I happened upon this interview with noted Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr today on Smiley And West
A bit of background for the uninitiated: Smiley is an African American journalist/commentator and West an academic from Princeton. The show is a series of interviews and commentaries of special interest to African Americans and has a predictably leftward lean. Both Smiley And West make a certain effort to be fair in their analyses, but far more importantly, they do not hide their pre-disposition or behave as if they are laying down the absolute truth. Though West in particular often comes across as a holdover from a 60’s consciousness-raising circle (‘The Plutocrat Masters my brothers and sisters!’, much of what they say has a deep ring of truth…especially with regard to the increasing levels of poverty and income inequality.
Today’s guest, Mr. Nasr, was typical. He gave a harsh critique of America’s attitude towards many Islamic countries such as Iran and Pakistan (would we allow any other nation to fly drones over our airspace?) Such talk is hard to swallow. We know there is some truth to these charges of hypocrisy, but we also feel that we’re justified because, frankly, we’re better than they are. I understand that feeling. I have to work to get past it and truly feel like ‘they’ have the same rights to nukes as us. They haven’t earned it. He also discussed differences between Islam and Christianity; their shared roots and all.
All this stuff were things I’ve heard many times: Their view of the Christian West as hypocrites. Their anger at being judged as all cut from a single bolt of cloth. But then at the very end of the interview he said something about the Islamic view that was truly new to me. He said, that one thing that was very, very hard for Muslims to understand about Christianity; the one area where Muslims felt Jesus had fallen short compared with the teachings of Muhammad was this: a lack of proper balance between love and justice. In his view (and by proxy that of all Muslims), Jesus places almost no emphasis on justice and this was a major failure of the teachings. I found this very intriguing.
I’ve written here before that my grandmother was Jewish. And it was never lost on me that the Old Testament (and thus Judaism) was highly focused on Justice. I’ve always felt that the New Testament was a necessary reaction to this. I always thought Jesus focused so strongly on love and compassion was because the constant struggle for earthly justice created an endless cycle of frustration and suffering. To me, Jesus’ message was telling mankind that the time had come to go to the next level. The Jews of his time were so materially powerless that uprising was pointless. God felt people had evolved up from the Abrahamic time of tribalism to where they were ready for the next step morally. In fact, if Israel was still in a periodic of ‘success’, with kings and so on, they would have been unable to accept a message of compassion. Certainly David was not the kind of guy to turn the other cheek. Their fall made them able to hear the message of Christ, whereas in centuries past they had been able to ignore their Prophets.
It never occurred to me before that to outsiders, Jesus’ message might appear as an over-reaction. I’m so used to non-Christians (and especially Christians) twisting the words to fit their own agenda—to reject the message, or to justify decidedly un-Christian messages. But here was a guy saying, ‘We Muslims get it. It just doesn’t make sense to turn the other cheek.’
Without saying so directly, Nasr made a clear case for Islam that, I think, resonates far more within many (if not most) human hearts than that of Jesus. In other words, I think frankly, Islam makes far more practical sense than Christianity. And I think many Christians, though they would never even allow themselves to think so, are actually more sympathetic to the Islamic balance of justice and love than Christ intended. Honestly, I think Christ’s real message is just too hard. It’s like dieting: we all know what to do, but so many of us are still so very overweight.
My takeaway from the interview was not so much Nasr’s message that Jesus focuses too little on justice. Rather what I’m left with is a real sense of shame, and an even greater appreciation of the broad band hypocrisy in the Christian world. Forget nukes or terrorists or whatever other political differences persist between the West and the Islamic world view. To their (rational) eyes, we have no right to complain of the failings of their outliers (terrorists, despots) when it is quite arguable that they have far more sincere believers (defined as those who sincerely follow the tenets of their faith) as do we. How few Christans really follow the tenets of unconditional love, forgiveness, compassion and faith. How many of us in actuality, live our lives far more in line with the Koran’s ideals of human behaviour than those of Jesus?
It must be galling for Muslims to constantly feel so judged, while noting how far away most of us are from the very ideals we espouse. How war-like and vengeful we so often are? And all the while claiming to follow ‘The Prince Of Peace.’ As Matthew 7:3 tells us: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”