Juan Cole on the history of Islam and Christianity

As with Christianity, there are almost no forms of political organization Muslims haven’t tried out, from monarchy to republic, from anarchism to democracy. So all those laws and political principles in the Hadith haven’t actually been determinative. Contemporary Muslim fundamentalism does dream of using them as a blueprint, but since that enterprise isn’t actually practical, they don’t get very far. Even Iran and Saudi Arabia are mostly governed by modern bureaucratic rationalism of a sort Max Weber would readily recognize. Nowadays, almost all Protestant Christian communities are organized on the basis of the nation-state. Even most Catholic communities de facto are, as well. And, most Muslim communities are exactly the same. There is a Sunni Muslim mufti of Egypt, there is a Shiite ayatollah of Iran. Some religious leaders have followers across national lines (as also is true in Christianity), but for the most part the nation-state is the unit of community organization and the arena of community action. Contrary to what de Tocqueville imagined, the Muslims have been just as adaptable as Christians to the main forms of social organization that came out of the Enlightenment. He was writing at a time when many Muslims lived under the Ottoman Empire, which seems to have shaped his image of the religion. Somehow Islam has handily survived the Ottoman demise. And what de Tocqueville rather dishonestly did not bother to mention was that Christianity has had just as much trouble with those principles as Islam has. There was that little Syllabus of Errors when the then Pope condemned democracy, popular sovereignty, separation of religion and state, scientific rationalism, etc. Later Popes even tried to prevent Catholics from voting in elections because democracy was considered a modernist heresy. As late as Franco’s Spain, the Spanish church was a pillar of dictatorship. Eventually the church made its peace with democracy (partly through Vatican II, which largely repealed the Syllabus of Errors). Islam is likewise coming to terms with democracy, however contentious and uncertain that process has been (Indonesia, Turkey, Tunisia, etc. etc.) Many 19th century Christians imagined that Islam was on its last legs and that all the Muslims would convert to Christianity. They thought the same of Hinduism and Buddhism. They mostly were very wrong. De Tocqueville’s arrogance and simplistic view of the original ‘essence’ of the founders of the two religions was a profound set of errors. In fact, by the end of this century, some 30% of the world could well be Muslim, whereas Christianity will likely be a shrinking proportion of humankind, just for demographic reasons. Not to mention that most “Christian” countries contain pluralities of non-religious people. Many, such as Sweden or Eastern Europe, have non-religious majorities. Significant proportions of Turks, Tunisians, Uzbeks, etc. in the Muslim world also report that they aren’t interested in religion. It is not impossible that modern consumerism, individualism and technology might gradually undermine religion, so that 200 years from now neither Christianity nor Islam will be central to most peoples’ lives. So, a) Muslims aren’t more prone to violence or terrorism than members of other religious communities because of the character of very early Islam and b) you can’t read off the differences between Christians and Muslims from a superficial depiction of the two founders.

via Jesus and Muhammad and the Question of the State | Informed Comment – Mozilla Firefox.


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