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Tuesday, January 12, 2016 | by R. Joseph Hoffmann | American University of Central Asia

Transactional Implications of the God-Concept in Islam

This article is the nucleus of a manuscript by R. Joseph Hoffmann which will be published by Prometheus Books later this year. Due to its length, it’s printed here in three parts. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of

Introduction: Positioning the Problem


The Frankish king Charles Martel stopped the Muslim expansionism into Northern Europe at the Battle of Tours (also called the Battle of Poitiers or by Arab sources The Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs). The battle was fought on 10 October 732 in an area between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, in north-central France, near the village of Moussais-la-Bataille (Vouneuil-sur-Vienne), about 20 km northeast of Poitiers.

All religions, insofar as they possess agendas for conversion and expansion, are implicitly political and thus potentially violent.[1] In their time, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, like their predecessor-faiths in the ancient world, promoted their ideology violently — though Judaism more or less defensively and non-expansively. Christianity and Islam (after the rise of Buddhism in the 5th century BCE) have been the most expansionist religions.[2] Assisted by imperial patronage, then divided by religious bickering among the princes of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, abetted by discovery and colonialism after that, Christianity’s evangelical militancy ended about three hundred years ago and is now undergoing a slow but steady period of contraction.[3]

It is safe to say that no further religious wars will be fought in the name of Christ the King, Byzantium, Rome, or Geneva, though the secular values that developed in post-Christian Europe are at least derivatively Christian and, in times of stress, sometimes reflexively so.

While the so-called New Atheists[4] have tried to score points against Christianity with buckshot attempts to “blaspheme” on billboards and buses, the best propaganda tool for the jesuine message of peace, love and understanding has been the slaughter, rape and pillage operations of Islam’s most visible evangelizers for their Prophet’s “original” message, Daesh.[5] Indeed, Islamic extremism has been the most effective public relations message for Christianity since Saint Paul arrived, blind and dehydrated, in Damascus in the year 38. Modifying the New Atheist chant, All religions are equally bad but some are more equally bad than others, with its seductive simplicity, is the first step to understanding what’s rotten at the core of Islam.

It is one of the muddles of radical Islam’s war on the West that it suffers a framing problem: either the values that define the West are “Christian”-Crusader values bent on the destruction of Islam as a religion (the bin Laden attainder), or the West is a secular, post-religious and atheist monster which has abandoned religious and moral values altogether, the شيطان بزرگ or Great Satan immortalized in 1979 by the former revolutionary leader of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini.[6] The importance of this distinction is lessened by the fact that the early-medievalism of the religious ideas DAESH stands for are totally dependent on the transport, communications, and weapon systems of the modern world.

One way or another, the claim of radical Islamists to represent the absolute and pure faith of the earliest days of the faith — aṣ-Ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm, the vaunted “right path” — can only evoke the opposite reaction: that the message conveyed by radicals is a weird parody of authentic belief that deserves to be branded “Unislamic.” Yet waging a war against an extreme, maverick sector of Islam without accounting for the metaphysical underpinnings of the cosmic battle that the extremists think they are fighting on earth, is seriously to misconstrue the origins and the stakes of this conflict. The difference between a maverick and a horse after all is somewhat mitigated by the fact that all mavericks are horses.

Of course, there is a chorus of voices that agree — ranging from Islamophobic right-wingers whose contempt for Islam is only matched by their ignorance of its history (“New Atheists,” American office-seekers, premium-channel comedians, and news media “experts” seem to dominate this bench) to ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “Ibn Warraq,” Taslima Nasrin, and Wafa Sultan. But the statistical arguments actually look quite persuasive. It is a cold fact — by any reasonable measure — that only a minority of Muslims can be classified actively “radical” or “extremist” in their views.[7] Many deplore what their radicalized brethren do. And even those who quietly say the West deserves what it gets would not choose bloody reprisal and mass homicide committed against members of their own faith as a way to sue for justice for the sins of the past.

Fewer still, given the demographics, are willing to advocate an Islamic civil uprising in the cities of Europe as a way of settling hospitably into their new homelands. But some do, and when they do there are theological reasons for it which have nothing to do with the social causes usually dragged out to support irrelevant and ineffective political solutions.[8]

But it is also true that hundreds of thousands of young Muslim spectators and millions of others who work in Manchester, Paris, and Detroit irrationally believe that Europeans are killing Muslims and that “ISIS” alone is vindicating and protecting Islam. It is the classic Underdog Argument ripped from the pages of the victim’s handbook. And it is working. The view that DAESH is an avenging, ill-tempered guardian angel is appealing in a time of religious distress, a distress caused by Modernity’s final judgement that the metaphysics that supported all religions, including Islam, are obsolete and irrelevant. God the father is indeed dead as an intellectual construct. Jesus (and the Mahdi) will not come again, and did not come at an axial point in the history of a planet — that is not 6000 but 4.5 billion years old. Angels do not exist and hence do not dictate books. Prophets do not ascend into heaven, with or without a flying buraq. Moses and Abraham are legends, and the Genesis creation story is an ancient myth. As a religion dependent for its validity and message on things no longer believed, in any literal fashion, by many of their original proponents, including the intellectual hierarchy of mainstream western faiths, Islam’s distress is perfectly comprehensible.

While the West deplores the senselessness of violence in its typically under-analyzed fashion (would any of this have happened if the United States and its allies or its rivals had chosen its bed-partners more carefully in the last century?), young zealots and fighters are engaged in a war of purification that can be traced directly to the radical Arab cults that were the spawn of post-post-Colonial global politics in the nineteenth century.[9] The Id in this is that the fighters — many of them in their twenties — probably have no idea what the sources of their fury are either: If the inherent causes of the violence might have been mitigated by political action and prudent choices by the West between the nineteenth century mandates and 1917 (the year of the Balfour Declaration) or 1919 (the French Mandate in Syria), that did not in fact happen. Strong men were anointed; shahs and presidents installed and propped up by Soviet and NATO power and money; borders were redrawn and new nations — Lebanon, Israel, Pakistan to name the most conspicuous — created.

But beneath the political maneuvering, religious and moral outage was brewing within the Ulema and among believers,[10] and it has now grown mountainous enough to fill the geographical and political holes that post-colonial adventurism created. History is amnesia; time has a bleaching effect on memory and detail. Religious warriors live in the anger of a moment, largely unaffected by the regressivist arguments about who first created the mess which led to the later messes that caused the current mess. The popular answer to the question, “Who started it all?”, the sublimely ignorant and poorly advised George W. Bush, was really only a punctuation mark in a long history of predation against the Islamic world that stretches directly back to the end of the Ottoman empire in 1922 and indirectly to European contestation in the region at the end of the nineteenth century.

Yet for all the buffoonery and malignity of the “West,” the cause of Islamic violence is not interference by western powers in the Dar al Islam — the “house” of Islam. Throughout its 1400 year history, Islam has struggled within itself — within dynasties, between newly islamicized nations, and between sects and movements within its own tent.[11] Islam is, however, the only religion still fighting specifically religious wars in the twenty-first century, the great wars of Europe and America having been chiefly secular ones since 1648.

The cause of religious violence therefore must be recognized as specifically intrinsic to Islam and not to the persecution of Islam, the defamation of Islam by its detractors and critics,[12] or grand designs against the faith of Muslims by the western powers. The inability of the extremists to decide who the enemy is or, for that matter, what the enemy wants from them is their greatest tactical and metaphysical liability. Even the Manichean dualism which used to define good and evil in the region fails to provide an explanation when Allah’s warriors start to execute their own mothers for the crowd.

This call for the violence in Islam to be called Islamic violence, or my claim that this violence is not peripheral to “authentic” Islam — thus not dismissible as “Unislamic” — but something that is inexplicable apart from Islam may seem unpeaceable or unhelpful. The injunction since the attacks of September 11, 2001 has been Do not blame the whole of Islam for the actions of a small minority.

But unless we prefer fantasy to fact, there is simply no getting around the fact that the reasons for the morbidity we see in Islam universally, but chiefly in Islamic extremism, is only comprehensible if we look for guidance to the morphology of what Islam teaches and practices. That means its theology must be scrutinized for clues as to why certain Muslims may be doing what they believe, not based on a misunderstanding of the mandates of their religion but on a faithful respect for core, if archaic, elements of Islamic theology.

As Graeme Wood has written in The Atlantic, “We are misled … by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.”[13] Yet it is simply impossible to provide a meaningful “secular” analysis or to offer political solutions to a crisis the roots of which are embedded in the religious ideology of a foreign time and place. If these doctrines are not understood for what they are, in their strict historical context, the West runs the risk of mis-explaining the crisis to itself, while its leaders offer vacuous reassurances that all religious people are (like modern liberal Christians?) men and women of good will, that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the jihadists fighting the battle are an unrepresentative minority who are doing a disservice to the core doctrines of the faith.

Here I will focus on two core elements: Islam’s radical emphasis on the immutability of a God whose apocalyptic judgement and wrath remain live and defining features, and Islam’s lack of any doctrine of corporate contrition or moral responsibility for the ummat al-Islamiyah as a whole.

Continue reading… part 2.

R. Joseph Hoffmann graduated from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Oxford (Ancient Near Eastern Studies). Hoffmann was tutor in Greek at Keble College and Senior Scholar at St Cross College, Oxford, and Wissenschaftlicher Assistent in Patristics and Classical Studies at the University of Heidelberg. He taught at universities in the United States, Britain and Lebanon. He has held visiting positions at universities in Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific and South Asia. He is now Professor of Liberal Arts at the American University of Central Asia. Beyond academe, he is well known for his advocacy of the humanist tradition. In his recent work, Hoffmann has turned increasingly to the work of ”humanist restoration”. His most recent books include an edited volume entitled Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2006) and Sources of the Jesus Tradition (2010.) His study of the concept of the right to life in early Christianity, Faith and Foeticide, will be published in 2015, along with another in his series of translations of the classical philosophical critiques of the Christian movement: Christianity: The Minor Critics. He blogs at The New Oxonian. Read his full biography here. For all the exclusive blog entries by R. Joseph Hoffmann, go here.

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[1] On violence in religions generally, Hamerton-Kelly, Robert G. (ed.) (1987) Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Girard, René. (1977) Violence et le Sacré (eng. Violence and the Sacred). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; and R Joseph Hoffmann, ed., The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism Christianity and Islam. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006.

[2] Hourani, Albert, 2002, A History of the Arab Peoples, Faber & Faber; Cameron, Averil (1994). Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[3] According to Pew (2015), those claiming affiliation with a Christian denomination fell by nearly 8 percent from 2007 to 2014. The number of people claiming no religious affiliation increased by nearly as much, leading Pew to conclude a large scale defection from with Christianity. Mainline Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics saw the largest losses in affiliation.

[4] Review of The Last Superstition, Sir Anthony Kenny, The Times Literary Supplement, July 22, 2011.

[5] Laub, Zachary, and Jonathan Masters, Council on Foreign Relations: “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria,” June 12, 2014, updated August 8, 2014.

[6] Moin, Baqer (2000). Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. St. Martin’s Press.

[7] How many Muslim extremists are there? Just the facts, please., retrieved 9 January 2016.

[8] Awaz, Maajid, Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism. Lyon, 2015.

[9] Lewis, Bernard, What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

[10] Lewis, Bernard The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. Ndw York, Random House 2004 (rpt).

[11] Gellner, E. (2006). Cohesion and identity: the Maghreb from Ibn Khaldun to Emile Durkheim.

[12] R. Joseph Hoffmann, “Do Religions Have Rights? Further Pages from the Victim’s Handbook,” online at Butterflies and Wheels (27 May 2009).

[13] Wood, Graeme, What ISIS Really Wants. The Atlantic. March 2015, retrieved from What ISIS Really Wants.

One Comment to ““Allah” and its Discontents – Part 1”

  1. avatar Klas Wullt says:

    Thank you for an good read.


Quotes and Sayings

About the Region, Islam and cultural totalitarianism...

    Democracy is the antithesis of Sharia. The principle of secularism, which is a sign of civic responsibility, was the impetus which enabled the Turkish Republic to move on from Ummah (Muslim religious community) to the nation. With adherence to the principle of secularism, values based on reason and science replaced dogmatic values…The philosophy of modernisation of Turkey is based on a humanist ideal, namely living in a more human way…Secularism, which is also the instrument of the transition to democracy, is the philosophical essence of life in Turkey.

    — Constitutional Court of Turkey, 1998, ruling against Refah party

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