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Religion and Society

Three Natures and a Plurality of Cultures

History in general and the history of religions in particular is full of examples of societies that have been conquered by peoples with less developed cultures, and which, specifically because of their superior culture and civilisation, have rapidly assimilated and absorbed their conquerors and their systems of thought. It is sufficient to recall the example of the Mongols in Iran and India, the Huns in China, or even to mention the Vandals or the Saxons in Europe. Here Islam is an exception and its singularity has been emphasised by scholars. Bearers of a tribal culture derived from a context made up of Bedouins of varying degrees of sedentary life, the Muslim troops managed to conquer with lightening speed two empires that had a place amongst the highest cultures of the time, namely the Sassanid Empire and the Byzantine empire, and they subjected to their power centuries-old civilisations such as those of Syria, Iraq, Persia, Central Asia and the Caucusus.

 

 

It is true that the peoples that were conquered appear to have required in most cases a number of centuries to be converted to Islam but it is also true that Islam, this religion of the Arabs of the tribes of Mecca and Medina, not only was not absorbed by the high cultures that it had conquered but, in contrary fashion, infused into them its own strong imprint and fostered, at a linguistic level, the Arabisation of a large number of the subject countries. Why was this? This phenomenon, which is certainly complex in character, has been abundantly studied and various theories have tried to explain it. Clearly this is a subject that I cannot discuss in detail here but what is certain is that if Islam managed to influence all of these peoples with ancient civilisations and adapt to their cultures, this took place because, in an inverse way, it, too, was influenced by these cultures in its formation and its development. Indeed, what facilitates acculturation is the circulation, in both ways, of such influences. An important factor in the circulation of influences is without doubt the plurality and the diversity that characterise a religion during its stages of formation and evolution. Mutual influence and plurality are inseparably linked – without one, the other would almost certainly not exist. This axiom leads first of all to a fact which it is advisable to remember today more than ever before and perhaps this is especially the case as regards Muslims themselves – the extreme diversity of Islam.

 

Islam, in fact, is not a single reality; it is not monolithic. It never has been. As in the case of all the ‘great’ religions, this plurality is made up of various natures (the adjective ‘great’ here does not imply any value judgement of a qualitative kind. I mean by this term the quantitative dimension and/or role played by these religions in the development of the history of humanity taken as a whole). Plurality, therefore, is first and foremost of a historical kind and from this point of view one can affirm that three forms of Islam exist.

 

 

First of all, the Islam of the origins, that of the prophet Mohammed (who died in 632). Objectively we know very little about it because what we do know comes almost exclusively from the depictions that certain Muslim authors tried to provide, the oldest of whom wrote in the great majority of cases almost a century and a half or two centuries after the facts. The context in which these writers worked was totally different from that in which the religion of the Arab prophet was born. The incessant civil wars, the great conquests, the creation of an immense empire, the innumerable political-religious scissions and the progressive creation of an orthodoxy necessarily marked human spirits and determined the images that they wanted to give to the past to justify the present and to prepare for the future.

 

 

After more than a century of research in the field of historical philology, experts in Arab and Islamic studies know that the very understanding of the language of the Koran was similarly modified. The original context of the revelations of Mohammed, which was tribal, Arab, or more precisely Hijazi – specific to the regions of Mecca and Medina – was impregnated with ancestral beliefs but also with the ancient religions of the Near and Middle East that were then present in Arabia, such as, in particular, Judaism, Christianity and Mani¬cha¬eism. This world had already fallen or could be made to fall into oblivion because of a community that was by now made up in large part of non-Arabs who were the children of non-tribal societies and led by leaders who sought to demonstrate, at times in an aggressive way, the autonomy of the new religion, and soon its superiority, in relation to the previous religions. Despite all the efforts of a political kind, the previous religions remained fully alive at the level of the dogma, rites and institutions of Islam. This applies to Christianity, to Zoroastrian Mazdeism and naturally to Judaism, but also to a religion that has today been almost forgotten, namely Mani¬cha¬eism, from which Islam seems to have inherited four of its five ‘pillars’, that is to say the profession of faith, the five canon prayers every day, legal almsgiving and a month of fasting every year, beginning at sunrise and ending at sunset. It should also be remembered that the title ‘seal of the prophets’, which refers as everyone knows to the prophet of Islam, came from Mani.

 

 

The Drawing up of Laws

 

 

Then there is the Islam of the clerics, professional men entrusted with managing the fact of religion; the people who drew up canon law and, allied with the ancient traders who had become warriors and conquerors, rightly perceived the pressing need to establish rules for the immense conquered lands, for the colossal fortunes that had been acquired, and for the innumerable subject peoples. In this case as well, the bloody fratricidal conflicts and conquests turned out to be decisive factors. The drawing up of the laws of holy war, the definitions of the limits of faith and non-belief, the desire to make Arabic the language of government so as not to depend any more on Byzantine and Persian officials, the formulation of rules about the ‘Peoples of the Book’, above all Jews and Christians who became ‘protected tributary peoples’ (dhimmî), to emphasise the independent and victorious character of Islam, the deciding on various duties and taxes, which were termed religious, and in particular the poll tax and the land tax, or the final writing of the scriptures, which were progressively distinct in the Koran and the prophetic traditions, with a view to creating an orthodoxy and orthodox practice, all of this characterised the first stages of the slow rise to power of the doctors of the Law, beginning with the Omayyad epoch (661-750). This Islam, which often moved the masses, thought that it was self-sufficient: satisfied with itself, it wanted to be closed because held itself to be superior to every other culture. And yet it is forgotten that the canon Law of Islam, the famous sharî’a, which came into being during the first two centuries of the hijra, is often not only not based on the Koran but is at times against the Koran – one may think, for example, of the stoning of adulterous women which has no basis in the Koran or of certain rules that govern inheritance or rejection in which the facts in the Koran are often embryonic.

 

 

Lastly, one could speak of an Islam of the non-clerics: the Islam of historians and historiographers, of poets, geographers, men of letters, philosophers, mystics, scientists, philologists and grammarians, artists and architects…Many of these were also theologians, jurists, exegetes or judges. However these figures, who nearly always came from the ranks of the peoples who had been conquered, expressed an open and curious Islam, in search of knowledge, news, adaptations and assimilations. Discoverers, translators, commentators and transmitters of ancient cultures – the Greek-Alexandrian, the Syrian-Byzantine, the Iranian, and the Indian – were principally those who made of Islam, often through hermeneutical works and at times paying a very high prices for this, a culture and a civilisation that was one of the most notable in the history of humanity, in particular during the ninth and tenth centuries, during that period that is known as the Golden Age of the Abassid caliphate. It was because of them that fundamental elements of the intellectual and spiritual heritage of humanity were adopted by, and adapted to, Islam, openly or secretly, and then handed on to posterity, in particular to the West: Greek science and philosophy, the tales of Indian wisdom, Iranian morality, Mazdean metaphysics, and Manichean spirituality and esotericism.

 

 

Cultural Variety

 

 

This last point brings out other pluralities of a cultural, ethnic and geographical character. Indeed, Islam is not only a religion – it is also a civilisation which in its richness and complexity has acted as a foundation for a number of centuries of various cultures each with its own history and which has had the habit of being called, in the singular, ‘Muslim civilisation’. But how can one use the singular when the analysis covers lands that go from the Maghreb to Indonesia, passing by way of black Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia and the islands of the Indian ocean? Let us recall once again some evident facts: only about 15% of Muslims are Arabs or of the Arabic-speaking world. The largest Muslim countries are Nigeria and Indonesia. The countries of the Indian sub-continent, namely India, Pakistan and Bangla¬desh, alone have almost a half of the Muslim population of the world. Apart from a very limited number of shared practices and beliefs, things differ, often radically, from one culture to another. The Islam of Mauritania is very different from the Islam of Iran and only with difficulty would an Albanian Muslim identify with the beliefs of a Turcoman or a Madagascan. In Chad or in Senegal passages from the Koran written on leaves are immersed in water which is then given to sick children to drink; in Saudi Arabia the Koran is only to be touched when leafed through during a reading and this must of necessity take place in a state of ritual purity. Seen in this perspective, there are as many Islams as there are cultures that exist amongst Muslims. In addition, these are made up of a majority of Sunnites (about four-fifths), of a minority of Shiites (almost a fifth) and a very small number of Kharajites, who at the present time are located above all in North Africa. Each of these families is threaded through with numerous currents of thought, spiritual tendencies, and juridical and theological schools.

 

 

The complexity and the riches of the ‘great’ religions is principally and fundamentally due to this plurality, which is connected with the interplay of mutual influences. It is, therefore, no accident if the negation of plurality is literalism, the intellectual basis of every form of fundamentalism. Literalism reduces a religion, its texts, and its ideas, to their literality, to the surface that is immediately perceivable by reason, a faculty in its turn directly linked to language. Literalism is above all opposed to the very idea of hermeneutics, a discipline of wisdom according to which a text, a doctrine, or a reality, are not to be understood solely in the manifest dimension, their visible aspect: they can contain one or many levels of meaning, of varying degrees of concealment. Hermeneutics is to be defined precisely as the search for concealed meaning or meanings and forms the basis of other disciplines such as exegesis, theology, mysticism, as applied and based on scriptural sources. Thus hermeneutics is fundamental for the creation of a plural and open culture. Literalism is the enemy of this kind of openness. It tries to cover or annihilate plurality under the totalising if not even totalitarian notion of ‘unity’. Unfortunately, at a political level, it is this literalistic tendency that seems to be gaining ground within Islam. It does not want to hear people speak about a diversity of cultures, languages and beliefs in Islam. It does not want to accept the interpretation of Islam, of other religions, and of other civilisations. For some decades this trend has been represented by Wahabite fundamentalists and their voluntary or involuntary acolytes who deny, at times violently, the diversity and the plurality of Islam and Muslims, and reject peaceful co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims. Fortunately they are still in a small minority at a sociological level. Leaving them aside, both men of letters and ordinary Muslims and scholars have always known that these pluralities and the influences that they propagate constitute the principal reason for the endless riches of Islam, its spiritual and intellectual universes.

 

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