Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Islamic Fundamentalism: Self-Reflection for Both Muslims and Christians?

Since nearly the entire world is parsing the strengths and weaknesses of Pres. Obama’s speech in Cairo, I’ll pass on that for now.  But Obama brought up some history that OUGHT to lead to (painful?) introspection on the part of both Muslims and Christians.  Many Americans are blissfully unaware of it (because our knowledge of history is notoriously TINY), but the European Dark Ages were marked by a Christian Church that discouraged learning.  The rebirth of learning in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance was largely sparked by ISLAMIC philosophers, scientists and poets.

The 7th and 6th Centuries C.E. are known to historians as the Islamic Golden Age.  They made many advances in science, engineering (including the arch and the flying buttress), mathematics (we now use Arabic numerals, the zero was invented in Arabic civilization, and Muslim mathematicians invented algebra), medicine, and astronomy.  Christians in Europe adopted these discoveries (sometimes building on them) when Arabic troops invaded Europe and again when Europeans invaded the Middle East (Holy Land) during the Crusades.  The scientific revolution of the 17th C. would not have been possible without the advances of the Renaissance that paved the way–and those depended on very forward looking Muslim scholars.

Muslim-majority nations throughout the Middle East had universities, some offering graduate and postgraduate degrees, before European nations started them (usually under the influence of the Christian Church).  They had a higher rate of literacy and were educating women as equals or near equals long before the Christian West.

Many of the Western advances in philosophy and theology also owe their roots to Medieval Islam.  The great flowering of Catholic theology came from St. Thomas Aquinas’ interactions with Aristotelian philosophy. (Originally, this was considered controversial and some called Thomas a heretic. Plato was the approved philosopher and Aristotle was suspect.) But Aristotle’s writings had been lost in Europe.  They were saved in Arabic lands, both before and after the rise of Islam.  The Islamic philosopher Averroes (the Latin version of Ibn Rushd) was not the only Islamic Aristotelian, but because he wrote much of his material in Latin (not just in Arabic), Thomas could interact with it.  Thomas also used translations of Aristotle into Latin.  (Thomas was also influenced by Jewish philosophers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Islamic contributions to the arts (especially architecture and calligraphy), poetry, music, and drama were also many and dramatic.  Because of their ban on alcohol, and their kashrut food restrictions, they worked to create new culinary delights–including coffee, without which I would not be civilized.  Women as well as men contributed to the flourishing of Islamic societies.

But all this came crashing down about the 17th C.  Today, almost all Muslim-majority nations are poorer, less-educated, and extremely conservative.  The rise of rabid Islamic fundamentalism has increased this trend, with incredible oppression of women, minorities, and religious dissent.  Obama’s brief recitation of some of this history, along with his critique of the current state of many Muslim-majority nations, should be the cause of deep, even painful, reflection by Muslims–not by the extremists, but by the progressives, centrists, and non-extremist conservatives. 

But I think this should also serve as a cautionary tale for Christians.  I KNOW that ultra-right Christian fundamentalists hate being compared to Islamic fundamentalists, but there is much in common.  And the rise and threatened domination of fundamentalism among Christians has brought with it a terrible hatred for the equality of women, for religious liberty and diversity, and a fear of science and the arts.  Too much of Christianity today is not open and does not welcome debate, dissent, or education.  And, both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists foster violence and terrorism in pursuit of totalitarian theocracies. 

Now the “new angry athiests” would conclude that faith and religion are themselves toxic.  I do not.  But fundamentalist forms are and the problems that Islamic fundamentalism has brought to Muslim-majority nations should be troubling both for contemporary Muslims (who need to throw off fundamentalism and reclaim their progressive past) and Christians (who need to defeat the fundamentalist forces among us).

June 6, 2009 - Posted by | Christianity, faith, fundamentalists, Islam, progressive faith, Reformation, Religious Social Criticism


  1. We owe the Muslims a debt of gratitude for their contributions to Western civilization and civilization in general.There are some aspects of Muslim and Christian fundamentalism that have things in common. However, at the moment fanatics like Al Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas are creating much more murder and mayhem than the Christian fundamentalists are doing. Fundamentalism in any religion holds the seeds of chaos and danger.These people, in a lot of cases, are misguided and I include Christians here too. Love and compassion and mercy were the essence of Jesus’ message. To pervert it to one’s own ends is a sin !

    Comment by Paul | June 6, 2009

  2. Hmm, Paul: What about the centuries-long feud between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland? There’s a peace treaty these days, but the violence is still just under the surface.

    However, I largely agree with you that CURRENTLY Islamic fundamentalists are causing more bloodshed than Christian fundamentalists. That’s why I called this a cautionary tale: Could Christianity in nations where we are the majority, be heading in a direction that Islam already traveled–a road that is now revealed as horrible? I’d like us to turn around sooner, you know?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 7, 2009

  3. “the European Dark Ages were marked by a Christian Church that discouraged learning”

    Just for the record, the church that discouraged learning was the Roman Catholic Church, not the Christian Church. There is and always has been a huge difference between Roman Catholicism and Biblical Christianity.

    During the Dark Ages, Bible believing Anabaptists, when they weren’t busy fighting Catholics who were trying to exterminate them, were educating their children and spreading the gospel of Christ across Europe, into Scandanavian countries and beyond.

    Comment by Rick Brentlinger | June 7, 2009

  4. Sorry, but the Trail of Blood history is erroneous. And most Anabaptists were pacifists–and still are.

    Also, the Anabaptists don’t come about until the 16th C., I was talking about the 4th-8th Cs, when the Western Church (Catholic) was discouraging education. The Eastern Church was different–although it tended to reserve education for elites.

    The idea that Catholics aren’t Christians is foolish.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 7, 2009

  5. “the Roman Catholic Church, not the Christian Church,” ???? If the Roman Catholic Church isn’t Christian, exactly what is it? Oh, I remember, only Protestants are Christian. Many of today’s Christian fundamentalists are only a heartbeat away from being in bed with Islamic Fundamentalists. Take for example the “pro-lifers” who support the murder of Tiller. Then there are the re-constructionists, who advocate the takeover of the US government and the use of the military to spread Christianity. They would also use force to spread their brand of Christianity across this country and change the Constitution to support it. This post is a great analysis.

    Comment by Ralph | June 7, 2009

  6. The problem with ecumenists who insist that Catholics (as a group) are Christians is:

    1. faulty understanding of what Catholicism teaches

    It would help you to do some street evangelism and door to door evangelism and you would very quickly discover from personal experience that most Catholics are religious instead of genuinely born again Christians.

    2. faulty understanding of the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith

    The reason Roman Catholicism persecuted Christians down the centuries is (among many other things) because RC hates the truth of justification by faith.

    3. faulty understanding of church history.

    The reason Roman Catholicism was IN the Dark Ages from your “4th-8th Cs” (and beyond) is directly related to her rejection of the Bible as the final authority and her false view that she is the ‘one true church,’ an odious idea which, as you may recall, Pope Benedict reiterated last year.

    The reason Roman Catholicism persecuted, opposed, hunted and killed Christians who refused to acknowledge Roman Catholicism as “the one true church” is because Catholics were not Christians in any Biblical sense of the term.

    The reason Anabaptists rebaptized new converts was to openly repudiate the teachings of the Roman church and to openly embrace the teachings of scripture.

    Comment by Rick Brentlinger | June 7, 2009

  7. Funny, I know a lot of Protestants, who claim theirs is the “one true church.” I’m not Catholic, by the way, nor am I a Bible scholar. I always get a good laugh out of the argument that “my belief is right and yours is wrong, therefore you are going straight to hell and I’m not.” I am reminded of a line from a song that asks that when Jesus returns “will He admit He’s talked to all those preachers that say they’ve been talking to Him?”

    Comment by Ralph | June 7, 2009

  8. Well said Michael.

    Comment by Celucien Joseph | June 7, 2009

  9. Thank-you!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 7, 2009

  10. Michael, I think you’re simply obsfuscating by errecting a straw man.

    I and most Protestants I know do NOT claim to be the one true church.

    Nor do we claim “my belief is right and yours is wrong”
    nor do we claim “you’re going straight to hell.”

    Your approach trivializes and demeans.

    For Christians, the Bible is the final authority and whether or not someone goes to hell depends on what they do with Jesus.


    Comment by Rick Brentlinger | June 8, 2009

  11. Oops. My previous post should have been addressed to Ralph.


    Rick Brentlinger

    Comment by Rick Brentlinger | June 8, 2009

  12. Rick, this diatribe is off subject.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 8, 2009

  13. I just wrote a long post on the alternative vision to Islamic fundamentalism articulated by Abdul Ghaffar Khan. You might enjoy it: http://returngood.com/2009/06/11/contesting-jihad-within-islam-part-two-the-servants-of-god/

    Comment by dcrowe | June 13, 2009

  14. I know of Abdul Ghaffer Khan, but have never been able to find a copy of the one biography of “the frontier Gandhi.” We need to get his life and views well known, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan, since he was Pashtun/Pathan and from that area between the two nations. But after the division between India and Pakistan, which Khan opposed, he was out of favor with the government, which suppressed his memory–and he has never been well known in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Because of the lack of knowledge of Abdul Ghaffer Khan, and because Gandhi died just as Israel was born (and the false rumor went out that Gandhi uncritically agreed with Israel’s founding, including the violent expulsion of the Palestinians), it has been difficult to get Muslims to consider Gandhian nonviolence as a method for pursuing justice.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 14, 2009

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