Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Islam Needs an Enlightenment?

Some posts back, I expressed my doubts about applying the model of the Protestant Reformation to Islam. The Reformation was a bloody mess.

I also have reservations about applying the Enlightenment as a model. To the extent that the Enlightenment succeeded, it did so because Christianity had from its onset distinguished between a legitimate sphere for things religious and a legitimate sphere for things secular. Augustine called these the "City of God" and the "City of Man."

At issue was not the sacred/secular dividing line itself but precisely where to trace it.

Enlightenment thinkers wanted to draw the line as one between the public and the private. In their radical erasure and redrawing, the line that had separated two large, roughly equivalent realms was intended to become a circle of exceedingly small circumference. Christianity was to be circumscribed as an entirely private affair.

Islam, by contrast, has generally allowed no legitimate distinction between things religious and things secular. There is only one city, the "City of Allah" (i.e., Dar al-Islam) to which all else must submit or be submitted. With no distinction between mosque and state in Islam, could an Islamic Enlightenment succeed without destroying Islam?

According to the Ayatollah Khomeini: "Islam is politics or it is nothing."

Khomeini was a Shi'ite, but the same could be said for Sunni Islam.

Therefore if the Enlightenment model implies that Islam must first undergo an "enlightenment" so that it can subsequently distinguish mosque from state, then we face an intractable problem because the prior condition of a distinction between religious and secular is absent.

Yet if this Iraqi is right, then perhaps Islam needs no initial distinction between religious and secular: "The election was not only a triumph for our freedom, for our rebirth, but it was a nail in the coffin of Al-Qaeda." Politics is the art of discussion, negotiation, and compromise. Islam need not begin with the distinction between mosque and state. Given time, civil society can draw that conclusion.


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