This is the third in a series of vignettes, an element in an essay in several parts. Each part will have a brief introduction - a framing device, I suppose, in which I use an incident in American history, and the words of an American political thinker, to set up the episode. The essay is about several things which, at this moment in history, need to be addressed collectively. I hope to give its readers something to think about and, of course, a means to deal with a complex set of issues in a way that is humane, rational, just, empathetic, realistic, and moral. If you'd like to read earlier parts, the first vignette be found here, or the second here.
|"The Capture of King Phillip's Fort" from Harper's Weekly, 1857|
A scene from the bloodiest, in relative terms, war in American history,
King Phillip's War (1675-1678)
I am fascinated by the experiences of early European and African settlers of North America and their interactions with native Americans - sometimes this is uplifting, other times it is entirely disquieting.
A pattern is emergent, however, whether we are speaking of colonists in Virginia or New England, the mid-Atlantic or the southern colonies. Inevitably there would come a time where some individual native American, or group of native Americans, would engage in some form of violence against some group of colonists. Perhaps the violence would be theft, perhaps it would be more horrible, a kidnapping or a murder. Ultimately the details would matter little - the colonists would split between those who wished to pursue diplomatic means of redress and those who sought more problematic means of atonement - the kind generally lumped under "an eye for an eye."
The result would be a war, multinational in the sense that the English diplomatic factions would at some point lose control of the situation. Perhaps there would be a rebellion, perhaps it would merely be the emergence of poorly trained or even unofficial militias, but regardless the hawkish element of the colonists would strike out. Typically, though, these were no sociologists - to many of the colonists the native American peoples weren't peoples at all - they were one people, the Indians, and efforts to distinguish amongst them, to isolate the actual offenders from the whole range of possibilities, was simply an unnecessary subtlety. The result would be inevitably attacks not only only "guilty" parties (which sometimes included far more innocent, non-participants than one would consider appropriate by modern standards) but against wholly innocent, or even allied, native American polities as well. The geopolitics would be shaken and for months or years vicious, vengeance-obsessed parties would slug at one-another over and over, devastating one another's populations, economies, infrastructure, and long-term ability to work with one another.
How much completely unnecessary bloodshed might have been saved had the colonists trusted to the longer, slower, more frustrating, but also less devastating methods of inquiry and diplomacy, if the uneducated had been convinced to regard native Americans as being as varied in political, economic, and social form and quality as European and African polities?
III. Islam, Radicalism, and Ideology
In recent years a particular faction, or more accurately set of factions with sufficiently similar ideological goals and policy similarities as to render them effectively so in the eyes of non-members, has become a near obsession of my countrymen. These are the radical religious fundamentalist members (which constitute a rather small part) of the Salafi and Wahabi factions of the Hanbali school of the Sunni sect.
Read that last sentence again. Now a third time.
Americans are not scared of Muslims. They just think they are. In fact they are scared of a faction of a faction of two small factions of a school of jurisprudence of one sect of Islam. Knowing nothing else this should immediately put some things into perspective.
Where to start, though, to fill in the blanks? There is much to say on the subject. Perhaps by actually explaining the Islamic faith, insofar as a forum like this is able.
See, first off, there are Muslims, members of the Islamic faith. Islam is an Arabic word translating essentially as submission to God. It is an Abrahamic monotheistic faith, sharing a common intellectual and theological basis with a variety of other faiths – Bábism, Baha’i, Christiantiy, Druzism, Judaism, Mandaeism, and Rastafarianism. It also shares attributes with the monotheistic, but not Abrahamic, faiths of Zoroastrianism, which is regarded as a “faith of the book,” and Sikhism, which some theologians believe emerged as an effort to resolve the differences between Islam and Hinduism. Muslims believe that they are essentially of the same faith as other monotheists, but that earlier revelations of the word of God had been corrupted over time – in order to correct this God sent an angelic messenger to the Prophet Muhammad, last in a long line of prophets, to receive God’s word in an uncorrupt form – the angel recited it to Muhammad and Muhammad in turn recited it word for word to his people who eventually would write it down, again word for word and always (at least in theory) in the same classical Arabic. This corrected, pure version is known as the Quran – literally recitation.
Trying to summarize an entire faith, particularly one with a long history of philosophical, legal, and theological debate and schism such as Islam, is honestly a daunting task – to understand Islam it is worth taking the time to read the Quran and several books on the subject (at the end of this essay I’ll include a bibliography of works I recommend). Nonetheless, we need at least some ground work – let me see what I can do.
At the core of Islam are five essential tenets – these are generally known as the five pillars of Islam. First among these is shahada – the testimony. In essence it is merely the statement that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet. In essence it is only the first part of this, the assertion that there is no god but God, that is essential for being regarded as a person of the book and a proper monotheist, but the latter is a testimony that one accepts the Quranic version of monotheism and with it the Islamic interpretation of the word and law of God.
Secondly is salat – this is the requirement that all faithful Muslims pray five times daily. Ideally this prayer follows a particular pattern – the Muslim washes before prayer, uses a particular set of ritual positions that indicate submission towards God, and faces towards the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Ideally this is also done in a mosque, which is marked with niches to indicate the appropriate direction of prayer. That said, key is prayer in good faith - there will be times in the life of all Muslims with one or more of these options is not available (for instance if a Muslim is in space on a space station traveling thousands of miles an hour how does one bow or face Mecca in a literal since?) and in the instances there is no penalty for errors in the sight of God.
Third is zakat. This is the act of giving alms to the needy and is ultimately calculated through some rather complicated accounting principles – think of it like a formalized religious income tax system operated by ones religious community in secular states and religious but non-Muslim states or by the government in states with an official religion of Islam.
Fourth is sawm, the act of fasting. Fasting may be done by a Muslim as an act of asceticism, or it may done as an act of repentance and contrition, but it is most uniformly conducted during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims are required to fast between dawn and dusk. That said, for those who fasting might constitute or complicate a medical or health problem (the very young or old, those with diabetes, pregnant women, those in a time of war during a period of imminent threat, travelers, and so on) the sawm may be delayed or even omitted.
Fifth is hajj. This is ultimately a pilgrimage to the holiest city in Islam, Mecca. Like most ritual pilgrimages this is a highly ceremonial experience, intended to unify the members of the Muslim community matter there language, home, gender, political standing, or economic class. It is to be undertaken by all Muslims who are able at some point in their lifetime. There are other holy sites in Islam, of course, with their own pilgrimages associated with them, but none are universally required, as is the hajj – the nearest in importance being Jerusalem – and many Muslims of different sects and traditions disagree on what appropriate pilgrimage sites are.
There are other tenets of Islam which are particularly significant within the context of this essay – that isn’t to say these are the only relevant elements, by any means, but in the interest in of time I’ve made a few selections.
First, Islam has a missionary character – like Christianity and Buddhism Islam actively seeks to convert non-believers into believers. At times this has been accomplished through warfare at others through theological debate and conversionary efforts. In this it is no different than the other missionary faiths, but this is important because, like them, it has a sense of expansionism, a sense that there is a real meaning to increasing the membership of the faith since this correlates with the fundamental conception of what is good in human life.
Secondly, until very recently Islam had no tradition of separation of church and state or of secularism. Consider: in the West the separation of religious and secular authority into two different spheres of sovereignty largely emerged from the fact that the classical Roman Empire collapsed but the Roman Catholic Church did not – indeed, the latter would thrive in the ruins of the old universal state and, when new medieval polities would emerge the Church clung fiercely to its political independence. The upshot was centuries of coexistence of the state and the church as, effectively, co-sovereigns – the former temporal and geographically limited, the latter spiritual and universal.
Islam has no similar tradition – while there are many sources of scholarship, leadership, and so forth in the Islamic tradition there is no historical singular authority that was in a condition of struggle with states. The closest analog would be the caliphate, but this was always essentially a political and spiritual title – the political responsibility for guaranteeing such elements of Islam as necessitated state oversight and enforcement was present in the caliph, who was also head of a polity that had some claim to universalism (even when this was not the case in truth).
Furthermore, the concept of secularism emerged out of the uniquely Western experience of the wars of religion that began with the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation (or Reformation, depending on which historian you’re speaking with) and continued until for centuries after. These war, which were both international and intranational, were astoundingly devastating in terms of cultural heritage, infrastructure, and most horrifically, human lives. Entire nations were devastated out of religious intolerance and something gradually became clear to the early modern West – religious wars threatened to destroy everything. Gradually new international institutions emerged, such as the principle of cuis region, eius religio, but also powerful pressures for legally mandated toleration. The most dramatic expression of this came in the late 18th Century in the newly independent United States where first several states and later the entire Union guaranteed freedom of religious conscience, speech, and practice, banned all religious tests for the exercise of political rights, and instituted the first secular political institutions – that is to say a clear, definitive, and permanent separation of public institutions from private institutions, including religious institutions.
Islam, on the other hand, was a far more tolerant faith for most of its history. That’s not to say it didn’t have its nasty moments – anytime you have millions of people doing or believing anything bad things will occur. But there is simply no question that Islam never experienced the sort of reckless violence of Muslim against Muslim that Christianity experienced until it had been deeply influenced by Western thought and political imperialism (I know, right?). What that has meant is that efforts to secularize Islam are all, in historical terms, comparatively new, really only beginning with the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of Turkey and Arab nationalism.
There is one more really essential element to Islam that warrants some discussion – that is the fact that Islam is ardently, adamantly, clearly a faith in opposition of theological innovation. What does this really mean? Well, the Quran clearly forbids the generation of new principles and tenets of faith – Muhammad’s role on this earth was, definitively, to correct the errors made in interpretation and reinterpretation of the scripture as given through previous prophets by God. This is why, ideally, the Quran is not translated, this is why Islam is friendly or even protective (in most historical iterations) of older monotheist faiths but is frequently hostile towards newer faiths, and this is why things have often gotten rather – hmmm – hostile when one sect or school of Islam has accused other schools or sects of this charge. In functional terms it is seen as a violation of the shahada, the most essential of tenets – if Muhammad is the last prophet, and gave us precisely the word of God, then to innovate is to undercut the very meaning of Islam and, indeed, the will of God on earth, effectively putting a false God at the core of the faith.
Sects of Islam
Like all world religious Islam has numerous subdivisions which, functionally speaking, are important for outsiders in that they constitute distinct behavioral cues. Christianity has at least three of these surviving today, depending on who you ask – Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Islam, on the other hand, also has three key divisions - Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi Islam.
The origins of the first two of these lay in the distant past – with the death of Muhammad a schism emerged between those who believed he had not appointed a successor and those who believed that, in fact, he had – his son-in-law Ali. The former believed then that the community of Islam had the right to appoint a successor caliph and all succeeding caliphs, the latter that Ali was inappropriately passed over and that Ali and his descendants were the rightful heirs of the caliphates, as only God could appoint a caliph. This led to a series of wars and a distinct division in practice between the sects – the coming to be dominated by a scholarly Imamate and a messianic belief in the return of the occluded Mahdi, the former coming to invest local and jurisprudential interpretation of the Quran as well as the traditions of Muhammad and his immediate family and followers with particular significance. Both would become internally fractured overtime, however, as disagreements emerged, though generally there is a higher degree of toleration amongst factions within sects than between sects – at least historically. As for Sufi Islam, Sufism includes any form of Islam which emphasizes in particular mysticism – conscious effort through practice, prayer, or meditation, to come into direct and real contact with the divine and are divisible principally in terms of their means of doing so.
Islam, as a faith in which there was no clear, premodern division of temporal and spiritual governance, has evolved an extensive religio-political legal tradition. This tradition is not without its internal divisions, however. Indeed, within each of the major sects there are several traditions, each of which vary in particular in terms of the sources of law and the mechanisms by which judges and scholars are proper in using to interpret said law. To try to go into an extensive discussion of these here would be, frankly, ungainly – that said there are four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence, the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’I, and Hanbali. It is the fourth of these schools which is going to be important to our discussion here, so let’s explore that.
There are a number of ways in which the different schools have argued that jurisprudential scholars can deduce rulings and principles of law. Key among these is the explicit statement of right and wrong in the Quran, followed by the hadith (the sayings and traditions of Muhammad himself), as further the sayings and traditions of the family and friends of Muhammad. Sometimes the schools also will allow jurisprudential analogy or interpretation based on the whole of the law, while at other times they will allow the general consensus of the community to describe propriety (based on the assertion that never could the whole of the community be corrupted together by Muhammad).
The Hanbali school, however, rejects all of these save dependence on the holy writings of the faith, especially in the form of the Quran and hadith – it is a strict and self-limiting, quite literalist, and an attempt to consciously avoid judicial or communal innovation and, thereby, preserve the true faith. In this sense it is a fundamentalist school – fundamentalism simply being a sociological term for any movement which attempts to return an institution, society, or tradition to its alleged proper form by limiting it to only its the most essential elements, those fundamental to the tradition and demonstrable in the earliest writings and traditions.
It is from the Hanbali school that two offshoots emerged in the modern period, in part in reaction to the emergence of Western modernity and its inroads into the Islamic world. These are the Wahahabi and Salafi factions. The former emerged in the Najd (part of modern Saudi Arabia) during the 18th Century, specifically as an ultraorthodox Hanbali approach to Islam that emphasized the purging of any practices, shrines, cults, and so forth – it is, in other words, explicitly fundamentalist and radical in its ends and it achieved significant political influence and protection through its ongoing alliance, as a faction, with the Saud family. Salafism, on the other hand, is much newer, emerging only in the 20th Century, though again in Saudi Arabia. In frank terms the Salafi movement, though attempting to assert its distinctiveness from Wahabism, nonetheless is deeply influenced by it, arguably to the point where in functional terms the differences are almost unnoticeable. Probably the most important of these is that Salafi regard themselves as methodologically distinct and derivable from any of the four major jurisprudential schools, though in practice their jurisprudence tends to resemble ultraorthodox Hanbali. Furthermore, while there is an emphasis on exactly the same sources as Wahabi scholars, Salafi scholars tend to emphasize the elite community judgments of the religio-intellectual elite, leading to greater top down dominance.
It is upon these two factions, deeply influenced by one school, itself the smallest of the four major jurisprudential traditions of only one of the major sects of Islam that most of the concerns of the United States and its allies rest. Indeed, in truth, it isn’t the whole of these factions – after all, the majority of Wahabi and Salafi are quietist or politically disinterested, or even are allies of the Western polities (e.g. the political elites of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates). Yet, clearly there is a radicalized, intensely aggressive, intensely anti-American and anti-Western vein of actors coming from these factions – this requires comment.