Islamic Identity in Peril

From oil to 9/11 to the explosion of our bombs to the implosion of the Arab Spring, Islam has been struggling with its move into modern times. I’ll define modern times here as a nation where women can get access to higher education, the population starts urbanizing, and secularism moves in. Islam seems to be in direct opposition of all these things. Women turn their back on traditional Islam in droves.

All Western political theory places the individual in a social contract with the sovereign, just as biblical religion locates the individual in a covenant with God. The “inalienable rights” of the American Founding derive from a God who grants such rights to every individual by eternal covenant: no king, petty official, or family member can impair them. Islam’s legal system is closer to the pagan model of ancient Rome: the paterfamilias is a “governor” or “administer” or the family, a miniature sovereign within his domestic realm, with the right to employ violence to control his wife. Wife-beating is practiced widely in the Muslim world as well as among Muslim immigrant communities in the West. It is embedded too profoundly in sharia law to be extracted. Nowhere to my knowledge has a Muslim religious authority of standing repudiated wife-beating as specified in Sura 4:34 of the Koran. To do so would undermine the foundations of Muslim society.
- David P. Goldman, How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too)

Women leave the traditional society and get an education. Secularism leads to a lower birth rate as evident in Europe’s declining populations. Declining birth rates lead to a state that goes broke paying for the care of its “elderly.” Since law in the Muslim states is widely based on Islamic law that cannot be challenged; nothing can change. But it will change. Goldman says that Islam cannot survive this change due to its very nature:

In Islam, God’s self-revelation took the form not of Mount Sinai nor the Incarnation, but rather a book. The Encyclopedia of Islam (1981) observes, “The closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Koran in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” The Koran alone is the revelatory event in Islam. […] To be a Muslim is to accept that the Koran was dictated by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammad during the seventh century. To question any statement of the Koran — for example its defense of wife-beating — amounts to apostasy.
…Muslims who wish to defend the divine authority of the Koran have no defense but dogma.
The Muslim understanding of revelation precludes textual or historical criticism, so that Islam must eschew all scholarly challenges. And when it succumbs, it collapses altogether. A great gulf is fixed between Muslim self-understanding and modernity.
- David P. Goldman, How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too)

Reading this part of Goldman’s book I started seeing a split in our views. Maybe it’s my liberal arts education, but I hate trying to view the process as a linear one. All of his arguments seem to view Islam’s progression into modernity through the lense of Western Christian Democratic Capitalism. He argues that Judeo-Christian law is very different from Islamic law, so what’s to say that Islam’s progression will follow any of the same rules. I don’t see it.

I’d like to think that Muslims will not have to completely abandon the Koran in order to survive modern times. Maybe our modernity won’t be their modernity. They may strike a brand new path.

And, I’m not sure that he ever asks a Muslim.

“Samir Khalid Damir, S.J., an Arab Christian who advises Pope Benedict XVI on Islamic matters, argues that the divinity of the Koran freezes Islam in time. Unlike the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, or the Oral Torah of observant Judaism, there is no human agency with the authority to interpret the text:

The notion of the promise or covenant with Abraham, like that of the “history of salvation,” which is common to Judaism and Christianity, is practically absent in Islam. For Muslims, the Qur’an can be compared to Christ: Christ is the Word of God made flesh, while the Qur’an — please forgive my play on words — is the word “made paper.” If the Qur’an was indeed “sent down” by Allah, there is no possibility of a critical or historical interpretation, not even for those aspects that are evidently related to the customs of a particular historical period and culture. In the history of Islam, at a certain point, it was decided that it was no longer possible to interpret the text…. The weight of the tradition and, above all, the fear of questioning the acquired security of the text have created a taboo: the Qur’an cannot be interpreted, nor can it be critically rethought.
- David P. Goldman, How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too)

In that Christian’s words it can all make sense. But… I feel uncomfortable about it. Many Christians have taken the divinity out of the Bible and can still be called Christians. Cannot Muslims take the divinity out of the Koran and still be called Muslims? Goldman is saying no. It wouldn’t be like taking the Divinity out of the Bible; it would be more like taking the divinity out of Christ. Christianity had to go through the Reformation for it to survive in the West. I think something like that could happen to Islam. It seems something like that must happen for Islamic identity to survive.

I would really like a book that explores these questions through Muslim eyes. Please leave me a title in the comments section if you have one.

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