I have articulated this many, many times, but never yet as a full blog post, so here goes. What is it that differentiates the two major world religions, and how does this translate across to the behaviour of their adherents?
This is a pretty vital question for understanding the state of affairs with world religions and worldviews, especially in a present day context.
It starts with the holy books, the codification and revelation of said religions. With Christianity, we have the Bible, which is the ‘inspired word of God’. This can mean several things to different people. But, by and large, most Christians believe this to mean that the books, many and varied, were written by humans, though with some kind of divine inspiration. Perhaps not, though. The key is that it was mere humans that wrote things down, itself an interpretative process. This means that the reading of the holy book is itself a further interpretative process.
The Qu’ran, on the other hand, is THE word of God, dictated to Muhammad, and written down as is. You can’t argue with it, because you would be arguing directly with God. In fact, you really need to read it in Arabic, the original language of the book. Although there is some interpretative process going on in reading it, the scope is far less. We know who took down the dictation, and supposedly lots about him. With the Bible, we can merely guess at many of the writers, and critical scholarship allows us to be thoroughly skeptical about the received traditions of who supposedly wrote the books.
What this has meant is that the evolution of the religions has been quite different. And this has been the strength and weakness of both, too, as I will now explain.
Christianity has been able to evolve throughout its history. Its strength, in evolutionary or memetic terms, is its adaptability. It has been able to adapt to society, such that with scientific, technological, economic and moral progress, Christianity has adapted. We can see this empirically by the fact that there is supposedly some 40,000 denominations of the religion. There is a Christianity for everyone. If you hate gays or love gays; hate slavery or love it; hate capitalism or love it; hate socialism or love it – there is a Christianity for you.
Biblical criticism, especially since reformation times, has been and is encouraged, by and large. The interpretative process is a discipline, and exegetes and theologians disagree quite considerably with each other.
The flipside of this is that the religion of Christianity is somewhat, arguably, bastardised from its purest form, whatever that may be. It has been diluted to adapt to whatever prevalent school of thought requires such. As economics and morality have undergone huge zeitgeists, so too has Christianity. And this might be argued to be its weakness, too.
Islam, however, has been very different. Due to the nature of the holy book, Islam requires that society adapts to IT. Throughout history, Islam has remained a fairly monolithic construction (albeit with political schisms along the Sunni/Shia divide). For example, in the banking sector, or morally, within the context of its primarily theocratic domain, Islam has not particularly shifted. Lending is outlawed in certain forms, stoning and beheading seem to be still widely accepted. Sharia law often prevails, and secular Islamic countries are few and far between, if at all ever properly secular (eg Turkey).
What this means, in evolutionary or memetic terms, is that Islam requires the environment to adapt to it. It has very little adaptability, changing little in response to environmental constraints. So its strength is that it appears a purer religion in comparison to Christianity, and in relation to its earlier forms. The evolution of Christianity against Islam produces two entirely different pictures: one a large, foliage-burdened tree of evolutionary worldviews, the other a more streamlined set of grasses, perhaps.
So when we see the moral paradigm of the modern world, we can see that Christianity is able to mould better to the environment, and Islam struggles. And where Islam and the modern world meet, there is little shaking of hands, and much bloodshed.
Islam needs a reformation, for sure, but I don’t think the holy book context really permits such a much-needed philosophical transformation.
On the subject of the greater immutability of Islam, there was an interesting essay online which I came across which bore these words:
There is always the plight of context argument with Islam’s holy text Quran. The apologetic version is “Quran cannot be interpreted and understood except with its context.” This paraphrasing is constantly adduced by Islamic apologists whenever any argument against the violent verses within the text is raised.
But the way Islam justifies the divine origin of Quran automatically exclude it from the use of historical method of exegesis. There is this dilemma for Muslims to face. The text in fact is contextual as understood by Muslim explanation of its historical formation. But it is not a version of facts Muslims want to subscribe when they are fomented to believe in the interminable status of the text. Quran is meant for the whole of humanity is the undisputed Muslim belief. The belief proceeds on as the book is pertinent to the end of times.
Is not it implausible to believe in the infinite relevance of Quran and at the same time rise objections to critiques by embarking a context smoke screen? Should not Muslims give up the context excuse if they want to use Quran as a text which’s relevance is distended to the end of times?
There is only an affirmative answer to these questions.
Let us come back to the Quran. Allah spoke to a seventh century Arab in the latter’s language. And all what he said to this prophet is recorded to fructify a Quran. To sum it up, Allah sent his last message to this same prophet then stopped speaking downright. Because god sent his last message and promised to preserve it forever, he will not speak any more until the day of resurrection. He will not send any prophet, since sending a prophet will stir him up again. This is the end. God sent his final messenger, and even though he did not favor immortality to the messenger, he blessed the message with immortality.
So, Quran, Islam’s holy text is not a pushover. It is the ultimate message of god. There is nothing to add or subtract in it. All of its components are divine, equally divine. All are applied to all and all.
In conclusion, if there is a command in Quran, there is no need to look for its historical context since humanity from the formation of Quran to the end of times are living in the context of the text. It is the Muslim belief. God, Gabriel, Muhammad, three key figures formed Quran have infinite relevance, so the making (Quran) too necessarily possess the quality of being interminably relevant. If this is the common Muslim belief pertaining to Quran, there is no room for a context excuse in its case.
Thus, the context excuse in the case of Quran is flawed in its fundamentals.
My emphasis, because that really sums up much of my theory, that environmental context is irrelevant to Islam: it’s fundamentals are eternal; the same as they ever were.
And it is in this context which we can see the differing roles the two religions play in modern life, and why Islam in its more fundamental form is seemingly butting up against Western society. Those very violent verses of the Qu’ran are still as relevant today as they ever were. Those violent verses of the Old Testament are now read in their historical context, itself given as an excuse by apologists for dropping their importance, and associated notions of graphic violence. We can mould the Bible like clay. The Qu’ran appears a little more like granite. No matter how warm your hands are, that ain’t budging.