Victory in the religious wars of the 17th century went to the author of learned theological texts, Cardinal Richelieu, and a self-immolating mystic, Joseph du Tremblay, the de facto chief of the French state and his principal diplomat and spy. By contrast, American strategists are children of the Enlightenment, for whom religion at best is a convenient civic myth (Leo Strauss), or an outmoded ideology to be manipulated.

One pores through American government studies on Islam without finding as much as a sentence on the question: what is the spiritual experience of believing Muslims? Muslims fly airplanes into skyscrapers, or walk into supermarkets with bomb belts, or pull Kalashnikovs from under their wares in the Sadr City bazaar because the West confronts them with an existential threat. Of what does this existential threat consist? The Islamic specialists at American think-tanks stand baffled before such fervor. They are ideologues trained in analyzing structures of belief. But the vast majority of Muslims have no interest in ideology in the sense that the modern West understands the term. Religion for them is an existential matter, of one substance with the smallest details of their daily lives. Secular Americans press their noses against the window-glass, gazing at Islam from the outside in.

A horrible example is Cheryl Bernard’s 2003 Rand Corporation study, entitled “Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, Strategies.” (1). Professor Bernard provides cheerful advice on how to manage the different strains of Islam, which she chops up into “Traditionalists,” “Fundamentalists,” “Modernists,” and “Secularists.” According to Bernard, “Fundamentalists reject democratic values and contemporary Western culture. They want an authoritarian, puritanical state that will implement their extreme view of Islamic law and morality. They are willing to use innovation and modern technology to achieve that goal. Traditionalists want a conservative society. They are suspicious of modernity, innovation, and change. Modernists want the Islamic world to become part of global modernity. They want to modernize and reform Islam to bring it into line with the age. Secularists want the Islamic world to accept a division of church and state in the manner of Western industrial democracies, with religion relegated to the private sphere.”

Her formula is:
1) “Support the Modernists first.” 2) “Support the Traditionalists against the Fundamentalists.” 3) “Confront and oppose the Fundamentalists.” 4) “Selectively support Secularists.”

Saddam Hussein (unmentioned in Bernard’s document) was a Modernist, but never mind that. Bernard assumes that the Traditionalists, who maintain their own websites, are sufficiently unfamiliar with Google so as not to notice that America supports their enemies the Modernists, let alone the Secularists.

With Bernard’s game plan in mind, consider the case of “Traditionalist” Shi’ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Washington’s hope for a peaceful transition to a democratic Iraqi state. Sistani’s theological writing can be found categorized by subject on the Internet. (2).

The ayatollah’s concerns hardly overlap with those of the American occupation officials whom he refuses to address directly. On the contrary, what preoccupies him are the minutest issues of daily existence, most of all the question of ritual purity within traditional society.

For Sistani, “theology” is an entirely different topic than it is to modern Christians or Jews, for whom theology addresses man’s relation to God, and their dialogue in the form of prayer. That is why the experience of prayer is the subject of endless elaboration by Christian and Jewish theologians. Here is the Vatican’s chief theologian, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, in the first chapter of Feast of Faith:

“The basic reason why man can speak with God arises from the fact that God himself is speech, word … Through the Spirit of Christ, who is the Spirit of God, we can share in the human nature of Jesus Christ; and in sharing in his dialogue with God, we can share in the dialogue with God. This is prayer, which becomes a real exchange between God and man … Christian prayer is addressed to a God who hears and answers … Here the gift of God promised unconditionally to those who ask is joy, that ‘full’ joy which is the expression and the presence of a love which has become ‘full’. The reality is the same in each case. Prayer, because of the transformation of being which it involves, means growing more and more into identity with the pneuma of Jesus, the Spirit of God (becoming an “anima ecclesiastica “); borne along by the very breath of his love, we have a joy which cannot be taken from us.”

As Ratzinger observes, Christian (as well as Jewish) prayer is a dialogue among lovers. “The soul prayers in the words of the Psalms: let not my prayer and your love depart from me (Psalm 66:20). “It prays to be able to pray – and this is already given to the soul in the assurance of Divine Love,” wrote the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, believing that Jews and Christians are infatuated with God, and prayer is their opportunity to exchange lovers’ intimacies. They never tire of talking about talking to their beloved, that is, about the nature of prayer. One might compare Ratzinger’s essay to Man in Search of God by Abraham Joshua Heschel, the best-read Jewish theologian of the postwar period.

Sistani’s interest in prayer is an entirely different matter. In all the mass of his writings available on the Internet, he has nothing more to say about the content of prayer than the following:

“Prayer is an audience with the Creator, convened at prescribed daily times. Allah has outlined the times at which prayers are said and the manner which they must be conducted. During this audience you be fully absorbed in the experience. You talk to Him and invoke His Mercy. You come out of this encounter with clear conscience and serene heart. It is quite natural that you may feel the presence of Allah while you say your prayer. Above all, prayer is a manifestation of inner feeling that we all belong to Allah, the Most High, who has overall control over everything. And when you utter the phrase, ‘Allahu Akbar’ at the start of every prayer, all material things should become insignificant because you are in the presence of the Lord of the universe who controls every aspect of it. He is greater than everything. As you recite the chapter of ‘al-Fatiha’, you say, ‘You do we worship, and You do we ask for help’. Thus, you rid yourself of dependency on any mortal. With that exquisite feeling of submission to Him, you enrich your spirit five times a day.”

Less important than the differences in content – “audience” rather than “dialogue,” “submission” rather than “love” – is the difference in emphasis. With this perfunctory preface, Sistani begins a lengthy treatise on when, where, with what clothing, and in what bodily positions prayers may be said. His concern is not the spiritual experience of prayer, but establishing communal norms for prayer. Where the Christians and Jews gush with loquacity on the subject, Muslims have remarkably little to say about the experience of prayer. Reading through Muslim sources, I am at loss to find anything remotely resembling Ratzinger’s quite typical discourse on prayer.

In fact, virtually all of Sistani’s writings address communal norms for behavior, including the most intimate. Ritual impurity (janabat) is a central concern, especially in the case of sexual relations. He writes, for example:

“If a person has sexual intercourse with a woman and the male organ enters either of the private parts of the woman up to the point of circumcision or more, both of them enter janabat, regardless of whether they are adults or minors and whether ejaculation takes place or not.

“If a person doubts whether or not his penis penetrated up to the point of circumcision, ghusl [bathing] will not become obligatory on him.

“If (God forbid!) a person has sexual intercourse with an animal and ejaculates, ghusl alone will be sufficient for him, and if he does not ejaculate and he was with wudhu [ritual ablution] at the time of committing the unnatural act, even then ghusl will be sufficient for him. However, if he was not with wudhu at that time, the obligatory precaution is that he should do ghusl and also perform wudhu. And the same orders apply if one commits sodomy.

“If movement of seminal fluid is felt but not emitted, or if a person doubts whether or not semen has been ejaculated, ghusl will not be obligatory upon him.

“It is obligatory to conceal one’s private parts in the toilet and at all times from adult persons, even if they are one’s near relatives (like mother, sister etc.)

“It is not necessary for a person to conceal the private parts with any definite thing, it is sufficient, if, for example, he conceals them with his hand.

“While using the toilet for relieving oneself, the front or the back part of one’s body should not face the holy Ka’bah [shrine in the Great Mosque, Mecca.]

“If a person sits in the toilet with the front part of his body or the back facing the Qibla [direction towards the Ka’bah] , but turns the private parts away from that direction, it will not be enough. Similarly, when the front part of the body or the back does not face Qibla, as a precaution, he should not allow the private parts to face that direction.

“In the following three cases, the anus can be made pak [clean] with water alone:If another najasat [uncleanliness], like blood, appears along with the faeces. If an external najasat reaches the anus. If more than usual najasat spreads around the anus.

“In the cases other than those mentioned above, the anus can be made pak either by water or by using cloth, or stone etc, although it is always better to wash it with water.

“If the anus is washed with water, one should ensure that no trace of faeces is left on it. However, there is no harm if color and smell remain. And if it is washed thoroughly in the first instance, leaving no particle of stool, then it is not necessary to wash it again.”

In calling attention to these portions of Sistani’s theology I do not mean to deprecate him. On the contrary, he addresses the inhabitants of traditional society for whom spiritual experience means submission, that is, submission to communal norms, whence the individual derives a lasting sense of identity. In the most intimate details of daily life, culture and religion become inseparable. For traditional society it is the durability of communal norms that lends a sense of immortality to the individual, a life beyond mere physical existence. That is why prayer in the Judeo-Christian sense, the lovers’ exchange between God and the individual soul, does not come into consideration within Muslim theology. Allah is the all-powerful sovereign of the world before whom the individual dissolves; the individual’s submission to the ummah, the community of Islam, is a spiritual experience of an entirely different order.

To this the Americans can only come as destroyers, not saviors. America by its nature disrupts traditional order. It is the usurper of the Old World, the agency of creative destruction, the Spirit that Denies, to whom “everything that arises goes rightly to its ruin” (Goethe) – in short, the Great Satan. America is the existential threat to Islam.


The above considerations should serve as a response to a Muslim reader of Asia Times Online who contributed the delicious parody below:

Dear Spengler,
I am Spengler writing to myself. Rereading some of my previous writings have awakened an important glitch in my learning process. I am writing this note to myself so that I won’t forget it by the time I wake up tomorrow morning. Why do I claim to know much about Islam by making sweeping erroneous comments like, “The God of Mohammed is a creator who well might not have bothered to create. He displays his power like an Oriental potentate who rules by violence, not by acting according to necessity, not by authorizing the enactment of the law, but rather in his freedom to act arbitrarily,” [from my article You love life, we love death], or “Not so Allah, the beneficent, the merciful. For Islam, the notion that man’s failings more powerfully awake God’s love than man’s merits is an absurd, indeed an impossible thought. Allah has pity upon human weaknesses, but the idea that he loves weakness more than strength is a form of divine humility that is foreign to the God of Mohammed,” wrote the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig.

I seem to read only non-Muslim writers to forge my knowledge of Islam (who may have tremendous biases against Islam. Why would I ask someone who has never swum, but analyzed swimming with consummate abilities, watched swimmers swim, talked to many of them, etc etc – about how swimming is as an experience?). What should I do?

Dear concerned Spengler,
As a first rule, you should pick up several translations of the Koran, some done by Muslims, some done by non-Muslims, and go from there. You can also read Muslim scholars who can communicate with the West in its own discourses, like S. H. Nasr or Guy Eaton.

By no means am I biased against Islam; I go directly to the most reputable Islamic sources. Rosenzweig’s method, though, appeals to me. What interests Rosenzweig is not religious apologetics, but the experience of the individual believer in the daily practice of religion. One can find quotes from the Koran or the Hadith supporting any position one cares to support, but the obvious remains the obvious. Islam on the one hand, and Christianity and Judaism on the other, speak to different people about different things.

(1) Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, Strategies.


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