Modernity and the Evolution of Today’s Religiosity.

Crossover & Divergence: The recent history of Christianity & Islam, in a nutshell.

On the 31st October 1517 Catholic dissident Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg and set in motion an unstoppable, momentous train of events that shook, and eventually broke the Catholic church all across the Western world, leading to the deaths of millions, and in the process starting a mass movement; a religious revolution that today we call the Reformation.

In the centuries that have followed, the debate on the effects and consequences of this revolutionary occurrence has cooled, but remains far from over. As to whether the timing of Luther’s protest was propitious, given Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press some 50 years before in Mainz, some 500km or so South-West of Wittenberg, is arguable.

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach (1532).

A not inconsequential distance at that time, 500km was close enough however, that word of the printing press reached Luther’s ears nonetheless, eventually leading to the rapid spread of Luther’s message which unleashed seismic religious upheaval all across the Christian Western world.

The question of whether the reformation would have happened at all without the printing press is a moot point. The two events combined to lead, arguably, to the rise of Protestantism (in all its forms), the Enlightenment, and the eventual rise of secularism that followed the separation of Church and State across what became the Protestant kingdoms of Europe and the Americas, leading ultimately to the world many of us were born into today.

In the smallest of nutshells, that is the history of modern Christianity, a religion that is now largely settled, static, if not stagnant, to the extent that religious wars are now largely absent across the Christian world, with Western and/or other Christian nations more likely to wage war on the basis of ideology, politics or economics than on a purely religious context.

The history of Islam however, is markedly different from that of Christianity. Islam is a religion currently, and arguably, at turmoil with itself, much as Christianity may have been back in the 16th Century. It is, of course, a much younger religion than Christianity and that may well be a factor that cannot be discounted, but this epistemological question may be at the heart of much of the current internal (i.e. within Islam) debate about the state of Islam itself.

But we all live in the present, and as such many Christian (or Western, if you prefer) nations feel themselves to be somewhat superior — unjustifiably so in my mind — by comparison with many Muslims having consigned Christian religious conflicts to the history books.

This sense of Christian/Western superiority has manifested itself in a prejudiced, preaching, often waywardly instructive manner towards the Arabic and Muslim worlds, which were often viewed through eyes coloured by a colonial-myopia that mistook the apparently backward, rigidly conservative poverty of these ‘lesser places’ as being ‘soporific, passive and tenacious only in defence of (their) status quo,’ (1) views that remain commonplace across the West even today.

That sense of Western superiority emanates largely from what we might see as our technological progress or development by comparison to that in the Muslim world. Going back as far as the Industrial revolution one might struggle to find a single technological advance that arose in the Muslim world. This, along with the somewhat tardy adoption of many of our Western accomplishments led many Westerners to view the Arab and Muslim world as backward, simple, even Medieval in its outlook and culture.

The paradox here being that many in the Muslim world see the West as a sordid, culturally barren and spiritually vacant arena that is, by comparison with the Islamic world, a pale spectre in the shadow cast by the vastness of Islam.

Whilst there are fundamental differences between the two major Abrahamic religions, there are many parallels too. The Christian Church underwent the Great Schism in 1054 when the Orthodox Eastern Church split from the Western Roman Catholic Church over a disagreement on a series of long-standing doctrinal and political issues, many of which remain contentious, if non-violent, differences today.

Islam underwent a similar schism in the 7th Century following the death of The Prophet, Muhammad, in 632. Muhammad had unified the tribes of Arabia into an Islamic family or ummah, but he had no direct male heir and had not identified anyone else as a probable successor at the time of his death.

Most Muslims at the time thought that Muhammad should be followed by a chosen successor selected by the Islam’s elite, whilst a smaller minority thought that only a member of Muhammad’s family, namely Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, could succeed him. This led to a split in the faithful with the former group, who came to be known as Sunni’s, and still today the largest faction within Islam, dividing from the followers of Ali, who became known as Shia’s, still today the second largest Islamic doctrinal grouping.

Intense conservatism, largely emanating from the clerical orders of both Shia and Sunni doctrines, over the centuries has resisted the pull for Islam to fray and fracture into differing schools of thought. The Christian Church by comparison is populated with countless varieties of Protestantism in particular, all of whom would readily identify as Christian.

But as the world has shrunk and the Islamic diaspora has filtered out across the world it has been harder for the clerics to hold all the various threads of the ummah together with a single unifying message.

The ways in which Muslims worship is changing in response to the way we live.

Technology too has played its part, bringing people closer even when further apart, but that apparent propinquity has not solidified the message; rather it has opened up new ways, new ideas and new methods of adherence to Islam.

As Christopher de Bellaigue explains right at the end of his wonderful book, The Islamic Enlightenment (1), the people who identify as Muslim today are no longer the traditionally homogenised Sunni’s or Shia’s. Many Muslims live in places where they have no access to the ‘apolitical sermons’ that may be delivered in the local mosque, so they get their information, their sermons if you will, online and may then have a very different spiritual and religious experience as a consequence.

Bellaigue cites the example of many French Muslims for whom Islam is less ‘a code of belief’ and more a response the institutionalised racism and Islamophobia they encounter on a regular basis. Their knowledge of the Quran and understanding of Islamic doctrine may be limited, yet they would still strongly identify as being Muslim.

So too the many millions around the globe who willingly obey the basic precepts of Islam, as handed down to them by their forebears, but do not adopt a strict observance of the daily rituals of being a Muslim. Islam and being a Muslim remains a fundamental part of their being, but they exist in the ummah outside of the reach of a traditional Islamic teachings.

This religious leakage is a natural consequence of modernity. For many the barriers between religion, not just Islam per say, and the wider, secular world has become porous with many living their lives happily moving across that permeable barrier in one direction or another as the situation suits.

As in many Christian nations the people may still identify as Christian, but in their daily lives there is a growing distance between them and their God. Few would pick up their Bible on a daily basis to obtain succour or spiritual sustenance, and they perhaps only visit Church now for special occasions. Yet Christian they remain.

Whilst the separation of State and Church may be in large part responsible for the dilution of the Christian message, the same may not be true for Islam. Whilst many modern Muslims might live a life far removed from the traditional life of a Muslim, the attachment to the ummah and to Islamic fundamentals remains strong even if their daily adherence to the doctrine does not.

This loosening of the grip Islam has on these contemporised Muslims may be a consequence of the distance from a traditional life and the local mosque, but modern life in the diaspora is also surely a huge factor. Busy jobs and careers, the pressure of maintaining a healthy social life in a bustling city can push the daily rituals into a tight corner. Secularism per say has not had the same dissolute effect on Islam as it had on Christianity — not yet anyway.

For many Western secularists, government agencies and media outlets alike, just to lump all the manifest variety of ‘Muslims’ into a single box labelled ‘troublemaker’ is sufficient. But this only serves to highlight the shortcomings in our Western, or Christian if you prefer, characterisation of a religion that few in the West truly understand.

That lingering sense of Western moral and civilisational superiority that has become so prevalent once again in the media and online since 9/11, expresses itself through widely used racial and religious stereotypes that people use to label Muslims as little more than blood thirsty, religious zealots — labels that can be applied, if at all, to a very small minority of Muslims, and that in no way attach themselves to the vast majority.

Whilst there are areas of crossover between the history’s of Christianity and Islam, there is arguably increasing divergence between the followers of each religion. That both have sparked wars and the deaths of millions over the centuries is undisputed. Levels of religious violence will continue apace, but for religions that put peace as a cornerstone of their ‘laws,’ this fundamental flaw in the way each broadcasts its message acts in a manner that is, to my mind, contrary to their respective scriptures and seriously undermines the human message contained therein.

References

  1. The Islamic Enlightenment. The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason. Christopher de Ballaigue; 2017.

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Peter Winn-Brown

Peter Winn-Brown

Sports nut with a penchant for international politics & affairs, history and the West's turbulent relationship with Islam.