Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Exsecrari Ab Religio Omni!
Ego Somnias de Mundi Profanum...

Islam, Christianity and Religious Culture

Cultural Relativism is now so accepted by our society that even a NASCAR fan wearing a wife-beater, swilling beer while sitting in the back of his pickup with like-minded friends will cite its principles to defend his choice of pastimes. As much as advancing Cultural Relativism has been a priority of the Left for decades (and rightly so) in an effort to combat the American tendency towards baseless triumphalism and a certain self-congratulatory myopia, one cannot escape the basic truth that insofar as nothing in nature is exactly equal, neither are cultures and religions (regardless of the analytical framework and value system one uses to examine them). To the extent that they are meaningful, and thus have any real impact on their members and adherents, such membership is itself unequally positive.

The utility of these sorts of comparisons derive primarily from their use as a reality check. We all think we are smart, enlightened and closer to the truth than our neighbors. By extension we believe that our religion is best, the others (and their members) are worth of pity, and perhaps some outreach to bring them back to the One True Path. If one holds that ecumenical tolerance is the sine qua non of a mature, confident religion that deals with religious pluralism in an adult fashion, then comparing one's levels of such to one's peers is the only way to ascertain if this is a baseless conceit or a quality one possesses.

Christianity and Islam are unarguably the most aggressively proselytizing religions. All of the others believe they follow a path laid out by divine mandate, but either believe that their path is still flawed by the flaws inherent to a human understanding of anything, or that there are equally valid paths laid out for others. (Hinduism/Buddhism and Judaism respectively) While the tenets of Islam include the belief that Islam is the way God wants everyone to live and a message that is the obligation of every Muslim to spread, (Christianity implies an identical belief) they also include explicit ecumenism. For a millennium the Islamic world would be more tolerant of other faiths, more progressive in social and economic policy, more open to scientific inquiry and simply wealthier than Christian Europe. (625 AD, the founding of Islam, until close of the Reformation and the beginning of the Enlightenment period, circa 1650.)

This disparity is too easily underestimated. The tension between science and religion that so obsessed Europe early on (with the rejection and suppression of the Greek/Roman intellectual tradition) and continued later to Galileo and Copernicus was never evidenced in the Islamic world. The fields of medicine, physics and biology were all pursued without the threat of excommunication and death, and thus progressed far more rapidly. Via cultural contacts with India and China mathematics and astronomy also progressed at a time when Europe paid these subjects no attention at all, leaving the Islamic world to develop far faster.

The differences were not in science alone. The Muslims were economic progressives, levying a tax upon the rich to pay for feeding, clothing and educating the poor. Public institutions were built to bring the rewards of prosperity to the masses, and coupled with medical insight, public health infrastructure received investment. Little things like closed sewers, public baths and the like improved the average health of a resident of the Ummah to heights that would not be seen in Europe for some time to come.

What happened? Certainly societies can stagnate in terms of technological development without any core flaw in their value system, but in many ways the Islamic world has regressed socially and even economically. What event or movement could so dramatically change the very identity of a culture, from a progressive, tolerant community priding itself on its education and intellectual inquiry to the reactionary, millenial and somewhat xenophobic present completely unable to perform even the most cursory self-introspection. At one time Islam was urbane and cosmopolitan, now it indulges in bizarre conspiracy theories that assert that literally every non-Muslim man woman and child is working to oppress them.

The Christian religious community had a century of violent religious conflict, (1/3 of Germany's population was slain or died of starvation in a thirty-year portion of that period) and came out of it with a firm understanding of the perils of allowing religion into the public sphere. We Americans may pretend that we invented "the separation of church and state", but after 1650 one really can't find a single state action (at least in terms of foreign policy) by any nation in Europe whose primary purpose wasn't secular.

Islam also had a violent division between its adherents; Sunni and Shi'a fought over who should succeed Mohammed and be the first Caliph of the Islamic Ummah (community). The Shi'a believe Ali, his son in law ought have been that successor. Instead three people reigned in turn before Ali was installed, and his throne was usurped not long after. This conflict was fought in 632, perhaps too soon after the founding of Islam for the conflict to be seen as a reason for disassociating the state from the mosque. No real governmental infrastructure existed outside of the religious establishment, and so perhaps there was no indication of an alternative.

All of these seems very circumstantial. Any ideas on the reason for the disparate tracks Islam and Christianity took, and specifically the change in Islam's identity? I welcome your comments.


At 4:04 PM, [REDACTED] said...

You mention a lot of things here that are difficult to integrate, but I'll try to do so, and also speculate on the reason for the disparity in modern Christianity and Islam. Note: I am an expert in neither, but I am a grad student in international history, for whatever that is worth (which is perhaps nothing at all).

I'm not sure your average modern pickup-driving, wife-beater-wearing, beer-swilling redneck NASCAR fan can be generalized in the way you think. Certainly he does not have the devout belief that a member of his class would have five hundred years ago, but I'm sure if you asked him, he would, at the very least, believe he believes in God, and that his religion is true at the obvious cost of all others being false. The reason he does not take up violent action against non-believers is only because of a strong state and because of the prohibition supplied by social mores. If the state legitimized such violece a la the Crusades, I have little doubt that this theoretical redneck would hesitate too long before engaging in religious target practice with his daddy's shotgun.

If we have any sort of religious tolerance as a society at all, it's because the world has become a much smaller place; by the very fact that our neighbor may in fact be Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or some flavor of Christian, (or as one can only hope) a rational humanist with agnostic or atheistic tendencies, we are forced to consider that these people are not so alien. Our xenophobia that may have existed when people travelled less than a mile from their place of birth during their entire lives does not apply [as easily] today.

In medieval and early modern Christianity, kingdoms, city-states, fiefdoms, et cetera were only quasi- politically independent, in that they ostensibly owed fealty to the local lord, but also to the Pope in Rome. They may have been backward and intolerant because they were competing to see who was more religious in the eyes of their ecclesiatic lord (versus their local military/political one), and total and complete faith in the religion was The Way to Be if you wanted Recognized Legitimacy, in addition to being what was essentially a warlord.

This did not change overnight. I presume that the 1650 date mentioned above refers to the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, when the modern nation-state system developed. I think it's valuable to point out that this was not some sort of immediate change, nor was it instantly effective. The Reformation, England's various acts strengthening its own sovereignty (and specifically Henry VIII's split from the Roman Catholic Church, followed later by Elizabeth's outwardly ambiguous but largely tolerant policies), and the rise of strong centralized European states (as opposed to private fiefdoms traded between European royalty via political marriages) over a century or two, led to the Thirty Years' War and the formation of a more or less secular multinational power structure. This was not truly and wholy the secular system we think of today, but Westphalia was the first Treaty not signed by the Pope (or papal nuncio as the case may be); I believe Utrecht was the first treaty where the Papal authority was not even invited, although I may need some correction on this statement. In any case, state sovereignty replaced the split obedience to both feudal obligations and papal authority.

Why does this matter? Well, in the absence of another strong hierarchical authority that had the ability to tax as well as dictate daily activities, states and reasonably wealthy individuals now had the opportunity to pursue such things as grand palaces, entire cities, compete for military power, and rely on non-prayer methods of keeping newborns and royalty/VIPs alive. These things take technology, which takes research, which takes educated people and reasonable leisure time and accumulated wealth of an investor/merchant class.

Alternatively, you had Islam, which lacked a central religious hierarchy (pope) and early on was more concerned with the love of Allah than the defeat of the infidel. If the local imams are concerned with the community and they all generally stay out of the affairs of fighting warlords, no Great Schism happens and no one is competing for the, er, pope's favor. At some point, however, religiosity and power of faith had to take precedence over daily life and secular state functions (making money), right? That's where we are today.

If you want to point to a set of events (although this is gross oversimplification), blame the downfall of Islam on the Crusades. Make them band together to tactically defeat your invading army, and while they may win militarily, their state functions will still be disrupted. No more covered sewers and math; investments have to go into swords and men and food for the camels, and even after the fighting is over the authorities (/kingdoms/states/whathaveyou) are more concerned with holding back the infidel threat.

Meanwhile, Europe has thrown off the shackles of tithing and split sovereignty. More money and greater trade and competition on a basis of who-is-more-grandiose rather than who-is-more-pious, in addition to an entreprenurial spirit and discovery of the New World mean that Europe rises.

Basically, it's all about the money. When you have it you can do more. When lots of competing people have it (instead of a static authoritarian entity) interesting things happen.

Or maybe I'm wrong; I'm only a first year MA anyway.

At 10:25 AM, [REDACTED] said...

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At 1:47 AM, [REDACTED] said...

A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist.
Stewart Alsop- Posters.


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