Thursday, February 5, 2015

The revealing differences of returns to origins

Attempts to compare Christianity and Islam often involve citing Scriptures or specific doctrines. The problem with doing so is that, within any faith, people often ignore inconvenient Scriptures or doctrines, vary dramatically in how they read them, in what Scriptures and doctrines they focus on, etc. The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers: as witnessed by the Theological Incorrectness phenomenon.

I tend to be more impressed by historical patterns, as they indicate what social logics are operating within a religion and what persistence (if any) they have.

Contemporary Islam and Christianity both have very significant movements within them which seek to return to the origins of the religion. A comparison of such is quite revealing.

I am not talking here of religious fundamentalism, which is a modern, even modernist, movement. Modernism seeks to eliminate the detritus of the past on the basis that new is (always) better. While fundamentalism may be about "seeking the fundamentals", in practice it is very modernist.

I mean attempts to go back to the origins of the faith in life and spirit. In their rejection of tradition, such movements can overlap with fundamentalism, but they are not identical.

Of course, in one sense it is impossible to return to the origins of any religion; the river of history has moved on, changing context and understanding. Thus, once the European Enlightenment happened, Westerners could never really be actively pre-Enlightenment, only Counter-Enlightenment.  Nevertheless, the desire to return to origins of faith can be a powerful one.

Returning to origins
The dominant such return-to-origins movement within Christianity is Pentecostalism. It is phenomenally successful--from a few hundred adherents around 1900, it had about 250 million by 2000: at that rate of growth (a large assumption), there will be a billion Pentecostals by the middle of this century.

If you seek to go back to original Christianity, what do you do? A lot of preaching, a lot of attention to the Gospels' you seek to have the experience of the Holy Spirit indwelling (hence Pentecostal, from the original Pentecost), speak in tongues, and engage in congregational togetherness. There is a strong aspect of collective self-help in Pentecostalism, as there was in early Christianity. Hence much of its appeal to the wretched of the Earth, both the materially wretched and the spiritually wretched.

If you want to go back to original Islam, what do you do? If you are following the received Muhammad of Medina--the flight to which is the Islamic Year Zero--then you seek to conquer territory to establish Sharia rule, destroy the holy places and religmous artefacts of non-believers, massacre male unbelievers and enslave their women and children and behead those who write nasty things about you. Which should all sound terribly familiar. How much of this follows the received example of the Prophet? All of it.

Islamic history is full of violent, purifying movements who seek to follow the example of the Prophet and go forth and conquer. They have the Medinan Suras and the life of the Prophet ("the walking Quran") as conqueror and ruler to inspire them.

The Meccan-Medinan cycle
Islam also has extended periods of intellectual and artistic ferment and tolerance. The Islam of the Meccan Suras. The Islam of pragmatic tolerance, of live and let live (as long as Muslim dominance is not threatened). The Islam of the Umayyad (661-750) and early Abbasid Caliphates (750-C11th), of early al-Andalus, of the Central Asian Enlightenment, of the great Mughals.

The problem is, Meccan Islam is always followed by Medinan Islam. Cosmopolitan al-Andalus was overwhelmed by the Almoravids and Almohades. The Seljuq Turk advance imposed a much more rigid and intolerant version of Islam. An anti-tolerance counter-reaction which became even more intense in response to the Mongol onslaught, finishing off the Central Asian Enlightenment. Islam under stress typically reacts by being much more Medinan.

Alas, stress can simply mean slights to Muslim self-image (particularly male self-image); as historian Bernard Lewis famously discussed in his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage.

Nor is stress necessary for the switch to occur. Even the periods of tolerance were punctuated by episodes of massacre and repression: either because some ruler shifted to the Medinan approach or due to clerical incitement. Or such "Meccan" periods are simply ended by such shifts. The period of Mughal tolerance came to an end when Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707) took the throne, though it had been declining somewhat under his father, Shah Jahan (r.1628-1658). The death of Meccan Islam is always an in-house killing: it is murdered by Muslims, not outsiders.

Needless to say, the jihadis are Medinan Islam.

It is not good enough to point to Meccan Islam and say "that is Islam". Medinan Islam is also Islam: and Islam regularly returns to it. The contrast between Pentecostalism and the jihadis does tell us something about the difference between Christianity (particularly Christianity in the contemporary world) and Islam.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

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