Essentialism and nominalism as applied to Islam

There’s a tendency today to criticize “essentialism,” the idea that something like Islam has an enduring character such that (for example) you aren’t going to see a moderate liberal Islam become the predominant form of the religion.

I’m inclined toward a moderate essentialism. It seems to me that at bottom the opposing nominalist view is the view that social managers can turn people and their beliefs into anything they want, so I don’t like nominalism (in addition to believing that it’s in fact false).

One way to put the issue is to ask whether (1) one way of being slides indiscernibly into another, so that “Islam” is just a name that can acquire any content at all though successive changes, or (2) there are particular forms of life that work in particular ways that give them a great deal of self-restoring stability, and one of them is Islam.

To say there’s an essential Islam, Christianity, Judaism or whatever is to say that there’s a system of beliefs and practices that works for a lot of different people in a lot of different settings and stops working nearly so well if you change or downplay basic concepts too much. That doesn’t mean that the system won’t go dead for a while, or won’t change at all in secondary ways (and those can be important as a practical matter), or people won’t give it up and turn to something else, as in the case of Christianity in the EU. What it means is that the system has nine lives. Its basic principles keep coming back with a lot more force than someone might expect who thinks of religion as a arbitrary and contingent concatenation of influences that’s been given form by random circumstance and can be rejiggered ad infinitum for any new circumstances and purposes that come along.

On such a view it makes sense to treat Islam, Christianity, liberalism, the West, China and what not else somewhat as characters acting in history that are likely to stay in character. It can be difficult to say just how far you should treat something like Islam as a particular thing, but since it’s been able to maintain character in a lot of different times, places and circumstances it must be thinglike to some substantial degree. A more particular claim as to Islam relevant to current events, of course, is that forcible expansion is integral to the basic system, so jihad can be inert and ignored for a while but it keeps coming back, especially when there are upheavals that force people to think about what they really should be doing.

The basic point: lip service and changes in emphasis are real, but a religion like Islam that has demonstrated enduring appeal and staying power is also real. That means that whatever ways of acting and looking at things are basic to it will keep coming back even though most Muslims most of the time are pretty slack about the whole thing. The bottom line on the particular issue is that as long as there’s Islam jihad isn’t likely to disappear or become reliably unimportant through universal slackness and reinterpretation. It’s a real problem and it’s likely to stay with us.

3 thoughts on “Essentialism and nominalism as applied to Islam”

  1. I’d guess that its sacred
    I’d guess that its sacred text and recorded/well-established traditions of what its founder said and did, are what make it thinglike ??

    • Those particulars aren’t enough
      They help, but what’s more basic is that Islam works as a system—the different parts support each other and provide a setting that enables individuals, groups and whole societies to interpret experience and lead their lives in a way they find generally rewarding. (If that weren’t so it wouldn’t have lasted 1400 years. There aren’t that many comprehensive systems that will work for hundreds of millions of people for century after century.)

      • Islamic Resistance to Christian Evangelism
        As Paul Johnson observes, where Islam is firmly and fully established, as in parts of western Asia, northern India and Malaya, the Christian missionaries haven’t made much progress – even when they’ve disposed of overwhelming economic and military power.

        I don’t know whether this failure to supplant Islam can be attributed to its “essentialism” or whether it’s a case of resistance from a mature, sophisticated and imperial cult.


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