Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Messenger

Of course Christianity is a morally superior religion to Islam.
Love thy neighbour
is clearly a superior moral precept to
If thy neighbour does not believe as you do, nor has submitted to those who do, you can kill him, take his property or enslave him.
Which is a rather different thing from saying that Christians are better than Muslims. The logic of belief is not the same as the logic of believers. Christians often fail to live up to the second precept of their religion, Muslims often fail to live down to the more noxious precepts of their own. Still, it is clear enough which have the morally better set of precepts to live by, though—as the long retreat of Christianity (and Buddhism, and Hinduism and …) before Islam over the first 1000 years of Islamic history shows—it is also clear which (given equivalent levels of technology) is better set to spread.

Tariq Ramadan’s The Messenger: the Meanings of Muhammad is a prolonged meditation on the life of Muhammad, seeking meanings therein for our time (a long tradition in Islam: in some ways, the very basis of Islam). Reading The Messenger allows one to better appreciate how different Islamic religious tradition is from Christian (or Jewish) religious traditions. They may all be Abrahamic (or Mosaic) monotheisms, but it is a mistake to see them as having the same dynamics, particularly regarding the role of religion in politics.

Tariq Ramadan is the very Westernised face of Islam: he holds an academic position in a Western university, lectures in the West and The Messenger is clearly aimed at a Western audience: both Muslim (there is a definite subtext of finding references in the life and Revelations of the Prophert to help being a Muslim in the West) and non-Muslim (there is a definite subtext of finding reassuring congruences for interested Westerners). The term Islam, Ramadan explains, means submission, but also peace and whole-hearted self-giving (p.1).

Ramadan is at pains to point out Muhammad’s concern for nature, his generous attitude to women (openly seeking their advice, appointing a woman to lead household prayers, permitting them to fight). The Prophet’s self-effacing reasonableness is constantly stressed. Muhammad comes across as a man of great spiritual charisma and personal decency. Ramadan conveys the attractiveness of Muhammad and his message well.

So this is Islam in its least confronting form. Which is still pretty confronting, if one considers the implications of what Ramadan is saying.
It is clear from The Messenger and elsewhere that Muhammad Arabised monotheism. Through accepting his Revelation and Prophethood, Arab (and later) Muslims claim the entire prophetic tradition from Adam, through Abraham and Jesus with Muhammad, an Arab, as its capstone and completion. The Qur’an, the Book of Signs recited in Arabic, as the direct Word of God made all previous Scriptures superfluous.

As part of this taking of possession, descent is claimed from Abraham’s son Ishmael. The Arabs are the great nation that God promised would flow from Ishmael (p.3). Abraham's confrontation with God, the willingness to sacrifice his son, is said to have taken place in the Mecca region and Abraham and Ishmael are supposed to have built the original shrine at Mecca themselves (p.3). Jerusalem itself is appropriated, because that is the point from which Muhammad’s night journey to Paradise left Earth. Arabia (specifically Mecca) is the beginning (Abraham) and the end (Muhammad) of the prophetic tradition. Which is why The Messenger starts with the story of Abraham and Muhammad as a descendant of Abraham (p.3).

By claiming to complete the prophetic tradition that is explicitly identified with that of the Jews and the Christians, conflict is essentially built-in, since it is a claim to possession and completion of the same tradition. The failure of Jews and Christians to accept Muhammad’s message becomes a wilful failure.

This is essentially the same basis for conflict as that between Jew and Christian—that the Jews produced the Messiah then failed to acknowledge Him—which is reflected in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Except that Christ and His disciplines were all themselves Jews. And they were all simply preachers and teachers. Which is why all one gets in the New Testament is some hostile words. (Though, as Christians acquired temporal power, the alleged crime of deicide led to a long—if erratic—history of brutality and massacre. Biologised Jew-hatred then led to even greater horrors.)

It is perfectly true that parts of the Qur’an suggest tolerance for the people of the book (as long, of course, as they accept Muslim rule). It is also true that Muslim empires early in their rule practiced rather more toleration of their Jews and Christians than became the pattern in Christendom after the Carolingian period. But that was when Muslims were also a minority ruling populations who were mainly other monotheists (Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians). The longer time marches on, and the more dominant Muslims become in the surrounding population, the more wilful the Jewish and Christian refusal to accept the final Revelation becomes and the less reason to tolerate the same there is. In our times, the Jewish flight from Muslim lands in the Middle East is now being followed by by a Christian flight. While the first great megacide of the C20th was of a Christian dhimmi group in a Muslim empire. Emphasising the universal nature of the message of Islam increases the inherent conflict, rather than reducing it.

In the case of Muhammad—who rapidly became a political and military leader—and the Qu’ran, the rhetoric and the actions against Jews are harsher than in the New Testament. The combination of more power and greater cultural distance is not a happy one. In The Messenger, the military conflict with Jewish tribes is presented as resulting from the Jewish tribes treacherously failing to keep agreements with Muhammad—i.e. was not the Prophet’s fault, not the fault of Islam.

It is quite clear from The Messenger that Muhammad had much more contact with Judaism than Christianity, hence (apart from its universalism) Islam is rather more like Judaism than Christianity. Such as halal being very similar to kosher in content and role. But a Judaism not transformed by the disasters of the Babylonian Captivity and the Diaspora, so still a religion of social order aspiring to law-giving status. In Islam, a judge is a religious figure. Which again goes back to origins of Islam: Ramadan gives us a case of Muhammad appointing a judge for Yemen and asking on what basis he will make his judgements. His appointee responds: first the Qur’an; if the answer is not there, the tradition of the Prophet; if the answer is not there, he will give an opinion. An answer Muhammad is happy with (p.199). In Christianity, canon law is men attempting to regularise principles enunciated in Scripture. It never aspired to be the basis for all law, since that would be against Scripture. Shar'ia is God's law and is the first basis of law.

Islam is not, as disaster led Judaism to become, a religion of community order accepting being embedded in wider social orders it does not control. Though some versions of Islam—such as the Ismailis—have essentially gone down same path, becoming a religion of community order. And for the same reason: being a permanent minority.

Since Islam has appropriated the Jewish prophetic tradition—indeed, proclaims itself to be the completion of that tradition—it also appropriates any claim to Jerusalem. Christianity, by reverting to being the religion of moral order that is proclaimed in the New Testament—rather than including Old Testament territorialism—can live with Jewish claims to Jerusalem with relative ease. Indeed, Jerusalem as a Jewish city—as it was in the time of Jesus—can seem entirely fitting. There is nothing particularly self-contradictory about Christian Zionism. Islam by contrast, as a universal religion of social order and one, moreover, that specifically takes possession of the Jewish prophetic tradition, naturally finds any Jewish claim to Jerusalem an inherent affront. Zionism becomes naturally a religious affront to Islam in a way it simply isn’t to Christianity.

For Muhammad was not merely a preacher, he was also a ruler and conqueror. Ramadan points out that the Prophet regarded inner jihad (struggling with one’s wrongful impulses) was greater than outer jihad (waging war for Islam) (p.194). But that obscures the deeper point: for Muhammad fighting a war is on the same spiritual continuum as self-control. In Islam, laws about war are part of the religion, and part of the religion from its earliest days. The religious duties of Islam include war. The entire notion of the divisions of the world in Islam reinforce this.

And, though Ramadan elides the point, aggressive war for Islam. It is not some sort of weird accident that, after his death, Muhammad’s Companions engaged in the greatest outburst of religious conquests in human history, including designated warriors for the expansion of Islam. Or that religious conquest continued to be central to the history of Islam for the next thousand years. They were a continuation of the Prophet’s ministry.

Yes, it is clear enough that the suicide bombers of our time are committing great offence against what the Prophet said about fighting wars, just as the oppressive treatment of women in the Prophet’s homeland is an offence against how he treated women. But neither come out of nothing in Islam.

Consider submission. Ramadan points out that various Companions found submission to the Revelation of the Prophet a burden at times. It was not only a message of spiritual liberation.

In Islam, virtue is based on submission: the more thorough the submission to the Revelation and sayings of the Prophet, the greater the virtue. But the submission has to be appropriate to the level of the person. So a good woman has to submit more than a good man: an unbeliever more than a believer. It is a layered pattern of submission.

Which makes it also a pattern of domination: men dominating women; believers dominating unbelievers. Making submission the central theme brings domination as the natural consequence. Such patterns of domination become the pattern into which Islam naturally falls.

So claims by a Jewish state to equal status, claims by women to equal status, claims by gays to equal rights, all become religious affronts. Even more affronting if they come out of, or exemplify, a social order which is much more successful than God’s social order. The response to which clearly has to be more strict adherence to God’s social order—the Islamist move.

Paul Berman has written a very long essay on Ramadan: which is as much about the reaction of liberal intellectuals to Ramadan and Islamism as Tariq Ramadan himself. It includes a passage that brings out the essential problem of parading a C7th ruler—no matter how charismatic, how personally modest and reasonable—as the epitome of moral, spiritual and political understanding:
Sarkozy brought up … the proper punishment for women who commit adultery. … what about Tariq Ramadan, Sarkozy asked? What is his own position? … Ramadan, in Buruma's account, "replied that he favored a moratorium' on such practices but refused to condemn the law outright."
Sarkozy: A moratorium.... Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?

Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.

Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?

Ramadan: No, no, wait.... What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community.... Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, "Me, my own position." But my own position doesn't count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr. Sarkozy. It's necessary that you understand....

Sarkozy: But, Mr. Ramadan....

Ramadan: Let me finish.

Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good.... But that's monstrous--to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It's necessary to condemn it!

Ramadan: Mr. Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable--that's clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world.... You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That's too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, "We should stop."

Sarkozy: Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.
Some six million French people watched that exchange. A huge number of Muslim immigrants must have been among them—the very people who might have benefited from hearing someone speak with absolute clarity about violence against women. Ramadan couldn't do it. Here was his Qutbian moment, the moment of frisson. The seventh century had suddenly appeared, poking out from beneath the modern rhetoric of feminism and rights.
This is the fundamental tension with modernity. At the heart of Islam, even in the Western-friendly Islam of Tariq Ramadan, is the claim that fundamental principles of social order—including the basis of law—were worked out—for all time—in C7th Arabia. And modernity shrieks that that is not true. While Islam remains a religion of social order—which has always been, right from its beginnings—its relationship with modernity will always be fraught.

Ramadan’s reasonableness ends up showing how profoundly true that is. The Messenger is a highly readable and informative book about the founder of Islam: perhaps more informative than the author quite intended.

ADDENDA This post has been edited to correct an error in attribution.


  1. The moral precept "If they neighbour does not believe as you do you can take his property, enslave him, or kill him," is actually Jewish - it's what the Promised Land thing was all about, and for that matter it's what modern Zionism is all about; it's what lies behind the current problems in Israel/Palestine.

  2. The Jewish version was limited to The Promised Land. The Islamic version is universal, since Allah is sovereign over the entire universe, so submission to His sovereignty should encompass the entire globe.

    Judaism stopped being a territorial religion after the Roman suppressions. Zionism is a secular philosophy based on the proposition that Jews were not safe in Europe. It got extra oomph since so many Middle Eastern Jews decided they were not safe in Arab/Muslim lands either. The current problems in Israel/Palestine are only partly about Zionism, there is plenty of Arab nationalism, authoritarian regimes scapegoating Zionism and Islamic revanchism in the mix too.

  3. Zionism has its roots in 19th century European nationalism and the Romantic movement - in other words, long before the 1930s, when Jews began feeling that they were not safe in Europe. While it was certainly secular, it drew on Biblical inspiration - "Israel" (a term not known outside the Bible for well over two millenia) was the Jewish equivalent of the homelands that so many European peoples were defining (notably the Germans and a little later the Italians). Today, the settler movement continues to cite the Bible to justify their expansion in Palestinian territories, and mainstream Israelis still call Israel "their" home, despite the fact that it was the home of the Palestinians until the 20th century.

    But this is all beside the point I was making, which is simply that the "moral precept" you ascribe to Islam as a religion is neither unique to Islam, not held by all Muslims.

  4. long before the 1930s, when Jews began feeling that they were not safe in Europe The Dreyfus affair was what convinced Theodor Herzl that Jews were not safe in Europe. Given Russian pogroms and the resources the Catholic Church put into pushing Jew hatred, there was plenty for Jews to feel unsafe about well before the Nazis.

    the home of the Palestinians until the 20th century
    And of Jews, Jerusalem was a majority-Jewish city in the mid C19th. "The Palestinians" are a new-forged identity (I do not deny that they now constitute a national identity), prior to that they identified as Arabs, etc.

    That the Prophet got much of what he preached from the Jews is fairly clear. That does not change the fact the statement is a precept of Islam. That not all Muslims follow it is also obvious, as I immediately went on to point out.

  5. "The logic of belief is not the same as the logic of believers." True for most flavours of religion... Great aphorism, Lorenzo.

  6. Can you give me an Islamic reference for the morally inferior precept?