Tuesday, October 7, 2014

thoughts on Islam

I just finished reading a book on Islam, John Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path. Now I feel like I know next to nothing about Islam, but that's surely a step up from the nothing I knew before. The following are some quick and dirty and potentially not-so-politically correct thoughts. For those who don't know, I'm an atheist who considers himself friendly toward religious traditions (or at least non-hostile). Anyway, any Muslims or folks knowledgeable about Islam in the audience feel free to correct any misapprehensions.

The author contrasted Islam as concerned with "doing" whereas Christianity focuses on "believing" the right things. So Islam is judicial while Christianity is theological.

Islam seems strongly predisposed to politicization because of its history. Muhammed became a head of state, and much of Islam is based on the actions of the Prophet. So the Prophet's political decisions have to be taken seriously by Muslims. Muslims past (e.g., Akbar "It's a trap!" the Great and other Mughal emperors) and present (see recent Pew Research results) can craftily interpret their way to secularism, but the origin of Islam seems to present a hurdle here.

I rather like the concept of jihad, typically understood as the "struggle" to lead a virtuous life or follow the straight path of Islam. From my nascent virtue-ethical perspective, I like the emphasis that adhering to virtue is a lifelong struggle.

Islam has no concept of Original Sin. After the fact, this isn't so surprising, but I'd never realized that original sin is a doctrine peculiar to Christianity. I think it's one of Christianity's vilest doctrines, though I suppose in a way jihad and original sin are trying to get at the same idea. That is, virtue isn't automatic or easy. But jihad strikes me as giving greater agency to the individual. Original sin says the individual is wretched no matter what.

There is this principle I'd never heard of called "ijtihad" which is pretty cool. It means something like "intellectual struggle" (same root as "jihad") in a literal sense and is interpreted as "independent reasoning". This, along with the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet (Sunna), and consensus (ijma) are the four main sources of juristic authority. I found this mix surprisingly progressive and potentially democratic, but apparently many schools of thought deny or downplay the validity of ijtihad.

In the tribal context of seventh century arabia, much of what the Quran had to say about women were liberal innovations. This included limiting the number of wives a man could have, and advising against polygyny. Also, it introduced property and inheritance rights for women, as well rights to initiate divorce and education.
Shia Islam and its origin reminds me a lot of Christianity. There's a Passion story, where Hussain (the younger son of Ali, the last of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, whose reign was ended in the rebellion that ruptured Islam) fights valiantly in an epic battle against the evildoers who betrayed Ali. He dies dramatically, and Shiites get all worked up over remembering this the same way Christians get in a lather over Christ's betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. In some versions of Shia Islam, there is a "hidden imam" that will come out of occultation some day and lead the devout in a just society, similar to Christ's return. Finally, because the origin of Shia Islam was all about the partisans of Ali getting shafted by the Abassid powers that be, they share the persecution complex of Christianity, the early practitioners of which also famously suffered at the hands of the ruling elites.

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