Why Is Islam Resistant To Change?
OP - February 25, 2013, 11:13 AM
Why Is Islam Resistant To Change?
Every religion is rooted in irrational beliefs.
One way of looking at religion is as a kind of simplified philosophy and spirituality for the masses, who actually have a need to be superstitious to a degree for the sake of collective emotional stability.
So although as ex-Muslims we primarily criticize traditional Islam, the truth is that when you get down to it, there is no religion that can completely pass muster as far as rational scrutiny goes.
Nevertheless, there are a few reasons why the Islamic tradition is more resistant to change and the creation of a secular liberal breathing space for adherents than many other religious traditions appear to be.
(1) Islam has historically had an expansionist and political dimension.
It was formulated at a time of war and is completely embroiled in the Arab imperialistic ambitions of the time.
While there is war and brutality in the Old Testament, there is no call for global war - the conflicts are quite local. In effect Islam became a kind of meta-tribalism when it was formulated.
Also, orthodox Islam explicitly sees no distinction between the sacred and the secular: social spheres have to be patterned according to sacred dictates.
Contrast this with Christianity, in which Jesus reportedly tells his followers to render unto Caesar his due, and unto God his due.
(2) Islam sees its core text, the Quran, as being, more or less, God incarnate.
What Jesus is to Christianity, the Quran is to Islam.
Jesus is the logos in Christianity, the Word-made-flesh, whereas in Islam, it is the Quran that is the logos, the Word-made-flesh.
This is problematic because it means that Muslims have a hard time accepting that parts of the Quran are highly situated in very specific temporal contexts. Add to this the idea that Islam believes it is the final religion and the Quran is therefore the final text for all time and all places, and you can see that the seeds of literalism are sown right into the orthodox, classical tradition itself.
By contrast the idea of an eternally infallible text is not found in Christianity (the Bible is considered inspired, but still the work of human minds) or in the Indian / Asian religions.
(3) Islam has somehow gotten saddled with this arrogant claim of Muhammad being not only the final prophet, but also the best human being to have ever existed in human history.
This is in contrast to the prophets of Israel in the Old Testament, who are seen as being basically human beings dealing with the challenges of life and existence as best as they could.
My impression of Muhammad as a man is that he seems to have started off as a humble and honest merchant, but the second half of his life shows that some major transformation took place: he behaved no differently from an average Arab warlord of that era (not that I am judging it by modern-day ethical standards -- just observing), and it looks like the military conquests, multiple wives and influx of concubines and slaves just went to his head.
Many people have pointed out the differences between the conciliatory Meccan and more aggressive Medinan suras of the Quran.
(4) Unlike Hinduism or Buddhism or other Eastern religions, it can be reduced to a single man and a single scripture.
The same is true for Christianity as well of course, and Judaism to a lesser extent. This kind of reductionism encourages a religion to be a more closed system and discourages diversity and pluralism.
(5) The traditional Sunni orthodoxy is anti-innovation to the core, and all new ideas are considered as the devil's handiwork and to be approached as cautiously as possible.
This has caused Islam to stagnate remarkably and has prevented its growth or evolution in any meaningful way. Here even Christianity and Judaism are different from Islam and have shown some fairly strong progressive and innovative movements through the ages (most recently, witness the rise of Emergent Christianity under which even evangelicals are taking a post-modern turn, and Process Theology inspired by Alfred North Whitehead, a contemporary of Bertrand Russell).
(6) Every orthodoxy needs a heterodoxy to keep it from stagnating too much, and every heterodoxy needs an orthodoxy to keep it from becoming reckless.
This is true not just for religion but also for science and for virtually every human endeavor.
Whether we are conservative or liberal, the future terrifies us even as it beckons us, and it is just natural to want to regress to the comforts of what is stable and known no matter how stale it has become.
But the Sunni Islamic tradition has exaggerated this fear of the unknown to such monumental proportions that it has squashed freedom of expression and thus every single heterodox movement. The only "heterodoxy" that has survived is the Shi'ites, and they only differ with the Sunnis on doctrinal issues that don't have much of a bearing as far as social realities go.
(7) Islam is, to my mind, the only religion in the world with developed orthodox doctrines on how to treat unbelievers and apostates, and convinced of its universalizing mission which can even be implemented by coercion.
In other words identity politics are built right into the orthodox Islamic tradition. This makes the radical politicization of Islam even more problematic and endangers all those who dare to question the received wisdom.
Christianity is also a universalizing, prosyletizing religion, but its imperialistic ambitions (a) were not really based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth who was nonviolent (see also the comment above about rendering unto Caesar his due and rendering unto God his); and (b) have largely been surrendered in today's context.
( 8 ) There is hardly a female voice to be found in Islam.
Christianity still has the figure of the Virgin Mary and even Mary Magdalene in the non-canonical Gospels, as well as numerous female Christian saints. Christ definitely had a feminine side and used to take female disciples, which was revolutionary for his era. Some of the Hindu scriptures are partially authored by women, and likewise for Buddhism. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have Tantric schools that elevate women to the status of goddesses and also certain very spiritual schools of thought according to which experience is supposed to trump intellectual dogmas which has allowed them to evolve.
In fact, and I was surprised to find this, even a highly masculinist and patriarchal religion like Judaism recognizes female prophets, while Islam explicitly does not. There is a matriarchal theme underlying some of the Old Testament. Judaism recognized Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther, etc. as having been proper messengers of God in their own right.
There is no doubt that there are individuals in the Islamic tradition who spoke for women's rights -- Ibn Rushd was perhaps one of the first feminists and Ibn Arabi had female spiritual teachers and wrote highly of women -- but by and large women are described in very derogatory terms by the Islamic orthodoxy, reflecting the culture of Abbasid-era Iraq in which this orthodoxy was formulated.
In sum, orthodox Islam is a highly masculinist, patriarchal religion founded for men by men, which is a serious problem as it excludes the voice of half of humanity.
Once again, virtually every religion in the world contains its fair share of problems. However, these are some of the reasons why I feel Islam is especially resistant to change.