Third Letter from a Fearfully Concerned Muslim to an American-Jewish Friend

Dear Roger,

In the second half of your reply to my letter you, as you put it, get to the “uncomfortable part.” Your first question -- "is there a moderate Islam?" -- is the premise, the foundational question, of the questions that follow.

It is neither simple nor ahistorical. It is a question posed from the coordinates of your, and our, lifetime. It is also a loaded question. If I were to unpack the question, I could run to several thousands of words. To ask “is there a moderate Islam?” -- a legitimate question -- is also to imply that there is an immoderate Islam, or that Islam is mostly immoderate.

In questioning whether there is a moderate Islam, you add, in parenthesis, that Christianity at least doctrinally “renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” In this way of framing your question, you are indicating or implying that Christianity reformed so as to separate the respective worlds of Caesar and God, of the state/politics and the church/religion. This is in part the history of Europe from about the 4th century, when Christianity in effect became the state, or the official creed of the Roman Empire, to the struggles of Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Enlightenment, including Europe's many dynastic and revolutionary wars. We are, therefore, referring to a history of much more than a millennium -- one that witnessed upheavals of violence before Christianity was “tamed” along a doctrinal basis, as asserted in Jesus’s admonition, and reported in the Gospels of the New Testament.

The historical world of Jesus, the Jews, and the Romans is far removed and distant from the Western transition from pre-modern to modern. So it is distant from the contemporary West. Christians of all various denominations in our time will assert that an unbroken thread connects modern Christianity with the world in which the earliest historical Christianity took shape. But the distance is also real, and in the intervening centuries Christians and non-Christians together, in their complex relationship, brought about a mighty qualitative shift, in society, politics, and culture, from the ancient to the modern.

The late Marshall G.S. Hodgson of the University of Chicago, in his magisterial three-volume work The Venture of Islam, described this millennial shift in Europe as the “great Western transmutation.” Hodgson’s work, I believe, remains unsurpassed in scholarship, in erudition, and in the greatness of mind and vastness of heart with which he engaged in the comparative study of Islam and Muslim history. The point to note, as Hodgson indicated, is that a similar shift from the ancient to the modern has not occurred among Muslims -- that the technical and ideational ground upon which Muslims as a people collectively labor remains epistemologically pre-modern or ancient.

To the question “is there a moderate Islam,” there is the verse from the Quran that I might cite as a response. The verse, variously translated, states “We made you a people of moderation,” or “We appointed you as a middle nation,” or “We made you a temperate people” (2:143). In other words, an individual Muslim or Muslims collectively should be ideally devoted to moderation, to eschew extremes, and to strive for just equilibrium between opposing schemes.