Our blogger roundtable on God Is Not One continues today with a response – and several questions for author Stephen Prothero – from Muslim blogger Hussein Rashid. Prothero responds to Rashid’s questions following the post below.
Stephen Prothero’s new book, God is not One, expands on the themes of earlier book Religious Literacy. In particular, as the title suggests, he attacks the notion that all religions are one as being “a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue” (pg. 2-3). It is a view for which I have a great deal of sympathy. The idea that religions do not, in their essence, mean anything is fairly troubling. It is not a way to end conflict, but, as Prothero argues, a way to avoid real, serious discussion. I am not arguing from a perspective that we need to determine the validity of religious traditions, which is a theological discussion. Rather, I am trying to work with Prothero’s religious studies framework, where we can say that these traditions are all equally valid without saying they are the same.
One of the primary concerns with the idea that all religions are one is that the sense of community that religion engenders is lost. While one may argue that religion encourages violence because of tribalism, the fact is that humans are tribalistic and we will always find ways to divide “us” and “them.” In fact, Prothero argues that “what we need…is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate” (pg. 4). This sense of community is in part defined by ritual, and that ritual is defined in part by what the relationship of the believer to God is. This relationship is informed by the struggle to understand the nature of the Divine. To ignore the ritual discipline that has evolved in various religious risks creating what Jon Levenson terms “salad bowl religion.” This mix-n-match approach maybe beneficial to individual believers on their spiritual quest, but does not do justice to the struggle that religions represent in creating a systematic understanding of God.
Prothero moves from outlining his basic argument to actually explaining the basic beliefs of several religious traditions and showing how they are different. While the book actually does serve as a good survey book of various religious traditions, I want to focus on his Islam chapter. One of the remarkable things about the chapter is that it is focused on detail, but manages to maintain the tension of belief that many Muslims have. Like all religious traditions, Islam is full of contradictions and people can hold these beliefs in their head and hearts in a way that makes sense to them. Because the chapter is so strong, I want to highlight some of the outstanding points he makes, and point out some minor criticisms.
He states that many Muslims attempted to argue that the 9/11 hijackers were not Muslim. The problem he points out is that there is something in the tradition that would allow Bin Ladenists to claim that they were Muslim, and there is. As Muslims, we must constantly contend with that part of the tradition, rather than deny it. And we Muslims are not unique in this regards. Like Christians we cannot “absolve [ourselves] of any responsibility for reckoning with how [our] religion contributed to these horrors” (pg. 10).
One of the more interesting elements that Prothero highlights in his reading of the Qur’an is the focus on the hereafter (pg. 42). It is an interesting lens through which to view the religion. I am not clear as to why Muslims are singled out for focusing on Heaven as opposed to Christians, but his use of Qur’anic text is very well done. There are, traditionally, two levels of responsibility a Muslim should uphold: responsibility to God and responsibility to humans. Both of these are elements that contribute to opening the gates of Heaven.
Prothero focuses on the so-called Five Pillars of Islam as the responsibility to God. While I do recognize that the chapter is a survey one, it is unfortunate that he chooses a simplistic understanding of Islam. The “Five Pillars” are not a universal understanding, with many Muslims groups having more than five. To his credit, he does talk about the tension between orthopraxy and orthodoxy (pg. 32), and that belief is more than the pillars. He also talks to believers who want to move beyond such a definition (pg. 57).
One of the highlights is that he not only contextualizes verses of the Qur’an that seem to speak against interfaith unity, but also speaks to believers (pg. 48). In my mind, especially based on the premise of the book, this section is underserved and I think could have contributed greatly to his thesis. For the Muslim tradition, this is especially true as it sees itself in direct communication with Jewish and Christian traditions.
His reading of the Sunni/Shi’ah divide reverts back to a majoritarian reading of history. For example, he states that the Shi’ah were a minority after the death of Muhammad (pg. 51). Most modern scholarship argues that the Shi’ah were the dominant group in the early period, and later were outnumbered as the Sunni community formed. He has odd spelling of Isma’ili Shi’ah community, where he uses “Isma’ili” (pg. 51). I understand he is not using diacritics, but it’s usually the Arabic “Isma’ili” or the medieval “Ishmaeli.” He also says the Isma’ilis are the only Shi’ah group to have a present, living Imam, but does not name him. The Imam being the Aga Khan.
He does get the differences in shari’ah and authority right, which is no small feat. More importantly, he recognizes that Bin Laden is not a religious scholar and has no authority to issue the religious opinions that he does.
There are several other interesting sections, like the issues of feminism (pg. 55), that could be longer, but I also recognize it is outside the scope of his work. The section on Progressive Muslims in the US feels a bit dated. Although the book by the name is still relevant, any sort of movement with that name imploded long ago.
As I said, any criticisms I have are minor compared to the overall strength of the chapter. The book, overall, makes an important point. Taking religion seriously does not mean avoiding talking about them; it means talking about them in a serious way, including their differences and the places where they do not fit together. It is OK to disagree, but wallowing in ignorance does not make us any better. Prothero writes “the world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law. These differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people” (pg. 3). I agree with the first sentence unconditionally. However, the second part is more difficult for me to accept because in the Muslim tradition there are many people who are mystically inclined (cf. pg. 61). In addition, many of the people who say all religions are one consider themselves mystically inclined. How then do we connect the idea that religions are separate, with the fact that mystics in almost all traditions argue that they are not? How does this connect to the idea that God is not one? Arguably, for the monotheists, God is one, it is the religions that are many.
Stephen Prothero responds:
As anyone who reads my work will notice, I am a historian rather than a theologian. So I don’t weigh in myself on the mathematics of divinity (one? none? three? more?). Regarding mysticism in Islam, I know that the Sufi tradition is important to many Muslims. In fact, I discuss in the book an exchange I had with a Sufi shopkeeper in Jerusalem. Still, I maintain that the claim, common among mystics, that both the divine and the religions are one, is an elite phenomenon worldwide. Most ordinary practitioners of Islam and the other religions I cover in the book (with the possible exception of Hinduism) see what most Religious Studies scholars are coming to see, which is religious difference. And very few Muslims would say that practices such as the hajj or almsgiving are inessential elements in Islam–a move that is necessary for those who want to say that, in essence, all religions are one.
Read more reviews of God Is Not One — and Prothero’s responses – at the Take & Read Book Club Blog here.