Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Islam: no more essentially ‘fundamentalist’ than any other religion

I want to put to rest an annoying canard. Let me quote an exemplary phrasing of it, from Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook:

‘Unlike Christian and Jewish doctrines, Islam demands unambiguously that Muslims accept the Qur’an as the word of God….The belief that the Qur’an is an eternal, immutable text endows it with a unique level of authority when compared to any other work of literature – if I can even be allowed to call it that. There has been no reformation in Islam, and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be one any time soon…because Islam is inflexible in its claim that the Qur’an is of divine origin. And in this sense, Islamic fundamentalism seems almost understandable, for how can you not be a fundamentalist if you have the word of God at your disposal?

In other words, Muslims are particularly likely to be ‘fundamentalists’ because it is embedded as an essential component of Islamic dogma that the Qur’an is the precise word of God, rendered in Arabic, and as such it can only be read literally.

This is a very wrongheaded argument. I’m surprised to see someone from a Muslim community making it. I mean, I can see how it seems reasonable at first, but it doesn’t take much to debunk it.

Let me explain why I think it’s a bad argument.

Well first of all, it’s not a valid inference. Let’s say that I am a Muslim and I believe that the Qur’an was dictated by God via the angel Gabriel, as is orthodox. Alright, well, I guess I’d better take the Qur’an seriously. But what is God saying? Should his words be taken literally? Maybe he’s actually speaking in allegory, or using metaphors in an attempt to convey his omniscient wisdom more fully and richly? Maybe he is deliberately speaking to a given historical context, and fully intends for future readers to try to understand how his words are meant to deliver abstract principles to that context, and to understand that we need to recontextualise those principles for our different social environment?

Basically, even if Muslims firmly believe that the Qur’an is the word of god, it doesn’t follow that the only way for Muslims to read the text is by its most literal, ‘shallow’ interpretation. All it means is that Muslims will pay very close attention to the wording, and treat it with reverence.

Second, it’s empirically false. As I’ve written in a few places on my blog (here and here and here) – and published, in a modest forum– there are many Muslims who are very pious and very committed to their identity as Muslims but who interpret their religion in quite liberal ways. They espouse acceptance of sexual or gender minorities, they call for a brand of democratic government very much like what we enjoy here, and they believe that the true message of the Qur’an is one of love, compassion, and peace.

You may think that it’s a bit of a stretch to read the Qur’an as such a gentle text, but of course, you don’t matter unless you happen to be a Muslim theologian who is trying to convince an audience. What matters is how actual Muslims read the Qur’an, and what they think it says.

Demonstrably, the suggestion that Muslims must be fundamentalists is neither good piece of reasoning nor a politically and historically informed claim.

As for the suggestion that the reason why there has been no ‘reformation’ in Islam is due to some tenet of dogma regarding the Qur’an? What rubbish! At what point in the ‘Muslim world’ has there ever been an analog to the Catholic Church? Hint: at no point. What would be reformed? Well, there has been reformation. The current brand of Islamist fundamentalism, traceable to the Wahhabi puritanism that took over what is now Saudi Arabia and has since spread all over the place was a reformation. What came before that? In a great many cases,* what preceded these fundamentalisms was a religion far more tolerant of community diversity than any Catholicism of pre-Protestant history, not to mention many Protestantisms since Martin Luther’s theological insurgency.

So yes, once again: there is nothing essentially more fundamentalist, or illiberal, or some other kind of monstrous, about Islam. If you’re curious about why it seems to be that Islamism is such a powerful force today, I suggest you look to fairly recent history, paying particular attention to the experience of autocracy and socio-economic upheaval experienced by many communities in the ‘Muslim world’ – annoying term – in the past few decades.

*Though certainly not all cases; it must be noted that Islamic history has its fair share of bigotry and massacre, even if a survey of it paints a far rosier picture than a similar survey of Christianity ever would


7 responses to “Islam: no more essentially ‘fundamentalist’ than any other religion

  1. Ian July 13, 2012 at 3:17 am

    If a few words on a blog was all it took to debunk a bad argument, religion would have died out much quicker. Nevertheless, it bears saying and repeating.

    • Said Simon July 13, 2012 at 3:21 am

      Aha, well, as you know, I understand ‘religion’ to be a part of any society, and consider Humanism to be a kind of religion. So of course, I will disagree that any argument will ever debunk religion, and that doing such a thing is good anyway. But in any case, hopefully my blog can at least contribute to an overall backlash against much of the unjustified prejudice against Islam that one encounters within our movement.

  2. ilmanafasih July 13, 2012 at 4:47 am

    I’ve been following ur blogs for quite some time, and really feel touched by ur depth of understanding. Being a moderate individual myself, I find complete coherence with your thoughts. Keep up the great work. We need to share ur writings among the Muslim moderates and radicals too.

  3. Ankur 'Exploreable' Chakravarthy. July 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    It would be interesting to see how prevalent an emphasis on literalism is (across adherents of different ideologies) and how well it correlates with being “illiberal” so to speak.

    • Said Simon July 13, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      I agree. I think that you’d probably see a correlation between literalism and illiberal social values because most religious texts, when taken literally, appear to espouse illiberal things. It may be important to note, though, that many of the shifts towards literalism are in a sense democratising, in that they allow for anyone to engage in exegesis; theology ceases to be limited only to those who can produce highly sophisticated interpretations, based upon dense and long traditions of precedent.

  4. jamesroom964x July 18, 2012 at 4:35 am

    Nice to see a nuanced approach to a very misunderstood, religion and set of beliefs. I won’t claim to be an Islamic scholar, but I think your point about what really matters is how actual Muslims practice their religion, is dead on. Most Muslim’s I know are fairly “progressive,” in their beliefs, at least when compared with a literal interpretation of the Qu’Ran. At certain points in history too, Islam was far more accepting of Jews and Christians than Christendom was of either Islam or Judaism. Keep fighting the good fight and telling the truth, it’s all we really can do.

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