Across the Bay

Thursday, June 24, 2004


After I wrote my criticism of Cole's post on the UCI graduation ceremony, I realized that I left out something important. It also came up in discussions I had with friends and colleagues about the post and about religion in general. What I'm referring to is Cole's statement that by wearing specific religious paraphernalia with Islamic inscriptions, the students at UCI were "sacralizing their secular learning."

In my "Cole Nidre" post I simply made a brief mention about religion in the public space without going in depth about the significance of the necessity and implications of "sacralizing secular learning." However, Cole's statement really stuck with me and a discussion on Alain Besançon with a colleague led me to this piece by Peter Leithart, commenting on Besançon's essay in Commentary (May 2004). At the end of his short review, Leithart takes issue with Besançon's adoption of French laïcité, and takes it up a couple of notches:

Besancon actually betrays one of these corruptions in his comments about the "domain" of religious life according to the Bible. According to his account, Christianity teaches that "man is responsible for conducting his affairs within the framework of a universe - natural, social, political - that operates by internally consistent rules. The performance of one's religious and moral duties is thus confined to a rationally definable area." That is not, I believe, what Christianity teaches at all, for Besancon has made the existence of a "secular" space an essential feature of Christian faith. On the contrary, here is something that we can learn from Islam - that in fact there is no secular space, and that religious duties must be "pushed beyond" the "rationally definable area" provided by modernity. (Emphasis added)

This of course rang several familiar bells. Despite the fact that the statement about Islam's attitude toward secular space comes from Leithart, it is backed by several Islamic attitudes, most famous of which is the statement that Islam is "dīnun wa duniyā" (lit. religion and world. I.e., encompasses -- and governs -- religious as well as secular affairs.) For an example of how this works, simply take a look at Ayatollah Sistani's webpage. You'll find questions by Iraqi Shiites ranging from proper ways to have sex to whether it is permissible to eat food prepared by non-Muslims (who are dubbed najis "unclean".) Of course this is not restricted to Iraq. Egypt has been increasingly censured ever since the orthodox Islamic establishment gained more control over civil society (again, I refer you to Geneive Abdo's book, No God but God). Saudi Arabia needs no introducion. Even the historically liberal Lebanon has pockets where this type of invasion of the secular space is occuring more and more. For Syria, I refer you to Joshua Landis' excellent paper on Syrian religious education, as well as some of the pieces by Nabil Fayad in An-Naqed.

Remember Cole's comments about medieval Christianity? Well, his comment on "sacralizing secular learning" is suspiciously medieval (both Christian and Muslim). Everyone knows of the clash between "science" and the Church in medieval Europe. The point is that in those times knowledge needed to be "sacralized" in order to be acceptable. Cole's contrast with the Taliban is not persuasive. Even if the Taliban would scorn a secular institution, the idea that the secular institution and the learning it imparts need to be sacralized is still problematic! (Why should civil engineering or biochemistry be "sacralized"?) How different is this from creationism? Most readers are probably unfamiliar with the Islamic counterpart to that. It goes even farther! It's not confined to creationism, it also claims that the Quran includes several answers to modern scientific issues, and that there is no contradiction between what the Quran says and science! Take this statement for instance:

Modern scientific theory today finds itself quite close to the Qur'an. There are at least two reasons behind this observation. The first is the lack of inconsistencies between the Qur'an and observable natural phenomena. Science has not been able to produce theories or experiments that fundamentally contradict the Qur'an. Had our science done so, either our understanding of the Qur'an or of the world would have been to blame: the Qur'an itself is true for all times. The second reason for the remarkable harmony between the Qur'an and science is the presence in the Qur'an itself of very clear and positive encouragement to contemplate and investigate the world around us. As the verses quoted above indicate, Allah has not forbidden man to question, and in fact, it seems He wants us to do so.

This quote by the way is from a USC website! Another college where Muslims are sacralizing their learning! Of course this is all nonsense based on a bad reading of the texts, and a fundamentally erroneous view of their nature. Unfortunately, the premise is widespread because it views the Quran as eternal, thus ahistorical, and ever-contemporary and all-encompassing. That's why I, like Irshad Manji and others, have been raising the necessity of historical-critical scholarship in Quranic studies.

So in the end, it seems to me that the difference between the Taliban and this attitude is quite relative! If in the end the result is a coalescence of the secular and the religious spaces, what indeed is the difference!? Let me take the debate away from the modern era and the more controversial groups to middle ages, with which Cole had a problem. The debate back then was between two approaches to causation: Ibn Rushd's and al-Ghazzali's and the "Incoherence" debate. Al-Ghazzali's Asharite influences, which still dominate modern Salafism -- itself pretty much mainstream Islam these days -- won in the end, as evident from the state of modern Islam. (Although I am against viewing Ibn Rushd with modern secular eyes, as he was operating under religious premises himself.)

The only difference is hypocrisy. Cole has no problem attacking evangelicals and their "influence" in the Bush administration, and how they're running foreign policy based on apocalyptic visions. His criticism would naturally include people like Leithart, who also wants to collapse the barrier between the secular and the religious. The basis of his argument would be that this not only violates the American constitution, but that it destroys American multiculturalism. Yet, ironically, his islamic apologetics are based precisely on American multiculturalism! Why is Islam the exception?

If Cole has a problem with medieval attitudes, he should take a closer look at what he's proclaiming in the name of pluralism. The next step by Cole would be to defend this idiotic piece by one Iftikhar Ahmad (the reference is from Martin Kramer's Sandbox):

Through out the modern history, Muslims have contributed for the Renaissance of Western culture and society. Islamic values are not only compatible with the western values they are almost identical. Islamic ideas helped shape the European West that produced the values cherished by the constitution’s framers. Western culture is infact based on Muslim culture. The aim of education is to give the highest possible standard in order to advance spiritually, emotionally, technologically and economically. The early Muslim knew this and they were instrumental in giving the west much of the scientific knowledge that has once helped it to thrive.