Friday, September 01, 2006

"What Kind of Religion Is Islam?"

"Allāh" in Arabic Calligraphy

Over at Maverick Philosopher, the resident maverick Bill Vallicella, who has recently read the Jesuit scholar James V. Schall's article "Belloc on the 'Apparently Unconvertible' Religion" (which explores Hilaire Belloc's views on Islam), has posted a provocative quote from the article:

Belloc's thesis is that Islam began as a Christian heresy which retained the Jewish side of the faith, the Oneness and Omnipotence of God, but denied all the Christian aspects –- the Incarnation, the divinity of Christ, who, as a result, became just a prophet. The denial of the church, the priesthood, and the sacraments followed. Islam succeeded because, in its own terms, it was a simple religion. It was easy to understand and follow its few doctrinal and devotional points.

James V. Schall, S. J., in Vital Speeches of the Day, LXIX (April 1, 2003), 375-82

I reacted to Schall's quote by suggesting that Islam began as a pagan religion that merged pagan belief in a high God with Judeo-Christian monotheism:

I disagree that Islam is a Christian heresy. Muhammad was likely never a Christian despite having a Christian woman as his first wife.

Rather, he was a pagan attracted to the monotheism of both Judaism and Christianity and who began to have religious experiences that he interpreted as revelations.

Muhammad -- in my opinion -- borrowed elements from Judaism and Christianity and joined them to Arab paganism's views on a high God ruling above all.

Alain Besançon calls Islam an "idolatry of the God of Israel" in this passage from his article in the May 2004 issue of Commentary ("What Kind of Religion is Islam"):

"Christians are accustomed to distinguish the worship of false gods -- that is, idolatry -- from the worship of the true God. To treat Islam suitably, it becomes necessary to forge a new concept altogether, and one that is difficult to grasp-namely, an idolatry of the God of Israel."

This is a fascinating suggestion, namely, that Islam worships the true God but in an idolatrous manner. (Muslims need not react too angrily to this critique, for they level similar sort of charge against Christians.)

Anyway, I sense what Besançon was getting at, namely, that Muslims worship the God of Israel but as if he were their old pagan high God ... but I wish that Besançon had explained a bit more clearly what this entails.

Bill responded:

Thanks for your excellent contribution. Question: Couldn't Islam be a Xian heresy even though Muhammad was not a Xian? Is it a necessary condition of a heresy's being a heresy that the proponent of it be a member of the religion the heresy is a deviation from? I merely pose this as a question. I haven't thought about it until just now -- thanks to you, most esteemed cyber-colleague....

"This is a fascinating suggestion, namely, that Islam worships the true God but in an idolatrous manner." Yes it is fascinating, but also unclear. A Plotinian might say that Xians worship the true Absolute, the One, but in an idolatrous manner: they make of the impersonal One a person. And Muslims might say that Xians are idolaters since they import a man, Jesus, into the Godhead. Tough questions here.
I then replied to Bill's point about heresy, in which I made an honorable retreat:
Bill, you asked:

"Couldn't Islam be a Xian heresy even though Muhammad was not a Xian? Is it a necessary condition of a heresy's being a heresy that the proponent of it be a member of the religion the heresy is a deviation from?"

Yes, I think that you're correct. Even without Muhammad being a Christian, he could have constructed a Christian heresy. I could construct an Islamic heresy without ever being a Muslim -- so long as I'm cynical about what I'm doing. If I'm not cynical, then I'm actually a heretical Muslim. Heresies, after all, are usually understood to be within a religion -- the enemy within, as is sometimes said.

So if Islam is a Christian heresy, and if Muhammad was sincere, then he was a Christian heretic ... as all Muslims would be.

But I don't think that Islam is a Christian heresy. It's a different religion, more different from Christianity than Judaism is from Christianity (in my opinion).
Doubtless, this dialogue will go on and on, but Besançon's question remains: "What kind of religion is Islam?"

And Besançon's own answer -- that it's "an idolatry of the God of Israel" -- is one that I'm still puzzling over.

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At 5:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Ian. In the case of Manichaeism, I can see the argument that it began as a Christian heresy.

Mani grew up in what appears to have been a Jewish-Christian sect called the Elkasites, and one might see his religious views as having developed from that beginning.

However, his system developed in such a way as move completely out of Christianity in its core beliefs.

Manichaeans, however, were astonishingly adaptable and managed to take on the appearance of whatever religion seemed dominant. So, they passed themselves off as Christians in the Roman Empire, as Zoroastrians in Persia, as Buddhists in Central Asia, as Taoists in China ... and even attempted to look like Muslims, though not very successfully.

Manichaeans didn't think that they were being inconsistent, for they found some truth in every religion, and always claimed to be bringing the full truth, albeit surreptitiously. To the degree that they convinced adherents that they were within the fold was the degree to which they were judged heretical when found out.

But looking at them across time and cultures, I'd say that they were simply a distinct religion from all of those religions that they adapted themselves to.

The great Manichaean scholar Alexander Bohlig once told me that he considered the Manichaean religion to be a parasitic religion, one that lived off its host religion but differed from entirely.

I wouldn't call it "parasitic," but I see an insight there.

As for the Muslim apologist, I suspect that he was arguing that the original Christianity was Islamic, which makes Muhammad's religion of Islam closer to the original Christianity ... in which case Christianity as we know it is heretical Christianity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe he should just say that Christianity itself became heretical and that the one true religion, Islam, is therefore closer to the original Christianity as practiced by Jesus.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greetings in Peace,

Please see for a detailed refutation of the assumption that Muhammad borrowed from the Jews and Christians. The assumption deserves a critique and would serve to make one re-think the explanation of Islam as a new faith.

Some quick notes: 1) If Muhammad borrowed from Jews and Christians, surely he would have inherited the errors that the Bible made,

2) If Muhammad borrowed and was just in it for the following, why break with THE most fundamental doctrine of Christianity: of the alleged crucifixion and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, Son of Mary,

3) WHO were his teachers - no one seems to know. This could not possibly escape the attention of all those who were around him - including the Jews and Christians who themselves converted.

Please visit the site - this question is a valid one.


Mubin Shaikh - Toronto, Canada

At 6:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mubin Shaikh, thank you for your courteous invitation to visit the Islamic Awareness website.

Currently, I am rather busy with my teaching (and this blog), but I will try to visit sometime in the not too distant future.

As for your questions, I'd have to give them some thought before attempting to answer them -- and I'd need to know a lot more about the history of Arabia and early Islam. So ... I won't try to reply since I'd probably only demonstrate my ignorance.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good points here (and an outstandingly good blog altoghether, I may add). Nobody has yet mentioned syncretism, an omission I think: We know that, in Mohammads time and place, there was a sizeable Jewish community. Their rites were easily observerable by him, and we can assume he did talk with some of them about their faith. The Jewish texts, however, were inaccesible to him: He didn't understand any of the languages they were available in. Christians were fewer, and further away, but, being a trader who travelled quite extensively in his youth, he probably knew some of them too, but certainly not with the same familiarity as the Jews. The crucial difference is that Christian lectionaries (but not the Bible itself) were widely available in a language that he, as a trader, must have been at least semi-familiar with: Syriac. The Qur'an bears witness to his familiarity with these lectionaries, and at the same time to his limited knowledge of their vocabulary. (You've probably heard of the Christoph Luxenberg book - it's a bit messy, but fascinating). Take these two elements, observed Judaism, and a somewhat faultily read Christian lectionaries, throw in the pagan elements a poster above mentioned, and add the prerequisity state of mind that a prophet needs, and -voila- early Islam.

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal, for your remarks. I have heard of Luxenberg's book but have never seen a copy. I could read the German but not the Syriac or Arabic, unfortunately.

Your reconstruction sounds plausible to me, although Arabic and Syriac are not especially close as Semitic languages (or so I'm told), so I wonder if Syriac were so much more accessible -- or do you mean that it was the lingua franca of its day?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, "lingua franca" is what I mean. The Aramaic of Edessa (later renamed "Syriac" for reasons too stupid to go into here) was the lingua franca of traders in the wider region, including the Arab peninsula from the 2nd to the 8th century, broadly speaking. Arabic as such didn't exist yet: There were only dialects, none of them written, and the language of the Qur'an is Meccan dialect, promoted to the status of Standard Arabic (fusha) by the Qur'an. When writing, eduacated Arabs employed Aramaic (or Syriac, call it whatever you want). What we know today as the Arabic script (but without vocalization) was derived from the Aramaic script sometime between the 5th and 7th century. This is not at all a new insight, of course. It's been the standard assumption in the field since Theodor Noeldecke's "Die semitischen Spachen" (1895, if I remember correctly).
Nevermind not reading Arabic or Syriac. Everything is transscribed and translated. (There will be an English and French edition soon, too) I thought Luxenberg was worth reading because it's really the first baby steps in appying rigorous philologic methods to Qur'an text studies. There appears to have been an overreliance on traditional literal readings before, even in European scholarship.

At 4:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal, for the follow-up remarks. When Luxenberg's book becomes available in English, I intend to read it (though I could read the German if I weren't too lazy to apply myself).

By the way, are you a scholar on early Islam? You sound as though you're well-read in the material.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, professionally I used to do the Ottoman Empire, more specifically the 19th century, plus/minus some. I can follow the arguments put forth in early Islam debates and see the broader picture, but I could never reproduce them, or evaluate the details.

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, then you must be a historian, which gives us a discipline in common.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Visit the site folks -

The "virgins as raisins" claim is extremely lacking and the site has some feedback on it - based on expert knowledge.

Have to say though, great blog - very civil and academic --- the only way religious criticism should be approached.


Mubin Shaikh (Toronto, Canada)

At 8:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mubin Shaikh, thanks. I try to be civil on my blog, where I can express myself better than offline.

I'm sorry that I haven't visited your website yet. My circumstances have kept me extremely busy, but I'll try to find some time.

Thanks for the reminder.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peace, it's a bit late to respond but it's ok to mention some facts that have been missed, which are agreeable by everyone, i suppose.
1- Muhammad was, as everybody agrees, illiterate.
2- His first wife wasn’t Christian.
3- There were no Jews in Makka when he started to call for Islam.
4-The trade journeys he did when he was a boy with his uncle and when he grew older he worked as shepherd and his trade journeys were very few.
5- The Quraan criticised the distorted practice of the Judaism and Christianity and there was no blarney to any group of them with the insistence that all these religions are of the same origin.
6- the most important point that you based this discussion on is ("an idolatry of the God of Israel") and you assumed that this is the essence of Islam. However if you go back to earliest Quraanic verses that shows, clearly and frankly, that there is 1- one and only God 2- this god has no partners or children or relatives or wife. Please see verses 109- « The Pagans » and 112- « Some Attributes of Allah » AL IKHLAS .link: from these two short verses you can see that Islam came to rectify the blots that distorted monotheism.

There are loads of facts that proof that Islam has come to continue the path of the (original) heavenly messages and the web is full of sites that displays Islam as it is and answers all inquiries about it and clarify al sceptical about it.

Thanks for this civilized discussion and I hope that you would review this respond even if it too late



At 12:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thank you, Dr. Kayali, for a civilized reply. You're right that this discussion is pretty lifeless by now, but I can reply to one point.

I wouldn't say that I assume that "the essence of Islam" is "an idolatry of the God of Israel." That's the view of Alain Besançon, a view that I find intriguing but that I don't fully understand because he didn't explain it.

I did suggest that Islam grew out of pagan Arab views, onto which were grafted Jewish and Christian views, and I understand that you disagree.

I may be wrong on that, but it's also not an assumption, but more of a conclusion based on what I have read. My views could change, of course, if I found overriding contrary evidence.

Further investigation will have to take its course over the years, given that I have little time.

A student is now waiting for me, so I have to close.

Jeffery Hodges

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