Monday, June 23, 2008

Book Time

If you’re looking for an illuminating history and discussion of Islam, I recommend No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam (2005) by Reza Aslan. I heard Aslan on radio and found his approach to Islam very understandable. His book is no less so despite providing what for me is the clearest and most detailed history of Islamic thought and culture, not to mention its widely varied development as both religious and state institution. I can’t begin to do justice to the logic and completeness of Aslan’s work other than to say I learned how a philosophy based on the teachings of a single prophet who spoke of equality, tolerance and community became married to tribal loyalties, state institutions and clerical privilege yet remained sufficiently adaptable to accommodate a variety of cultures as it spread throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.

Aslan sets the birth of Islam in the context of Western religious tradition; Mohammed linked his teachings to the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Christianity, recognizing their authority and support for his monotheism that challenged the prevailing polytheism of the Arabian Peninsula. Islam challenged the ruling powers and came under attack, which gives rise to warlike language often associated with the Koran. And once Mohammed gained a following that could sustain itself, it became part of the power structure.

Like the Bible, Islam’s holy book was written after the fact, not by Mohammed. Mohammed did not even designate a successor to what was more than just a religious community. Once The Prophet was gone, tribal divisions created the first rift in the community and interpretation fell to The Companions, those who walked with Mohammed (much like Jesus’ apostles) and then those they mentored. The written Koran came much later, produced by those well removed from The Prophet and considerably influenced by their times.

Aside from the history, which is still too complex for me to follow without a genealogical chart, Aslan also presents the intellectual traditions of Islamic thought. It is here where I see the both the zenith and nadir of Islam. On the one hand, is a vibrant, adaptable tradition, not fully individual as in the western democratic tradition but offering the individual the security and support of a shared community. That’s the zenith that was so evident during the Dark Ages in Europe for which we owe a cultural debt to the Muslim world for preserving much of our knowledge and heritage (not to mention mathematics and some inspiring architecture). The nadir is the closed thought of fundamentalists who insist on a form of “pure” Islam that resembles nothing so much as 7th century Arabia.

Much of the rhetoric in the so-called “war on terror” has centered on the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and (depending on your perspective) Judeo-Christianity or western democracy. Aslan sees this as a false dichotomy. For him the issue comes down to competition between many divergent strains of religious thought—something not uncommon to all religions—and how to accommodate religious thought within a community. He finds his answer in pluralism and the distinction between secularism and secularization. Aslan disputes the western idea that

… [T]here can be no a priori moral framework in a modern democracy; that … the foundation of a genuinely democratic society must be secularism. The problem with this argument, however is that it not only fails to recognize the inherently moral foundation upon with a large number of modern democracies are built, it more importantly fails to appreciate the difference between secularism and secularization.

As the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox notes, secularization is a process by which “certain responsibilities pass from ecclesiastical to political authorities,” whereas secularism is an ideology based on the eradication of religion from public life. Secularization implies a historical evolution in which society gradually frees itself from “religious control and closed metaphysical world-views. Secularism is itself a closed metaphysical world-view, which, according to Cox “functions much like a new religion. (italics in original)

Aslan defines democracy as pluralism, not secularism. “A democratic state can be established upon any normative framework as long as pluralism remain the source of its legitimacy." He notes, America’s “Judeo-Christian—and more precisely Protestant—moral famework” and reminds Americans that Alexis de Tocqueville recognized religion as the foundation of America’s political system nearly 200 years ago.

Despite what schoolchildren read in their the history books, the reality is that the separation of “Church and State” is not so much the foundation of American government as it is the result of a two-hundred-fifty-year secularization process based not upon secularism, but upon pluralism.” (italics in original)

This is a new perspective for me but one that is consistent with my longstanding values. I am a secularist because I believe in pluralism, the right of all to believe and practice as they see fit. Allowing any one group of religious authorities to dictate the norms of society violates that pluralism in a way that an underlying moral framework does not. My experience is that underlying moral frameworks are pretty universal: don’t kill, don’t steal, treat all with respect. In that context, tolerance and freedom are possible.

Aslan leaves the reader with an understanding of the intellectual and theological context for the debate within Islamic society. His perspective is hopeful—he looks to the words of tolerance and respect in Koran and to the varied development of Islamic thought for his hopes. Aslan is keenly aware that the struggle for the soul of Islam that began with The Prophet’s death continues:

When fifteen centuries ago, Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society. It took many year of violence and devastation to cleanse the Hijaz of its “false idols. It will take many more to cleanse Islam of its new false idols—bigotry and fanaticism—worshipped by those who have replaced Muhammad ‘s original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord. But the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it.

No god but God also covers a wide range of western and Arabian history marked by conquest, exploitation, subversion, colonialism, nationalism and how it all intertwines with Islamic tradition to create the world in our times. The content is far more than I can relate in what is aleady a pretty long piece. I hope his guardedly optimistic prediction holds. The entire world could use a lot more tolerance and religious dogma is no place to find the tolerance that will allow all to live in peace and security.

Bonus Book

My fiction reading these past days has been Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I never actually read the book but know the story—pirates and treasure—from English literature courses and from a Disney production on TV that was hard for me to follow completely at a young age. I just knew it as a dark and mysterious story. I’m pretty sure I read the Classics Illustrated version (number 64). Even so, I knew only the barest snippets of the story before finding a copy at the library. Treasure Island is an easy, suspenseful read. The characters evolve from the start and the story quickly adds layers and a back story that unfolds with the main plot. The narrator is a teenage boy, which I guess is why Treasure Island is often considered juvenile reading. The story, though, is anything but juvenile: conspiracy, murder and double dealing. Only six of ship’s company return to England; 16 are dead and three marooned. Long John Silver who is both hero and villain escapes with some gold and the remaining five, all of whom are good and proper Victorians, end the story with great wealth.

The story seems quaint compared to modern fiction but it reads well and offers a good perspective of the world from 19th century Britain, a time when all was right and proper with the world. Stevenson does a good job with seaman’s language—sometimes it’s a bit dense and takes a while to figure the exact meanings. Long John Silver does not say “shiver me timbers”, however. The text is “my timbers” which sounds funny to my media-trained ears.