September 30, 2010

Why Did Islam Become What It Is?

I have always thought that nobody who has an ounce of common sense—not to speak of sensibility and culture—cannot help but respect other people’s religious beliefs, except for those which are manifestly contrary to universal human right principles. Such is, of course, my attitude toward Islam. Hence my deep appreciation for thinkers such as G.K. Chesteron, whose respect for Islam is as strong as his “humanistic” approach to life in general. Which obviously generates some kind of tension between the two needs: respect, but awareness of the most controversial aspects of Islam, with regard to its (much) less humanistic approach…

Here is an example of his, so to speak, “bivalent attitude” toward Islam. There is in Islam “a paradox which is perhaps a permanent menace,” he wrote in his 1917 Lord Kitchener...

The great creed born in the desert creates a kind of ecstasy out of the very emptiness of its own land, and even, one may say, out of the emptiness of its own theology. It affirms, with no little sublimity, something that is not merely the singleness but rather the solitude of God. There is the same extreme simplification in the solitary figure of the Prophet; and yet this isolation perpetually reacts into its own opposite. A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and yet this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets. Of these the mightiest in modern times were the man whose name was Ahmed, and whose more famous title was the Mahdi; and his more ferocious successor Abdullahi, who was generally known as the Khalifa. These great fanatics, or great creators of fanaticism, succeeded in making a militarism almost as famous and formidable as that of the Turkish Empire on whose frontiers it hovered, and in spreading a reign of terror such as can seldom be organised except by civilisation…

Islam as “the great creed born in the desert.” That’s the key argument he makes to explain both what is wrong and what is the sublimity hidden in the heart of the religion of Muhammad. Two faces (what is sublime and what is “a permanent menace”) of the same coin—a Weltanschauung which is son of the desert and which generates both great mystics and huge fanatics and creators of fanaticism.

But it was not until 1919 that Chesterton had the opportunity of making this perfectly clear to himself, when he left his home in Beaconsfield, and traveled backward through time to the place which is sacred to the three “religions of the Book.” And his 1920 The New Jerusalem, is just a philosophical travelogue of his journey across Europe, across the desert, to Palestine.

Chesterton saw Islam as the Way of the Desert. The desert being a place of loss of perspective, and Islam personifying that loss of perspective. When the mind has grown used to the monotony of the desert, he wrote, a curious change takes place:

It may sound strange to say that monotony of its nature becomes novelty. But if any one will try the common experiment of saying some ordinary word such as "moon" or "man" about fifty times, he will find that the expression has become extraordinary by sheer repetition. A man has become a strange animal with a name as queer as that of the gnu; and the moon something monstrous like the moon-calf. Something of this magic of monotony is effected by the monotony of deserts; and the traveller feels as if he had entered into a secret, and was looking at everything from another side. Something of this simplification appears, I think, in the religions of the desert, especially in the religion of Islam. It explains something of the super-human hopes that fill the desert prophets concerning the future; it explains something also about their barbarous indifference to the past.

We think of the desert and its stones as old; but in one sense they are unnaturally new. They are unused, and perhaps unusable. They might be the raw material of a world; only they are so raw as to be rejected. It is not easy to define this quality of something primitive, something not mature enough to be fruitful. Indeed there is a hard simplicity about many Eastern things that is as much crude as archaic. A palm-tree is very like a tree drawn by a child—or by a very futurist artist. Even a pyramid is like a mathematical figure drawn by a schoolmaster teaching children; and its very impressiveness is that of an ultimate Platonic abstraction. There is something curiously simple about the shape in which these colossal crystals of the ancient sands have been cast. It is only when we have felt something of this element, not only of simplicity, but of crudity, and even in a sense of novelty, that we can begin to understand both the immensity and the insufficiency of that power that came out of the desert, the great religion of Mahomet.

And here is a generous eulogy of Islam:

In the red circle of the desert, in the dark and secret place, the prophet discovers the obvious things. I do not say it merely as a sneer, for obvious things are very easily forgotten; and indeed every high civilisation decays by forgetting obvious things.

But a second later he challenges those whom he has just praised:

But it is true that in such a solitude men tend to take very simple ideas as if they were entirely new ideas. There is a love of concentration which comes from the lack of comparison. The lonely man looking at the lonely palm-tree does see the elementary truths about the palm-tree; and the elementary truths are very essential. Thus he does see that though the palm-tree may be a very simple design, it was not he who designed it. It may look like a tree drawn by a child, but he is not the child who could draw it. He has not command of that magic slate on which the pictures can come to life, or of that magic green chalk of which the green lines can grow. He sees at once that a power is at work in whose presence he and the palm-tree are alike little children. In other words, he is intelligent enough to believe in God; and the Moslem, the man of the desert, is intelligent enough to believe in God. But his belief is lacking in that humane complexity that comes from comparison.
[Italics mine]

And a few lines below he says:

[Islam] was content with the idea that it had a great truth; as indeed it had a colossal truth. It was so huge a truth that it was hard to see it was a half-truth.

What does he mean by that? Let’s follow his reasoning:

Islam was a movement; that is why it has ceased to move. For a movement can only be a mood. It may be a very necessary movement arising from a very noble mood, but sooner or later it must find its level in a larger philosophy, and be balanced against other things. Islam was a reaction towards simplicity; it was a violent simplification, which turned out to be an over-simplification. Stevenson has somewhere one of his perfectly picked phrases for an empty-minded man; that he has not one thought to rub against another while he waits for a train. The Moslem had one thought, and that a most vital one; the greatness of God which levels all men. But the Moslem had not one thought to rub against another, because he really had not another. It is the friction of two spiritual things, of tradition and invention, or of substance and symbol, from which the mind takes fire. The creeds condemned as complex have something like the secret of sex; they can breed thoughts.
The philosophy of the desert can only begin over again. It cannot grow; it cannot have what Protestants call progress and Catholics call development.
The highest message of Mahomet is a piece of divine tautology. The very cry that God is God is a repetition of words, like the repetitions of wide sands and rolling skies. The very phrase is like an everlasting echo, that can never cease to say the same sacred word; and when I saw afterwards the mightiest and most magnificent of all the mosques of that land, I found that its inscriptions had the same character of a deliberate and defiant sameness.
The ancient Arabic alphabet and script is itself at once so elegant and so exact that it can be used as a fixed ornament, like the egg and dart pattern or the Greek key. It is as if we could make a heraldry of handwriting, or cover a wall-paper with signatures. But the literary style is as recurrent as the decorative style; perhaps that is why it can be used as a decorative style. Phrases are repeated again and again like ornamental stars or flowers. Many modern people, for example, imagine that the Athanasian Creed is full of vain repetitions; but that is because people are too lazy to listen to it, or not lucid enough to understand it. The same terms are used throughout, as they are in a proposition of Euclid. But the steps are all as differentiated and progressive as in a proposition of Euclid. But in the inscriptions of the Mosque whole sentences seem to occur, not like the steps of an argument, but rather like the chorus of a song. This is the impression everywhere produced by this spirit of the sandy wastes; this is the voice of the desert, though the muezzin cries from the high turrets of the city. Indeed one is driven to repeating oneself about the repetition, so overpowering is the impression of the tall horizons of those tremendous plains, brooding upon the soul with all the solemn weight of the self-evident. [Italics mine]

Isn’t that a wonderful explanation of the (abyssal) difference between them and us, whose minds have been nurtured by Greek rationality and Judaic-Christian values? This difference is also why, compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant. In his What Went Wrong, Bernard Lewis asks, but does not answer, the following questions: “Why did the discoverers of America sail from Spain and not a Muslim Atlantic port, where such voyages were indeed attempted in earlier times? Why did the great scientific breakthrough occur in Europe and not, as one might reasonably have expected, in the richer, more advanced, and in most respects more enlightened realm of Islam?” One might say, “Just read The New Jerusalem to get the right answers to these questions and a few others.”

~ First written for The Metaphysical Peregrine ~


  1. If you really want to master Islam's history, there is no place like the Historyscoper's free online Islam history course. To get started just click

  2. The New Jerusalem is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand what Islam is all about - and this post is its prophet … :-)

  3. Persia was once one of, if not the greatest cultural centre(s) of the world. In the 11th and 12th century it was the only place do go, if one was allowed admittance, to study medicine (that the Persians also translated from the Greeks) or any other of the known sciences then, including astrology and alchemy, etc.
    The imposition of Islamic values abruptly changed the rules and stopped the progress. The study of anatomy, for example, was no longer permitted, as it was against Islamic law to dissect the human body. Europe, where more tolerance was slowly but surely developing, was thus bound to overtake the Muslim world in all such sciences and technology.

    It seems that the Prophet also set precedents of division, not only and especially between the Muslims and the Jews, and the Muslims and the Christians, (as if the Prophet dismissed the idea that the three monotheist religions were the 'children' of Abraham) but amongst Muslims themselves. His word was so primordial that even Muslims who believe in one particular interpretation of Islam would be at loggerheads with Muslims who believe in another.

    The idea that only he can represent the truth, because he was the last Prophet, might seem valid for Muslim believers, but unlike Jesus, he wanted to return to a certain level of the roots of the Muslim religion, which thus had to include an important level of intolerance.
    Would it not be as if a new Christian prophet came after Jesus and Mohammed to spread the sacred word that the New Testament no longer applied, and that the entire civilisation must refer uniquely to the Old Testament in every way from then onwards until the end of the world?

  4. To conclude
    But one has no right to stigmatise any religion. There are many moderate Muslims
    who interpret Islamic laws in the intelligent way they should be interpreted. There are also extremists of all other religions, who also interpret their religion according to the way it can be falsely used for their own purposes and gains.

  5. Great post, Rob!

    Perhaps The New Jerusalem might also explain the reason why immigrant Muslims widely disdain Western civilization.

    At the same time, while Europe's political correctness reflects the alienation of many Europeans from their civilization -- a sense that their culture is not worth fighting for or even saving -- extreme secularism pervades Europe, especially among its elites, to the point that believing Christians are seen as mentally unbalanced and unfit for public office. I remember when in 2005 Europe denied Catholic politician Rocco Buttiliglione the European Union commissionership because of his views on issues like homosexuality.

    Oriana Fallaci once observed that, with the passage of time, "Europe becomes more and more a province of Islam, a colony of Islam." The historian Bat Ye'or has dubbed this colony "Eurabia." Walter Laqueur predicts in his forthcoming Last Days of Europe that Europe as we know it is bound to change. Mark Steyn, in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, argues that much of the Western world "will not survive the twenty-first century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most European countries."

  6. This book is fantastic! There’s no doubt that Islam was beneficial to humanity in Arabia when women were personal properties with no human rights. It brought light to the dark ages of Arabia where the baby girls were buried alive, and transformed Arabia from a place of desert dwellers into the center of a new civilization expanded from Spain to China. But this was centuries ago … Nowadays Islam (as the only factual ideology) leaves no room for any changes and reforms.

  7. I would suggest to Mirino that what we would view as "moderate Muslims" are not obeying the Koran, that being "moderate" violates Mohammed's teaching. It's all about murder and violence, intolerance and oppression, and you can't be a true Muslim if you're against oppression and intolerance; that's the norm for Islam. Sharia Law cannot be viewed any other way but as tools for oppression and submission to the State using religion to cover its true intent of total control and power over the people.

  8. There is mass-appeal I've noticed in the media (that hydra-headed monster mommy mirror of us all) lately to stories about Islamophobia in one guise or another. I've also noticed a distinct lack of balance, probing questions, etc. from the interviewers. What a shame we can't witness more data like this other than the protestations of right-wing radio demagogues.

    As a guy who read too much literature in his younger days, I can't help thinking of Paul Bowles, the ex-patriate who lived in Morocco and wrote exclusively about Islam and the mentality of the desert. Bowles is considered a bohemian, a decadent, etc. but even he was shocked that the West was so open to its own demise in the enroachment of Islam from emigrees and immigrants. Also, as his writing showed, there are marked differences between the 2 cultures: for example - Islam denies personal responsibility for anything -"it is written" (his words, not mine)

  9. The story of Magdi Cristiano Allam, an Egyptian-born Italian journalist who converted to Catholicism in 2008, is somehow emblematic of how Islam is inseparable from Islamic extremism. In his public letter to the editor of Corriere della Sera about his conversion, he argued:

    I asked myself how it was possible that those who, like me, sincerely and boldly called for a 'moderate Islam,' assuming the responsibility of exposing themselves in the first person in denouncing Islamic extremism and terrorism, ended up being sentenced to death in the name of Islam on the basis of the Quran. I was forced to see that, beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive.”