On Christianity in ‘Islamic Exceptionalism’

Building on my overview thoughts on this book…  In the second chapter of Islamic Exceptionalism, Hamid looks at whether and how Islam is ‘exceptional’, through a discussion of it in contrast to Judaism and Christianity.

This is Exhibit A in ‘This Book is Written for a Western Audience’ because there are actually more than three religions in the world and some of them are not monotheistic. But it’s not wrong to have a target audience and if you’re writing for an audience that compares everything to their own knowledge of how religion lives alongside political and civil life it makes sense to focus on the religions they are used to living with, because that’s what they’re comparing from.

But what about his presentation of Christianity? It’s worth a look given that the book’s argument is that Islam is very different from Christianity and therefore it will manifest and interact differently with the world it is in. A difference of opinion about the nature of Christianity and its historical development might mean a difference of opinion with Hamid about his analysis in the end.

If salvation is through Christ then there is little need for the state to regulate private and public behaviour (49)

Hamid’s main point of distinction between Christianity and Islam centres on their relationship with law – arguing that in Christianity there is not a huge concern with law or governance. He describes Christ as the rebel who abolishes the law and cites the dialectic between faith and works in contrast to an Islamic belief that failing to follow the law marks a lack of faith. He argues that the spirit of the New Testament is about transcending the affairs of the world (45) and goes so far as to suggest that Jesus had little to say about political power in this world (57).

To which my response was, really?
According to the best of my understanding so far, Hamid’s right that the Christian faith’s interaction with the law of the land is not the same as the Islamic. The New Testament does not provide law in the same way that (as I understand it) the Qur’an, does, and it gives Christians plenty to think about how they relate to the laws of Israel and the Old Testament. And yet.

Yes, there is freedom from the law in Christ – because Christ fulfils the law. But Hamid is thinking about how faith shapes a believers’ thinking about and relationship to the law of the land, not the law of God. While the two were united in the establishment of Israel as a Nation, by the first centuries (BC and AD), they weren’t – and they haven’t been since (pace Christendom…). Christ fulfils the law of God: but both he and the rest of the New Testament have plenty to say about how a disciple of Christ should respond to the worldly authorities and the law of the land – from the simple ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,’ to the magnificently complicated Romans 13.

Jesus and Christianity absolutely have things to say about political power. Jesus’ ‘rebel’ status is more than the historical quirk Hamid seems to make it: it’s a political dissidence rooted in a claim about where and to whom loyalty is owed – God, not Caesar. And the message of the gospel is really not about ‘transcending the affairs of the world.’ It’s far more about transforming them, while being aware that the power and the hope needed to try to do so comes from God, not the world. The faith and work dialectic in Christianity, which Hamid presents as oppositional, isn’t. Rather it’s a discourse about how these two things interrelate: faith and faithfulness manifesting themselves in the faithful person’s life in attitudes, words and deeds. And it’s a discourse about how this is driven by transformation in Christ rather than directed by law. Hamid argues that the tension between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man is largely left unresolved by the Bible (59) – but this ‘tension’ exists because, according to the Bible, the former exists within the latter, bubbling away, almost. The resolution isn’t meant to come from law, because law can’t resolve all the possible situations it encounters in the world across all of time and place – it’s meant to come from grace.

However, none of this means that Christianity wasn’t and isn’t interested in law and governance, as Hamid suggests. It’s just differently interested, in comparison to Islam. The difference is not that surprising, given history. Christianity emerged during the height of the Roman empire and the early church did not seek to overthrow or supersede the existing political system, but to develop ways of living within it. The overthrow that Christianity is focused on is existential and spiritual: temporal powers are relevant, because people live in history, but also not all-important. Laws are an important part of encouraging the ‘good’ in community life, but they aren’t enough on their own. When Christianity did become the ‘official religion’ and the a part of the glue of a political community it did so relatively peacefully (through Constantine’s conversion) and found itself tapped into an existing system of governance which was already moral-value-laden and assumed a that religion had an influence in the political world. When that system broke down, the religious order remained the primary social glue in western Europe.

I think it’s plausible to argue that Christianity didn’t need to build a theology of governance in the way Hamid describes Islam as doing because the post-Roman political communities and systems that developed in Europe were assumed to be inherently Christian because everyone was Christian (or assumed to be). A consciously articulated ‘positive conception of divinely mandated governance’ (67) isn’t necessary if you’re operating with the assumption that your monarchs are divinely ordained to rule. Hamid understands Christianity brought a shared intellectual framework to Europe (59) – he cites the Reformation as a terminal fracture in that – but he seems to miss the fact that, like most shared dominant worldview, it was taken for granted until it couldn’t be. Laws and government were Christian because the people who made them were Christians in Christian countries – until people had to start worrying about whether the people making the laws were the right kind of Christians. This theological fracture then manifests in the debates and arguments about how Christians relate to government that have happened ever since – and as Hamid points out, the development of pluralism emerges as a part of keeping the peace.

But does my disagreement with some of Hamid’s presentation of Christianity matter? Does what I think is wrong have a knock-on effect on his core argument – which is that Islam is distinctive in its relationship to politics and therefore it won’t necessarily go though the same developments of secularism, pluralism, or end up naturally embracing or fitting liberal democracy as the post-Christendom west. I don’t think so (though I do think it’s worth mentioning, because it becomes relevant when thinking about the western response to Hamid’s ideas)

Aside from anything else, I think it would be a bit dim – simply put – to assume that the development of a society or state, including its political life and the place of religion within it, would be the same in different places – either at the same time or at different times. The distinctivenesses of religions and the way that they relate and understand their relationship to politics, law and governance in society are a contributing factor to these emerging differences. Hamid’s account of Islam and the ways its particular relationship to politics and governance has been manifested in the recent history of the Middle East are helpful in making his audience aware that happy plural societies and liberal democracies aren’t a natural inevitability and may not be something that can be easily propagated, and in getting us to start to think about why.

However, in Hamid’s focus on the religious distinctions of Islam in contrast to Christianity and its implications for the future of the countries Middle East and North Africa, he engages particularly with Islam’s relationship and interactions with the nation-state. And this, I think, might act as a limiting factor on his thinking about what the future could potentially hold.

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