This Message Will Self-Destruct

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 4:17 pm

This is a continuation of the What’s Wrong With Islám thread. I’m not satisfied with where I left it.

I have more than once voiced the opinion that Islám can only move forward by disposing of its idols. This, I believe, can be done by Muslims without forfeiting their religious heritage. They must simply recognize that no aspect of Islám is unchangeable, perfect, immaculate, or infallible. This recognition can be achieved within the context of Islamic belief: one need only recognize passages in the Qur’án that assert that:

  • No one fully understands the Qur’án but God.
  • The face of God is in everything.
  • Muhammad was only a man, with flaws like any other.

If that’s not enough, there’s the generally agreed-upon point that the Qur’án cannot be understood fully without reference to less immaculate source materials such as Hadith and histories.

Based upon this, Islám can be permitted to adapt and grow, and not merely continue as a contest between moderates and fundamentalists. If Islám could be inspired by the idea that no man has a monopoly on truth while retaining its heritage of faith, it could be permitted to rise above its heritage of violence and persecution.

The problem I see with this vision is that, when I read the Qur’án, I see frequent reminders of what made Islám so idolatrous. The Qur’án is saturated with judgmental statements that draw a vast gap between believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers will burn in Hell eternally, and it’s nobody’s fault but their own. This may not mean that Muslims are permitted to mistreat infidels, but it does establish a broad moral distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is not so easy to simply see Islám as iconoclasm, because Islám is all about submission to a specific idol. Its iconoclasm is not fundamental; it is derivative. Muslims, taken as a group, never smashed idols for the sake of some lofty unitarian ideal; rather, they smashed idols for the benefit of their own idols (Alláh, Muhammad, the Qurán, etc.).

We might be able to imagine an Islám that transcends its own idolatrous legacy, but I fear that Islám would need to do more than admit the fallibility of the Qur’án; it would need to renounce the tribalistic, sectarian, violent, judgmental, and idolatrous aspects of the Qur’án. Given this, would I be right to encourage Muslims to follow such a path, when it would be more honest of me to encourage them to simply abandon the superstitions of the past and think for themselves?

I would like to see a day when the ultimate expression of Islamic conviction would be the ritual burning of a single Qur’án. That wouldn’t prevent religious violence or gender discrimination, but it might send a clear message that Islám might just be capable of being self-critical. It would be a start—but I don’t see even that happening. Maybe some minority group of Muslims might come to the fore and give us hope by committing such a criminally noble act. They would be doing so at their own peril, of course.

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