Thursday, September 14, 2006

Progressive "Whig History" and Islam Today

"Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
-Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, Quoted by Pope Benedict XVI

Brief reaction:

The emperor here presents a kind of traditionalism, holding that the best age is behind us: the Truth has already been revealed, the best has already been done and said. "The Tradition is always smarter than you." At our best, we can but imitate the past. Generally speaking, novelties are to be shunned as corruptions.

Perhaps this view has some features in common with Islam, yet at present it is its contrary, progressivism, which sparks these comments.

In modern times "Progress" in its crude secularized form is taken to mean that what comes later is a higher manifestation of previous events. The best is in the future, the worst is in the past. The old is corrupt, the novel worthy of success.

This view is, I hope, too incoherent to be held by people worthy of rational response, but doubtless it has considerable influence on the popular understanding of history. These are the same people who think Martin Luther was an agent of progress, either ignoring or dismissing the monk's reaction against that other supposed marker of progress, the Renaissance.

It is important to consider that, from the perspective of an uncritical progressive--say, a Whig historian's bastard brainchild--Islam is a superior manifestation of religion simply by dint of appearing later in time than Christianity.

Ever-enamored of his dictionary, a progressive sophist might deduce from the pejorative "byzantine" completely superficial ideas about the Empire's quality. He might even claim its subjection to Islam as proof of the latter's superiority, exuding gushing imagery straight out of the Romantic era's infatuation with Turkey and the Arabesque. I could easily imagine such an enraptured devotee make the maddening claim that Mohammed was the Luther of Eastern Christianity. It would not startle me were I to discover that Voltaire or Gibbon or their like have actually ventured such an odd analogy.

Progressivism and primitivism are recurring themes in Western modernity. In much analysis of Leftist interaction and cooperation with Islam one finds an emphasis on primitivism. These brief speculations suggest a paradox: progress is in fact the ally of the primitive.

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