The Devil in Mr Jones

Codex Gigas (The Devil Codex)

Since I posted my commentary on the Terry Jones case I’ve received lots of feedback–mainly attempts to vindicate Jones and wondering why I am “coddling Muslims.”  I like the term feedback because it doesn’t discriminate as to the quality of responses.  Some were actually very insightful–the ones laying out, for example, the conditions for incitement and sedition; some less so–the ones that simply insist that we are citizens of a democracy that values free speech above everything else. I’ve received no recipes for coddled Muslims, but I’m sure they’ll be coming soon.

Often misquoted, in the United States v. Schenck case (1919: involving a man’s distribution of anti-draft flyers during World War I), Justice Holmes wrote that

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

“Falsely” is the word that is often omitted. What emerged was the “clear and present danger test,”  since weakened and greatly modified.

I’m reliably informed by no fewer than three lawyer-respondents and my buddy Guido that its successor, the “imminent lawless action” criterion, cannot reasonably be applied in this case because the damage and the loss of human life, even though preventable, did not transpire on American soil and that under current law (Hess v. Indiana [1973], Brandenburg v. Ohio [1969]), Jones would likely be given a pass.

And even though Americans, according to groups claiming responsibility, including Afghani Taliban, were the target (United Nations workers were an easier and softer hit), so far (April 5th) American soldiers did not die as a result of this provocation.  On the other hand, those who have replied that it was not Jones’s intention to do harm have not been following the story closely enough: he is quoted in the Washington Post as saying that after due consideration he felt he had no choice, and was only indecisive as to the method of execution (drowning, shredding, or shooting).  Fire is always the first choice of southern Christian bigots. And there is the small matter of his careful plans to broadcast the events in English and Arabic.

But my guess is that Terry Jones will become a kind of hero.  He already is to his congregation and thousands of well-wishing ultra-conservative Christians around the country. And much more cheaply than buying billboards, his gallon of kerosene has ignited his “Stand up for America” campaign.

But I hope he will not become a culture-hero to people who see his actions as brave and somehow correct–as a test case of the right to express hatred in equal measure to the religious population of a country where American lives are being lost each week in defense of democratic principles that the Afghan people, like the Iraqis before them, have shown no natural interest in pursuing on their own.  I am highly distrustful of the respondents who say they “disagree” with Terry Jones, but approve of the principle.  What principle?  That Islam is evil and he is no more evil than it is?  Or that his example serves as proof to the world (as if it cares) that America is the beacon for the unfettered right to speak even the most hateful and dwarfish ideas openly?

Terry Jones is not fighting for a principle.  He’s merely hiding behind one. It seems plain tawdry to invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on behalf of a listless cracker who wants to see people killed seven  thousand miles away from his sanctuary.

A weird  undercurrent of responses has seen Jones as a symbol of the cowboy freedom to shoot the people who get on his nerves. It’s hardly a mariage de covenance (like the one between anti-abortion Catholics and fundamentalists), but Islam is regarded by right wing Christians, as well as by many atheists, as a toxic faith, so the symbol works for both constituencies in slightly different ways. When Jones sells the movie rights to his saga of upward struggle against the forces of Satan and his lonely coup de grace for freedom and democracy in this sin-loving land, the part should go to (no relation) Tommy Lee Jones.

There are two propositions that keep me away from reducing this episode to just another example of hate speech or civil disobedience, on the analogy of the Klan marching through Skokie in 2000 or burning draft cards in 1969 or the Haymarket riots of 1886.   The difference may not be immediately obvious, or compelling, but it is a difference.

If Mr Jones had staged his execution of the Koran, “a work of the Devil,” in 1969, it would have been the shot heard round Lake City, Florida.  No one would have cared; few people would have known.  It would have the resonance of a wooden clapper.  As a Florida boy myself, I can easily imagine a woman outside the Lake City Winn-Dixie store saying, “He burned the whut?” But it did not happen in 1969.  It happened in the age of rapid information-transfer, and sudden celebrity–the age and space that Jones is counting on to raise him from evangelical crackerdom to national guru.  I see Dancing with the Stars down the road for this guy and I pray that his partner will be someone named Aisha.

The Amendment we depend upon to protect us from slander while, at the same time, defending our right to blaspheme, criticize, oppose, peaceably assemble and demonstrate was carved at a time when America was relatively isolated from the foreign effects of domestic action.  Even though the polemic was hot and strong throughout the pre-Revolutionary era (one of the reasons the First Amendment exists at all) reaction was slow because news traveled that way.

I think there is something qualitatively different about Jones and the way he does business, and it has to be acknowledged. There is something different about what constitutes “imminent and likely lawless action” in an age where cause and effect have been reduced to days, sometimes seconds.  And one day the courts will have to deal with it–but not yet. Jones’s only miscalculation in this case was that the media wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, so he had to try doubly hard to get the word out.  He was duly abetted by Hamid Karzai.

As to preserving free speech against the odds of too much sway in the direction of controlling it: As a Christian triumphalist, Jones would like nothing more than an America in which the very thing he was permited to do could not be done.  A sheer increase of the Terry Joneses of this country–among people who now see his action as noble–would lead to a Christian state wherein it would, at a minimum, be illegal to burn a Bible or insult a man of the cloth, or more precisely, the evangelical cloth. Atheism in Jonestown, USA? As likely as a women’s right to education act under the Pakistani Taliban.

No one realistically thinks that this kind of America is coming, least of all me.  But it is an interesting test of priorities that condemning Jones’s action as being fundamentally opposed to the cardinal American values of freedom and tolerance  should be immediately seen as a complaint about hypothetical “infringement” of Mr Jones’s rights, without any equivalent assessment of what he did and the way he did it.  –I’m reluctant to mention the one muddled response that compared Jones’s burning of the Koran to the 1933 (fol.) book burnings in Nazi Germany because, frankly, I couldn’t understand the premise.

The way the Rev did it was to make sure that Muslims were paying attention.  When he streamed the “trial” and execution of the book, with some hapless imam from Dallas acting as a defense atttorney, he dressed in judge’s robes.  He streamed the proceedings with Arabic subtitles.  Those are the facts; I am guessing, but cannot know for sure, that he was also trying to convey an impression of “authenticity” to the web-viewers, as though to suggest this was a real trial.  Given the limited sophistication of the Arab street, this would not have been a difficult thing to do.

So, this was not an act confined to the churchyard; this was a belligerent act designed to do harm, to substantiate his weird metaphysic about Islamic violence, and he was right: harm was done. People are dead. or should I say, more people are dead.  Now to search “Koran Burning” on Youtube will link you to dozens of copycat rituals going on all over the world.  Congratulations, Mr Jones: you are a success because this is how we now measure success, the degree of lunacy that a single image can generate.

After further thought, however, I have decided that Mr Jones is really being judged by the wrong criteria.  His case falls between free exercise and free speech, and so it falls between the stools.  Holmes’s aphorism about “clear and present danger,” and all later refinements, are not going to help us with the Terry Jones case, unless he magically appears in Kandahar and starts shooting Muslims.  Even then, alas, he would likely find supporters back home and die a hero.

I’ve asked a number of respondents if they think Jones is “guilty” of anything other than bad judgement.   Law and ethics are not only two different areas but fields that often collide on principles. If law does not help us with this one, is there a moral position that can be condemned–or vindicated?  Is Mr Jones “just a cracker” and his actions as predictable, and thus as unremarkable, as the predictable response of angry young men in Afghanistan?  After all, we have become accustomed, to the point of dozing off, to images of angry, mainly young Muslim men all over the Islamic world.

I don’t fully understand the pathology of their anger, but I do know that the symbolic respository for what they are willing to die and to kill to defend is the Koran. I also think I know that lectures on God’s existence or their foolish and superstitious ways are not going to get their attention.

Is Islam Secularizable?

The following is a reprint of an article by Sadik J. al-Azm from the Journal for the Critical Study of Religion Volume 2 Number 2 Fall/winter 1997 , published by Prometheus Books.  The article is especially poignant in the light of events in the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa.  The article sheds a fascinating pre-9-11 light on events that have transpired in the Islamic world in the last decade.



Sadik J. Al-Azm, emeritus professor of modern European philosophy at the University of Damascus, is visiting lecturer at Princeton University. Al-Azm’s research specialty is the Islamic world and its relationship to the West, and he is known as a human rights advocate and a champion of intellectual freedom.


The question of whether Islam can be secularized has been on the agenda of modern Arab and Muslim thought and history since Bonaparte’s occupation of Egypt in 1798.

Arabs have been attempting to settle the issue since at least the last quarter of the nineteenth century; i.e., since what we Arabs often refer to in our recent past as the Arab Renaissance, the Arab Awakening, the Islamic Reformation, or what the late expert on the period, Albert Hourani, aptly called the “Liberal Age” of Arab thought.

Response to Change

In my attempt to formulate a realistic answer to the question Is Islam secularizable?, I shall start by raising another question: was the simple, egalitarian, and unadorned Islam of Mecca and Medina (Yatherb) at the time of the Prophet and the first four Rightly-Guided Caliphs (chosen by the then-emerging Muslim community as his successors) compatible with the dynasties of such complex empires as Byzantium and Sassanid Persia at the time of their Arab-Muslim conquest?

The accurate answer is No and Yes. Yes, the two became very compatible in an incredibly short period of time. But the early Muslim purists were absolutely right at the time of the first Arab conquests to insist that nothing in the Muslim orthodoxy of the day could make the Islam of Medina, Mecca, and the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs compatible with hereditary monarchy.

Similarly, in Christianity the movement of Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre and his followers in Europe and the United States was an excellent example of the Church’s persistence in response to purism evolving into secular humanism, religious pluralism, mutual tolerance, freedom of conscience, a scientifically based culture, and so on. The Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII, is an equally excellent example of triumph over classical dogmatism.

By the same token, I would argue that the accurate answer to our primary question, Is Islam secularizable?, is also twofold: dogmatically, No; historically, Yes. I would contend that without a good grasp of the ups and downs of the secularization process of contemporary Islam, no explanation of the ferociousness of the current fundamentalist reaction can be adequate.

Islam, as a coherent static ideal of eternal and permanently valid principles, is of course compatible with nothing other than itself. As such, it is the business of Islam to reject and combat secularism and secularization to the very end. But Islam is a dynamic faith and has responded to widely differing environments and rapidly shifting historical circumstances, proving itself highly compatible with all the major types of polities and varied forms of social and economic organization that human history has produced.

Similarly, Islam as a world-historical religion stretching over 15 centuries has unquestionably succeeded in implanting itself in a variety of societies and cultures, from the tribal-nomadic to the centralized bureaucratic to the feudal-agrarian to the mercantile-financial to the capitalist-industrial.

Doubters that Islam can be secularized should consider the evidence coming from the most unlikely quarter of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Iranian Ayatollahs, in their moment of victory, did not proceed to restore the Islamic Caliphate-and there was a Shi’i Caliphate in Muslim history-nor did they erect an Imamate or vice-Imamate, but proceeded to establish a republic for the first time in Iran’s long history. The republic had popular elections, a constituent assembly, a parliament (where real debates take place), a president, a council of ministers, political factions, a constitution (which is a clone of the 1958 French Constitution), a kind of supreme court and so on, all of which has absolutely nothing to do with Islam as history, orthodoxy, and dogma, but everything to do with the practices and institutions of modern Europe. What makes this phenomenon doubly important is the fact that the Iranian clerics and guardians of Shi’i orthodoxy have always been ferocious opponents of republics, denouncing them as absolutely un-Islamic. They had successfully frustrated all previous attempts at declaring Iran a republic by earlier reforming rulers.

Note also that, in spite of the Islamic idiom, the politico-ideological discourses of the Iranian clerics and guardians of correct belief are substantively dictated by the historical “Yes” of the present socio-economic-political conjuncture rather than the exigencies of the dogmatic “No” of orthodoxy. This is why we find the public discourses of Iran’s ruling mullas dealing not so much with theology, dogma, and the Caliphate and/or Imamate, but with economic planning, social reform, re-distribution of wealth without forgetting such issues as identity and modernization. Consider the following words of admonition addressed by a Third World leader to the country’s religious schools:

If you pay no attention to the politics of the imperialists and consider religion to be simply the few topics you are always studying and never go beyond them, then the imperialists will leave you alone. Pray as much as you like: it is your oil they are after-why should they worry about your prayers? They are after our minerals, and want to turn our country into a market for their goods. That is the reason why the puppet governments they have installed prevent us from industrializing, and instead establish only assembly plants and industry that is dependent on the outside world.

These could have been easily the words of such secular leaders of the sixties as President Nasser of Egypt, President Sukarno of Indonesia, and/or the very early Fidel Castro of Cuba, but they are in fact the words of Ayatollah Khomeini himself.

The clash between traditional dogmatism and new ideas tends to work itself out in human affairs and societies quite violently with all the attendant destructions, dislocations, and innovative outcomes. This is attested to historically by the ever-recurring inter-Islamic civil wars and insurrections and at present by the current violence of fundamentalist Islam.

To be noted in this connection is the fact that in such key countries as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Turkey hardly anything is run anymore according to Islamic precepts, administered along the lines of sharia law, or functions in conformity with theological doctrines and/or teachings. Outside the realm of individual belief the role of Islam has unquestionably receded to the periphery of public life. In other words, inspect, in any one of those states, the factory, the bank, the market place, the officer corps, the political party, the state apparatuses, the school, the university, the laboratory, the courthouse, arts organizations, the media and you will quickly realize that there is very little religion left in them.

Split Personality

Even in a state like Saudi Arabia where the ruling tribal elite wraps itself so conspicuously in the mantels of strict Muslim orthodoxy, moral purity, bedouin austerity, and social uprightness, the contradiction between outward official pretense on the one hand and real life on the other has become so wide, sharp, and explosive that those still taking religious pretenses seriously staged an armed insurrection at a Meccan holy shrine in 1979, shaking the kingdom to its foundations in the process. The declared goal was no more than rectifying the schizophrenic condition, i.e., putting an end to that ludicrous discrepancy between official ideology and reality by bringing the substance of Saudi life again in strict conformity with religious orthodoxy.

In the above-mentioned countries, the modern secular-nationalist calendar, with its new holidays, symbols, heroes, and ceremonies has come to fill the public square, relegating the old religious calendar and its landmarks to the margins of public life. This is why the truly radical Muslim fundamentalists complain not so much about the unsecularizability of Islam, but rather about the absence of Islam from all realms of human activity, because it has been reduced to mere prayer, the fast, the pilgrimage and alms giving, about how “Islam faces today the worst ordeal in its existence as a result of materialism, individualism and nationalism,” about how “school and university curricula, though not openly critical of religion, effectively subvert the Islamic world-picture and its attendant practices,” about how “the history of Islam and the Arabs is written, taught and explained without reference to divine intervention causal or otherwise,” about how “modern and nominally Muslim nation-states, though they never declare a separation of State and Mosque, they, nonetheless, subvert Islam as a way of life, as an all-encompassing spiritual and moral order, and as a normative integrative force by practicing a more sinister de facto form of functional separation of state and religion.” Obviously these radical fundamentalists have a superior appreciation of the nature of the modern forces and processes gnawing at the traditional fabric of Islam than the social scientists, and mainstream mullas who keep repeating the formula: “Islam is unsecularizable.”

Consequently, these radical insurrectionary Islamists keenly resent the fact that contemporary Islam has allowed its basic tenets to turn into optional beliefs and rituals. To reverse this seemingly irreversible trend they literally go to war in order to achieve what they call the re-Islamization of currently nominally Muslim societies.

They also resent the extent to which traditional gender hierarchies continue to be altered in contemporary Muslim societies. There is slow erosion of the traditional power of males over females accompanying such major social shifts as urbanization, the switch to the nuclear family, and the wider education, training, and gainful employment of women; the steady growth of opportunities attracting women from strictly traditional roles; the tendency towards egalitarian gender relations in marriage and life in general; the reproduction of society, through the socialization of children, according to norms that they regard as totally un-Islamic. There are militant demands for such measures as the re-imposition on women and children of the norms of traditional respect, obedience, gender segregation, and undivided loyalty to the male head of the household.

Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy of novels date the collapse of the male-dominated and dictatorially run traditional Muslim household in Cairo at exactly the moment of Egypt’s revolution against British colonial rule in 1919. The Muslim Brothers—the mother of all Islamic fundamentalisms in the Arab world—was founded a few years later as a reaction to the secularizing forces and processes unleashed by that revolution.

An excerpt from one of Naguib Mahfouz’s articles describes the murky and confused condition of a typical Cairene Muslim struggling with the paradoxes, generated daily by a long-term historical secularization process, glimpsed by most only intermittently and through a glass darkly:

He leads a contemporary [i.e., “modern”] life. He obeys civil and penal laws of Western origin and is involved in a complex tangle of social and economic transactions and is never certain to what extent these agree with or contradict his Islamic creed. Life carries him along in its current and he forgets his misgivings for a time until one Friday he hears the imam or reads the religious page in one of the papers, and the old misgivings come back with a certain fear. He realizes that in this new society he has been afflicted with a split personality: half of him believes, prays, fasts and makes the pilgrimage. The other half renders his values void in banks and courts and in the streets, even in the cinemas and theaters, perhaps even at home among his family before the television set.

This account feels so genuine and true to the actually lived experience of Muslims everywhere that no a priori unsecularizability formula should ever be allowed to obscure it.

The Political Plunge

One source of confusion concerning this question of unsecularizability lies, as it seems to me, in the fact that Arab societies never witnessed a high dramatic instant where the state is declared from the top secular and officially separate from religion as happened with the emergence of modern Turkey from the ashes of the First World War. This process attained its climactic moment in Mustafa Kemal’s (Ataturk) famous abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.

Now, to sensitize Western readers to the enormity of Mustafa Kemal’s act and the great dismay and shock it spread throughout the Muslim world at the time, all that is needed is a moment’s reflection over what would have happened had the triumphant Italian nationalists in 1871 proceeded to abolish the papacy-after annexing the papal domains to the Italian kingdom-instead of recognizing the pope’s sovereignty over the Vatican City and his spiritual leadership of all Roman Catholics everywhere. We know, of course, that in 1922, Ataturk did toy with the idea of an “Italian” solution to the problem of the Caliphate, but he ended up rejecting all such compromises to cut at the root all future legitimist claims and restorationist movements.

In contrast to the Turkish example, the secularization process in key Arab societies has been slow and hesitant. The same sort of climactic point could have come to pass at the hands of President Nasser of Egypt soon after the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (a heroic and immensely popular act all over the Arab world). But Nasser never took that step and the real high drama arrived with Islamic fundamentalism and armed insurrection.

The subscribers to the unsecularizability of Islam thesis, both East and West, should have received a rude shock from the way in which the Soviet Union collapsed. Some were expecting the break up of the “Evil Empire” to come at the hands of its Muslim people and components.Homo Islamicus will always revert to type under all circumstances and regardless of the nature and depth of the historical changes he may suffer or undergo.

The main components of the union that brought it down were Christian and in the European part of the empire. The Muslim republics inclined to the last minute in the direction of saving the communist union. Even after its collapse they did their best to attach themselves to its remnants, in spite of the neighboring models of revolutionary Islam in Iran and of armed insurrectionary Islam in Afghanistan.


(c) 2011 The Institute for Science and Human Values

The Council for Critical Studies in Religion is a Research Project of ISHV

The Judgement of the Dead

There are a number of reasons Christianity seems absurd to many people. In the third century, the pagan philosopher Porphyry blamed its speciousness on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, the “disgusting idea that bodies will be raised fom the grave,” with bits of desiccated flesh flying through the air like a fast rewind of an Egyptian plague. He poses the case of a boatload of Christian fishermen (recalling the fact that Jesus’ followers earned their keep that way) being wrecked at sea, their bodies eaten by sea creatures, regurgitated or defecated and swirled into the ocean depths where they mingle with sand and broken shell. Will these be raised up? Does the Christian God not have better things to do–because the Greek gods certainly did.


Since Porphyry’s day the treasury of Christian doctrine has increased dramatically, largely though not exclusively on the Catholic side: entries like the Real (physical) presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forgiveness of sin, and, related to both, the stature of the priest as an avatar of Jesus. Then there’s the Assumption of Mary (proclaimed 1950) not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (proclaimed 1854, and about her, not Him), and the doctrine of Purgatory, a tribute to why bad things happen to good people, based on a medieval credit-rating system where almost everyone had scores between 300 and 550 and had to pay back the debt in millennial installments of woe and agony. –Unless the Church intervened. And yes, still very much on the books.

Mind you, most Christians and many Catholics don’t believe these things anymore. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, 45% of Catholics hadn’t heard of the real presence, which means that almost half of practicing Catholics have no idea what they’re practicing. To hide their embarrassment, parishes are laying on weekly “Eucharistic Adoration” opportunities, the kind of labor my birthright-Irish grandmother found intrusive to her complacent religious life, thus not likely to attract the Facebook crowd to fall on their knees. Large numbers of Catholic girls think the Church’s teaching on abortion has an opt-out provision, or varies from diocese to diocese or priest to priest. They confuse it obviously with the celibacy rules.

I’ve often thought I’d like to give a course called “What You Don’t Know That You’re Expected to Believe Anyway,” as a balance to the Church’s course in “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You, So Let’s Not Talk About It.”

Which is exactly what’s happening in the Church. Since there has to be some connection between doctrinal literacy and belief, it isn’t shocking that the Church, along with its evangelical allies, has chosen to fight the battle for relevance in the forward trenches of sexual ethics and not on behalf of positions its adherents find boring–so early-second millennium.

Of the number of women having abortions who self-identify religiously, the statistics for Catholics and Protestants are dead-even at around 32% each. For Jews, less than 2%, but for other reasons. No wonder the cunning and soon-to-be saint John Paul II started his Gospel of Life movement, a recipe for being against war, capital punishment, murder, violence, and (by cross-ranking inclusion) abortion. His sainthood will be based on changing the subject from obedience and doctrine to love and peace. (For it!) and creating the illusion that almost everything else is a mystery and a symbol–though in this he has a very long tradition to fall back on. Hating abortion is the key symbol, and has hence become the core doctrine.

With respect to traditional doctrine, the sort of thing that had to do with fighting the devil and getting your soul to heaven, Catholic Christianity has become an episode of Fawlty Towers –the one where (confronted with German tourists but trying his best to be English about it) Basil reminds his staff, “Don’t mention the War.” Likewise, in these inattentive times, when Christianity is all about loving God through hating a woman’s right to choose, it’s important not to mention eschatology: Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell, the core of Christian faith.

So I want to mention it. Eschatology. The four last things.

Let’s talk about the second, since the first is pretty obvious and the third and fourth depend on the second. They are worth talking about because this is what the Church has a right to talk about, and also because in a shruggish kind of way many Jews believe it too, and in a much more robust way Protestants and Muslims believe it. We will be judged.

Let’s say that if you don’t believe in this, no fair calling yourself a Christian, whereas whatever you think about abortion is contingent on a theological principle. Its moral character is not self-explanatory without other ideas behind it. Abortion is a real decision, made by real people in real time, with real consequences. The church can declare it is wrong, sinful and hateful to God, but without judgement, the teaching is a bit toothless, isn’t it? You see my point.

The Christian church worked itself into a corner very early. The early and medieval church couldn’t promise heaven right away because they knew that the bodies of dead Christians weren’t spared the ravages of the grave. They looked just like dead pagans and Jews after six months. The doctrine of the soul, which the church copped from various writers and cobbled together over time (it isn’t biblical, not even New Testament) and blended with Jewish ideas of “resurrection,” was a great help: Bodies die, souls fly off somewhere, but if this is true they need to be judged quickly for what they’ve done “through the body.” Through the body–whose corrupt state pretty much tells you all you need to know about human nature.

Thus was born the Two-Judgement Theology of the Western Church. We are so important to God that he has time to judge us twice. A first, or particular judgement at the moment of death, a final judgement when body and soul are recombined on the Last Day.

The Last Judgement is not an appeal process. It’s reckoned that first and last will be identical in verdict and punishment, though the soul gets a head start on the body in enduring everlasting pain. The only reason for there being two is the distance between the reality of death (now) and the uncertainty of the time of the end of the world and Christ’s coming (then, when?). The Now is dull, personal and predictable. The Then is fiery and spectacular (cf. Mk 13) and brings with it that realignment of soul and body parts that caused Porphyry to break out in fits of laughter.

If this sounds complicated, imagine the capacity of an unpaid Irish nun to explain it to a skeptical twelve year old. Scenario: “Well, Joseph, you just ask too many questions, don’t you?”

The particular judgement has no textual support though there is a “source” that Christians tried to introduce into the mix by making people think it was old and Jewish, called The Testament of Abraham. It probably comes from the third century CE (AD) though some scholars want it to be older. It’s an entertaining fantasy of how an aged Abraham gets visions (very Christian visions) of angels and heaven–and judgement. He meets Michael, the “captain of the angels” (archangel) who is perpetually darting back and forth between the Oak of Mamre and heaven with messages. Heaven has gates. A tiny gate for the chosen few, a big gate that seems to be an elevator door to the netherworld:

“And Abraham asked the chief-captain Michael, What is this that we behold? And the chief-captain said, These things that thou seest, holy Abraham, are the judgment and recompense. And behold the angel holding the soul in his hand, and he brought it before the judge, and the judge said to one of the angels that served him, Open me this book, and find me the sins of this soul. And opening the book he found its sins and its righteousness equally balanced, and he neither gave it to the tormentors, nor to those that were saved, but set it in the midst.”

The tale even has reality TV-emanations: Abraham witnesses the judgement of a woman who is condemned for having sex with her daughter’s husband, killing her daughter, and then claiming she remembers nothing. Boooo! said the ancient studio audience.

The later history of the “particular judgement” is bland. It includes Tertullian’s idea that the distance between death and final judgement is a waiting period for the soul, full of excruciatingly conscious thoughts about where it fell short–but leaving open the possibility of a surprise reprieve; Hippolytus’s notion that the judgement is really like sorting beads, for future reference, when God decides to make the necklace; and–of course–Augustine. Liking structure more than evidence, he decides that at death souls are sorted into bundles (four in all) ranging from blessed to damned–but unlike Tertullian, no waiting–first come first served for the unambiguously saintly or beastly, like the 4.45 PM Seniors’ Special at a Florida restaurant. But note: there is no agreement here. Not one of these writers has any idea what he’s talking about. There is no control group, there are no interviews. Not even a good text worth debating. It is belief heaped on belief.

The discussion of Judgement up through the medieval period looms large. It connected to every other important doctrine, from saints, to sacraments, to what the Church could dispense to you through its “treasury of merits”–a fund of superfluous grace achieved by holy men and women who didn’t use up all they had–and the sale of indulgences. At the Reformation, largely due to Calvin, the growth of speculation and imagery was brought under control, but the belief that souls are judged after death (Calvin said, “consciously, so that they know their fate”) was retained.

Indulgence Certificate

The Big Deal, of course, is not merely what happens after you die but what happens when everything explodes and the Son of Man appears in the sky to call you home. That much, at least, is biblical–the core of Christian belief in the second coming, complete with a perennial Protestant temptation to pinpoint doomsday (the Old English word dome/doom means judgement) and humiliate your opponent with statistics drawn from the Book of Revelation, which he will call Revelations.

The Last Judgement was at least “Biblical”–which means simply that the idea of it could be located in scripture. Matthew 25 contains a significant passage about separating the sheep and goats, and there is a disturbing passage in Revelation 20.11-13 about the “dead” coming before a great white throne. As to how you get there, St Paul worried that the Corinthian Christians were asking too many questions. In one piece of guesswork (1 Thessalonians, maybe his literary debut) he thinks that we will all be swept up “to meet the Lord in the air”–frightening prospect; in another, that we will need a change of clothes before the interview, and so “will be changed [into a new kind of flesh] in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15.51-2). Either way, spectacular.

The Church fathers were limited in their guesswork by scriptural controls that didn’t apply to the “particular judgement” and the central belief that certain passages in Daniel and Isaiah could be used to prove that, at the time of judgement, the dead would be raised for the purpose of giving an account of themselves. Matthew gets so excited by the idea that (27.52-54) he has a few of the dead being raised “prematurely” at the time of the crucifixion, but then puts them on hold until the resurrection of Jesus, when they’re permitted to enter Jerusalem in their burial cloths.

And so, back to Porphyry. Why are the dead raised? To be judged. Why are they judged? Because death is not bad enough. The God of life, who made you to die, wants more from you. Wakened from a neural sleep they are roused to undergo torture or experience the pleasures of heaven–always unimpressively and unenticingly described in Christian thought.

Paradise, Persian

There are no virgins, or their male equivalents, or grapes, or nonintoxicating intoxicating beverages–no Paradise in the voluptuous Middle Eastern sense, not even in the Genesis Garden of Eden sense. Nothing that would make you want to be there for a minute, let alone eternally. The “vision of God,” that later became the reason for wanting to go to heaven, was Christianized platonic faddle from the early Middle Ages. Mark Twain had it right.

Worst of all, there will be lines. Long queues extending for centuries. Maybe the angels will let women who were at least six months pregnant when they died go first. –The ones who died because they killed themselves rather than tell their parents they were pregnant will go to hell. The ones who ended their pregnancies will go to hell. The ones who died because they were told they had to deliver a child, and ended up with pulmonary insufficiency because they couldn’t sustain a pregnancy at twelve years old will go to heaven. Such is the divine mystery. Such is the will of God.


What I ask is that the Church start talking about this again: something it has taught for two millennia. Something it claims to know about because it invented it. Talk about the texts. Talk about the disagreements, the stories, the history, the imagery. Talk about how Judgement happens, what to expect. Talk about the evidence. Do not say it is a mystery of faith, like the Eucharist. If it is, then say you don’t understand it either and stop talking about it. You cannot talk convincingly about the price of “sins” like abortion if you can’t explain this.

If I convert to Islam or profess my atheism loudly enough, can I be diverted to the Wide Gate and get started on my punishment? I would prefer that.

If I feel that I’m at least as virtuous as my church-going neighbor but happen to be a Buddhist, is there room for appeal?

And before anyone says I am asking silly questions and it is all much more complicated and mysterious than I am making it: ask your friendly priest or minister to explain what he believes, what his church teaches, and then get back to me.

Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No

I have come to the following conclusion: Scholarship devoted to the question of the historicity of Jesus, while not a total waste of time, could be better spent gardening.

In this essay, however, I will focus on why it is not a total waste of time.

What seemed to be an endlessly fascinating question in the nineteenth century among a few Dutch and German radical theologians (given a splash of new life by re-discoverers of the radical tradition, such as G A Wells, in the twentieth) now bears the scent and traces of Victorian wallpaper.

Van Eysinga

Theologians in the “mainstream academic tradition” have always been reluctant to touch the subject because, after all, seminaries do not exist, nor for that matter departments of religious studies, to teach courses in the Christ Myth. For that reason, if the topic is given syllabus space at all it is given insufficient space and treated as the opposite of where sober, objective scholarly inquiry will take you in New Testament studies.

It sometimes, but not often or generally enough, occurs to my colleagues that much of what passes for real scholarship is equally slipshod, constructed on equivalently shaky and speculative premises and serviced by theories so artificial (Q, for example) that (to quote myself in the introduction to George Wells’s The Jesus Legend) it can make the theory that Jesus never existed a welcome relief from the noise of new ideas.

I umpired what was (as far as I know) the only direct conversation between George Wells and Morton Smith (Jesus the Magician, 1978) in 1985, in Ann Arbor Michigan. On that occasion, Smith said naughtily that “the only thing Professor Wells and I have in common is that we each hold a theory that the other regards as absurd.” So much for “real templates.” Especially ones that ask us to accept that “everything we have previously learned is wrong.” Not even the Novum Organum asks us to believe in that kind of paradigm shift. As for myself, the only thing I have in common with both those who want to argue the myth theory as a provable hypothesis and those who believe the gospels provide good evidence for the life of Jesus is that we are probably all wrong.

Arthur Drews

I accept that most of what we have learned about Jesus is “wrong” in one sense or another. Almost all of what the churches have taught about him–the christology that undergirds the doctrines of the Christian traditions, for example–is wrong at a literal level. It has to be because it is based on doctrines derived from a naive supernaturalist reading of sacred texts whose critical assessment had not even been contemplated before the eighteenth century.

But so too, the critical assessment is wrong, because it has been motivated by a belief that by removing the husks of dogmatic accretion–a process initiated by Luther’s liberal scholastic predecessors, in fact–a level of actuality would eventually be reached. There would be an assured minimum of truth (often assumed by the end of the 19th century to be primarily ethical rather than Christological, as doctrines like ascension and virgin birth were sent to the attic) which some historians on both the Catholic modernist and Protestant side thought would be unassailable.

It never happened of course, and the great conclusion to the whole enterprise after notable false stops in the twentieth century was the Jesus Seminar. It was never clear to me how a methodology with its roots tangled in a kind of cloddish German academic hubris (husk, husk, husk, sort and sift) could come to a salutary end. And it didn’t, unless we can assume that giving birth to a Jesus who said nothing for certain and might have said anything at all is a “result.”


I admit to being a bit prickly on the subject, having finally concluded that the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus. Some of my reasons for saying so are laid out in a series of essays included in the anthology Sources of the Jesus Tradition, coming out in August. The main argument for Jesus-agnosticism is being developed in a more ambitious study, The Jesus Prospect, for which watch this and other spaces. (The prologue on method will be ready later in 2010.)

But before all of that, let me say a few words about why I believe Christianity benefits from discussions like this, and especially from Jesus-agnosticism (as opposed to Jesus-loving and Jesus-denying scholarship)–without ever having formally to acknowledge them.

For just over four years of my academic life I have taught in predominantly Muslim universities. Both were highly selective places, the sort of institutions contrived to train “tomorrow’s leaders,” highly aware and critical of the dangers of madrasah education, more than willing to make judicious room for the comparative study of religion. But secular approaches to the Quran were not high on the agenda of either place. Even in “liberal” circles in the Islamic world there is an enclosure for religion which is to be treated respectfully, or ignored, but not questioned extensively.

American University of Beirut, Main Gate, blt 1866

The question of the historicity of Jesus does not arise naturally in Islam–or I should say among believers–any more than the “question” of Muhammad naturally arises. The status of Jesus in Islam is assured not because he is the star of the New Testament but because as Issa he is a a revered figure in Islam. He is not the unique prophet. He is not the way, truth and life. People do not “get” to Allah through him. But he is sui generis. That is, he is an indispensable rung in a ladder that leads to God through the Prophet who is unique: Muhammad.

Myth-theorists, to the extent they pay attention to other religions, tend to regard Muslim belief with the same defensive disdain one often associates with Christian fundamentalists’ view of Islam: Islam is later, derivative, probably bogus (they reason); Muslim rejection of what the prior tradition specifies about Jesus, fatally injures their own contingent tradition. –As Jesus goes, so goes Muhammad. Revelation is whole cloth, not patchwork, and it is often more annoying than interesting to Christians (and some secularists) that Islam seems to be a sequel to the Bible with a slightly revised cast of characters and substantially revised course of events.

Isa in Turkish Islamic art

Needless (I hope) to comment that western views of the sort described above are ignorant. Jesus’ “role” in Muslim teaching does not depend on any Christian beliefs about Jesus but on the Quranic incorporation of Jesus. The status of Jesus in Islam is contingent on Islam, not Christian teaching about Jesus. Muhammad ur-rasul Allah: The Prophet is the seal (guarantor) of the prophets and at the absolute center of a religious cosmos–which nevertheless includes satellites like Jesus, David, and Abraham in orbit around him.

“Say, ‘I am only a man like yourselves; (but) I have received the revelation that your God is only One God. So let him,
who hopes to meet his Lord, do good deeds, and let him join
no one in the worship of his Lord!’ [Surah Al-Kahf 18 :lll).

Interestingly, however, this apparent protest of humility actually enhances the prophet’s stature. He’s an earthen vessel, but all the more credible because he bears human testimony to the miraculous and to the reality of a personal encounter with the divine will. More than the scholars of Islam, the sufis and mystics would preserve this belief.

To the extent this encounter is reflected in prior religious traditions, Muhammad is more a prophet like Moses on Sinai than a water-walking miracle-worker like Jesus. Maybe this signals a continuity of desert tradition largely missing in the artifice of Christianity, but the Quran is far more Torah than Gospel. The directness of the dialogue between Allah and the Recorder, Muhammad himself, is the directness of the instructions of Yahweh to Moses. True, in Islamic tradition Muhammad is sometimes credited with miracles, like splitting the moon (a gloss of Surah 54.1-2). But “orthodox” Islam in its sectarian complexity does not tie itself to these supernatural occurrences: the final miracle of Islam is the Quran itself and the place of Muhammad in its promulgation. What he said, did, and taught (and there are plenty of hadith projects in departments of Islamic theology devoted to just that question) are of secondary consequence. It is vital that he existed because without that the divine will would never have been known in an authentic form and the correction of existing inauthentic forms, like the biblical tradition, would never have taken place.

The Annunciation in Islamic Context

Odd, then, that the historicity of Jesus should be of any concern at all in relation to a person whose humanity, in the letters of Paul and in the gospels (to a lesser extent, perhaps) is of no consequence to the core tradition. The battle of the post-New Testament period in the early Church, as Harnack recognized, was not to define the divinity of Jesus but to defend his humanity.

What’s usually missed in the discussion of the war between right and wrong believers before 325 is that both camps agreed on the essentials: whatever else Jesus was, “human” doesn’t do justice to it. The bitterness of battle, and the cheer-leading that has gone on for the victors ever since, leads us away from the fact that even the pro-humanity orthodox camp did not leave us with an historical figure but with a luminescent god-man whose finger perpetually points to his own breast as the source and explanation for his mission to earth.

Mission to earth? Yesterday’s gnosticism is today’s science fiction. It is all too easy to fall into gnosticism or science fiction when we examine such images in the writings, art, and liturgy of the church. Especially if we also see religion, more generally, as a species of superstition–resurrections and ascensions into heaven as undiagnosed instances of mass obsessional disorder.

Women at the Tomb

But to discover elements of the fantastic in religions like Christianity and Islam, vestiges of thought-processes that fail our requirements for modernity, is not the same as “demonstrating” that religion is fantasy.

Love, fear, joy, pleasure, mother-love, and compassion equally have their origins in emotion and human evolution and are nonetheless “real” in daily life–indeed, shape daily life–constantly expressing themselves in thought and action. Religion consolidates these aspects of existence in a way that simple curiosity and information does not. It roots them not in the self but in something external, like God, or incarnates them in messengers like Jesus and metaphors like sin, forgiveness and redemption. That is what is going on in the New Testament, not an episode of To Tell the Truth.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

For this reason–starting with a certain lack of profundity—it is difficult not to find the musings of (many) myth-theorists frankly ridiculous. The early church found the historical Jesus all but unnecessary: that is the story. They found his humanity necessary as a theological premise, because they could not quite grasp the concept of disembodied divinity. Besides, a god without humanity could scarcely be expected to comprehend human suffering, or desire to do anything about it. History did not require Jesus; emotion did. It required as well the incredible and fantastic aspects of his personality. History required Muhammad and the non-divinity of Muhammad for other reasons. That is why the two traditions are different.

I say could not “quite grasp” the idea of a disincarnated divinity because some of the Christian fathers flirted with Neoplatonism–Clement of Alexandria, for example–and they were saved by a pragmatic hair from being gnostics themselves, as I think–if we are being honest and not pedantic–the author of the Gospel of John was.
The writer’s tortured theological prologue is our best evidence of the philosophical dilemma confronting some early christian communities.

Clement of Alexandria

But the true (non-Christian) Neoplatonists like Porphyry despised Christianity because, they said, a disembodied divinity is the only form divinity takes. To reach the far-distant god of a Plotinus you need not just a little water, a few words to a confessor and a healthy appreciation for the Eucharist but a very big invisible ladder and the annihilation of all fleshly encumbrances.

Stuck with the Bible, the gospel, a growing body of doctrine, necessitated by struggles with heretics, and the religious demands of a growing community–a lot of weight to carry–Christianity could not very easily take the turn toward disembodied and denatured divinity. If, for the pagans, the resurrection of the flesh was a nauseating idea, for the Christians it became a useful absurdity and the prelude to two millennia of “paradoxical” theology. The earliest shapers of Islamic thought were scarcely seduced by ingenious verbal strategies for mixing and mingling the human and divine: Muhammad therefore stayed vigorously human.

If, as I think, the church was largely successful in subduing the humanity of Jesus while insisting as a strictly dogmatic matter that he was both fully human and fully divine (historical and unhistorical, as in John 1.1-15?), why still bother to ask about whether he “really” existed. Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed? It is not the same as asking whether Muhammad existed since nothing but one kind of reality has ever been claimed for him, and that is historical.

My defense of debates and discussion of the historical Jesus is not based on any confidence that something new is going to be discovered, or some persuasive “template” found that will decide for us a question that the early Christian obviously regarded as irrelevant. Still less is it based on some notion that the Church will retract the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union, clearing the way for an impartial investigation into the life of Jesus. That is already possible, and as always before the journey gets us to the front door of the Church. Nothing has been more depressing than the search for the Jesus of history, and nothing more hollow than the shouts of scholars who have claimed to find him. Except the shouts of scholars who claim there is nothing to find.

Not that the shapers of the Jesus tradition, whatever their real names were, should have the final say, but they did draw the map and bury the treasure. We are the victims of their indifference to the question.

The really good news is that to the extent we don’t know who Jesus was or even whether he was, Christianity is spared the awful theological and religious certitude that drives Islam to do sometimes outrageous and violent things in defense of that certainty, the totalizing imperative that all religions in their history have struggled to keep in the cave.

The incredibility of the divine and the uncertainty of the human is a potent defense against a totalizing imperative, an inadvertent safeguard created by the extravagance of early doctrine. The vulnerability of Christianity is a vulnerability created by critical examination of its sacred writings–the legacy of its scholars, including its religious scholars, its secular scholars, and even scholars whose speculation outruns caution and evidence. It was Christian scholarship that first put Christianity at risk. Islamic scholarship has played no equivalent role in relation to Islam.

In the end, Jesus and Muhammad are more unalike than alike. If both are unique, they are unique in different ways and not because either’s claim to invulnerable authority can be treated as true or false on the basis of evidence.

Because of accidental but real historical circumstances, inquiry has invulnerated the Christian tradition in a way that has yet to happen, and may never happen, in Islam. If it does happen, it will not be because the west compels it, or because science requires it or because secularism requires it. Islam is not in retreat from the forces of reason. It will certainly not happen because some absurd theorists, mainly western, under-informed and under-equipped, and working on western assumptions, claim that (like Jesus?) Muhammad never existed.

But that is a subject for another time…

“Drawing Muhammad”? Free Speech and Fake Goods

In general, I am in favor of free speech. The sole exception being when my sixteen year old daughter talks through re-runs of Seinfeld or Frasier.

I have even gone on (nuanced) record as saying that no one should be put to death for trying to represent the Prophet of Islam. My final verdict on the Danish cartoon debacle a few years ago is that the Danes aren’t very funny. No wonder Hamlet never smiled.

Not that anyone has the foggiest idea what Muhammad looked like, making the idea of “caricature” about as useful as painting Moses with eye shadow and ringlets. Oh wait: he probably did use eye shadow and have ringlets, at least until he discovered he was a son of Israel and not a prince of Egypt. My bad.

In general however: it is a bad idea to threaten someone for disparaging your religion. Especially when the disparagement in question does not even rise to the level of sophisticated satire, let alone to a level where it should be a test case in free speech.

I personally favor a United Nations Commission for Insult and Indignation (there’s one for everything, anyway) to vet all cases where insult or defamation has been alleged. The Commission (I am glad to offer my services as its first director) would distinguish between (1) “really good satire,” (2) “disgusting and unfunny ridicule,” (3) “pathetic attempt at humor”, and (4) “potentially blasphemous and insulting, even to bystanders.” It would take a unanimous vote of the Commission for anything to achieve level (4), which would require the offenders to dress up like altar boys and spend a weekend in a rectory.

I don’t have a category for “literary” works considered to be blasphemous but apparently the Nobel Committee does, which is why Salman Rushdie will never win the prize for Literature.

All of this is to say, that the rudderless and publicity-starved “Center for Inquiry” is at it again. And (according to the legal puritans in Buffalo) it’s all about free speech.

In its latest attempt to appear useful, CFI comes to the unsolicited defense of two improbable offenders: South Park and a contest to “Draw Muhammad” that never really got off the ground.

Religions have traditionally bristled when their core doctrines have been lampooned. South Park‘s spin is usually tasteless (Who doesn’t hum “Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo” during the holy season? Who can forget the vision of the Future in the Go God Go episode, when Cartman can’t wait three weeks until the Wii console is available and is transported into an atheist future where Richard Dawkins has become a messiah?)

When South Park “does” religion, it can be sweepingly irreverent and occasionally poignant. It is sometimes offensive,as Comedy Central discovered when it received veiled threats from an Islamic organization based in New York over its 200th episode where Muhammad is “represented” as being inside a bear suit.

The episode has attracted attention in the blogosphere, with young Muslim South Park fans expressing reactions ranging from “disappointment” to anger and frustration. A viewer named Bilal el-Houri says that Muslims should take the episode and the furore as a wake-up call, and instead of grunting, boycotting and screaming should be asking themselves why these depictions are now standard.

The so-called threat comes from a certain Abu Talhah al Amrikee and is pretty dull: “It’s not a threat, but it [violence] really is a likely outcome. They’re going to be basically on a list in the back of the minds of a large number of Muslims. It’s just the reality.” The show’s producers didn’t know that was a likely outcome? Really?

Good satire is supposed to annoy the satiree–otherwise no game. And it is merely masturbatory for a secular advocacy group to enter the picture with a typically onerous lecture on how South Park has a right to be offensive. We know that. That’s why we watch it. Not because we see every episode as a cannon shot for free expression.

Besides, some young bloggers thought the South Park episode was less funny than it was deliberately provocative, a crass bet on a sure-fire reaction to any attempt to insult the Prophet. Wrote Sher Zeinab, “2 b honest 200 episode wasnt funny at all to me!” She then added, “Bringing Mohammad back! when you know it is a sensitive issue […] seems to me southpark is running out of ideas!!! that angle just brought everything down.”

In other words, South Park got what it wanted, or maybe more than it bargained for, with Episode 200–the same way you might get a faceful if you tell fat Mrs Murphy, your annoying neighbor, a series of “Yo mama is so fat” jokes. Are you really going to the cops when she tells you to desist or she’ll sik her Rottweiler on you?

Taste and discretion are not essential considerations if you just want to be tasteless and indiscreet, but the question of motive does arise. Free Speech? Solidarity? Puhleez. Save it for real cases of censorship.

That brings me back to my drum. Surely if secularists and atheists have the right to satire and what they are self-describing as “blasphemy,” offended parties have the right to bristle. Listen, atheists: no such thing as a free ride. Your right to deliver insult is matched by my right to be offended and to call you a tasteless cur. No good whining about your right to be dull and overbearing when I do–not even when I say–hyperbolically of course–that you need a good thrashing for your lack of manners and civility.

If you think the pope molests little boys, as a winning cartoon in the CFI Cartoon Cavalcade suggests, then be prepared for the Catholic Church to cry foul.

When Arabs produce cartoons of Jews eating Palestinians, prepare for the Jews to disagree.

Sharon as Cronus

And if Muslims cringe and mumble threats when they see their religion pilloried on South Park or by a desperate Seattle News cartoonist looking for spin (bad idea after a bad night at the bar?), please don’t try to sell this to me as real jewels: they aren’t.

They’re publicity stunts, nothing more. Not only that, but in a world where religious emotions are running high on our crowded planet they are stunts that raise the temperature–like yelling fire in a crowded theatre, nudge nudge.

It has been a long time since an atheist was burned at the stake for his unbelief or a philosopher roasted on a spit for being an Epicurean. Not so long for Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and even Catholics. Given a complicated recent history I’m not sure that South Park‘s post-religious take on heaven or its enviable skill in stirring the pot of religious sensitivities is the place for a serious meeting of minds on the question of free expression and tolerance.

The right to criticism and insult is, surely, the low bench mark in what the doctrine of free expression is all about. The principle does not command the assent of the offended: it condones vigorous disagreement and defense. And to call every case of disagreement and even “veiled threats” and overreaction an attack on the Constitutional guarantee of free speech reaches so far beyond common sense and sound judgment that it is difficult to know whether the atheist Lilliputians are really really afraid Gulliver is trampling on their rights or are simply inventing him to scare others.

The Theology of Regret: Making the Pope Say ‘Sorry’


When will the Pope apologize to the Muslims for those perfectly awful things he apologized for in September, 2006? The case where he quoted (and took exception to) the words of a 14th century Christian emperor who said some rather nasty things about Islam being violent. Where would anyone get such a crazy idea?

During his trip to Jordan, the pope was given low marks by CNN and the BBC for his failure to “apologize” to the Muslim world (or was it Muslim leaders, and who are they?) for his address in September 2006 to the Faculty at Regensburg where he was once Professor of Theology.

To demystify this event (most Muslims know only that the pope is thought to have said something horrible and have no idea of what went on), here is what he said:

“The emperor [Manuel II Pailailogos in 1391] must have known that [Qur’an] sura 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body.”

The pope had said that the emperor’s comments were delivered with “a brusqueness that we would find startling,” but he also points to a little-heeded fact that Manuel seems to have been alert to, and the savvy Rat zinger will not have missed: that Muslim Christian dialogue depends on how the concept of God works itself out in a particular theology. Ever the teacher, and now the only one that matters in the Catholic church, Benedict was not going to let this point get away from his audience.

Despite what you may have read about Crusaders and forced conversions to Christianity, the unanimous position of the western church since the time of Gregory I (7th century) has been that a forced conversion is no conversion at all because it deprives the potential beneficiary of free choice. As the act is irrational (good to be able to bring Aquinas in at this point) it cannot be beneficial. It’s needful to say, the Church did not always stick to its principles and forced conversions of Jews and heretics were an occasional part of the religious landscape of medieval Europe.

But the general point is important: to act contrary to reason is to act contrary to the nature of God as he is understood in Latin theology. Violence is unreasonable as a means of promoting religion.

The pope went on:

“To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. [the Pope then goes on to quote the word of the Byzantine scholar, Theodore Khoury, “For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Muslim R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.”

I think the pope is onto something, but it’s nothing he can apologize for. He is saying that the concept of God as it has evolved in the Church since the Middle Ages has increasingly merged with the concept of reason. Aquinas’ job at Paris was to theologize about the relationship between reason and faith, and he gets at least an A- for the effort. Using Aristotle to maximum advantage, Thomas reserved faith as mode of “knowing” for those cases where natural reason failed to provide the answer—for example: God can be known through reason because he is rationality itself. The trinity is a mystery accessible only through faith. Yet the mysteries of faith (he thought) were never incompatible with reason.

Some Muslim scholars were on the same path prior to the desolation of Baghdad in 1258 (Aquinas died in 1274), but the fourteenth century brought the beginning of intellectual torpor to the Muslim world. Interesting speculation ends up as an unfinished paragraph

Crouching behind a couple of authorities he obviously admires, the Pope suggested that the Islamic doctrine of God as having a transcendent will makes irrational action possible. It wasn’t an especially modern recognition, just one that needed reiteration, he felt. Nor was this interpretation of Aristotle unique to Muslim scholars. Aquinas sorted through the thorniest of Aristotle’s dilemmas and quieted the radical Franciscan school at Paris—the friars that broke their heads against problems like whether God being God could send righteous souls to hell to exhibit his omnipotence. Thomas hushes them by saying that God can do nothing contrary to his nature, and his nature is infinite reason. Things like power and goodness and knowledge will work in conformity with the divine nature, not contrary to it.

Islam opted for the idea that God’s freedom is absolute, and consequently for the belief that his will is unconstrained by a paltry thing like “reason.” It is what makes irrational behavior like violence possible in a situation—say—where God’s will is known and the means to achieve is force. If God’s revealed will is the domination of Islam over other religions and people, there is little reason to convene a council to ask whether violent action is “reasonable.”

If Christians could say, “Thy will be done–under certain conditions that have to meet the criteria for moral action and reasonable consequences” (which is a good Aristotelian response) the typical Muslim response of “Inshallah”—according to God’s will, is a much more incisive statement. It will happen according to God’s will, only if God wills it.

It is a shame that Professor Ratzinger’s words were attacked because they were considered insulting to Muslims. They were much more dangerous than that

Measuring the Truth of the Book


All religions make truth claims. These may be specific, as in the form of particular doctrines—heaven, hell, the trinity, the virginity of Mary—or more general: the finality of the Prophet, the exclusive role of the Church as a means of grace and salvation, the belief in the divine election of the Jews.

What is not so widely acknowledged is that these claims of truth are supported by a set of rationales, or to use Van Harvey’s famous term, “warrants” that provide security and confidence to adherents of the religious tradition.

The warrants are seldom available in the sacred writings and doctrines explicitly, but they are often observable in teaching, interpretation and conduct. The three book religions, which often have been referred to as “Abrahamic” actually have quite different warrants for their truth claims.

Warrants in religion are a kind of pseudo-empiricism—a quantification of truth value. Like empirical tests, warrants are susceptive of disconfirmation—being proved false—at least in theory. A warrant is not a doctrine, but a justification for religions to “do as they do”; they empower belief and practice by creating benchmarks for the success, prestige or dominance of a religious tradition—often through comparison to rival traditions.

For example, in some forms of millennarian religion predictions of the end-time have been recorded with remarkable precision. The habit goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Joseph the Galilean, a contemporary of Hyrcanus and Azariah, who thought the Messiah would come in three generations (60 years), after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The messiah failed to arrive, however, and the nominee for the position, Shimeon bar Kochba died a humiliating death at Roman hands in 135. End-time prophecies continued with the Christian Hippolytus’ calculation that 5,500 years separated Adam and Christ and that the life of the world was “6,000, six full ‘days’ of years until the seventh, the day of rest.” His calculations in 234 indicated there were still two centuries left. Two millennia of apocalyptic forecasting lay in store. The “prophet” Moses David of The Children of God faith group predicted that the Battle of Armageddon would take place in 1986 whenRussia would defeat Israel and the United States. A worldwide Communist dictatorship would be established, and in 1993, Christ would return to earth.

Apocalypticism is conspicuously subject to disconfirmation and its calculations have—quite obviously–never been accurate, as Simon Pearson has documented in his popular survey, A Brief History of the End of the World (2006). Just as surprising though is the amazing ability of apocalyptic movements to regenerate themselves: this or that cult or movement may die away through embarrassment and loss of faith and members, but the phenomenon itself is tied to a (more or less) naturalistic belief in the beginning and end of things, and theological constructions of that belief to include ideas of judgment, reward and punishment.

All three of the book religions, at bottom, believe in the last three of these ideas—the end of the world and the judgment of humankind. The mechanism and details differ slightly, with Christianity and Islam being historically more tied to eschatology (the belief in the final destiny and dispensation of the human race by god). In fact, it would be more accurate to call the three “Abrahamic” faiths the eschatological traditions because of their common belief that the relationship between God and the human race is personal and moral rather than abstract. The belief in judgment is most vivid in Islam, less so in Christianity, and highly controversial in Judaism—where, nevertheless, since Hellenistic times, it has featured significantly.

If eschatology is a core belief in the three book religions, it is fair to ask what mechanisms (warrants) have been used to procure the success of these traditions in the face of disconfirmation?

Just as any case of eschatological “disconfirmation” (a failed apocalyptic event) weakens the overall strength of a warrant, so too the collapse of a warrant will lead to general doubts about the truth claims of the religion. This religious domino effect is most clear when the eschatology is strong.

For example, messianic Judaism of the period after the Babylonian captivity (6th century BCE) is relatively well attested. Most Jewish apocalyptic literature is not written until after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE (most even later) and the disintegration of the Hellenistic world he created. Between the time of the Persian hegemony over Palestine, right through to the period of Roman domination, the apocalyptic spirit—an acute sense that the times are out of joint, that God is at the end of his wits waiting for things to right themselves, and that divine intervention is imminent—is at a high pitch. But while the spirit may have been feverish, solutions did not arrive on schedule, and when they did they were not the solutions the Jews had been expecting.

Apocalypticism ends with a massive crash: the Roman assault of 66-70 CE–the burning and looting of the temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, a century of uneasy détente followed by a second blow with an edict that Jerusalem was henceforth off limits to Jews and that a pagan shrine would be built on the temple site. This is not coincidentally the period when messianism, originally a political movement, later a more spiritual one, was most in evidence. But the hope for a messiah was repeatedly disconfirmed by circumstance, loss, and disappointment. The “truth” of Judaism and beliefs subordinate to its eschatology, had to be sacrificed at an empirical level for more secular goals and a this-worldly focus on ethics. In strictly historical terms, the truth claims of Judaism were untruthed. All else is adaptation and interpretation.

The Jewish situation cannot be understood properly without looking at its foster child, Christianity. Whatever else may be claimed about this religion, it is undeniably Jewish, eschatological, and messianic in its origins. It belongs specifically to the time when Judaism was the most fraught with expectation, and some of its apocalyptic books, and passages from the gospels (such as Mark 13) are literally taken wholesale from Jewish writings such as IV Esdras and I Enoch.

Christianity survived for just under a century under what scholars used to call the cloud of
“imminent eschatology,” and what one scholar has called “prolonged disappointment”. By looking backward and forward, it appropriated and reinterpreted passages from the Hebrew prophets to apply to their messianic hero. This point of conjunction is often overlooked in exchange for the belief that Christianity somehow forged quickly ahead of Judaism and looked back only occasionally and when necessary. In fact, as the second century Marcionite crisis showed, Christianity could not go it alone. It needed the “witness” of scripture—the Hebrew Bible–and the promises of the prophets to make sense of its emerging belief system. It required Jewish atonement theology to explain the significance of the crucifixion. It did not claim a new finality but completion of a process. It did not (except very rarely) challenge the wording of the Hebrew Bible or rewrite the prophecies or produce targums of Jesus setting it all straight. It became skilled at allegorical interpretation, in its own theological service, but also made reference to the rabbis. Christianity was not the shock of the new but the old repackaged for sale to gentiles,

Above all, beginning with Paul, it was messianic. And its first crisis, as we gather from passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5.2 and 2 Peter 3.4-6 concerned the delay in the return of the messiah. When that event—the second coming that would vindicate the unexpected failure of the first—did not happen, Christians were confronted with a crisis that could only be rationalized organically.

Two things distinguish the Christian reaction to eschatological failure from the Jewish response, however. First, Christianity was much more concerned with the belief in resurrection than with belief in messiahship. Its happenstansical withdrawal from the Jewish world at the end of the first century immunized it to a certain extent from the effects of disconfirmation—or at least, bought it some time. Truth was focused on the larger event which (though tied to eschatology) was not seen to be identical to it in the gentile world, where Christianity gained the most ground. And in the gentile world at least, even the emphasis of the “judgment aspects” of resurrection were deemphasized in favour of its promise of immortality—a theme long revered by the Greeks and Romans. Later on, in the onslaught of death, plague and war, the emphasis on judgment and the cruder aspects of the afterlife would reemerge in the middle ages. But during the period when Christianity was most at risk of being another disconfirmed Jewish messianic movement, it survived by changing the subject. Indeed, it may have been Paul who changed it –as early at the 50’s of the 1st century.

As the resurrection faith, a religion of expectation, Christianity survived through a proclamation of a risen lord “who will come again.” Its truth claims were protected through procrastination—not that any individual Christian or church or hierarchy was aware of the strategy. No “groupthink” was involved and no council could have been called to resolve the issue. The response seems to have been organic and somewhat reflexive—but crucially it meant that Christianity could not be untruthed until such time as Jesus did or did not come, and no one knew precisely when that time was: the psychology of prolonged expectation prevailed over the psychology of prolonged disappointment. In a word, “faith.”

Islam is related to its cousin traditions in a contorted way. Like Christianity, it claimed to be a common heir of the Abrahamic traditions. Unlike Judaism, it taught that much of that tradition had been corrupted by false prophets and evildoers. Like Christianity, it claimed a continuum with the prophets of old; unlike Christianity it made little use of any specific passages of the Hebrew bible, did not incorporate it into its own sacred library, and did not regard the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood to be based on any adumbration in the books of the Jews or Christians.

This was important, because the legitimacy of Christianity was theoretically dependent on the sheer fact of the Old Testament (rightly interpreted) and its soteriological system being applied to the death of Jesus—the atoning sacrifice for sins. Islam like Christianity understood itself as somehow connected to the past, but disconnected from most of its theology and in large part from its literary tradition. In particular it was disconnected from Jewish and Christian soteriology: the God of the Prophet does not suffer the sin of the people but rather judges them according to his fiat, the Qur’an. The connecting fiber that joined Christianity to Judaism was decisively cut by Islamic rejection of the ancient idea of atonement.

The extent to which the earliest teachers of Islam felt able to appropriate the Judeo-Christian sources ex post facto is a subject of some discussion, but whatever the reasons for the disuse of the prior claimants to the Abrahamic faith, Islam alone found error not merely in interpretation but in the sources themselves. The idea of error was both tied to and a consequence of the doctrine of finality: Muhammad is the prophet of God in a conclusive and indubitable sense. What is contained in the book revealed to him is true beyond question.

The messianism of the two older traditions depended in different ways on verification. Even the New Testament, whose messianic claims are undone by historical outcomes, asks believers to look to the skies, but the portents and signs can only be understood by looking backward (Mark 13.14-16).

Judaism and Christianity saw the events of the end-time as suprahistorical happenings whose occurrence could only be understood prophetically. By sacrificing the “backward look” to the idea of finality Islam created a new understanding of prophecy, whereby ‘non-prophets’ could be adopted simply because they were believed to have lived in an age of witnesses—as “Muslims before their time.” This theme was not unknown in Christianity; it is voiced by church fathers like Justin and Clement in relation to Old Testament heroes and a few classical worthies who “taught truth” before its time had fully arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

The last day or yawm al-din underscores the idea of finality which also shapes the view of prophecy and scripture: God’s judgment demands the observance of Islam to such an extent that in Islam, eschatology replaces theology. This also accounts for the largely allusory style of the Qur’an in relation to the other book traditions; individual stories do not matter as much as establishing the historical pattern of “warning” and the Prophet’s pedigree: Adam, Abraham, Jonah, Noah, Moses, form a kind of chorus of worthies, an honor guard, whose role it is to provide a line of succession to the prophet of God. They are not so much “adopted” or interpreted as in Christianity but expropriated.

So too the Islamic use of the messianic idea. It is not clear that the first Muslims grasped the idea of the messiah or “mahdi” except in relation to the belief in judgment. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century historian famous for his pioneering work in philosophy of history, writes in his Muqaddima:

“It has been (accepted) by all the Muslims in every epoch, that at the end of time a man from the family (of the Prophet) will, without fail, make his appearance, one who will strengthen Islam and make justice triumph. Muslims will follow him, and he will gain domination over the Muslim realm. He will be called the Mahdi.”

The Mahdi’s bona fides are well-established from early on: He will be an Arab, from the tribe of Banû Hãshim and through his line by Fatima (ie a member of the Prophet’s family). Critically, he will not be a Jew or a Christian—Islam’s declaration that the final judgment of God will be according to the rules of Islam. The Mahdi will be “assisted” by Jesus, who is relegated to role of helper on the day of judgment; he “will fulfill a role behind the Mahdi.” The true Christians “will follow Jesus in accepting Imam al-Mahdi as the leader at the time and become Muslims.” In short, the messianic expectation is that all those who will be saved will follow Jesus in subordinating himself to the true messiah.

The measurement of any truth claim in Islam, therefore, is subject to the prior assumption—or “strong belief” in the finality of the Islamic position towards its predecessors. This claim, despite certain superficial or family resemblances—is a belief in unqualified rejection. The claims of Christianity and Judaism are selectively falsified in the doctrine of the corruptibility of sources, the partiality of God’s revelation to previous warners, the rejection of the idea of atonement, and the replacement of it with a strong and exclusivist eschatological scenario in which followers of Jesus will be judged on the basis of their acceptance of Islam.

More directly relevant to measuring truth claims however is their effect. Never a large religion and today consisting of only about 14,000,000 adherents worldwide, Judaism has historically been an exclusivist religion. Its salvation theology emerges from its historical situation–one surprisingly similar to its current political situation–as a fairly cohesive religio-cultural community surrounded by adversaries. The viability of faith depends first of all on the existence of the faith community, and throughout its later history this has been Judaism’s primary concern. In such constricted circumstances its theology was necessarily more about salvation, messiahship, and rescue than conversion and growth. Its truth claims were tied to that survival more directly than to other possible warrants, such as military achievement or imperial expansion.

Christianity traded exclusivism for expansion after the second century of its existence. It did so by lowering the religious bar on radical monotheism, relaxing some of the more stringent safeguards of Judaism in terms of diet and religious observance, the use of images and rituals, and substituting for this a church-based system of authority and a sacramental system that created a sharp class distinction between laity and hierarchy. “Faith” (de fide) in this sense was not an act of the will but a body of doctrine passed down as a sacred deposit of truth interpreted and taught by the Church: the laity had no active role other than to accept the church’s teaching and conduct their lives accordingly.

To the extent this system was successful, as it was until the sixteenth century and in modified form even until he twentieth, Roman Christianity and its protestant spawn successfully substituted the idea of reliance on belief for the more ancient belief in the coming of Christ (even though the latter has been given honorary status among the discarded beliefs of the ancient period). The warrant of the truth claims of modern Christianity for all the available versions and possibility of continued fissiparation, is simply the quantum of what the church or churches teach and what Christians find agreeable to faith. Protestantism shifted the focus from the nominative sense of faith as a body of orthodox teaching to the verbal understanding –faith as assent in conscience to biblical revelation. But in either case, the lex fidei, the law of faith, was the exclusive warrant for Christians of the Middle Age and Renaissance periods.

Islam offered no such options. The doctrine of finality had not budged much since the early middle ages among serious adherents of the faith. When Islam is seen as regressive or repressive in terms of social doctrine or custom, it is usually because its core structure has remained remarkably intact, like a well built house that defies the weather.

The doctrine of the Mahdi, for instance, has never had to be rationalized, defended or abandoned, because it did not suffer the historical disconfirmation that both Judaism and Christianity experienced. Islam’s eschatology is alive, robust and looks to the future. It is fundamentally different from an eschatology undone by history (Judaism), or dislodged by qualifying doctrines (Christianity). While the authority of approved teachers, imams and ayatollahs is a significant feature of the religion, there is no central authority and no mechanism for consensus of all individual authorities. In fact, the debate in much of contemporary Islam is not whether the fundamentals of faith are sound but whose Islam is the most Islamic—the “truest” example of the faith.

Superficially this would seem to suggest chaos, but instead it points to the fact that there is enormous room for disagreement among Muslims, within limits. The limits concern subordinate or derivative doctrines: when is violence justified; should women wear hijab, to what extent is it permissible to sort out true and false traditions relating to the early community or the hadith, and the applicability of sharia to the regulation of the conduct of believers.


In addition to the apparent impermeability of its core doctrine to disconfirmation, Islam has developed a sixth pillar which it seems to me is beginning to serve as a warrant for its truth claims. Unlike Judaism and increasingly unlike the phenomenon of a deflating world Christianity, Islam is growing. Its success is in numbers–conversions, expansion, the building of mosques and madrasas. From Malawi to Toronto and London, the signs of Islam’s health and success at a demographic level are visible, impressive, and unmistakable.

In 2008 the estimated world Muslim population was close to 2 billion, and rapidly increasing. Estimated increase and actual numbers vary widely among researchers, but the U.S. Center for World Mission estimated in 1997 that Christianity’s total number of adherents is growing at about 2.3% annually. (This is approximately equal to the growth rate of the world’s population.) Islam is growing faster: about 2.9%, and Islam will surpass Christianity as the world’s most populous religion religion by 2023.

Samuel Huntington famously saw these numbers as portending a clash of civilizations. Whatever the merits of his argument, the more significant issue is how numbers are interpreted by the adherents of a belief system and just as vital, how adherents “behave” toward numbers. If numbers serve as a warrant of truth, adherents will have an enormous interest in sustaining and expanding the numbers, through whatever means possible. As a matter of history, unlike the messianism of the Jews and the parousia-theology of early Christians, Islam–uniquely–has not been eschatologically disconfirmed. In fact, its warrant provides a kind of empirical test that Judaism and Christianity have already failed. Given the warrant that Islam uses for the truth value of its beliefs, it passes the test.

Early Judaism dreamed of a day when Abraham’s descendants would be a numberless as the stars in the heavens. If that remained an ideal, the day never came. As a warrant of truth claims, Judaism would have very little to gain from playing a numbers game. The more modest and warranted Jewish position is that Judaism is true as long as it survives.

But the same is true of Christianity, largely because it is no longer one thing but many things—not Christianity but Christianities, as the Oxford scholar Peggy Morgan likes to point out. In significant ways, Christianity has been unharmonious and inhomogeneous since the Middle Ages. It has had to measure its truth with different spoons, using different systems for the better part of five centuries, and still is large enough that certain segments of the Christian religion hardly know that other sectors exist or what doctrines they profess. Evangelical Christians may dream of bringing a singular gospel to the far flung regions of the world, but a healthy majority of other Christians oppose the entire missionary philosophy as form of religious colonialism. In addition to this, an unknown but sizable percentage of the world’s Christians are largely secular, agnostic, or “lapsed” members of the tradition; they identify with it in name only. Rarely in the twenty-first century will someone be denied the status of “believer” in any denomination through violence or persecution simply because his beliefs are askew. And even in those traditions with ancient legal traditions, such as Roman catholicism, rules are unenforceable at a penal level.

Thus the Christian warrant for its truth claims, “faith” (whose faith?), is a wobbly instrument of measurement in the modern situation, and a number of factors weigh against the ability of Christians to use geographical reach and population as indicators of truth. Christianity possesses no single vision, doctrine, or praxis. With the death of “Christendom” in the sixteenth century, Christians also sacrificed geography and population as a warrant for the claims advanced by the faith. The export by missionaries during the colonial period of a variegated Christianity preached in different ways to different colonial populations only accelerated the process of international fissiparation–which we still see in the massive success of “conversions” in Central and South America from Roman Catholic to Evangelical protestantism, and the supermarket Christianity of the developed world. With the acceptance of modernity, Christianity was obliged to accept the relativity of its belief systems to other ways to the truth, including in principle the idea that its faith was unwarranted. Christianity’s survival seems latched to the acceptance of the final triumph of secularism and its correlate: believing less and less.

For Islam however, from an early date, the increase of the faith is a living proof of its finality. Numbers are paid attention to. Territory once submitted to God must always be submitted to God—one of the reasons the question of Jerusalem remains one of the irreconcilables of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Dominant stories, dates, and myths are significant: The triumph over the Meccans, the submission of Constantinople, the conversion of the Mongols, the winning back of Jerusalem by Saladin, the capture of al-Andalus. “Jihad” has been the key word to describe this warrant, but rather than thinking of it as war or violence, it must be seen as the execution of a principle, without which Islam might go the way of the other book traditions.

Sheer increase has become the defining warrant for the truth of Islam. Consequently those who pursue the interests of the dar-al-Islam (the territory submitted to God) most vigorously—the Taliban, for example, or others that western observers are likely to label “religious extremists”–are acting on a proven principle. If we end where we began : “A warrant is not a doctrine, but a justification for religions to “do as they do”; they empower belief and practice by creating benchmarks for the success, prestige or dominance of a religious tradition—often through comparison to rival traditions.” By that definition, Islam’s success seems assured whether by comparison to its rivals in the Abrahamic tradition or by dint of the prestige it enjoys as the world’s fastest growing religion.

Looking for Islam in a Funny World

A couple of years ago I made the offhanded remark in an article that the real problem with religious extremists is that they hate sport and jokes. Nothing has more agitated good-natured Muslims recently than the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009, and the subsequent ostracism of Pakistani cricket at an international level.

If you want to fuel the fires of terrorism, take away footballs and cricket bats and ask sixteen year olds to find something else to do with their spare time.

The last sentence was an example of irony, the kind that is wasted on religious zealots, because they hate humour more than they hate sports. Both (they think) are Unislamic. They seem to rely on an unfamiliar hadith that proves the Prophet never played football and never smiled. Historically, those who have thought religion was a serious business have not thought that life was a funny business. Frowns and smiles, after all, are symbols of two approaches to the human predicament. Am I right in thinking that the standard image of the Muslim, at least the gun-toting sort, is symbolized increasingly by the disapproving frown.

Humour as a means of stress-relief is a structured activity.The joke is its highest form, and the self-deprecating joke, whose payoff depends on a religious or ethnic punchline (Yiddish, “zinger”) made at the teller’s expense, is the most sophisticated level of the highest form. Generally speaking, in the hierarchy of humour, protestants of the Calvinist persuasion aren’t good at it. Catholics are, Jews are better, and Muslims–well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

The first recorded instance of the religious joke (if Genesis 2-3 isn’t a long one) is the tall tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt–a story so good it’s told three times, the last with Isaac and Rachel in the starring roles. It’s a cruelty joke, but the punchline is uproarious: You can almost hear the set-up from three thousand years ago:

Did you hear the one about Abraham and Sarah in Egypt? No? Abraham and Sarah are going to Egypt. Abraham says to Sarah, let’s tell Pharaoh you’re my sister, not my wife. He’ll say, “What do you want for her,” I’ll say, ” What do think is a fair price?” When I’ve got the goods, I’ll tell him the truth, he’ll have to let you go, and we’ll be rich.” Sarah says, “But won’t he be angry?” “That’s the best part,” Abraham says. “He’ll be so busy dealing with the plagues God’s going to send that it won’t matter.” (Genesis 12.10-20, 20.1-18; 26.6-9).

It’s all there: the wandering Jew, the deceit and cunning, the greed, and the punchline. Never mind that Pharaoh doesn’t do anything wrong. These are chosen-people-times. Pharaoh is a Putz who can ess drek und shtarbn. In fact the whole story is funnier in Yiddish.

Three thousand years later, the evolved form is this: A rabbi is driving down the street when he crashes into a car driven by a priest. Both cars are wrecked but amazingly neither driver is hurt. After they crawl out of their cars, the rabbi sees the priest’s collar and says, “So you’re a priest. I’m a rabbi. Just look at our cars. There’s nothing left, but we are unhurt. This must be a sign from God. God must have meant that we should meet and be friends and live together in peace the rest of our days.” The priest says, “I agree with you completely. This must be a sign from God.” The rabbi continues, “And look at this. Here’s another miracle. My car is completely demolished but this bottle of wine didn’t break. Surely God wants us to drink this wine and celebrate our shared good fortune.” So he opens the bottle and hands it to the priest. The priest thanks him, takes a drink, and tries to give the bottle back. But the rabbi politely urges him to have another drink, so the priest takes another. Then he tries to give the bottle back again, but the rabbi shakes his head. The priest asks, “Aren’t you having any?” The rabbi says, “No, I’ll just wait for the police.”

The two-thousand -year history of mordant humour even reaches into the death camps–on both the Jewish and the Catholic side: A Catholic priest, a homosexual and a Jew are scheduled to be executed at Auschwitz–a privilege only given to distinguished “guests.” They are asked what they want to have for their last meal. The priest asks for filet mignon, eats it, and is taken away. The homosexual asks for a ham sandwich, eats it, and is taken away for execution. The Jew asks for a plate of strawberries. The guards tell him strawberries are out of season. “So, I’ll wait.”

In July 1944 Father Josef Möller was sentenced to hang by a Nazi court for “one of the most vile and dangerous attacks directed at our confidence in our Führer.” The priest had told two parishioners this joke. “A fatally wounded German soldier asked his chaplain to grant a final wish: ‘Place a picture of Hitler on one side of me, and a picture of Goering on the other side–that way I can die like Jesus–between two thieves.’” If Jews can laugh at what is arguably the bitterest moment of their religious history, why are Muslims not producing any good Taliban jokes, because only if people who take themselves murderously seriously can be shown to be as ridiculous as the rest of humanity is there any hope of accepting them into the human race. No, I don’t expect the Taliban to write jokes in the privacy of their caves. But I don’t see other Muslims answering the call to satire either.

If there were an official litany of comedians who are good at self-mockery and religious satire dozens of names would leap to mind. On the Jewish side, Groucho, Milton Berle, Alan King, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Lenny Bruce, John Stewart, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld. An embarrassment of comic riches. With a little more struggle we can add the names of Catholic wits–Steve Allen, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Kathleen Madigan, Dennis Miller, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Maher. But the subject was Muslim humor. Start with a joke which makes the rounds in Middle Eastern comedy clubs:

A man is taking a walk in Central park in New York. Suddenly he sees a little girl being attacked by a pit bull dog . He runs over and starts fighting with the dog. He succeeds in killing the dog and saving the girl’s life. A policeman who was watching the scene walks over and says: “You are a hero, tomorrow you can read it in all the newspapers: “Brave New Yorker saves the life of little girl” The man says: – “But I am not a New Yorker!” “Oh, then it will say in newspapers in the morning: ‘Brave American saves life of little girl’” – the policeman answers. “But I am not an American!” – says the man. “Oh, what are you then? ” The man says: – “I am Pakistani.” The next day the newspaper says: “Islamic extremist kills innocent American dog.”

First of all, this is not funny. It rates the same on the comedy scale as Borat’s attempt to learn how to be a stand-up comedian. Not. Second, the humour is not self-deprecating. It’s derisive, a sort of failed lampoon of western views of Muslims. Third, it’s violent. Never kill dogs in jokes if you can just throw a rock. The conclusion is: there is not much humor in the Muslim world, not much that would cause fits of hysterical laughter, and what there is is either clearly derivative or not very funny. Why is this so?

Start with the point that the Quran does not contain many stories. This is not a criticism but a fact: it arises out of an oral tradition in which hundreds of stories circulating widely and familiarly among Jews and Christians of the Middle East were also familiar to Muhammad and the brethren. There was no need to repeat them unless corrections to certain bits were being made, as sometimes happened. But the general habit in the Quran is that a simple mention or allusion is worth a thousand words. For example, the story of Noah (Nuh) in the Koran (surah 71) contains almost none of the details of the Genesis 6-8 account, but simply assumes that the story is known and accepted–torrents of rain and drowning unbelievers are mentioned–the serious stuff. But no mountains, boats, animal-pairs, doves, no postdiluvian drink-fest. The fun stuff. Not that the Arabs weren’t good story-tellers (you don’t survive the ways of the desert without entertainment), but it is not a significant feature of the Quranic tradition. Second, as I already said, religion is a serious business. Maybe if the Jews had spent less time laughing they would have listened to God more carefully. No wonder they drowned.

But anti-comedy goes deeper than that in Muslim culture. The eighth century caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azeez warned, “Fear joking, for it is folly and generates grudges.” The basic criticism of jokes and joking is that it is foolish, leads to hurt feelings within the ummah, wastes time that could be devoted to serious study, and “hardens the heart against Allah.” Joking is not quite sin, but it is a misuse of leisure and makes the joker appear frivolous and (frankly) not too smart. Islam developed as a religion that depended on chains of authority. So it no surprise that there is a chain of authorities (beginning with Abd al-Azeez) regarding jokes. In a famous hadith, preserved by Fath al-Baari the Prophet is said to have said: “If you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much.” al-Barri explains:“What is meant by ‘knowing’ here has to do with the might of Allah and His vengeance upon those who disobey Him, and the terrors that occur at death, in the grave and on the Day of Resurrection.”

Don’t even smile. Judgment is no laughing matter, which is why in the Middle Ages, when Catholics still believed in it, there were very few jokes, and why in the twentieth century when many fundamentalist Christians still believe in it, there are very few jokes. The louder you laugh, the less likely you are to hear the summoning trumpet. The big joke is on the people who miss the wake up call. Plenty of time to laugh then.

The Quran was especially fond of “warners”–which is why the stories of Noah and Jonah (Surah 21 and 37) are both preserved. There is also, with due seriousness, a strong emphasis on destruction or judgment stories like Sodom and Gomorrah (Quran, surahs 57-77) and the killing of Korah (Numbers 16-21; Quran 76-82). Another hadith records the Prophet saying, “Do not laugh too much, for laughing too much deadens the heart.” (Saheeh al-Jaami’, 7312). In other words, laughter develops a certain callousness–and leads one to disrespect himself and to lose face due to the perception that a man is puerile and jejune (Umar ibn al-Khattaabith).

There have been loads of psychological studies showing that the morphology of humor is related to the morphology of cruelty, so there is wisdom in some of this. But there is little recognition that laughter also serves as a coping mechanism, locates the source of otherwise incomprehensible injustice not just in what “other people” think about Catholics, Jews and Muslims, but in the images they have projected of themselves, their customs, and their beliefs. The Muslim tradition of “satire” lampoons (as far as I can tell) other people’s images of Muslims. Creating images from within the tradition that can then be satirized–images that can be the targets of wordplay, self-ridicule and irony–that has not happened on a large scale.

Maybe some of the problem has to do with proportion. Islam is a very big religion (1627.61 million), getting bigger, and wants to be taken seriously. The momentum of history seems to be on the side of its rather grim view of human destiny and purpose. The religions that have developed a strong tradition of self-mockery are not flourishing. Judaism is a very small religion (ca. 14,000,000), growing smaller through attrition and assimilation, historically and culturally important far beyond the numbers of Jews alive today, or in any era. True, religious Jews take a very serious view of history as well (and something tells me do not joke very much), but in general Jews have told jokes because they have a different view of success and of destiny.

A perfectly respectable Islamic website states this: “Nowadays, although the ummah needs to increase the love between its individual members and to relieve itself of boredom, it has gone too far with regard to relaxation, laughter and jokes. This has become a habit which fills their gatherings and wastes their time, so their lives are wasted and their newspapers are filled with jokes and trivia.”

There may be a reason why Islam, along with some small sectors of Christianity and Judaism, still regard salvation as a humorless business. It’s a matter of how seriously you take God. The Seinfelds, Woody Allens and Bill Mahers of this world don’t. And in a presumptively secular world where even “religious” people don’t take heaven, hell and judgement as dinner table topics, they are fit matter for jokes. No amount of persuasion is going to convince a religious citizen of the post-religious world otherwise. Even comedians who consider themselves religious can’t let religion or their religious eccentricities off the hook.

In his gentler days, George Carlin used to ponder out loud that Catholic cheerleaders had to be smarter than other cheerleaders, “because they have to be able to spell Immaculate Conception High School.” Jackie Mason asks if people realize it was Jews who invented sushi. “Who else,” he asks, “would buy a restaurant with no kitchen?”

The failure of Islam to produce a comic tradition–there is pantomime and unbearably dumb slapstick in the Muslim world, most of it so broad it can’t have amused its creators–may seem a small thing. But I think that the anti-laughter culture of Islam is a significant thing. It bespeaks a mindset that leads to beheadings, public floggings, the stoning of “miscreants,” It comes from the same place that the torching of girls’ schools and video stores comes from. The high seriousness of Islamic doctrine is the public declaration of religious exceptionalism. Only rarely–among the medieval flagellates and the New England puritans– has laughter been outlawed and the sources of laughter been regarded as satanic. In both cases, history and contact with corrective forms of the Christian religion had a leavening effect on the morbid fear of fun. I do not hear that conversation happening in Islam, not yet. For it to happen, however, Muslims who want to see a healthy, this-worldly, socially engaged Islam need to do something, as Eric Idle intones in The Life of Brian as he’s being crucified: “Look on the Bright Side of Life.”