All Americans, especially those media, political, and academic savants constantly hectoring us with their alleged “wisdom” on Islam, would do well to study James Freeman Clarke’s timeless assessment of Allah, juxtaposed to the Judeo-Christian God. Clarke (1810–1888) was an American theologian, philosopher, author, and abolitionist. He also became one of the first American scholars to study and write about Eastern religions, including, notably, Islam
Arguably still America’s greatest, scholar of comparative religion Clarke expounded upon the Muslim deity in his 1871 treatise, “Ten Great Religions—An Essay in Comparative Theology.” Clarke saw in Islam’s conception of Allah—“that which makes of God pure will . . . divorced from reason and love”—a regression from the Judeo-Christian God. Comparing Islam to Judaism, Clarke observes,
Goodness does not consist in obedience to divine will, but in conformity to the divine character. This is the doctrine of the Old Testament and one of its noblest characteristics. . . . Mohammedanism is a relapse [from Judaism] . . . for it makes God only an arbitrary sovereign whose will is to be obeyed without any reference to its moral character.
Moreover, Clarke notes, Islam’s Allah was “abstracted from matter, and so not to be represented by pictures and images; God withdrawn out of the world, and above all—in total separation.” In contrast, Judaism conceptualized God as being “with man, by his repeated miraculous coming down in prophets, judges, kings; also with his people, the Jews, mysteriously present in their tabernacle and temple.” Christianity, Clarke maintains, added the notion of the God “in us all,” a strong pantheistic tendency, likely derived from the converted Greeks and Romans.
The New Testament is full of this kind of pantheism,—God in man, as well as God with man. Jesus made the step forward from God with man to God in man,—“I in them, thou in me.” The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is this idea, of God who is not only will and power, not only wisdom and law, but also love; of a God who desires communion and intercourse with his children, so coming and dwelling in them. Mohammed teaches a God above us; Moses teaches a God above us, and yet with us; Jesus teaches God above us, God with us, and God in us.
Clarke concludes that Islam’s alternate “central idea concerning God”—its conception of Allah—has not been salutary for Muslim societies.
Islam saw Allah, but not man; saw the claims of Deity but not the rights of humanity; saw authority, failed to see freedom—therefore hardened into despotism…Its governments are not governments. . . . It makes life barren and empty. It encourages a savage pride and cruelty. It makes men tyrants or slaves, women puppets, religion the submission to an infinite despotism.
Peter A. Naffsinger’s candid 1964 Central Intelligence Agency report, “ ‘Face’ Among the Arabs—The preservation of personal dignity as a wellspring of Muslim behavior.”, [Summer, 1964. CONFIDENTIAL. (Approved for release, 1994)], echoed Clarke’s observations from a century earlier, and applied them to the absence of personal guilt, and accompanying individual moral compass, in Islamic societies:
Christianity emphasizes the personal God within each man, who enforces an ideal of perfection in behavior and in thought. The sacrifice of the “only begotten Son” dramatizes this personal God interested in each individual soul. The Christian is supposed, by prayer or confession, to ask pardon for every instance of failure to reach perfection, and it is not difficult to see how this concept could instill a sense of personal guilt and obligation beyond self. The development of conscience or capacity for feeling guilt in religious life naturally spills over into non-religious contexts in cultures where Christianity is dominant and so is evident in other acts of life. Offering sharply contrasting principles to these, Islam–religion, social force, and almost complete way of life of the ab Near East-naturally shapes much of the Arabs’ cultural attitude….By definition and profession, Islam is the “surrendering of the self to the will of Allah,” and it portrays a God remote, all-pervading, and wholly out of contact with the individual man. In prayers, to be sure, Muslims implore God to do well by them and lead them on the right path. But all of Muslim theology conveys the feeling that God is so all-pervading and at the same time so far above and removed from the individual that all human actions and their consequences are but the sequels of God’s doings: the individual is merely an animate pawn. This supremely impersonal God, above and beyond rather than within a person, impresses on the individual no requirement to accept guilt or personal responsibility for anything or to develop a conscience differentiating between intrinsic right and wrong. Thus when a Westerner tries to show an Arab that he is to blame for something, he never really succeeds in getting the point across. Western personnel at oil installations in Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf area are frustrated in trying to correct mistakes of Arab trainees on industrial equipment. When confronted with having made a wrong move that could have had the most serious of safety or technological consequences, the Arab is unwilling and unable to accept the idea that he should feel either sorry or responsible for his mistake. He dismisses both blame and censure with a casual “min allah” — “It is from God.” To the remonstrance that it had better not happen again he answers “inshallah,” “If God wills it,” with exasperating nonchalance. In agent work, where supervision cannot be so close, this indifference to personal responsibility and tendency to atomistic thinking will necessarily be even more troublesome. To the Arab, all is from Allah, and if Allah does all, the individual cannot be held responsible. Man is required to follow the teachings of the Koran and the Hadith and to perform his religious obligations, but he is not answerable to an inner God, a conscience. Instead of a sense of personal responsibility for his acts, the Arab has a deeply inculcated fear of outside forces; he realizes he must answer for his actions to society. This social sensitivity, together with his all-is-from-Allah fatalism, may in some measure explain why the Arab world knows scarcely any suicides, that common aberration of Christian living in the West. At any rate it explains why he is more interested in the face he presents to society than in exposing the facts of a situation.
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