James V. Schall on Islam's 'Fragility'
The Jesuit political philosopher James V. Schall has a recent short, reflective essay "On the Fragility of Islam" published at The Catholic Thing (August 23, 2011). In our time of aggressive Islamism, such a title is surprising, but perhaps it shouldn't be. Aggressiveness is often a cover for uncertainty, for lack of confidence. But why does Schall consider Islam "fragile"? Not out of ignorance, certainly. Schall first notes Islam's military success, its rapid spread through warfare from Arabia to "North Africa, the Mediterranean islands, much of Spain, the Balkans, the Near East, the vast land area from southern Russia to India and Afghanistan and even parts of China." Islam dominates in these places, as Schall notes with especial reference to formerly Christian territory, and appears powerful:
The Muslim conversion of former Christian lands seems to be permanent. What few Christians are left in these lands are second-class citizens. They are under severe pressure to convert or emigrate. Many forces within Islam desire a complete enclosure of Islam that would exclude any foreign power or religion. The Muslim world is divided into the area of peace and the area of war; the latter is what Islam does not yet control.Given Islam's power, why does Schall consider Islam weak?
So with this background, why talk of the "fragility" of Islam? This instability arises from the status of the text of the Koran as an historical document. The Koran is said to have been dictated directly in Arabic by Allah. It has, as it were, no prehistory, even though it did not come into existence until a century or so after Mohammed.Schall's argument reminds me somewhat of the secularization thesis, the long-held view that the secular forces of Modernity would undermine religious belief through critical thought, among other things. Outside of Europe, that hasn't quite happened yet, and Europe itself seems to be gravitating back toward religion, either through the growth of Islam there or in reaction to that growth among Europeans now becoming more aware of the Christian element of Western identity.
Scholars, mostly German, have been working quietly for many decades to produce a critical edition of the Koran that takes into consideration the "pre-history" of the Koran. Due to the Muslim belief that any effort to question the Koran's text is blasphemy, the enterprise is fraught with personal risk to the researchers. The idea that the text cannot be investigated, of course, only feeds suspicion that even Muslims worry about its integrity . . . .
The fragility of Islam, as I see it, lies in a sudden realization of the ambiguity of the text of the Koran. Is it what it claims to be? Islam is weak militarily. It is strong in social cohesion, often using severe moral and physical sanctions. But the grounding and unity of its basic document are highly suspect. Once this becomes clear, Islam may be as fragile as communism.
Moreover, if one compares Islam's textual situation with Christianity's, one sees that Christian fundamentalism, with its emphatic declaration of Biblical inerrancy, is partly a reaction to Modernity, especially to the threat of the scholarly world's modern approach to Biblical criticism, characterized by a hermeneutic of suspicion bent on demonstrating the incoherence of the text through focus upon inconcinnities that imply textual development reflecting theological struggles among early Christian communities rather than a divinely inspired textual revelation of theological truth at the outset, e.g., high Christology is seen as a late development of theological reflection rather than an early consequence of divine revelation. Christianity, in both its Catholic and its Protestant forms, has not fallen into theological ruin at such Biblical criticism.
But Schall might have a point. The Qur'an holds a uniquely central place in Islam, roughly analogous to the position of Christ in Christianity, and it is Allah's only verbal communication with mankind that has remained uncorrupted by those who have received it and is therefore as inerrant today as it was when the angel Gabriel dictated it directly to Muhammad. If critical hermeneutics applied to the Qur'an demonstrates that the text developed over time, i.e., that it drew upon previous scriptures and was rewritten in the decades following Muhammad's death, then Islam could suffer a critical shock, particularly if the very early Qur'anic texts found in the attic of an old mosque in Yemen should turn out to have significant textual variants.
But I don't think that a deconstruction of the Qur'anic text will happen without a fight, and not a purely academic one, at that.