A quick thought

I really don’t know the answer to this question. But when I read the work of Muslims trying to modernise/reform their religion by reinterpreting the Koran from first principles (well, all right, from our principles), I’m struck by one problem: is there, in Islam, anything that corresponds to the scandal of particularity?

I quite see the point of claiming that the work stands above all interpretations, including the traditional ones, and the idea that Muhammed was really progressive for his time, and some kind of proto-feminist in the way he treated all his wives well, so that Muslims today should not be bound by the sexism of early Arabian society. This seems to be sound both ethically and logically: in fact it’s an inspiring example of the way in which theological reasoning can be used to justify changes in eternal truths.

But when this sort of argument cropped up in the debate on women priests, there was a counter-argument made sometimes that God had after all chosen first century Palestine for the incarnation, so he must have approved of the social arrangements there. If Jesus were really twentieth century a feminist, why wasn’t he born in Berkeley, CA? If God really is omnipotent, he can surely arrange for there to be a virgin in Berkeley. I remember this question being put, not in quite those words, by Graham Leonard before he left the Church of England.

The question this throws up in a Muslim context is whether there attaches any theological meaning to the prophet appearing when and where he did. Obviously, it was self-evident to seventh century Arabs that God should send an arabic-speaking messenger to their particular time. What, or who, could be more important in history than they were? But it can’t have been quite as self-evident to all the generations of non-Arab Muslim philosophers since then, and I wonder if they admitted the question and came up with any answers.

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2 Responses to A quick thought

  1. Mark Vernon says:

    I think the scandal of particularity is more acute in Christianity since it is the very life, death and resurrection of the man Jesus that (a) does the saving and (b) is God on earth. Muslims believe neither of the Prophet (hence the title). Rather, his message is in some sense definitive. But maybe the fundamental message is the spirit that the words embody – in which case the logic of progressive reform in relation to women, and so on, is not just justifiable but authentic.

  2. acb says:

    Mark! How nice to see you here. I got your latest book shoved at me by the Rector of Littlemore yesterday, and thought that Newman would be rolling in his grave as she did so. Then I thought that he would probably expect nothing more from the C of E.

    On the other hand, I don’t think this gets them off the hook entirely. Do Muslims have no doctrine about why the prophet appeared when and where he did?

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