My Xmas Gift and Over the Break Reading

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Hans Kung completes his trilogy of the Abrahamic Faiths with this book on Islam (books on Judaism 1991 and Christianity 1996 already written).

Kung has famously applied Thomas Kuhn’s notion of Paradigm Shifts to the history and study of religion.  Emphasizing essential teachings over the paradigms, praxis, and dialogue in postmodernity (without as he says succumbing to postmodernism).  [Fun fact on Thomas Kuhn–He and I share a common city of birth:  Cincinnati].

You can read Kuhn’s Declaration for a Global Ethic here.

Like all of Kung’s book, it is a monster work but easily readable, thorough but not excessively detailed to the point of reader exhaustion.  Should be required reading for anyone (from the West particularly) commenting on Islam.  Though Kung is quite clear that there is just as much ignorance in the other direction–his book has repeated calls for Islamic theologians studying Christianity.  This is particularly important as Kung points out, given that the Qu’ran shows no real understanding of Christian classical theology.  Muhammad had interactions with Christians (there were and are still Arab Christians), but in general seems not to have had a strong grasp of the intricacies (which is understandable) of Christian theology.

In answer to Bernard Lewis’ question:  What Went Wrong—How did the Islamic world go from being the center of Eurasian civilization and the largest, most important imperial power in history (arguably) to, along with sub-Saharan Africa, the least developed block on the planet today?

Kung writes:

Islam is not in itself to blame, nor is a particular paradigm, as long as it is appropriate to the times; what is to blame is the perpetuation of a paradigm beyond the period which is appropriate for it.  The Ulama-Sufi paradigm (late medieval) was as appropriate for medieval Islam as the Roman Catholic paradigm was for medieval Christianity.  But to have persisted in this paradigm beyond the Middle Ages, in completely changed circumstances, led to a time lag and thus to a spiritual lack of productivity.    p.393  (my parenthetical remarks and italics)

And Kung sees the excessively long-lived (past its usefulness) paradigm of the Late Medieval Islam as the triumph of traditionalism over rational theology and humanism.  The Turkic and Mongol invasions destroyed the power of the Caliph, splintering the imperial ummah into regional powers, thus leading to the rise of the clerical class (ulema) and Sufis.  Colonialism came along and undercut the already out-moded traditional paradigm, which made things intolerably worse.  But the loss of free, critical inquiry is a major blow.

But Kung is cautiously hopeful for the future.  He lists a great number of practitioners and theorists of an Islamic modernism (even postmodernity, Paradigm VI in his system)–in response to the ubiquitous Western (and often ignorant) charge about “where are all the moderate Muslims?”

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Published in: on December 24, 2007 at 3:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

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