08 August 2006

Religion, Politics & The Prophet.

Michael Cook, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, addressed leading journalists at the Pew Forum's biannual "Faith Angle" conference in May 2006. He explained "the merging of religion and politics in the life of Muhammad and how this legacy shapes the Muslim world today":

"...That’s one angle. For the other angle let me go back to what I was saying about Christianity becoming a bandwagon in the fourth century. Any world religion must have become a bandwagon at some stage in its history, or it wouldn’t be a world religion. But world religions vary with regard to the timing of the bandwagon effect. In the Christian case, you have to wait until the fourth century for the Christian bandwagon to start rolling. Before the fourth century, you have to be pretty concerned about your eternal salvation for it to make sense to become a Christian.

In the Muslim case, the timing is quite different. Once the prophet gets to Medina, once he establishes this state, there is already the beginning of a bandwagon. In other words, the bandwagon effect in Islam comes extremely early. What does this mean? It means three things. One is that the historical experiences of early Christianity and early Islam are completely different. In the Christian case, you have a religion that remains the religion of a persecuted minority for the best part of three centuries. All the basic shapes of the religion are already set before the bandwagon starts. By contrast, in the Islamic case, you have less than 12 years in which the Muslims are a persecuted minority in Mecca. From that point on, once they get to Medina, and the prophet starts building his state, the bandwagon is rolling.

If, as you listen to my stories of the prophet, you have the Gospels in mind, you must have a sense that these stories are very, very different. They not only relate different historical circumstances, but they are told to a different audience. The audience of the Gospels is people who are seriously concerned about their salvation. The audience of the stories I’ve told you -- well, the salvation-minded might be listening, too -- but these stories cater to the military and political elite of the Arab-Islamic Empire. They address people who are interested in military operations, who like to know about preemptive strikes and incidents of friendly fire. These stories are told for people extremely interested in politics, who are fascinated by the judgment calls required to keep a shaky coalition together.

I hope you see this difference, this interest in military and political affairs, which makes the life of Muhammad, as it is written, so different in texture from the life of Jesus, as it’s written in the Gospels. Think what it means that you have, at the present day, these two utterly different heritages, these two utterly different ways of approaching and describing the life of the founder of the religion. I think that helps explain both why Islamic fundamentalism has been such a relative success in recent decades, and why people coming from a Christian background find it incredibly hard to understand it

Very helpful. Here's the whole thing, including the Q&A.


Blogger Farmer John said...

...but wasn't Christianity a splinter off Judaeism... an established religion with its' own state?

11 August, 2006 09:39  
Blogger PSA+ said...

Jesus came announcing the "Kingdom of God" as a trans-national reality, a kingdom that relativised all other structures of authority - "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Mark 12.17). So St. Paul could write, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek..." (Gal. 3.28). The best writing on this topic currently is from N.T. Wright. See especially his The Challenge of Jesus.

11 August, 2006 10:07  

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