The Special Case of Islam

I’ve been reading Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion and finding his argument for going beyond the term religion obviously compelling. In the context of today’s new atheism, however, Smith’s text is far too sophisticated and actually grounded in theology to be taken too seriously by the pop new atheist movement. For Smith, it is impossible to categorize God, impossible to institutionalize God for that matter. I sense in reading this text huge influence from Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’, Barth’s ‘systematic theology’, and a general hatred for the scientific study of religion in general — amen!

So he argues that there really is no religion any longer. Religion was a modern adaptation of the nineteenth century’s secular movement, in fact the word secular was invented in the mid 1800’s. Smith bases his argument for no longer using the term ‘religion’ on a linguistic study of concepts in religious communities throughout history. From analyzing the empirical use of salient concepts in canonical texts, he extrapolates theories based on the frequency by which a certain concept is used in a religious tradition.

For instance, Smith notes that in Islam, the word Islam is only evoked 3 times in the Qur’an, while Iman, or faith is evoked over 45 times. This insight, Smith argues is the basis for the separation between belief and faith in Islam, one connoting a passive (Islam), and one connoting the command that the Qur’an laid down to the faithful (Iman).

The Qur’an is concerned with the people that practice their faith, not some abstract entity, for which Smith ascribes to Isalm. For Smith, the term Islam was not meant to be a religion in its original form in the Qur’an, but was a challenge, not a religion. A challenge to humanity to embrace tahwid, the oneness of God, and thus he offers a nice insight into the division between dar al harb and dar al Islam, arguing that the early revelation was actually meant to be cast in much more universalist terms, concerned not so much with separating good from bad, but giving humanity a challenge to follow a new salvation. Thus, Islam is quite similar to all previous prophetic traditions that sought to speak directly to human beings and deliver a message.

Smith’s overarching theory in the book is that religion is founded upon reification. By reification, Smith means that all religions substitute a direct personal faith in commerce with transcendence into limited human conceptualization.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith

So what is special about Islam for Smith? A few points:

1. Islam was the first religion that sought to reform other religions outside of its own immediate surroundings. The Prophet Muhammad had a keen understanding of Judaism and Christianity and Islam was the first religion that was founded being conscious that other religions existed. It was also the first religion that designated a concept for religion in man, that man is endowed with a religious faculty. We find this in the Arabic word din, which most generally means religion.

2. So unlike previous religions, it seems that Smith is arguing that Islam went through a process of reification upon and during its founding. The Prophet Muhammad preached a totalized system of faith in the context of a community of worshipers, with a clear idea of the social, political, and moral ramifications of his teachings. The Buddha spoke very little of the sangha or what “Buddhists” would or ought to do socially, and Jesus never uttered the word Christianity. Previous prophets were concerned with salvation of man, and most often this was spoken to a particular community, albeit usually cast in universal terms.

3. Part of the reason why Islam was conscious about establishing a religious community is because a previous prophet, Mani had already done this. The prophet Mani from current day Iran, where we get the concept “Manicheanism” preached for the first time to a community that was moral and good for following his path and his teaching. Mani thus divided humanity along lines of good and evil. It may have been Zoroaster that brought the great dualism into our monotheism’s, but it was Mani who made the dualisms communally based. The Prophet Muhammad, Smith argues was influenced by Mani, and of course this is a controversial historical argument.

My first criticism of Smith’s method is that it strikes me as positivist. This is a bit ironic because he was seeking to go beyond the scientist hold over comparative religion during his time and arguing that religious communities should be seen as faith driven enterprises that give the human access to the divine, which can’t be captured, categorized, etc. We thus find in Smith the support for the New Age movement and a certain danger in his thought towards a theology that washes difference away. On the other end of the spectrum, we find in Smith a fresh account of current day movements such as emergent Christianity, which is refusing to embrace canon and tradition, community.

Next up on my reading from Smith is his book that seeks to create a global theology, more on that soon.


2 thoughts on “The Special Case of Islam

  1. I learned about this chapter, “The Special Case of Islam,” from Wikipedia. I wasn’t convinced that the description there, which you can see below, reflects correctly what Smith wanted to say. It seemed like it supported Smith’s general argument that “religion” is a European construct, but this would make the title odd: why Islam is then a special case? I think what you say above, and please correct me if I were wrong, is very different from what is written in Wikipedia, or have I misunderstood something?

    “Smith sets out chapter by chapter to demonstrate that none of the supposed founders of the world’s major religions had any such intention. The one exception on the face of it, he concedes, is Islam. In a chapter titled, The special case of Islam, Smith, a minister in the United Church of Canada whose academic speciality was Islam, argues that the prophet Muhammad would have been, above all others perhaps, profoundly alarmed at any suggestion that he was starting a new religion. Smith points out that the Arabic language does not even have a word for religion, strictly speaking: he details how the word din, customarily translated as such, differs in significant important respects from the European concept.”

    1. No the idea in the essay is actually that the first prophet to develop this notion of a community of religious followers is the prophet Mani (where we get the concept of Manichean). But his followers did not live on too long past his death, so his did not become what we would consider a religious community. Muhammad came after him, and did indeed have a conception of founding a religious community, despite the linguistic differences around “din” as not signifying a religious community, Muhammad was unique compared to other prophets for this reason. So I don’t see a contradiction here from the Wiki page.

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