Thursday, June 24, 2004

'It's Not Religion. It's Politics' - Tawhid, Knowledge, and Society

We hear that all the time. Terrorists don't attack us because of Islam, their Religion, but rather because of specific policies, conditions, and issues; that is, because of Politics. And largely we swallow this because we are rational Westerners who accept this distinction. Indeed we in the West have long believed that there are separate and distinct kinds of knowledge and different fields of human endeavors that use, explore and develop this knowledge. This did not just happen after the Enlightenment. It's not an effect of the explosion of knowledge (although that exponentially magnified these distinctions).

This view of the world and knowledge of the world is deeply ingrained in Western consciousness. Think of Aristotle's books: Politics, Physics, Ethics, Poetics, Metaphysics, Rhetoric. Twenty-five hundred years later, we in the West not only accept but fervently believe that these fields of knowledge and action are and should be distinct. The separation of religion and politics, the difference between what is legal and what is ethical and what is a religious duty, the difference between religious faith and scientific fact. We cringe with embarrassment when we read in the history books about scientific research crushed for religious reasons in centuries past. We are disappointed, enraged, or bored when art or entertainment (poetics) is used to serve politics. We understand and appreciate that someone who excels in one area does not necessarily excel in another. (Bill Clinton excelled at rhetoric and failed at ethics. Numerous actors and writers excel at poetics and fail at politics.)

Various Romantics, pantheists, and philosophers have criticized this way of thinking as unnatural, (it "unweaves the rainbow"), but they are the minority trend. This mindset, this belief, is quintessentially Western. So when some talking head, or the guy at the next table says, "It's not religion, it's politics" we know exactly what he means.

However, not every culture sees the world this way and Islam is one of them. We have heard many times that Islam does not separate religion and politics but it is difficult for a Westerner to grasp what this really means. Key points:
- ethics, law, and morality are one thing. What is unethical is illegal and moral duties are legal obligations. That is why the religious police in Saudi Arabia are called The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
- law doesn't change just as morality doesn't change. Simply put, god wrote the law. Not religious law but civil law. These are one and the same. Divorce law, inheritance law, criminal law, family law, property law, the laws of the state - these are one body of law given to Muslims by god.
- people who interpret and enforce the law are religious figures. Law school is the seminary.
- legal punishment is religious punishment and religious duty is legally enforceable. Guilt of a (civil) crime is guilt in a religious and moral sense. There is no distinction between civil and religious law, not because they are equal but because they are one.

Religion is politics. The head of the government is a religious figure, not by coincidence or because he is the head of two things, the religion and the state, but because the religion is the state. Westerners often think that a fatwa is like a papal encyclical or the opinion of a priest or reverend. It is not at all. A fatwa is a law, like the kind the Congress passes.

But it goes much further than this. One of the central tenets of Islam is the concept of Tawhid, the unity of god. The ummah, the community of Muslims, should reflect this unity is every respect. When this concept is most strictly applied, as by the Taliban, all aspects of society and all human endeavors are unified in Islam. Fashion is Islam (no examples needed). Art is Islam (human images are forbidden). Food is Islam (pork, alcohol, and other items are forbidden). Rhetoric is Islam (Pashtoon speaking children memorize the Koran in Arabic, a language they do not understand; all references to Muhammad must be followed by the phrase "Peace Be Unto Him" at risk of punishment).

Most interesting from a Western perspective is the impact of tawhid on the Muslim understanding of (Western) science. Here is a paper delivered to the 9th Annual Conference of Pakistan Agricultural Scientists Forum titled 'The Role of Faith in Science.'
The concept of God (Tawhid), the most fundamental of all the truths is indispensable to science as a system of truths. It must be used to illuminate the paths of scientific observation and inquiry in the worlds of matter, life and mind to reveal new scientific truths which can never be known in its absence. The question before us is: does Islam develop a special type of mind-set that helps in the sharpening and strengthening the creative faculty of the working scientists? My answer is: "YES".
To the Western mind these statements have nothing whatsoever to do with agriculture (not to mention being offensive and silly). This is just one of innumerable examples.

Let's return to the talking head spouting off about how Islamist terrorists are motivated by politics and not religion. This is true only if seen from a Western perspective and it demonstrates a near total ignorance of Islam and Islamism. From the perspective of the terrorist, this is a self-evident falsehood, a blasphemy, the very definition of shirk (polytheism), the opposite of tawhid.

We in the West have a habit of viewing our enemies as more or less like ourselves. This is one of our chief intellectual failings and an underlying cause for our poor performance in the War Against Jihad. The jihadists see themselves as motivated solely by religion. For them, there is nothing else.

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