Was reading about theology when I should be updating some technical specifications for the IT project I’m working on when I came across some intriguing observations about Christian faith and its tensions with popular practice that I think could be fruitfully applied to Islam.
Try substituting "Sufism" for "folk religion" in the quotes and you’ll get a sense of how concerns the excesses of "popular" religion are both natural and legitimate yet simutaneously prone to great exaggerration.
The observation that "The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error" sums up my view of Islamic orthodoxy and religious authority in some important respects. There are and always will be "churches" where Islam’s true teachings are taught, but within all institutions run by human beings error and truth inevitably coexist to some degree (yes, my Sufi friends about to blurt out in outrage "Not in my tariqah!", even with the reality of wilaya within the Ummah).
Perhaps most importantly, this is not a problem that needs to be stamped out. Its presence in the world is as inevitable as death and taxes, and negotiating these tensions is an integral part of a Muslim’s spiritual life.
I found the final point about truth never disappearing intriguingly similiar to the famous hadith promising that the Ummah will never agreeing on error (on which Austrolabe has an interesting post).
Sadly, this inspiring and comforting hadith most often seems to be invoked to promote a mechanical and surprisingly "democratic" conception of religious truth as being basically poll-driven. For example, an article on "Following the Majority" on one Islamic website concludes:
Having quoted no less than SEVEN Hadiths, from authentic sources, two things become clear:
1. The Muslims will divide into 73 Groups
2. The largest group will be the right group.
Now, I see a bevy of problems in this reasoning, but I’ll just note one that’s perhaps less obvious: Is there not a conflict between the notion of the wisdom of the majority and all the dire millenial warnings about the Last Days that promise a time when piety and true scholarship will be rare, when the Quran will disappear from the Earth, and so on and so forth. If we are to take these ahadith literally, as the the-majority-is-always-right Muslims would certainly insist, how do we square the expectation of rampant impiety and ignorance with the principle that numerical majority will be always correct on all matters of faith?
Needless to say, like many reform-minded Muslims–I wouldn’t presume to flatter myself with the label "reformer"–I do not see this tradition as automatically validating the prevailing status quo among scholars (without even getting into whether we can establish that with certainty; ijma is not a simple matter).
Instead, I see the promise as a heartening assurance that, no matter how bad things get, truth will always remain with us. The correct understanding may not be the majority view, but it’ll be out there for those seeking it. The Truth’s out there, Scully.
Compromise with folk religion
Especially in the worship of the Church, the many Protestants viewed the Roman Catholic Mass as an amalgam of superstitious inventions more reminiscent of a pagan mystery rite rather than the simple discipline taught by the apostles and practiced by the early church. Protestants tend to think of many of the Catholic holy days, and most of the rituals, as accommodations to the popular tastes of unconverted people through the centuries, incompatible with biblical faith. Natural tastes for pomp and ceremony, and the sort of natural belief in mana and fetishism that seem common in unrevealed religions, and the natural man’s wish to have sacred places to pray in, and sacred objects that enable mortals to touch the divine, tempted people away from the truth of the absolute sovereignty, holiness, and otherness of God. The Church was failing at its teaching mission and made too easy accommodations to practices that folk religion could accept in this erroneous fashion.
Descent into true apostasy
Although Lutherans and Calvinists hold that the Ecumenical Councils of the early and medieval church are true expressions of the Christian faith, many assert that the councils are at times inconsistent with one another, and err on particular points. The true Church, they argue, will be mixed with alien influences and false beliefs, which is necessary in order for these impurities ultimately to be overcome and the truth to be vindicated. But in Rome’s case, in the arbitrary authority presumed by the bishops, and the Catholic doctrines of infallibility, the final result was a dark epitome of falsehood, an ideal model of rebellion against God.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (Calvinist), states:
The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will. (25:5)
Therefore, although these groups believe that errors can and have come into the church, they deny that there has ever been a time when the truth was entirely lost.