I recently had an e-mail exchange with a reader who said that the problem facing the world today is Islam. Not radical Islam, not Islamic terrorists, but Islam itself.
He pointed out, correctly, that much of the most violent behavior is justified by either the Koran or the Hadith (a collection of sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad). His main thesis was that Islam is not a peaceful religion, it is a violent one, and thus cannot be accomodated; it must be opposed.
Even if you believe this, there are lots of reasons not to act on that belief – not making instant enemies of the world’s 1 billion Muslims, for example. I know moderate Muslims, so they do exist. Even “battle of civilizations” proponents should want such Muslims on their side, simply because it makes the battle more winnable.
But that’s not the point of this article. What I’m reaching for here is historical context. I do not pretend to be a religious scholar, but this is what I see unfolding in Islam today.
Most major religions are born out of conflict and tribulation. Judaism arose from the beliefs of the wandering tribes of Israel; Christianity arose from the torture-death of a Jewish heretic and rabblerouser; Islam arose among the warring nomadic tribes of the Middle East. The notable exception to that rule is Buddhism – which is also, not coincidentally, the most peaceful of the major religions.
Thus Jewish scripture is full of stories of conquering land, slaughtering enemies, condoning polygamy and slavery, and horrific punishments for violation of minor religious laws. Christianity, being an offshoot of Judaism, adopted those same stories, renaming them the Old Testament. And despite the New Testament being a modification or even wholesale replacement for the Old, the Old Testament is still cited on such matters as homosexuality and adultery, as well as when invoking the awesome power of God and the penalties for defying him.
Islam, too, contains a contradictory mix of violence and peacemaking, a product of the tribal culture it sprang from, as well as the practical realities that Muhammad straddled the secular/sectarian line. He founded a major religion, but he was also heavily involved in efforts to unite the tribes and turn their violent energies outward, into a conquering force that swept the region. It’s no coincidence that the Koran is more forgiving and peaceful than the Hadith. The challenge is to separate the words of Muhammad the prophet from the words of Muhammad the general and tribal nationalist.
Admittedly, it’s more complicated than that. The Koran and the Hadith are somewhat similar to the Jewish Torah and Talmud. One is the core religious text; the other is a collection of explanations and traditions. But in the case of the Hadith, the authenticity of many sayings is suspect, and as a result there are many different Hadiths. Reconciling them will be a major challenge. But the main point is that the Hadiths are less authoritative than the Koran.
From those usually violent beginnings, most religions seem to undergo a predictable growth arc – from persecuted sect to evangelical expansion to established religion that persecutes its own sects in turn. At some point there is a schism among believers, which is either settled — violently, for the most part — or results in a split, such as the Protestant/Catholic split in Christianity or the Sunni/Shiite split in Islam.
But at some point a religion has to reconcile its violent, expansionistic origins with the reality of being part of the establishment. And that means repudiating the more extreme aspects of their origins. Hence no mainstream Christian denomination follows Jewish dietary law, even though Jesus was a devout Jew. No Jew or Christian thinks slavery is divinely approved, even though the Old Testament had no problem with it. Most of Leviticus has been discarded wholesale.
In addition, most religions discover that religion and secular power don’t mix well, nor does intolerance and enforced orthodoxy. So over time most religions get out of the governing business, and allow all believers to follow their conscience. Christianity managed that trick just a couple of centuries ago – and still hasn’t shaken the impulse entirely.
Such growth didn’t happen easily, and it didn’t happen overnight. It takes a long time for a religion to mature. It’s no coincidence that the oldest major Western religion, Judaism, is also the least evangelical and most tolerant; Jews resolved their major schism thousands of years ago. Christianity is younger, and resolved its contradictions just a few hundred years ago, although the effects linger in certain quarters.
Islam is the youngest of the three. I submit that what we are seeing today is Islam passing through the same painful adolescence that both Judaism and Christianity endured centuries ago.
Let’s look at the timeline. Christianity was born in the 1st century. The Reformation came 1,500 years later, and took a century of warfare to resolve – and was preceded by centuries of religious warfare, expansion and persecution, including the Crusades.
Islam was founded in the 7th Century. And now, 1,500 years later, it is at the same stage of development as Christianity was 600 years ago.
The parallels are striking. The 1400s began with the Spanish Inquisition, which eventually led to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. Elsewhere there was a brisk business in burning heretics at the stake, notably John Huss and Jerome of Prague, burned for spreading the writings of John Wycliffe.
This led to the rise of the Hussites, which in turn prompted the first inter-Christian Crusade, a 13-year war between the church and the Hussites that the Hussites won.
All this bloodshed merely laid the foundation for the Reformation, which would convulse the entire 16th century in violence and horror. And religious wars also marked the 17th century, notably the Thirty Years’ War that began in 1618.
Christianity emerged from all of this as a more mature religion. Split, of course, between Catholics and Protestants, but with armed force no longer a desirable option for enforcing orthodoxy. Two centuries of war had, quite simply, worn everybody out. They were ready to embrace tolerance if that was the price of peace.
And so it is, I believe, with Islam. We are unfortunate enough to be alive during Islam’s bloody transition from its medieval origins to modernity. The good news is that eventually moderate theology should win the day: the more violent parts of the Koran will be devalued, and any conflict between the Koran and the Hadith will be resolved in favor of the Koran, since the Koran is God’s word and the Hadith is not.
The bad news is that it could take 100 years or more, and the fallout and human cost could be very, very high.
There is reason for optimism. The world is not as backward a place as it was in the 15th century. The West has learned the lessons of religious violence, and can serve as an example and guide for resolving Islam’s internal conflicts. So while the Islamic Reformation is and will be violent, it can be expected to take less time than the Christian Reformation did.
Our job, therefore, is to encourage and support the moderate reformers while opposing and undermining the medievalists. It will take patience, money, intellectual firepower and an acknowledgement that it will proceed in fits and starts. But the entire world will benefit from Islam shedding its medieval past. If ever there was a project well worth undertaking, this is it.Powered by Sidelines