Islamic Exceptionalism

Islamic Exceptionalism August 30, 2016

Ever since visiting Turkey I have been fascinated by the interaction between Islam and the West. Turkey is notable if only for Mustafa Kemel Ataturk’s effort to remove Islam’s political aspects and create a secular society. Comparisons between Christianity and Islam are also illustrative for making plausible the notion — foreign to many serious Christians in the U.S. — that secularization owes its very existence to Christianity. The Christian religion is not against the secular but actually allowed the West to conceive of a society that is temporal or secular (of this age) in its aspirations while the community of faith is eternal or sacred in outlook because believers await the end of this age. If you don’t distinguish the sacred from the secular, you immanentize the eschaton, or try to bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth — which is utopian unless Jesus is the one bring heaven to earth (or do Christians go up at the resurrection?).

Shadi Hamad in his new book, Islamic Exceptionalism, is another observer who notices the basic differences between Christianity and Islam when it comes to politics western-style:

In some ways, then, what matters more than the life of Jesus is how his successors interpreted and actualized his legacy. In the first centuries of this new Christian faith, there was a conspicuous lack of any positive vision of the state from thinkers and theologians.

There is more agreement, at least among Muslims, about Mohamed’s life, in part because his companions and followers were intent on assembling a corpus of his sayings, known as hadith. . . . In understanding the development of sharia, it also helped that there was no interruption between the founding of Mohamed’s state in Medina, the early caliphate of the four righteously guided companions, then the Umayyad caliphate, followed by the Abbasid caliphate. . . . In this respect, there is for Sunnis at least, a continuous lineage of widely accepted and legitimate Islamic political order up until the Ottoman caliphate’s abolition in 1924.

That the Christian tradition seems ambivalent about law, governance, and power is no accident. Islam and Christianity are, after all, meant to do different things. Law, at least in part, is about exposing and punishing sin. Yet, when Jesus died on the cross, he, in effect, released man from the burden of sin and, therefore, from the burdens of the law. With the coming of Christ, salvation is achieved through faith in Jesus Christ rather than through observance of the law. . . .

In short, it’s not so much that Christianity has little to say about the law; it’s that this ambivalence, or even opposition, to law was a feature of Christian theology during its early development. In later centuries, Christianity — particularly the Catholic Church — no doubt played a powerful role in public life, but this did not mean there was any real equivalent to Islamic law. . . . This had important implications: “Christian theology, especially in the medieval period, primarily divides ecclesial law from civil law into distinct spheres of society. Ecclesial laws govern the church and civil laws govern the public.

This difference between Christian and Muslim societies about law and politics is not meant to suggest that Christianity is superior to Islam. And Hamad’s point about exceptionalism is not to imply that Islam is superior to Christianity. Instead, it is to underscore that each religion has a different understanding of public life depending on its capacity to distinguish the sacred from the secular. (46-48)

All of which is to say that when Christians oppose secularization or secular society, they are doing something that comes close to being anti-Christian.


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