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.