How Christians and Muslims Assess Their Holy Books Differently

Yesterday we reported on Sebastian Faulks retracting remarks criticizing Muhammad and the Koran with an apology which included the following paragraph:

While we Judaeo-Christians can take a lot of verbal rough-and-tumble about our human-written scriptures, I know that to Muslims the Koran is different; it is by definition beyond criticism. And if anything I said or was quoted as saying (not always the same thing) offended any Muslim sensibility, I do apologise – and without reservation.

George argues that Muslims are not necessarily any more oversensitive than Christians:

What I find ironic is that Mr. Faulks honestly believes that Christians have any semblance of a thick skin in response to “verbal rough-and-tumble” over biblical supremacy. This has not been my observations at all. Just because a Muslim Cleric publicly cries out for a “fatwa” does not make it better or worse a reaction than when I go to church and hear the vitriol of the preacher decrying the comments to fire up the congregation, waiting for the more activist members to mail or call death threats in to the offender. Other than the Church and the religion can wash its hands of the “odd wingnut” in the flock, the effect is the same, but more subversive. There are plenty of rational Muslims out there, just as there are Christians. The difference between institutionalized and socialized hatred is subtle.

While there is no disputing that fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims have comparable persecution complexes and over-sensitivities, there is a major difference between Christianity and Islam to which Faulks does correctly allude and it is the major factor which makes me distrust Islam more than Christianity as they are presently constituted.

The difference is that Christianity does have greater tolerance to biblical criticism, scholarship which exposes the history and flaws of the texts which make clear its all too human dimensions.  In the last two centuries, this criticism has powerfully undermined the Bible in the West and helped accelerate the process of secularization as much as any other single factor.  Many a Christian has abandoned a sincere faith through studying the human all too human process by which the allegedly holy books were written and assembled.  And even greater numbers of have moderated their religiosity and loosened their interpretations of the Bible according to hermeneutical frameworks that allow them to read “the word of God” amidst the human contributions such that they can leave the stuff that seems merely cultural or expressive of ancient ignorance or mistakes of text copying, etc.  Of course, to me, the question is why even bother continuing to call it in any way “divinely guided” once you realize its completely human limitations that make it no more indicative of an extra-human source than any other insightful book (assuming the Bible is even genuinely insightful in the main!)

So, within the big tent of Western Christianity many a nominal believer does not believe at all that the Bible should be taken serious in literal terms.  Most scholars and theologians readily admit to the human limitations of the book.  Even some of those I studied with at Grove City College, a hard right wing, conservative Presbyterian, rigidly Calvinist place I think didn’t go so far as to call the Bible infallible in all respects.  Unfortunately, by contrast, at least on the official level there is not such openness in the Muslim faith.  I have little awareness how the average Muslim may think about Koranic correctness but from the top there is no tolerance of admitting any error whatsoever.  In fact they spread the lie that the Koran is so perfect that there have not even been any textual errors from centuries of recopying it.

So, Faulks can speak truly when he says that among Jews and Christians there is an understanding that biblical scholarship introduces a human element which can be criticized without undermining the entire faith (except in the case of the all-or-nothing infalliblist fundamentalists) whereas the bibliolatry in Islam is generally more at the heart of Muslim teaching.  And so, whereas both Christians and Muslims might get equally oversensitive and political about things said about their faiths, he was apologizing for insensitive about what is offensive and not and, essentially, citing a cultural difference.  It was like saying, in my culture it’s not a big deal to do x but I should have remembered that in your culture it is a big deal when one does x.  That’s not to say that my culture is any less prone to offense, just we don’t get offended over x in particular.

Islam is, in general, inherently more recalcitrant to secularization because of the sorts of limits the religion places on rational criticism of the faith or the Koran.  Christianity offered just enough latitude to eventually allow enough knowledge to destroy faith after some hundreds of years.  I worry Islam is more authoritarian at its core and in its practices and more immune to secularization.  But, I should hasten to add that I know quite little about Islam, so I speak most tentatively here and would love illumination from educated Muslims, ex-Muslims, and students of Islam.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • atwitter

    I don’t think you’re entirely correct.

    First of all, there’s a lot interpretation going on in Islam, too. What is more important, I think, is the correlation of lack of education with fundamentalist attitudes, and, statistically, access to education would be worse in, for instance, Afghanistan than developed western countries, thus, there would be more fundamentalism in Afghanistan than among western Muslims who are educated as much as we are. I don’t think that Islam is innately more averse to interpretation than other religions.

    Furthermore, I think it can’t be emphasised enough how much othering and alienating takes place in the media discourse and media reporting about Islam which affects how WE end up thinking about it. Very often statements are made which, if you substituted “Muslim” for “Christian”, would sound terribly offensive and racist even to a completely ignorant person.

    I think a great website that challenges many presumptions western people, like me, have about Islam is The Muslimah Media Watch here:

    When I came across it for the first time, I spent at least five hours going through the archives. It was really an eye-opening experience.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks so much for the link, Sara. My intention is not to “Other” anyone, but to cash out the difference (in this case) that Faulks was alluding to in making a distinction between the latitude people in the West have to question the fundamental authority and perfection of the Bible (even by the religious themselves). There are practices of biblical criticism that we take for granted that, so far as my understanding goes, is not permissible for koranic scholarship. That’s not an attempt to “Other” anyone, but a report of my understanding of a different religion’s views of the relationship between reason and revelation. I am not saying Muslims are “subrational” others or anything so dehumanizing. My point is just that, as far as I understand the tradition (which I admit explicitly is quite open to improvement) is that there is not the same ethos of subordination of revelation to reason. It’s taken reason in the West centuries to claw its way out of religion’s grip because of the brakes that the Christian religion put on reason. It was only through some luck that certain Christians opened doors for reason to really critique religion.

    I don’t think it’s fair without evidence to associate critiques of Islam with race, it’s a red herring and a dangerous tactic for silencing philosophical rejections of Islam as a belief system about theology, politics, sex, etc. It’s categorically not about race to me. To be an Arab or a Persian or an African, etc. is not to be Muslim and to be Muslim is not to be those things either. We have to be able to critique the religion of Islam just as vigorously as we can critique our own native religions. The only reason I don’t criticize Islam more is because I don’t understand it a fraction well enough to critique it in many particulars. But I rake Christianity over the coals from intimate personal familiarity with it. And that has nothing to do with Christians being an alien Other to me.

    And so, I am not coming at this just from media portrayals of Islam, I’m just looking at the evidence I’ve seen (limited as it may be) that theocracy is both historically and textually more fundamental to the Koran as written and to Islam as practiced than it has been in Christianity. That’s not a race claim, it’s a historical and textual one. And, again, as far as I’ve seen and open to correction, Islam (textually and historically) requires more a priori subjection of reason to religion than Christianity does.

    On their own terms and given undue power, both religions can be (and have been) equally theocratic and equally squelched independent thought. The question is whether there are avenues from within for genuine secularization. The history of increasing Western secularism indicates that despite itself Christianity left some doors open for this. It’s unclear to me from what I know of the text and history of Islam whether comparable doors exist for it to self-secularize.

    So, in Islam is reason free to criticize religion and religious texts themselves or is it simply able to reinterpret the supposed religious truth faithfully? Is it actually open to enlightenment from the outside? Those are the questions. I am not claiming that there is no evolving interpretation of Islam or that all Muslims think monolithically (there are a billion of them, such would be impossible). My concern is the bounds on that interpretation. Maybe I have learned wrong about these boundaries (and immediately after posting this, I began trying to arrange an interview with a friend who is a scholar on the subject as a first step towards researching this more adequately.)

    Finally, I would be not only happy but utterly RELIEVED to find evidence of that kind of openness in Islam. I have nothing to gain from thinking Islam impenetrable by secularism.

    Your Thoughts?

    • atwitter

      I’m absolutely not suggesting you’re racist. What I was trying to say is, though, that because of the unfair media portrayals, it’s easy to jump to conclusions too quickly, because the image of Islam we’re used to is the frothing fundamentalist with AK-47 and hand grenades, and not Rokhima, our classmate who likes Celine Dion, or Yasar, our neighbour who tells funny stories about car insurance companies.

      I absolutely don’t mean to silence you with accusations of racism; I just wanted to make a point that we should be more cautious. I also think you are making a valid point.

      (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

      I think that in the end, whether there is a tradition that permits free discussion or not, doesn’t actually matter at all in practice.

      The way we think about the world, and what we think about the world *should* be like is NOT based on our holy text, but rather on the views that are predominant in our social environment. What matters in practice is not what the Bible or Quran or any other holy book says about, let’s say, evolution (or lack thereof), but what your parents taught you, and what your friends believe. Of course, many people find the courage and intellectual honesty to think for themselves, and kudos for them, because, they are awesome. I can’t actually even imagine how hard it must be to be brought up with certain values and opinions, and then realise that most likely much of that is, oops, drivel.
      I think that this is the reason why we often see puzzling discrepancies between the official views of a church and the actual practice of the believers.
      For instance, look at this survey about my country, Poland, which is teeming with rabid Catholics… or is it? (I tried to find an English link, or at least a link with a pie chart, but to no avail *facepalm* – btw, it’s from a far-right newspaper, so there might be some disturbing stuff if you wanted to run it through babelfish or sth =_=):

      What the survey says is that while 90% of the Poles considers themselves Catholic, 45% of the responders doesn’t believe in the existence of hell at all, and 53% of the responders think there are no absolute morals or guidelines that should always rule our behaviour. The large majority also believes there’s nothing wrong with using contraceptives.
      These are all basic tenets of Catholicism, some of them very often underscored by the recent pope who is even more batshit crazy than the last one even more conservative than the last one. I mean, c’mon, they don’t even believe in hell! And it’s not a matter of being uneducated at all. There’re compulsive religion classes in Polish schools (compulsive as in, you have to be at school at the time, and if you’re a non-believer, you can take ethics – which is often not available, because there are very few ethics teachers with suitable qualifications – or go to the library), and most people actually do take them. In my secondary school, only 7 people, including me, out of 32 didn’t attend the religion class, and it was the biggest, most progressive city in Poland, so.

      What matters, I think, is what the prevalent attitudes are in the society, and the attitudes are NOT the result of religion and its official interpretation. What happens is that the official interpretation slowly but steadily starts conforming to those prevalent attitudes.

      There are large differences between the official, intellectual theology, and the stuff people actually believe in practice. I think that the theory that religion never comes first explains this phenomenon best.

      I don’t mean to say that the debate with the “intellectual Islam” – or any other religion – is unimportant; it certainly is. However, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, I’d say that the correlation of the existence of intellectual theological discourse with the degree of permissibility of a more secular views in a society is often overplayed.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Well, I must say, I do think you pwned me here for the most part. Part of the purpose (or result) of my disambiguating faith series has been to discover the ways that faiths give symbols to ideas with different origins than the faiths themselves. It is very much that there are ideas and attitudes and practices that evolve and then people take their rituals and symbols, etc. and interpret those in a way that attempts to claim continuity all along. In this way the symbols and rituals and myths, etc. actually do change and evolve in interpretation and yet since the outward forms stay constant, the tradition feels unified down through multiple generations.

    The one thing I’d really insist on though is not using the analogy to race. I understand with any “Other” group, it helps to do the “switch the names” trick to see the harsh and crude nature of what one is saying. But I think there are challenges to be made to the belief contents of religions themselves and politically attempts to silence that do take the form of equating criticism of religious belief to unjust discrimination or racism. I don’t want the enemies of reason and the proponents of fundamentalism to be encouraged in that tactic.

    And, it’s important to remember that there is a certain value in attacking “the beliefs of Islam” and highlighting the ugliest possible readings. Yes, it’s true Islam is open to interpretation and is not monolithically it’s worst interpretations everywhere. But there’s nothing like having the worst interpretations denounced to remind you when you interpret not to go there. In other words, outside shame and warnings and moral challenges help shape those attitudes that moderate the people in a religion when they interpret their texts. It’s important to keep hammering away at the worst interpretations of “Jihad” so that Muslims have to fall all over themselves to insist those are wrong because that’s what helps them take seriously just how awful and worthy of denunciation they have to see those worst interpretations.