The New York Times lies before me. Thin wisps of smoke rise from its front page with its vivid accounts of murder and mayhem committed in the name of Allah. The Children of Abraham explains that Allah is one and the same deity as the Yahweh worshipped by the Jews and the God the Father of the Christians. All three faiths are in thrall to an only dimly recognized and rarely acknowledged nominalist trinity: three names, one God. But my book does little to prepare the readers of the Times for the chilling presence in their midst of thousands of anonymous Muslim fanatics ready, indeed, eager to win martyrdom by the slaughter of God’s mostly unwitting enemies. Nor does t reassure them that it will ever be controlled or ended.
My Children of Abraham attempted to show –the demonstration is not difficult— that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all three (contested) heirs of a promise each believes was made to made to Abraham in the distant past. That covenant, as it is called, is described in the opening book of the Hebrew Bible and is alluded to in both the Quran and the New Testament: “You will be my people; I will be your God”; terms and conditions to follow. The terms and conditions constitute the Torah, the rest of the first five books of the Bible whose authorship is attributed to Moses. The Children then goes on to describe, in their origins and evolution, the chief pre-modern doctrinal and institutional forms of the three religious communities born of the promise to Abraham.
The violent religio-political movements that daily flash across the front pages of the world’s newspapers find little place in my pages, however. Has history, that is, human behavior, changed? Is the volatile young man, and the occasional woman,at one moment a student or a taxi driver, the next, an assassin in a murderously explosive vest, a new, modern phenomenon?
Human nature hasn’t changed: history-writing has and, beneath that, there has been a more consequential revolution in the technology of communication. It is not simply a matter of our noticing something that has always been there. We are also in the presence of something created by obvious changes in technology. Beginning with the printing press, and then with film, video and down through the Internet, a media revolution has taken place. Communication is now worldwide, continuous and instantaneous.
The new media not only links; it also records. Mountains of data are being compiled on, it may soon appear, every individual on the planet. The ubiquitous CCTV now puts a face on what was once only a name; his cellphone and laptop reveal what it was our terrorist had in mind while building a bomb –another new technology!—in his basement. Social media soon uncovers the friends and acquaintances of this “person of interest.” “He was friendly,” we are told, “but he pretty much kept to himself.”
These are modern, some even contemporary, developments. The roots of the radical Islamic terrorism that confronts us on our street corners run, however, more deeply into the past and extend perhaps more widely than one imagined. It will be useful, then, to look past the headlines and, entschuldige mich, the New York Times into the pre-modern era with which the Children of Abraham was chiefly concerned and attempt to discern the origin of what torments us.
Violence in Scripture
The use of force, even the most violent, to achieve one’s ends must have been present from the beginning of the human experience. How else does the hunter bring down his often dangerous prey? How defeat his mating rival? How else does the tribe protect its claim to land or water? The community employment of force is in effect war, and as polities developed, so too did the formality of war and the sophistication of its instruments,
Terrorism which, in this social rather than individual context, is understood as the use or threat of force primarily for its political or social destabilizing effect, is a fluid subset of war. It differs from war in scale, formality, objectives and agents. Warfare aims at conquest; terrorism at intimidation, demoralization and social chaos. Terrorists are not organized as an army; they are, at least initially, few in number; at best a network but at times individuals united only by a shared ideology. Their experts are the bomb-maker, the sniper and their hero, in religious societies like the Children of Abraham that believe in the rewards of the Afterlife, the martyr.
Terrorism is not, then, a modern notion or practice. Guerrilla warfare has been identified as such since the 18th century, and irregular hit and run tactics, ambushes and assassinations may in fact be the earliest form of warfare. The Ten Plagues that first threatened and then were visited upon Egypt is a textbook example of a terrorist program, and in this instance, planned and executed by no less than the author who actually wrote the textbook.
Nor is it an isolated instance. The human use of force or violence, even in its most extreme form, to gain its individual or collective end seems like a common trait of predatory animals. It appears early on in the Bible’s mythos of human origins with Cain’s murder of his brother, and humankind’s easy resort to violence, which rises from almost every page of the Bible, has provided to all those who regard that book as the word of God, a warrant for its use, particularly, or even exclusively, as many contemporary terrorists say, “in the path of God.”
The Quran too, that “other Bible” that the Muslims regard as supplanting the Mosaic original, not only accepts the use of force in human affairs; it even prescribes it, and considerably more explicitly than where it is a matter of defending the rights of God, here metonymized into the rights of the umma or community.
Neither the Bible nor the Quran shows any hesitation in the believers’ use of violent force is the pursuit of God’s, and the community’s, religious and political ends, which in fact are often identical. The reason is apparent. Both the Israelite and Muslim communities were born, at God’s own command, surrounded by hostile tribal powers bent on eradicating not Judaism or Islam, about which they probably knew or cared little, but rather the presence of a new political entity arising in their midst.
It is not surprising then that God appears in those Scriptures as the protector of the community he himself founded and that its primary prophets, Moses ad Muhammad, should be the deity’s generalissimos as well as his mouthpieces. Judaism and Islam were born into a strife filled world where force of arms was the only protection against extinction. That lesson, fixed forever in Scripture by the earliest believers, continues to inspire believers today.
And what of the Christians? Though the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels lived in what we know from contemporary sources was a society trembling on the brink of political rebellion against its Roman rulers, he himself, and indeed his Galilean environment, are presented as remote from all political concerns. And yet he was arrested, tried, convicted and executed on what was palpably a political charge, that “he would make himself king of the Jews.” Jesus’ own use of the political category of “kingdom” to describe his spiritual goal –the return of the “Kingdom of God” surely contributed to his arrest and execution.
Jesus’ lack of interest in politics –“Render to Caesar…” is, if nothing else, a statement of political laissez-faire— seems confirmed by the conduct of his followers over the next couple of centuries. They were persecuted by Roman political authorities –an era when Christianity’s own cult of martyrs was born– but for the disruption of the public (social?) order rather than for rebellion or treason. Other-worldliness was not a political virtue on the Roman scale of values. It took, as a matter of fact, three centuries before the newly converted emperor Constantine reached out a purple gloved hand and the Church’s bishops grasped and held it.
That grasp weaponized Christianity for a millennium and a half. Legally it led to the designation of heresy, that is. doctrinal deviation, as a sin punishable by the Church through spiritual excommunication and, more consequentially in our context, as a crime against the state and so subject to physical punishment ranging from incarceration and torture to execution and, in the end, by armed search and destroy missions against deviant communities. The Inquisition provides a clear blueprint: an ecclesiastical investigation and trial after which the Church hands over the convicted heretic to “the secular arm” to enact the violent sentence.
The chastisement of European heretics, even on a relatively large scale, like the campaigns against the Albigensians, was one thing; the pursuit and defeat of infidels overseas was quite another. These overseas “infidels” were, of course, the Muslims, and a campaign to free Jerusalem and the Palestinian Holy Land –holy to all three of the Children, a complication still notoriously unresolved— of their polluting presence required enormous resources in manpower and treasure. Once more, the hand grasped the glove. The Church declared a formal crusade –a “Cross War”– and enriched it with spiritual indulgences and financial inducements for the participants. The participants were the secular princes of Christendom who were invited to take up the cross. That symbol was bold upon their tunics, and there could have been little doubt in the minds of the Muslims who witnessed it that the franji armies wading ashore in Palestine had come to wage a Holy War against Islam.
Holy War, Holy Terror
Though holy war, armed hostility waged in the name of religion, at a god’s command or urging or even at an intuition of a god’s will, is a near universal phenomenon that lies close to the surface of human behavior. Jihad or “striving” (sometimes more fully in the phrase “striving in the path of God”) is the Quranic-specific term that is normally translated as “holy war” and, like many other expressions in the Quran’s Arabic, it has a wide range of meanings. They have become, in modern times, the subject of a lively Muslim debate regarding the Quranic teaching on the use of violence in the name of God, whether Islam is to be understood as “militant” or a ”pacifist” society. The latter is a preferred modern interpretation; the traditional view, supported by the majority of Quranic contexts, was unmistakably, though not exclusively, that jihad was to be understood as “holy war.”
Since jihad is a Quranic moral imperative -–the term occurs 164 times there— it was also obligatory matter for Islam’s canon lawyers (there are in fact no other kind) to unpack the command and then, as lawyers will, repack it in a dense surrounding body of interpretative permissions, restrictions and conditions, the latter of which have effectively rendered a legal jihad unviable, though Muslims have continued to invoke it as a call to action.
Islamic law regards jihad as an obligation incumbent on the entire Muslim community and not merely on one aggrieved corner of the Abode of Islam. It was doubtless in expectation that the Muslim community, particularly the Muslims of India and North Africa would respond and rise up against their colonial masters that prompted the Ottomans formally to declare a jihad against the British, French and their allies in November of 19114. No one answered the call. Similarly, the religious authorities in the states surrounding Israel have issued frequent calls to jihad against the Zionist intruder, again with a very negligible response.
If the formal jihad constructed by Islam’s clerical lawyers out of the Scriptural givens now appears to be a dead letter, the Quran’s vivid encouragement of the taking up of arms against the enemies of God and the Muslim community remains, like all else in The Book, eternally valid. Not many have sought to do so on their own, not at least until the perennial call to reform and return, return, that is, to an imagined pristine state and perfect observance, has been sounded once again.
Jealous God, Jealous Believers
The Children of Abraham all worship an absolute, all-powerful and self-confessed jealous God whose “First Commandment” says it all. His traits are portrayed in a dramatic and personal fashion in the Bible and praised if not always described in the Quran. In the New Testament, however, whose “God the Father” is clearly the Yahweh of Israel, the deity, his powers and acts, have all been overshadowed by the unremitting focus on Jesus. We know far more about the Son than about his Father. But the Christians seem to derive their somewhat incomplete notion of the Father from the Bible’s all-powerful creator, he whose Kingdom will come.
How, then, is it possible that the worshippers of this fanatical deity who brooks no competition should not have followers like himself, nulla salus fanatics with a zero tolerance of the worshippers of other gods and very little for the other Children of Abraham, each of which claims to be the true and unique heir to God’s promise to Father Abraham? They were and remain a quarrelsome lot, loudly, often violently, at odds with their co-religionists on the meaning of their faith, intolerant of those who do not share it. Intolerance seems to be is part of the DNA of the monotheists, and their history shows that, given the motive and the opportunity, Jews, Christians and Muslims will use lethal force not only on the heathen but even, and perhaps with more relish, on the infidels, which include, indeed, feature, the other Children of Abraham.
Since the long-ago collapse of their monarchy, Jews, who have lived for millennia under the political control of others, most notably Christians and Muslims, have had plentiful motives but few opportunities to impose, by force if necessary, their will upon others. Not so Christians and Muslims, the masters of kingdoms and empires with fleets and armies at their command, and they have not hesitated to use them against those who worshipped in other pews. Crusade and jihad are two sides of the same religious coinage.
What Does God Want?
The agents of the current violence are mostly young, mostly anonymous figures who claim to have been moved by neither of the traditional catalysts, inspiration and revelation, but rather by an understanding of Scripture that had, in most cases, been explained to them by others. This at least was predictable. Scripture or, to be more precise, the understanding of Scripture, the revealed and infallible statement of God’s plan for humankind and the foundation of all belief and behavior, lies at the center of almost every religious movement promoting or coercing community reform. Sacred Scripture represents, in varying degrees, the very words of God and so must be taken with the utmost seriousness. What does God want?
But though God is the speaker in revelation, his pronouncements often are not prima facie simple, direct or transparent. The divine truths are expressed in human idiom (Hebrew, Greek, Arabic) and in terms taken from a very human lexicon. Clarity does not always prevail in Scripture: the high diction of poetry, the oracular style of prophecy and the opacity of aphorism all present the believer with problems of understanding. Scripture might be an open book, capable of touching the mind and heart of any or all who hear or read it, but it is not, astonishingly, an always and everywhere entirely intelligible one, particularly since its interpretation is often a matter of (eternal) life or death.
If the interpretation of Scripture often gives rise to intellectual uncertainty and spiritual anxiety, it has also provided the believers a degree of freedom from the absolute will of God. Two or three possible meanings of a word or a phrase or a passage offers the believer three choices of belief or, where the matter is moral, three possible choices of action. And if he find no relief there, human ingenuity is quite capable of discovering a fourth or a fifth to yield the desired exegetical result.
A literal reading of Scripture has been supported by almost all the religious authorities of the community –“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!”– even by those little inclined to pursue it. How could they say otherwise since it is God’s own words, or at least his expressed intentions, that are in question? It is the hallmark of a religious fundamentalism. But as a matter of fact, the believers in all three religious communities have felt free to ignore the glossa ordinaria and use every exegetical instrument in the hermeneutic toolbox to elicit an impressive range of non-literal meanings from a given Scriptural text. Freedom is, as always, easily convertible into license, and opportunists of every stripe have exploited the obscurities and ambiguities of Scripture to bend the text to their own agenda.
Every man his own Scriptural exegete is a recipe for community dissolution. The undermining of the unity of understanding and acceptance of God’s will for his Chosen would lead to the weakening and evanescence of the unity of belief that constituted the community in the first place. The danger was apparent early on, and each of the three Abrahamic communities developed institutions to shape and control the understanding of Scripture: among the Jews, yeshiva-trained rabbinic circles; in Islam, a similar body of madrasa-trained canon lawyers; in Christianity, Church councils and their members, the monarchical bishops, and in Western Christendom, the extraordinary case of the Roman Pope –such authority is rarely possessed by an individual— and his curia.
The modern terrorist does not inhabit that world of control. What has remarkably changed in more recent times is the erosion of the authority of such clerical elites. The institutions survive, but their controlling authority has been attenuated by the secular concepts of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and undermined by Modernity’s skepticism toward authority and tradition. The result is plain to see; believer and unbeliever alike now possess a hermeneutical license.
Tolerance and the Secular State
If the secular erosion of the authority of the clerical elites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam has led to a loss of control of exegesis, the secular state has served to put a break to the impulse to turn exegesis into act or, to put it bluntly, to interpret Scripture as a license to kill. The modern civil state of the West, though it is as bellicose as ever, is a secular polity that is embarrassed by crusades; it has grown weary of religious wars, and perhaps of religion itself. Its values are liberal, humanistic, egalitarian and professedly tolerant. Tolerance, which is roughly understood as putting up with the Other, is a modern value and it is now indited in the constitutions of most Western states. Jews and Christians –Muslims are latecomers to Western societies— have been given to understand that they might think and say whatever they wish about each other or any other religious group, but under no circumstances were they lift a hand against them.
Most Jews and Christians have willy-nilly accepted this government prescribed tolerance of the beliefs and practices of others and have even in the end confessed, if with some reluctance, that it might be a good idea. But few Muslims have had a prolonged experience of state prescribed and state enforced religious tolerance. Islamic law does guarantees “protection” to Jews and Christians who have submitted to Muslim communities. It is, however, a privilege extended by sufferance and at the price of a second class citizenship with many civil disabilities.
In the colonial era of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Western democracies began imposing liberal-style constitutions on their newly acquired or newly created Muslim client states in the Middle East and North Africa. Constitutions imposed from above and from without do not of course mean that the civil values embodied in them are shared by the citizens constrained to live under them. These constitutions survive, but for many contemporary Muslims, the loud voice Quran and their own historical tradition make it difficult for them to think of Jewish and Christian communities as anything other than Zionist intruders or Christian aggressors in what they continue to think of as the “Abode of Islam.”
The Terrorist and History
There is no science of the individual, Aristotle magisterially declared, no ab uno disce omnes, unless of course you are Isaac Newton and the apple doesn’t fall far from your tree. Most of us, however, and historians in particular, need more data than a single revelatory apple. And our sources do not often oblige.
If there is no science of the individual, there is, equally, no history of the present. The historian forebears to step into Heracleitus’ every flowing stream of res actae; his reflections require stasis, the pause in human activity provided by the past but unknown to the present. For the present, we turn from history to information, from Eusebius and Tabari to the New York Times and Washington Post. Our William of Tyre is Reuters, our Mas’udi is now al-Jazeera, and al-Suyuti, who we once thought knew it all, has been swallowed whole by the Internet. We relay not on the historian but on the journalist, the daily reporter of individual events, and the once anonymous or obscure individual actors who now, in this media age, find not only fifteen minutes of fame but an attention and an intelligibility denied them by the historian.
The historian of modern times has available such a trove of data that it becomes plausible to cut a narrow but very deep tranche into some corner of the human experience from the eighteenth, and particularly from the nineteenth century on. Not so his counterpart working in earlier centuries where the available information is both scarce and second or third hand. And often problematic.
History has been described as a matter of connecting the dots, the packets of information registered in our sources, and so constructing a narrative that both describes and explains. For the historian of pre-modern times, however, the “dots” are just that, small bits of information distributed randomly over a large empty landscape, which makes their connection a hazardous and speculative enterprise at best.
The information is sporadic and so the distances between the dots are considerable. The contemporary historian of the pre-modern past is constrained to bridge the space with speculation sufficiently plausible and circumstantial to explain why one dot might reasonably be expected to follow another, that is, to fashion a consecutive historical narrative. If this sounds like a bold enterprise, it is less so in reality. There are indeed great empty spaces in the history of the past; but there are as well broad swathes of narrative already in place. Writing the history of the past is a constant struggle against the “anxiety of influence” since many of the dots have already been connected before the current historian addresses them, and with great consequence. The modern historian enters the past equipped, or weighed down, with an impressive library of pre-modern travel guides, most of them better informed than he and all eager to explain how things actually were.
The historian, then, is a connector of dots who nonetheless prefers to live abroad, in that “foreign country” that is the past. Foreign, yes, but not entirely alien to our own contemporary ways. History has given us to understand that, though some of the tactics of deployment are new, the motives and incentives for the use of violence in the cause of God are as deeply rooted and as abiding as Scripture itself. It is an understanding that is not reassuring to many. Some may be equally disquieted by the realization that it is the secular civil state that has emerged as the chief protection against that theological initiative:
History gives neither assurance nor, pace George Santayana, insurance against our repeating it. It is the future, as it turns out, that is the foreign country.