SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) This is the 11th in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment isSajjad Rizvi, a professor of Arab and Islamic studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Mulla Sadra and the Later Islamic Philosophical Tradition.”
Gary Gutting: How do you see Islam in relation to the other major Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism? Should we think of them as (for example) rivals, or as complementary developments of monotheism, or as different cultural expressions of an essentially similar religious experience?
‘Christianity and Islam share the paradox of being religions that claim to be universal, while retaining particular dogmas and practices that are exclusive to them.’
Sajjad Rizvi: The very notion of Abrahamic religions is arguably Islamic. The Quran presents Abraham as an adherent of Islam, but here “Islam” means the primordial faith that connects humanity to one God and leads in turn to Judaism, Christianity and then historical Islam as proclaimed by Muhammad. There are some who view Islam as a faith that supersedes the two earlier monotheistic religions. But I think it’s more useful to understand Islam as a religion that is self-conscious about its relationship to Judaism and Christianity and explicitly takes account of their scriptures and traditions. Almost all the prophets of the Quran will be familiar to those who know the Bible, and the Quran explicitly refers to parables, ideas and stories from the Bible.
The common roots — and inheritances — of the three faiths make it useful for us to think seriously in terms of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic civilization and heritage that we all share. The development of philosophy in Islam also shows a common tradition of rationality. Anyone with a basic understanding of the categories of Aristotle’s thought employed by Christian and Jewish thinkers would find many of the arguments of Islamic philosophers and theologians familiar. The great Islamic philosopher Avicenna (10th-11th century) developed a metaphysical notion of God that had a tremendous impact on the Latin west: the idea that God is the necessary being required to explain the existence of every contingent being.
G.G.: But even given these deep similarities, doesn’t Islam claim that the other two faiths are, if not entirely false, still not the full truth that Islam is?
S.R.: Ultimately, the Islamic reflection on the other two faiths considers them to be earlier versions and revelations of the same truth even if the long history from their sacral origins might have diluted their understanding. The Quran itself engages in a polemic with some of those communities often precisely because of the exclusive claims that they made about salvation. The Quran tends to insist upon God’s final decision (to which we, of course, are not privy) against the presumptions of theologians. The fundamental distinctions in the scripture are between monotheistic believers, imperfect monotheists and others: Jewish and Christian communities were considered often to be in the second category. Some theologians would consider them to be paler reflections of their original revelation — and some say that their scriptures have been corrupted. But we should not lose sight of how the Islamic tradition itself often refers back to the earlier Jewish and Christian scriptures and prophets to make sense of the mission of Muhammad.
G.G.: What about the fundamental question of salvation — do you go to heaven or go to hell? Does Islam say — as Christianity often has — that you can’t be saved if you don’t accept it? Or can, for example, Christians be saved?
S.R.: It depends on whom one reads. There’s a whole range of opinions. The early scriptural traditions (especially in the Quran itself) are quite clear that success in the afterlife — everlasting life in paradise in the presence of God — is not exclusive to those who define themselves as Muslims in the historical sense. Belief in God and the afterlife and performing good deeds are the only conditions of success. Later theological traditions have complicated matters, but even then a tradition developed of considering punishment in hellfire to be not eternal, so that ultimately everyone will be embraced by God’s mercy.
G.G: Christianity and Islam are both religions that originated in specific cultural contexts but have developed into world religions, practiced by people in a wide variety of cultures. How would you compare or contrast their development in this regard?
S.R.: Christianity and Islam share the paradox of being religions that claim to be universal, while retaining particular dogmas and practices that are exclusive to them. There were times when pursuit of world empire led both religions to more universal claims. Their trajectories seem similar — a small, persecuted faith that acquired an imperial form and expression that led to its dominance across the world. Here both used orthodoxy to bolster the authority of the empire, and defined heterodoxy to deal with political dissent. One of the main differences that has always struck me concerns how orthodoxy was shaped and implemented. On the whole the Muslim world did not have the same mechanisms of central control — councils, creeds and inquisitions — to enforce matters. They sometimes tried to set up such mechanisms, but always failed. When people raise the problem of a crisis of authority in the Muslim world, they forget that this is not just a situation that arose in modernity. What is interesting, however, is that each of the two faiths has significant internal divisions on matters of political theology.
G.G.: What about the division we hear so much about in the news, between Shias and Sunnis. Could you say a bit about that?
S.R.: Shia Islam is a religious tradition in which it is precisely the presence of the divine through the Imam — the successor to Muhammad in his bloodline — that provides not only the foundations for authority and sovereignty in human communities of belief, but also the path to salvation. The everlasting and indeed ever-revealing countenance of the divine mentioned in the Quran (28:88, for example) is glossed in the tradition as the person of the Imam. The Imam is not the defender of the Law; he is the Law — he is not the exegete of scripture, he is revelation itself. Through the person of the Imam, the transcendent divine, the origin and the true King, is manifest; and believers follow the path to salvation through their devotion and obedience to the Imam. In fact, from early on, Islam seems to have held that believers’ afterlife depends on their allegiance to their community. In this sense, Shia is a normative political theology, concerned with the relation of political authority and salvation. The comparison with Christ Pantocrator and the person of the emperor in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is rather striking.
G.G.: How does this compare with the Sunni traditions?
S.R.: In contrast to the Sunni, the Shia traditions in Islam have a more absolute notion of the political-theological significance of both sacred history and the beliefs that one holds and the rituals that one practices. Shia political theology speaks of a messianic 12th Imam who will come as a redeemer and avenger in the last days, though this theme is routinized and deferred. Sunni traditions tend to be more pragmatic about politics, even though there is a rather atavistic nostalgia about the caliphate as a paradigmatic institution of early Islam, a nostalgia for a golden age that never was. It has always been the normativity of the community and its consensus that is binding which lead to a greater stress on conformity of practice but also leaves space for condemnation of views outside of the consensus as heresy.
But what is essential to remember is that each theological strand and community within Islam claims the true and proper interpretation and practice of the faith for themselves. Therefore, discussing the Shia merely as heretics or those on the margins or outside the “mainstream” community misses the simple point that they consider themselves to be bearers of the original message and the real community of believers who define Islam for themselves and for others.
G.G.: Many people are puzzled at the violent conflicts between Shias and Sunnis. They think that Europe has pretty much gotten past this stage since the Enlightenment, and they wonder why the same thing hasn’t happened in Muslim countries.
S.R.: I think we forget that sectarian violence is often forged in the crucible of political conflicts and uncertainty. While there are theological accounts that back the discourses of condemnation in the modern world, the impetus often comes from the scramble for political and economic resources. The basic stability of Europe in opposition to what is happening in Syria and Iraq is the differentiating factor — and even then in times of crisis, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, sectarian entrepreneurs could be relied upon to manipulate emotions for political gain. There is, of course, the sense that religious feelings even within faiths are strongly held – and this is clear even in Europe and North America. But if one has the rule of law and political stability, that negativity to the other may manifest itself in hate speech but rarely in violence.
Read previous contributions to this series.
G.G.: You’ve presented what many of our readers may see as a quite moderate and “enlightened” version of Islam. But aren’t you ignoring fundamentalist versions of the religion that today are very powerful and directly opposed to liberal values? I’m thinking, for example, of their treatment of women, their demand for Islamic states, and their use of violence to achieve religious goals. Do you think there is a need for a reformed Islam that will decisively reject such fundamentalist views?
S.R.: In many ways we live in an age of fundamentalisms — and this is true not just of religious communities. That, coupled with the weakness of traditional scholarly institutions in many Muslim communities, has led to uncertainty about who speaks for the faith and whether anyone can speak definitively for the faith. I have a problem with applying to Islam the standard European account of progress as a process in which conflict with secular thought leads to reform, intellectual enlightenment, and finally the redefinition of faith in terms of beliefs divorced from any communal expression.
What I would argue for is not necessarily reform — I have serious reservations about most reformist agendas as well as forms of “neo-traditionalism”— but rather for a more open debate about the simple acts of reading texts in multiple ways. We need to understand how we might read traditional texts in ways that make sense of our faith for the contexts in which we now live. This is not radical reform, but it is an attempt to keep the dialogue within traditions alive and dynamic across space and time. It is a particular strength of Islam that its intellectual traditions of philosophical theology and spirituality emphasize such dialogue.
G.G.: How do you, as a Muslim, respond to the atheistic claim that, in our age of science, there’s no rational basis for accepting theism?
S.R.: I reject the atheistic claim, since I don’t believe in a God of gaps and I don’t think Islamic intellectual traditions pit science against religion. In those traditions, arguments for the existence of God were not based on scientific observations, but rather on the simple intuition that we cannot reduce everything that we can say about ourselves and about our world to the physical. Atheists may not find arguments for the existence of God compelling, but the arguments at least allow believers to fit their faith in God into a rationally coherent framework. This is why reflection on existence to provide a rational case for believing in God has been a critical element of most Muslim theological traditions.
Alongside those strong traditions of rationality, there have also been fideistic tendencies as well as more experiential responses. What are we to make of the cultural artifacts of our religious civilizations, of the art, poetry, music and expressions of the self, rooted in an enchantment with some ultimate reality that remains intangible and unscientific? The argument from contingency mentioned above is still one that I think gives a rational account that is coherent. But I also recognize that we are not all rational agents who approach our reality in a purely logical way at all times.