Wednesday, February 08, 2006

King Abdullah, Please Clarify

In response to the growing fracas over the Danish cartoons, King Abdullah II of Jordan made this comment today during his meeting with President Bush:

“With all respect to press freedoms, obviously anything that vilifies the Prophet Muhammad ... or attacks Muslim sensibilities, I believe, needs to be condemned.”

What precisely does this mean?

I've always been an admirer of the religious tolerance of the Mongol Empire, its ability to allow different religions to propagate their claims and to be present in the "public square" without requiring any faith to compromise its core beliefs or trying to promote a common understanding that "we all believe the same thing." The "Great Yasa" of Genghis Khan enjoined Mongol khans to respect and honor the traditions, facilities, objects and personnel of all religions, to protect all religions not only from the state but from their rivals, and extended tax privileges that anticipated the United States by several centuries.

But the Mongols also allowed missionaries of different faiths to challenge and debate the propositions and beliefs of others.

So my question to King Abdullah would be, does questioning the credentials or experiences of the prophet, not in an offensive or blasphemous manner, but in a reasoned, respectful way, amount to vilification of the prophet or an attack on Muslim sensibilities? A biography of Muhammad that wasn't hagiography? What about the suggestion, found in some medieval Christian literature, that Muhammad's revelation should be understood not as a new religion but as a Christian heresy (pace St. John of Damascus)? Or modern re-evaluations of his experiences which would try to explore the psychological make-up of Muhammad? Or efforts to establish the historicity of Muhammad?

I raise the question because in the United States we see an ongoing debate over the role, motives and mission of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (The Mormons). To members of the LDS Church, Smith is a prophet called by God, the Book of Mormon is authentic, Smith had the highest motives. There is also a long historical tradition which sees Smith as a false prophet, a fraud, that the Book of Mormon was cribbed from the King James Version of the Bible, Masonic texts and popular literature of the time, that Smith used his position to satisfy his material wants. We've seen, not only in Utah and Arizona but all over the U.S., debates about how to discuss Mormonism, whether one can be simultaneously respectful of LDS claims about Smith while expressing skepticism.

To cite just a few examples, I enclose links here to the debate over the Smithsonian Institution's letter dealing with questions arising out of the Book of Mormon, with a Mormon response and further commentary, as well as a connected link that is the Smithsonian Institution's response to questions about Noah's Ark. Essentially the Smithsonian is saying it cannot validate religious claims and that, in the case of the Book of Mormon, the evidence points against the book's claims. Is this an attack on Mormon sensibilities by a public institution of the U.S. government?

I raise this point because King Abdullah's criteria is vague and could easily be interpreted to mean that entire subjects and questions are to be put off limits for discussion and debate.

Wasn't a bishop in Pakistan put on trial a few years ago for "insulting" the prophet Mohammed, and basically the charge was brought against him on the grounds that advocating Christianity was de facto a denigration of the prophet's message, by not recognizing Mohammed's superior revelation?
I think this statement is just another diplomatic rhetoric, an attempt to keep winning the hearts and minds of the muslim and the non-muslim world.

Personally, i think many of today's historical and religious facts, are wrongly delivered to us. So everything should be questioned.
"With all respect to press freedoms, obviously anything that vilifies the Prophet Muhammad ... or attacks Muslim sensibilities, I believe, needs to be condemned.”

I would treat this remark by King Abdullah as a response to the sort of question that probably prompted it. I doubt he would have given the same answer to the more sophisticated question you raise.

But I wonder if we shouldn't refrain from asking questions that presuppose a value-system that the other side does not avow. If we ask "Are Muhammad's credentials open to critical examination?" Muslims may turn around and ask "Why do you not punish blasphemy?" There is a danger in this kind of exchange of talking past each other.

I would encourage those who want to recover the Islamic tradition of ijtihad, and I would do everything possible to get the diversity of the Islamic intellectual heritage into the hands and minds of young people in Asia and North Africa. Let them see what their own ancestors have written and thought. If we are on a collision course, there is probably nothing better we can do now, and if we are not, then what Muslims do will more likely reflect some part of their own heritage than some part of ours.
In response to David's point, the high point of ijtihad was when the Islamic world felt secure in its superiority and position--it was advancing and gaining ground both against Christianity in the West and Hinduism in the subcontinent. The profound sense of Muslim insecurity today seems to inhibit the ability to critically assess the tradition
Anonymous - I agree. There have been some calls for ijtihad in the Muslim diaspora, and the extent of second-generation Muslim integration in many Western societies is encouraging and could eventually have an influence back in countries of origin. But this kind of change will surely take time and right now the extent to which assimilation has failed is a more urgent concern. What I wonder is whether younger Muslims have been cut off from their heritage in ways that we might help and encourage them overcome.
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