Sunday, 30 December 2012

In Redemption of Saint Augustine and the Muslim Brotherhood

Throughout time the ideology of power has infected the original

ethos of Muslim and Christian communities in a variety of ways.

But if one looks closely, we can see grains of truth scattered

throughout the different adaptations and formulations of Muslim

and Christian theology...

 Sayyid Qutb, one of the intellectual founders of the Muslim

brotherhood correctly critiques the West’s consumerist materialism,

while at the same time creating his own idolatry of violence in

pursuit of a pure Islam.

While Qutb is often quick to critique the political structures in the

world, theologian Nevin Reda wants to argue that we are to

be wary of both the political and the religious structures. Reda

argues that the Quranic word arbab is often used in scripture to critique 

 false ideologies and has its closest meaning to ‘rabbis’ or religious 

teachers. She suggests that Qutb’s interpretation of arbab as 

political systems, such as democracies or dictatorships is also being 

faithful to the text. It is faithful, however, not in that it is in 

competition to the original etymology, but in that it can be used as 

word encompassing all false ideologies. Qutb wants to emphasize 

his interpretation of these verses so that people will focus on being 

critical of the political structures, while opening the door for the 

“religious authoritative elite.” Instead Reda emphasizes Sura 16:116 

which states: “Do not say about what your tongues falsely describe: 

This is allowed and this is prohibited, so as to ascribe false things to 

God.” For Reda this is a warning against forcing any ideology as 

divinely inspired onto others, whether that be from political or 

religious authority.

William Cavanaugh argues through the theology of Saint

Augustine that the fundamental flaw within our Western

consumerist thought is that we have idolized our own individual

will over God’s authority, and are thus trapped in our own desires.

The “key to true freedom is not just following whatever desires we

happen to have, but cultivating the right desires. This means that

the internal movement of the will is not a sufficient condition for

freedom; we must consider the end toward which the will is

[1]What is needed then is a reintegration of our own

physical reality with the spiritual reality of God. It is in a sense

bringing back together the secular and the sacred, that Qutb so

desires. The historical caution though is that just as Qutb moved

from being a true ambassador of God to a violent tyrant, so too did


One of Augustine’s central rivals was a Christian sect called the

Donatists who were economically persecuted by Rome long before

Rome had become Christian under Constantine. With the

conversion of Constantine a good Roman could now be a good

Christian. What the Donatists had always hated about the Roman

Empire was now being used against them in the form of their own

religion. It is not surprising, then, that the Donatists would reject

Augustine’s theological authority no matter how theologically

“correct” he might have been. Augustine in partial response to the

Donatists further develops the doctrines of the church, the “validity

of the sacraments, and the Just War Theory” as a means to further

persecute the Donatists.

The question that we are left with is how to distinguish human will

from God’s will, and whether we can in some relative sense bring

them together without creating another false ideology. For Reda,

the Quranic dictate that “there is no compulsion in religion” is a

central presupposition within the framework of God’s ultimate goal

for peace, healing, and creational wholeness.
[3]Sharia law when

implemented faithfully could be used to bring this ultimate goal

into reality, but must only be used in a “non-binding scenario” in

which “persons wishing to exercise their freedom of choice have

the opportunity to do so.”

The reality of course is that this type of freely determined

jurisprudence would never work within our larger centralized

systems. Our systems carry with them too much corruption and

competing wills for this to ever work effectively or efficiently.

However, it was this ethos of individual consensus within the

context of community that helped shape the early Christian and

Medinan communities.

When Muhammad and his followers travel to Medina they establish

a community of people committed to compassion for the weak of

society, and integrate social habits that formed new economic

structures of redistributed wealth and property.This move from

Mecca to Medina not only resonates with Jesus declaration in

Matthew 13:57 that “only in one's hometown and in his own house

is a prophet without honor" but also with the Old Testament call of

Jubilee and that of the early Christian community to “give to

anyone who has need.”

What I want to suggest, then, is that we work toward building unity

through locality. The great scandal of both the Christian and

Muslim story is that God entered into the creational world in a

particular historical time and context. In Christianity, it was the

incarnation of Christ in 1st century Palestine. In Islam, God reveals

himself through Quranic revelation in 7th century Arabia. It was

the intentional locality of these revelations which brought about

their respective universalistic influences. Cavanaugh describes this

as a “great work of art”which is “simultaneously universal in its

appeal” while being “unique and inexplicable” in its localized


Wendel Berry shows us the importance of locality in connection to

relationship, and how the demands of the nationstate deteriorate our

local relationships. For Berry we no longer trust “public servants

because we know that they don’t respect us. They don’t respect us,

as we understand, because they don’t know us; they don’t know our

stories.” This breeds an inherent lack of trust in which the public

servant “expects us to sue them if they make mistakes” and so we

allow the insurance companies to get richer “at great expense to

them and us.” In rural contexts, community doctors will “send their

patients to specialists in the city, not necessarily because they

believe that they are wrong in the diagnoses, but because they

know that they are not infallible and they must protect themselves

against lawsuits, at great expense to us.”[6]

In Toronto, I have seen both Muslim and Christian communities

move forward in this local relation-based mindset for the benefit of

both the marginalized and affluent in society. Sanctuary ministries

for example works under the understanding that drug rehab,

housing, or employment programs have little effect if people are

not able to enter into a meaningful and healthy community where

they will have a sense of belonging. While Sanctuary does offer

food, clothing, and basic health care, its relational quality is in the

equal valuing of both the middle class and marginalized in their

community. For Sanctuary: "If you're willing to share your life with

us, we'll share ours with you. We'll encourage you when you mess

up, help you find direction when you're not sure which way to go,

hold you when you're hurting, and help you discover, strengthen

and focus your gifts and abilities. We're here for the long haul."[7]

In the Islamic tradition, the Toronto based el-Tawhid Juma Circle

Mosque brings local refuge to Muslims and people of all faiths who

have been marginalized due to their sexual orientation, gender

identity or expression, age, race, class, dis/ability, HIV status, or

language. While the Mosque is open to all faiths, they keep their

particularity in Islam where they practice the universal prayer of

Islam on Friday, along with maintaining the liturgical structure of

the Muslim sermon. A non-Muslim is welcome to preach at the

Juma Circle, but they encourage the sermon to be grounded in the

Quran even as it may incorporate elements of other faith traditions.

It is here where I have best seen people embrace the particularity of

their tradition, while accepting the universal implications of that 

particularity. As a place of refuge, its greatest impact from my

perspective has been in its welcoming of immigrants of diverse

sexualities who would face potential persecution, or even murder in

their home countries.

It is in these local examples where we see the ethos of the early

Christian and Muslim communities brought to bear on our current

society. It is in these communities’ willingness to speak truth to the

secular powers of isolated individualism along with the absolutism

of their own traditions, where the heart of Islam and Christianity is

once again validated. And it is in these localized relationship-based

communities that they remind themselves that they need never

become the powers they have chosen to oppose.

[1] (Cavanaugh 2008) 11-12
[2] (Gonzalez 2010) 176-179
[3] (Reda 2012) 237
[4] (Reda 2012) 238
[5] (Cavanaugh 2008) 77
[6] (Berry 2010) 144
[7] (Anonymous2012b)
[8] (Anonymous2012a)

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