Jesus and Muhammad

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tags: Islam, Christianity, Juan Cole, Informed Comment, Jesus, Muhammad


Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.  His latest book, "Engaging the Muslim World," is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan.

Credit: Wiki Commons.

Originally posted on Informed Comment.

I’ve always liked Andrew Sullivan even when I disagree with him. I’m going to disagree with him, or more specifically Alexis de Tocqueville and one of his readers who quotes him:

“Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.”

This quote, from Democracy in America, is a typical sort of nineteenth century Orientalism ( Edward Said’s book was published in 1978; has every thinking person not read it by now?) It is a little bizarre that de Tocqueville was eager to accommodate Christianity to Enlightenment principles, given that much of the Enlightenment was hostile to… Christianity. De Tocqueville, a strange mixture of conservatism and modernism, thought Roman Catholicism was the religion best suited to a democratic society, at a time when the popes were fulminating against . . . democracy (see below).

You can’t compare Christianity and Islam on the basis of this kind of characterization of the founders of the two religions. The characterization is in any case unfair (the New Testament texts imply just as many ‘scientific principles’ as does the Qur’an, e.g. They think the world has three levels, that there are demons and angels, etc. etc.)

First of all, we know very little about the lives of Jesus (d. circa 30-33 CE) or Muhammad (d. 632 CE). As a historian, I’m looking for early sources and diverse sources. The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are second century, and in Greek rather than in the original Aramaic (some ideas may have changed radically with the translation– the Aramaic almost certainly did not have the phrase ‘son of God.’) There are many variants among the manuscripts and among the Gospels. Did Mark even know about a resurrection? There are even questions about what sources early Christians accepted (is the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas a Gospel?) All of the extant accounts of Jesus obviously come from a small number of early Christian communities. There is no early outside source. We historians want accounts coming from several different sources.

The idea that, as de Tocqueville alleged, very early Christianity made no doctrinal demands about the relationship of the believer to power is not clearly in evidence. Take St. Peter (2 peter 2:1-2:17: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.”) Wouldn’t that be a community problem that would have to be dealt with collectively? Also very surprised by this allegation would have been the masses of Christians killed by Christian states for being heretics. And, just for instance, Charlemagne had 4500 Saxon followers of Woden (you’ve all seen the movie Thor) beheaded in 782 because they wouldn’t accept Christianity. That is a lot of heads to be lost to a religion that makes no power demands. Not to mention that modern Christian fundamentalism has cleverly found ways of re-importing selective legal injunctions from the Hebrew Bible into Christianity.

As for Muhammad, the earliest extant biography is is by Ibn Hisham (d. 834), based on a work he says was written 130 years after the Prophet’s death. This would be like relying on an oral tradition about Napoleon Bonaparte being written down from memory right now by an elderly man in Corsica. Unlike with Jesus, there are actually non-Muslim accounts of the rise of Islam and 7th-century mentions of Muhammad, though not substantial ones. The Dar al-Qur’an in Sanaa, Yemen, contains papyrus Qur’ans in Kufi script that the German researchers there told me years ago they think go back to the late 600s. The Qur’an, contrary to what some researchers such as John Wansbrough suggested, seems to be pretty well attested as an integral text fairly early on, maybe even better attested than the entire New Testament in the first century after its composition. The sayings attributed to Muhammad were not collected and written down for some 200 years after the Prophet’s death, and I personally don’t consider many of them historically reliable.

The New Testament picture of Jesus is full of contradictions. At some points he says to turn the other cheek and forgive enemies. At other points he says, “I come not to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Scholars have wondered if Jesus was a Zealot, a highly political and revolutionary movement. Or was he a mystic similar to those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Frankly we have no idea whether he intended to build a state or not. He seems to say that he thought his teachings would divide families: “and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.” Matthew 10:21. That sounds like a generational revolution to me. The jurisdiction of Roman law in Palestine at that time was mainly for political rebels, and it is not without significance that the Romans crucified him; had he been just a harmless Jewish mystic and viewed as a heretic, the Romans would have never bothered to get involved. No two academic books I’ve ever read on the life of Jesus and early Christianity have agreed about these issues.

Even if Jesus really was an apolitical pacifist, only a tiny number of Christians in history has ever agreed with him about that. Even if his statement about rendering to Caesar implied a separation of religion and state (unlikely), most Christians in history haven’t been willing to do that. Even today, many Christians in the United States have mobilized to ban abortion, even for non-Christians — for all Americans– on the basis of their current religious doctrine. Isn’t that a demand for Theocracy Lite?

So these ideas in very early Christianity are anyway irrelevant to practical politics in later Christianity, which saw all kinds of political arrangements. You may remember the Holy Roman Empire, which did not agree that Christianity implied no ideology of the state, and which was the primary crucible of the religion and civilization for centuries.

As for Muhammad, it is not entirely clear what his position was in Medina. He is often depicted as a theocrat. But it appears from the Qur’an that when he first went there in 622 he was more like a community organizer, balancing the needs of the Muslim, Christian, pagan and Jewish communities in the area. The stories of how he allegedly fell out with the Jews there are very late and have been questioned by some scholars. The view of him as a kind of king could well be a projection back on him by later writers of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, after forms of Muslim kingship and empire had emerged. Common assertions that the Qur’an disallowed paganism or allowed aggressive war on pagans are not borne out by the Qur’an. There is, contrary to de Tocqueville, very little law or politics in the Qur’an.

Much of fundamentalist Muslims’ ideas about religion-state relations are shaped by the Hadith literature, the oral sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet, which, as I said, were collected centuries after his death and I doubt most academic historians would consider them reliable. (I know saying so will offend some of my readers, but, well, I’m a historian.) The Hadith literature is just enormous, a kind of Muslim Talmud, and I find many of the reports contradictory to others. Some of them are actually Jewish law brought in by Jewish converts (as with stoning adulterers) that contradicts the Qur’an (which prescribes whipping instead).

As with Christianity, there are almost no forms of political organization Muslims haven’t tried out, from monarchy to republic, from anarchism to democracy. So all those laws and political principles in the Hadith haven’t actually been determinative. Contemporary Muslim fundamentalism does dream of using them as a blueprint, but since that enterprise isn’t actually practical, they don’t get very far. Even Iran and Saudi Arabia are mostly governed by modern bureaucratic rationalism of a sort Max Weber would readily recognize.

Nowadays, almost all Protestant Christian communities are organized on the basis of the nation-state. Even most Catholic communities de facto are, as well. And, most Muslim communities are exactly the same. There is a Sunni Muslim mufti of Egypt, there is a Shiite ayatollah of Iran. Some religious leaders have followers across national lines (as also is true in Christianity), but for the most part the nation-state is the unit of community organization and the arena of community action.

Contrary to what de Tocqueville imagined, the Muslims have been just as adaptable as Christians to the main forms of social organization that came out of the Enlightenment. He was writing at a time when many Muslims lived under the Ottoman Empire, which seems to have shaped his image of the religion. Somehow Islam has handily survived the Ottoman demise. And what de Tocqueville rather dishonestly did not bother to mention was that Christianity has had just as much trouble with those principles as Islam has. There was that little Syllabus of Errors when the then Pope condemned democracy, popular sovereignty, separation of religion and state, scientific rationalism, etc. Later Popes even tried to prevent Catholics from voting in elections because democracy was considered a modernist heresy. As late as Franco’s Spain, the Spanish church was a pillar of dictatorship. Eventually the church made its peace with democracy (partly through Vatican II, which largely repealed the Syllabus of Errors). Islam is likewise coming to terms with democracy, however contentious and uncertain that process has been (Indonesia, Turkey, Tunisia, etc. etc.)

Many 19th century Christians imagined that Islam was on its last legs and that all the Muslims would convert to Christianity. They thought the same of Hinduism and Buddhism. They mostly were very wrong. De Tocqueville’s arrogance and simplistic view of the original ‘essence’ of the founders of the two religions was a profound set of errors. In fact, by the end of this century, some 30% of the world could well be Muslim, whereas Christianity will likely be a shrinking proportion of humankind, just for demographic reasons. Not to mention that most “Christian” countries contain pluralities of non-religious people. Many, such as Sweden or Eastern Europe, have non-religious majorities. Significant proportions of Turks, Tunisians, Uzbeks, etc. in the Muslim world also report that they aren’t interested in religion.

It is not impossible that modern consumerism, individualism and technology might gradually undermine religion, so that 200 years from now neither Christianity nor Islam will be central to most peoples’ lives.

So, a) Muslims aren’t more prone to violence or terrorism than members of other religious communities because of the character of very early Islam and b) you can’t read off the differences between Christians and Muslims from a superficial depiction of the two founders.

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