As I learn more about Islam in Karen Armstrong’s book, A History of God, I realize more and more the parallels between the history of Islam and that of Christianity. This morning I read about various Muslim thinkers who were pondering the same questions about God as their Christian and Jewish counterparts. In fact, these were aware of each other in their readings and associations. I love the idea that the way we struggle to understand the divine is universal, not just in the struggle itself, but even in the specific questions we ask. Fascinating.
I also learned about a similarity that has a dark side this morning. I read about the teachings of Abu al-Walid ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd (1126-1198). Yes that is really his name. (I am thinking the idea of using nicknames originated in Islam). Ibn Rushd was a really deep thinker and at some point he must have realized that most people didn’t know what the heck he was talking about. He concluded that his level of thinking about God was unique. For those who couldn’t reach this level of understanding, ibn Rushd determined that they needed to just believe a few basic truths in order to be saved. These truths he listed. They were basically summary statements about God. Among the beliefs that these lesser intellegents needed to believe were the existence of God as Creator and Sustainer of the world, the validity of prophecy, and the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. There were 8 concepts listed. Another list was formulated later that had 13 concepts.
Reading this I thought about the Nicene and the Apostle’s Creeds in the Christian Church. I actually had a discussion about the creed with people on the retreat I attended this past weekend and again when I sat around with a bunch of my women friends yesterday. Being expressed was the fact that as these people listened to the creed being recited in their churches, they became aware of the fact that they didn’t necessarily believe all of the statements they were reciting. One man told me he simply remains silent during the recitation of the creed when he worships on Sunday.
Ibn Rushd said of his creedal list: “These doctrines about God must be accepted in toto” in order to be saved.
Yikes! This sounded to me precisely like the arrogance of Church leadership in which only the clergy are able to understand God while the laity just have to trust them. They were designated to follow without question like sheep following their shepherd. This is the Church I grew up in. Vatican II poked a hole in this elitist attitude but the shift to an enabled, empowered, and spirit-filled laity is still struggling to become a reality. The powers that be won’t go down without a fight, it seems. And there are those among the laity that really like being sheep and prefer this metaphor of sheep and shepherd.
My conclusion: history of religion is a story of human beings being human. There will always be people who consider themselves more “in the know” than others. Believing themselves to be smarter, they decide they need to exert some kind of power over those less endowed than themselves – for their own good, of course. I think this is true of the history of religion, politics, of business…of any human institution. It is about arrogance, an ego trait for which we all have a capacity.
I have to add a bit of a disclaimer. As a Christian, I can’t assume to grasp Islamic concepts. To those who revere ibn Rushd, I apologize. Even Karen Armstrong doesn’t make any judgmental statement about his ideas such as my calling them “dark”. I just had this moment of recognition this morning. In a positive sense, though, seeing what I perceive to be flaws in another’s religion as similar to the flaws in my own actually makes me feel more connected to that religion’s followers.