Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Post #143 - The Cross and the Crescent

In his book Cultures in Conflict, historian Bernard Lewis, a Princeton emeritus professor of near Eastern studies, described in the New York Times Book Review as “the doyen of Middle Eastern studies,” writes about the competition between world cultures, especially those that embrace the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He points out that unlike the West's encounters with the mega-cultures of China or India – which are each a more-or-less circumscribed place – the Western interface with the Muslim World entails meeting a culture based on a religion, which can expand beyond its “home turf” through propagation, not just through alliance or subjugation. Lewis elucidates both the similarities and differences in how each group has approached the others over time. Islam and Christianity, Lewis says, have several elements in common:

  • they both see themselves as universalist – not limited to a particular racial lineage or geographic region (though Islam does not insist on a person being Muslim to be saved by God: "Those who believe, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabeans...shall have their reward with their Lord" -- Sura 2:62)
  • both have, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the century, had a sense of mission about the propagation of their faith; the words “crusade” and “jihad” come to mind, of course, but “evangelism” and “da'wa” (literally, “invitation”) may come closer to capturing the concept as actually intended;
  • each has seen its own claim to legitimacy as taking precedence over all others, and their civilizations as being superior. Early on, when Europe was – to the Muslims -- “inhabited by exotic and picturesque tribes with nasty and dirty habits...and few commodities of any value to offer,” Muslim belief in their superiority was supported by objective fact. Later, beginning in the 15th century, “the disparity in favor of Europe grew ever wider”);
  • whether they would always acknowledge it or not, they both shared an inheritance of Greek thought, Judaic theology and many other smaller elements of thought and custom;
  • each has embraced the value of martyrdom; for example, Lewis notes that Pope Leo IV, “promised a heavenly reward to all who died [in war against] the enemies of Christ” as a promotion of the Crusades.

In these things, both can be distinguished from their Jewish predecessors. Lewis cites “a well-known rabbinic dictum: the righteous of all peoples have a share in paradise.” On this continuum of thought regarding what might be called “eligibility for salvation,” Muslims might fall somewhere between this view and that of mainstream Christianity, which can most often be described as "there is only one road to heaven.” Lewis quotes St. John of Capistrano on the Christian view: “The Jews say that everyone can be saved in his own faith, which is impossible.”

At the same time, Lewis shows, there are significant differences between the two latter strains of Abrahamic faith:

  • for most of their history, Muslims have shown greater tolerance toward minorities under their rule than have Christian regimes. Lewis cites Ezra 1:1, “which refers to the Persian king Cyrus, in the Hebrew Bible the paradigm of the righteous and benevolent gentile ruler, who brings salvation and protection to the Jewish people” (he was, of course, a pre-Islamic ruler);
  • European Christianity developed in a polyglot collection of states (albeit with church Latin, among Roman Catholics, playing a syncretic role for the clerical hierarchy), whereas Muslims made Arabic language a unifying factor for all their adherents, leaders and lay-people alike;
  • Christians, after a certain point, rapidly closed the technological gap with the Islamic world, excelling especially in seafaring and warfare, partly due to the long history of European nations fighting one another for land, subjects or control of the seas;
  • conversion of infidels has been handled differently in each culture: Christians often offered non-believers a choice of baptism, exile or death, while Muslims were content to absorb other faiths into their societies (and their tax-base), if not on a completely equal footing. The Koran states: “There is no compulsion in religion.”

[Professor Lewis' views on contemporary issues seem to ride the idea of a "clash of civilizations" to a point where it becomes, like the Marxists' view regarding the "means of production," less an analytical tool, and more like a rallying cry; but in the present context, we would do well to be aware of the historical positions of Muslims, Christians and Jews vis-a-vis one another that Lewis has laid out for us.]

Cordoba mosque
To many who study the history of interfaith relations, the “golden age of religious freedom” was that of the Iberian Peninsula under the “Moors” (Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa) -- the civilization known as "al Andalus."* This 700-year period of peaceful coexistence and flourishing of scholarship and cultural cross-fertilization ended with the victory of European Christians over the Arabs, with disastrous consequences for Muslims, and especially for the Jews of that region. When expelled from Spain (or from England, France, Naples and other kingdoms of the time), most Jews preferred to go live in a Muslim land. To find another era of harmony so significant we must fast-forward to the United States of the twentieth century, where modern post-renaissance thought, evolving constitutional safeguards and a civil rights movement (linked mainly to race, but with far-reaching ramifications) all combined to create a space for many faiths to feel comfortable pursuing their own paths toward the Divine.

(Carl Ernst, author of Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World, points out that the term "Muslim world" is a outmoded -- or at least misleading -- one to describe the current conditions: with five million American and ten million European Muslims, increasingly deep and broad economic and cultural interdependence of Muslims with the West and other societies, Muslim-majority nations that are comprised of "a bewildering diversity of languages, ethnic groups, and differing ideological and sectarian positions...")

* the marvelous film Out of Cordoba: Averroes and Maimonides in Their Time and Ours, by Jacob Bender, treats the "golden age" of al Andalus. A very readable book on the subject is The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, by Maria Rosa Mendocal.

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