The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

The Church Is the State 
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 7 2001 5:20 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1




I agree: Armstrong's book is an appetizer, an unsatisfying dish that makes you hungry for more. That's the nature of such a short book on such a large topic, and I found myself wishing that she had narrowed her focus. As you note, too much of the book reads like an encyclopedia entry, crammed with facts but difficult to wade through. Having said that, I turned to this book soon after Sept. 11 because of the "short" promise of its title. I wanted breadth and not depth, and I wanted it fast. In that sense, the book succeeds.

You complain that Armstrong focuses too much on politics, but that reflects the theme of her book, the idea she continually revisits to tie the "one damn fact after another" together: To Muslims, the political is sacred, history is sacramental, and the (impossible) dream of a perfect Islamic state is the equivalent of the Christian yearning for the coming of the Kingdom of God. To Muslims, Armstrong writes, "state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself," and politics was "the theatre of their religious quest."

Armstrong didn't intend this, but in the aftermath of Sept. 11, in some ways that's as nightmarish as anything in Germs. I was scared whenever I came across sentences like these (emphasis mine):

"If state institutions did not measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life's ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy."

The "quest for an ideal form of Muslim government should not be viewed as aberrant but as an essentially and typically religious activity."

Is this a holy war? I hope not. But Armstrong's book—quite unintentionally—makes it clear why some (or even many) Muslims might view it as one. If the political is sacramental, any war can be construed as a holy war. Victory provides evidence that God was on your side. (It's not an outrageous concept. Kurt Warner seems to believe that Jesus Christ wants the St. Louis Rams to win the Super Bowl. It seems less ridiculous to believe that God wants you to prevail in a conflict that takes place off the football field.)

Perhaps recognizing the dangers in such an inherently political theology, Armstrong prescribes as much as she describes. She's sympathetic to the virtues of religion (as am I), and she wants Islam to promote the virtues she favors. She emphasizes the Quranic ideals of social justice and religious tolerance. She notes that the Quran grants women the rights of inheritance and divorce. She pooh-poohs more restrictive traditions that arose a few generations after Muhammad's death. She insists that the Islamic ideal of tawhid—the divine unity of the personal and the social—doesn't preclude secular governments.

Maybe so. But there's still enough in Armstrong's book to keep you up at night. Bernard Lewis notes, in a book we'll discuss later, that it took centuries of bloody religious warfare for Christendom to recognize the value of the separation of church and state. Let's hope Islam doesn't need as much convincing.


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