Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sources of Authority

The folly of calling for a reformation in Islam comparable with the ‘reformation’ in Christianity lies in the different sources of authority in the two religions.

In Islam, the source of authority is a single infallible book, which is considered by many Muslim scholars to predate the existence of the earth. This book explicitly claims to be infallible. It explicitly claims to be the direct word of God. It reiterates these claims often and at length. Any reformation of Islam must return to the Qur’an, which is fixed and immurable. The moving finger has written and moved on, and nothing can be changed. A Caliph has no authority to add anything to, or take anything from, what is written. His is primarily a political role, and he cannot chose to adapt Islam to suit changing conditions. It is as it is: take it or leave it. Even the tradition, or hadith, those few extra doctrines not found in the Qur’an- such as the idea that Muhammad was the last, the seal of the Prophets- is a closed canon, and has not been augmented for a thousand years.

If you were going to reform Islam, you could plausibly take a look at the Qur’an and make a serious effort to determine which suras might be supplanted by other ones. The logical way to do this would be to take the later, less-tolerant Medinan suras wherever they conflicted with the earlier, more-tolerant Meccan ones. I doubt this is what Janet Albrechtsen has in mind. This will result in a harder, fiercer, less flexible religion, which up to a point will be able to resist the modern world, but it will not be in any way a reformation which will allow Islam to adapt to the modern world.

Another thing you could do is reject the hadith, and go back to the Qur’an alone. In itself this is going to be an entirely negative reform. It can only become positive and adaptive if, in rejecting the un-Qur’anic idea of Muhammad as the seal of the Prophets, you allow a new Prophet to come in with additional teachings expanding on those of Muhammad. This is not a new idea. This is what the Druze did, and the Baha’i’s, and a number of other religions, all of which have in common the fact that through this reformation they are no longer Islam. This path will not result in a reformed Islam, simply in more daughters to join the family of Abrahamic religions.

In Christianity, the ultimate source of authority is a person. Historically, this has been understood to be mediated by an unbroken chain of personal contacts linking the hierarchical Church to the historical person called the Christ. This person never wrote a book, not commanded that any book be written about him. Many things were written about him and his teachings, nevertheless, and were collected by the Church, but these writings do not claim to be infallible, do not claim to be the direct word of God, and as they contradict each other in many places rely on the interpretation of the insititution which originally collected them. The hierarchical Church has historically claimed the power to bind and unbind: to preserve and defend a certain core of dogma, which may be extended from time to time, and to supplement it with a penumbra of disciplinary laws which can be, and are, changed from century to century to adapt to changing conditions.

Now, Christianity can and has been reformed in any number of ways, because reformation seeks to go back to the person who is the ultimate source of authority and express his will in a way which is suited to particular conditions. The hierarchical church is an intrinsically adaptive and reforming institution. On the scale of a human lifetime, it may seem as inflexible as Islam, but on a time scale of millennia you can see that it is alive.

Of course, if you want to have a ‘Martin Luther-style Reformation’, you want to reform Christianity by going outside the traditional means of mediating authority. You need to come up with something besides the hierarchical Church. Luther, having the example of Islam before him- Hungary was on the ropes, and the legions of the Sultan were marching towards the heart of Christendom- seized on the idea of a sacred book as a source of authority. Thus, he took the New Testament, a book far less suitable for such a purpose than the Qur’an or the Torah, and set it up as an infallible authority. This has been shown by events since to have been a dumb idea. Once extracted from its original context, the New Testament has given rise to a bewildering medley of sects that have almost nothing in common, because it does not have the properties of an infallible sacred book that the Qur’an has. It does not answer all the questions that need to be answered. Martin Luther’s ‘reformation’ was a catastrophe for Christendom that left us open for the cancer of moral relativism that has destroyed Western Civilisation in its ancient heartlands. But, I am getting off the track and indulging in gratuitous Prod-bashing. What is important is that it is not possible to do anything remotely analogous to what Luther did in Islam. You cannot extract anything other than the Qur’an as the ultimate source of authority without ceasing to be Islam.

There is only one way to reform Islam that I have thought of. There was once an institution somewhat analogous to the Papacy in its capacity to define and extend dogma, but it was not the Caliphate. It was the Imamate, as understood by the Shi’a, and it ceased to exist many centuries ago with the disappearance of the 12th Imam. Thus, if we truly want to reform Islam- not just open it up to the same postmodernist cancer that has infected Christendom- we need to do two things. We need to support the ascendancy of Shi’a over Sunni, like the United States has been inadvertently doing in Iraq, and we need to hope that the 12th Imam shows up soon.


Marco said...

I kind of agree that reforming Islam to be more "liberal" is a nonsense in itself. However a movement within the islamic heartland for people as individuals to think more liberally is entirely possible. This becomes more of a chicken and egg problem, where potential liberal policy-makers cannot reach powerful positions due to votes along religious lines. I think some kind of dis-establishment is what activists may have in mind, where the majority religion no longer has free reign to control certain aspects.

Dave said...

This whole debate is pretty much completely beyond me, except inasmuch as a more liberal Islamic world is of interest to me as a...secular humanist, or moral relativist, or whatever the hell I am.

Marco, are you advocating a separation of church and state, and (Saddam-style tyranny and Gaddafi-style dictatorship aside, because those aren't exactly ideal models of government) is that workable in Islamic states?

That's not rhetorical - I'm curious as to the answer.

Marco said...

Yes, I am, and I think a statement in the constitution to that end would have been really nice - But it didn't happen and essentially, like Afghanistan, Islam is the "established" religion. I am quite the disestablishmentarian, while dr clam leans more towards antidisestablishmentarianism. I think there are seeds for an Islamic caliphate amongst countries that envision Islam of higher priority than national laws. At the moment the swathe of Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan have this constitutionally enshrined, although the flavours of Islam indicate supranational complications.

Nato said...

Dr.Clam, there's a wealth of church history, theology and other issues raised by your post that require an extended response to do them justice.

An informed response will take far more time than I can afford at this point.

That said, in summary:

1. Thanks for avoiding 'Gratuitous Prod-Bashing' - I likewise seek to do the same with Catholicism.

2. Without knowing the sources upon which you base your historical analysis of the Reformation, I find your conclusions regarding church history and authority (e.g. Luther divorcing the New Testament from the rest of the Bible and the 'infallibility' of the Bible to name two) to be at significant odds with my understanding of what I would call 'evangelicalism' (the driving spirit of the Reformation).

3. While I agree that the Reformation could not happen in Islam, I would contend that it was not the disaster you paint it to be for Christendom - it in fact was a necessary catalyst for the survival of the Christian faith.

4. A 'Post-Modernist infection of Christendom' was not the inevitable result of the Reformation. Anyone genuinely holding to the fundamental tenets of the Reformation would resist Post-Modernism's negative aspects, (e.g. blind relativism) whilst embracing its positive strengths (e.g. the importance of narrative).

Anyhow, enough rambling - perhaps the time has come for me to create another blog that is less 'occasional family/personal news', and more explicit in the belief system side of things, to address the many issues you raise (scary concept), rather than pointing you to other's writings.

Dr. Clam said...

If I can get you to create a serious content blog, Nato, I will have done one worthwhile thing :)

I'm afraid I didn't really avoid gratuitous Prod-bashing, I just let you know that was what I seemed to have started doing when I started doing it, so no thanks are necessary :(

Marco said...

I realise that I didn't answer the second part of Dave's question. I think a separation of church and state is entirely workable even with an islamic majority population. The best way would have been to insist on this being in the constitution in Iraq, but alas, this was where the problem lay. If you force conditions on it, the Iraqis would feel that their sovereignty would have been violated. Thus, this opportunity has passed the US by. The powers that be would have to realise themselves that separation is necessary and ram it through somehow. I guess there will be other opportunities in some of the other Arab states in the future.

Dr. Clam said...

You might recall Marco and me thrashing this business of the separation of Church and State around some time ago without getting to any conclusion, Dave. I asserted that Marco's insistence that separation of Church and State is always good is as touchingly mudle-headed as the idea that the private sector can always do anything better than the public sector. In my opinion it is vitally important to know: What is the Church like? What is the State like? And, how separate are you suggestng these two things ought to be, exactly?

Marco said...

And I am asserting that separation of church and state should be done via a statement of principle in the constitution of nation states. This can then be argued and refined via the nation state's high court and then be guided somewhat by precedent. The only country that I know of that has this principle enshrined in the constitution is the US (please correct me if I'm wrong!). Therefore, even a freakonomic style regression analysis will not achieve information to back me up on my assertion. A state like Turkey which is constitutionally secular is not achieving the same thing. I believe one can study how religious entities operate in a country like Turkey, and trace back to causes which relate to their constitution. Much like the abortion/crime link, the cause and effect are separated by time and space such that the link isn't obvious until proven by lucky statistical circumstances.

Marco said...

Dr. Clam said : What is the Church like? What is the State like? And, how separate are you suggesting these two things ought to be, exactly?
Let me give a stupid analogy : Say I was asserting that there should be "a separation of zoos and wilderness". And that it should be followed as a general principle. Regardless of what the zoos are like and what the wilderness is like in different cases, the simplicity of a guiding principle over mandating specific procedures under specific circumstances is the advantage. Note how the European constitution has lent itself to activism of vested interests because it specified too much procedure and too few guiding principles compared to the US constitution. So the discrepancies between what various zoos and wilderness areas are like should be left to the lawmakers of the country to sort out within the bounds of the general principles. I think if we put in the constitution that the "established" wilderness areas should be given special consideration such as Islam is in Afghanistan, the natural progression of other wilderness areas into valuable ones will be suppressed.

Dr. Clam said...

You're right. That is a stupid analogy!
Like, duh, any particular antelope cannot be both in a zoo and in the wilderness, while the average human will be both in a church and a state. She may not want to leave a church and just live in a state, and she certainly won't be allowed to leave a state and just live in a church, if that was what she wanted. :P