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As Catholics agonize over how best to cope with the more bitter fruits of modernity (sexual depravity and the breakdown of marriage and family), we can turn to another part of the planet to find a culture that has shown considerable success in preserving traditional mores. I am speaking, of course, of the Islamic world. Even as Christians abandon en masse our centuries-old beliefs concerning marriage, fornication and homosexuality, Muslims are still largely adhering to those traditional views.
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero has recently noted this in US Catholic Journal, pointing out that significant majorities of Muslims living in the Islamic world would like to see Sharia (divinely revealed Islamic law) adopted as the official law of their respective nations. Along with this, overwhelming majorities retain traditional views on marriage, sex, euthanasia, and suicide. Ruggiero understands that Westerners tend to view Sharia as barbaric and dehumanizing, particularly in light of the ruthless punishments it prescribes (including the stoning of adulterers, the execution of apostates, and the amputation of the hands of thieves). Nevertheless, he suggests that we should on the whole admire Islamic morality, recognizing that Muslims have been far more steadfast than we in retaining traditional moral views. We are not (forgive the pun) in a position to throw stones.
Muslims are indeed noteworthy for their rigidly anti-modern views on many subjects. That being the case, we may sometimes find them to be worthy friends and allies in pursuit of limited goals. For example, there’s nothing wrong with joining forces with Muslim parents at your child’s school in lobbying for a reasonable dress code. But should we really, in a broader sense, admire Muslim values? Or should we take the more disturbing elements of Islamic law, and the barbaric actions of Islamic militant groups, as evidence that Islam does indeed contain some inhumane elements?
Islam has been with us for fourteen centuries and not all were filled with the kind of horror that we see in contemporary Islamic militants. Apologists point out that historically, Islamic societies have sometimes been culturally elevated and humane, fostering great art, philosophy and architecture. At the high points of Islamic society, religious minorities were for the most part allowed to exist peacefully, though generally under the condition that they not seek high public office, nor attempt to proselytize their Muslim neighbors. Islam has never been comfortable with pluralism, and apostasy has always been regarded as a grave offense. But in its more elevated manifestations, Islamic culture can show a certain respect for Jews and Christians especially as fellow descendants of Abraham.
Should we take the gardens of Cordoba to be the “norm” for Islamic societies, and view ISIS as the aberration? That is more difficult to say. It’s interesting to note that the most elevated and thriving Islamic societies have generally had noteworthy Hellenistic or Christian influences. Cordoba and Granada were built on what has through modern history been Spanish soil, just over the border from Medieval Christendom. Islamic Mesopotamia flourished during the period when Aristotelian and Neoplatonist influences were most prominent. Some of the greatest thinkers of the enlightened Islamic world (notably Averroes) were more Greek than Muslim in their thought, viewing religion largely as a crutch for the masses.
In fact, Averroes remains a pivotal figure in Islamic history, and his fate echoes through the centuries to the present day. He ended up on the losing end of a battle that was, in different ways, enjoined in all three Abrahamic faiths. At issue was the relationship of faith and reason, and especially the question of whether divinely revealed truth could be reconciled with the findings of natural reason. How much freedom should we allow the human intellect in its exploration of the world? To what extent should we trust our natural faculties?
For all three Abrahamic faiths, these questions presented themselves in a particularly pressing way in the guise of Aristotle, the giant of natural philosophy. Covering an enormous range of subjects, from metaphysics to ethics to political theory, Aristotle offered a consistent and empirically satisfying philosophy. Philosophers of all three faiths wanted to integrate those insights into their work. But Aristotle was a pagan, with no access to divine revelation. Was it permissible to learn from such a person? What kind of authority, if any, could he be to people of faith? Was it possible to celebrate (mere) human achievement without calling into question the primacy of God?
The struggle to answer these questions would in different ways prove transformative for all three of the great monotheistic faiths. Far more was at issue than the work of a single ancient thinker. If philosophers could successfully synthesize revealed theology with a fertile natural philosophy, the rewards might be tremendous. Such a synthesis could serve as a foundation for an intellectual tradition that was simultaneously broad (thus, able to address an enormous array of real-world questions) and deep (in the sense of being fully rooted in divinely revealed truths). This is what we see most magnificently in the work of the Medieval Scholastics, and especially St. Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas’s work covers an enormous array of issues, from sweeping metaphysical claims to minor, everyday ethical concerns. The intellectual tradition to which he contributed has the consistency and flexibility to extend itself to an enormous range of civilizations, cultures and historical periods; it is substantive without being reactionary. At the same time, it is humanizing. It can exult in the wisdom of noble pagans without denying either God’s authority or man’s supernatural destiny. By weaving natural human virtues into a larger story about God’s creation and redemption of souls, Christian philosophy is able to subordinate human beings to God without in any way dimming the splendor of their own manifest goodness.
Islam never successfully achieved that kind of synthesis. The Aristotelian Averroes was banished from Islamic Iberia for much of his later life, owing to suspicion about the possibly seditious nature of his thought. Meanwhile, the theologian al-Ghazali levied scathing criticisms against the Hellenistic schools of the Islamic world, and was so successful that a Hellenistic synthesis was never again seriously attempted by Muslim scholars. Al-Ghazali ultimately became one of the most important figures in Islamic thought. Obviously this is not a monolith, but lacking the broad and deep foundation that the Christian tradition enjoys, Islam’s responses to modernity have been more obviously reactionary. It is difficult for Muslims to distance their spirituality from a very specific moral and political vision, which has potentially dire ramifications for adherents to the faith who must live in the modern world.
The problems that modern Muslims face are relevantly similar to those confronted by Christians and all people of faith. We see widespread alienation, a loss of meaning in human life, and a widespread breakdown of religious and traditional mores in the wake of an aggressive secular culture. But even as we admire, for example, Muslim parents who successfully persuade their children to resist the demands of a secular culture, we should note the extent to which Muslim cultures sanction the use of fear and even torture to ensure that citizens continue to profess the faith and comply with detailed codes of behavior.
Such methods can sometimes be effective, especially in the short term. But maintaining a religious regime through fear and threat of violence is obviously incompatible with human dignity. And, given the magnitude of the secular threat, it seems likely that the tactics required to force citizens into compliance with Islamic law will over time become even more horrifying. These trends are arguably already emerging, as depraved organizations like al-Qaeda are eclipsed by even-more-barbaric organizations like ISIS.
Certainly, Christians should be intensely concerned about the extent to which their own children are informed by traditional beliefs, especially those to do with sexual mores. We should be eager to continue the work (already well underway in Catholic social teaching and related movements) to articulate cogent, ethical responses to the moral and spiritual problems of contemporary culture. And again, we might at times find it appropriate and expedient to join with Muslim neighbors and friends in pursuit of specific social or political objectives. As American Catholics, we should respect the integrity and religious freedom of all our fellow citizens, including Muslims.
We should not, however, expect the Islamic world to take the lead in answering the threat of secularism. For that, we must dig deeper into the manifold resources of our own tradition, hoping to recover a virtue-rich culture that celebrates human dignity and freedom, promoting the thriving not only of Christians, but of all human beings.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.