The Myth of Islam’s Diversity

One of the big unexamined assumptions of our time is that Islam is a diverse religion which offers as many different flavors of the faith as Baskin-Robbins serves up in ice cream.

Just recently, Nicholas Kristof penned a column for the New York Times titled “The Diversity of Islam,” and a week after that, author Reza Aslan wrote an op-ed for the Times with a similar theme. Aslan, a Muslim, took the diversity argument to unusual lengths, arguing, in effect, that all religions can be interpreted in an infinity of ways:

The abiding nature of scripture rests not so much in its truth claims as it does in its malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshipper requires.

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This is essentially the post-modernist argument that texts have no meaning in themselves, but that the meaning of any particular text—say the Constitution—must be imposed by the reader. Robert Spencer makes short work of Aslan’s argument in PJ Media:

What Aslan is claiming here is absolutely nihilistic. He’s saying essentially that words have no meaning, that the various scriptures of various religion have no essential content or character, that the religions themselves are meaningless and interchangeable.

Aslan’s analysis doesn’t bear much relation to the way that most people over the centuries have understood religion, but it does play well with readers of the New York Times, and his post-modern views have earned him “guest expert” status on TV news programs. He’s popular with Catholic academics as well, presumably because his views can be fit into the Islam-is-just-like-Catholicism bias prevalent on many Catholic campuses. Either that, or the professors are confusing him with a certain character in The Chronicles of Narnia. In any event, there are at least a couple of Catholic seminaries which use No God but God, Aslan’s whitewash of Islam, as the main text in the Islamic studies course.

Despite its appeal to ivory tower types, the deconstructionist argument is a self-cancelling absurdity. How about the less extreme view that there are simply many varieties of Islam? Proponents of this view don’t say that Islam means whatever you want it to mean, only that there are several shades of it—each with a claim to validity because each is based on the Koran which Muslims believe is the eternal word of God. This line of reasoning preserves the authority of the Koran, but also conveys an appearance of plurality. By adopting this approach, Muslim scholars can have it both ways. The message conveyed to the West is that Islam is—within certain bounds—a multifaceted faith; the message to fellow Muslims who may be engaged in jihad is: “We won’t say that your understanding of Islam is not true and authentic.”

With the advent of ISIS and the outrage it has provoked around the world, this proposition has become less tenable. Under pressure, many Muslim scholars have felt obliged to condemn ISIS, but in doing so they weaken their claim that Islam is diverse. On the one hand, they contend that you can’t say that there is any one true Islam. On the other hand, they claim that ISIS is un-Islamic. But, of course, if you can’t say what Islam is, how can you say that something is un-Islamic? Obviously, Islam has to mean something. And if the Koran, the Hadith, and the example of Muhammad are the measure of authenticity, ISIS has as good a claim as any to represent the true Islam. ISIS leaders can quote chapter and verse from the Koran to justify their actions.

Moreover, all of the atrocities for which they are condemned are backed up by the words and deeds of Muhammad. Or, as Martin Rhonheimer, a theologian at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, puts it, “You will find no arguments within Muslim theology that can be used to condemn Islamic State’s behavior as un-Islamic.” Islamic scholars know that ISIS is not un-Islamic. If they condemn it, it’s because they realize that the West needs to be reassured from time to time that Islam is, in fact, a peaceful religion. Moreover, if it spreads, ISIS poses a grave threat to their own security. Thus, Saudi scholars have no qualms in berating ISIS for its barbarity, even though weekly beheadings in public squares are a fixed feature of Saudi life to which they have given their sanction.

The myth that Islam is diverse owes a lot to the duplicity of Muslim scholars. However, there are other factors that contribute to the myth. Chief among these is a conflation of Muslim and Islam. It’s easy to assume that the normal diversity we find among Muslims in various cultures must be a reflection of diversity in the Islamic faith, but that’s not necessarily the case. The fact that Muslims may practice Islam in different ways in different parts of the world doesn’t mean that there are no agreed-upon Islamic doctrines. In many parts of Africa and Asia, syncretic or folklore versions of Islam have developed over the years as a result of contact with other religions or as an accommodation to local cultures. However, it would be difficult to make the case that these variations are just as authentic as the form of Islam found in Saudi Arabia. And in all likelihood, these folkloreish Muslims will soon find it expedient to conform their beliefs and practices to the Wahhabi/Salafist model that emanates from Arabia and is now sweeping the globe. Ironically, the spread of modern mass communications and the easy availability of texts via the Internet has made it easier for this “primitive” form of Islam to make the case that it represent the authentic, original Islam that can be found in the Koran, the Hadith, the Sira, and the commentaries.

In any event, the fact that some people have found idiosyncratic ways of practicing Islam doesn’t tell us much about authoritative Islamic beliefs. Some Catholics in Africa practice polygamy, some Catholics in the Caribbean are involved in Santeria, a syncretic religion that merges elements of Yoruba and Native American religions with Catholicism. Many Catholics in America disagree with the Church on divorce, birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage, as well as on doctrines such as original sin and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But this diversity of beliefs and practices among individual Catholics doesn’t mean that we can’t say what the Catholic Church believes and teaches.

In fact, the Catholic Church has very clear teachings in all these areas. The same is true of Islam. Its major tenets have been carefully codified. Although there are Muslims who are ignorant of the teachings or ignore them or (very rarely) dissent from them, the main beliefs are not in dispute. Islamic scholars may disagree over fine points of doctrine, but there is widespread agreement about the fundamentals. The chief disagreement between the two main divisions of Islam—Sunni and Shia—is not over theology but over politics—over the proper line of succession to Muhammad. Otherwise, as Spencer puts it, Islam is “one of the least diverse entities on the planet.”

Take the matter of sharia law. According to our academic and media elites, there are many different varieties of sharia. But what variety there is is simply a factor of how strictly sharia is enforced in any given country. As Spencer observes:

Whenever Sharia is fully implemented around the world today … it looks largely the same: freedom of speech is restricted, women and non-Muslims are denied basic rights, apostates from Islam are ostracized or even killed, “heretics” and “blasphemers” are hounded by legal authorities and/or lynch mobs.

Far from being a vague, variable set of guidelines—as some Islamic apologists would have us believe—sharia is explicitly set down in great detail in Islamic law manuals such as Reliance of the Traveller, a 1200-page compendium of rulings. How detailed? Take section o 14. 0, “The Penalty for Theft.” The penalty is amputation of the right hand. But that’s just for the first offense. Here is section o 14. 1(f):

If a person steals a second time, his left foot is amputated; if a third time, then his left hand; and if he steals again, then his right foot.

It doesn’t stop there, but goes on to explain in earnest what to do if a first offender is already missing his right hand.

On the one hand, this notion of justice seems absurd to the Western mind; on the other hand—assuming that you still have one left—large numbers of Muslims have no problem with such extreme penalties. For example, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey of Pakistani Public Opinion conducted in 2009 found that 83 percent of Pakistanis favor stoning of adulterers, 80 percent favor whipping thieves or cutting off their hands, and 78 percent favor death for those who leave Islam. A 2011 Pew Survey of Egyptians showed almost identical results. A 2013 Pew Survey asked Muslims in a number of countries whether sharia should be the official law of their countries. In twenty-five of the countries, more than 50 percent of respondents said it should, including 86 percent of Malaysians, 99 percent of Afghanis, 84 percent of Pakistanis, 82 percent of Bangladeshis, 91 percent of Iraqis, 89 percent of Palestinians, 83 percent of Moroccans, and 86 percent of Nigerians.

It’s not just sharia that looks largely the same from country to country. So does the pattern of persecution. As Raymond Ibrahim points out in Crucified Again, the oppression of Christians in Muslim lands has a “distinctly Islamic nature”:

The same exact patterns of persecution are evident from one end of the Islamic world to the other—in lands that do not share the same language, race, or culture—that share only Islam.

The uniformity of beliefs and practices even extends to a uniformity of clothing. As Spencer observes, no matter where they live, converts to Islam tend to “adopt the dress of a seventh-century Arab.” Muslims the world over also tend to favor their sons with the name of a seventh-century Arab prophet. What’s the most common name for baby boys in Marseille? Brussels? Antwerp? Oslo? Amsterdam? Rotterdam? The Hague? Glasgow? England and Wales? The answer in all cases is “Muhammad.” “Muhammad” is also the most common given name in the world. Diversity? Sounds more like extreme mental homogeneity. Once all those Muhammads gain control in Europe—as they seem quite likely to do—the residents of Marseille, Brussels, Antwerp et al should not expect too much in the way of diversity. The way twenty-first century Europe is shaping up, Orwell’s 1984 will look like a multicultural utopia in comparison.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the public whipping of a man in Indonesia charged under Sharia law with unlawful contact of an unmarried man or woman. (Photo credit: AP.)

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