveal much hostility to a percieved resurgent islam. It should be notedthat muslims arent some artificial intelligence that a program that best suits the west will be installed in their mi th

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