Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Salvation history and Islam

 In a brilliant book, ”Meaning in History,” that appeared seventy-five years ago, Karl Löwith traced the emergence of the dispensationalist view of history in early Christian times. This concept viewed history as not cyclical, nor merely a random succession, but an orderly succession of divinely ordained events - events leading to the Endtime, which would be characterized by the Restoration of All Things. Historians of religion term this overall concept - which it must be conceded is an ambitious one - the Heilsgeschichte or Salvation History,

Bur Löwith did not stop there, He proceeded to showe how this concept was secularized in the early modern period to yield the idea of progress. No longer divinely guided, the pattern was clear, Hence, what has been termed the Whig Theory of History which views liberal concepts of progress as unfolding logically and inevitabilty, notwithstanding a few twists and turns along the way.

Of course the earlier religious view did not die out. Indeed it sometimes combined in interesting ways with the Whig concept.

Here is an example that has proved influential. In 1857 a unitarian minister and prominent transcendentalist issued a collection of “Ten Sermons on Religion.” In the third of these one finds the following. “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

This seems to be the origin of Martin Luther King’s well-known comment during our own times about the arc of the moral universe.

So far, few have taken up the task of showing how these concepts migrated into the world of al-Islam. It is natural that they would do so, given Muhammad’s formative contacts with Christian thinkers in northern Arabia, where Christianity was then dominant.

I borrow some of the following observations from Gottfried Hagen, professor of Turkish studies at the University of Michigan. He begins by observing that aspects of the Salvation History concept can be detected in most major religions. The Qur’an replaced the unorganic historical glimmerings of the primitive Arabians with a new concept of history in which its temporal extension was finite and bounded. Creation marked the beginning; the Last Judgment the end point of history. Outside of this sequence there is nothing; we dwell in a closed system. Looking back over time, we can discern a progressive series of revelations from a succession of Prophets stretching from Adam to Muhammad. According to the Ismailites, there are seven epochs of Prophets with Muhammad appearing in the sixth. The nature of the seventh remains unknown.

The role of the Islamic communities in the perspective of this salvation history is clear. In a succession of steps it must shorten the distance that separates it from the ideal situation of Islam. Premodern Islam has not always been clear about some of the details. Professor Hagen notes that some modern Muslim scholars have been receptive to the notions of Heilsgeschichte as outlined by Löwith. Of course they needed to reconcile the essentially progressive aspects of the theory with the traditionalist imperative of returning to the original purity of primordial Islam.

In all this, the inevitable triumph of Islam as the sole world religion is presupposed. Ideally, this beneficent state should come into being through the gradual enlightenment and conversion of unbelievers. Yet according to some - as we are seeing now in the Middle East - it may be deemed necessary to hasten the process by violence and ethnic cleansing.