Thursday, November 22, 2007

Islam as a 'pagan' religion?

Nicolas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf
Worshipping a false god as the true one?
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've somewhere read that Aquinas wrote his Summa contra Gentiles to be used in efforts toward converting Muslims to the Christian faith, the term "Gentiles" thus referring to "Muslims" and implying that Muslims were pagans, with whom one could not use the Old Testament for prooftexting and for whom one therefore had to turn to the light of natural reason.

Perhaps natural reason also wouldn't work if Allah is a radically voluntarist deity . . . but let that be.

I'm more interested in the Aquinas's implication that Islam is a sort of 'higher' Paganism rather than a 'lower' Christianity, if such is his view. Islam viewed as a pagan religion has recently resurfaced in the argument put forth by Alain Besançon in his article "What kind of religion is Islam?" for Commentary (May 2004), whose central point is that:
[W]hen Christians and Jews approach Islam . . . [they] may well be struck by the religious zeal of the Muslim toward a God whom they recognize as being also their God. But this God is in fact separate and distinct, and so is the relation between Him and the believing Muslim. 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. To put it another way, Islam may be thought of as the natural religion of the revealed God.
Besançon's point is an intriguing one but not easy to grasp. Perhaps he means that from a Christian perspective, Muslims have focused on the correct 'God' but that they worship Him in the manner that 'pagans' worship an 'idol'. You'll not my 'scare quotes', intended to alert the reader to a special use of these terms. Go and read Besançon's article at Commentary, for which one needs a subscription, unfortunately.

But while one is waiting for that subscription to take effect, one can read another online article that treats Islam as a sort of pagan religion. This article is now available to nonsubscribers and can be found at First Things, where the pseudonymous "Spengler" (of the Asia Times Online) has published "Christian, Muslim, Jew: Franz Rosenzweig and the Abrahamic Religions" (October 2007). As implied by the title, Spengler presents Rosenzweig on Islam (along with Christianity and Judaism).

Spengler notes that:
At first glance, Rosenzweig's characterization of Islam as pagan appears strange, for we habitually classify religions according to their outward forms and identify paganism with manifestations of polytheism or nature worship. Insisting on the uniqueness of Allah and suppressing outward expressions of idolatry, Islam appears the opposite of a pagan religion. Rosenzweig, however, requires us to see faith from the existential standpoint of the believer, who in revealed religion knows God through God's love. For Rosenzweig, paganism constitutes a form of alienation from the revealed God of Love; Allah, the absolutely transcendent God who offers mercy but not unconditional love, is therefore a pagan deity.
The term 'pagan' is again being used in a particular sense, this time by the Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, writing in The Star of Redemption (1921), as reported by the apparently Christian "Spengler," who comments approvingly upon this use.

From a secular perspective, of course, Islam is yet another monotheism . . . like Judaism and Christianity. But from a Jewish or Christian perspective, what is one to make of it since its status as a 'revealed' religion is highly suspect, to put things mildly?

I leave it to the readers to decide, but you'll first have to read Besançon and "Spengler" to see for yourselves.

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At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Said's ORIENTALISM he liked to remind people of a quote (TE Lawrence? I'm too lazy to look it up and Google doesn't find it) that, "An Arab is just a Jew on a horse." Islam and Judaism have been paired for a long time in Europe, because it gave people a chance to exercise their anti-Semitism. In a more veiled, technical sense, there was the linking of Arabic to Hebrew and the related comparative linguistics.

The "Islam is just like X" where X is something you hate has always been entertainingly eccentric but is taken distressingly seriously.

The article you cite may be correct but I tend to take a big step backwards whenever I hear Xism = Yism arguments. Besides, I'm an atheist; I have the freedom to ignore minutely technical theological arguments. ^_^

At 3:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the comment.

I've never seen the quote before, which means that I have to admit to not having read Said from cover to cover. I wonder if Lawrence would have uttered that. My impression was that he identified with Arabs. I also Googled and found nothing, not even on variants ... but maybe I didn't choose the right variant.

I could go thumb through Said...

In principle, I agree with you about the x is y sort of argument, but in specific cases, it can be accurate. I'm intrigued by the arguments of Besançon and Rosenzweig, for they are both interesting thinkers. I remain undecided on the issue.

Muslims, of course, consider Christianity to be tainted by paganism for falling into the terrible sin of Shirk, namely, associating what is not God with God. All those Christian debates over the dual nature of Christ? Sinful thoughts of pagan-inspired corrupters of the original Islam proclaimed by Isa (i.e., Jesus).

On and on it goes...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Google to the rescue: it was Benjamin Disraeli, quite a long ways from Lawrence. Said references in in Chapter 1: The Scope of Orientalism, Section IV: Crisis.

Or even better, it's in the public domain in the novel TANCRED, early in Chapter 32.

Also somewhat interestingly, the quote pulled up some recent anti-Semitic stuff in Google. Perhaps Disraeli's work is finding new currency with today's marginal bigots.

Said goes quite a bit further in surveying the equivocation of Arabic Islam and Hebrew Judaism based on their grouping together as Semitic languages, though. The Disraeli quote is just a convenient sound bite. He goes into Renan's theories in particular at some length.

Lawrence identified with the Arabs but for their perceived primitvism, which struck some sort of masculine chord with him.

As for the Islamic perspective on Christianity, Said's later work is particularly fun when he lays into Arabic academia for misrepresenting his work and making the same mistakes that he developed his colonial discourse to oppose.

Well, I suppose I should not stray much farther from your topic. ^_^

At 3:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, straying is half the fun in life. The other half is finding our way back ... or not.

You're a man .... or woman ... well, person, anyway, after my own heart, adept at following up the quirky bits of information to their source.

About Lawrence, you're also likely right on the mark. He was one of those romantic rebels who -- like the earlier Romantics themselves -- looked to the distance, whether geographically or temporally, for an overwhelming sense of 'Otherness" in which he could, paradoxically, find himself.

Thanks for all those details.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:08 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

I know that post-modernism likes to argue the perverse, but how did Besancon manage to attribute idolotry to Islam? I cannot think of a religion more removed from idolotry. I guess that move must rest upon some very specialised definitions! (As you point out) Lawrence identifed with the Arabs for a "primitivism" which struck a "masculine chord". I suppose that is one way of saying the Lawrence found young arabs erotically attractive--to the point of idolatry (in his letters) though he saw it as philanthropy. I don't understand Rosenzweig's thinking either. An existentialist view-point does not have to create a God of Love to rise above paganism. I wonder in what sense this is "existential"--it would appear to be atypical rather than the norm. Very odd.

At 7:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, good to see you again.

Yes, the idolatry charge is odd and does rest upon some technical distinctions.

I haven't read Rosenzweig, so I cannot comment there, but I have read Besançon, and though I find his reasoning a bit convoluted -- at one critical point, bordering on contradiction -- I also sense that his charge of idolatry has a point to it but one that needs to be worked out more carefully than he has done.

Perhaps I'll read more of his writings and add Rosenzweig and later return to this point with more to report.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:24 AM, Anonymous generic viagra said...

For me, Islam is not Paganism, a belief is simply different from us .. rule should respect is the key to our future

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Seldom do I get a comment from a generic brand of 'medicine' . . .

I appreciate that you 'stand up' for what you believe in, though I do wonder what you meant by "rule should respect is the key."

Jeffery Hodges

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