Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Consistently Inconsistent

An editorial in today's Wall Street Journal hits the nail on the head concerning the recent Islamic outrage in response to Pope Benedict XVI's quoting of Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (Don't settle for the sound bite. You can read the full text of the Pope's speech here.):
By their reaction to the pope's speech, some Muslim leaders showed again that Islam has a problem with modernity that is going to have to be solved by a debate within Islam. The day Muslims condemn Islamic terror with the same vehemence they condemn those who criticize Islam, an attempt at dialogue--and at improving relations between the Western and Islamic worlds--can begin.
The piece also touches upon a question that though perhaps politically incorrect, is nevertheless important. Does the Islamic doctrine of Allah preclude reasonable dialogue? Please note, this is not to inquire whether adherents to the Islamic faith are capable of being reasonable. Obviously, many are. But when they are, are they being consistent with the nature and character of Allah as they conceive of him? As the editorial notes, according to the Christian faith, "God is inseparable from reason" since, as Pope Benedict quoted from the first chapter of John's gospel, "In the beginning was the Word" (lit. logos, meaning "reason" or "word"). In Christian theology, logic and rationality are grounded in the nature of the eternal and triune God. God cannot act illogically or irrationally because he cannot act contrary to his own nature.

On the contrary, the Muslim vision of God is that he is so transcendent that he has no limitations whatsoever, not even those of his own nature. Thus, immutability or unchangeableness is not ascribed to Allah by Muslims. Addressing this point in their book Muslims and Christians at the Table: Promoting Biblical Understanding Among North American Muslims, Bruce McDowell and Anees Zaka write:
This means that Allah is never bound to a decision that he once made. He cares nothing about being consistent. Therefore, he did not hesitate, when circumstances required, to change and rescind his earlier revelations, even when they contained specific commandments and instructions to believers. This created conflict for Muhammed, since he claimed to be transmitting a divine message that was inscribed upon tablets preserved in heaven, and which therefore should be eternal and unchangeable. But, as circumstances changed, Muhammed did not hesitate to assert that Allah had abrogated his earlier revelation and substituted another....Another aspect of the irrational nature of Allah's will is that he often makes offensive or misleading statements in order to "prove" men or stir up unbelievers to contradict the revealed word (Surah 74:31; 17:46). This is all utterly opposed to the Christian view of God as one who is immutable and true (pp. 102-103).
The authors proceed to explain how any attributes ascribed to Allah are regarded as descriptions of his absolute will rather than essential characteristics of his nature. The practical implications of this theology? "For the Muslim, there is no absolute truth in Allah or in ethics" (p. 103). Another consequence of this doctrine is, as one scholar whom the Pope quoted noted, that "[Allah's] will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality."

As much as some insist on separating terrorist acts from their perpetrators' religious beliefs, we need to realize that theological convictions have undeniable practical outworkings, a point clearly made in Sam Harris's recent L.A.Times opinion piece. Harris is right to claim that the the growing culture of death in the Muslim world is consonant with the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. Likewise, he is correct in calling the "war on terror" a fight "against
a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise."

I cannot rid myself of the question. Who is being most consistent with the inconsistent deity of Islam - peace-loving, moderate Muslims or those willing to justify all manner of atrocities in his name?


Jeff Burton said...

Thanks for the excellent post. One of silver lining in this dark cloud is that Islam is coming under scrutiny like never before. As I have read and studied this topic over the past couple of years, it has repeatedly struck me how Islam has received not 1/100th the scrutiny that Christianity has (at least in the west). In a similar way, I hope Gov. Romney's run at the Whitehouse in '08 will shine a cold light on Mormon doctrine and practice (he's already been asked about the underwear).

W. E. Messamore said...

Fascinating article, Keith. I was aware of the very violent nature of many of the exhortations in the Qu'ran, but I had no clue that the Muslim conception of God placed his arbitrary will above the conventions of logic and the restrictions (if you prefer to think of them as such) of the laws of identity and antithesis. Thanks for this!