Every religion makes exclusivist claims and every religion, over time, does two seemingly in-tension actions: Holds to its core beliefs and yet adapts and adjusts.
For instance, in the First Century, Judaism was in a dynamic period in which there could be said to be several Judaisms, including the Sadducees , the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots and others. Today Judaism finds itself in a differently dynamic period, only now the sub-group names include (but are not limited to) Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist. And yet for each group some core matters remain constant and in harmony with First Century beliefs.
Christianity, too, has held to its core doctrines over time but has split into thousands of pieces, including in the Great Schism of 1054 and in the Protestant Reformation, which began 500 years ago this October.
Islam, in this sense, is no different.
It began as a unity but today is a diverse faith, divided among the Sunnis, Shias and Sufis, along with other internal divisions. And although its primary sacred text, the Qur'an, has remained the same (at least in Arabic), it has required interpretation, while its secondary sacred texts, called the Hadith (collections of sayings by and about the Prophet Muhammad), has undergone considerable argument about what is reliable and what even the most authentic of the Hadith might mean.
A newly uncovered ancient manuscript, described in this Atlantic piece by the man who found it, sheds light on this whole process and reminds everyone of the sometimes-fluid nature not just of Islam but of all religions.
Joel Blecher, an assistant professor of history at George Washington University, writes this: "In the manuscript library at the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, I recently discovered a manuscript that shows that Islam is always under revision — and that this revision occurred even within a single Islamic book, as its author considered and reconsidered his interpretations over decades of writing."
This writing, he asserts, "offers an important reminder: Islam can’t be reduced to a single sacred book, frozen in time. It’s a dynamic and complex tradition that was continually revised and re-revised over many lifetimes, and even within a single lifetime. You might even say that the history of Islam is a history in which Muslims are always reconsidering how the many layers of their textual inheritance square with their present social and political circumstances."
This is a lesson that the most rigid of Islam's theologians need to remember and one that those who distort these texts (I'm looking at you, ISIS, al-Qaida and others) need to learn.
It's not that there is no eternal truth. It's that each generation must understand such truth in its own context so that some earlier interpretation doesn't become an idol.
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CIRCLING THE THEOLOGICAL WAGONS
A study in Europe finds that atheists are more close-minded than people of faith. That's understandable. The last thing some atheists want is to have a lapse of disbelief.
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THE BOOK CORNER
ABCs of the Christian Life: The Ultimate Anthology of the Prince of Paradox, by G.K. Chesterton. Christian Classics, an imprint of Ave Maria Press, has put together this engaging collection of writings from 20th Century Christian writer Chesterton, a prolific man who began life in the Church of England but converted to Catholicism. From time to time Chesterton may have been wrong about what he wrote, but he was never in doubt. Here's a small sample from the book, which runs from A to Z, literally "Asceticism" to "Zion": "Protestants are Catholics gone wrong; that is what is really meant by saying they are Christians. Sometimes they have gone very wrong; but not often have they gone right ahead with their own particular wrong. Thus a Calvinist is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of the sovereignty of God. But when he makes it mean that God wishes particular people to be damned, we may say with all restraint that he has become a rather morbid Catholic. In point of fact he is a diseased Catholic; and the disease left to itself would be death or madness. But, as a matter of fact, the disease did not last long, and is itself now practically dead. But every step he takes back toward humanity is a step back towards Catholicism." Well, Chesterton is not just an intellectual hoot from most of 100 years ago, he is a voice worth hearing and pondering (and sometimes arguing against) today. And this little book is a wonderful place to begin the debate.