December 10, 2003


...which is the answer the playful question posed below. In a comment, Brian Ulrich said he'd take on the third to last graph of the essay, Does Islam Need a Luther or a Pope? by Edward Feser that ran on Tech Cenral Station, and I look forward to his remarks; I also hope Zack of Procrastination chimes in. I have a few more thoughts on the subject.

First, I'm rather astonished at the tone -- Feser seems equally willing to refight the Reformation as to relaunch the Crusades. Given what he says about the Qur'an -- "the Koran came to him straight from God, or so he tells us, and the reader must simply obey it." -- one wonders whether his Islamic Pope would be Muslim or Catholic. Similarly, his attacks on Protestantism are rather intemperate -- yes, the monarch in England may be the head of the Anglican Church as well as the state, but I think we'd all agree that the English political tradition was far more liberal than, say, that which pertained on the Italian penninsula, which began the Age of Enlightenment as warring city states, went through a brutal war of national unification in the 19th Century and was the progenitor of modern fascism in the 20th. With all due respect, I'd rather live under the tyranny of the Anglican state than the rule of law of Mussolini. Similarly, one can argue that the French Revolution represented a great birth of liberty (I tend toward Burke's view of it), but the Catholic Church was part of the ancien regime against which the fury of the revolution was directed. It wasn't until Napoleon declared himself emporer--the argument is whether he was the first fascist or the last Caesar--that the Church's fortunes improved. Again, give me the tyranny of the Anglican monarchy.

In opening his essay, Feser writes,

It has become the conventional wisdom in the two years since 9/11 that the trouble with Islam is that, unlike Christianity, it never had a Protestant Reformation. The idea seems to be this: Christianity was (so it is held) rigid and authoritarian before Luther and company came along and paved the way for liberal democracy, science, and all things modern and good; Islam's problem is that it remains stuck in its "Medieval phase," still awaiting Reformers of its own.

I'm not sure from where he's drawing this conventional wisdom -- certainly not from the pronouncements of any political leader I can think of, nor from the (albeit too few) political journals I fairly regularly read -- The New Republic, The National Review, The Weekly Standard, or The Nation. Anyone wih more than a passing familiarity with Islamic history and culture is aware that Islam has had any number of schisms, sects, schools of thought, reform movements and reactionaries over the centuries. It's certainly possible to make superficial comparisons to Christianity -- the Sunni-Shi'ite split following the Latin Catholic/Byzantine Orthodox split; Sufism and the Cathars; ibn Wahhab and Calvin or Luther, but these similarities are only superficial. Ibn Wahhab, for example, could just as easily be compared to the Iconoclasts, or that rigid Catholic reformer Savonarola. But really, beyond a few bloggers who like historical resemblances and discussions of this sort, is anyone seriously proposing that what the Muslim world needs is its own Luther tacking 95 theses (or perhaps fatwas) on the doors of the Great Mosque in Mecca? It seems to me that the heart of Feser's essay is a defense of the Church against historical misconceptions.

I don't have a problem with such efforts. To give one example, see my post (and the one above it) on Giordano Bruno and the recent book The Pope and the Heretic. In the book, Michael White argues, more or less, that Bruno was accused of heresy because he accepted the Copernican Solar System and was an avatar of reason in a dark age. I have a passing acquaintance with some of Bruno's works, and I can't help but conclude that he believed a lot of things that turned out to be right for the wrong reasons. (He also believed a lot of right things for the right reasons, and a lot of worng things for the wrong reasons. It's worth noting though that he was no dummy, by and large could follow the arguments of Copernicus, was in touch with Johannes Kepler and understood his astronomical work, and so on.) Bruno was, like much of the legitimate Catholic intelligentsia, under the spell of the Corpus Hermiticum; Bruno appropriated the ideas of Copernicus because heliocentrism fit his reading of the Hermetica. (It wasn't until a good Protestant by the name of Isaac Casaubon critiqued a work of Catholic orthodoxy -- one that not only, like Bruno, accepted the Hermetica's authenticity, but also gave it a revered place in Catholic doctrine -- that that particular bit of nonsense was exposed.) But to get to the point: Bruno held some views that were clearly heretical. White's contention that the Catholic Church burned him at the stake because he was an avatar of the scientific revolution or the age of reason is inaccurate, to say the least. But that being said, there was still that business about burning him at the stake. I can't imagine that Bruno felt, as the flames of the pyre began licking his ankles, any particular gratitude for the Catholic rule of law.

Bruno was, to use Feser's phrasing, his own authority. He had the misfortune to live in a time (1548-1600) when the Catholic authorities had the power of life or death over members of its "flock" who exercised such independence. I chose Bruno as an example largely because I don't find his writings particularly compelling (Paracelsus, who died seven years before Bruno was born, seems far more "modern"). Whether I care for Bruno's ideas or not (and note well, after flirting for a brief time with the Protestants, Bruno rejected their doctrinces out of hand), I can concede that his mind was own -- his property, to do with as he pleased. I might disagree with much, with everything, that he said and wrote and published, but I can also defend to the death his right to do so. Feser would like to concede the operations of conscience, intellect and imagination to a central authority -- to the Catholic Church. In the Islamic context, there is one group that would like to have the same power of life and death over those who do not toe the line of what they perceive to be orthodoxy -- the Islamists.

I might add something on the whole issue of the separation of Church and State -- I find it incredible that Feser argues that this was something respected by the Catholic Church prior to, or even after, the Reformation (in the Treaty of Augsburg, for example, the Church agreed that the religion of the prince or king or emporer of a state would be the religion of the masses, and those who didn't like it could lump it), but I'll leave that aside for now...

Posted by Ideofact at December 10, 2003 11:00 PM

To be honest, I've been a bit intimidated by this debate, because to answer it in the context that Feser lays out I would need to have the kind of historical understanding of both Islam and Christianity, as well as a rock solid timeline of Eureopean history, which I don't. But you do :) Which is why I've been more interested in what you have to say.

I think the only thing I have to say in response to Feser is, you look to your religion and I'll look to mine. I think the comparisons and analogies are valid when you and Dan discuss them, but Feser's goal seems to be polemic defense of Christianity and using Islam as foil. I am just not able to take it seriously as a legitimate argument (though the responses his essay spurred form you and others have been very legitimate, and immensely educational).

Posted by: Aziz at December 11, 2003 02:12 PM


Considering that my posts aren't worth all that much than you pay for them, thanks for the kind words.

A college-era girlfriend of mine used to read me passages from a book called the Towers of Trebizon, about a couple of women accompanied by an Anglican minister on a tour of Turkey. I remember the book was very funny, but the only passage that has stuck in my mind over the years is one in which the minister complains about how useless the English-Turkish phrasebook is. All one can do with it is order breakfast, or ask for clean towels in the hotel; it doesn't have anything useful like how to say "Christianity is better than Islam" in Turkish.

I think Feser's piece is a bit like that Anglican minister, although it's not so much Christianity, but rather Catholicism, that he's extolling.

Posted by: Bill at December 11, 2003 11:17 PM

Feser column has very little to do with Islam. He is really trying to attack protestantism. The line of argument goes: Islam is bad. Becuase it is not enough like Catholicism. Implying it is like protestantism. Protestantism is bad.

It reminds me of a post Sept. 11 National Review article that talked about the inherently socialist tendencies in Islam.

(TCS is mostly discredited now isn't it?)

Posted by: Ikram at December 12, 2003 02:58 PM