Legalism vs. morality; laws vs. ethics

Raymond Ibrahim takes up the question of why so many  jihadists, for all of their alleged Islamic piety, often are so sexually immoral, to the point of going to strip clubs before their suicide bombing runs.  After a fascinating tour of this phenomenon in Islamic history and the rationalizations of such behavior in Islamic theology, Mr. Ibrahim notes a fundamental difference in the way Muslims and Christians approach morality:

Deceit, rationalizations, and a paradise that forgives the would-be martyr’s every sin — indeed, that satiates his hedonistic urges with 72 voluptuous women (which may only be raisins) — all help demonstrate how Muslims can be observant and simultaneously frequent strip clubs.

Yet there is one final explanation that requires an epistemic shift to appreciate fully: in Islam, legalism trumps morality, resulting in what Westerners may deem irreconcilable behavior among Muslims, that is, “hypocrisy.” As Daniel Pipes observed some three decades ago in his In the Path of God:

[There is] a basic contrast between the Christian and Islamic religions: the stress on ethics versus the stress on laws. Controls on sexual activity directly reflect this difference. The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality. … Muslims, in contrast, depend on “external precautionary safeguards” [e.g., segregation, veiling] to restrain the sexes. … Rather than instill internalized ethical principles, Islam establishes physical boundaries to keep the sexes apart.

In this context, the problem is not Muslims frequenting strip clubs, but misplaced Western projections that assume religious piety is always synonymous with personal morality — a notion especially alien to legalistic Islamists whose entire epistemology begins and ends with the literal words of seventh-century Muhammad and his Koran.

And it is this slavishness that best explains Islamist behavior. For the same blind devotion to the literal mandates of Islam which encourages Islamists to lead lives of deceit also explains why Islamists are callous to human suffering, why they are desensitized to notions of human dignity and the cries of their raped victims, and, yes, why they cheerily forfeit their lives in exchange for a fleshy paradise. In all cases, Muhammad and his Allah said so — and that’s all that matters.

via Pajamas Media » How the Islamist Mindset Rationalizes — and Promotes — ‘Sex Sins’.

I have, however, noted this same dichotomy of legalism vs. morality, laws vs. ethics, in some Christians. Of course, Christianity in its essence is about none of these but about forgiveness for transgressing them. That is, it is about the Gospel of Christ on the Cross who atoned for our iniquities. I wonder, though, if confusion about whether the Law has to do with external controls vs. inner motivations may also relate to confusions about the Gospel. (for example, the problem of anti-nomianism?)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://wipfandstock.com/store/As_Though_It_Were_Actually_True_A_Christian_Apologetics_Primer Matt C.

    I found this part interesting:

    The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality. … Muslims, in contrast, depend on “external precautionary safeguards” [e.g., segregation, veiling] to restrain the sexes. … Rather than instill internalized ethical principles, Islam establishes physical boundaries to keep the sexes apart.

    The article addresses how inadequate external precautionary standards are at “restricting” sexuality (although I’d prefer the term “guiding”). However, it should be plain exactly how unsuccessful the western mode of internalized principles has been. We threw propriety to the winds a long time ago, and it hasn’t exactly worked out for us. Many Christians seem to think an act of will is all we need to resist temptation. You can see this in all the young Christians who intend chastity but then spend copious amounts of time in seclusion with members of the opposite sex for the purpose of having fun and indulging romantic feelings (i.e. modern dating) and then wonder why they can’t quite manage to be chaste no matter how hard they try.

    In reality, I don’t think either mode is practically effective without the other. Even the most elaborate and draconian set of rules doesn’t reach every situation and, by itself, is really only effective when many people following the same rules are watching anyway. Even the truest and clearest of internal principles cannot overcome the fallen nature; we need crutches in order to help us live upright lives even by worldly standards. In terms of ethics and rules, I think the two cultures may have a lot to learn from one another.

  • http://wipfandstock.com/store/As_Though_It_Were_Actually_True_A_Christian_Apologetics_Primer Matt C.

    I found this part interesting:

    The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality. … Muslims, in contrast, depend on “external precautionary safeguards” [e.g., segregation, veiling] to restrain the sexes. … Rather than instill internalized ethical principles, Islam establishes physical boundaries to keep the sexes apart.

    The article addresses how inadequate external precautionary standards are at “restricting” sexuality (although I’d prefer the term “guiding”). However, it should be plain exactly how unsuccessful the western mode of internalized principles has been. We threw propriety to the winds a long time ago, and it hasn’t exactly worked out for us. Many Christians seem to think an act of will is all we need to resist temptation. You can see this in all the young Christians who intend chastity but then spend copious amounts of time in seclusion with members of the opposite sex for the purpose of having fun and indulging romantic feelings (i.e. modern dating) and then wonder why they can’t quite manage to be chaste no matter how hard they try.

    In reality, I don’t think either mode is practically effective without the other. Even the most elaborate and draconian set of rules doesn’t reach every situation and, by itself, is really only effective when many people following the same rules are watching anyway. Even the truest and clearest of internal principles cannot overcome the fallen nature; we need crutches in order to help us live upright lives even by worldly standards. In terms of ethics and rules, I think the two cultures may have a lot to learn from one another.

  • Jonathan

    What mental torture and anguish it must be for a jihadi who fails to complete his mission by martyrdom.

  • Jonathan

    What mental torture and anguish it must be for a jihadi who fails to complete his mission by martyrdom.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    My favorite radio talk show host is Dennis Prager, a man I almost venerate, though I often disagree with him (“We prefer clarity to agreement” is his motto). He is Jewish, and often touches on what I understand to be the basic difference between Jewish and Christian morality–he tells his listeners he doesn’t care what people think or feel, only how they act.

    There’s a certain utilitarian virtue to that view, in terms of civil life and lawmaking, which grants the individual a space for freedom of thought. But in terms of promoting real virtue, it is deeply flawed.

    In fact, of course, it all comes down to Christ in the end. No true virtue, in the theological sense, is possible without God’s grace imputed through Christ.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    My favorite radio talk show host is Dennis Prager, a man I almost venerate, though I often disagree with him (“We prefer clarity to agreement” is his motto). He is Jewish, and often touches on what I understand to be the basic difference between Jewish and Christian morality–he tells his listeners he doesn’t care what people think or feel, only how they act.

    There’s a certain utilitarian virtue to that view, in terms of civil life and lawmaking, which grants the individual a space for freedom of thought. But in terms of promoting real virtue, it is deeply flawed.

    In fact, of course, it all comes down to Christ in the end. No true virtue, in the theological sense, is possible without God’s grace imputed through Christ.

  • Jerry

    Immediately thought of Ray Stevens, The Dooright Family (you can find it on YouTube). Daddy Dooright preaches on the evils of discoteque, where upon Virgil heads for the door, “I’m going to one of those discoteques.”

    You can’t be tempted by something you’ve never heard of.

  • Jerry

    Immediately thought of Ray Stevens, The Dooright Family (you can find it on YouTube). Daddy Dooright preaches on the evils of discoteque, where upon Virgil heads for the door, “I’m going to one of those discoteques.”

    You can’t be tempted by something you’ve never heard of.

  • Karyn

    I have, however, noted this same dichotomy of legalism vs. morality, laws vs. ethics, in some Christians.

    Interesting; me too.

    As long as it’s not contrary to civil law, most Americans refuse to consider that any serious harm is done by sexual activity, premarital sex and cohabitation being the most prominent examples that are rampant even within “Christianity”. Like the Muslims to whom Mr. Ibrahim referred, my experience is too many American Christians have a similar attitude that a paradise that forgives the would-be martyr’s every sin means since they know they have forgiveness and they know they have paradise in heaven, then any harm they cause others by sexual sins is inconsequential.

    . . . callous to human suffering, why they are desensitized to notions of human dignity and the cries of their raped victims, and, yes, why they cheerily forfeit their lives in exchange for a fleshy paradise.

    To me, this description fits the U.S., and even a large part of American “Christianity” as well as it fits any other society.

    The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality. …

    I can only imagine that Mr. Ibrahim is exaggerating to make his point. The sexual “standards” with which Western men and women have been imbued for almost 50 years do not restrict immoral sexual activity. On the contrary, they have significantly and militantly encouraged it.

    American Christians still openly express distaste for some specific behaviors like adultery or homosexual activity but most say little or nothing about the bulk of the fornication in our nation which includes premarital sex and cohabitation. The Church, in general, expresses little concern about fornication, and most American “Christians” show little concern about the serious nature of the harm done to our society as a result of sexual immorality. Maybe it’s a failure to understand the harm sexual immorality has already caused or maybe it’s a refusal to understand and take it to heart? Maybe it’s sheer denial? Maybe most people will not take God’s standards of sexual morality seriously because they’d rather be . . . callous to human suffering, . . . desensitized to notions of human dignity and the cries of their raped victims, and . . .cheerily forfeit their lives in exchange for a fleshy paradise. than have to deal with the rebuke owed to them for the harm they’ve done to others by their own abuses of sex? Whatever the reasons, America’s problems with sexual immorality are by no means characterized by any distinct excesses of legalism. It runs much deeper than that.

  • Karyn

    I have, however, noted this same dichotomy of legalism vs. morality, laws vs. ethics, in some Christians.

    Interesting; me too.

    As long as it’s not contrary to civil law, most Americans refuse to consider that any serious harm is done by sexual activity, premarital sex and cohabitation being the most prominent examples that are rampant even within “Christianity”. Like the Muslims to whom Mr. Ibrahim referred, my experience is too many American Christians have a similar attitude that a paradise that forgives the would-be martyr’s every sin means since they know they have forgiveness and they know they have paradise in heaven, then any harm they cause others by sexual sins is inconsequential.

    . . . callous to human suffering, why they are desensitized to notions of human dignity and the cries of their raped victims, and, yes, why they cheerily forfeit their lives in exchange for a fleshy paradise.

    To me, this description fits the U.S., and even a large part of American “Christianity” as well as it fits any other society.

    The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality. …

    I can only imagine that Mr. Ibrahim is exaggerating to make his point. The sexual “standards” with which Western men and women have been imbued for almost 50 years do not restrict immoral sexual activity. On the contrary, they have significantly and militantly encouraged it.

    American Christians still openly express distaste for some specific behaviors like adultery or homosexual activity but most say little or nothing about the bulk of the fornication in our nation which includes premarital sex and cohabitation. The Church, in general, expresses little concern about fornication, and most American “Christians” show little concern about the serious nature of the harm done to our society as a result of sexual immorality. Maybe it’s a failure to understand the harm sexual immorality has already caused or maybe it’s a refusal to understand and take it to heart? Maybe it’s sheer denial? Maybe most people will not take God’s standards of sexual morality seriously because they’d rather be . . . callous to human suffering, . . . desensitized to notions of human dignity and the cries of their raped victims, and . . .cheerily forfeit their lives in exchange for a fleshy paradise. than have to deal with the rebuke owed to them for the harm they’ve done to others by their own abuses of sex? Whatever the reasons, America’s problems with sexual immorality are by no means characterized by any distinct excesses of legalism. It runs much deeper than that.

  • DonS

    “The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality”

    Obviously, the West, as a whole, ceased restricting sex in this manner quite a while ago. The sentence should better read: “When fragments of the West restrict sex, they do so primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality”.

  • DonS

    “The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality”

    Obviously, the West, as a whole, ceased restricting sex in this manner quite a while ago. The sentence should better read: “When fragments of the West restrict sex, they do so primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality”.

  • DonS

    To the above comment, I would add that, as the West abandons the concept of imbuing people with standards of morality, it is moving more and more toward the Islamic concept of imposing a code of legalism. Thus, we have sexual harassment codes, hate speech codes, etc.

  • DonS

    To the above comment, I would add that, as the West abandons the concept of imbuing people with standards of morality, it is moving more and more toward the Islamic concept of imposing a code of legalism. Thus, we have sexual harassment codes, hate speech codes, etc.

  • Jerry

    DonS’ comment is good; it also partly explains the popularity of Islam in the black community, and the growing acceptance of Sharia law in formerly Christian nations. Islam can be taken as a political system masquerading as a religion.

  • Jerry

    DonS’ comment is good; it also partly explains the popularity of Islam in the black community, and the growing acceptance of Sharia law in formerly Christian nations. Islam can be taken as a political system masquerading as a religion.

  • Karyn

    Re Dr. Veith’s supplementary inquiry as to whether there are confusions about the Gospel. (for example, the problem of anti-nomianism?) I would say, “Yes, indeed.”

  • Karyn

    Re Dr. Veith’s supplementary inquiry as to whether there are confusions about the Gospel. (for example, the problem of anti-nomianism?) I would say, “Yes, indeed.”

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Here’s another, equally fascinating question: Why are so many culture warriors (cultural jihadists, if you will), for all of their alleged “family values” piety, often so sexually immoral, to the point of engaging in same-sex activities, among other things?

    * California State Sen. Roy Ashburn (arrested for drunk driving, caught leaving a gay nightclub)
    * South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (extramarital affair)
    * Sen. John Ensign (extramarital affair)
    * Rep. Vito Fossella (drunk driving, extramarital affair)
    * Florida State Rep. Bob Allen (offered to perform oral sex on an undercover cop)
    * Sen. Larry Craig (soliciting sex from an undercover cop in a bathroom)
    * Sen. David Vitter (patronizing prostitutes)
    * Ted Haggard (patronized male prostitute)
    * Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (extramarital affairs)
    * Rep. Mark Foley (sending illicit emails to teenage Congressional pages)

    Ibrahim seems to think that hypocrisy among Islamic jihadists is strictly a product of their culture, and as such, not a problem in the West. I think that a lot of people just get caught up in the battle, whatever it may be, and justify a lot of things to themselves. The ethics of a particular warrior don’t matter so much as the overall war.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Here’s another, equally fascinating question: Why are so many culture warriors (cultural jihadists, if you will), for all of their alleged “family values” piety, often so sexually immoral, to the point of engaging in same-sex activities, among other things?

    * California State Sen. Roy Ashburn (arrested for drunk driving, caught leaving a gay nightclub)
    * South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (extramarital affair)
    * Sen. John Ensign (extramarital affair)
    * Rep. Vito Fossella (drunk driving, extramarital affair)
    * Florida State Rep. Bob Allen (offered to perform oral sex on an undercover cop)
    * Sen. Larry Craig (soliciting sex from an undercover cop in a bathroom)
    * Sen. David Vitter (patronizing prostitutes)
    * Ted Haggard (patronized male prostitute)
    * Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (extramarital affairs)
    * Rep. Mark Foley (sending illicit emails to teenage Congressional pages)

    Ibrahim seems to think that hypocrisy among Islamic jihadists is strictly a product of their culture, and as such, not a problem in the West. I think that a lot of people just get caught up in the battle, whatever it may be, and justify a lot of things to themselves. The ethics of a particular warrior don’t matter so much as the overall war.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I found Ibrahim’s Islam/West dichotomy lacking in other ways. For instance, one thing he says helps facilitate Muslim hypocrisy is “a paradise that forgives … every sin”. Um … doesn’t the West have that, as well?

    “The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality.” As someone else noted, that seems to have worked out well.

    “Muslims, in contrast, depend on ‘external precautionary safeguards’ [e.g., segregation, veiling] to restrain the sexes.” Ibrahim seems to have missed that social conservatives in the West often argue for the exact same things, such as putting the onus on women to dress modestly, rather than merely asking men to have chaste thoughts.

    Of course, the Bible supports both tacks: men are condemned for thinking lustful thoughts, and women are condemned for dressing immodestly. But Ibrahim’s analysis misses this.

    Finally, I don’t know who Ibrahim thinks he’s criticizing for an “epistemology [that] begins and ends with the literal words of”, or a “blind devotion to the literal mandates of” religious writings. But you’d think that he realized that described Christians as well.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I found Ibrahim’s Islam/West dichotomy lacking in other ways. For instance, one thing he says helps facilitate Muslim hypocrisy is “a paradise that forgives … every sin”. Um … doesn’t the West have that, as well?

    “The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality.” As someone else noted, that seems to have worked out well.

    “Muslims, in contrast, depend on ‘external precautionary safeguards’ [e.g., segregation, veiling] to restrain the sexes.” Ibrahim seems to have missed that social conservatives in the West often argue for the exact same things, such as putting the onus on women to dress modestly, rather than merely asking men to have chaste thoughts.

    Of course, the Bible supports both tacks: men are condemned for thinking lustful thoughts, and women are condemned for dressing immodestly. But Ibrahim’s analysis misses this.

    Finally, I don’t know who Ibrahim thinks he’s criticizing for an “epistemology [that] begins and ends with the literal words of”, or a “blind devotion to the literal mandates of” religious writings. But you’d think that he realized that described Christians as well.

  • Karyn

    Todd,

    Just a quick note that I think you are of course correct when you observe that hypocrisy and rationalization are not unique to Islamic jihadists, and you’ve presented some interesting observations in your #11, as well. To your #10, I would only add that since it was certainly possible for those invovled in that culture war of which you speak, to both engage in that war and, at the same time, avoid the sexually immoral behavior you’ve highlighted, I do think it would be a mistake for anyone to contend for what would be a false dichotomy between those two actions and then try to use that as justification for the behavior you’ve noted by the culture warriors.

  • Karyn

    Todd,

    Just a quick note that I think you are of course correct when you observe that hypocrisy and rationalization are not unique to Islamic jihadists, and you’ve presented some interesting observations in your #11, as well. To your #10, I would only add that since it was certainly possible for those invovled in that culture war of which you speak, to both engage in that war and, at the same time, avoid the sexually immoral behavior you’ve highlighted, I do think it would be a mistake for anyone to contend for what would be a false dichotomy between those two actions and then try to use that as justification for the behavior you’ve noted by the culture warriors.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 10: I’m having a lot of trouble following your point. What is your definition of a “culture warrior (culture jihadist if you will)”? None of the people you named seem even remotely to meet any reasonable definition of such a term.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 10: I’m having a lot of trouble following your point. What is your definition of a “culture warrior (culture jihadist if you will)”? None of the people you named seem even remotely to meet any reasonable definition of such a term.


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