What’s wrong with saying Islam isn’t a religion?

DanPhillips explains it:

What the “Islam is not a religion” crowd is doing, whether they realize it or not (and most don’t), is imposing on the definition of religion a philosophical concept that is relatively novel (historically speaking) and that potentially binds theology beforehand. Per their reasoning, in order to be a religion a religion must embrace modernist liberalism. This would have been news to anyone—Christians included—who lived, say, more than 300 years ago, give or take. One commenter I was debating with said that Islam is not a religion because it doesn’t embrace separation of church and state. Really? Are we that historically myopic? Neither did the whole of Christendom until a couple of centuries ago.

By their definition of religion, the Judaism of the Old Testament was not a religion. Was not the Judaism of the Old Testament an all-encompassing system that mixed church and state, had religion-based laws, had a social order dictated by the religion, frowned on pluralism, etc.? The Catholic Church, especially before Vatican II, is not a religion by this definition. Arguably, and it would be hard to argue otherwise, the Protestantism of Luther and Calvin wasn’t a religion either. Was Calvin’s Geneva a bastion of modernist liberalism? The Puritans certainly were not. One would have to look back no further than the Radical Reformation to find widespread Christian denominations that would meet the exacting liberal standards of the “Islam is not a religion” proponents. (And even some of the products of the Radical Reformation, such as the Mennonites, were quite illiberal in many ways internally.)

I hope you see the problem here. I would argue that liberalism is a modern philosophical concept that most modern Christians have read into the pages of the Bible (addressing this idea fully would require a separate essay). I do not think this liberalism is a theological concept that flows from a natural reading of Scripture. The Bible insinuates, if it doesn’t outright dictate, Christian particularism. Christianity should be the broadly encompassing worldview that Islam is accused of being (in type, not in detail of course) and it represents a failure of the modern Church that it is not.

This idea that Islam is incompatible with America and the West (what used to be called Christendom) because it is illiberal, implies that what truly distinguishes the West from the rest is its liberalism not its Christianity. This may be true and would go a long way toward explaining the sorry state of modern Christianity, but it is to be bemoaned if it is, not celebrated.

9 Responses

  1. The particular incoherence of the line of reasoning critiqued above is that it applies a secular measure – that of modern liberalism, itself inherently areligious when not openly anti-religious – to the determination of what passes muster as a religion. By a truly secular measure, however, no religion could pass muster as a religion, precisely because in its very religiousness, it fails to be properly or purely secular. Further, the very issue is confused because it is the very category of religion, apart from specific presumed instances thereof, that is generally rejected as false in toto and de jure by secularism proper. The secular and religious perspectives rest on radically different foundations: the first upon a humanist rationalism ultimately reducible to nihilism; the second upon some understanding of and orientation toward a transcendent order.
    Either such a secular measure as modern liberalism must find that all religions fail to pass muster as religions, a conclusion which assumes that such a secular measure could be valid in addressing such a question, or, if one assumes instead that such a secular measure is simply inappropriate, irrelevant or immaterial to that which is properly religious, then that secular measure can say nothing at all about whether a give religion passes muster as a religion. The problem behind this problem is that the very judgment that a secular measure is appropriate for the determination of what passes muster as a religion, whether it is capable of validly doing so or not, itself stands as a matter that must be justified and can in no way simply be assumed as some sort of philosophic given. To sum up: within a secular conception, nether the general category of religion nor any specific religion can find validity in truth, which renders any proposed bar of religious measure moot; contrariwise, within a particular religious conception, a secular measure might possibly have ancillary value, but only so far as it affirms some measure already found within the particular religion in question, in which case it is simply redundant.

  2. In general I agree with your point.

    But there is a problem with the concept of ‘religion’ itself – it could be argued that the idea of religion-in-general is (or was) anti-any specific religion.

    At universities, departments of ‘religious studies’ are/ were often anti-religious of relativistic. Histories of ‘religion’ – in striving to be objective, end up much the same.

    Then we come to the problem of whether (say) Marxism or Political Correctness are religions, are they (for example) Christian heresies – despite the fact that they are atheistic and anti-Christian.

    My point is that there may be a problem with the concept of ‘a religion’ – because a concept which includes the monotheisms, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, (?) Confucianism… and totemism, and animism…

    - any definition general enough to include all of these, is so wide as also to include anti-religious and atheist ideologies such as Marxism as well; at which point the term has become useless and should probably be replaced with ‘philosophy of life’ or something…

  3. Eh, Islam doesn’t consider that anything else is a religion except Judaism and Christianity. Who are they to complain?

  4. And Zoroastrianism.

    But I don’t think they are complaining, are they? Muslims have a clear and coherent understanding of what counts as a real religion – the secular West does not, even the mainstream religious West does not.

  5. The meaning of religion, religious, faithful and righteous of that religion (Islam) itself need to be studied. Islam meaning submission to way of God, anything that God not allow is not allowable.
    Religious do not meaning people who are praying day and night. In this religion, we put a higher status for educated person than people who just worshiping. “Acquire knowledge and impart it to the people.” (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 107). Faithful (zuhud); meaning Renouncing worldly pleasures in order to gain nearness to Allah “Zuhud” is an Arabic word and a vital concept in Islam. There was no such thing, people are required to worship only. To learn science, economics, laws is always the foundation of Islam.
    Earlier in my life, when I read books as “Steven Covey” or “Dale Carnegie” I was fascinate by their books. Later in my life, I read book of hadiths and book of Islamic Jurisprudence, I make a comparison and I tell myself. If book of hadith or fiqh tell the same way, why I should read book which tell just about motivation only while my own book tell about everything, from politic, ethics, economic, manner, laws, education, manner and etc. It was surplus to me, it was my own religion.
    I see the meaning of Western Liberalism have come to an end. Too much individual freedom which can make state/ government weakens. Too many custom made laws have been made.
    If can not handle correctly can lead to disaster of civilization.

  6. I am in sympathy with Dr. Charlton’s point, but – while important in its own right – I don’t see it as having bearing on my observations above, as religion in general – irrespective of the problems that may be inherent in speaking of such a category – is rejected by secularism proper. Another way to see this is that if one instead exhaustively listed potential religions for inclusion and acceptance – dealing thereby in the particular rather than the general – the outcome would be unchanged: a thoroughgoing secularism would reject each in turn. Although certain exceptions, falling closer to the secular domain of concerns, such as Confucianism, might possibly be made within a secular perspective, when a case such as Confucianism is examined more closely, even this will be found to have far too much transcendent character for the comfort of secularists.

    On the conflation of Marxism as a religion, I fully agree that this is an inversion of the first order. On a personal note, I still recall being outraged – in both senses of the term – when perusing many years ago an early edition of the British religious scholar Ninian Smart’s “The World’s Religions”, where he does precisely this.

  7. One can see the “Islam is not a religion” argument pop up on NRO all the time, or at least before the wars became unpopular. I for one never took such arguments seriously — I always just assumed it was a means for Jewish and nominally Christian neocons to go on the offensive against what they recognize as an alien religion without compromising their hard-on for the Bill of Rights. People will tell themselves the strangest things to legitimate their own pathologies.

  8. Sorry – I was a bit off topic. Your posting was a trigger that made me realize for myself something I hadn’t fully conceptualized hitherto, and then I arrogantly imposed this on T & A readers it as if it were a ‘comment’!

  9. To reply to Justin and Dr. Charlton, the Islamic understanding of religious diversity is somewhat more complicated and expansive than this. It is correct that the religions explicitly named in the Koran are Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism (Sabeanism), these being the religions encompassed in the experience of its earliest audience. However, the Koran has an explicitly universal understanding of the role of prophecy, as per the following brief examples (tr. A.J. Arberry):

    Every nation has its Messenger. (10:47)
    And We have sent no Messenger save with the tongue of his people. (14:4)
    To every one of you [Messengers] We have appointed a right way and an open road. (5:48)

    This is a key distinction between the Christian understanding of Christ and the Islamic understanding of Muhammad: Christ is “the only begotten son of God”, and thus utterly unique; Muhammad, in contrast, is one prophet among a multitude appointed by God, although honored before all as “the Seal of the Prophets”. Sachiko Murata and William Chittick’s, “The Vision of Islam”, pp.164-92 presents a good overview of the Koranic perspective regarding other religions.

    The example of Islam in India in the context of the Mughals presents something of an extreme test case for the Islamic understanding of prophetic universality, for, while Judaism and Christianity have the ready appearance of monotheisms, Hinduism – in its religious practices if not its metaphysical scriptures – has every appearance to an Islamic sensibility of paganism and polytheism. Yet, the Mughals were by and large eventually able to absorb Hindus within their conception in the Koranic category of “People of the Book”, on theological par in principle with Judaism and Christianity and accorded protected status in consequence. The example of enlightened rule under Akbar is notable, while Dara Shikoh – the eldest son of Shah Jahan – authored one of most remarkable early works of interreligious understanding to be found anywhere: “The Mingling of the Two Oceans”, which reconciles intellectual Sufism (particularly the school of Ibn ‘Arabi) with the metaphysical understanding of the Upanishads and Vedanta.

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