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.   

Muhammad: Cars, Burkas, Lechery, Pedophilia, and Gold-Digging

Women in Islam

(This is the fourth in a series on Islam as liberation theology and on Muhammad as a prophet for our times. It is based on Karen Armstrong’s book, Muhammad, prophet for our times: London, Perennial Books, 2006.)

Have you noticed how champions of women’s liberation come out of the woodwork and suddenly materialize in the unlikeliest of places to justify wars against Muslims? After all, they argue, Sharia Law won’t even let women drive automobiles. How shocking! This contravenes (rich) women’s unalienable right to drive cars the same as men! Let’s go to war to liberate women!

And then there are those awful burkas and veils imposed by Islam. How cruel! Women should be allowed to wear mini-skirts and bikinis if they want. They should be allowed to coif themselves according to the West’s latest fashions, and to show their faces in public. Hell, if they want to be pole dancers, that’s their right! Those not recognizing it are worthy of death!

As we all know, such arguments have actually been used to mobilize support for wars in places like Afghanistan, Libya and Iran. And they’ve often been advanced by Republicans who like Rush Limbaugh, otherwise despise Women’s Liberation movements, and ridicule feminists as Femi-Nazis. But if it means killing Muslims, GOP Tea Partiers are happy to display pink ribbons. Whatever. Or as a Great Man once put it, “Bomb, bomb, bomb . . . Bomb, bomb Iran

These are the same people, by the way, who downplay the seriousness of rape. They blame it on men’s “understandably” uncontrollable impulses in the presence of women “provocatively” attired. After all women’s bodies are so programmed that pregnancy hardly ever results from rape. Or as another Great Man once said, “When rape is inevitable, just lie back and enjoy it.”

Can you spell “hypocrisy?”

Actually, according to Karen Armstrong, burkas, driving prohibitions, and veils have little to do with the Holy Qur’an and the spirit of the prophet Muhammad. Armstrong argues that he was a champion of women far ahead of his time. In general, women recognized in Muhammad a prophet on their side. In the face of cultural prohibitions, he allowed his wives to express their opinions freely and even to confront and disagree with him in front of others.

Muhammad also advocated complete equality of the sexes, with men and women sharing the same duties and responsibilities. Women were no longer to be treated as property bequeathed from one male to another. They could inherit estates, initiate divorce suits, and hang on to their dowries even following dissolution of marriage. As a result of such revolutionary teachings, women located themselves prominently among the prophet’s earliest and most enthusiastic followers.

Still, however, the western enemies of Islam insist on vilifying Muhammad as a lecher, pedophile, and gold digger. But these accusations turn out to be invidious calumnies. They stem from a failure to appreciate Arab culture 1400 years ago. It was an ethos that encouraged polygamy, just as had been the case among Israel’s patriarchs like Abraham and kings like David and Solomon.

In particular, Arab custom recommended the incorporation of vulnerable widows into the harems of those who could afford them, in order to protect the women from starvation and abuse. Additionally, treaties between tribes and nations were customarily sealed by marriage – again just as they had been in the culture of ancient Israel as described in the Hebrew Testament.

Acting in accord with such norms, Muhammad eventually assembled his own harem which came to include “child brides.” These were often part of the treaties just referenced. In such cases, cohabitation was postponed until the bride’s coming of age.

As for “gold-digging,” this accusation stems from Muhammad’s first marriage to Khadija, a distant relative who as a widow inherited a fortune from her first husband. She was a shrewd trader and employed a twenty-five year old Muhammad as one of her traveling merchants. This eventually led to a proposal of marriage on the part of the older woman. Muhammad accepted.

However, far from providing evidence of gold-digging on the prophet’s part, the history of the subsequent union offers ample proof of sincere love and respect between Muhammad and Khadija. She became his principal confidant as his revelations began to unfold. She encouraged him when they ceased for over two years. Following Khadija’s death, Muhammad continually upset his other wives by regularly singing her praises in their presence.

No, like other calumnies uttered against Muhammad and Islam, the ones about his repression of women contradict a reality that runs in quite the opposite direction.

It was men whose patriarchal instincts caused them to resist Muhammad’s leadership in this field. It was men who following Muhammad’s death interpreted one of the Qur’an’s surahs as requiring women to be segregated and veiled in public.

The surah in question (Number 33) was spoken by Muhammad during the reception following one of his late marriages. There some of his enemies acted passive-aggressively by overstaying their welcome, speaking disrespectfully to Muhammad’s wives, and generally preventing the newly weds from retiring for the night.

In response, after admonishing his guests about good manners, Muhammad gave Surah 33 the following expression:

“And as for the Prophet’s wives, whenever you ask them for anything that you need, ask them from behind a screen; this will but deepen the purity of your hearts and theirs.”

It was not until three generations after the prophet’s death that those controversial words were used to justify the veiling and segregation of Muslim women in general, as though they applied to all of them and not just to Muhammad’s wives.

Still even those late interpretations are understandable in the light of threats to Muslim culture, including those of our own day. As Karen Armstrong puts it,

“In times of vulnerability, women’s bodies often symbolize the endangered community, and in our own day, the hijab (veiling) has acquired new importance in seeming to protect the ummah (community) from the threat of the West (170).” (Parenthetical translations my addition)

In other words, Muslims are not blind. They see clearly the disrespect, abuse, and violence to which western women are routinely subjected. Evidently, it’s their judgment that such repression and negativity can best be avoided by eschewing mini-skirts, bikinis, fashionable hairdos, pole dancing, and even driving.

As another Great Man has said, “Who are we to judge?”

Islam, Violence and Double Standards

Christian Leadership

(This is the third in a series on Islam as liberation theology. It is based on Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: a prophet for our times. London: Harper Perennial 2006)

Since 9/11 the West has vilified Islam as a violent religion and Muhammad as a blood thirsty fanatic. Since the mid-sixties, liberation theology has suffered similar accusations. Critics ask: What about Islam and violence, jihad and holy war? Isn’t Islam – isn’t liberation theology – inherently violent?

The question is ironic.

That’s because it is almost invariably posed by those wedded to the nation Martin Luther King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Conservatives there identify themselves as Christian. Yet they are among the strongest supporters of spending $2 billion per day (!) on the military. They love holy war.

Back in 1954, their government overthrew a democratically elected head of a Muslim state in favor of a brutal puppet, Reza Palavi. He proceeded to institute a quarter-century-long reign of terror in Iran, the birthplace of the Islamic currents so feared by Americans today.

Additionally the government of these Christians unconditionally supports Israel, a state which since 1948 has evicted Muslims from their ancestral homes in Palestine killing tens of thousands in the process. The majority of U.S. Christians not only support Israel in general (often on religious grounds), but even its possession of a vast arsenal of nuclear “weapons of mass destruction.”

In response, Muslims have used box cutters, stones, sling shots, primitive IEDs and homemade rockets, (along, one day, with hijacked planes) to defend themselves and counter-attack against forces that have declared a perpetual war against them.

Why this condemnation of the violence of the impoverished adherents Islam alongside virtual worship of the “Gods of Metal” by rich imperialists? The answer lies in Muhammad’s attitude towards war.

Like the vast majority of Christians since the 4th century, including our own day, and along with virtually all the prophets of the Jewish Testament, Muhammad was not a pacifist. Remarkably – once again like most Christians – Muhammad was a proponent of just war theory. In fact, he pioneered the theory’s development far ahead of its Christian proponents. Following its dictates, common sense and Muslim doctrine, the poor, he insisted, have the right to self-defense.

Yes, Muhammad recognized the right to jihad. Most of us are familiar with the term which is translated for us as “holy war.” Actually, the word means “struggle.” It signifies resistance to the forces of self-seeking within the individual believer, the Muslim community, and against those forces as represented by those who attack from without.

It’s that latter application that makes Islam so threatening to the West. The West wants no part of people who defend themselves against western depredations. Meanwhile western powers themselves claim not only the right of self-defense but even the prerogative of “preemptive strikes.”

What the West expects in return on the part of those attacked – especially if the attacked are “religious” – is a pacifism that for more than seventeen hundred years has never been a major part of “Christendom’s” belief system. As a matter of fact, western Christians tend to ridicule pacifists as unrealistic, unpatriotic, even cowardly “bleeding hearts.”

No, the West wants an enemy that simply rolls over for colonialism (in Israel), wars of aggression (in Iraq), policies of torture and illegal imprisonment, drone strikes, mass killings of innocent civilians, support of unpopular dictators, rigged elections, and a host of other crimes. In fact, when religious people defend themselves, westerners cry “foul” and condemn their victims for being hypocritical and “violent.” If the self-defenders are Christians influenced by liberation theology, they are characterized as Marxist, communist, totalitarian dupes. If they are not, their religion itself is perverse. Once again, all of this is as if westerners themselves were somehow religiously pacifist. They clearly are not!

Do you see why I used the term “ironic?” Actually, a stronger word is required but is likely unprintable.

And there’s more to this question of violence and Islam . . . . Muhammad’s own experience of being driven from Mecca by opponents of Islam closely tracks that of Israel’s treatment of Arabs in Palestine.

This becomes evident by recalling Muhammad’s basic story. It’s the account of a prophet and his followers attempting to return to a homeland from which (like today’s Palestinians) they have been exiled by force. Here are the elements of Muhammad’s career:

• An impoverished merchant from Mecca
• Living in a period of cultural crisis
• Characterized by neglect of the poor and vulnerable
• Receives revelations from God
• Centralizing surrender (Islam), humility, equality and peace
• He gradually draws to himself many devoted followers
• Drawn especially from society’s castoffs and despised – especially women
• This community is squeezed out of Mecca
• Its dwellings confiscated by the ruling class
• Now based in Medina, Muhammad and his followers (Muslims) wage a decades-long struggle to return home
• The struggle centralizes guerrilla attacks, economic blockade, “sit-ins,” and non-violent demonstration
• (At times, it is true, the tactics stood in conscious violation of basic Muslim commitment to peace and reconciliation)
• By these means, Muslims finally return to Mecca
• And establish Islam as the dominant religion of Arabia

In view of these details, it’s no wonder that Palestinians claiming “right of return” find inspiration in Muhammad. It’s no wonder that sister and brother Muslims throughout the world sympathize with the Palestinian cause and recognize Muhammad as a prophet for our time.

It’s no wonder that the U.S. and Israel vilify Muhammad’s religion so attractive to the impoverished people they are so intent on oppressing.

(Next week: Islam and Women)

Islam as Liberation Theology: Muhammad as a Prophet for Our Times (Part One)

Islamic World

I remember as I was finishing my teaching career of 36 years at Berea College in Kentucky that I experienced a spectacular failure regarding Islam.

In the light of the then-recent events of 9/11/01, I had moved that all students be required to study Islam either in a separate required course or as part of an already existing course (on writing or Western Civilization). After a brief discussion, my proposal was put to a vote. It received two (!) “Yeas” and about 148 “Nays” from a faculty of 150. “Next order of business . . . “

Despite going down in flames like that, I still think my proposal was a good one. That’s because ignorance of Islam lies close to the heart of our country’s highly questionable (not to say bogus) “War on Terror.”

Even more importantly, as a liberation theologian, I see “Islamists” as part of world-wide movement of poor people to use their religious traditions as a force for freedom rather than control and slavery. In fact, I consider this movement as the most important intellectual and social development since the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Grasping that fact and the true nature of Islam should be Job #1 for teachers and peace advocates.

Perhaps, like the Berea faculty, you find that assertion difficult to buy. And why shouldn’t you? Even in its Christian form, “liberation theology” has been misrepresented and distorted beyond recognition. Why shouldn’t we expect even more of the same for its Islamic counterpart?

So let me explain. Begin with the context of my proposal.

Once again, it came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. On all sides Islam was being vilified as foreign, primitive, terrorist, and anti-female. U.S. military personnel regularly desecrated the Koran.

And their leaders like Lt. Gen. Wm. G. Boykin, were asserting the superiority of “our God” over “their God.” Republicans who otherwise ridiculed feminists as “femi-nazis” suddenly became champions of women’s liberation as they attacked Islam for preventing women from driving cars and wearing mini-skirts.

All of that made me suspicious. I knew a little about Islam from my poor attempts at teaching an introductory course part of whose intent was introducing freshman students to “world religions.” We had read Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. If nothing else, Smith taught me that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are sister faiths. There is no distinction between “their God” and “our God.” All three were “religions of the book.” At the very least, all recognized Jesus as a great prophet.

I had also taught Malcolm’s Autobiography. His embrace of Islam had called my attention to the attraction of Islam for poor people as an alternative to enslaving interpretations of Christianity. Malcolm’s passion for the Nation of Islam easily connected with my own for liberation theology – i.e. with the reading of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the perspective of those committed to the welfare and destiny of the world’s poor.

I remembered that somewhere in the literature of liberation theology, I had read that Islam was today’s most prominent example of a ”religion of the poor and oppressed.” As such Islam was influencing far greater numbers of the world’s poor than had Christianity’s liberation theology which was largely defeated by the U.S. military in what Noam Chomsky has called “the first religious war of the 21st century.” That religious conflict had pitted the U.S. government against the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Understanding Islam as today’s foremost expression of the liberating power of faith made the 1979 uprising in Iran a movement inspired by “liberation theology.” It did the same thing for other movements for liberation throughout the Asia and Africa. With all their triumphs and distortions, they too were movements against colonialism and its neo-colonial aftermath. In the name of God, they all stood against the exploitation and oppression of the East by the West.

That’s true, of course, for our contemporary “Arab Spring.” After all, did you think all those students and others protesting in Tahrir Square had suddenly left behind their devotion to Islam? What do you think motivated them? Had they suddenly become secularists? More obviously, what moved the “Islamic Brotherhood” to oppose the U.S. puppet Mubarak? Or why do you think the Egyptians elected the Brotherhood to lead their country?

Obviously, the motivation was largely found in Islam and in the realization that their faith as exemplified in the life and writing of the prophet Muhammad champions the Arab world’s poor in their struggle against the rich who have hijacked both Christianity in the West and Islam in the East.

It’s that liberationist understanding of Islam that the West must distort and vilify just as it did Christian liberation theology when it threatened to radically alter the political landscape of Latin America from the Medellin Conference of 1968 to the assassination of El Salvador’s most prominent liberation theologians in 1989.

It’s time to set the record straight in no uncertain terms. (That after all was the thrust of my proposal that evening on the faculty floor.) Reading Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time can help. In fact, Armstrong’s book would be required reading in the course I proposed. Without ever mentioning liberation theology, it reveals Muhammad as the champion of the poor and oppressed that Christianity’s liberation theology shows Jesus to have been.

(More about this in next Monday’s post.)