Don’t you remember the crusades?!
What might the Christians and the Jews of northern Africa and the Middle East think, were they to hear, piercing somehow through the terrible noise of their current persecution, that belligerent declaration coming from the West that their religions are in fact, in the real world of the present moment, just as much of a problem as the third and youngest child of Abraham? What, for that matter, do the Christians and Jews of the Western world think, upon hearing that their modern day preachings and their current ways are of actually equal concern? What might Muslims of earlier times, relatively quiet amongst Christian Crusaders and Catholic Inquisitors, have thought, what utter incredulity might have danced across their faces, had those around them proudly proclaimed from the apparent moral high ground that no no, it will not do to point the finger at the monotheism currently and blatantly relishing in its turn with the wrecking ball, and that Islam is in fact, reality, and practice equally problematic, and ought weigh, in these times of Christianity at it’s powerfully imperialist, torturing worst, just as heavy on the mind?
It is not wrong to have a concern, a concentration, and a focus pertaining to religion in the time we live in that falls heaviest upon Muhammad’s final testament. Even if one disagreed with the essay that now rises seemingly unceasingly up from the bottom of the screen, even if one convincingly argued for essentially equivalence, in terms of inherent goodness and badness, between the three major world religions and got me on that side of the debate, there would still be the issue of weighted response to contemporary challenges, and it is here where there would remain a case for reacting and responding differently to each of them.
If we are stood before a pair of houses, one of which is alight and ablaze, one of which has had it’s fire fought, it would not be particularly helpful of us were we to grab anybody running toward the house on fire – with hoses and extinguishers raised to try and solve the problem – look them sternly in the eye, and strongly suggest or demand that they first go back into the house that was on fire but is no more and do a thorough walk through of every room before they even dream of moving on to the house adjacent. The people we accost will spend their time fighting fairly small fires still burning slowly out while the neighbouring house burns down, perhaps totally relighting the first in the process.
Now, one could dwell on the analogy and its details and shortcomings, and perform offense (“Oh you are saying Islam is nothing more than just a house on fire?!”) or deftly handover opinions that are not held (“Okay, so you’re saying Christianity is safe and good for everyone then. No problems there.”). Or, believe it or not, one could choose to see the point that facing a blatantly more pressing problem is not a denial that others exist or were more major issues in the past. One could choose to see the point that if it is pouring incessantly with rain outside, then the act of putting on a raincoat and reaching for the umbrella should not be met with the bizarre response that, as you got sunburnt a couple of months back and we expect that some rays threaten softly still from behind the clouds, I think you really ought to be spending this time before you head outside focusing solely on applying thick the sunscreen.
This point of it being right to focus on Islam (though that focus should not be exclusive) can even be made purely from the perspective of one caring about people who happen to be Muslim. There is anti-Muslim bigotry in the West and it is getting worse, that is in no doubt. But more than any Western bigot, more than any neo-Nazi, more than any person driven by shortsighted, narrow-minded ignorance and targeted xenophobia, the thing that brings the most suffering upon the most Muslims is Islam and the throes it is going through this century. If one cares about people who happen to Muslim, then on a list of things to talk about most, to criticise most, to be sincere and honest and nuanced about most, Islam would be, in my estimation, at the top, followed somewhere close after by the anti-Muslim bigotry and reactionary right wing problem. Besides some issues in the Middle East, we are not concerned with global Jewish terrorism, and despite lingering issues that must be challenged, we are not hearing of Christians bombing abortion clinics across the world with increasing frequency every goddamn month of the year.
You, me, and everybody in or out of this conversation knows damn well that in terms of religion, terrorism, extremism, and democratic freedom and functioning, liberal society, Islam is, at present, in our world, in our time, in our century, by a fair margin relative to Christianity and Judaism, the biggest and most pressing issue and concern. For god’s sake, that is not anti-Muslim bigotry, and one can make that statement not out of some denial of the problems still presented by other ideologies, but because one cares deeply about the human beings who happen to bear the label ‘Muslim’.
Put all that aside, true though I believe it is, as it is not the argument ahead. Having very quickly argued that if the three religions in question had no major or significant differences between them then Islam would still warrant the lion’s share of criticism, concern, and conversation, I am going to go on to argue that the three religions in question do have major and significant differences between them that matter in the conversation.
The notion that religions are all just religions and any differences are of minor interest and of no significance or relevance is well dismissed by an analogy to sports that I have heard Sam Harris use. I do not remember the exact sports he choose to use, but the gist is that if we are to pretend that there is nothing to be said for darts, race-car driving, and synchronized swimming other than that they are sports, and that all sports are sports, and that it will not do to highlight difference and real or potential consequences of said difference, then we are lying to ourselves and anyone who’s listening. I am certainly going to have a hard time watching or joining in with any of those sports if I don’t understand the specifics, and if we all join in the lie then we are perhaps in for same strange future iterations of darts, race-car driving, and synchronized swimming. It seems uncontroversial to suggest that the particulars of religions matter in how they are viewed, how they manifest, and how they should best be responded to.
Perhaps with that point made some compromise is found, as the reasonable majority cannot bring themselves to be quite so unreasonable, and so they say: okay, so there are differences that do matter between religions. Islam is not Buddhism, and we should recognise what makes that so. But we’re talking the three monotheisms of the Middle East here, and there is no relevant difference between the Abrahamic faiths. They are three versions of the same thing, and any attempt to suggest that, for example, Islam is a different challenge than Christianity was (hear the shouts of “Is! Is!”) can be nothing other than ignorance or outright bigotry beginning to seep inevitably out of the one suggesting it.
This does not appear true to me. There are major and minor differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in scripture, in history, in practice, and in prophet, that do warrant difference in conversation, in attitude, and in response. And that begins with highlighting and admitting them – a more difficult task than to simply denounce the three as one.
One could write a book or two on the detailed differences in practice and in history just between two strands of Judaism, or between two groups of Christians, or between two sects of Islam. To merely regard each as one faith generalisable and in a one-word labelled box would certainly be to lose an awful lot of each. That being said, I am going to speak of them that way, to speak of the general teachings, the general ideas, the central figures, and the general history of the three of them. I’m not sure how else I could possibly make my points and finish the essay. This is all based around my present understanding of those general teachings, ideas, figures, and histories.
My understanding of Islam is the shallowest of the three, but no longer shallow and certainly the quickest growing. Maybe that admittance regarding understanding of Islam means the ringing out of cries that I am not to be listened to on the subject, that I should be seen and not heard, that I should stick to what I know, that I should, in that case, fall in line or stay at home. Well, of course, no. I have put sustained effort over a number of years into staying out of home and out of line on that very subject. Not merely for the sake of it, but in the interest of making sure that the line I end up in leads somewhere good, and for the purpose of educating myself from diversified sources and subsequently working through it all out loud.
So goes a somewhat long and rambly introduction ending, any moment now, with a provocation for those still here to either scroll excitedly further down the page, or to calmly, and collectedly, simply leave me and my essay to our nonsense: when confronted with the Cross, the Star, and the Crescent Moon, one must not regard them as being inherently as redeemable and as terrible as each the other. Because Islam is Judaism made more destructive, and Christianity is the most desirable one.
As it currently stands, Christianity has wrought the most suffering on the grandest scale over the longest period of time. This may not remain true very far beyond our current century (imagine the long and bloody Christian reformation in a 21st century world of trucks and planes and guns and bombs and social media, and the Islamic problem may speak clearer to you) but it certainly seems safely true now, given the last two thousand years. And so, given that fact, and given the apparent mismatch between the sentences immediately above and below the horizontal line, why the hell am I calling it in any way desirable?
I have written on this blog about how Christian Creationism should be constantly challenged, and on how ideas within Christianity and society’s attitude toward the Catholic Church resulted in the sustained and significant suffering of too many children – even merely one child being already infinitely too many.* I will not defend the Christian Church and its destructive, abhorrent, censorious history. But I will defend Christ, not as actually existing individual, whether mortal or divine, but as ideal and as figurehead and role model, and I will defend his preachings against the accusation that they are not different in any important way to those of his fellow conduits of God’s self-contradictory revelations. If Christianity were actually Christianity, if Christian leaders through history had behaved like Christ, then the profoundly different nature of Jesus, relative to Moses and Muhammad, would render this essay rather pointless due to the sheer obviousness of its central argument.
The ever necessary, ever futile disclaimer: none of this, before or after this paragraph, is trying to argue or suggest that any given Muslim you meet is going to be worse than any given Jew, or that they both will be worse than any given Christian. I am talking about ideas, not people. Of course, ideas and people are linked and each one affects the other, but this essay is looking into the relationship between the three faiths and what sets them apart, and each one’s unique relationship to society and secularism and reform. The ideas people hold affect the people they are, but bearing the label ‘Christian’, ‘Jew’, or ‘Muslim’ does not mean one holds all or even any of the ideas another might expect. That said, looking into what makes these monotheisms more or less challenging and problematic is important.
A short word (or a lengthy paragraph) on this notion of ‘more desirable’ and ‘preferable’, these terms that I am and will be employing: this is relative between the three monotheisms. A secular, liberal, democratic society, in which these three religions may or may not exist, that is informed by enlightenment values and positive spiritual messages, messages that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have to varying degrees and successes put across, as have countless other ideologies, traditions, and religions after and long before them, is the ideal. No theocracy should exist or ever exist again, and there should always be a total separation of [insert any and every religious building] and state. When I am saying things that others may summarise as ‘I’d rather have Christianity’, that is in the context of a comparison between these three faiths. A comparison that I believe is prudent to point out, despite the toxic nature of the debate and the most likely response to said pointing out.
“They are all political”
I have heard some correctly make the point that it is wrong to speak of Islam as somehow obviously separate from Political Islam. I say correct, because Islam is inherently, explicitly, unabashedly political. It, as with it’s role model, Judaism, is presented as and is supposed to be practiced as an acted upon governing and legal force and tract in a society, just as much as it is supposed to be a comprehensive instruction manual for one’s personal life in the now and hereafter. However, I have heard many of those making that argument then go on to make the false equivalence, tacked on to the end, that Islam is thus just like the other two Abrahamic faiths in this respect. After two thousand years of it playing a pretty heavy role in local, national, and global politics, this sounds somewhat silly to say, but Christianity is not political and was never meant to be.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, and Luke there is a moment in which Jesus is questioned, rather hostilely, about the issue of paying Roman tax. He asks one of the crowd for a coin, and, having been given one to hold up, asks whose face and name appear upon the coin. When the answer is given – Caesar – the response given by Jesus is this: well then, give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which belongs to God.
Not only is the political and governing structure of Roman Imperial society accepted and to be respected according to the teachings of Christ, but the law and political nature of Jewish society and the demands of the Old Testament are too. While the most likely candidate for a historical Jesus would be an amalgamation of a few different zealous, end times Jewish preachers that would most definitely have had a political bent, the Christ of the New Testament, and thus the figure to be followed by a Christian, is not imposing law in the way that Moses did, and is not advocating ideological and political takeover in the way Muhammad did.
There is a further point to be made from the paragraph a couple back on the political nature of both Judaism and Islam, relating to the key differences between them. Thus far, there has been a focus on arguing that Christianity is preferably to the other two, but I would also make the case that Islam takes that which is problematic within Judaism, looks up to it and builds upon it, goes further, to the point where Judaism is preferable in that comparison.
While both Judaism and Islam are patriarchal, strict, legal and political, oppressive to varying degrees to varying groups and punishing of dissent, I think the key difference is that one is inward looking, and one looks very definitely out. There is an arrogance to much of Judaism and a sense of “everybody else can go to hell”, but dealing with those others is largely something to be left to God and time. Being insular, it does not seek to make the world Jewish, rather it seeks to be able to remain intact and Jewish itself. Islam has a profound interest in spreading its ideas, its customs, and its systems onto people and places that don’t already fall within and under it. God and time are not enough, and even though the hereafter is promised, the now is to be made as Islamic as possible – ideally, in totality. And so to point out the problems within Judaism is valid, but to continue on with the false equivalence and argue that Islam is not worth more concern is wrong again, because it misses or omits the fact that Judaism is not inherently seeking to spread it’s very present faults to all societies across the world.
“They are all regarded as the word of God”
To some degree yes, but it is not as simple as that. This often comes up when discussing the greater challenge presented by Islam regarding scriptural flexibility and doctrinal reformability, in response to one arguing that Islam is a unique challenge due to the idea that the Quran is the literal word of God.
Quick aside: I am aware that I keep arguing that Islam is, to put it crudely, the worst of the three. But I do feel that that is unfortunately the case. I don’t, however, believe that Islam is void of positives or irredeemable.**
And so when it is stated that Islamic reform will be extremely difficult because the Quran is maintained to be the literal word of God, the response, fairly understandably, goes: “but isn’t that exactly the same for the Bible?” But the imagined degree of separation between God, prophet, and supposed author/s of the scripture in each tradition is what makes the difference.
God spoke revelation directly to Moses, and Christ was God incarnate himself. Yet there is an accepted and official degree of separation between God and conduit and scripture in Judaism and Christianity, a separation filled with the fallible minds and hands of men.
The Jewish intellectual tradition and its focus on theology and scripture is near as crucial, strong, and impactful as the customs and teachings it has turned many a fierce spotlight on over the course of its ancient history. Age alone explains why Judaic scripture and theology has gone through more change than either of its younger brothers (at only 2000 years old and a mere 700). But the books of Moses are not and were not seen as either the direct work of his hand, or the work of any scribe sat at his feet while he related his revelation. That text was always regarded with a critical eye that knew that it had been brought forward through time by the memory and, eventually, writing of a long line of human beings.
With Christianity it is essentially the same, though certainly far reduced in separation. Christ dictated no Gospels, nor did he write them down himself, but the New Testament is attributed to disciples and to those who were around at or shortly after the time. Nevertheless, the human aspect enters, and the scripture even contains in its official form four versions of the same story that do not align with each other. The Holy Bible is a text that may be questioned and is recognised by the faithful as having been altered considerably from its original form – an original form that still was not pure breath and word of the divine.
In Islam it is believed that God revealed the Quran to Muhammad, gradually over the last decades of his life, through the angel Gabriel. From there, Muhammad’s companions acted as scribes, and compiled it together after his death. It is believed that the Quran, now just as then, is unfailingly faithful to the revelations that came to prophet as breath of God through an angel, and the miraculous nature and incorruptibility of the scripture are fundamental still to the modern manifestations of the religion.
What has happened to the Bible, a product of divine inspiration and not dictation, ever since it’s earliest fragmented and oral history, regarding the text and Jewish and Christian attitudes toward, many ex-Muslims consider impossible when approaching the Quran. Others deem it possible, but undoubtedly eminently harder, and there has been an Islamic tradition reminiscent of the Jewish intellectual tradition discussed above. However, word of God they all, at heart, may be, Islamic scripture has an aura surrounding and suffusing it that, to many, to most, even now, cracks only with a loss of faith.
There is another thing that I have been thinking for a while now on the topic of fundamental and important differences between these faiths, related to this question of reformability and scripture. It seems to me that the cure for Christianity is to get back to the Gospels and to the prophet, and to act them out, whereas the cure for Judaism and Islam is kind of the opposite. With them, it is a long, intellectual battle on and over scripture and doctrine, and a reorganising, a reinterpreting, and an updating, and an avoidance of or apologism surrounding an awful lot of the sayings, behaviours, and character of the central figures. To make them workable, to make them liberal, to make them benign or beneficial in modern society and going forward, the process must be this way. But with Christianity, the process must be a stripping away of all of that, and an undoing of those very things. Take Christ and his teachings, and do it. To say that same sentence with Moses or Muhammad in the place of Christ is a considerably more dangerous piece of advice.
If I am right with that argument in the above paragraph, then that is a truly fundamental difference of surely massive significance to a conversation on the place and nature of these monotheisms of the Middle East in our world and the world we leave behind us.
One last point on the path to reform issue: once the Bible was translated by Martin Luther into vernacular German, and this effect was the same with the translation to common English, the layperson, who for so long knew the Bible through nothing other than the word of priests and high priests and popes, could take into their own minds the New Testament with their own eyes. There they saw a complete lack of justification for the Imperial Church, for the elitism, for the wealth and power and the pyramid they were sitting heavy on the peak of. They were able to see the message of Jesus for themselves, and it was finally known that the message did not support and went clearly against so, so much of what Christianity had thus far been.
Now the Quran is there for any and all who can read in many translations. But more than that, while we are going through whatever this thing is this century, when one wants to know the validity or truth of a preaching from religious authority, one does not need to grab the book and leaf through the pages. One need only type some of the key words, even poorly remembered, into Google, and there it will be, and plenty of versions of it. This is immensely powerful. The problem being that, unlike with the revelation that the official New Testament, which had been told to common Christians but never seen, was a long, long way from the actual New Testament, when a Muslim hears some of the illiberal, oppressive, hateful preachings of many an Imam in many a Mosque across the globe, they may do their research near instantly and find, as they would were they a Jew looking into the reality of what the Old Testament proclaims, that the official version they just heard matches well the actual words of their God and his messenger.
“They are all patriarchs with illiberal teachings”
If you were going to have to pick, from our three prophets, one who was to be a companion, or the teacher or carer of your child, or an adviser to a friend or an organisation, you may not be happy with the line-up presented to you or the fact that these were your only options, but I would not believe you if you claimed to sincerely hesitate over whom to pick. This false equivalence must have taken the deepest of root if it is not possible for people to recognise and admit that Jesus is a character apart.
Pacifist pauper washing the feet of his disciples, scolding those who would deny the prostitute her opportunity to follow, decrying the dismissal of children, humble and patient before all but the traders in the temple, carrying through a crossbeam the weight of a world of vice and violence rather than return hatred and scorn, faltering only briefly as a deep seated and cherished humanity resists, for a moment, the pull to be something more whilst kneeling, imploring, praying, tortured before torture in the garden in the middle of the night.
The attitude toward women, children, the poor and the even poorer, the rich and the even richer, the antagonistic Jew and the indifferent Roman, toward the outsider and the insider, the attitude toward those who challenge, resist, fail to follow: this is a different man with a different message that can and has found a progressive home throughout history and in the modern world.
Elements of these positives can be found in the behaviours and preachings of Moses and Muhammad, but they are irregular among the other traits that make them both very much of their time, and targets for resistance by the liberal mind. An eye for a vengeful eye and suppression of dissent and change; an oppression of the leaver and the unbeliever and the female devout: these are figureheads and societal systems we are still trying to leave behind.
The problems with the teachings and character of Christ
Many will have gotten me wrong and left a long, long time ago, but in the spirit of “now don’t get me wrong…”, I want to briefly, incompletely, raise the issues I have with the teachings of the Abrahamic tradition I have so far painted best.
Whilst the Sermon on the Mount is not the same in each Gospel, in at least Matthew the famous turning the other cheek is directly preceded by the advice that you resist not evil. Advice that I certainly would not give. Pacifism is laudable on a personal level, but I do not see it as generally either practical or as somehow peak morality. There is a place for force and violence, particularly in resistance to power and evil. I do not believe Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr would have had success if the powerful they fought did not see them as the only alternatives to rioting resistance and violent uprising against them. That is not an positive endorsement of or gladness over violence and revolution, however.
There is also, in Christ’s message, the idea that one ought not think for tomorrow. In context, everything Jesus said was within the framework that the world would end very soon. Christianity was not meant to be a new religion; rather it was the final page in Jewish earthly history. Christ was to come back, if not within years of his crucifixion and resurrection, then within decades. He was the end of this thing we are doing here, not a new path for another couple of thousand years and beyond. So, while there is merit to the advice that one be mindful and present, that usually is not given because the person giving it believes you haven’t got a tomorrow to plan for.
And, most fundamentally, the positives of Christianity are inextricably tied to the Old Testament, and appear within a monotheistic theology that does not encourage skepticism, in fact demands the very opposite of it.
Why on earth, given everything right now, given the way this dialogue is going and has gone in public and in private, did I think it a good idea to try and suggest that there is space to defend Christ and Christianity and space to concurrently argue that Islam is something fundamentally more challenging, more difficult, less good than either of it’s predecessors? Well, because I currently think that it’s true.
There is more to Judaism and Islam than their worst parts. But the prevalent and significant problems that arise with Judaism and Islam are Jewish and Islamic, as much as and often more so than the more palatable, more liberal aspects. What Christianity has been historically, and still is to some degree today, is not justifiable by its prophet or his teachings. If you look at racism from Jewish communities to the non-Jewish and say “that is not Jewish”, then you are saying something that is not true, something just as untrue as if someone were to see the same and say “that is all Judaism is”. If you look at ISIS and say “that is not Islam”, then you are saying something that is not true, something just as untrue as if someone were to see the same and say “that is all Islam is”. If you look at witch and heretic hunting and the Spanish Inquisition, if you look at the Crusades, if you look at the wealth, power, and splendour of the Catholic Church, and you say in the face of those things “that is not Christianity”, then you are telling the truth.
As I have written six essays now, including this one, on the topic of Islam (four focused on it, two including it alongside the Testaments Old and New), that being roughly 40% of the last 16 blog posts, I am going to leave it whilst I learn more. I am fascinated by it, it’s an incredibly important and difficult conversation to be a part of, and I like best figuring it out out loud in the form of writing and speaking. However, I want to write other things, and I think with these six essays I have said most of what I currently think and know about and around the topic. I will continue reading, listening, thinking, and speaking about it, but I need to learn more than I have already managed thus far in the last three or four years if I am to avoid both repetition of my good points and continuation of my bad ones.
I am certain that, no matter how long I decide to leave it before writing on this topic again (and there’s a chance it won’t last long), as long as I take this topic back up sometime this century, whatever essay or shorter blog post I write about Islam will be just as relevant, just as necessary, and just as difficult to wade through as it would be right now.
And – a statement exactly as certain as those others – just as worth it.
** Now there’s a line to abuse and misuse with a little selective quoting: “Islam is void of positives”. Or perhaps you prefer a more hands-on manipulation: “I… believe that Islam is void of positives [and] irredeemable.”