Islam, Christianity and the Struggle for Rationalism: The Longstanding Dichotomy between Islam and Christianity Shows No Signs of Abating

By Pelikan, Petr | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Islam, Christianity and the Struggle for Rationalism: The Longstanding Dichotomy between Islam and Christianity Shows No Signs of Abating


Pelikan, Petr, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


Instead of bridging the cultural gap, Muslim and Christian religious scholars repeatedly emphasize the differences between the two belief systems to suit their own agenda. Nonetheless, there is evidence that Islamic mysticism has begun to take some lessons from European rationalism.

Armed and ideological conflict has defined the long and hostile coexistence between the Islamic East and Christian West throughout the ages. This rivalry has never, however, resulted in a real dialogue. Very few religious scholars have ever attempted to learn the teachings of their counterparts in depth. When they have, the scholars have simply criticized the opposing dogmas to reinforce their own existing and prejudicial convictions.

Many of the early invectives between Muslims and Christians still remain today. Western discussions of Islam on the Internet, for example, often accuse the prophet Muhammad of sexual deviancy, but the contributors to these debates rarely realize the ethnocentricity of their views. Muslims for their part still perceive the West's economic and strategic maneuvers as an attempt to degrade and uproot Islamic faith in the whole world, accusing the West of continuing the Crusades.

Moreover, while traditional prejudices against Islam have survived, new prejudices continue to develop. And although they are largely based on ideology, the people who eagerly embrace these prejudices are generally the least knowledgeable on the subject.

After Europe effectively detached itself from its religious roots, it succeeded in gradually subduing the whole of the Islamic East. Muslim theologists who continue to lambast Christianity are coming to realize that Christianity and the West are no longer one and the same. They have now recognized the new and real threat that Europe poses: the spread of atheistic rationalism.

Consequently, since the 1950s Muslim theologists have popularized a new approach to religious thought which seeks to defeat Europe with its own weapon. Drawing directly from European methods of analyzing Islamic thinking and Muslim religious practices, the approach seeks to rationalize domestic Islamic idealism. This rationalism stops short, however, of validating untouchable Western dogmas.

Since Western Orientalists do not acknowledge the transcendental divine origins of Islamic ordinances, they seek different explanations for them. Their appreciation of these doctrines conforms to their rational view of the world and to the benefits of secular life. Muslim theologists have readily seized this thesis and spun it on its head. Modern Muslim theologists seek to legitimize the existence of Islamic ordinances with popular explanations that reveal their socially advantageous nature. According to Muslim thought, God created these ordinances because He, as the Creator, knows best.

A serious Orientalist will obviously not accept the popular "rational" explanation for the Islamic ordinance requiring women to hide their faces and bodies, which states that God wants to give every woman, whether pretty or ugly, the same chance. This explanation calls to mind the bad marketing slogan from the inventor of the drum revolver: "Samuel Colt gives an equal chance to the weak and the strong." Furthermore, it is patently obvious who came up with it and why.

Concurrently, Europeans smile when they hear the popular explanation that God forbade pork in Muslim societies because it eradicates jealousy, which is believed to be an admiral quality. The Muslim perception of the moral degeneration and spread of promiscuity in Western culture attests to this supposed truth. But when we read in seemingly serious Western works that pork was banned because the fatty meat decays faster in warm climates, we do not question this absurd statement. …

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