Islam: Religion or political ideology?

The philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that Judaism was not a religion, but a mere body of laws. Secular Jews would agree with him. Some secularized Muslims say the same about Islam, for example Ali Sina of Sina writes: “Islam is not a religion. Considering Islam a religion is a foolish mistake that could cost millions of lives. Islam is a political movement set to conquer the world. It is the Borg of the non-fictional world. Islam has one goal and one goal alone: to assimilate or to destroy.”

In an emotionally charged atmosphere, precise thinking is needed. Kant was wrong, but wrong in a way that helps clarify the problem. Ali Sina and other Muslim secularizers are just as wrong. I shall argue that Islam is both a religion and a political ideology. Religion is what makes Islamic political ideology so dangerous.

“Judaism is really not a religion at all,” wrote Kant in 1793 (in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone), “but merely a union of a number of people who formed themselves into a commonwealth under purely political laws, and not into a church.” Specifically, “since no religion can be conceived of which involves no belief in a future life, Judaism, which, when taken in its purity is seen to lack this belief, is not a religious faith at all.”

In a certain sense Kant is right. Although Rabbinical Judaism speaks of a “world to come,” it lacks the central status to which Christianity assigns the afterlife. Judaism seeks to transport eternity into a sacred ordering of everyday life and deprecates the unknown future past the grave. The 18th-century Hassid Levy Isaac of Berdichev wrote of a dream in which he ascended to heaven and saw the authors of the Jewish Talmud surrounded by books in a library. Levy Isaac complained that this was no different from what he saw on Earth. “You are wrong, Levi Isaac,” replied an angelic voice; “the sages are not Heaven; rather, Heaven is in the sages.”

From a Christian standpoint, that may not seem like much of a religion at all. Judaism and Christianity, though, set out to address the same problem – the inevitability of death – in different ways that reflect the different circumstances of Gentile and Jew. Christianity offers the Gentile tribes a life beyond their ineluctable extinction on Earth. The afterlife stands at the center of its promise. As I wrote on a prior occasion (Does Islam have a prayer? May 18):

The Jew is confident in his portion of immortality because he believes the Jews to be an eternal people. Because the Sabbath is a foretaste of the world to come, the observant Jew revels in devotion from Friday evening prayers at synagogue until the concluding ceremony at the next day’s dusk. Sin is death; confident in their eternal life, the Jews do not sense the waiting sting of death, that is, what the Christians call original sin, as I have argued elsewhere. The redemption of the Christians lies in the future, when Jesus shall return and establish His Kingdom on Earth; of this blessed event the individual Christian can obtain no more than the briefest glance in the form of the Lord’s Supper. Jewish redemption consists simply of being Jewish, and the Jew already spends the seventh day in the World to Come.

Again, as I wrote earlier (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 9, 2003):

All religion, Franz Rosenzweig argued, responds to man’s anxiety in the face of death (against which philosophy is like a child stuffing his fingers in his ears and shouting, “I can’t hear you!”). The pagans of old faced death with the confidence that their race would continue. But tribes and nations anticipate their own extinction just as individuals anticipate their own death, he added: “The love of the nations for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death.” Each nation, he wrote, knows that some day other peoples will occupy their lands, and their language and culture will be interred in dusty books.

The early Christian Church encountered a great extinction of peoples and their cultures through the rise and fall of the Alexandrine and Roman empires … As nations faced extinction, individuals within these nations came face to face with their own mortality. Christianity offered an answer: the Church called individuals out of the nations and offered them salvation in the form of a life beyond the grave. The Gentiles (as the Church called them) embraced original sin, which to them simply meant the sin of having been born Gentile, that is, to a culture doomed to extinction. (The Jews, who think of themselves as an eternal people, were having none of it.)

Kant mistook the Jews’ lack of interest in the afterlife for absence of religious feeling. But just what do we mean by “religion”? Communism can be thought of as a religion (Andre Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone and other ex-communists called it “the God that failed”). In communism, History takes the place of God; dialectical materialism assumes the role of theology, and so forth. But “History” (like Destiny) is no god; a “god” who is everywhere present but nowhere to be addressed in person really is no god at all. Critics of Islam argue that Allah is no more a personal god than “History” in Marxist ideology, but simply a personification of Destiny (see Oil on the flames of civilizational war, December 2, 2003). That is beside the point. We require a working definition of religion before making further sense of the issue.

Religion offers the individual a way of transcending death by separating the holy, or eternal, from the profane, or transitory. It presupposes not merely an eternal plane of being exalted above mere creation, but also some means by which mortals may participate in this higher being through revelation and grace, and some procedure by which they may obtain grace, that is, ritual and prayer.

In Islam, this procedure is jihad.

Conventional theology stumbles by restricting the question to the biological death of the individual. Rosenzweig opened a more fecund line of inquiry by considering the death of a people and its culture, as I noted above. Sin is death; the inevitable death of each people and the extinction of its culture is “original sin,” to which Christianity responds by calling the Gentiles out of their nations into a “New Israel.” In its European variant, of course, Christianity permits the Gentile tribes to bring a great deal of their baggage with them into the “New Israel.” That, I have argued in the past, has been its tragedy (No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, June 22).

The old Israel, by contrast, needs only to make sacred its own presumably eternal life. Kant and the secular Jews are wrong: Judaism is a religion parallel to Christianity. The sine qua non of religion is to enable the individual to transcend death or, to be more precise, the inevitable death of each traditional culture. Christianity liquidates traditional cultures into the ecclesia, the assembly of the New Israel called out from among the nations. American Christians left the baggage of their Gentile background on the dock before taking ship to the New World, and for that reason feel the greatest affinity to the Old Israel (Mahathir is right: Jews do rule the world, October 28, 2003).

Islam, by contrast, seeks to prolong the life of traditional society indefinitely, by extending it through conquest. I refer here to mainstream Islam, ignoring marginal currents such as Sufism. We find in the practice of mainstream Islam hoary roots in traditional society, in strange juxtaposition with the most aggressive sort of universalism. For traditional Muslims, religion cannot be separated from the most trivial requirements of everyday life, I showed in the case of the teachings of Iraq’s Ayatollah al-Sistani (Why Islam baffles America, April 16).

Traditional society is the locus of the vast majority of the world’s billion Muslims. Global communications and the social freedoms embodied in the US system threaten the existence of these societies. For most of the world’s Muslims the United States is a menace, not a promise, threatening to dissolve the ties that bind child to parent, wife to husband, tribesman to chief, subject to ruler. Traditional society will not go mutely to its doom and join the Great Extinction of the Peoples, blotting out ancient cultures and destroying the memory of today’s generation. It will not permit the hundreds of millions of Muslims on the threshold of adulthood to pass into the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and lose the memory of their ancestors. On the contrary: it will turn the tables upon the corrupt metropolis, and in turn launch a war of conquest against it.

Jihad, that is, conquest and forcible conversion of the Dar-al-Harb (the realm of war), is the quintessence of Islamic prayer, I wrote some time ago (Does Islam have a prayer?, May 18):

Islam acknowledges no ethnicity (whether or not one believes that it favors Arabs). The Muslim submits – to what particular people? Not the old Israel of the Jews, nor the “New Israel” of the Christians, but to precisely what? Pagans fight for their own group’s survival and care not at all whom their neighbor worships. A universalized paganism is a contradiction in terms; it could only exist by externalizing the defensive posture of the pagan, that is, as a conquering movement that marches across the world crushing out the pagan practices of the nations and subjugating them to a single discipline. If the individual Muslim does not submit to traditional society as it surrounds him in its present circumstances, he submits to the expansionist movement.

Ali Sina is wrong: Islamic expansionism arises from religious motives, that is, a holy rage against the encroachment of death upon traditional society. In the form of Islam, the West confronts a challenge quite different from communism.