The following blog post is an answer to the following Big Think video featuring scholar Reza Azlan:
1. Religion is constantly evolving and is shaped by culture
Reza points to the differences between Christian denominations (e.g.: American vs Mexican catholicism) and also the differences between individual Muslim sects (e.g. Islam in Michigan vs the Gaza strip). Then he claims that these are due to the culture in which certain Christians and Muslims find themselves. His point is that this shows how religions are not primarily based in truth but in our subjective cultural realities. In short, communities invent religious rules and therefore religions are more akin to cultural preferences like cuisine and clothing then they are like scientific differences. Real, fact based disagreements, say like the flat earthers versus the round earthers, can conceivably be resolved with evidence. Whereas cultural differences, for example those who like spicy food versus those who don’t, will never be fully resolved.
In answer to Reza we can say that, obviously cultural differences will colour someone’s perspective on just about anything. Ancient Aztecs observed the stars and planetary movements in the night sky and kept meticulous records of these trajectories. So did the Greeks and Romans. The greco-roman world however, drew imaginary lines between certain constellations to resemble characters from their folklore which were non-existent in the Aztec world. This would be an example of cultural differences colouring real world observations. However because both civilizations were looking at an objectively real system (i.e.: outer space) they were both anchored to reality. Their cultural differences were superficial, not central. Greece’s prominent astrologer Sosigenes came up with a 365 day annual calendar. So did the Aztecs. Why the similarity? Because despite social diversity, an ancient South American astronomer was using the same subject as the greco-roman one and both were human minds, contemplating the night sky.
Whether or not Christ was a historical figure that lived in 1st century Palestine is a question of manuscript study, archaelogy and perusal of Christian, Jewish and Roman historical records. Not simply a matter of whether or not you live in Quebec and have a blue eyed Jesus painting on your wall, or live in Telaviv and have a dark, curly haired Jesus figurine on your counter. Whatever cultural spice we add to the study of Christianity, it must be swept aside and the true central pursuit of objective fact must be highlighted.
2. When religions stop adapting to the changing times and cultures, they die.
This is perhaps Reza’s strangest point so far. Reza points to Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam as religions that are still strong today mainly because they have adapted endlessly over the past millennia or more. However, these faiths have held to core orthodox tenets more so than any other religions. And other, less dogmatic religions are the ones which are now extinct. It seems precisely the consistency of the central orthodoxy of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc that has preserved these great faiths. One look at their history will show that they are interpreted essentially the same now as they were thousands of years ago. Reza could not have picked more conservative religions than those he used to try and make his point that conservatism kills religions! Muslims are not a fans of playing fast and loose with the Qur’an or the Hadith. Jews throw away any unorthodox versions of the Talmud or Torah. Try and talk your average catholic or protestant into adding books to their bibles? The strongest and most enduring faiths we have — those listed, ironically, by Reza — are precisely our most conservative ones. Look around, anyone practicing Canaanite religions in New York. Or even Palestine (the ancient Canaanite world)? Nope. And how about Finnish Paganism? Any local representatives in — or outside of — Scandinavia? Nope. Not even the birthplaces of these lost religions hold to these faith traditions. Yet, without central source works such as Bibles or Qur’ans, these practices lended themselves much more to flexible interpretations and ever changing orthodoxy. So why have they died if Reza’s theory is true?
3. Jihadism within Islam was primarily the result of Western colonialism
Reza claims that the oppressive force of the Western world’s (i.e.: Christianized europe) colonialism and imperialism is what created the fighting factions of Islam (i.e.: jihadism) such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Reza conveniently begins his history of Islamic jihadism after World War 1 and 2. In the aftermath of these conflicts the western world — which had defeated the Muslim Ottoman Empire — divided the Arab world into political lines and forced the remnants of the Ottoman and Muslim world to live under these realities. Listening only to Reza’s version of events, it would seem this is the one and only origin of terrorist activity within the world of Islam and it was almost an understandable reaction to oppressive and invasive Western activity.
Even if the post World Wars events were the first meeting of Western and Muslim worlds, the notion that relentless terrorism of the most barbaric sort was understandable in the face of Westerners drawing political boundaries is laughable. The Muslim Ottoman world entered a conflict against Britain and other european countries and lost. As a consequence, the victors dealt with the losers of the conflict much in the same way the West dealt with Germany and Japan following the Second World War: restructuring the political world and meddling with the affairs of the aggressor countries in hopes of pacifying them for the long term. Britain did not occupy the Arab world after either World War. They left them re-divided but under their own rule. How anyone can conceive of this typical sort of post war behaviour as a justified reason to rally ISIS-style terror armies which torture, behead and destroy everything in their wake is laughable.
Yet the story goes far deeper than just the past century’s conflicts. The “prophet” Mohamed began his rise to fame and power by commandeering pirates. The earliest gathering of Muslims rallied around their founder and raided caravans passing through the Arabian peninsula. Eventually Mohamed’s Muslim gang grew into a militia and then an army. Before his death in 632 AD the Muslim movement had enveloped the entire Arab world. This was not done peaceably through heart to heart conversion, but from the edge of the sword. Muslim factions that took the mantle of leadership from Mohamed continued the trend of military conquest and over the next two centuries pushed a Christianized Roman empire out of northern Africa. Nearly 600 military conflicts were initiated by Islam against the western world and by the 10th century AD, Muslims had over taken Portugal, Spain and parts of southern France and Italy. It was the non-stop violent imperialism of Islam that eventually triggered Europe’s crusades to re-capture lost territory. Quite literally, the exact reverse of what Reza is saying is true. Islam has been the initiator of the conflict between itself and the Western world. In its holy writ are calls for world domination. And the tenets of Shariah law were begun before any major conflict ever occurred between the West and the Muslim world.
4. It is non-sensical to try and group different Muslim countries into a singular Muslim identity.
Reza is pointing to the vast spread of the “Muslim world” and stating that to group them together into a single Muslim identity is foolish. The South Pacific islands and east Asian coast have a panoply of languages, customs and beliefs within their world and even interpretations of Islam. Arab Muslims are even more unique than those in the east. Northern African muslims are further still from their far-removed brethren in both language, race, customs and religious interpretations. Therefore, according to Reza, to lump all of these nations together into a cohesive Islamic Empire is foolish.
The answer to Reza is to first acknowledge the true parts of his claim. As we saw with the contrast between Aztec astronomy and that of the greco-roman world, cultures do colour their peoples’ perspectives on the subjects they study and believe in. You will find many differences in the names given to stars and constellations and planets by ancient South Americans when comparing their astronomical nomenclature to those of Rome. Yet the same subject matter is being studied. Both civilizations believed in outer space. Likewise, despite many differences amongst Muslims in Africa, the Middle East and the Asian continent, there is also a strong thread of consistency. The world’s Muslims hold to the prophet Mohamed and his writings (i.e.: the Qur’an) as the basis of their theology and worldview. Many Muslim countries across the world have similar civil penalties for apostasy (i.e.: leaving the faith), theft, adultery and homosexuality. This is because they all point back to the same “holy scripture” in order to organize their political, legal and cultural realities.
Throughout Islamic history, from Mohamed to the Ottoman Empire, there was an identifiable governing central authority recognized by all Muslims. The papacy and the Roman Church served the same purpose in the Christian world. So, contrary to Reza’s view, culture was not the primary shaping force for either Christians or Muslims for most of the past 2,000 years. It was shared belief in their founders’ teachings.
As articulate as Reza is, his main points are inaccurate. Faith systems that have survived and spread to capture the minds of the majority of the world’s population (i.e.: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism) are highly conservative in their tenets. They tend to revolve mainly around orthodox writings that serve to keep a compass of what is and is not acceptable within their worldviews. And although culture has an influence on everything — cuisine, clothing, religion, scientific interpretations, etc — it is not at the heart of everything. Objective beliefs are still central to science, political and religious systems.
Reza’s re-writing of Islam’s history as one of “leave me alone, Western world!” is truly baffling. Only someone completely ignorant of the origin and spread of Islam as primarily a military conquest that nearly swallowed up the Western world could be duped by Reza. Muslims’ orthodox beliefs include the notion that Allah has called them to eventually — through deception, conflict and conversion — conquer the entire globe under a unified caliphate (i.e.: world-wide central Islamic government). Not only is Islam never been at peace with anyone that is non-Muslim, they certainly have a global identity revolving around their holy writ. They are not fractured into ever changing and de-centralized cultural factions that have zero cohesiveness with their neighbouring fellow Muslims.