How Not to Sound Like an Idiot When Talking About Islam
by Michael Muhammad Knight
Operating on the assumption that Islam exists as one singular, absolute, and coherent entity that is understood and experienced by each of the world’s billion-plus Muslims in more or less the same way, non-Muslims occasionally like to offer assessments of Islam’s big civilizational crisis. For what they call the “Muslim world” to progress, Islam—again, “Islam” as one big unified slab—must undergo a radical transformation, the path of which has been mapped out by other religions that have already been through it.
Their analyses of Islam’s supposed crisis are often well-intentioned, but tend to be historically naïve. By “historically naïve,” I mean “white supremacist,” but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Here’s one of the more condescending examples:
“Islam is the youngest of the world’s great religions. It’s 600 years younger than Christianity. It just needs to catch up.”
I’ve been hearing and reading this bit of conventional wisdom for years. The white guys who say it might see themselves as more thoughtful and historically aware than the full-blown Islamophobes, but it’s just typical racism with Euro-America still held to be the standard for measuring civilizational progress. At least these folks leave a shred of hope for what they see as a retarded brown civilization to someday become respectable.
In the prime of colonialism, white European men studying the occupied peoples of the world liked to imagine that all cultures evolved along the same trajectory, which made it easy to measure a society’s level of “advancement.” By this logic, it would almost make sense that a younger religion needs time to reach the same sophistication of an older religion; but this logic also requires ignorance of how history works.
Despite the “clash of civilizations” hype that makes this kind of thinking possible, we still live on the same planet and Muslims do not exist in isolation from the rest of humanity. Muslims have always been influenced by non-Muslims and have also influenced non-Muslims. Muslim thinkers are deeply embedded in the intellectual history of Europe, and vice versa. In the first centuries of Islam, Baghdad became the center of perhaps the greatest translation movement in history, in which Muslim thinkers studied the scientific and philosophical heritages of cultures throughout the known world. In turn, Arabic would become the dominant language of scholarship. There is no such thing as a distinct “Islamic science” or “Christian philosophy” that could be said to have developed without traces of outside influence. Just as a millennia of human migrations and conquests have made any talk of a “pure race” complete and utter porkshit, the notion of a “pure culture,” free from mixture with other cultures, is also fantasy. Likewise, this means that religions are all mixed up, and have always been mixed up. It makes no sense to imagine that religions “mature” in isolation and at standard rates, like human bodies, leaving Islam to always be six centuries behind Christianity at any given point in history.
Apart from all of this, there’s another basic problem with the “Islam needs to catch up” argument: While assuming that Christians somehow arrived at an intellectual or spiritual peak that remains out of reach for Muslims, it also forgets that there are religious traditions much older than Christianity. The folks who say that Islam needs to “catch up” to Christianity don’t apply the same reasoning to measure Christianity’s relationship to Zoroastrianism or Indic traditions (though they might at least claim Judaism as Christian territory within a constructed “Judeo-Christian” heritage).
The idea that Islam follows the same evolutionary path as Christianity, but lags centuries behind because it’s a younger religion, leads to more statements that make you sound like a well-meaning asshole, such as “Islam needs its own Reformation and/or Enlightenment.” This assumes that the problems of religious power and authority in one context apply universally to all religions in all contexts.
If you believe that Muslims have the potential to rethink and reformulate their traditions, this is OK; Muslims have been doing so since the time of the Prophet. But Christianity—specifically European Christianity, specifically West European Protestant Christianity—is not at the center of that process, nor does Christianity’s past dictate Islam’s future.
This article was published on Vice and the original title was How Not to Sound Like an Asshole When Talking About Islam.