Islam was from its inception both church and state, one and indivisible, with no possible distinction between temporal and religious authority. Muhammad’s power was seamlessly spiritual and secular (although the latter grew ultimately out of the former), and he bequeathed this model to his followers. Since he was, by Islamic definition, the last prophet of God upon earth, his was a political model whose perfection could not be challenged or questioned without the total abandonment of the pretensions of the entire religion.
But his model left Islam with two intractable problems. One was political. Muhammad unfortunately bequeathed no institutional arrangements by which his successors in the role of omnicompetent ruler could be chosen (and, of course, a schism occurred immediately after the Prophet’s death, with some—today’s Sunnites—following his father-in-law, and some—today’s Shi’ites—his son-in-law).
Link: City Journal Spring 2004 | When Islam Breaks Down by Theodore Dalrymple.
Compounding this difficulty, the legitimacy of temporal power could always be challenged by those who, citing Muhammad’s spiritual role, claimed greater religious purity or authority; the fanatic in Islam is always at a moral advantage vis-à-vis the moderate. Moreover, Islam—in which the mosque is a meetinghouse, not an institutional church—has no established, anointed ecclesiastical hierarchy to decide such claims authoritatively. With political power constantly liable to challenge from the pious, or the allegedly pious, tyranny becomes the only guarantor of stability, and assassination the only means of reform. Hence the Saudi time bomb: sooner or later, religious revolt will depose a dynasty founded upon its supposed piety but long since corrupted by the ways of the world.The Islamic doctrine of apostasy is hardly favorable to free inquiry or frank discussion, to say the least, and surely it explains why no Muslim, or former Muslim, in an Islamic society would dare to suggest that the Qu’ran was not divinely dictated through the mouth of the Prophet but rather was a compilation of a charismatic man’s words made many years after his death, and incorporating, with no very great originality, Judaic, Christian, and Zoroastrian elements. In my experience, devout Muslims expect and demand a freedom to criticize, often with perspicacity, the doctrines and customs of others, while demanding an exaggerated degree of respect and freedom from criticism for their own doctrines and customs.
If they were content to exist in a seventh-century backwater, secure in a quietist philosophy, there would be no problem for them or us; their problem, and ours, is that they want the power that free inquiry confers, without either the free inquiry or the philosophy and institutions that guarantee that free inquiry. They are faced with a dilemma: either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain forever in the rear of human technical advance. Neither alternative is very appealing; and the tension between their desire for power and success in the modern world on the one hand, and their desire not to abandon their religion on the other, is resolvable for some only by exploding themselves as bombs.
People grow angry when faced with an intractable dilemma; they lash out.
But the anger of Muslims, their demand that their sensibilities should be accorded a more than normal respect, is a sign not of the strength but of the weakness—or rather, the brittleness—of Islam in the modern world, the desperation its adherents feel that it could so easily fall to pieces.
Islam in the modern world is weak and brittle, not strong: that accounts for its so frequent shrillness. The Shah will, sooner or later, triumph over the Ayatollah in Iran, because human nature decrees it, though meanwhile millions of lives will have been ruined and impoverished. The Iranian refugees who have flooded into the West are fleeing Islam, not seeking to extend its dominion, as I know from speaking to many in my city. To be sure, fundamentalist Islam will be very dangerous for some time to come, and all of us, after all, live only in the short term; but ultimately the fate of the Church of England awaits it. Its melancholy, withdrawing roar may well (unlike that of the Church of England) be not just long but bloody, but withdraw it will. The fanatics and the bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle.