Burrell on Islam

According to David Burrell the Five Pillars of Islam are:

  1. Confessing that God is one and that Muhammad is God’s prophet (the shahada);
  2. Communal ritual prayer, five times daily;
  3. Fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, which ends with …
  4. … an annual obligatory almsgiving;
  5. For those able to do so, making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

(Earlier this week I had lunch in Tyler (Texas) with a new Muslim friend, and he confirmed the accuracy of this list.)

Burrell, whose successful career as an academic theologian took something of a detour a couple of decades ago when he made it his personal mission to educate himself as deeply as possible in the area of Islam, makes some compelling points in this article which Christians and seculars alike in the United States would do well to heed.

First, and this is a major theme in Burrell’s work, is that historically the connections between medieval Christianity and Muslim thought were intimate and productive:

… many Western medieval thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas, reached out to understand Islamic thinkers, especially to learn from their philosophical reflections. That out reach … reflects the fact that the Islamic cultural renaissance in tenth-century Baghdad had anticipated the touted medieval Renaissance in the West by a full two centuries. While Europe was passing through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture in what we call the Middle East was at its peak. Medieval thinkers in the West learned their astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy from the East, and its practitioners were Muslims.

Why this intimate and productive connection? Burrell shows that it is due to the confession of (the first part of) the shahada: “God is one.” This implies that “all-that-is comes forth freely from God, and that all power in the universe is God’s power, however much we may be impressed with our own. But the relation of the universe to the One on whom it depends so utterly and so intimately is quite beyond our capacity to understand, short of a ‘mystical unveiling.’” So a shared commitment to the doctrine of creation is what binds Islam and Christianity together, at least historically (for someone like Thomas Aquinas).

The ineffability of God’s relationship to the creation, though, leads to another feature of Islam which Burrell helpfully points out: for Islam “… orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.” This orthopraxy is deeply communal:

In Islam, individual rights are decidedly subordinated to the well-being of the community, with the consequent effect on the various roles the community assigns to its members. It is here that the image of Islam can chafe Western sensibilities, especially in those Western societies that combine a so-called rights doctrine with a capitalist consumer culture. Yet just as personal affluence usually buys a relative dispensation from communal obligations–a fact even Islamic society has not avoided–we can readily imagine why Islam is so attractive to those members of a society who taste little of its affluence and privilege. In those sectors of our own society where the spirit of capitalism is most starkly displayed in the lucrative but destructive commerce of drug dealing, the communal bonds of Islam and its inherent discipline offer not only welcome protection but a protest against a dominant ideology that has marginalized entire sectors of society in the name of individual rights and economic success. In its communal life, Islam affords a genuine alternative to a liberal society’s libertarian drift, and to the illusory freedom it touts, a freedom utterly beholden to powerful interest groups. If the phrase “common good” has ceased to function in our standard political vocabulary, it needs to become embodied in integral communities. In the United States, Islam has emerged as a viable one in our midst. Islam is the fastest growing faith worldwide, and in recent years has made striking advances in North America, particularly in the United States among African-Americans.

Burrell has several other compelling points in this article, but for me this one hits most deeply, for how could a Christian possibly disagree that, in the midst of a fragmenting culture in which entire cities and neighborhoods are left to rot in the cold, Islam embodies a welcome option in favor of peace, in favor of biblical shalom.

The “individual human rights” of our democratic, late-capitalist, American culture are killing us. In a culture characterized by Fifty Shades of Grey, in which neighborhoods in your own city are dominated by pimps and meth dealers, Islam is at the very least a welcome “co-belligerent” (to use an old phrase coined by Francis Schaeffer).