Thursday, March 14, 2024

“Better be pruned to grow — than cut up to burn”

Every so often one comes across a statement like “The Muslim world lacks the equivalent of the Reformation”. Those who repeat it seem to have been misdirected by all those virgins in paradise and the predisposition for child marriages into forgetting that, from the get go, Islam was a highly puritanical religion. 

As the Arab empire took shape and began to rub up against the Roman Empire in the eastern Med, so-called westerners made some decisions which would lastingly affect how they themselves thought about the correct approach to the big issues. 

Early Christianity in the Middle East under Greek tutelage had largely consisted of a plethora of coexisting sects. Under Arab rule all but the state-sponsored Orthodoxy of the Emperor himself were effectively extinguished, but that permitted a rebel tendency, puritanical and iconoclastic, to emerge and threaten the core, even to the extent of declaring the veneration of the cross a form of idolatry. 

The fact that at this point primitive Christian and Islamic underlying attitudes were barely distinguishable must have set up an 'Aha!' moment for the ecclesiastical authorities. And thus the official church’s solution was to surrender their own puritanical rabble to Islamic control. 

Rather than fight them, they simply offloaded them, permitting them to become Muslims. (In this they became like the ‘useless third’ of society — the telephone sanitisers and so on — which Douglas Adams had dispatched into deep space on an iffy colonising venture, or indeed the right-thinking passengers of the Mayflower who, as luck would have it, somehow initiated the socially beneficial project of founding the United States.)

Meanwhile the Orthodox church maximised its own fancy image worship and overall grandeur, seemingly liberated from the priggish and the abstemious. 

‘The West’, might feel existentially threatened by Islamic teachings today, but it only ever took the shape that it did because it learned how to put them to practical uses. 

This plan seemed to be working well at first, but there would be a period of iconoclastic reaction and relapse within Byzantium itself, yet once this was over the authorities went back to actively persecuting those who rejected the finer things of worldly life. 

Meanwhile, further to the still comparatively light-starved west, under the authority of the Bishop of Rome, a work-around had been found, whereby individuals of uncompromisingly ascetic bent were walled off and made socially useful within monasteries and convents where they were much less likely to become a nuisance. 

Later on of course, there would emerge new religious orders which got out a bit more, and as these became commercialised, the conditions for a Reformation and a society-wide re-emergence of puritan nutjobbery were once again established.

In parts of the affluent world today we see an analogous development whereby the rebel extremist tendency within our own cultures is either being offloaded or perhaps self-offloading onto Islam in a manner which might otherwise seem unlikely to the historically ignorant. 

Only time will tell if this will again result in a handy purge of these cultish cranks, or whether in fact they are all coming to sweep away the rest of us.

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