Monday, January 14, 2008

Tribes With Gods

--You behold in me, Stephen said with grim displeasure, a horrible example of free thought.

Westerners trying to understand Islam often have a hard time sorting out the differences between "Islam" and Arab or Persian culture (or the quilt of non-Middle-Eastern cultures that make up the numerical bulk of the Islamic world). Some don't even try, and they often look foolish. Those who do quickly entangle themselves in the unsimple marriage of a people and a faith.

I think religions inevitably sweep up the realities of their time and place of origin, and can't ever be purged of them. Whether they spring from human genius, madman intensity, or the stroke of a god, they spout like geysers in the sand in some unlikely place. But the salt and taste of that sand always is in whatever streams flow from the source.

Christianity, for instance, seems to me to be unalterably the religion of a brilliant subject people on the fringe of a powerful empire. Nietzsche famously sneered at it as a religion fit for slaves. I have no idea what he entirely meant by that. But it is partly true, in that it is a religion crafted for people who do not typically wield might in the world.

Which, perversely, has been the crisis and challenge of Christianity since the 5th century, when it did become Rome. And with much difficulty and gore it has evolved into a set of sects that strives to balance the power of Caesar and the humility of Christ (with the irksomeness of Martha thrown in for good measure), more often than not to the benefit of itself and humanity. As a non-believer, I'd rather live among Christians than some other religions I might name. People who decry Americans' piety ought to stop and think what we'd be like without it.

Islam, too, seems to me to strongly partake of a time and place. Philip Carl Salzman, a Canadian professor of anthropology, has an article on that topic and is about to publish a book on it, titled "Culture and Conflict in the Middle East." This article specifically deals with Islam. Like him, I see Muhammad as a political genius and social reformer whose work in uniting and civilizing the Arabian people was almost miraculous. I'm not sure my conclusions about it are the same as Salzman's, but he knows more about it than I do:

Just as [Muhammad] had provided a constitution of rules under which the people of Medina could live together, so he provided a constitution for all Arabs, but this one had the imprimatur not just of Muhammad, but of God. Submission -- Islam -- to God and His rules, spelled out in the Koran, bound Arabian tribesmen into the community of believers, the umma.

... Muhammad was able to frame an inclusive structure within which the tribes had a common, God-given identity as Muslims. But unification was only possible by creating a tribalized enemy against which Muslims could make common cause. This Muhammad did by opposing Muslims against infidels; and the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam and peace, against the dar al-harb, the land of infidels and conflict. Through the precepts of Islam, traditional Bedouin raiding was sanctified as an act of religious duty.

That, of course, is an infidel's view. To treat religion as an outgrowth of human realities is not necessarily to deny the divinity at the root of it, or the reaching into the light. But it strips religions of their pretence to be the exact thing ordained.