Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What Does Islam Teach? A Methodological Inquiry

Following every barbarous act of terrorism perpetrated by some radical Islamist comes the inescapable debate over the character and identity of Islam as a religion and as an ideology. Each time, the familiar barrage from left and right reworks the same old tropes. On one side, Islam properly understood is a “religion of peace” and we should not let the fanatical few distort our understanding of the world’s second most popular faith. On the other, Islam is a “nihilistic cult of death,” the essential values of which are simply incompatible with those demanded by a free, tolerant, liberal society.

I am not interested here in taking a particular side in this debate. My hope is rather to find some methodological clarity in understanding how we should approach the question “What does Islam teach?” in the first place. (Though my particular object here is Islam, the same sort of analysis could apply to any religion).

There seem to me to be two main answers to the question. The first answer, which I term the “interpretive approach,” attempts to discern the “true” philosophical and theological principles of Islam by appealing to the religion’s history and scriptural tradition. The second, which I term the “sociological approach,” is agnostic on such matters of interpretation, and proceeds instead by equating the question of “what Islam teaches” with the question of “what do today’s Muslims believe Islam teaches?”

Neither of these approaches maps perfectly onto one or another normative assessment of Islam. Apologists and critics both are wont to appeal to what “millions of Muslims believe,” thereby practicing the sociological approach. Likewise, apologists and critics often invoke scriptural evidence of Muhammad’s teachings from the Qu'ran and Hadith, thereby practicing the interpretive approach. Nor is either of these approaches “wrong,” as they both have immense value if employed in the appropriate context.

But what exactly are the appropriate contexts? My argument in what follows is that the interpretive approach is most appropriate for Muslim commentators fighting over the soul of their religion and academics committed to understanding the historical richness of the Islamic tradition. However, in debates over public policy and in clear-eyed assessments of cultural differences, commentators would do well to limit themselves to the sociological approach.

After all, if you aren’t a Muslim (and virtually all American practitioners of the interpretive approach aren’t), you must believe that Islam is a social construction the most fundamental tenants of which are completely wrong. Of course, there are better and worse ways of evaluating and interpreting any belief system, all of which are constructions. But we must not forget that to the non-Muslim the particular construction of Islam relies on axiomatic scriptural and theological principles which are often unacceptable. There is still some room for interpretation—the non-Muslim is surely justified in disregarding any reading of Islam in which Muhammad plays no role as a bad interpretation, just as the most secular of observers is capable of recognizing the absurdity of modern Christian theology

But setting such extreme-cases aside, it is rather difficult to understand how a non-believer could possibly go about the project of constructing the “best” interpretation of Islam.

In the context of political theory, Marxists, for example, may be interested in formulating the best interpretation of liberalism, just as liberals are deeply interested in formulating the best interpretation of Marxism. But in this context, “best” means most intellectually charitable or philosophically convincing. Liberals too ought to develop the most intellectually powerful interpretation of Marxism in order to take seriously the true insights of the competing tradition. In other words, the criteria for interpreting “best” in matters of secular philosophy involve serious consideration not merely of doctrinal accuracy, but of an external standard of coherence and truth.

This is very different from the project of interpreting a foreign religious tradition. The “best” interpretation of Islam need not be the one that most convincingly aligns with our independent convictions about morality or metaphysics. Unlike the interpretation of a competing ideology, the project of religious interpretation does not aim for “intellectual charity," which is why we ought to be deeply skeptical of any interpretation of the “true” meaning of Islam that magically identifies a foreign faith tradition with virtually every dictate of contemporary Western morality. There is no prima facie reason to believe that true Islam aligns with the ideological convictions of contemporary Western, liberal society.

Perversely, this version of the interpretive approach to Islam tends to embody a narrow-mindedness and disrespect of a foreign tradition. While we are free to engage to argue about respects in which Islamic principles are inferior or superior to our own, the implicit assumption that proper Islam will converge on the pieties of our own post-Christian liberal age manifests a deep arrogance toward and ignorance of the impressive diversity of human thought.

There are some respects in which the interpretive approach remains important and valuable. Academics (even those who take Islam’s fundamental assumptions to be untenable), do us a service in considering the broad range of Islamic thought in contemporary society and throughout history. By bringing to light schools of thought that have been lost from sight, and by carefully reconstructing past paradigms of thought that don’t fit well with contemporary conceptual categories, they challenge us to broaden our own thinking by taking seriously past and foreign wisdom. The interpretive project is even more important to the Muslim, who, far more than the secular academic, has a genuine interest in fighting for the soul of his own religion. Following a Walzerian model of interpretation, debate and interpretation within a common tradition is an indispensable part of navigating the complexities of the moral life. To the Muslim, moreover, there is such a thing as a “true” Islama truth which inheres not merely in faithfully following from first principles and scriptural assumptions, but in manifesting a loyalty to God's plan for humanity. Winning the war of interpretation thus matters far more to them than it ever will to non-Muslims.

But extraordinary caution must be exercised by the non-Muslim observer interested in understanding the teachings and principles of Islam. As with all religions, Islam is not simply a set of beliefs, but a sociological phenomenon that fundamentally shapes the lives of hundreds of millions of people. To the vast majority of Muslims, Islam is not a great exegetical debate. It is not an academic pursuit of theological consistency, historical depth, and logical coherence. It is what they have been taught and how they have lived their entire lives. In light of this, the most humble, respectful way for the non-Muslim to consider the question “What does Islam teach?” is to ask actual Muslims. It's their religion. Let’s do them the basic dignity of taking them at their word. Indeed, there is precious little that is as patronizing as a Western secular academic explaining why hundreds of millions of Muslims misunderstand their own religion.

To understand Islam—not the great disputative tradition of a millennium—but the religion of millions of people in the world today, let’s start by asking Muslims what they actually believe. “Muslim values” are the values statistically representative public polling tells us Muslims hold, not the values Western bourgeois elites wish that they held. Making sense of the sociological truth of Islam might not immediately resolve complex public policy challenges, but at the very least, it will help Muslim and non-Muslim observers alike develop an accurate understanding of reality.

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