Islam as Progressive, Reformed Christianity: 10 Reasons We Don’t See That

Living here in Spain, for the last few months has given me a new appreciation of Islam. As some might remember, my wife, Peggy, and I are here with our daughter, son-in-law, and their five children (ages 3-14). We plan to stay till the end of June.  

Our rented apartment stands in Granada’s historic Albaicin district overlooking the 10th century Islamic walled city, the Alhambra. Right next to us you’ll find a mosque with a tall minaret. Five times a day we hear the muezzin summon us all to pray. Many of the churches here are also converted mosques distinguishable by their keyhole or horseshoe arches.

This intense Islamic presence has led me to rethink the prejudices I’ve inherited about Islam as backward, misogynistic, violent, and anti-Christian. For the most part, these are misconceptions.

Let me show what I mean. 

Islam as Christianity

To begin with, I’ve come to understand that Islam is a kind of reformed Christianity. Yes, I think It’s a branch of Christianity. In fact, one might say that the transformation of Christianity and the ecumenical movement itself began with Muhammad (570-632) in the 7th century – roughly 1000 years before the Great Reformation begun by the likes of Jan Hus (1369-1415), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and Jean Calvin (1509-1564).

As a Christian reformer, Muhammad (like some other “heretics”) recognized Jesus as the greatest of the prophets, but not divine. He evidently saw the divinity part as a Roman fabrication. At the Council of Nicaea (325) it turned the great Jewish Reformer into a dying and rising Roman mystery cult god like the Roman Legion favorite Mithra.

Mystery cults believed in gods who descended to earth, died, rose from the dead, and then offered to their faithful eternal life if they ate the god’s body and drank its blood under the form of bread and wine. The upshot for Christians was a central liturgical ceremony (the Mass) that in Roman times was mostly indistinguishable from mystery cult ceremonies.

Muhammad saw through all of that. He rejected Jesus’ divinization as a violation of Judaism’s (and emerging Islam’s) fundamental monotheistic principle. Consequently, and even apart from Islam as a separate religion, that rejection gives Muhammad his own place in the line of the great biblical prophets and reformers. His surahs in the Holy Quran could easily be considered a later addition to the Bible.

As an ecumenist, Muhammad recognized several religious traditions as inspired. Accordingly, his Islamic movement blended Jewish traditions, Christian beliefs, and Arabic spirituality and practice. So, 1300 years or so before the start of Christian ecumenism (at the Edinburg World Missionary Conference in 1910), Muhammad started the ball rolling.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Muhammad was also a type of liberation theologian. He was a champion of social justice and an early feminist.

Islamic Scholarship

Muhammad was as well an advocate of education and learning. And since Islam was undeterred by Vatican fundamentalism and its suspicion of science, Islamic scholars in centers such as Baghdad’s House of Wisdom anticipated by centuries the achievements of Europe’s Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and Industrial development.

So, precisely during the centuries when Christian Europe was sunk in its Dark Ages, Islam experienced a contrasting Golden Age of Learning across Eurasia and up into the Philippines. And this despite mighty resistance from Rome and Europe’s Catholic royalties still mired in superstitious darkness.

In fact, during the 1400 years that Europe was controlled by Moorish armies, Islam’s enlightened philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, astronomers, inventers, architects, poets, and artists did some of their best work (like our neighboring Alhambra) “over the heads” so to speak, of their resistant and backward European Inquisitionists.

It was only after the Moors had been driven from Europe that leaders like those mentioned earlier followed Muhammad’s lead with their versions of church reform. It was only then that artists like DaVinci and scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton copied (usually without attribution) the achievements of their scholarly Muslim antecedents.

Islamophobia

Well, if all of that is true, why do so many have such negative attitudes towards Islam? There are many reasons. Here are ten of them:

  1. Eurocentric Education: How many of us westerners (whatever our level of education) have studied Islam and its history? How many know that Europe’s “dark ages” were accompanied by that just-mentioned Golden Age of Islamic science and learning precisely within (but also far beyond) Europe’s borders? Speaking for myself, I must admit that my own Eurocentric schooling has excluded encounter with humankind’s most significant Islamic achievements. These include the monumental contributions of Muslim scholars such as Al-Farghani (+861) in astronomy, Avicenna (980-1037) in medicine, and Averroes (1126-1198) in philosophy.
  2. Christian Ideology: Christian ideology explains the eurocentrism of western education and its erasure of such Muslim highlights. That is, the west’s promotion of the prophet Jesus to the divine status of God’s only son inexorably led to the establishment of Europe as supposed ruler of the entire world whose principal rival was Islam.
  3. Christianity’s Deadly Syllogism: Christianity established itself as world hegemon according to something like the following quasi-syllogism. (1) Jesus Christ is God, (2) God owns the entire world, (3) The Catholic Church (led by Rome’s pope) is Christ’s representative on earth, (4) In God’s place, the church of (European!) Rome therefore enjoys the exclusive right to govern the entire world, (5) Lands (like Arabia) not controlled by the church are illegally occupied by God’s enemies, viz., Arabs (6) Those enemies deserve to die by holy wars and torture.
  4. The Legacy of the Crusades:  The holy war part of the syllogism’s conclusion took the form of Christian Crusades (1095-1291) aimed at “recovering” from Arabs parts of Arabia considered as belonging to Europeans according to the ideology just summarized. (Again, our Eurocentric education leaves virtually unquestioned the “fact” that Jerusalem and surrounding holy sites were European property and therefore “recovered” by the Crusades.)
  5. A Similar Legacy of the Inquisition: The torture practices of the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) were aimed precisely at Muslims and Jews. The atrocities and accompanying rationale left deep impressions of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on the collective western psyche.
  6. Reducing Islam to Islamic Fundamentalism: The negative (but largely unconscious) legacies of Crusades and Inquisition have led most Eurocentrists to ignore progressive Islam and to identify it exclusively with its most narrow, closed, and conservative versions – for instance as practiced today in Iran or Saudi Arabia.  
  7. Ignoring Islam’s Political Achievements: As biblical and Jesus scholar Reza Aslan reminds us, there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.  Pakistan’s dominant interpretation of the Quran is not the same as Turkey’s. The same is true for Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. In Aslan’s words: in Turkey for instance, women “are 100% equal to men.” Muslims have elected seven women as their country’s head of state.
  8. U.S. Empowerment of Muslim Fundamentalism: Tendencies to reduce Islam to its fundamentalist versions have been aided and abetted by U.S. political and military practice. Over the years, the United States has given rise to and allied itself with Islam’s most reactionary interpretations. In Iran, for instance, decades of support for the ultra-secularist dictator, Reza Pahlavi, led to a nationalist pendulum swing that replaced him with an ultra-conservative form of Islam. In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has allied itself with Islam’s most fundamentalist form, Wahabism. In Afghanistan, U.S. support of the narrow-minded Mujahedeen eventually gave rise to al-Qaeda and ISIS.    
  9. The Aftermath of 9/11: The latter, of course, have been blamed for the attacks of 9/11/2001. This in turn led to furious Islamophobia in the United States and among its allies.
  10. Misdirected Feminist Concerns: Again, Reza Aslan reminds us that Iranian and Saudi Arabian controversies over women’s attire are not universal in Islamic countries. Moreover, he points out that concerns about female genital mutilation do not represent an Islamic problem, but an African one. 90% of females in Eritrea undergo circumcision. Eritrea is a Christian country. 70% of women in Somalia are subjected to the practice. Somalia too is a Christian country.      

Conclusion

Muslims may not agree with my assessment of their religion as a kind of reformed and ecumenical Christianity. But I think the evidence is there and would love to hear from Muslims on this point. At the very least, Muslims and Christians have far more in common (good and bad, progressive and not) than our culture allows.

In any case however, (as Aslan suggests) Islam like Christianity and other spiritualities is “just a religion.” This means it is not inherently violent, patriarchal, backward, or misogynist. In those terms, it instead takes on the values of its practitioners. If they are violent, their practice of Islam (or Christianity) will be violent. If not, it will be peaceful. The same is true for patriarchy, misogyny, and rejection of science. With its 1.5 billion adherents, Islam is far too big and widespread to be pigeonholed in such stringent terms.

Living here in Spain has helped me realize all of that. It has exposed my Eurocentric miseducation while helping me think about and appreciate the west’s profound debt to the prophet Muhammad.   

Second Report from Spain

Flamenco Dancer in Elaborate Cave Home

As you may have noted from previous postings, Peggy and I have joined our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and their five children (Eva 14, Oscar 11, Orlando 10, Markandeya 7, and Sebastian 3) in Granada, Spain. Peggy and I have been here just over two months. (Please forgive any repetitions here. But I want to tell the story from the beginning.)

It’s all been quite fascinating.

To begin with, the two of us came across from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2.

Neither of us had ever traveled that way – seven nights at sea. And it was unforgettable. It included all you’d expect, fabulous meals, first class entertainment, live music that never stopped, dancing, lectures, films, and long hours in silence on deck chairs contemplating the Divine Presence of ocean and sky. It was all magnificent.

However, upon arriving at our destination, I came down with a severe case of COVID-19. So, I started out on the wrong foot. That called for 10 days or so of isolation and recovery.

Nonetheless, since arriving in Granada, the QB2 magic has continued. We’re in the city’s Albaycin neighborhood just above the famous 11th century Alhambra – a Moorish fortified city that draws tourists from all over the world. From the roof patio of our artistically decorated three-bedroom apartment you can see it all.

We can hear its uniqueness too, since we’re located right next to a Mesquita, a local mosque. When we’re on our patio we can see the muezzin and hear him sing the Salat calling his fellow religionists to prayer five times each day. Peggy and I treat it as a summons addressed to us as well.

Our barrio is also in the heart of what remains of Spain’s Gitano (Gypsy) culture with its famous Flamenco music and dance. On one high holiday here, Peggy and I stole a front row seat at a serious Flamenco performance in the square adjacent to our apartment. It was beautiful. Another night our whole family crowd attended a performance at a cave-turned-into-a-house in the nearby Sacromonte neighborhood. This area is covered with caves where people live. (But more about that later.)

Since our arrival, we’ve done some tourism too. For instance, we spent an unforgettable four days walking the famous Camino Santiago de Compostela. I tried to make it the spiritual experience reflecting its original intention (and rediscovered the rosary in the process).

It was also fun watching my grandchildren enjoying the same experience at a different level – all anxious to collect stamps recording their progress in their pilgrimage “passports.” For my part, arthritic knees confined my own advance to maybe 25 miles of walking over the 3 days of actual pilgrimage. My passport contains only a few stamps.

From there, we all traveled to Bilbao. We stayed a couple of nights there in a classy hotel. Visited the Guggenheim and a Fine Arts museum. Then it was on to Madrid and the Prado where, we enjoyed a guided tour pitched to the grandchildren’s interests and understandings. Of course, we barely scratched the museum’s surface.

Then a couple of weekends ago, Peggy and I traveled to Europe’s southernmost geographical point. We spent two nights in a beautifully simple hotel in Tarifa near the point where the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean flow into each other. We took in a newly excavated Roman City (Baelo Claudia) near Bolonia and Cadiz. There were also the remains of Moorish forts and palaces to see in Tarifa itself. All quite interesting.

As for my exclusively personal interests, I’ve been intent on recovering my understanding of the Spanish language and a greater fluency in expressing myself. So, I took “classes” for 10 days at a language school just down the street from us. The sessions consisted in conversations with 4 different professors. During the one-on-one periods, we mostly talked about Spain, its history and culture.

I was especially interested in the years during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). I wanted to know how Spain made the transition from Franco’s fascism to its present situation where it’s governed by a coalition of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and a rechristened Communist Party called Podemos (“Yes We Can!”). Of course, there remains a lot for me to learn there.

Since finishing my “classes,” my continued interest in improving my language and cultural understanding has moved away from the language school to the street. I’ve made friends with a very interesting street musician from Chile. He’s 60 years old and is a kindred spirit. He lives in a cave neighborhood across the valley from us and high above our apartment’s location. There are about 40 people like him living there. All live in caves; none pay rent. Many are ex-military who have been alienated from “normalcy” by their experiences in the army.

I’ve mentioned Simon in a previous posting. But I’ve been learning more about him. He knows I’ve been a writing teacher and wants my help in authoring his autobiography. He also wants us to study the Mayan Popol Vuh together. Just this morning he invited me to visit his cave community. I intend doing that tomorrow. I’ll soon tell you whatever I learn there.

Report from Spain: I Meet Simon the Street Busker

Since coming to Spain, I’ve made it my business to improve my Spanish. I recently met a very interesting and unlikely friend who’s helping me with that. Let me tell you about him.

But first a word about my Spanish.

I started learning it in 1985 in Nicaragua where I spent six weeks of study at a language school called Casa Nicaraguense de Español. The point there was to spend the mornings in class and the afternoons learning about the Revolution that was then celebrating its sixth anniversary. It was my first experience of living in a revolutionary situation.

Getting some fluency in Spanish wasn’t so hard for me, since I already had studied Latin, French, Italian, and Portuguese. So I could get along.

Seven years later, Peggy and I did an intensive three-month Spanish course in San Jose, Costa Rica at a school set up there to equip evangelical missionaries from the States to learn enough Spanish to convert Tico Catholics to evangelical Protestants.

Both Peggy and I did well enough in our courses for us to participate in a semester-long workshop on liberation theology in a think tank in San Jose called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones (DEI). We were the first North American “invited researchers” allowed into those hallowed halls where everyone was suspicious of Yankees. (I remember being told about worries that I might be CIA!)

But while Peggy’s Spanish has since taken off because of her work with Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, mine has remained where it was twenty years ago.

So, now that we’re in Spain long term, I find myself scrambling to get back on top of Español. To that end, I enrolled for ten hours of conversation with language teachers at a school just minutes away from our apartment in Granada’s picturesque Albaicin barrio. My intention was not just to improve my Spanish, but to learn about Spanish history. I was especially interested in knowing about the years when the fascist caudillo, Francisco Franco ruled the country (1939-’75). My four language teachers at the local school were happy enough to help me with that project.

I learned not only about Franco and how he came to power, but also about Spain’s current government which happens to be run by two left-wing parties, the socialist Spanish Workers’ Party, and a rechristened Communist party called Podemos (“Yes, we can!”). The country’s president is the socialist leader, Pedro Sanchez. But its most popular politician is the Podemos politician (and communist) Yolanda Diaz who is Spain’s Second Deputy Prime Minister.

All of that was fine. I really enjoyed conversations with the teachers just mentioned. But as my daughter, Maggie, said, “Why are you paying $50 an hour for conversations, when you could have the same experience for free with any elderly person sitting on a park bench down in the Plaza Larga?”

I had to admit she had a point. So, just recently I decided to locate such a person. I went down to the local Senior Center and struck up a conversation with a woman there. Her name was Carla. And she was very kind. However, she wasn’t really interested in conversational exchange. She just wanted someone to complain to about how terrible her life had become. The “conversation” was all one-way. On top of that, she spoke so quickly and with such dialect that I only understood about 20% of her complaints.

I decided to seek conversation elsewhere.

So, I approached an interesting looking busker playing at the entrance to the Plaza Larga which around here resembles an outdoor living room where locals gather at the many outdoor cafes and bars for cappuccinos and charlas.

The man’s name is Simon. He’s 60 years old and hasn’t a spare pound on his 5’3” frame. He wears a black tee, and at first peers out at you suspiciously from serious brown eyes framed with long and scraggly gray hair.

After I introduced myself and explained my language project, Simon warmed up and agreed to share a café con leche now and then and talk. He wasn’t interested in getting paid. “Just coffee,” he said.

Turns out that Simon is Chilean, living here for the last fifteen years without papers or passport. He plays a quietly thoughtful guitar.

I’d describe Simon as an old hippie. Looking out at the world, he sees a madhouse that he wants no part of. He’s discovered that he can live by singing and nothing other than his faith that Life will provide him with whatever he needs. It always does, he says. His busking brings him an income of about ten euros a day, sometimes a bit more. And that’s all he needs.  

Simon tells me that he lives in a simple house in San Miguel Arriba, a leisurely half-hour ‘s uphill walk from the Plaza Larga. At home, he cooks the vegetables he purchases at his local market on a butane stove. He defecates in a bag and disposes of his personal waste “more ecologically,” he said than the rest of us. It’s important, he says, to take care of his health, because he has no medical insurance.  

Simon’s mother died when he was very young. So, he was raised by his father who was an automobile mechanic usually paid in kind by his customers. His dad was an anarchist who always kept a statue of La Virgen prominently displayed in the house.

Simon was schooled by the Jesuits in Chile and went as far as his freshman year at a private university, where he studied special education for children suffering from dyslexia and other developmental problems. He left school though to become an artisan working in metal and wood.  

He took up with a woman he lived with for several years, fathering three children (ages 15 to 8) none of which (“sadly,” he says) he ever sees.

Simon is interested in theology and was amused by the fact that I had been a priest. The Jesuits, he said, taught him well and set him on a spiritual path that he’s followed ever since. It has led him to Shamanism and the Psycho-magic of the Chilean artist and filmmaker, Alexander Jodorowsky. Psycho-magic allows practitioners to heal and even perform operations using nothing but their imaginations.   

Simon now finds himself studying Tarot – as a fallback, he laughed, and source of income should he somehow become unable to busk any longer.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first conversation with Simon. On parting we agreed that we are somehow kindred spirits, and both look forward to future conversations.

Over his protests, I gave him ten euros anyway.