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Islam Reflected

While my understanding of Christianity is rooted in my personal spiritually, my reflections on other religions are stimulated by my encounters with writings that I feel express an authentic immersion in cultural experience. Among these writings I include Wouk’s This is My God, which celebrates the depth of Jewish faith while revealing honestly the costs of its insularity. Thich Naht Hahn’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching is similarly powerful, though Ethan Nichtern’s The Road Home serves better to situate Buddhism in the modern world.

As regards Islam, apologists have the enormous benefit of written records that describe the formation of the faith. This is abused, perhaps, in their claims of authenticity and authority. But it also means that we are allowed a more intimate look at the personal and social transformations generated by a prophet. In Islam and the Destiny of Man, Charles Le Gai Eaton rendered this history appropriately, disentangling cultural and religious influences, but also with a sympathy found only in one steeped in spiritual experience. This summary of the essence of the Qur’an is not untypical:

Other books are passive, the reader taking the initiative, but revelation is an act, a command from on high – comparable to a lightening flash, which obeys no man’s whim. As such, it acts upon those who are responsive to it, reminding them of their true function as viceregents of God on earth, restoring to them the use of faculties which have become atrophied – like unused muscles – and showing them, not least by the example of the Prophet, what they are meant to be. To say this is to say that revelation, within the limits of what is possible in our fallen condition, restores to us the condition of fitrah. It gives back to the intelligence its lost capacity to perceive and to comprehend supernatural truths, it gives back to the will its lost capacity to command the warring factions in the soul, and it gives back to the sentiment its lost capacity to love God and to love everything that reminds us of Him.

The universality of this formulation reflects Eaton’s awareness that revelation is not unique to Islam. Mohammed and the Qur’an are manifestations of the Divine intention in circumstances that were unique to Arabia. Eaton dwells lovingly on those unique characteristics: the vast open spaces traversed by spice traders, the restricted word roots that make Arabic a richly allusive language, and the culture of the warrior poet – all were aspects that made the people’s minds uniquely susceptible to wisdom in the form emanated by the prophet.

But Eaton was also a European writing in 1985. The Occident was just recovering from the first of the OPEC oil crises, and the paroxysms of WWII were kept fresh in mind. Israelis and Palestinians blew each other up in hotels and apartments across Europe, to be succeeded shortly by kidnappings and bombings by home-grown radicals. The scheduled deployment of tactical nukes heightened global tensions between the US and USSR, threatening a conflict that would leave a radioactive waste along the fault line dividing NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Seeking prescriptions for healing, Eaton’s comparative anthropology led him to elevate the virtues of Arab and Muslim culture. He places much of the blame for the onset of social decay in Muslim states on colonialism (including Zionism) and Westernization of the elite. Worse, his analysis tends to dismiss the virtues of European culture, characterizing our economics as an obsession with administrative efficiency, Christianity as immature idolatry, separation of church and state as self-destructive materialism, and our rational science as justifying exploitation of the natural world.

Placed in proximity, these attitudes seem damning, but Eaton presented them without polemics. To the Muslim, these are obvious realities not worthy of great fanfare, and generally of no great concern except in that the instability of Occidental nations threatens to engulf the Muslim world. But the comparison seemed also to blind Eaton to the subtle miscegenation of Islamic and Arabic virtues, and so perhaps blinded him to the lessons that could beneficially be learned from the history of other nations.

Among the characteristic values of Muslim culture, Eaton lists the sword, manifesting as a willingness to embrace risk in seeking greatness, and a conciliatory attitude towards death. But the symbolism is pertinent: the Muslim world was always a world of conquerors financed by the Central Asian traders whose camel trains linked the Orient with Europe. As in feudal Europe, religion forced the warlords to rationalize their ambitions in religious terms, but it was in large part the constraints of technology and flesh that limited  hardship among the people. Remove those constraints, as happened in Europe following industrialization, and both rational analysis and experience proves that there are no winners in modern warfare. It is far easier to destroy infrastructure than it is to build it. And so, after two great paroxysms, Europe chose to ensure that the struggle for dominance between national leaders was constrained to the free market. Rather than learning from this history, today we witness the Muslim world slowly grinding itself up in Lebanon and Iraq and Iran and Yemen and Egypt and Libya and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yes the sword created the Muslim empire, but replace it with rifles and suicide bombers and tanks, and no culture has proven itself wise enough to resist the rush to self-destruction.

To the degree possible, restless aggression is moderated by the second Arab fascination: women. Eaton celebrates coitus as the most direct route to spiritual union, but then turns around and supports strict cordoning of the masculine and feminine worlds to guard against sexual immoderation. In a culture of aggressive males, these constraints inevitably fell most heavily upon women. This catering to masculine weakness discourages expression of the feminine virtues, principally among them conciliation and healing. In America, conversely, in my lifetime we have seen a steady disciplining of institutionalized misogyny, starting with removal of cheesecake calendars, passage of anti-harassment laws, and finally aggressive reconstruction of the workplace to assimilate graduating college classes that are more than fifty percent female. If the West is failing anyone today, it is the men that have not been provided the spiritual tools to control their youthful passions.

But can Islam, celebrating a man with twelve wives, offer anything more? Considering the brutal enforcement of female dress codes throughout the Muslim world, it would seem not. Yes, the West is in the ugly stage of the transition to sexual equality, but we are learning from the process, and will emerge far stronger for the investment. The Muslim world should take note.

But this criticism does not detract from the power of Eaton’s presentation. Like a great novel, his work immerses the reader in the Muslim mind-set, aided in no small part by a detailed rendering of the heroism of the founder and his heirs. It is a great story, guided by a holistic faith that has inspired artistic and intellectual achievement for more than a millennium. In recognizing defects, I seek merely to inoculate the Western reader against making too much of them, and to warn the Muslim reader to appreciate the costs of their insularity.

Islam and the Destiny of Man presented its religion as a profoundly human story, much as Christianity did in casting God’s devotion to us as the sacrifice of a son. In that commonality, the true Christian should find all necessary means to reach across the divide, inspiring and being inspired by the greatness that faith calls from humanity.

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