Smith-Special Case of Islam

Smith-Special Case of Islam - Era/731 SPEci/aa on“...

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Unformatted text preview: Era/731+. SPEci/aa on“; 0/1" MUD/I7 CHAPTER FOUR The Special Case of Islam so ran we have not dealt with the Islamic situation. This par- ticular case has been reserved for separate treatment because it is both unusual and intricate. It is in some ways different from the others, and in some ways similar. On both scores it is illuminating. We may take the differences first, since they lie closer to the surface. The first observation is that of all the world’s religious traditions the Islamic would seem to be the one with a built-in name. The word ‘Islam’ occurs in the Qur'an itselfl, and Muslims are insistent on using this term to designate the system of their faith. In contrast to what has happened with other religious com- munities, as we have partly seenz, this is not a name devised by outsiders, those inside resisting or ignoring or finally accepting. On the contrary, it is they who proclaim it, and teach it to others. Indeed, Muslims are zealous in their campaign to persuade the rest of the world to abandon other spontaneous names for their ‘religion’ (such as ‘Muhammadanism') in favour of this proper one, which they proudly bear. . This name for their religious system, moreover, has the sanction 80 /%m 414/531 alias/(Jaw THE SPECIAL CASE OF ISLAM not only of the Muslims and their tradition but, they aver, of God Himself. God is presented as announcing: “This day I have per- fected your religion for you, and completed my favour unto you; and have chosen for you as a religion Islam‘s. Again, it is written: 'Verily, the Religion in the eyes of God is Islam". Such verses, which we will later carefully reconsider, are basic for many a Mus- lim. The assurance of divine approval could hardly be more squarely based, more explicit. Secondly. we may note a further point, which the Qur‘an verses just cited also illustrate. This is that the Arabic language has, and has had since the appearance of Islam and indeed from shortly before“, a term and concept that seem to be quite closely equiva- lent to the Western ‘religion'. Indeed this word—namely, dirt— is used in all the various sEnses of its Western counterpart. It car- ries the sense of personal religion: the classical dictionaries give wamc, ‘piety' as an equivalent, a word that never has a systematic or a community meaning and that cannot have a plural. It carries also, however, the sense of a particular religious system, one ‘reli~ gion' as distinct from another. In this sense it has a plural (adydn) . This plural is not in the Qur'an, but is traditional. Furthermore, the word in its systematic sense can be used both ideally and objectively. of one’s own religion and of other peo- ple's, the true religion and false ones. In fact, it may be used of these both at once. Muslims quote classical verses from the earliest period that affirm that ‘the reli- gion of Muhammad [is] the best of the religions of mankind“. I have previously suggested that such a conception is remarkable, especially for an early period. In Latin, as we have observed, a plural religiones was common, but it referred to rites and observ- ances, and the plural was regularly used with one specific God. The Christian Latin writers used the plural to refer to what might today be called in the singular the pagan religion (or, cults) of the Greco—Roman'world; they also use the singular, and sometimes the plural. for their own Christian rites or worship". I have not, however, come across any instance where a Christian writer of that 8: THE MEANING AND END OF RELIGION period uses a plural to designate his own and the outsiders’ reli- gious systems collectively and simultaneously. That ‘Christianity is one of the religions of the world’ is a concept that, as we shall see in our next chapter, is still resisted. No early Church Father, so far as I have discovered, can conceptualize his situation in this way. To do so involves a notion that there exists a series of phe- nomena of essentially the same kind. Of them one may be affirmed to be the best, as in the Arabic verse just cited; but it is the best of its kind, not something sui generifi. To return to the Arab singular, din. We may note that this is used, finally, of religion as a generic universal, in both senses: as generalizing personal reiigiousness or human piety at large, and as generalizing the various systematic religions as ideological or sociological structures”. The Muslim world, then, is definitely and explicitly conscious of something that it calls, and is persuaded that it ought to call. a religion, as one among others but in its own case one given as such by God. Further, it is emphatic in naming that religion ‘Islam’, holding that God Himself has so named it. Lest there be any doubt that it is systematic religion that is so named, we may note the practice of Muslim use of the word nigfim, ‘system’, in connection with 'Islam’. This is conspicuously prevalent in Urdu” but is affirmed also by religious leaders in the Arab world“. The West’s adoption of the term ‘Islam’ to name the religion of the Muslims is a process still going on. It began only recently. For, on more careful examination, it turns out that in this case also outsiders did invent a name for the system and applied it; those within did resist. The difference is that their resistance is proving now successful. The West became aware of the religious commu- nities of India and China and their traditions only in relatively modern times, through Western exploring: whereas with the Is- lamic it came into immediate contact, and conflict, from the be- ginning. Europe has throughout been aware of what it now calls Islam. For long, however, it was not aware of and certainly did not 82 THE SPECIAL CASE OF ISLAM use this name. And to be quite accurate, since conceptions are relevant to perceptions, one should say rather that Europe was aware of the Muslim community. To a very limited degree and rather hazily, distortedly, it was aware also of some of its ways and notions. In the Middle Ages, the common European practice was to refer to the sect or heresy of the Saracens”. After the Renascence and Reformation, when the term religz'o was coming into currency for these purposes, one finds the phrase ‘the religion of the Sara- cens‘ and by now, also, ‘. . . of the Tartars and Turks'la. More impersonally, substituting an adjective for a noun that names the people, one gets ‘Mohammedan religion’ and the like in the En— lightenment“. As we noted earlier, the systematic term 'Mahumet— isme' is found in English in 1597, ‘Muhammedrie’ in 1613; two centuries earlier than comparable names for any other Eastern system”. ‘Islam' is first used in English, curiously, for ‘Muslim': ‘the Islams, that is, Catholike or right-believing Musulmans' (1613) 13; this persisted into the nineteenth century: ‘Thou art . . . an Islam in thy creed' (1814) 17. Various other names for the adherents of this community, chiefly varieties of either ‘Muhammadan', the Western term, or ‘Muslim', the internal one, appear fairly early in the modern period”. In the eighteenth century, a term ‘Islamism’ was introduced“, and is still used in modern French”. We shall later recognize by inference that there is some validity in this, even though it seem awkward to us now. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the chief term in English was ‘Muhammadanism' (in a cheerful variety of spellings), as the established subject entry for library catalogues, encyclopedia articles, book titles, and the like. At the present time, chiefly since World War II, this is giving way in Europe and America to ‘Islam’fl. The transition is being pushed partly by Muslims themselves, partly by Westerners who have lived among them, and not least by orientalists. The argument for it turns 83 THE MEANING AND END OF RELIGION basically and simply on the point that this is the proper name used by the Muslims themselves. Its use by outsiders, therefore, is urged as both more courteous and more correct”. The Islamic tradition, then, we would suggest, seems to be unique in this matter of having its own name. If our whole argu- ment has any validity, one must suppose that this may not be in- significant. We may well then ask the question, Why? Wherefore is it an exception to the general rule? What is involved in the fact that this particular religious community differs from all the others on this point? _ The matter, I believe, is indeed significant. I suggest that there are two fundamental considerations to be brought to bear on it. The primary observation is perhaps a retort: Why not? In the comparative study of mankind’s religious history, certainly one of the first considerations must be to recognize and to take seri- ously the fact that the various religious traditions are different. They are different not only in detail but in basic orientation. Each is unique. Each is an exception on some quite fundamental mat- ters to any generalizations that one might make about the others. Christians at times have devoted a good deal of vigour to insisting that, or to asking whether, Christianity is unique. Of course it is unique; every religious tradition is unique. Each is unique in some quite special way. One of the first illusions that must be dropped in such comparative study is that of imagining that all the traditions are of a given form, are varieties on a single theme. One must come to recognize—and it is not always easy—that not merely do they propound diifering answers but rather that often they are asking difierent questions. Islam, it could be argued, may well in fact be characterized by a rather unique insistence upon itself as a coherent and closed sys» tem, a sociologically and legally and even politically organized entity in the mundane world and an ideologically organized en- tity as an ideal. This could be seen as true in ways deeper and more patterned than pertain to the self-consciousness of any other religious groupw—true particularly of standard orthoprax Islam, with its dominating concept of law (shat-rah)”. If so, it would 34 THE SPECIAL CASE OF ISLAM be one of the matters to which the Sufi mystics' emphasis through the centuries could be seen as an alternative or supplement—if not in protest against it, at least as an attesting to a less imper- sonalist, less formal concept of Islam. This much, at least, is clear, or can be fairly readily shown: that the various religious traditions of the world do in fact differ among themselves in the degree to which each presents itself as an organized and systematized entity. If this be so, then one of them may well he, must be, the most entity-like. One could sug- gest that Islam, it so happens, is that one. To anyone who knows India it is evident that both Christian and Islamic ideals are much more coherent and consolidated mat- ters than the religious orientation of Hindu India can readily appreciate. Again, the ‘three religions' of China are, as we have noted. less distinct, less mutually exclusive, are more amorphous, than Muslims or the West can usually appreciate. One may sug- gest that the Islamic tradition is even more ‘morphous’, if one might use such a term, than is the Christian. If it be true that the forms of the religious life of the world differ, it may be taken as simply a datum of observation that Islam is more reified than any other of the world’s great living faiths. Our second consideration is of another order. It is historical. If the Islamic tradition appears both to its adherents and to some outsiders to be more reified than others, one may ask how this has come about. Go inquiry, it turns out that, like everything else on earth, there is an historical process by which this situation came to be what it is. Actually. I discern three historical processes. The Islamic world over the centuries proves to have been subject to the pressures of three processes of reification. An examination of these not only helps to explain and clarify the peculiarity that we have noted, but also reveals that this is not nearly so deep-rooted nor so essential as at first might appear. Historically, it turns out that the Muslims are different from the rest of us not enigmatically, but have been involved rather, though as is to be expected in their own particular way, in the same kinds of development as has mankind at large. Indeed it turns out that 85 THE MEANING AND END OF RELIGION the particularities of their rather special reificationist trends are related to the particularities of their specific involvement in the totality of World history. What makes the Muslims specifically different from other groups is the very fact that makes them generically the same as other groups; namely, that they are per- sons living sub specie aeternitatis in concrete and particular his- torical situations. The first process of reification that has impinged on Islamic de- velopment is a very long-range one. To apprehend it one must go far back in Middle Eastern history, and bring to awareness trends that are less generally known than their major consequences war- rant. Our exploration of these will prove rewarding for the light that they throw not only on the Islamic tradition, elucidating the context in which this arose, but also on the world religious situa- tion. For as we shall see, pre-Islamic developments in the Middle East set a context for the religious history of much of the world. They elucidate in part the emergence of a diiferentiation of man’s major religious traditions. A recognition of this would seem, in- deed, to make incipiently possible a unified view of man's religi- ous history on a world scale. The Islamic is historically the youngest of the world’s major religious traditions“. It was proclaimed by Muhammad and ac- cepted by its early adherents in a world in which religious commu- nities in our systematic sense, organized as independent entities, were already in evidence. Jewish and Christian self—consciousness had become accepted facts, and the existence of their groups had become part of the accepted outlook of the area. Formal concep- tualization among these groups, we have seen, was not yet as much developed as it was later to become. Yet the innovation was well established of a demarcated religious grouping. separating oil those of a common religious loyalty from others among whom they lived. We saw that when it was launched in the Mediter- ranean world the Church was a novel kind of religious form. Its missionary zeal, its openness to individuals from all varieties of traditional background and from all places. on the one hand, and its sharp metaphysical rejection, on the other hand, of those who 86 THE SPECIAL CASE OF ISLAM did not join, instituted a new phenomenon in society. At about the same time, the Roman Empire forcibly ejected the Jews from their homeland yet they continued to subsist as a widely scattered yet religiously integrated community bound only by the system of their faith. This too was a novel phenomenon. The independ~ ent religious community had been born. And it had been noted. By Muhammad’s time not only had these developments begun to impinge a little on Arabia, fairly significantly on its more alert and sensitive minds. Also, they had sunk deeply in the mentality of those more urban areas such as in Egypt and Syria where the formative centuries of the new Muslim community’s history were to be centered. In addition, there had been further and more elaborate evolution in this realm both of life and of thought, further east. Not only Judaeo—Christian developments but those of other traditions, other communities as well were important in the areas into which the Muslims from Arabia carried their new message and in which they constructed its early elaborations. In- deed, in some eddies of these new eastern developments a few levels even of Arabian life can be seen to have become involved, already in Muhammad’s day. To inquire into this whole development takes us into a cultural tradition, centered chiefly in Iran and the Tigris-Euphrates val- ley, that for many centuries had been religiously and intellectually effervescent. Its role in the general stream of man’s religious his- tory is greatly more formative than has usually been recognized, far outside its own borders. We must accordingly look at it for a moment a little closely. In Middle Eastern religious and cultural history one may go back almost as far as one likes. We here must go back 'from Mu- hammad somewhat over a thousand years to the origin of an im- mensely creative Iranian movement, an origin rightly or wrongly 87 THE MEANING AND END OF RELIGION symbolized in the enigmatic but powerful figure of Zarathushtra”. Stirred by a new apprehension of God, of man, and of the world, he preached to whoever would listen a new and dynamic vision. He saw the world as a mighty and absolute conflict between good and evil. He saw man as a free moral agent, whose life is given cosmic significance by his active participation in this conflict, and who therein stands in direct relation to God, who is one, great, and transcendent and yet is involved with him, and who cares. Zarathushtra did not preach ‘a religion’. The only religious traditions and practices that he knew he attacked, with an ardour born of his vivid faith. (He did preach faith”) The God that he had come to know, and the resonant imperatives that demanded and got his absolute commitment, were against these. He did not ‘found’ ‘a religion’. Yet, his inspiration was by no means lost. The ideas that he launched, by which he conceptual- ized his faith, and more especially the moral fervour that he communicated, and not least his way of looking at the World. which was the form in which that fervour was given analytic meaning, these things deeply moved many in his day and later, and were cherished in memory. In the streams and crosscurrents that ensued in that part of the world, arose a number of notions and attitudes that have been consequential in the subsequent history of mankind. Those who use the concept “the religions of the world’ usually regard as one of these that to which since the late nineteenth cen- tury they have given the name Zoroastrianism”. This is seen as being held today by a numerically small community existing chiefly in India. It is no derogation to that group to say that this is, in fact, an oversimplification. The creativity in the religious realm of the Persians and their immediate neighbours in the mil— lennium or so from Zarathushtra to the later Sasani Empire (roughly, a half-dozen centuries before and after Christ) is re- presented in the modern world on a vastly wider scale than such an analysis suggests. To put the matter another way, these people participated in 88 THE SPECIAL CASE OF ISLAM the total religious history of mankind, to which all of us belong, much more creatively than can be understood in terms of the Parsis, or of now obscure or dead ‘religions’ such as the Mandaean and the Manichee. For in addition to initiating a tradition that became self-conscious in such groups, this milieu has played a basic part in the development of both the content and perhaps especially the form of traditions that have more luxuriantly sur- vived and growu into dominant communities—particularly the Jewish, the Christian, the Islamic, and in our day the Mamst movement. To a list of such items as cosmic conflict—dualism (re- habilitated by Marx”) , Heaven-and-Hell, the Devil, angelology, and in part messianism”, it may be that the very phenomenon of an organized religious community and the concept of systematic religion should be added, as contributions related to this tradition. In addition to the historical problem, herein is posed a nice locus of the theoretical issues raised by our whole investigation. For one might write an important history of the development un- til today of Zarathushtrian (better, Zarathushtrian-cum-Manichee, or pre-Islamic Persian) religiousness among men...
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