Is Muhammad the better Paul?

In Romans 9-11, Paul lays out what he believes to be God’s plan for Paul’s work as the apostle to the Gentiles. Though the rejection of Jesus as messiah by the vast majority of Jews seems to be a huge defeat, God is actually using it as an opportunity to achieve something even greater: extending his promises to all nations. By Paul’s reckoning, once the Jews see the Gentiles enjoying the messianic life opened up by Jesus’s death and resurrection, they will be so jealous that they will ultimately embrace Jesus. From a contemporary perspective, this view is appealing because it radically relativizes actual-existing Gentile Christianity — it is just a detour, an elaborate ploy in God’s bank-shot attempt to win over the Jews, who remain his real priority. And yet from a contemporary perspective, we must also admit that the plan does not seem to have worked out.

Yesterday I was reviewing some material from ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad. Reading the whole of this vast and unwieldy document is not possible in the context of my course, so I selected portions on the religious and political background of the Arabian penninsula, Muhammad’s early life and ministry in Mecca, his work in Medina, and the events leading up to his triumph over the authorities in Mecca. One issue that will surely arise in this context is the question of “Islam and violence,” because it’s impossible to give a fair or comprehensible account of Muhammad’s life and the rise of Islam without taking into account such key events as the Battle of Badr. If commenters have any ideas for how I might address it in class discussion, I’d be eager to hear it (though I also expect that Shimer students will by and large be bending over backwards to be as fair-minded as possible and to avoid cliches about Islam, so perhaps it won’t be an issue).

One thing that struck me, amid all the undeniable brutality, is how often Muhammad chose not to press his advantage. Read the rest of this entry »

Help me with a course on the Qur’an

Let’s say I were to do a course next semester on the Qur’an only, with some attempt to achieve coverage over the whole of the text and to strike a balance between contemporary and historical commentators. Do you have any recommendations?

On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race”

One strange feature of the online atheist movement is that while all religions are bad, Islam is consistently presented as the very worst — so that Richard Dawkins, for instance, can wonder aloud whether atheists should support Christian missionaries in Africa to combat the spread of Islam. Many people have suggested that this anti-Islam sentiment is racist, and the response is always that Islam isn’t a race and hence being opposed to Islam can’t be racism.

Let’s unpack that. For these thinkers, Islam is obviously a bad and destructive system of thought. Yet billions of people spend their whole lives trying to live according to these stupid teachings, generation after generation. What’s worse, in the modern world, they have ready access to knowledge about the superior system of secular modernity, but they persist in embracing a crappy religion. At a certain point, you have to wonder if there is simply something wrong with such people, right? Perhaps their reasoning capacities are hampered in some way. Indeed, one begins to wonder, could it perhaps be something … inborn?

Obviously atheists won’t embrace the extrapolation I’ve just made, but it’s ultimately the only conclusion — if Islam is a terrible thing, and if people continue to embrace it despite knowing about a superior alternative, there must be something wrong with those people’s reasoning capacity that doesn’t allow it to reach the high level of white people’s.

A really robust belief in the powers of human reason, of course, would take us in the opposite direction: if all human beings have basically equal reasoning capacity, and if billions upon billions of people have found Islam to be plausible and appealling, then there must be something good about Islam. Yet people who self-identify with “reason” never draw that conclusion, because the “party of reason” always turns out to be an elite who knows better than everyone else and deserves to be in charge. And when you ask why not everyone is willing to submit to the leadership of the “party of reason,” you begin to suspect that maybe there’s something wrong with their reasoning capacity, maybe on a biological level, etc., etc.

Basically, declaring oneself to be on the avant-garde of “reason” is always going to lead to racism if you take it to its logical conclusion. Thankfully for the mental health of the “party of reason,” however, their self-regard and in-group loyalty keep them from following the dictates of reason on this matter, because it would make it seem like maybe their empty gesture at a contentless “reason” had accidentally made them into bad people.

Marriage and modernity

Yesterday I finished Wael Hallaq’s Introduction to Islamic Law, which not only does a great job of explaining the classical structures of Shari’a legal reasoning but also mounts an argument that the imposition of modern state structures fundamentally transformed Shari’a law into something that would have been unrecognizable to pre-modern Muslims. This was most striking in his account of the aspect of Shari’a that superficially seems to have escaped unscathed from these changes — namely, family law. The implicit question underlying his argument is why precisely this was what the colonizers and indigenous modernizers “left alone,” and the answer is that maintaining implicit continuity with traditional Shari’a in this area served as cover for an agenda that replaced extended families with the modern nuclear family in Muslim countries.

This got me thinking: why would the modern state have a stake in the nuclear family? And I think the answer is that it is the absolute minimum level of solidarity — a reluctant concession to biological necessity in a society that otherwise wants to turn everyone into an individual monad. If the state endorsed or even tolerated other, more wide-ranging forms of solidarity, then a significant center of loyalty other than the state may arise, potentially undermining the state’s efforts to discipline and control the population and, in particular, opening up the possibility of economic relations not predicated on individualism and competition. Enshrining monogamous marriage and the nuclear family in law has the additional bonus that this minimal concession to community and solidarity owes its existence directly to the state, and so any discussion of how to change this arrangement must necessary be routed through the state.

I wonder if an analogy can be drawn with the rise of gay marriage. Why precisely this form of recognition for gay relationships? As we know, in periods when LGBT people were more marginal, communities structured more like “extended families” arose, which proved particularly important in caring for AIDS patients. Why not formalize the varied forms of relationships that were indigenous to the LGBT community, as opposed to a nuclear family model that few had the resources or inclination to imitate?

If we look at Hallaq’s account of the imposition of the nuclear family on Islamic countries, the reason is clear — gay marriage was a perfect opportunity to undermine the alternative forms of solidarity that had grown up in the LGBT community and a way to incorporate previously recalcitrant populations into the nuclear family model. And for those who are opposed to gay marriage, the struggle against it only serves to emphasize the state’s role in recognizing and supporting their relationships — giving them prestige which is watered down by the inclusion of more people into the system.

Hence I’d say that liberals who claim that gay marriage actually strengthens all marriage are correct, though that’s perhaps not as good a thing as they believe.

Draft syllabus: Intro to Islamic Thought

I have completed a draft syllabus for the Introduction to Islamic Thought elective I’ll be teaching at Shimer this fall. While I still have time to tinker — and I am most open to suggestions on the selections from the Qur’an — I am basically “locked in” on the books I’m using and don’t have the space to add anything into an already crowded syllabus. I hope to offer the course again soon as a way of solidifying my own knowledge, though, so I’d keep any suggestions in mind for future iterations.

One challenge of offering this course at Shimer is the fact that our primary source-only, no-lecture format made it very difficult to work in the necessary background information. Hence I lean on ibn Khaldun to give me background on Bedouin life and on the Caliphate (the excerpts at the beginning and middle of the syllabus, respectively), in addition to treating him as an important thinker in his own right at the end of the course. I am also using extracts from ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, supplemented by a simple timeline to help them get the overall flow of the narrative. At times I sneak the editor or translator’s introductions into the reading assignment as well.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to the various advice threads I’ve posted. You may be hearing from me again in the fall, as I’m planning to propose an elective for the spring semester on the Qur’an. It’s long past time for me to seriously engage with Islam — and even if it didn’t exactly fit with my plans for the summer to develop a course on the topic, I’m glad that Shimer gave me the necessary kick in the pants by assigning me to do it.

Posted in Islam, syllabi, teaching. Comments Off

Reading the Qur’an for the first time: Scattered impressions

The most difficult part of preparing for my Introduction to Islamic Thought class has not been the task of assembling a list of major thinkers and texts. Though it took some digging and much advice from more experienced teachers and scholars, at the end of the day, there is enough of a “canon” of schools and figures in Islamic thought that I feel reasonably confident my syllabus is, if certainly not perfect, at least adequate in that area. Much more difficult was the task of grappling seriously with the Qur’an for the first time. It is not much longer than the New Testament, but it is a profoundly unwieldy text — the surahs (chapters) are arranged in approximate reverse order of length, so that they seem to be in completely random order; their titles most often refer to a single isolated detail in the surah, so that the table of contents gives the reader almost no guidance; and it is frankly incredibly repetitive and hence difficult to plow through, even for a seasoned reader of tedious texts (viz., patristics) such as myself.

Now, however, I have gotten through it, and so I thought I’d write up my initial thoughts, if only to preserve them for myself.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Islam. 6 Comments »

The imitation of Muhammad

Yesterday I remarked on Twitter that the imitation of Muhammad seems to be much more important for Muslims than the imitation of Christ is for Christians. My wording was exaggerated, suggesting that Christians are opposed to imitating Christ — though I would maintain that for many conservative Christians, that is obviously the case (theologically, not because they’re bad people, etc.) — and so I thought I’d write the blog post I should have written in the first place.

In my study of Islam so far, it’s striking how much people try to model their lives after Muhammad. There are thousands upon thousands of anecdotes and quotations, called hadith, that ostensibly give insight into these topics (and Muslims are well aware that they are of varying levels of reliability). In the early centuries, people would travel hundreds of miles to find new hadith, and collecting and assessing them became a fine art — which then became the basis for the development of Shari’a law.

Even if some of the hadith are not authentic or fully accurate, it remains the case that there is a lot more you can know about Muhammad’s life than about Jesus’. We have reliable information about Muhammad’s appearance, his dress, the way he cut his facial hair, his daily habits (such as using a toothpick), etc. In part, this is simply because Muhammad was much more “important” in a straightforward sense during his lifetime — he was the leader of a powerful community that was on its way to taking over much of the known world by the time he died.

Yet there’s a theological reason as well. It is important to Christian theology that Jesus became “really human,” but the emphasis there was on confirming his functional role in enabling humanity to be saved. His moral example was always secondary, and when it is emphasized, it’s incredibly vague: “love one another,” “be humble,” “sacrifice for one another,” “be willing to die for your faith.”

This is simply not at the level of concreteness of Muhammad’s toothpick. It’s not the same kind of thing. In fact, I would claim that you don’t need Jesus to know the moral principles that his example supposedly provides. We already knew that love was a good thing before Jesus came around. Judaism had already developed the concept of martyrdom.

I would even go a step further and say that there’s a theological reason that we don’t have the same kind of concrete information about Jesus that we do about Muhammad. It’s not simply a contingent fact that the earliest Christian writings, the epistles of Paul, are devoid of any information about Christ except for his death and resurrection — and that the gospels devote most of their time to those topics, while providing very little in the way of imitatable detail. (It’s not like we’re going to make it a general principle to miraculously multiply a small amount of food when confronted with a huge crowd, for instance.) Even in places where Jesus isn’t clearly divine, he’s still an exceptional person with a unique mission. All the Gospels are at pains to show that no one really understood his importance when he was alive, even his closest associates. Those same apostles, who presumably observed Jesus very closely when traveling with him (and again, are we going to make it a norm that everyone has to be a celibate itinerant preacher?), only become truly effective as part of his mission once they receive a share of the divine power in the form of the Holy Spirit.

It can’t be a matter of reading off a pattern of life from a flesh-and-blood human being in the case of Jesus. That’s just not how it works. That’s not the kind of figure he is in Christian theological terms, and what little we know about his lifestyle does not seem to provide a formula for an enduring, large-scale society like Islam became. And to be clear, I’m not accusing Christians of hypocrisy or implying that things would be better if only they’d followed Jesus’ example. There’s just not much usable material in the concrete facts of Jesus’ example. Indeed, once serious research into the “historical Jesus” began, it was only a short time before the most rigorous scholars concluded that the life of Jesus was basically irrelevant to contemporary concerns, particularly the liberal project that his example is most often invoked to support.

So yes, I am aware that there’s a book called The Imitation of Christ and that people throw that phrase around — but that’s about super-charging general moral principles with religious significance, not about figuring out how to model every aspect of your daily life around the habits of a guy named Jesus of Nazareth. The Islamic stance toward the figure of Muhammad is fundamentally different and is more accurately called “imitation” than the devotional practices that go under the title of “imitation of Christ” in Christian circles.

To repeat again, though — I’m not trying to deride Christianity or claim that Islam lives up to a Christian principle better than Christians. They’re two different approaches to two very different founding figures, and it’s not clear to me that either has delivered uniformly positive or uniformly negative concrete results.

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