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Book Reviews

Antonio Elorza, Los dos mensajes del Islam

Antonio Elorza, Los dos mensajes del Islam (The two messages of Islam), Ediciones Barcellona, Barcelona 2008

Of the great many books on Islam coming out in the last few years, especially those that focused on the threat it supposedly poses to the existence of the West, Antonio Elorza's stands out because of its claim that Islamic radicalism cannot be avoided by drawing a line between radical and moderate Islam. Although such a distinction is undoubtedly true and must be made, the only support the author believes the West can obtain comes from those Muslims who accept the notion that even predominantly Muslim societies ought to be organised along the lines of an open pluralistic polity that is typical of the West. Unfortunately, in the Islamic world this kind of pluralism remains marginal with very few followers. Some proposals for change along these lines did appear in the first part of the 20th century, but they were few and far between, and have always faced a uphill battle to gain any credibility; censured in fact as much by moderate Muslims as by radicals.

 

The thrust of Elorza's argument is that an "alliance of civilisations" as some have proposed is not very likely. This does not mean that a clash of civilisations is necessarily inevitable as others have predicted. Indeed Elorza clearly accepts that moderate Muslims can give peace a chance. But after reading his book and following his line of reasoning, we can only conclude that such a peace would be shaky.

 

If in politics uncertainty is not something to be feared, taking it into account and looking at its causes are a must. According to Elorza, in Islam time is marked by a clear break: a before and an after hegira, a split in early Muslim history that occurred when the prophet of Islam turned warrior. After that, according to him, in all its orthodox manifestations Islam had and continues to have a war-like potential, something which is also true for other monotheistic religions.

 

From the point of view of monotheism, life essentially entails man's subordination to God, the one God who created him. This carries the possibility, ever present in potential form, that the monotheistic believer will claim the right to impose at some point in time, by force if necessary, his faith in this one God on everybody else.

 

In Buddhism the idea of the one God is somewhat watered down by a strictly human reality which is ultimately divine. In the case of Christianity this idea is not watered down but is transcended by the humanisation of the one God in the person of Jesus Christ. In this case God ends up going beyond his divine attributes by lowering himself to the level of man. In saying this Elorza does not belittle the fact that Constantine's recognition of the Church in the 4th century AD also entailed the use of violence (which lasted until around 1800). But we can infer from what the author sys that Christians have finally overcome this situation by accepting the consequences of Jesus Christ's dual nature as both human and divine. This said, such duality is not tied to the dogma of the Trinity but the author alludes to it in order to show that it is a claim so intelligible that it has in fact been used for all sorts of heresies.

 

Even if his line of reasoning might go further the author stops here. By looking at the relationship between the Trinity and the humanisation of Jesus Christ we could however explore in greater detail one of the most important and stimulating aspects of the book, namely Islam's origins and its relationship to Judaism.

 

Unlike Christianity and Buddhism, Judaism and Islam share according to Elorza what might be called a predisposition for radical views which are inherent in monotheism. That these two religions share this trait is no accident for him because Islam derives from Judaism, through the mediation, as some authors have suggested, of Samaritanism, an ancient religion which split from and became quite alien to mainstream Judaism by the 4th century BC and which Muhammad probably heard about centuries later.

 

This is neither the place nor the time to go into this connection in any great details, but suffice it to say that the book deals with the matter more than an adequately. Similarly, this reviewer would not be the first person who, upon reading the Qur'an, came away with the impression that the former was but an apocryphal version of the Bible.

 

As far as I know what could extend the genetic relationship proposed by Antonio Elorza, and also explain other important points among the many issues dealt in the book, is the fact that when educated Christians came into contact with what we now call Islam they did not consider it as a new religion or an heterodox form of Judaism but saw it instead as some kind of Nestorian Christianity. In other words, it is as if they realised that Islam's future lay in abandoning the belief that Jesus Christ the man was not only a prophet, but God instead.

 

All this points to a complex phenomenon. Undoubtedly this is the case. But Elorza is right when he insists on the fact that Islam's success can be partly attributed not only to the literary beauty of the Qur'an and its mysteric inferences but also to the pure simplicity of its positions. This latter point is fundamental.

 

Perhaps we are witnessing a phenomenon similar to what happened with Marxism in the 20th century. Notwithstanding the many differences between the two, one of the main strengths of Marxism, and enabled it to evolve into a mass psychological phenomenon, was the ease with which it spread, a sign, in my opinion, of the weakness and superficiality of its arguments. Simplicity, and consequently the ease with which people can understand its foundations, is something that also characterises Islam.

 

However, as the author points out, such accessibility is blocked by another radical trait, namely the complete subordination of women to men. When this is argued with simplicity, it sounds great to men. Women too can find some fulfilment as the cornerstone of the family; the foundation on which the Islamic community is built; the basis on which the future of Islam is ensured.

 

According to Elorza and he is not alone, the fact that Muslims are able to reconcile all this with the maximum use of advanced Western technology is symptomatic of a certain kind of schizophrenia which Islam's simplicity favours. All the obstacles that Western technological development has had to overcome are absent from the Islamic creed. Instead, by accepting this contradiction practicing Muslims can easily conclude that it is incumbent upon them to use this technology on the path of righteousness, which is consubstantial with Islam.

 

Thus radical Islamism is nothing but this mixture pushed to the extreme, including the acceptance of martyrdom, which is a throwback to the duality of the original monotheism, which in Islam takes on the crude predicament of a dilemma between vengeance and reconciliation.

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