To the Editor:
Alain Besançon’s fascinating article on the Christian understanding of Islam would benefit from a consideration of the role of Judaism [“What Kind of Religion Is Islam?,” May]. The reason for this is quite simple: much as Christianity sees itself as superseding Judaism, Islam sees itself as superseding both Judaism and Christianity. For Judaism, such supersessionary ideas do not present a challenge; Judaism was the first revealed religion and rejects any claim that a subsequent revelation, whether Christian or Muslim, renders it obsolete.
For Christians, however, the situation could not be more different. Since Christianity is explicitly based on the claim of having superseded Judaism, it cannot reject the idea of supersessionism, but it also cannot accept it as an absolute principle, since then it would either have to deny the legitimacy of Islam at any level or acknowledge that Islam has indeed superseded Christianity. The various Christian approaches to understanding Islam mentioned by Mr. Besançon flow directly from this dilemma.
Supersessionism poses a problem for Islam as well. At root, the concept requires a belief that God either can and does change His mind or that He might double-cross followers who adhere to one revelation by providing a new one. Christianity papers over this problem by making Jesus the son of God and claiming that Jewish Scripture foretells his coming. For Muslims, the problem is compounded. As the third revealed religion, Islam must claim that God has changed His mind twice, but that He will not do so again.
Early Muslim theologians must have been aware of this problem, which is why they present Islam as the first, and therefore only, authentic revelation, necessarily outside history and unalterable in any way. Might Muslim hostility to Western modernity be a direct result of the perception that this new way of life—that is, secular modernity—presents itself as just such a supersessionary revelation?
To the Editor:
Alain Besançon raises precisely the question that Christian theologians need to ask: how does Islam fit into our account of redemptive history? Can we find a place for a religion that has persisted and threatened Christianity for well over a millennium? Many of his answers are important and helpful.
At one point, however, Mr. Besançon criticizes Islam precisely where it should be commended, by charging that it pushes religious duty beyond the “domain” of religious life according to the biblical tradition. In his account, Christianity and Judaism teach by contrast that “man is responsible for conducting his affairs within the framework of a universe—natural, social, political—that operates by internally consistent rules. The performance of one’s religious and moral duties is thus confined to a rationally definable area.”
That is not, I believe, what Christianity teaches at all. Indeed, it is difficult to see how such a statement could be made about religions devoted to a written revelation that gives instruction on everything from property management to prohibited degrees of consanguinity, from civil punishments to liturgy, from the nurture of children to the treatment of the dead. The Bible knows nothing of confined “secular” and “religious” areas of life.
And that is just where Christians especially can learn from Islam. There is no secular space, and religious duties must indeed be “pushed beyond” the “rationally definable area” whose boundaries are set by secular modernity.
New St. Andrews College
To the Editor:
I hope it will not detract from my appreciation of Alain Besançon’s extraordinarily interesting essay if I observe that in certain respects his discussion does not quite reflect the subtlety of various Islamic and Christian texts.
Addressing principles of Islamic theology, Mr. Besançon writes that in it, “the world is not governed by unchanging natural law. Atoms, physical properties, matter itself: these endure only for an instant, being created anew at every moment by God.” The view that he here cites without attribution may be found in part two of al-Ghazzali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers, a work of the late 11th century.
Causal relations in nature, al-Ghazzali argues, are never necessary. “The connection between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually believed to be an effect is not necessary according to us.” Beyond temporal succession, there is nothing, al-Ghazzali writes, to link “the quenching of thirst and drinking, satiety and eating, burning and contact with fire, light and the appearance of the sun, death and decapitation, healing and the drinking of medicine, the purging of the bowels and the using of a purgative, and so on to all that is observable among connected things in medicine, astronomy, arts, and crafts.”
This argument is by no means limited to theological speculation. It is, in fact, the same argument that the skeptic David Hume would present in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Al-Ghazzali, too, was a kind of skeptic, who sought rather desperately to reconcile himself to the apparent coherence of reality by concluding that “it is God who destroys and then re-creates the world at every instant of time.” The linkage with Hume seems even closer when one considers al-Ghazzali’s idea that it is habits that give the world its appearance of coherence; Hume believed the same, with the difference that the habits to which he appealed are human and not divine.
Nor is this idea foreign to Christianity. Deus est ubique conservans mundum, medieval Christian theologians remarked: God is everywhere conserving the world. This doctrine may be found in the Epistles of Robert Grosseteste as well as in the Summa Contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas. Without God’s perpetual intervention, nature would at once collapse into nothingness. Similar although not identical arguments were later used by Protestant theologians to justify the doctrine of the ubiquity of the body of Christ. On this point, a warm current of sympathy joins Muslim and Christian systems.
Our understanding of medieval Islamic theology and science is still shockingly incomplete. We do know that al-Ghazzali’s near contemporaries included men of outstanding scientific competence—most notably al-Biruni, by all accounts a superb mathematician and natural scientist with a wide-ranging curiosity. His collected works run to over 11,000 folio pages.
Reversing the course of al-Ghazzali’s reasoning, al-Biruni assigns the coherence of the material world not to God’s intervention but to the laws that bind its particles together. “That Allah is omniscient,” he remarked dryly, “does not justify ignorance.” Well before the advent of Western science, al-Biruni began the long and difficult process by which the power guaranteeing the coherence of nature became vested in its laws and not in its deity.
By contrast, there is a suggestive relationship between the skepticism of an al-Ghazzali and the decline of the magnificent medieval Muslim tradition in mathematics and the physical sciences. What makes the relationship even more suggestive is the fact that David Hume’s own skeptical strictures some six centuries later, although brilliantly argued, would have no effect whatsoever on the course of Western science.
Alain Besançon writes:
I appreciate the intelligence and learning displayed by my three correspondents, and I have no deep quarrel with their comments. Let me just offer a number of observations.
Unlike Yale Zussman, I would not say that “Christianity is explicitly based on the claim of having superseded Judaism.” Christians generally use words like “completed” or “fulfilled,” not “superseded.” They profess to believe everything Jews believe; in Christianity, the Hebrew Bible enjoys the same authority as the New Testament. Of course, Christians interpret that Bible in such a radically different way as to make it all but unrecognizable to Jews, and they place credence in matters to which Jews would never assent. But that does not amount to supersession, properly speaking, or at least most Christians would deny that it does.
By contrast, one can say that, in its own eyes, Islam “has indeed superseded Christianity” as well as Judaism. That is why Islam does not recognize the authority either of the Hebrew or of the Christian Bible.
In any case, the point of my essay was to question the common practice of “triangulating” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a practice in which adherents of all three religions participate. It may seem understandable and even excusable that Jews, to start there, should put Christians and Muslims on the same plane with them, often giving a slight preference to Islam (it seems less problematically monotheistic, it prohibits “graven images,” its dietary regulations are reminiscent of kashrut, and so forth). Understandable or not, however, this attitude strikes me as being at variance both with the historical record and with current geopolitical realities. Those realities might at least induce one to look more favorably upon the old idea of a “filial” relationship between Christianity and Judaism, a relationship now being reasserted by many Christians, though still energetically repudiated by many Jews.
As for Christians who triangulate their own faith with both Judaism and Islam, again often with a slight nod to Islam (its “universalism” as opposed to Judaism’s “particularism,” the respect it accords to figures like “Issa” and “Maryam”), this seems to me inexcusable. It involves a grave distortion of Christianity, the return of a tendency that regrettably may be more alive today than at any time since the emergence in the second century of the Marcionite heresy with its utter rejection of the supposedly stern, lawgiving God of the Hebrew Bible.
But what about Muslims who put Jews and Christians on the same plane with Islam? Within the framework of Islamic supersessionism, that is perfectly logical and, from the Muslim point of view, unobjectionable. Indeed, contemporary expressions like “the three monotheisms” or “the three revealed religions” or “the three Abrahamic religions” are perfectly compatible with canonical Islamic thought (so long as the other two religions are not seen as independently legitimate faiths). Only in Judaism, and in Christianity, would I contend that such expressions are false or nonsensical.
I am not sure I understand Peter Leithart. Of the two revealed religions, Christianity, having declared most of the ritual and juridical prescriptions of the “Old Law” obsolete, allowed great latitude to secular rulers. For its part, rabbinic Judaism did of course refine and elaborate biblical law to a great extent, but in accepting the principle that “the law of the land is the law,” it also consciously urged Jews to adapt and accommodate themselves to non-Jewish rule. Much later on, Jews were able to adjust with relative ease to the broader secularization of society that characterized the birth of the modern.
How Islam will evolve in these matters is something I cannot predict. But in general my remarks about the intensity of its commitments were meant to be understood in light of the broader distinctions I endeavored to draw in my article between it and the two revealed religions of Christianity and Judaism.
David Berlinski’s very impressive letter shows a deeper knowledge, especially of scientific literature, than my own; I found his comments most instructive. I was particularly struck by Mr. Berlinski’s reference to Hume. In another, longer essay on the same subject as my Commentary article, I too cited Hume—and also Malebranche, from whom Hume drew his critique of causality. In that essay I observed that both atomism and the doctrine of God’s constant re-creation of the world are part of Islam’s core theology, whereas in Christianity such ideas never became matters of dogma. But beyond this I dare not venture.