Ruthven’s Islam in the World and Christianity

Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World (Second Edition) is an excellent survey of Islam for those who are not yet well-read on the subject. What I have read of it so far (six and a half of its eight chapters) is well-researched and balanced, neither alarmist nor falsely flattering; Voltaire Panda lent it to me specifically for this reason, in contrast to some of Karen Armstrong’s writing. Further, it offers information I have never seen offered by any of the Muslims who have taught me about Islam (ie. acquaintances, university professors): the Quran’s historical, religious, and literary influences. It has also done a good job discussing the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, though I would have appreciated a summary in table form, and has a more textured, less rose-tinted description of Sufism than I have seen anywhere else. Ruthven also shows an informed and intuitive understanding of human spiritual needs and therefore does not rely on the political, material, or philosophical explanations of Islam’s development that most secular commentators privilege, though he also puts these kinds of explanations to good use as well.


Source: Cristian Viarisio at; the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox basilica which was later converted into an Ottoman mosque and is now a museum

As with any survey, it covers quite a lot of ground and, alas, it can be hard to follow for this reason: the sheer number of movements, terms, approaches, factions, dynasties, and individuals can make it feel like one of those novels with innumerable similarly-named characters with shifting loyalties—Russian literary, high fantasy, or airport spy novels, as you prefer. The glossary at the back helps with this, but is far from sufficient.

As usual I’m not especially interested in writing a book review. I’ve learned a lot about Islam from the book, but instead of talking about it I’d be more inclined to just recommend the book. But I’ve also learned a bit about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s these insights that I’d like to share.


Jesus, Tillich, and Barth

The chapter “Spiritual Renewal” begins with a comparison between Christianity, which he associates with love (and the failure to love), and Islam, which he associates with justice (and the failure to be just):

Nevertheless, despite this perversion, or rather inversion, of their respective ideals as they are applied or misapplied, in practice, the two watchwords, love and justice, can usefully act as signposts to a wide range of differences between the two religions in terms both of their acknowledged practices and dogmas and of the unconscious prejudices of their adherents. Love is the warmest and most deep-rooted of human emotions. Its intensity is felt in proportion to the paucity of its objects. […] In order to universalize this emotion, to utilize it in the service of religion, the Christians have had to humanize the deity, investing it with the character of a love-object. ‘Jesus loves you,’ proclaim the slogans. The relationship is personalized and, like all true love, must be reciprocated. Gentle Jesus, a model of young manhood, inspires an intensely personal kind of love. Alone and naked on the cross, he excited a pity not unmixed with eroticism. However, the love of the human person in Jesus is but a stage on the road to the love and awareness of a God ‘who so loved the world’ that he sent his only son to die in it. The personal and intimate nature of Christian love ensures that the divine is conceptualized in essentially human terms. We cannot love what we cannot understand: the corollary of Christian love is a deity who resists all attempts at de-anthropomorphization.

I think Ruthven includes this discussion of Christianity’s relationship with love as a more familiar entry-point with which to contrast “the God of the Quran […] approached with awe and veneration rather than love” and thus explain the inevitable emergence of Sufism, an often intimate and mystic renewal movement in Islam which fulfills that spiritual need. But I’m especially interested in the last line I excerpted: “We cannot love what we cannot understand: the corollary of Christian love is a deity who resists all attempts at de-anthropomorphization.”


Source: jareed at

I have been tending, in my own life, towards a de-anthropomorphized God, especially along the lines of Paul Tillich’s Ground of All Being. And as I have already shared, I struggle to understand how Tillich’s Ground of All Being—or for that matter Aquinas’s Being Itself—can Incarnate in Jesus Christ. Yet, as with most progressive Christians, Jesus is an indispensable part of why I’m Christian at all: if Jesus is not God, I frankly don’t think I want much to do with theism. Yet again, a Christianity—or any love of God—that doesn’t embrace the Other, which doesn’t lead to loving what we cannot understand, seems to me a blasphemy and a tragedy and a recipe for parochialism, xenophobia, and other destructive cognitive habits.

While I was living in Vancouver I infrequently frequented Food & Faith, a student fellowship run by the United Church of Canada. During my first visit the dinner-time conversation turned organically to Hell and whether or not we found the idea compatible with Christianity. The United pastor, Ryan Slifka, asked me to offer my thoughts on Hell and damnation (I brought up Talbott’s Propositions and declared myself a universalist), and then promptly apologized for throwing me so suddenly into theology. I said that that’s exactly what I was looking for in a fellowship and started talking, excessively, about Paul Tillich. Whenever I brought up Tillich, though, he countered with Karl Barth’s insistence that in Jesus we have access to knowledge of God.  Tillich is known as an abstracting theologian; Barth is known for focusing on the Incarnation and the person of Christ. This seems a central tension in Christianity, and as much as intellectually and theologically Christians might feel pulled toward Tillich- or Aquinas-like abstractions, the spiritual and liturgical heart of the religion pulls towards the person of Jesus Christ. Ruthven helps me understand why.


Religious Elitism and Populism

For various reasons I am attracted to populism: I have the far left’s suspicion toward current political structures and disinclination toward obedience and respect;1 I have the Protestant’s suspicion toward religious hierarchies; I have the democrat’s suspicion of governments lacking popular support; I have the multiculturalist’s suspicion of monocultures and hierarchies of culture; I have the rural-born’s suspicion toward urban cultural chauvinism. I have an almost allergic reaction to snobbery in most of its forms, seeing it as a failure of intellectual empathy. I include in snobbery what some call “reverse-snobbery,” the preference for a working class or rural cultural norm which heavily relies on traditional gender roles and ethnically-particular values, clothing, media, and food. I see this as no different from any other kind of snobbery… and the fact that I see it this way probably makes me among the cultural elite. Certainly I have more education than I know what to do with, along various dimensions. Someone with three post-secondary degrees might not be able to avoid being a snob at least some of the time.

It was therefore inevitable that I would be interested in the Ruthven’s discussions of elitism and populism in Islam in the chapter “Sects and Solidarity”:

The philosopher tried to maintain the principle of Quranic infallibility by arguing that it contained one message, to be understood literally, for the masses and another for the philosophical elite who were entitled, by virtue of superior intelligence, to interpret scripture allegorically. Such elitism, however, went against the populist grain of urban Sunni Islam and the systems of the philosophers were confined mainly to the sectarian Shi’a groups, or re-emerged, heavily disguised, as the products of gnosis in the writings of the Higher Sufis.

And then Ruthven begins the immediately following section with a reformulation and extension:

There was, however, an alternative to the swamping of rational exegesis by populist sentiment masquerading as the defence of revelation against the attacks of reason. This was the path, chosen by the Shi’a, of enlightened spiritual leadership. Unlike the ahl al-sunna, the Shi’a found in the doctrine of the Imamate a device which enabled them to erect a quasi-sacerdotal structure within the framework of Islam. […] the Shi’ite idea of nass (designation) contains a notion of spiritual succession broadly comparable to the Apostolic succession in the Catholic priesthood. This in turn permits a flexibility in the interpretation of scripture on the part of the Imams or their representatives, who are assumed to be in possession of the understanding necessary to reveal the innermost truths contained in them.

[…] For the Shi’a, the esoteric interpretation of the Quran (tawil) opened the way for a spiritual elite capable of exercising considerable social power.

If “the swamping of rational exegesis by populist sentiment masquerading as the defence of revelation against the attacks of reason” didn’t make you think of contemporary Protestantism, Ruthven explicitly mentions the similarity between Shi’ite nass and Catholic Apostolic succession later on.

As a general rule, I am in favour of rational exegesis and opposed to scriptural literalism; I am in favour of a nuanced, intelligent, and careful theology which is self-revising and I am not in favour of simplistic, rote, and adamant theologies which are doctrinaire. According to Ruthven, Sunni’s populism meant that it tended toward literalism (at least until the Sufi orders, with their internal hierarchies, allowed more sophisticated interpretation) while Shi’a’s hierarchy meant it was capable of rational and nuanced exegesis. Protestant populism and Roman Catholic elitism seem to follow the same pattern; although many of the best theologians of the last hundred years are Protestant, they are almost always academic theologians who have ample time and intellectual resources to devote to religious development, and they have limited success reaching the Protestant base. While Mahayana Buddhists sometimes accuse Theravada Buddhists of  elitism (specifically, of not taking into consideration the spiritual needs of most people), in my very limited experience Theravada Buddhism is, of the two, likely to produce the more sophisticated and plausible metaphysics and psychology. (Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, meanwhile, produce more charming and interesting theology, myth, and liturgy. Also, I like that I live in a world where my spellcheck recognizes the three major branches of Buddhism.) Take this all with many large grains of salt, since I am no expert at all on the Vedic religions.

I am also reminded of my friend who has chosen the pseudonym Kafka Beluga, to whom I confided my frustrations with Library and Information Studies’ lack of an explicit theoretical or philosophical underpinning and my idea of synthesizing its various theories into such a thing. She then asked, if I was not planning on going into academia, how I was going to find the time—I think she actually said “space”—to think through these issues. Since then I’ve found out, through the practice of blogging, just how hard it is to do serious intellectual work outside of academia.

And I am reminded of my friend Voltaire Panda, who complained to me that mainline Protestant congregations are almost always made up of educated, middle-class people. It seems that mainline Protestantism—that form of Christianity most likely to produce nuanced and rational theology which avoids both populist literalism and authoritarian dogma, and therefore the one to which I am attracted—cannot attract a less educated, less privileged crowd. I chafed when Richard Beck suggested that progressive Christians needed to offer “a real, honest-to-God, bible-thumping fight” and frame their existing conflicts in “robustly biblical ways.” However, I suspect Beck is at least correct that progressive Christianity would have to thump the bible more often if it is to have what he calls “popular appeal,” even if I fear that might undermine the good that progressive Christianity has done.

I have more anxieties than conclusions, but it seems that rejecting elitism in a religious or philosophical movement risks reductionist and absolutist tendencies; populism and elitism threaten different kinds of authoritarianism, but nonetheless authoritarianism is hard to avoid.

ADDENDUM: I don’t have time to re-write this post, but I think the following passage, which I encountered after writing the above, qualifies it or complicates it in certain ways:

The absence of a church which makes Islam the supreme example of a lay religion in which each believer is spiritually equal to all the others may have facilitated the spread of ideals and values that in pre-modern times were unique in their egalitarianism and their universalist appeal. But paradoxically the absence of a powerful and educated ecclesiastical body, against which the state could contest its authority, added to the problems the contemporary Islamic world is experiencing in adjusting to modern realities. In the western tradition it was churchmen, from Schleiermacher to Tillich, who formulated the theologies that would make it possible for Christians to find a destiny in a secular world from which the deity was progressively retreating, enabling them to find a niche for the divine in the human psyche, in the subjectivity of ‘absolute dependence’ or the Ground of Being. Islam does not lack the spiritual or intellectual resources for such a project. The work of modernists and reformers from Ahmed Khan and ‘Abduh to present-day intellectuals such as Nasr Abu Zaid and Abdul Karim Soroush testifies to the ways in which a new hermeneutic combining modern methods of critical analysis with the classical exegetical techniques is contributing to the task of regeneration, offering ‘signposts on the road’ for a faith which combines an ethic of personal responsibility with a public commitment to social justice.

Compared to the western churches, however, the institutional structures through which reform and modernization might have been effected in Islamdom became atrophied and inward-looking. If the purpose of theology is to provide a whole account of human destiny by means of the re-expression of tradition in terms of contemporary culture, by reconciling received tradition with modern circumstance, the Sunni religious establishment with some exceptions proved inadequate to the task. Rejecting modernism in favour of the safer, more congenial work of preserving the tradition and the cultural attitudes enshrined therein, they turned their backs on the critical changes in scientific thought and technology that came to define modernity. (emphasis mine)

SECOND ADDENDUM: Ryan Slifka mentioned to me last week that Barth might well be taken for emblematic of a de-anthropomorphized God, too, since he insists that God is ‘wholly other.’ Perhaps, then, Barth is a good response to Tillich not because Barth represents the opposite extreme but because Barth addresses both sides of the tension whereas Tillich (or that writing of Tillich’s with which I am familiar) does not.

1. I am by habit and upbringing respectful, law-abiding, and obedient to employers and supervisors; at the same time, I have little patience for making respect for authority, obedience, or other forms of deference into moral or political principles. By disposition I tend towards Lawful Good; by philosophy I am staunchly Neutral Good, and do not even consider Lawfulness and Goodness compatible.

One thought on “Ruthven’s Islam in the World and Christianity

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Books of 2016 (+1) | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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