What I Believe, and What Islam Teaches

On Wednesday, I’m scheduled to interview an American imam. But I’m a member of the doubting community, not any faith community, which means that I trace my intellectual lineage to people like these:

  • Rene Descartes. Descartes made the first principle of his life, not certainty about the Ground of Being (or God’s existence), but doubt: “I think, therefore I am” was the best that he could do with regards to certainty, and then he did his best to reason from there. 
  • Francis Bacon. Bacon is the father of science. Like the theologian, the scientist theorizes and offers reasons for things, but that theorizing and reasoning is based on appeals to empirical evidence, not religious authority.
  • Socrates. In the pre-scientific era, aside from revelation and reason (the individual reflecting in solitude), how might one arrive at truth? Socrates gave us this innovation: dialogue. He believed that two or more rational persons in conversation could get pretty far down the road of truth together. Two heads clashing, thinking, and provoking thought in one another might well be—indeed, frequently are—better than one.
  • Thomas Jefferson I. Jefferson is a nice representative of the Anglo-French Enlightenment’s culmination—a “representative man.” Jefferson believed, among other things, that: (1) we have far more in common than what divides us; (2) we are rational individuals first and members of religious or ethnic communities second; and (3) we share, not just universal human reason, but inalienable rights, dignity, and equality. Sharing so much, we need not be opaque to one another; we can talk.
  • Thomas Jefferson II. Jefferson is so important, he gets two bullets. Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers (and their Enlightenment equivalents in France), putting into practice ideas from ancient Greece (democracy), ancient Rome (republicanism), and the 17th century writer, John Locke, arrived at four important innovations in political governance: (1) citizen individuals, via their representatives, rule; (2) the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government are separated, and the press, as an unofficial fourth branch of government, is free; (3) church and state are separated; and (4) individuals possess inalienable rights.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) represents the birth of feminism.  If the Enlightenment is based on the notion that we, as human beings, share a great deal more than divides us, that principle extends to all equally: we are rational individuals before we are gendered individuals (or before we are racially divided, for that matter).

The above, in short, are “my people”—the people I am sympatico with as an agnostic, a secularist, a doubter. But there are two other people—one a religious innovator and one a Catholic philosopher—that I think are important to add to this list:

  • Mahatma Gandhi.  I’m not a pacifist; I recognize that war may sometimes be unavoidable. But Gandhi held to two principles that I think are generally valid as pole stars for living. The first is satyagraha—the pursuit of truth. He called his biography My Experiments with Truth, and I like this notion that life is an experiment, a process of discovery. The second is ahimsa—the pursuit of nonviolence, or, simply, love. Ahimsa, as Gandhi practiced it, functioned as a kind of poetry of compassion and empathy—evoking, in the suffering of his own body, universal fellow-feeling in others. In Western terms, I think of John Keats’s notion of negative capability—the idea that we can imaginatively empty ourselves of ego and inhabit, or walk in, the “shoes” of other beings (human and nonhuman). In artistic terms, Keats thought that the supreme possessor of this imaginative power was Shakespeare. In political terms, I think it’s Gandhi. In musical performance, I’ll go with John Lennon (as in his song, “Give Peace a Chance”).
  • Gabriel Marcel. This Catholic existentialist philosopher wrote an essay in 1933 titled “On the Ontological Mystery,” and it has long cast a spell over me. In brief, Marcel suggests that our very ontology—our being, our existence—may be more than a mere problem with a readily scientific or reductionist solution. The mysteries of love and consciousness, for example, may not be solvable in the way that a Scooby Doo  mystery proves solvable, and this mysterious source of existence—call it God—may really be there. Marcel reflects on this so beautifully that it makes me cautious, as an agnostic, about lapsing into outright atheism, and keeps me open-minded concerning Deism.   

So where does all this put me in relation to Islam and my Wednesday interview date with an American imam? Islam, after all, would seem to posit an alternative to just about everything I’ve proposed above:

  • for doubt, faith
  • for Baconian science, authority
  • for Socratic dialogue, proclamation
  • for Jeffersonian individualism, the Herderian ummah (the community of believers)
  • for Jeffersonian democracy and the separation of church and state, Sharia
  • for feminist equality, a gender-based apartheid 
  • for Gandhi, Abraham and Muhammad
  • for the ontological mystery, Allah, the dictator of the Quran (take that both ways, if you like)

Are there bridges here? And if so, how does an American imam in the 21st century cross them?

And how do I?

File:Vindication1b.jpg

Image source: Wikipedia Commons

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to What I Believe, and What Islam Teaches

  1. Cody Deitz says:

    Interesting post. I liked your list but I would add a few people. Probably Sartre and maybe Adam Smith.

  2. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi:
    Good luck. Keep us posted.
    -Colin

  3. This is probably not your main point, but I understand that Descartes *extreme* scepticism is not much in favour in current philosophy. ie Most (?) current philosophers are realists, they hold that the physical world really is there even if they can’t proove it in absolute Scooby-Doo terms.

    So I take it your doubt is more a general approach of intellectual caution, than a decision of absolute scepticism in everything. At least, that’s what I take from Descartes and won’t put words in your mouth.

    On a practical note, all we can control is ourselves, so I guess concenrating on the “how do I bridge” part of your last two questions might be best.

    (And now I want to qualify that: I suppose one can try and put oneself in anothers shoes and suggest ways they could bridge, if they can’t think of ways themselves. However, as you’ve said this Imam is smart and engaging and loves America, so he may have thought more on this that we might think.)

    Jonathan (from Spritzophrenia)

    • santitafarella says:

      Jonathan,

      Yes, I’m curious to discover how the imam (his name is Kamal) approaches these bridges—I’m not presuming to offer him suggestions for how he ought to do it. That’s his work.

      As for Descartes, yes, I’m referring to him in general terms. What’s interesting for me is that Descartes didn’t start with the ground of being “out there” and prior to himself, but started with his own experience and reasoned from that. The monotheisms, of course, all start from a very different vantage.

      —Santi

  4. jared says:

    The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection for Free Expression.

    Jefferson Muzzles:
    http://www.tjcenter.org/muzzles/

  5. anon says:

    I am not a “Western” but Eastern Muslim.
    •faith=the use of one’s intellectual faculties and reason to arrive at conviction
    •science,—All knowledge is from God—even Science. Religion and Science are compatible.
    •for Socratic dialogue,—see the Kalam philosophers and you might want to check out the “Kalam cosmological argument” revived by William L. Craig.
    •individualism,ummah (the community of believers)—-Unity within diversity. God created us in diversity—The purpose of diversity is for us to trancend the challenges of division and find the encompassing unity.
    •Jeffersonian democracy and the separation of church and state—All responsible governments (regradless of type) must prioritize the well being of their citizens as well as all of God’s creations. To accomplish this, there needs to be ethical and moral standards to which a government is held accountable.
    •feminist equality—The Quran says both men and women are equal—they are both God’s creations.
    •for Gandhi—He read the biography of Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) and wished there was more to read “of this great man”….
    •for the ontological mystery, Allah, the dictator of the Quran (take that both ways, if you like)—-?

  6. St. John the Baptist says:

    If that imam isn’t ApplePie, that imam is merely toilet paper.

    Get with it, Santi!

  7. Pingback: My Meal with a Muslim « Spritzophrenia

  8. Khawar Nehal says:

    Have any of the people talking about Islam ever read the whole book on which it is based.
    The Quran ? Take it from a reliable source like quran.com and go through the whole thing.
    Most of the nay sayers take it out of context and the followers of the nay sayers are in the wrong to not questions parts taken out of context.
    The quran is the word of God and you cannot change it. The challenge God himself provides in the Quran is that you cannot make anything like it and you cannot change it or destroy it.
    If you do not believe in what God says then take the challenge and try it.
    Destroy, change or make something better than the Quran.
    Once you try, you shall see what God is trying to tell you. Most of the nay sayers cannot even start the take the challenge.

    Enjoy reality.

    Regards,
    Khawar

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Khawar,

      Yes, I’ve read the Quran. No, I was not impressed by it. I found it depressing, hell-obsessed, authoritarian, and sparse in narrative and poetry. The Bible, for example, tells the Noah story in a far more interesting way than the Quran.

      I’d like to ask you: have you read Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species?” Or the letters of Thomas Jefferson? Or Voltaire’s “Candide”? Or Thoreau’s “Walden”? How about the poetry of Keats, have you read that?

      For truth, literary interest, and an elevated moral sense, I’d take any of these over the Quran. My reading of the Quran was very disappointing, and I did try to give it a sympathetic read. I wanted to understand the attraction of others to it. It eluded me. And I don’t like the Quran’s anti-feminism.

      So tell me what part of the Quran I should reread—give another chance—and why. What high merits are in the passage you select for me that you think I probably missed on my first go through the text?

      —Santi

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