Relgion and Empire
As a child growing up and as a Muslim, it was always taken as a given that 'Christianity' was corrupt. It's holy books were changed. It was more politics than religion. I mean, having a priestly cast who needed to absolve you of your sins. Purely politics.
The Christian Roman EmpireThe history of Christianity is quite interesting and heavily tied to the Roman Empire.
It is heavily well documented, but the chronology essentially goes like this.
- [~4 BC] Birth of Jesus Christ
- [~ 30 AD] Death of Jesus Christ
- [~60-90 AD] Various Gospels and Book of Revelation Written
- 200 YEARS PASS
- [313 AD] Emperor Constantine makes Christianity a legal religion of the Roman Empire
- [325 AD] Constantine calls the first ecumenical council at Nicea to determine what is 'Valid Christianity' and decide what books shall be considered valid
- [381 AD] Ecumenical Council at Constantinople
- [431 AD] Ecumenical council held at Ephesus
- ... more councils and rulings
Prior to the first council in 325AD, Christian doctrine was not set in stone. Different books were written and different people took different books as being holy. Heck, even the idea that Jesus is God was very much up to debate.
Even the selection of holy books greatly differed. This process of determining which books are 'valid' is called the Canon. I want to emphasize that it is not merely the selection of books that is important, but the conclusions and laws and practices derived from such books that were formed by the clergy and politicians.
Many of these books were in common use for the first 200 years of Christianity, but were rejected after depending on the church.
A few major books that were rejected are:
- The book of Jubilees
- Epistle of Barnabas
- Shepherd of Hermas
- Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans
- 1 Clement
- 2 Clement
- Preaching of Peter
- Apocalypse of Peter
- Gospel According to the Egyptians
- Gospel According to the Hebrews
What Do Christians Worship?It appears so much of Christian doctrine came not from Jesus Christ, but from the emperors and priests and bishops and writers. In all this, one might very ask how a Christian can have such faith in their texts given how involved humans were in it.
And of course they have an answer. Various book, although acknowledged and written by man, are thought to be 'divinely inspired'. Of course who decided which books were 'divinely inspired'? The emperors and bishops and writers. Of course, the answer to this is that God inspired them.
Nonetheless, a simplified question an outsider might ask is if Christians really worship Jesus Christ or do they in reality worship Emperor Constantine?
(For clarity, replace Constantine with any of the other churches or political bodies).
The Islamic Arab EmpireThe history of Islam is quite interesting as well and heavily tied to the Arab/Islamic Empire.
It is not as well documented as the Roman Empire.
The chronology according to Islam's own sources, goes something like this:
- [~570 AD] Mohamed Born
- [~610 AD] Mohamed receives the first revelation of the Koran and starts preaching in Mecca
- [~622 AD] Mohamed flees Mecca for Medina
- [~630 AD] Mohamed captures Mecca and the Arab tribes swear allegiance to him
- [~632 AD] Mohamed dies
- [~631 AD] First Caliph established (Abu Bakr)
- [~633 AD] Wars and expansion of Islam begin
- [~650 AD] Caliph Uthman has the Koran written down.
- 100 Years Pass
- [~750 AD] Abbasid Caliphate and Empire begins
- [~750 AD] Malik Hadith compiled
- [~750-800 AD] Major schools of Sunni Islam established
- [~800-850 AD] Bukhari and Muslim and other major hadiths compiled
- ... continuing wars and empire and politics and
It must be stressed that most of Islamic practice is to be found in the Hadith. The Koran itself is generally vague. It doesn't tell one how to pray or even how many times a day to pray. There isn't even the concept of the 5 pillars of Islam in the Koran.
Most of the practice of Islam is contained in the hadith and the resulting conclusions and laws and practices derived from such books that were formed by the clergy and politicians.
The history of the Islamic Empire is rich full of wars, politics, sects, assassinations, power struggles... that resemble almost any other political body in history. Similar to the Roman Empire, the Arab Empire and each succeeding Islamic Empire actually codified what is Islam.
What Do Muslim Worship?It appears so much of Islamic doctrine came not from Mohamed, but from the emperors and imams and scholars and writers. In all this, one might very ask how a Muslim can have such faith in their texts given how involved humans were in it.
Even the idea of following the example of Mohamed is tricky. The question: What Would Mohamed Do? is one that people cannot answer, except by referring to the texts created by people years beyond his death in the midst of empire and wars and politics.
It is with a rather bit of irony that this question of texts comes into play in Islam given how the Koran and Islamic theology lambastes Christianity for purportedly changing it's message. Yet Muslims have done just that with the adoption and creation of their own texts and theology. There are even Hadith where the prophet Mohamed (pbuh) says that no one should ever write down the hadith. Such irony.
Nonetheless, a simplified question an outsider might ask is if Muslims really worship God and follow the teaching of Mohamed or do they in reality worship the Bukhari or the Abbasid Caliphate?
(replace Bukhari or the Abbasid Caliphate with any scholar or Islamic political leader)
Text Versus FaithThis all said, how people approach this issue is common to both Christianity and Islam, and I suspect most other religions as well. I'll briefly describe these two approaches below.
Text FirstThe Text First approach comes at the issue from the idea that we only believe what we believe because we find it in the text of some holy book. In this camp, you will find two vastly different kinds of people.
The Religious LiteralistThe religious literalist is one who takes every word of their holy book as fact. Generally, they are maligned in the modern world. The Saudi Arabian Wahabi form of Islam comes to mind.
The SkepticThe Skeptic will come to question the validity of the various texts. If Page 1 of a holy book is potentially a fabrication, then we must suspect the entire text. This can lead one down a road of non-practicing or even rejection of traditional religion.
Faith FirstThe Faith First approach is an interesting one. It begins with the simple premise that God is good and the religion is good.
What is good is thus in the mind of the believer.
From there all questions concerning the text are put through this filter.
If something from the text does not seem 'good', it must be taken in a different context or the source must not be correct or the translation must be different...
In this manner, the text is made to fit the believer's idea of what is good.
A Quick ExampleI'll give a rather simple non-controversial example of what I mean by this.
In modern day Islam, there are claims of scientific miracles or things that are in the Koran that could have only come from God as the people back then could not have known.
The Embryonic MiracleKoran:
[23.12] And certainly We created man of an extract of clay,
[23.13] Then We made him a small seed in a firm resting-place,
[23.14] Then We made the seed a clot, then We made the clot a lump of flesh, then We made (in) the lump of flesh bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, then We caused it to grow into another creation, so blessed be Allah, the best of the creators.
The Sun Sets in the SeaKoran:
[18.84] Surely We established him in the land and granted him means of access to every thing.
[18.85] So he followed a course.
[18.86] Until when he reached the place where the sun set, he found it going down into a black sea, and found by it a people. We said: O Zulqarnain! either give them a chastisement or do them a benefit.
[18.89] Then he followed (another) course.
[18.90] Until when he reached the land of the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people to whom We had given no shelter from It;
Now I'll discuss how the two approaches deal with the above scientific ideas.
Faith FirstThe Faith First person read the embryonic story in the Koran and
- Assumes the Koran is great
- Assumes it is delivering a true and divine message
- Since it can be read to match current scientific thinking, they assume it is not a metaphor or any other literary device
- Assumes it was divine knowledge that could not have been known to the desert Arabs
- Grabs onto the miracle of science in the Koran.
- Assumes the Koran is great
- Assumes it is delivering a true and divine message
- Knows that modern science determines that the Sun does not set into the sea. The Earth rotates around the Sun, so these versus cannot be taken literally. They assume these versus must be some kind of literary device.
- Dismisses any association of science with the verses.
Text FirstThe Text First person has a much harder time with this.
Why does one associate science with embryonic versus and not to the sun setting versus?
The verse is also vague as bones are not formed first and then flesh is wrapped around it as the verse could be read. A human is not created as a skeleton first. Flesh, bones, and muscle all grow in different portions at the same time.
A Text First person is more likely to dismiss talk of the Koran as containing scientific miracles. It is a religious book first and was conveyed to a the Arab people 1400 years ago. There is no need to conjure up miracles when it is a religious book; not a scientific one. It will only back one into a corner for no reason.
If the Text First person is knowledgeable enough, they will realize very quickly that the knowledge of embryology was around before the Koran. Similar writings were there for the ancient Greeks and Babylonians in such people as Galen (130 AD), Hippocrates (370 BC). They all had their theories.
A rather similar issue exists in Christianity where the bible is taken to have scientific facts.
For example, some Christians think the Earth is only a few thousand years old based on the work of religious scholars like Archbishop James Ussher (~1600 AD). In reality the bible makes no such claim. It is all based on derivative calculations done by other people who then take a stand against science and evidence.
Resolving Faith and EmpireSo it is in this spirit that we resolve the issue of Faith and Empire.
Those who take a Faith First approach count on God and the characters of history to have kept their religion 'good'. God works through man and empire to keep the religion good.