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Modernizing Islam

Modernizing Islam

Kevin Madigan of the Harvard Divinity School says Christians should not assume that there is something about Islam that is intrinsically violent, anti-Semitic and anti-modern. After all, we’ve been there, done that.

Wall Street Journal:

Violent. Illiberal. Intolerant. Anti-Semitic. After the tragic, murderous events in Paris earlier this month, these adjectives have been applied not only to murderous jihadists but to Islam itself. Yet these words could just as easily apply to medieval Christianity and to much of Christianity in the 20th century.

Medieval Christians notoriously persecuted, incarcerated and burned religious dissenters. Less well-known is that Protestant Reformers in early modern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, despite their differences with the old Western church, agreed that religion was not a matter of private judgment but of deep communal concern and unitary. Reformers believed that religious orthodoxy must be safeguarded, and almost all agreed that dissidents deserved severe punishment and even death. Calvin’s Geneva was a theocracy; one theologian who doubted the Trinity was burned to death — with Calvin’s approval.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popes habitually fulminated against modernity. One reason that popes like Pius XI (1922-39) supported the fascist dictator Mussolini — he once stated that Il Duce had been sent by “Providence” to rescue Italy — was that they shared antipathy for parliamentary democracy and for freedom of the press and association. Generally speaking, sacred and secular leaders in Catholic parts of Europe loathed modernity and all it represented: liberal democracy, emancipation, tolerance, separation of church and state and freedom of thought.

Only in the early 1960s did the Roman Catholic Church reject this medieval worldview. Only then did it begin to tolerate other world religions, representative democracy and the disenfranchisement of religion. It was only recently that it started to be reluctant to use political agencies to achieve religious objectives — even to accept the idea that the modern citizen is free to be nonreligious.

Modernization took a long time for Christianity. Maybe it could happen more quickly with Islam?

We can only hope that, with the quickening pace of historical change in modernity, Islam can adjust more rapidly than Christendom, so that a broad-minded form of the religion will prevail. Muslims will have to recognize what the West, through many centuries of hard experience and reflection, has learned: that religious texts arose in a particular context and must be reinterpreted in the new context of modernity; that pluralism within one’s own tradition and the tolerance of other faiths must be appreciated anew; and, finally, that the coercive imposition of faith will generate only nominal or hypocritical, not authentic, conversions.

This will require patience on the part of the West, and more. Above all, the West must not panic and extend its battle with radical Islam — most of whose victims have been Muslims — to the world-wide population of Muslims. The Christian world passed through its era of repression and theocracy; there is no reason to presuppose that the Islamic world cannot do likewise.

Posted by Andrew Gerns


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Adam Roberts

I completely agree that the present actions by Islamic terrorist and state groups is not born out of something inherently evil in Islam. But I disagree with the idea that we can simply sit and expect for and Islamic Westphalia to repeat European history a few miles to the east.

I don’t see any reason to assume the Middle East (or any part of the world) will follow the same historic path Europe did. While Americans might view history as a long story leading to Liberal Democracy, a Saudi might view it as leading up to Wahabbism, and a Chinese person might view it as leading up to state Marxism.

Right now, the Middle East is considerably further away from secular democracy than it was 50 years ago or 100 years ago. One of my friends is fond of quipping that “Islam IS modernizing. It’s just not modernizing in the way we want it to.”

Thomas Snodgrass

I have no argument that both Christian and Islamic followers have committed extreme, outrageous violence in the names of their religions. But “wars in the name of Christianity” more or less stopped with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Granted that some Western wars of national conquest in the 3rd world have had Christianity as a subtext, but the sponsors did not claim church sponsorship to justify their wars. Besides, the wars of Western colonialism are certainly not taking place today, unless of course you subscribe to jihadist propaganda.

On the other hand, as of this date, Islamic jihadists have carried out 24,997 documented deadly terror attacks worldwide since 9/11 ( see Clearly neither Jews nor Christians are prosecuting wars today in the names of their religions to gain converts, as are Moslem jihadists.

Thomas Snodgrass

Concerning the doctrine of abrogation, I quote from a Middle East Forum article by Raymond Ibrahim titled “Islamic Jihad and the Doctrine of Abrogation.”

“ . . . Muslim scholars such as Ibn Salama (d. 1020) agree that Koran 9:5, known as ayat as-sayf or the sword verse, has abrogated some 124 of the more peaceful Meccan verses, including ‘every other verse in the Koran, which commands or implies anything less than a total offensive against the nonbelievers.’ In fact, all four schools of Sunni jurisprudence agree that ‘jihad is when Muslims wage war on infidels, after having called on them to embrace Islam or at least pay tribute [jizya] and live in submission, and the infidels refuse’.”

What are the “more peaceful Meccan verses”? By way of explanation I again quote from the same Ibrahim article.

“The standard view is that in the early years of Islam, since Muhammad and his community were far outnumbered by their infidel competitors while living next to them in Mecca, a message of peace and coexistence was in order. However, after the Muslims migrated to Medina in 622 and grew in military strength, verses inciting them to go on the offensive were slowly ‘revealed’—in principle, sent down from Allah—always commensurate with Islam’s growing capabilities. In juridical texts, these are categorized in stages: passivity vis-á-vis aggression; permission to fight back against aggressors; commands to fight aggressors; commands to fight all non-Muslims, whether the latter begin aggressions or not. Growing Muslim might is the only variable that explains this progressive change in policy.”

Ann Fontaine

Read the Bible and its attitude toward conquering countries and peoples and wiping out local religions for comparison. Not much difference. Islam offers its 5 Pillars – none of which say anything about what you are reporting from anti-Islam sites. Faith, Prayer, Giving to the Poor, Pilgrimage, and Fasting. Many Christian sites advocate the same thing as these ones you quote. There have been eras of enlightenment in both faiths and whacko violence is both.

Dave Turson

The Jews warred to take a “promised land” and they did not war to extend the national territory beyond what God had given them. They lived in a nation that was separated from all the other nations around-about, and those who chose to live within the nation were required to live under the religious system set up by Moses.
Muslims did not remain in what is now Saudi Arabia after Mohammed died. They immediately set out for world conquest so as to bring all people under the Islamic system set up by Mohammed.

Ann Fontaine

Read up on Constantine and Charlemagne for Christian conquerors. Ask my Norwegian ancestors about conquest.

Elouise Weaver

If only!

Michael Russell

Islam possessed all the elements of the Enlightenment between the 9th and 13th centuries. Their community chose doctrine of discovery and empiracism. That choice is deeply connected to their disintegration. The West ran with what Islam discarded, ultimately muzzling doctrine in favor of science and discovery.
It is unlikely that any Islamic party of size will embrace a science independent of theology.

With respect to the Qur’an some passages actually abrogate others. The problem is in knowing which ones have garnered precedence, and that itself is disputed within Islam.

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