Piety and Polemic: Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, by Abdal Hakim Murad (Book Review) | Carlos Perona Calvete


An excellent work of short aphoristic statements by a prominent British convert to Islam and Cambridge University professor, Abdal Hakim Murad’s (nee Tim Winter) Commentary on the Eleventh Contention oscillates between a phenomenally subtle understanding of religious principles and practice, and a frankly shallow polemic. When the latter becomes a priority, the risk emerges of spuriously emphasizing one strand of either tradition (the one renounced or the one embraced) only because it contrasts more starkly with the other. The present review will address this work’s polemic, then, though there is much else.

It consists in the consistent problematizing of European culture. This relates to what the author identifies in separate articles as Europe’s “historic chauvinism” and to the “obsolete age of European essentialism”:

Whether God can forgive Europe is perhaps the greatest problem of theodicy.”

Islam, in contrast, is less marred:

Arabdom is not congenital.”

Consequently history’s “traditional contest” has been “between the exclusivist Christian world and the multi-ethnic world of Islam”, the latter identifying with the “ethnically mixed”.

Murad suggests that elements of the European Enlightenment reckoned positive may proceed from Islam, including respect for the individual, separation of religious from state power and unwillingness to persecute conscience. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment’s pathological urging “in Messianic fashion, its patterns of life upon the world”, as well as its Holocaustic potentials, which came into full bloom during the 20th century, may be considered indigenously European, although presumably not insofar as they pervert a positive universalism, for “it was Muslims who invented globalization”, since Islam “does not limit itself to the upliftment of any given section of humanity”. Contrarywise, Muslim exclusivism may result from zealots who “…subscribe to ideologised forms of Islam which adopt dimensions of Western modernity in order to secure an anti-Western profile…”, their pathology being an alien taint, shadows cast by northern and western monsters.

It seems whatever is distinctively European is negative, or whatever is definitely negative is European. As expansiveness cannot be made compatible with (reactionary European) exclusivism, the attempt to demonstrate how Islam’s broadness can include Europe denies itself. This approach suggests a strategic oddity to anyone who does not share its premise (similar to Marcuse’s intolerance towards the intolerant). By presenting exclusivism as exclusively European, Europe is exclusively excluded.

Further, the accuracy of Murad’s account of Islamic civilization as egalitarian alternative to its counterpart north of the Mediterranean is by no means evident. It is contradicted by the doctrine of primacy (fadl, sabiqa) of Arab patrilineal descent in Islam and its practice in the early Islamic empire (emphasized by some schools more than others).

This principle manifests, for example, in that Islamic scholarly consensus generally establishing marital suitability of a non-Arab woman as spouse for an Arab man despite the doctrinal unsuitability of the inverse. Three of the four mainstream Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Madhabs), specifically the Shafi’i, Hanafi and Hanbali (as distinct from the Maliki) allow for lineage (nasab) as a component of marital compatibility or parity (kafa’a) between prospective spouses:

“a non-Arab man for an Arab woman, because of the hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and given him peace) said, ‘Allah has chosen the Arabs above others’.”

Arab primacy was also expressed in the historical tying of conversion by non-Arabs to a relationship of clientage to Arab patrons (relevant because Murad is comparing two civilizations and historical experiences as much as two doctrines). Such practices seem to have been experienced as unfair by those involved in them at the time insofar as they may have contributed to the Shu’ubiyyah, a (mainly Persian) movement that polemicized against Arab culture, albeit in more literary-cultural than concretely political terms.

Thus, there are hues of Arab ethnic privilege in Islamic law. To give the impression that such is beyond the pale of legitimate Sunni opinion is to privilege the image of Islam as antipode to supposed Western bigotry over a true representation of its traditional observance. This is in sync with a currently prevalent hyper-criticality towards European culture, suggesting ideology is interacting with theology. In this regard, Murad conforms to his own critique of Muslims adopting Western categories to fight the West.

Leaving pseudo-political polemic aside, the Commentary contains another. Consider, for example:

“Judaism and Islam have resisted Christianity through eros and thanatos. Hence the magnitude of their victory.”

Unless there is Paradise, eros is a trick.”

“Celibacy is an anticipation of hell, for there is no eros there.”

Our Paradise shows that the Dionysian mysteries were proleptic.”

Religion without eros is the anticipation of eternal death.”

St Cuthbert never defeated the Green Man, who has now returned with a Law.”

The central proselytizing gambit is that Islam is in touch with human nature and reason, especially so far as the erotic is concerned, where Christianity falls short.

The latter half of this contention is not obviously wrong. Christianity might have failed at times to properly account for the erotic and thumotic faculties, generalizing a (in itself legitimate) spiritual orientation beyond its normal ambit (that of the monk). The French anthropologist Rene Girard is right to warn of intense conflict leading its parties to mutual imitation, but perhaps one should avoid both the perception of existential bellicosity and the wholesale fear of imitation. Imitation of persons with whom one disagrees need not be so denaturing a thing. There’s always something to be learnt.

Still, if Islam can include normative sanction for all sorts of practices disapproved of by many Muslims (child marriage and female circumcision really do find support in long-standing Muslim scholarly consensuses), yet by way of the Sufistically-purified heart and tajdid (renewal), as well as by way of respect for local custom, can render inoperative, then surely the un-sophistic Sufi can accept milder Christian shifts in emphasis by way of eroto-mystical or as legitimate expressions of Christian tradition.

To end with philosophical inquiry proper, Murad maintains that in Christian theology the Incarnation is made to absolutize a certain coordinate of contingency, a particular biographical configuration, as though first century Judean carpenter could be anymore a definition of the Divine source than seventh century BC Celtic tribesman’s daughter or third millennium Japanese matriarch. He writes:

“Incarnation? To be creature is to be entirely not a Creator. To be Creator is to be entirely not a creature.”

“Incarnation: the finite can contain the Infinite.”

“Modernity: ‘a world full of Christian ideas gone mad. (Chesterton.)”

Here, St. Thomas Aquinas’ insistence that the Logos could unite hypostatically with other persons and that the Divine cannot be exhausted in any historical vessel addresses the issue: “…it has to be said that the Divine Person, over and beyond the human nature which He has assumed, can assume another distinct human nature”[14]. The case is also one of not seeing the splinter (not quite a plank) in one’s own eye: If Muhammad is greater than all past prophets, if he is the seal of prophecy and will intercede on behalf of more people than any other prophet (following Muslim tradition), the same error criticized in the Christian story repeats itself, for history finds its apogee – and Divine Oneness its icon, so to speak – in a single contingent life.

Where there is idolatry among the Christians, it is to believe that God’s relation to humanity is defined by a limit of particulars, those of the historical Jesus; and when there is idolatry among the Muslims, it is to believe that humanity’s relation to God is defined by a limit of particulars, those of Muhammad. Where the Christians believe Jesus to be God in his bio-historical features, the Muslims believe Muhammad to be humanity in the same way (humanity proper, in relation to Allah). The one believes that when a circle is drawn properly, it must be blue, and the other that when blue ink is used to draw, it must draw a circle. Nonetheless, Christians should bare this critique in mind and make the deeper waters of Christology a more familiar quench to its faithful.

Overall, this is a work of wonderful erudition (the common English and classical Arabic love for alliteration and verbal whimsy is well represented) as well as spiritual insight, if displaying lopsided scholarship.


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