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Islam and the West, from a comparative religion standpoint

The Difference
Patrick Guntensperger

Recently, Indonesia has seen Sya’aria inspired legislation enacted in face of protests that these laws marginalize religions other than Islam. Much of that protest is raised by the Balinese non-Muslim majority, but much also comes from the Christian minority in other parts of the archipelago, and is only the latest chapter in an ongoing story.

The friction between Christian and Muslim in Indonesia has frequently erupted into far more than mere loud doctrinal dispute. People die. Children are beheaded, homes burnt, mosques and churches destroyed, and dozens of devout are routinely injured in riots. These altercations are manifestly not over mere differences in personal beliefs.

Here in Indonesia, Christianity, on the one hand, is seen as Western and has evolved into a system of beliefs, while Islam, on the other, is seen as Eastern and remains a system of behaviours. For a Christian to be baffled by why Muslims seem so concerned with the religions and beliefs of others is to misunderstand the nature of Indonesia’s Islam.

It must be recognised that the raison d’etre for both religions was a need and a desire for social control. Religion developed as a mechanism, not for formulating spiritual beliefs, but rather for regulating society’s behaviour. In the tribal and largely nomadic Middle East during the late Neolithic period, there was a need to institutionalise rules of diet, procreation, social roles, and behaviour. The spiritual underpinnings of these societal regulations served as justification for their imposition as rules.

In the medieval period, the Renaissance, right up to the Enlightenment, Christianity was clearly a mechanism of social control. The religious leaders were determined to ensure that their religion was espoused by the people of their communities.

In that respect modern Islam, being 600 years younger than Christianity, is something like Christianity 600 years ago. Islam is a tool of social and political control; so long as the tenets are publicly espoused, the conventions observed, and the rites performed, devotion is assumed.

Westerners tend to be bemused, even baffled by attempts by Islam to impose religiously dictated regulations; Westerners see those as attempts to impose beliefs. In the West, the secular world is eliminating laws that enforce religious principles and naturally bridle at attempts to impose beliefs.

But, in reality, the imposition of Sya’aria inspired laws is not an attempt to impose Islamic beliefs. What Westerners need to understand is that it is not belief that is demanded; it is public behaviour that matters.

To a Christian Westerner, one can see oneself as a religious person as long as one has a heartfelt acceptance of Jesus as god. To the Westerner, religion is a personal, internal matter.

Alternatively, if a Muslim professes faith, gives alms, does the Hajj and the ritual prayers, and observes Ramadan, his obligations are met, and he can see himself as a religious Muslim. To the Muslim, religion is a public, external matter.

While Westerners see the imposition of religious values as presumptuous, Muslims would argue that unless they are shared by a community, they are worthless as values. Communal values, harmony, conformity…these are all virtues in Islam. To a Westerner, individual rights, autonomy, and freedom from societal constraint are the higher values.

Where Westerners frequently equate Muslim public declarations of devotion with religious fanaticism, Muslims often interpret the internalisation of Western religion as atheism. Because religion is a far more personal matter in the West, someone who exhorts the rest of society with his religious views is fanatical, and possibly deranged. Meanwhile, to a Muslim, a person who keeps his religious views private can be seen as dangerously sociopathic.

A Westerner is more likely to define himself by the constitution of his internal universe; a Muslim by his standing with respect to his community; the current manifestations of both Christianity and Islam reflects that fundamental dichotomy. The religions are different because they fulfill different needs in their faithful. They serve different purposes

Is it possible then to reconcile the two? Can two such contradictory worldviews ever coexist peacefully? Possibly. But not until the two sides recognise that the disputes are not about whether Jesus was divine or a merely a prophet, whether representations of the Prophet are sinful, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They’re not even about whether Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is the Lord’s Day, or whether alcohol consumption, polygamy, or toilet paper is permissible.

The disputes are more about man’s view of man. Is he more important as an individual, or is his membership in a community or society the pivotal issue? Does a human being have moral obligations to others? To his immediate family? To his community? To the human race as a whole? Or merely to those who share his views? What are those obligations? To what extent must we control others’ ‘morality’?

When we start looking at these kinds of questions instead of petty doctrinal and dogmatic ones, there may be some hope for genuine dialogue.

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nur Shahid Bin Ahmad to me
    show details 5:44 AM (3 hours ago) Reply

    Hi Patrick,

    Regarding your proposition at the end of your Islam and the West
    article where you wrote:

    Is it possible then to reconcile the two? Can two such contradictory
    worldviews ever coexist peacefully? Possibly. But not until the two
    sides recognise that the disputes are not about whether Jesus was
    divine or a merely a prophet, whether representations of the Prophet
    are sinful, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They’re
    not even about whether Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is the Lord’s Day,
    or whether alcohol consumption, polygamy, or toilet paper is
    permissible.

    The disputes are more about man’s view of man. Is he more important as
    an individual, or is his membership in a community or society the
    pivotal issue? Does a human being have moral obligations to others? To
    his immediate family? To his community? To the human race as a whole?
    Or merely to those who share his views? What are those obligations? To
    what extent must we control others’ ‘morality’?

    When we start looking at these kinds of questions instead of petty
    doctrinal and dogmatic ones, there may be some hope for genuine
    dialogue.

    But doesn't a Christian and Muslim man's view of man(other men)
    dependent on what his holy book says?
    So, shouldn't the dispute then be about which holy book(Bible or
    Qur'an) is the word of God?
    Which is the reason why Christians and Muslims have been debating
    about these 'petty doctrinal and dogmatic' issues. Is it not?

    ************************************************

    The foregoing is a verbatim copy of an email I received from NUR SAHID BIN AHMAD. I have not published his email address, since I have no way of knowing if he wishes it to made public. If he wants it out there, I'll be happy to run it. Please send comments directly to the blog…it's a lot of trouble doing this.

    Nevertheless, I am grateful for Mr. Ahmad's thoughtful response and will hold off on any comment until I have considered any other commentary that might yet come.

    Patrick Guntensperger

  2. Dear Mr. Ahmad:

    If it all comes down to which of the holy books is, in fact, the authentic word of god, we have a bit of a problem. The fundamental text that all three Abrahamic religions share (Old Testament, Torah, etc) is a series of Neolithic folk tales, myths, and fiction of doubtful authorship and cobbled together by nomadic Middle Eastern illiterate shepherds.

    The literature that is unique to each has very little in the way of acceptable provenance and not one shred of evidence that would be acceptable in any but religious circumstances that it is of anything but human authorship.

    As to interpreting the contents, that MUST be done by humans. Fallible, venal, vindictive, and – on the whole – unintelligent and gullible humans. Why on earth would ANYONE take that seriously. It is to man himself – fallible, venal etc. that we must look if we are to find answers. Not some collection of ancient and grotesquely irrelevant collection of inherently contraditctory stories intended to frighten children some 8 thousand years ago.

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