For those who have not seen it, Ross Douthat had a very interesting op-ed a few weeks ago respecting three different views of Christianity active in the United States today. But to reduce it considerably, and blame me for that, there was (i) traditionalism, which more or less took the religious tradition seriously in negotiating modern ethical divides, (ii) spiritualism, which more or less suggested there was some core important spiritual truth underlying the faith and not to “sweat the details,” and (iii) the new atheism, which more or less derided traditional faith as the silly delusions of idiots. Douthat’s respective criticisms of the three is that the first proved inflexible in the face of massive social change, the second lacked rigor, and the third had an entire disconnect between its scientific certainties and its moral ones.
From what I’ve seen, Douthat has received his fair share of criticism on the third of these, though I never really thought the man was claiming to describe atheism, only a particular contemporary populist species of atheist evangelism which both considered anyone who believed in God as an idiot because science has proved otherwise and who was equally morally certain about liberal values that of course have no scientific grounding. But that’s not my point.
My criticism, as someone who is probably the Muslim equivalent of Douthat’s second group if I must reduce myself to a stereotype, is that the first has been mischaracterized when described, relative to the second, as rigorous. To be clear, I claim no rigor lies in the second group. When I do not think I should treat my wife as my child, (i.e. as a human being with dignity but one whom it is my responsibility to discipline), but instead think I should treat her as an equal, it is fair to say I am not “sweating the details.” “Pissing on the fiqh” would be the more irreverent way to say it, but the point is the same. And I would repeat that as to slavery, as I have in a previous, popular post. (My claim relates here to a moral position, not that I am somehow perfectly living my own moral precepts. Everyone has their failings, and their beliefs.)
Yet if this blog stands for anything, and if my scholarly career has been built on anything, it is the principle that this entire notion of a rigorous tradition is something of a mirage. Much as the American Legal Realists derided legal doctrine as being somehow determinate through dedicated engagement with a corpus of primary material, so do I in the context of the Islamic legal tradition, deride similar conclusions of determinism through rigor. It is not “rigor”, it is merely ideological preference disguising itself as rigor.
So the Muslim traditionalist, and I, both piss on the fiqh as it concerns slavery. The traditionalist might disguise this by coming up with plausible reasons that abolition is somehow consistent with Islamic practice even if not mandated by it, but really, that’s not her moral position. Her moral position is mine, which is William Lloyd Garrison’s, which is decidedly not the position of the fiqh-every slave is a stolen man, every slaveowner a man stealer.
Yet of course the Muslim traditionalist, and I, disagree as to the matter of a wife’s obedience. Here the traditionalist will point to the tradition, and expose its clear descriptions, and maintain I have made a mockery of that tradition by suggesting that somehow a wife is not obliged to obey her husband. Indeed that this is her primary marital obligation, much more so than rearing children or maintaining a household, even as it is a husband’s marital obligation to provide for the household.
Have I made such a mockery? Yes, I’ve pissed on the fiqh once again I’m afraid. Have I done it as a moral preference? Yes. And yet I still call myself a Muslim, still sincerely bow my head to an Almighty God who sent an angel to talk to the greatest of men in the cave of Hera? Yes. And in all of this, I claim no distinction from the traditionalist, who has likewise rejected the moral prescriptions of the tradition as they concern slavery, but one. He grasps hard to the tradition on the issue of marital relations because that’s how he likes his marriage to be. Not because it is more rigorous to do so (his position respecting the moral outrage of slavery prevent that possibility), but because he prefers it, even as I prefer its opposite.
Why is this so important to expose? Because whenever a moral issue arises, whether it is slavery in the nineteenth century, gender equality in the twentieth, or gay rights in ours, a “tradition” rears its ugly head, and we are told change is not possible because it is not consistent with the tradition. It would lack rigor to change, we are told, one cannot simply adopt newfangled ideas and yet manage to somehow render the tradition coherent. And progress is held back decades on this basis.
And yet, all of a sudden, at some point, it all breaks, the change occurs, the tradition swallows it, manages to domesticate it, and somehow the supposed rigorous tradition survives, only to have the cycle start up again with the next major social change. That’s not rigor. That’s social conservatism. Let’s be clear, I claim no reason that my moral preferences are superior, so I don’t mind when someone describes themselves as a social conservative, indicates they don’t like my ideological and moral preferences as a social liberal and challenges me to political debate on that basis. I’ll win that argument sometimes I suspect (equal rights for Muslim citizens) and lose it on others (the right to multiple marriage). That’s political argument, democracy is as best a way as I can imagine to contest it peacefully, and I can live with its results.
But what I do mind is when the social conservative seeks to delegitimize my position on the grounds that it is somehow lacking in sufficient rigor and that if I only understood the tradition better, I would understand how antithetical to it my ideas are. That, I think, is the falsity the Realists tried to expose in their times as to American law, and the one I’ll continue to work to expose as to the shari’a in mine.
This is a “sort of” reply in that my expertise lies in the Islamic
legal “tradition”, not the Christian one. Yet if I’ve seen legal
doctrine debunked through American Legal Realism, and if I see Islamic
legal doctrine worthy of a similar debunking, then it is hard to see why
Christianity would be different. That is admittedly facile, and hardly a response
to one who insists that the Christian religious tradition has rigor
where others do not, but I’ll leave the more nuanced argument to those more
versed in the subject than I.