Recent events have gotten me thinking about Islam and the extremists whose crimes keep putting it in the news.
It's odd to to remember a time when Islam per se wasn't perceived as a significant global issue. As a kid I followed the Arab/Israeli conflict, the black-and-white images of the Security Council on television during the Six-Day War, and recall, being young, the mild surprise at seeing the armies deploying in tanks rather than chariots.
But Islam had nothing to do with it. The world was about the cold war, and all conflicts, as I understood them, were proxies for the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Israel represented the United States, and Egypt, and its allies, stood in for the Russians (who had built that dam, and moved those statues that were always showing up in My Weekly Reader). Yes, a lot of that understanding was a child's selectiveness, but I think that that was also the way the networks and the papers tended to carry it.
So, in my lifetime, the first appearance of Islam as a challenge to the "West" came in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. I remember "Down with the Shaw" demonstrations beforehand, and was vaguely aware that the discontent of Iranian ex-pats in the U.S. was directed, too, at our government, which apparently had been hand-in-glove with the Shah for too long a time. The hostage crisis and the emergence of the Ayatolla Khomeni as supreme leader introduced a new element: extremist Islam, fanatical Islam, jihadist Islam And this new, threatening face of Islam had a name: Shi'ism. The Shi'ites were different from the other Muslims. They broke international law. They mocked the immunity of ambassadors. They demanded that women wear the chador. And they called us the "Great Satan." Iran became the new Cuba--the irreconcilable country.
All that was well and good, but the end of the cold war in 1991 was still the real news. That got even serious people talking about an "end of history"--until the end of history ended with the bringing down of the World Trade Center.
There had been, of course, no cessation of violence, by all sorts of violent and marginal figures (including home-grown ones, like the Oklahoma City bomber). But in one terrible day Muslim extremism come to the fore with new names and faces--Al Qa'eda, Bin Laden, Taliban. And all of a sudden--at least to a casual observer--the baton had been passed from Shi'i radicalism to Sunni radicalism, to the heirs of Muhammed Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab--the Wahhabis.
These were names wholly unknown to me in 2001, and remaining so for years thereafter. Just this last month I finally got around to starting a biography of al-Wahhab, and learning how directly his movement promoted the rise of the House of Sa'ud in the Arabian peninsula.
What was unexpected, in reading through this material, was the parallel with puritanism in Christianity. Please don't get me wrong. This is simply a matter of noting certain interpretive parallels between movements in two different religions. It is not about asserting some sort of equivalence between Christianity and Islam, or between puritanism and Wahhabism, but of understanding how certain interpretive approaches can operate in different religions.
In a previous post I had contrasted the Islam of the fourteenth century, as found in the travel writing of Ibn Battutah, with the Islam of ISIS, which some Western journalists habitually mis-characterize as "medieval." Medieval Islam had much in common with medieval Catholicism: intercession with God provided by recognized saints and living holy men; pilgrimages to shrines and tombs of the saints; traffic in amulets and protective objects; a distinctive sacred architecture and art; schools of religious law and philosophy; mystical fraternities; recognized hierarchies of religious authority; and the kind of reverence for the foundational sacred writings that made popular, direct recourse to them, if not formally forbidden, discouraged.
It was in the late eighteenth century that al-Wahhab began preaching his new, rigorous version of Islam. It was based, fundamentally, on an unprecedentedly broad understanding of shirk, the forbidden association of any god, person or object with the one supreme God. For al-Wahhab all veneration of Islamic holy men, living or dead, was forbidden, as was seeking their intercession. Veneration of their tombs, and traffic in and use of amulets, was utterly unacceptable. Though al-Wahhad was himself most closely associated with the rigorist Hanbaliyya school, he denounced all schools of law and systems of theology and philosophy, especially insofar as they in fact operated as illegitimate intermediaries; their great crime was that, in asserting that the Qur'an needed expert interpretation, they dared to subordinate it to their own assertions. Needless to add, al-Wahhab denounced the mystical way of Sufism, and considered Shi'ites as worse than idolaters.
Now it is sometimes said that the problem with contemporary Islam is that it has not yet gone through a "Reformation," and that if it would do so it would lose its militant edge. I now tend to think, on the contrary, that the Wahhabist movement, far from being a "medieval" throw-back, constitutes in surprising detail a counterpart to the Protestant reformation: a denunciation of saints, intercession, pilgrimages, shrines, pictures, mysticism, sacred brotherhoods, and necessary interpretive hierarchies, all based in a need for the individual Muslim to go to God directly, and an ability to do so by means of direct engagement with the Qur'an. It is sola scriptura in another key.
We tend to forget that the Protestant reformation, far from bringing peace and tolerance to Christendom, initiated an unprecedented age of Christian-on-Christian violence. My own patron saint, Thomas More, got his head cut off by fellow Christians, and the violence of the English reformation was rather modest compared with, inter alia, the Wars of Religion in France, and the Thirty Years War that devastated central Europe during the first half of the seventeenth century. Religious tolerance came to Europe, not through any triumph of one or the other party, but in the exhausted realization that none could win by force of arms.
And something similar, I think, is going on now in Islam. There is, to be sure, an anti-Western, anti-Christian component, that stems from a distinctive Western imperialist domination of the middle east and the Maghreb for the last couple of centuries. That does indeed fuel much of the resentment.
Nevertheless, most of the violence is Muslim-on-Muslim. The "reformed" ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS makes most of the world's Muslims believers in name only. The aggression initiated by al-Wahhab was not against the West; it was against what he considered the pseudo-Islam of the Ottoman sultans. And the great political achievement of the Wahhabist movement was it adoption by the House of Sa'ud. The Saudi's successful conquest of the two holy cities and their fabulous, if fortuitous, oil wealth made Saudi Arabia a uniquely powerful entity in both the Islamic world and the wider geopolitical sphere of first, second and third worlds.
It is there perhaps that we see one of the greatest differences between Calvinists and Wahhabis. The puritans were, by intent or default, republicans. Their churches had no pope, no bishops. Their churchmen cut off the head of one king, the unfortunate Charles I, and laid out a theological framework for representative government in Switzerland, Scotland and the American colonies. That record is rather distinctive from the Wahhabist promotion of the Saudi monarchy.
But I wonder, when I peruse Calvin's letter to Francis I, which prefaces his Institutes of the Christian Religion, whether the puritan opposition to kings would have been quite so vehement, had any king of note and staying power taken up the Calvinist banner. For both Calvin and Wahhab (as, indeed, for Lutheran and for Catholic), the form of secular power is subordinate to the religious message, and will be judged as godly or Satanic not on its own secular merits, but to the extent that it serves and promotes the religious message.
And the point of all this? To perceive, I hope, some common currents and common human reactions to different approaches to what we hold as most dear. I hate the fact that Islam is almost only spoken of in light of its most extreme adherents. I hope that even my slight familiarity with the Islamic "canon," and slight acquaintance with contemporary Muslims, prevent my confounding the fringes with the mainstream.
I, after all, as I've noted before, grew up Presbyterian, a member of a church that at one time shook all of Christendom, both religiously and politically. I was a good Presbyterian, but by the mid-twentieth century Calvinism was no longer a creed to shatter thrones and cause nations to tremble. So, just as the rigor and zeal of Calvin is no longer a troubler of a broader Christian peace (and no obstacle to a wider mutual tolerance), so also the Wahhabist approach to Islam may, after inevitable failure to obliterate its Muslim rivals, takes its place in the Muslim world as a distinctive practice which is nevertheless able to live and let live.
If we live that long.