Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Why is Islam so old?

In various articles on various news services (especially the BBC) I have noticed a group of stories about Turkish religious academics trying to recontextualize Islam for the modern era. Turkey is a special case in the Muslim world, independent for long enough to be stable but not Arabic-speaking. This lets the country develop in a looser way - it's not held in place by various Arabic ways of governance but is instead free to explore various ideas.

What does the academic recontextualization mean? If it were Christian academics revamping Christian theology, I wouldn't expect that much. Any major change would be shouted down as elitism, much the same way that American Evangelicals discount the recent theology of liberal Protestants as something imposed from above on an unwilling population. Yet this is Islam, where a legitimate tradition of scholarly revamping exists. The legal schools within Islam and even the very essences of sharia law were worked out by legal scholars and eventually accepted. Wise men writing essays is a viable means of reinterpretation in Islam.

This brings me to my original point, the one in the title of this post. In all these articles about revamping mention the age of Islam. That is, they all point out that Islam is 1400 years old. There are two ways to take this:

1) People are not as educated about Islam as about Christianity, since most English-speakers who read the BBC online will be Christian. Thus the information about how old Islam is comes from a desire to inform the reader. It falls kind of flat in the article itself (it seems like a journalistic insertion) but that is all.

2) It is supposed to subtly imply that Islam is old and thus outdated - 'due for a reformation.' This is part of a bias against Islam on the part of some reporter or editor, or by the BBC service itself.

The fact is that mentioning the age of Christianity in an article would seem out of place, especially if the article talked about who Christians need a new set of principles to go along with new reproductive technology. Some people would see it, correctly, as biased in favor of these new technologies and against their faith. It is the same in these articles on Turkey. Even if the intent is #1 rather than #2, they both have the same effect - implying that Islam is outdated.

There are parts of Islamic theology and practice that don't sit well in the modern world, but the implication that an entire faith is outdated goes beyond that. It recalls the idea formed by Christian apologists that their faith was one of reason and sense while Islam was misguided passion and incorrect belief.

I don't think the editors mean to denigrate Islam; the rest of the article is enthusiastic about the revamping. Nor do I want the BBC shouted down for mentioning how old Islam is. What I mean to do is point out an event of probably unconscious bias. Let us not be oversensitive about it, but rather notice that such biases do exist even in those who are not hostile to Islam itself. I am sure to have said something biased in this post, but I do not mean to.

It's all very postmodern.

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