Sunday, October 28, 2007

Religion of Victory: Understanding Islam

I first learned of Malise Ruthven last last week, after reading Christopher Hitchens' recent defense of Islamofascist terminology.

It turns out that Ruthven was the first writer of recent years to identify the Islamist threat in terms of fascist ideology. I took significant interest, therefore, in his new essay on "
How to Understand Islam" at the New York Review of Books. Ruthven points out that after 9/11, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair took great pains to portray Islam as a religion of peace. But according to Ruthven, core Islamic doctrine calls into question Islam's assumed pacific foundations:

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington, where he told his audience, "These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.... The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." In Britain his sentiments were echoed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat: "There is nothing in Islam which excuses such an all-encompassing massacre of innocent people, nor is there anything in the teachings of Islam that allows the killing of civilians, of women and children, of those who are not engaged in war or fighting."

However reflective such views may be of the "moderate" Muslim majority, they are not uncontested. As John Kelsay shows in his new book Arguing the Just War in Islam, debates about the ethics of conflict have been going on since the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The scholars who interpreted the Prophet's teachings addressed issues such as the permissibility of using "hurling machines," or mangonels, where noncombatants including women and children, and Muslim captives or merchants, might be endangered. In the "realm of war" outside the borders of Islam a certain military realism prevailed: for example the eighth-century jurist al-Shaybani (who died in 805) stated that if such methods were not permitted the Muslims would be unable to fight at all.
I was particularly intrigued by Ruthven's characterization of Islam as a "religion of victory." He notes that Kemal Ataturk's secularization of Turkey in the early 20th-century angered Muslims, who reject situating Islam in society in terms of moral equivalence. A core of Islamic doctrine is triumph over challengers:

In the majority Sunni tradition this sense of supremacy was sanctified as much by history as by theology. In the first instance, the truth of Islam was vindicated on the field of battle. As Hans K√ľng acknowledges in Islam: Past, Present and Future—his 767-page overview of the Islamic faith and history, seen from the perspective of a liberal Christian theologian—Islam is above all a "religion of victory." Muslims of many persuasions—not just the self-styled jihadists—defend the truth claims of their religion by resorting to what might be called the argument from manifest success.

According to this argument, the Prophet Muhammad overcame the enemies of truth by divinely assisted battles as well as by preaching. Building on his victories and faith in his divine mission, his successors, the early caliphs, conquered most of western Asia and North Africa as well as Spain. In this view the truth of Islam was vindicated by actual events, through Islam's historical achievement in creating what would become a great world civilization.

The argument from manifest suc-cess is consonant with the theological doctrine according to which Islam supersedes the previous revelations of Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians are in error because they deviated from the straight path revealed to Abraham, ancestral patriarch of all three faiths. Islam "restores" the true religion of Abraham while superseding Judeo-Christianity as the "final" revelation. The past and the future belong to Islam even if the present makes for difficulties.
These points should give pause to those advocating interfaith reconcilation amid the contemporary battle against global Islamist fundamentalism.

Ruthven reviews Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Infidel. Hirsi Ali apparently is not an expert on her own faith, although she's completely renounced Islam, based on her own experience of living a life of religious intolerance and violence. Upon her transformation to outspoken critic of Islam, some commentators identified Hirsi Ali as an "enlightenment fundamentalist":

It might be more appropriate, however, to describe Ali as a "born-again" believer in Enlightenment values. Infidel has the hallmarks of a spiritual autobiography in which she progresses through various stages of illumination, from childhood trauma in Somalia (entailing genital mutilation inflicted by her own grandmother), through an adolescence in Saudi Arabia and Kenya, where a brief espousal of the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood empowers her to question her family's tribal values within the frame of the movement's stultifying, still patriarchal religiosity, toward eventual enlightenment and emancipation in Holland, aided by encounters with Dutch fellow students and readings from Spinoza, Voltaire, Darwin, Durkheim, and Freud. This remarkable spiritual journey is interlaced with a classic story of personal courage in the face of a parochial and misogynistic social system that systematically brutalizes women in the name of God, and in which women routinely submit to neglect and violence. Told with a rare combination of passion and detachment, it is a Seven Storey Mountain in reverse: a pilgrimage from belief to skepticism.
Ruthven's article is worth a good, careful read.

I claim no particular expertise in Islamic doctrine, although my previous realist skepticism on Islam's purported peaceful nature is confirmed by the knowledge Ruthven imparts.