Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Further on René Girard and Violent Sacrifice in Islam

René Girard Speaks Out

My pursuit of René Girard's views on Islam and violent sacrifice have led me to the website for the Italian paper Chiesa, which offers an article first posted on June 23, 2003: "The Innocent Victim Has a Defender. And He Is in Jerusalem."

This Chiesa post provides an English translation of the original article, "Il Dio dell'apocalisse" ("The God of the Apocalypse"), an interview with Girard conducted by Attilio Scarpellini for L'Espresso (No. 25, June 12, 2003) in which Scarpellini raises the issue of Islam and violence:
Scarpellini: And Islam?

Girard: "Islam has problems with violence. But we must avoid confusion. Islam cannot be classified as a primitive religion: it is a monotheistic religion that belongs to the religious family of Abraham, and it has been profoundly influenced by both Judaism and Christianity. Islam, too, contains the seed of a critical stance toward violence. Human sacrifice is not part of the Muslim tradition, and no orthodox or authoritative religious current of Islam justifies it. Islam is not sacrificial."

Scarpellini: But there are the suicide bombers.

Girard: "That's true. Fundamentalist terrorism is sacrificial. But it is a contradiction that plays upon the ambiguity of our relationship with religion and the sacred."

Scarpellini: The philosopher Jean Baudrillard says that the behavior of the suicide bombers is an assertion of moral superiority, in that they are capable of sacrificing themselves and others, a symbolic challenge that westerners are no longer able to accept.

Girard: "I haven't read much by Baudrillard lately. But in this case I would be tempted to agree with him. We are not capable of accepting the terrorist's challenge to sacrifice because the logic of suicide-homicide is unacceptable in a moral context permeated by Christianity; because we do not believe that the mechanism of the sacrificial victim has any value. The act of the suicide bomber who immolates himself and his enemy on the same altar may draw our attention -- as does in fact happen -- but it doesn't convince us. But to think that the refusal of this sacrifice weakens the West is merely a way of reviving Nietzsche's criticisms of Christianity."
I wonder who the "we" is in Girard's words that "we do not believe that the mechanism of the sacrificial victim has any value." Many Westerners still speak unselfconsciously -- though in a thoroughly secular sense -- of soldiers who die in battle as "sacrificing" themselves for their country. Or do only American Westerners think this way? Now, if Girard means specifically the suicide-homicide sort of 'sacrifice', then I'd agree that Westerners today generally reject any sacrificial understanding of a terrorist's mass homicide, even if the terrorist 'sacrifices' himself -- though I suspect that some Americans in WWII may have employed a secularized use of the term 'sacrifice' to describe the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (but I'm just guessing).

More to the point, I cannot quite see how in a "moral context permeated by Christianity ... we do not believe that the mechanism of the sacrificial victim has any value." Is this a general principle that also applies to religious concepts of forgiveness? Do Girard's words imply that sacrifice is an ineffective mechanism for the forgiveness of sins in Christian soteriology? I don't quite understand this. Perhaps "Islam is not sacrificial," but Christianity certainly is. Christian soteriology puts the self-sacrifice of Christ at its center and claims that the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament points toward this self-sacrifice. Moreover, it understands Christ's self-sacrifice not only as effective in enabling the forgiveness of sins but even as necessary and sufficient for the final purification from all sins. Perhaps this is Girard's point, that Christ's sacrifice makes any further sacrifices otiose?

Be that as it may, Girard's main point about Islam is that "Human sacrifice is not part of the Muslim tradition, and no orthodox or authoritative religious current of Islam justifies it." In short, "Islam is not sacrificial." If Girard is correct, then the Islamist exaltation of the suicide bomber is an Islamic heresy. Some Muslim scholars have, in fact, argued this, but a lot of others have defended the human sacrifice that they call "martyrdom operations."

Concerning this issue of human sacrifice in Islam, one might wish to read a couple of my earlier posts on the shahid as Islamic redeemer.

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At 3:41 PM, Blogger gwb said...

Don't know if you ever worked out the question of Girard on sacrifice and Christianity / Islam. He explains it in "Things Hidden..." He is very much against the idea of the death of Christ as a sacrifice (in this direction also he is suspicious of the book of Hebrews). He views Christ's death as ANTI sacrificial. It is the collective murder of an innocent victim, and presents itself as such, whereas in "primitive" societies, the same thing took place (the collective murder of an innocent victim), but the religious systems built up around that murder hid the innocence of the victim from the community, as well as the communities own culpability (i.e. the mythological retelling of the murder lies about these features of innocence and culpability), and this deceit is what makes the sacrificial mechanism to "work" -- i.e. for violence and chaos to be curtailed by means of sacrifice. But once everyone learns that the victims are arbitrary and innocent (and not, e.g., divine, as in myth), the game is up, and sacrifice loses its power to bring or to maintain order and peace.

It is this very lie that the death of Christ uncovers. Sacrificial victims are ALWAYS innocent and arbitrary. And so the death of Christ causes the sacrificial mechanism to lose its power, to break down.

Also: when Girard is thinking about sacrifice, he does not (normally) mean SELF sacrifice. He means collective murder, or the ritual reenactment of collective murder (by killing a goat or whatever). What he rejects is the notion that the Judeo-Christian God demands blood. The Judeo-Christian revelation (the Bible) is for Girard a gradual disclosure of the fact that YHWH is, in fact, nothing but mercy, compassion, love, etc. He never judges; he is never wrathful; etc.

I note that this post was from 2007. So I assume everyone has moved on. But I stumbled across it looking for stuff about Girard on Islam.

Blessings and peace.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Father WB, thank you for the comment. No post is ever too late, and yours has been very informative and interesting. I will try to look further into the issue that you have noted.

Thanks again for the visit and remarks.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:35 AM, Anonymous Attilio Scarpellini said...

J'arrive trés tard à cette page et je m'excuse pour ma prétention d'intervenir en francais, mais mon anglais est vraiment trop "bad". Je crois que le point vraiment fondamental de l'argumentation girardienne est en effet que le sacrifice de Christ rend superflu tout autre sacrifice et par là desacralise tout violence en la trasformant en violence de pure persécution. Girard a plusiers fois expliqué, et notamment dans "Des choses cachées...", que la sacrifice de Jésus n'est pas accepté en tant que tel par l'interessé, que Christ a la conscience d'etre trasformé en victime, en bouc emissaire; il parle à ce propos de "crhyse" dans les evangiles: tantot cette victime s'approche au moment d'etre tuée, tantot elle demistifie le mecanisme mimétique et victimaire où elle est entrainée...La question qui se poserait vient du judaisme e d'autres comme Emmanuel Lévinas l'ont reprise: croyons-nous qui existe une difference entre le sacré et le saint?
merci et beaucoup de felicitations pour le site
Attilio Scarpellini

At 5:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thank you, Mr. Scarpellini. I'm honored that you would comment on my blog. No comment is ever too late so long as I am still living and blogging.

My French is not the best, but I think that I understood your interesting comment.

I do have a couple of questions, however.

I was unable to find "crhyse" online, so I wonder if this is misspelled. Should it be "chryse"? Could you clarify this point for me?

Also, what did Emmanuel Lévinas mean in asking, "croyons-nous qui existe une difference entre le sacré et le saint?" I'm guessing that "saint" here should be translated as "holy person" rather than as "holy." Is Lévinas asking about the distinction between the Holy One (God) and a holy one (human)? Meaning that Judaism maintains a distinction but that Christianity dissolves it?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:53 PM, Anonymous Desbabas said...

Difference between "sacré" and "saint" means difference bewtween sacred and holy.

As i understand it, sacred as something valuable by himself, worthy of worship. And Holy is something took apart by God. First one is of the world, second is asked by God for himself.

For Christ, i found personally in Girard an explanation of the Quran sourat. Islam is absolutly monotheist. So it denies the divinity of christ. This is the way i undesrtand it : Christ is not a victim so christ is not a god (god in paganism is according to Girard the victim becoming divine).

Quran says it was a "mise en scene", they did not killed him, but God raised him. This found obviously a meaning if you understand Girard's work.

The perspective on attentat is very interesting. A self and collective sacrifice making a public altar.

But your understanding of Islam is TV-made. Muslim also see christianism as violent and sacrificial. Especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine. They receive on their phone history of violent preachers as you receive history of violent imams.

Where's the difference ? It is a story of mimetical rival. A double opposition that makes the conflict grow. So "the most inteligent stop first". Does Girard quotes somewhere this well-known sentence ?

In front of conflict and balakanisation of social order, Islam is radicalizing. So is christianism with the social-crisis and Judaism with the war. What about uniting for once against real pertubator, which is money (actually capitalism) ?

If we don't, fascism, with his néo-paganist mystic, may well again revive Nietszchen violence, Heidegger sacred fire, and perpuate a new holocauste.

Because with all the noise made about "integrist" who have not so much more power as they did before french revolution, at least in occident, you don't see the far more violent and reactionnary idealism that comes. It builds itself in the surrounding of New-Age and has build already a militant and ideological network, which ressemble much to the previous "volkist" matrice of nazism.

This is what Girard spoke of : "I am afraid that in the future someone will try to reformulate this principle in a more politically correct manner, perhaps by combining it with Christianity." In fact it was combined also with Islam and judaism, but is fundamentaly neo-pagan and antisemit.

This new shaped and nebulous religious form will most probably oppose monotheism (instead of Islam ...) in years to come.

At 10:03 PM, Anonymous Desbabas said...

"The perspective on attentat is very interesting. A self and collective sacrifice making a public altar."

In relecture, comes to memory a quote from gospel only Girard can explain "Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres."

At 6:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Desbabas wrote:

"But your understanding of Islam is TV-made."

I don't watch television, but here's what I wrote with respect to Girard's views:

"the Islamist exaltation of the suicide bomber is an Islamic heresy"

A careful reading shows that I wrote here of Islamism (not "Islam" proper).

As for capitalism, I don't see that it's identical with fascism.

Anyway, thanks for the comment and the remarks on Girard. In English, by the way, we don't have the distinction between "the sacred" and "the holy" that you note from French.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:26 PM, Blogger Caio Rossi said...


Girard seems to have forgotten his own theory. As he puts it, the judicial system with transcendental foundations is the most effective way to manage violence in a society and avoid blood feud. It does so through the due punishment of the guilty ones. That is what Islam is in essence: a revelation whose core is a supposedly God-sent universal law, the sharia.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Caio Rossi, for the comment. But does Islam "avoid blood feud"? Such would be the point of all law, I suppose, if the state has a monopoly on violence, but the honor code of Muslim societies militates against the state's monopoly.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:50 PM, Blogger Caio Rossi said...


The "honor code of Muslim societies" is not part of the sharia, but of their pre-Islamic culture, as can be confirmed here and here[especially the paragraph that starts with "Scholars are almost unanimous in their opinion that custom is not only the oldest source of law..."].



At 5:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Let me improve that link: Bedouin Justice.

Your point is surely correct, i.e., that the honor code is pre-Islamic, but does sharia entirely forbid it?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:13 AM, Blogger Caio Rossi said...


The purpose of the sharia is exactly that of substituting a universal code of laws - assumed to be Justice as God wills it to be applied or an attempt to apply it accordingly - for internal and inter-tribal arrangements.

Even if honor killing, for instance, is locally tolerated by Islamic authorities, that has to do with the acceptance of the fact that there are cultural aspects that determine the momentary behavior of certain individuals or groups.

That used to be the case of "crime of passion" in many Western countries, when a husband being cheated on was taken into consideration as an extenuation circumstance for murder - but not usually when the wife did that, as it was culturally acceptable for a man only to have intercourse outside the wedlock.

At 7:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I understand your point, and the analogy is certainly relevant, but I wonder if sharia itself makes allowance for honor killings.

I've seen a passage in Reliance of the Traveller that condones the right of a father to put his own children to death, which could include the honor killing of daughters -- though I don't know that it does so.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:04 PM, Blogger Caio Rossi said...

The amount of mis- and disinformation on Islam on the net is astonishing. I googled the reference you quoted from Reliance of the Traveller and found a number of them, but none bothered to look into it carefully. I hope to be able to clarify it.

1. This website was careful enough to upload the fac simile of the pages where the reference is found: At the top of the page one reads: "Who is subject to retaliation for injurious crimes". He just forgot to check what "retaliation" means. It is the translation of Qisas, the Islamic "eye for an eye". That right is exercised by a family member, who is allowed to alternatively commute it to "blood money" - and is praised on doing so.

But how can murderous parents be subject to retaliation when they themselves are the ones who are entitled to demand it from themselves? Wouldn't they obviously commute it to "blood money" - which they would pay themselves, by the way?

2. Nuh Keller, the translator, is a respected traditional Muslim scholar. I don't think that careless reading does justice to what he says elsewhere:
"However, we can say some things about it and I have written a small piece on Masud Khan’s web site called “Making the World Safer for Terrorism.” Basically it boils down to the fact that “noble” aims have been stated for bombing the World Trade Centre and for bombing Afghanistan. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and one may not kill civilians, because it is not moral, regardless of what one’s aims are. Islam most certainly does not support the killing of civilians. This is absolutely haram.

And so, we can’t say that one bad act deserves another….killing civilians is not moral and will never be. In other words, reciprocal atrocities do not make for a moral outcome. This is my basic opinion on the matter."

3. Besides that, the manual is just what it is: a manual. It is not supposed [a] to stand by itself, [b] to be the last word on the subjects it deals with or [b] to be valid for the other 3 jurisprudence schools - madhhab. No traditional Muslim scholar would recommend reading the book by oneself without the guidance of a scholar that was certified by another scholar all the way back to the Prophet of Islam. Traditional Islam is not "sola scriptura". Neither is a Muslim supposed to read the Quran in order to make sense out of it, but just to recite its words.

Best wishes,


At 12:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. That's an interesting point about retaliation in the case of a father killing his child.

I wonder what does happen in such a case.

By the way, here are the links you gave:

Killing Offspring


The explanation for linking is given above the comment box.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:35 PM, Blogger Caio Rossi said...

OK. But going back to my original point, Girard does not explain how come Christianity is "superior" but lacks any legal system whatsover - as opposed to Islam, Judaism or Hinduism, which carry have a revealed legal system -, which is what he considers to be the most efficient way to avoid violence and "scapegoating"?

And I can point out other problems in his theory and conclusions:

1. How come polytheistic religions, followed next by Islam, have always been much more tolerant towards other religions than Christinity?

2. How come the West became more tolerant and also developed an effective judicial system only when Christianity lost its grip on its thinkers and society at large - that is, in the Modern times -, while in the Middle Ages, when Christianity ruled Europe, the legal system was absolutely preposterous, with its ordeals and duels, what Girard considers to be an intermediary but still insufficient way to deal with violence and blood feud when compared to a judicial system that punishes the criminal directly and with full authority?

3. How can the Christian "fairy tale/myth" of a God-father who sends his God-Son to redeem the sins of His creation - this is the official Christian myth, although it may not please Girard as it is - be "superior" - when it comes to guaranteeing what Girard considers to be the most important - to religions that have a judicial system supposedly conceived by God Himself - that is, religions that have what Girard says is the best? How come lacking the best makes something superior to those that have it?

4. How come no Christian saints in the Catholic and Orthodox churches - people who are supposed to have reached mind boggling levels of Christian spiritual realization - ever put those moral considerations as the major tenet of their tradition? What role do "Glorious vision" or "deification" play in Girard's take on Christianity? Is that really Christianity?

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You'll have to ask 3 and 4 of a Girard expert.

As for 1, Christianity's attitude toward Judaism was similar to Islam's attitude toward Christianity and Judaism, i.e., condescending tolerance. Toward pagans, neither Christianity nor Islam have been especially tolerant.

As for 2, the answer involves the pre-Christian laws and customs of the conquering Germanic tribes, which differed from place to place. Uniformity of legal codes was brought about by the recovery of Roman Law. More about that, I'm too ignorant to say.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:41 PM, Blogger Caio Rossi said...

In fact, Muslims didn't tolerate 'the peoples of the Book" out of "condescending tolerance". The status of dhimmi - protected non-Muslim community encroached within Islamic territory - is part of their judicial system - in other words, part of their religion.

Also, they were much more tolerant towards pagans - such as Hindus in Muslim-conquered India and other pagans elsewhere, including still-existing tribes in countryside Pakistan - than Christians ever were before Modern times. And they were also far more tolerant towards differences within Islam than mainstream Christianity towards heresies.

As for laws and customs from Germanic tribes,those authorities sanctioning ordeals and duels as valid legal procedures were nonetheless Christian, not pagan barbarians.

That means that Christianity didn't offer a solution to violence and blood feud Girard regards as the best nor spurred its creation by Christians, who owe the development of a civilized judicial system most probably to the victory of its declared enemies, the minds behind the Modern World: gnostics and their appreciation of Ancient Rome.

And this may surprise you but, in the case of the English law, the sharia may have played an important role too:

BBC News: Is English law related to Muslim law?

Or Google "The Islamic origins of the common law".

Best wishes,


At 3:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll stay with my position on the "condescending tolerance." The dhimmi was supposed to feel subdued, and the protection guaranteed was protection from Islam itself -- at the price of a special tax and second-class status. As for the status of Hindus, it was pretty insecure, and the records speak of massive slaughter.

Your remarks on Gnostics sound a bit like those of Eric Voegelin. I think he's way off base, but I'm not iinterested in getting into that issue.

As for English Common Law having a debt to Islam, I've heard about that before, so I'm not surprised, but also not convinced.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:19 AM, Anonymous desbabas said...

1. The pagans religions have a tradition of syncretism, and have not too much problems to exchange between them. They can always share and enrich their respective culture, as it will never reveal their sacrifical essence, nor discover their lies or violence. This mix is render impossible with the strict monotheism of judaism and islam, who cannot exchange gods with them. Though some cultural exchange maybe possible between the judeo-arab world and their pagan counter-part, mainly because this exchange would confer only to the "sacrificial culture" not to the religion itself. For the specific revelation of Jesus about the sacrificial truth and violence, it is so explicitly against any form of culture than it cannot mix. For a general rule, their is no mix possible between the monotheistics religions and the others. But in fact, some part of monotheistics tend to return to a sacrificial religion with time, and then the exchange become possible again.
2. The West owe a lost to the Christian revelation, but not only. Western world has two origins, Athens (and susbquently Rome) and Jerusalem. And for the 2 law has its place. 2 things. First judeo-christian influence his still important on the western thinking, the heritage of the revelation cannot be abandonned so easily ( who will in the west argue against the innocence of the victim ?). Second, the proeminence of the law was established to build the nation state, not that much after christianity, but to order society after the abandonment of monarchy, monarchy which his tipically a sacrificial institution. The question is more what will happen now, that the liberalism and libertarians break every "external and neutral obstacle" to free the way of desire. Mimetical confrontation will run in loop. It is interesting to see how Michel Clouscard and Girard have constated the same problem in two different fields.
3. Both Islam and Judaism repose on a set of rule in order to prevent mimetical conflicts. They are the bases of monotheism. What is superior in Christiansim, is Christ, who accomplish this rules to their end (and finality), to reveal the demonic way, in which violence and lies are the bases of institutions and culture. The superiority of christianism is the revelation of the meaning of this sets of rules. This rules has a role in society ( prevent the propagation of mimetical conflict ) and as a guide to understand. But Christ show an example ( by imitating him we give a safe way to mimetism) of how to live ABOVE those rules ( and not without ). So Girard reject the myth of Christ as a sacrifice. Christ propose a kingdom of heaven, without conflict, and this provoke, a last time, the full mecanism of sacrificial violence, in a last effort to avoid the revelation. The funny part, is that this time, the sacrifical process is fully exposed with his violence and his lies, and this open the door to an apocalyptical world, in which the mecanism is partially destroyed, and the violence explose. This is, in my opinion the role of Islam, emphasize again the importance of the Law for a society to leave in peace. As Islam and judaism has the same base, the law and not his meaning, we observe in Islam the same problems ( hypcrisis mainly ) that Jesus was reproaching on his jewish contemporains.
4. No, it is probably the coming back of sacrifical idols, who are not called God, because it is impossible to deify them in the context of Christiniaty. I must confess that this is just a personnal intuition.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the explanation, which I found interesting and helpful on Girard.

As for shariah, I have doubts that it encourages peace, but that's a complex issue.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:14 PM, Blogger Ozzie and Denice Grant said...

I believe the difference between all sacrifices and Jesus Christ's "sacrifice " is that the former are always conducted from a perspective of appeasement: God is angry at us because of our sinfulness, therefore we must placate His anger by offering a sacrifice. Jesus' sacrifice on the other hand, was done in order to reveal precisely that this is not who God is. The cross is a revelation of a nonviolent God of love who will not use violence even to save Himself. Christ's coming to earth in the body of a man was a sure death sentence, because He entered enemy territory, and the enemy would not rest until he was destroyed. The enemy, Satan, is the author of violence: "
Eze 28:16 By the multitude of thy merchandise they have filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned." Jesus willingly chose to become a Guinea pig to show us what happens when we fall prey to the mindset that God is violent: we position ourselves in a mental paradigm where we unrealistically feel completely forsaken, abandoned by the God who promised He would never leave us or forsake us. This is what killed Him. He died of a broken heart, not from hanging on the cross. But His faith in the God of love prevailed even in the midst of Satan's total darkness, and so He became the author and the finisher of our faith in an entirely different God from the one previously known by mankind. For more on the war between God and Satan please read

At 6:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

An unusual soteriology: Jesus as experimental animal that died of existential despair but was revived by a quasi-gnostic god of salvation different from the god of the old covenant . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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