On the proper transformation of Islam, in light of India
The effort to interpret Islam in a manner consistent with our natural understanding of human dignity has been underway for some time. It is a feature of American policy, of course, which is hardly rooted in a respect for truth. But a challenge to Muslims to find ways to blend reason into Islam was issued by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2006 address at the University of Regensburg (Faith, Reason and the University—Memories and Reflections). This initiated a dialogue which has led Muslim intellectuals not only to take issue with the Pope’s understanding of Islam on the neuralgic points but also to more closely examine the questions Pope Benedict raised.
The first statement from the Islamic side came in an Open Letter to Pope Benedict a month after his address. In the ten years since, there has been continuing dialogue among “experts” as well as an increased willingness among Muslims to condemn religious violence. As can only be expected, this is most noticeable among Islamic leaders in Western nations and least noticeable, as yet, in the Islamic states themselves. But in late March, the process accelerated markedly in the remarkable petition against terrorism signed by 1.5 million Indian Muslims, combined with the fatwa (a religious judgment) condemning ISIS issued by some 70,000 Indian Muslim clerics (India: 1.5 million Muslims join in condemnation of Islamic State).
It is probably relevant that Muslims in India share minority status with Christians, and often experience violence at the hands of Hindus, who constitute the vast majority of Indians in most regions. We Christians are historically familiar with the tendency of religious dominance to reinforce the abuse of power, and the tendency of weakness to occasion deeper reflections about the use of force. Of course, there must be a basis for such reflection and change in the sources of one’s own religion for this to be more than a predictably convenient and momentary shift. Only an intellectually legitimate reflection can create a logical development which will stand the test of time.
In February, I wrote about the lack of an authority principle in Islam which, as with Protestantism, makes an illogical malleability not only possible but likely (see The meaning of Islam, and the deeper problem we must face). Either way, an Islamic self-understanding which includes the light available through the natural law is critical to the reduction and elimination of terrorism. While it is true that the Islamic scholars who responded to Benedict XVI insisted that reason and natural moral principles have an important place in Islamic thought, there remains a significant gap between Catholicism and Islam on this score. Catholicism emphasizes the supreme rationality of God, perceiving truth as the mind’s conformity to reality; but Islam emphasizes the essentially arbitrary character of the Divine will, as a pre-requisite for the Islamic understanding of Divine freedom.
Some Ways Are Better than Others
While American policy certainly seeks to increase the influence of Muslim scholars and leaders who insist that Islam enjoins an attitude of tolerance and peace, it must be admitted that American policy has no real interest in the rationality of Islam (or of anything else), and still less interest in a profound appreciation of natural law. Here we are dealing with mere political interests, the promotion of a peaceful Islam not because it is true, but because it suits our purposes. I grant that, since Islam is rather obviously not Divinely revealed in any public, verifiable sense, it is perfectly legitimate to attempt to shape it in congenial ways. But it is fruitless to identify our own efforts with the purely pragmatic tinkering of political policy. Such policies are orchestrated by a government which recognizes no natural principles that it would also feel compelled to apply to itself.
It goes without saying also that there is a confluence of interest on all sides in eliminating terrorism—using all available strategies, whether military, political, socio-economic, philosophical, theological, or even mere wish-fulfillment. But the genius of the Catholic approach is that what God has disclosed through formal Revelation and what He has disclosed through nature can foster an important interplay in the human mind. Through this process, the potential human excesses in attempting to grasp the one can be mitigated by the attempt to grasp the other. Or, as Benedict put it on several occasions, faith must be used to purify reason, and reason must be used to purify faith.
The point is that just as no understanding of Revelation can be correct which does not admit the truth of everything which God has directly revealed on a given subject, neither can any understanding of Revelation be correct which fails to admit the truth of what God has revealed through nature itself. But the opposite is also true: No understanding of nature can be considered correct unless it also admits the truth of everything that God has more directly disclosed through His particular Revelation. All legitimate knowledge must be formed into a harmonious whole.
It is just this that Pope Benedict challenged Muslims to consider—the need to find a secure place for reason within their specifically religious thought and reflection. A Catholic may be tempted to observe that neither Muhammed nor the Qu’ran nor the Islamic tradition are sources of Revelation, but this only intensifies the need for rational reflection and rational truths to be brought into the discussion. It is, after all, only this process that can foster a more thorough examination of one’s religious beliefs—which may, in fact, lead to the conclusion that the alleged revelation to which one for a time adhered cannot, on closer examination, be accepted at face value.
Catholicism has never been afraid to subject itself to such tests. To the contrary, the interplay between faith and reason is central to the very idea of Catholicism, as evidenced by its unparalleled intellectual traditions, both philosophical and theological at one and the same time. This is exactly this sort of marriage between faith and reason which Pope Benedict challenged Islam to accommodate. It is the only approach from which we can derive significant hope today.
A Significant Step
It may not be the case that 1.5 million Muslim believers and 70,000 Muslim clerics in India have recently been motivated by the desire for just this sort of human wholeness in their own faith. But there can be no question that this is the only approach to Islamic terror which possesses anything more than a purely tactical or pragmatic value. The Catholic approach is utterly unlike American policy, which insists that if we just close our eyes, wish very hard, and repeat fervently that Islam has no inherent connection with terrorism, we can make it so. Under such rubrics, those who speak the truth become enemies of the State. Clearly, this misses the entire point.
No, the beauty of the 1.5 million and of the 70,000 is not that they prove Islam innocuous but that they recognize the danger and are determined to argue, from the inside, either that those who make Islam dangerous do not understand it properly or that Islam must be interpreted from within in a manner consistent with the nature of the human person and the force of the natural law. In the worst case—on the presumption that this is all mere posturing from underdogs (for which there is some theological warrant in Islam)—the Indian development at least strengthens a conception of Islam that can begin to influence, through sheer repetition and familiarity, the perception of how good Muslims should live.
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