Monday, March 31, 2008

Radical Separation

Here is a quote from an article by Karen Armstrong from some years back on the nature of what she calls "militant piety" and how its rise across the religious landscape resulted in separatist and fundamentalist movements that were antithetical to religion:
During the 20th century, a militant piety erupted in almost every major world faith: in Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, as well as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is often called "fundamentalism." Its aim is to bring God and/or religion from the sidelines back to centre stage, though very few fundamentalists commit acts of violence. Coined by American Protestants who wanted a return to Christian "fundamentals," the term is unsatisfactory, not least because it suggests a backward-looking religiosity. In fact, fundamentalists are rebels who have separated themselves irrevocably and on principle from the main body of the faithful. Fundamentalist movements are nearly always the result of an internal dispute with traditional or liberal co-religionists; fundamentalists regard them as traitors who have made too many concessions to modernity. They withdraw from mainstream religious life to create separatist churches, colleges, study groups, madrasas, yeshivas and training camps. Only later, if at all, do fundamentalists turn their wrath against a foreign foe.

It is unrealistic to hope that radical Islamists will be chastened by a rebuke from "moderate" imams; they have nothing but contempt for traditional Muslims, who they see as part of the problem. Nor are extremists likely to be dismayed when told that terrorism violates the religion of Islam. We often use the word "fundamentalist" wrongly, as a synonym for "orthodox." In fact, fundamentalists are unorthodox - even anti-orthodox. They may invoke the past, but these are innovative movements that promote entirely new doctrines.

The same is true of the new emphasis on violent jihad. Until recently, no Muslim thinker had ever claimed it was the central tenet of Islam. The first to make this controversial, even heretical, claim was the Pakistani ideologue Abu Ala Mawdudi in 1939. He was well aware that this innovation could only be justified by the godless cruelty of modernity. Informed extremists today do not need to be told that their holy war is unorthodox; they already know.

The extremists believe that mainstream Muslims have failed to respond to the current crisis and are proud of their own deviance. Attempting to shift the blame to the already beleaguered Muslim community could further alienate the disaffected.
This is so well stated! The militant piety of Islam that the West is fighting is neither a return to "true" Islam nor a natural outgrowth of Islam. It is a radical and fundamental cleavage from Islam. Muslim radicals do not listen to or respect their religious leadership. They wish their destruction just as much as ours. The only authority they respect is their own. They have freely chosen separation from the community and therefore are not to be considered the mainstream or orthodox version of Islam.

Mason Slidell


Longin, SJ said...

Mason, To steal another of your lines, "That is prePOSTerous!" Karen Armstong's points, that is.

Just two brief objections:

While I agree wholeheartedly that it's wrong to conflate fundamentalism and orthodoxy, I think it's pretty far off base to imply that at its historical origin, fundamentalism was heretical. In fact, the five points of fundamentalism (either in the form of the American Bible Congress of 1895 or the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910, though not the later form that included premillenial dispensationism) were thoroughly orthodox and opposed to some pretty clearly heretical theologies. And when I say orthodox, I mean that it's clearly orthodox Protestant theology, and even acceptable to Catholics, though we may understand point one (the inerrancy of Scripture) a bit differently. And the PBC doc Interp. of the Bible in the Church admits these points, of course. Now, fundamentalism goes on to other errors in adopting a literalist and uncritical approach to the Bible. But I don't see how any orthodox Christian can seriously question the five points of fundamentalism.

But what is most presposterous is her implication that violent jihad is a recent, heretical innovation from a Pakistani radical in 1929. Parsing her words carefully, she writes that he was the first to claim it was "the central tenent of Islam" (emphasis mine). Okay, but jihad has been a central part of Islam from the beginning. Some Sunnis consider it a sixth pillar.

The New Encyclopedia of Islam (1968) defines jihad as such: “In law, according to general doctrine, and in historical tradition, the [jihad] consists of military action with the object of the expansion of Islam and, if need be, of its defence.” It comes from the “fundamental principle of the universality of Islam: this religion, along with the temporal power which it implies, ought to embrace to [sic] whole universe, if necessary by force.”

Karen Armstrong falls into the category of Western apologetic scholars who gloss over the clearly distasteful elements of Islam in a way that can only be swallowed by uninformed readers. Such scholars suggest that jihad is properly understood as "inner struggle" rather than "holy war." In so doing, they take a side in a debate that's rather recent, and not nearly as widespread in Islam as it should be.

Rice University Professor David Cook devestates the redefinition of jihad as "inner struggle" instead of holy war in his book "Understanding Jihad," (U California, 2005) finding its origin in thirteenth century Sufism never generally accepted in Islam, though quite fashionable today among Western scholars. A few salient quotes:

"Traditions indicating that jihad meant spiritual warfare, however, are entirely absent from any of the official, canonical collections [of hadith] (with the exception of that of al-Tirmidhi, who cites ‘the fighter is one who fights his passions’); they appear most often in the collections of ascetic material or proverbs."

“the internal jihad has no reality whatsoever—that it is a theoretical, scholarly construct for which we have little to no practical evidence.”

Who promotes "inner jihad"? “Western scholars who want to present Islam in the most innocuous terms possible, and Muslim apologists, who rediscovered the internal jihad in the nineteenth century and have been emphasizing it ever since that time as the normative expression of jihad—in defiance of all the religious and historical evidence to the contrary.”

“It seems to the outside observer a patently apologetic device designed to promote a doctrine that has little historical depth in Islam, is not well attested in the hadith literature, has few practical examples to illustrate precisely how it was practiced, and was adduced in order to overcome a resistance to the acceptance and legitimacy of jihad. The name is nothing more than false advertisement designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the audience.”

Look, I'm all for Islam recasting jihad in a peaceful way. I hope that scholars and imams who take that view carry the day. Karen Armstrong is taking one side of the debate, which she has every right to do. But I do think it's clear that it's not the majority view within Islam, nor the historical one. Changing the role of jihad in Islam would be just that: a change.

A lot of this comes from a paper written by a Jesuit I know, published in the celebrated journal of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, New Wineskins. It's written in an annoying experiential theology style, but it has some value nonetheless. Jihad: Holy War or Inner Struggle?

Markel & Mason said...


It's always intimidating to get a lengthy response from you, but I shall muster a few comments.

On your first point: I agree with you that it would go too far to say categorically that fundamentalism is heretical. What I took from Armstrong is the serious danger involved in the separation that results from the fundamentalist project, which is harmful for any religion based on faith lived out in community.

I think there is a point to be made as well about the differences between the classical Reformers and modern fundamentalists. For Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, etc., the Reformation was not about the collapse of religious authority all together, but the need to throw off the apostate authority of Rome. The Reformed churches founded and expanded by these men were not at all shy about establishing earthly authority over the church in themselves and their anointed successors.

The 20th century fundamentalist, however, has come to an even more radical opinion, rejecting all earthly authority in favor of individual prayer and discernment in absolute terms. This division from the community is far more radical and fundamental than the classical Reformers advocated.

On your second point: Cook is right about the etymological and historical roots of jihad. The theology and spirituality of the "greater jihad" is a more recent articulation. The roots are no doubt in war. Muslims should be given credit, however, for the theological and legal re-articulations regarding jihad. It is a great example of Islam seeking to adapt to new realities, which many anti-Muslims claim is impossible.

Armstrong is still correct that jihad was never a central pillar of Islam. The five pillars are clear and have been so since the time of Muhammad. Jihad has always fallen into the category of secondary concerns. It was Mawdadi and Qutb that raised jihad to a level it never occupied before. Again, this is an example of the radicalism that divides the community by usurping religious authority, as neither Mawdadi nor Qutb were muftis or imams.

Did Muslims engage in warfare? Certainly, but if jihad had been so central, why did the Ottomans never try again after their defeat at Vienna? Why did the Safavid Empire in Persia never seek expansion into central Asia and Russia? Why did the Mughal Empire never attack Nepal or China? There are a variety of answers centering on the lack of political will or money or military skill. But if jihad was as central to Islam as salah or fasting during Ramadan, there would certainly be religious reformers somewhere calling Muslim governments to task before God.

The fact remains that jihad has never a central pillar of Islam and is only accepted as such today by a few Muslim radicals.

Mason Slidell

longin, sj said...

Yeah, sorry that was so long. But I know I've got to cover all my bases when disagreeing with you.

I don't have much to disagree with or add to your response. Thanks!