Show Hide image

Tom Holland on Islam and the west: Kingdoms not of this world

To insist that Muslims can have as unproblematic a relationship with secular democracy as can, say, their Anglican fellow citizens is unrealistic – not to mention unfair on Muslims themselves.

There is an optimistic notion, one popular among mystics and atheists alike, that all gods are essentially the same. “I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Zoroastrian nor Muslim”: this may sound like a manifesto for the National Secular Society, but was in fact written in the Middle Ages by the great Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. His vision of enlightenment, one which saw the reality of God as being akin to the veiled peak of a mountain, taught that the world’s religions, though called by different names, are all simply paths that lead to the one identical summit. The appeal of this philosophy, in a multi-faith society such as Britain’s, is obvious. Indeed, at a time when even our future king frets at the prospect of ruling as the defender of merely a single faith, it must have come to rank as the new Establishment orthodoxy. What could be less 21st century, after all, than to believe that the road to heaven might lead through the Church of England alone?

And yet, for all that, the pretence that peoples of different faiths are heading towards the one single destination does simultaneously stand in the finest tradition of Anglican humbug. The Church of England, ever since Elizabeth I declared herself reluctant to make windows into men’s souls, has been dependent for its existence on fudge. The pews may be emptier nowadays than they used to be, and yet the English, by and large, remain wedded to presumptions that are the theological equivalent of milky tea. “That would be an ecumenical matter” – so Father Ted coached the deranged Father Jack to reply to anything, no matter how challenging, that might be put to him. The joke would have been even better suited to a vicar. The C of E was deliberately fashioned to provide Protestants with as big a tent as possible. Nowadays, with an urgent need to accommodate not only Catholics, but peoples from a non-Christian background as well, that tent necessarily has to appear yet bigger still. Hence, it would seem, the widespread Anglican conviction that there is no problem that cannot somehow be put to rights by an interfaith forum. Far from diluting the peculiarly English brand of Christianity, the ethos of multiculturalism is in many ways the quintessence of it.

Nevertheless, as the schism over homosexuality that is dividing Anglicanism itself has served wearyingly to demonstrate, compromise depends on people’s willingness not to push their own convictions too far. Unfortunately – or fortunately, according to on one’s point of view – not everyone is prepared to sacrifice deeply held principles on the altar of muddling through. Inevitably, the more grandstanding there is, the less sustainable becomes the fiction that people’s beliefs and ethics are all somehow of a kind. The big tent starts to look ragged, to come apart at the seams. A suspicion grows that the philosophy paraded daily on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day just might be wrong, and that the various gods namechecked before the eight o’clock news might not, in fact, all be the same.

The resulting sense of dislocation is hardly unique to our own times. The pagans of classical antiquity, who would cheerfully adopt the gods of alien pantheons and mix and match them with their own, were invariably brought to experience this sense of dislocation whenever they confronted Christianity’s one true God. Christians in turn might sometimes feel a similar uneasiness when obliged to contemplate the deity of Islam.

For instance, it is said that shortly after Muhammad’s death in 632AD the followers of the Prophet sent an embassy to Heraclius, the Christian emperor in Constantinople, demanding the surrender of his dominions and his conversion to Islam, on pain of invasion. “These people,” the emperor is said to have responded in some bemusement, “are like the twilight, caught between day and nightfall, neither sunlit nor dark – for although they are not illumined by the light of Christ, neither are they steeped in the darkness of idolatry.”

Not even Tony Blair at his most histrionic has ever put it quite like that – and, self-evidently, 7th-century Byzantium, with its murderous power struggles, its delusions of grandeur, and its imploding economy, was far removed from the Britain of New Labour. Nevertheless, Heraclius’s simile does pose in peculiarly acute form a question with which Christians have always had to wrestle: are the similarities between their own faith and Islam more profound than the differences?

Blair himself – impeccably ecumenical, even while following in the footsteps of Heraclius by launching an invasion of Mesopotamia – has been as gung-ho as anyone in emphasising the former. “Jews, Muslims and Christians are all children of Abraham,” he informed a somewhat startled Labour Party a fortnight after the destruction of the twin towers. “This is the moment to bring the faiths closer together in understanding of our common values and heritage – a source of unity and strength.”

Who could possibly argue with that? Only the most bigoted and bone-headed kind of crusader, it might be thought. And yet, and yet, there is a danger that too emphatic an insistence on what unites Christians and Muslims will prove as damaging in the long run as casting them as doomed to eternal conflict. The Crusaders themselves, ironically enough, rarely regarded Islam as something irredeemably alien; rather, when they bothered to think about their ­adversaries’ beliefs at all, they tended to regard them as merely a clumsily plagiarised heresy, a deficient and not particularly stimulating misunderstanding of their own religion.

Today, and for the best of intentions, there is a risk of committing a similar mistake. To insist that Muslims can have as unproblematic a relationship with secular democracy as can, say, their Anglican fellow citizens is unrealistic – not to mention unfair on Muslims themselves. To imagine that Islam, with a gentle nudge here and a little push there, can be transformed into a kind of Church of England with hijabs – a Mosque of England, perhaps – is pure fantasy. The gap between liberalism and a faith that has repeatedly shown itself uncomfortable with many of liberalism’s most basic presumptions cannot simply be wished away. Rather, if an accommodation is ever to be arrived at that is more than mere wish fulfilment, there is an urgent need to identify what divides the religious traditions of the west from the Dar al-Islam, as well as what unites them. People impatient with the very notion of religion may wish that it were not so, but it does still matter very much, even in the 21st century, that Christians and Muslims worship different gods.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus to Pontius Pilate the Roman governor, who promptly ordered his crucifixion. Whatever else it may have been, the earthly career of the Christian Messiah was not, in political terms, a resounding success. The implications of this have never since ceased to haunt his followers. Christ’s kingdom may not have been of this world, but Christian kingdoms decidedly were. So, what were those who lived in them supposed to do? Retreat to the margins of society and attempt to practise their faith, as the first apostles had done? Or seek to establish earthly polities under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with emperors or kings or popes set up as the deputies of Christ? Or even, perhaps, in anticipation of the End of Days, scorn all the works of worldly power and attempt to tear them down, in the ambition of founding a New Jerusalem on earth? No one could be entirely sure. Jesus had disdained to leave his followers with a political programme. He had left them with no choice but to find their own way.

The result, over the millennia, was to be a political tradition of great inventiveness and volatility. From the Caesarism of Constantine to the proto-communism of the Diggers, from the papal monarchy of Innocent III to the city-state theocracy of Calvin’s Geneva, attempts to found a properly Christian state on earth fostered a quite bewildering array of experiments. By the 16th and 17th centuries, such was the quickening savagery with which these were being embarked on, that Christendom ended up almost tearing itself apart. The horror of this attempt at civilisational suicide would never be forgotten: in the 18th century, when the Americans and the French set the west on yet another round of political experimentation, the resulting revolutions would explicitly abjure the very notion of a Christian state.

So, here was a decisive shift; and one that in the long run would result in the secular world we inhabit today, with its enshrining of the notion that it is the role of the state to play the part of referee between different religions. Indeed, even in a country with an established church, such as Britain, so institutionalised has distaste for Christianity become that it can serve to ban airline workers from wearing crucifixes, and nurses from offering prayers on behalf of their patients. Yet although contemporary secularism may like to think of itself as being post-Christian, it remains no less the legacy of the west’s ancestral faith for all that. Its core presumptions – that religion should not aim to provide people with a political blueprint, that church should be separate from state, and that laws should express popular sovereignty rather than the dictates of a holy book – are all of them, ironically enough, shaped by the teachings of the New Testament. Both the ideals to which western secularists adhere, and the problems with which they wrestle, owe an incalculable debt to the prescripts – or rather the lack of them – of Christianity. The west remains what it has always been: the heir of Jesus’s refusal to map out how an earthly polity should best be organised.

This is what makes the central conceit of British multiculturalism – the notion that it can provide a neutral space in which all religions can be equal – so problematic for many Muslims. The belief that faith should be a private matter, divorced from the dimension of the political, may be one with which most Christians nowadays can feel comfortable; but it is fundamentally contrary to the teachings of the Islamic god. Nor is this a problem that can readily be finessed away. The equivalent in Islam to the role that Jesus plays in Christianity is not Muhammad, but the Quran: an intrusion into the fabric of the diurnal by the divine. Its verses are a monument to tanzil – direct, unmediated revelation – so much so, that ever since the 10th century, when the theory hardened into dogma, orthodox Muslims have viewed the Quran as existing uncreated and coeternal with God.

The consequence is that Muslim fundamentalism tends to have a notably harder edge than its Christian equivalent. When Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, is told by his more heated opponents in the Anglican Church that he is destined for hellfire, there are certain possible retorts open to him. He can point out that the books of the Bible were written from many different perspectives, and by many different hands; that Jesus, on the evidence of his teachings at any rate, appears to have been infinitely more bothered by hypocrisy than by issues of sex; that it was Saint Paul himself, often cast as a blood-and-thunder homophobe, who proclaimed how “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life”. However, a Muslim feminist, put in a similar spot, has a good deal less room to wiggle. After all, the Quran, according to the orthodoxy, has only the single author: God. When the Lord of the Worlds Himself has flatly declared that husbands should beat their disobedient wives, who are upstart western liberals to disagree? As the Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi has put it, not a little ruefully, would an Islam in which men and women were treated equally count as Islam at all?


No wonder many Muslims should be so sensitive to demands that they update the teachings of the Quran in line with what liberals keep telling them is a code of universal human rights. It is true that many Christians similarly resent having to engage in the rough and tumble of pluralist debate; and yet, when it comes to dealing with the inheritance of the Enlightenment, Christianity does at least have the advantage over Islam of a centuries-old head start. In fact, to the degree that liberal democracy is predicated on the philosophy that it is men and women, and not God, who should prescribe how a state be run, it stands as an attempt to solve the same core Christian political dilemmas as gave birth to secularism. Catholics may oppose legalised abortion, and evangelicals condemn gay rights as an abomination; but it is rare for a Christian of any stripe to question democracy itself.

For many Muslims, however, the notion that the religious sphere should be distinguished from the political sphere is wholly shocking. In contrast to Christianity, Islam has always had a robust capacity to prescribe what should count as the ideal state. Such self-confidence derives less from the Quran itself than from the life and sayings of the Prophet. Not for Muhammad the conviction of Jesus that earthly realms were so much vanity; in the opinion of Muslim scholars, it was the very fact that their Prophet founded a community and led it towards statehood which served as a prime demonstration of the validity of their faith.

Christianity, with its idealism and weathervane codes of political conduct, certainly had nothing comparable to the example of the constitution the Prophet established in Medina. Not for nothing did 622AD, the year of his arrival in the city, come to serve the nascent religion as its year zero. “At that time,” declared the 9th-century Iraqi polymath al-Jahiz, “there was nothing in the way of offending action or scandalous innovation, no act of disobedience, envy, rancour or rivalry.” Everything since has been a decline, a tragic falling away. Yet, always there was the hope that such a state might be constituted once again. Possibly the closest idea that western culture has to compare with this is Camelot.

Except that King Arthur was a figure of myth who left no realm behind him, whereas Muhammad inspired a feat of conquest without comparison in the annals of imperialism. By the late 15th century, as Christopher Columbus set off from the cramped confines of Christian Europe into the great unknown, there stretched a continuous chain of Muslim lands from the Atlantic to the China Sea. Politically fragmented this great empire may have been, and yet, wherever Muslims travelled, there they could hear spoken the Arabic of the Holy Quran, and glory in the certitude that there was only the one true global faith: Islam. No wonder Muslims today, in a world where they have been outnumbered for centuries by Christians, and where the face of globalisation has long been western, should feel nostalgic for their near-millennium in the sun.

Yet that alone does not explain why two-thirds of Muslims worldwide, according to one recent poll, and a remarkable third of British Muslims, should want to see the Islamic world reconstituted as a single, Eurasia-spanning mega-state. “The best people,” Muhammad is said to have declared, “are my generation, then those who follow them, then those who follow them.” Thus, it was not merely the primal Islamic state of Medina that was worthy of emulation, but also the colossal empire founded under the “rightly guided” successors of the Prophet, the first four caliphs. For Muslims, unlike Christians, it does make sense to talk of a political golden age – and to dream of seeing it restored.

No one in the west (with the possible exception of Boris Johnson) believes that a solution to our problems should involve the resurrection of the Roman Empire; and yet it is precisely an Islamic reworking of ancient imperialism that so many Muslims are in danger of hankering after today. To those living in the west who have no emotional stake in the notion of a caliphate, this can only be lunacy. That it is so is due not merely to our secular modernity, but also to our own roots in the teachings of a venerable Near Eastern religion.

It is fair enough that Muslims in the west be encouraged to look at the founding myths of their faith, and to question the conventional readings of them. Indeed, it is evident that they are already doing so. At the same time, however, it is incumbent on enthusiasts of secular democracy to recognise that their own ideals are similarly contingent, similarly sprung from the seedbed of a distinctive and ancient religious past. The ambition to scale a peak may be common to the followers of every religion – but that does not mean, unfortunately, that we are all climbing the same mountain.

Tom Holland’s latest book, “Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom” is published by Little, Brown (£25)

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue