essays in religious literacy

Nuance is hard.

In Islam on October 5, 2014 at 6:58 pm

The Bulletin for the Study of Religion‘s current Religion Snapshots focuses on Reza Aslan’s recent interview on CNN, offering four points of view on how he did there. The discussion between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher on the Oct. 3, 2014 episode of Maher’s HBO show Real Time covers a good bit of the same territory.

One of the most important things that both Aslan and Harris bring to public discourse about religion in these clips, precisely in their role as scholars of Religious Studies, is concern for nuance. Even scholars have their own blind spots, of course, as both of them clearly do (that Female Genital Mutilation is an African, not a Muslim, problem, e.g., or that Islam is the “motherload of bad ideas”), but their significant contribution, as I see it, in this pair of media discussions about Islam, is the argument that we need to guard against reifying Islam (or any religion, for that matter), that what tends to be missing from public discourse about religion is nuance.

Islam isn’t ever Just One Thing. It isn’t even a thing; no religion is. What Islam is, is particular sets of practices and beliefs that the people doing them regard as Islamic, and these sets differ considerably across time and territory (however much they have in common in terms of sources of authority: Qur’an, Hadith, consensus, analogy, etc). It’s no good saying “All Muslims believe/do X” or claiming that “X is what real Muslims believe/do”; somewhere there will always be a significant population of Muslims you’re ignoring who won’t toe that line.

Aslan arguing that we’re better off distinguishing between, say, Saudi and Indonesian or Turkish and Iranian ways of doing Islam is one way of bringing nuance into the discussion. Sure, “most Muslims” “believe in” “Shari’a law”; but what counts as Shari’a differs from time to time and place to place. Consider that, strictly speaking, only about 350 of the Qur’an’s 6,236 ayat/verses explicitly deal with legal issues; scripture hardly offers a complete, self-contained legal system: hence the need for interpretation and extension via Hadith, consensus, analogy, etc. Much of what might count in some places as Shari’a (FGM, e.g., or honor killing) is in fact quite arguably only nominally Islamic (where is the justification in the Qur’an and Hadith, e.g.?), if at all.

Harris arguing statistics, that X percent of Muslims are violent extremists, X percent are various shades of fundamentalist/conservative (some more sympathetic/supportive of violent extremism than others), X percent are only nominally Muslim, X percent are liberal/progressive, is another way of bringing in nuance. Sure, statistically, a much larger percentage of the Muslim than the Christian world certainly continues to be what most Americans would call fundamentalist (=anti-intellectual, anti-modernist, anti-secularist, not to mention anti-Western and post-colonialist). And sure, historically, fideism and anti-rationalism have dominated Muslim thinking pretty much across the board since the demise of Islamic philosophy and science with the Abbasid Caliphate back in the 13th century, only partially compensated by the rise of Muslim progressivism since the 19th century. Still, to argue that what the majority of Muslims believe counts as some kind of gold standard would be like arguing that Roman Catholics are the standard by which to judge all Christians because there happen to be more of them. Quakers and Mormons and Baptists will beg to differ. Clearly, Islam is many things, but one thing it is not is Just One Thing. No religion is.

No religion is inherently violent or peaceful (there are Buddhist terrorists in Myanmar, for crying out loud!). Rather, violent or peaceful people do religion in violent or peaceful ways, with whatever resources they happen to find at hand. Of course statistically any given religion’s population may trend more or less toward political conservatism or liberalism, acceptance or suspicion of secular/modernist culture, rationalism or anti-intellectualism, etc. Even so, significant differences will always continue to defy reification, and helping to keep things grounded in What People Actually Do by pointing this out from time to time is an essential part of the role of Religious Studies scholars in public discourse about religion.

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