Two men met in long-ago Arabia: one a nomad, and the other a wayfarer. The nomad asked the other who he was, and the man answered that God had sent him. The nomad then asked, "What did he send you with?" His interlocutor responded, "The bonds of the womb, the protection of life, the safeguarding of paths, and the breaking of false divinities."
Nearly fifteen hundred years have passed since that legendary exchange, and we must face some grim truths. The ties that bind people to one another have increasingly less significance, blood is unjustly spilled across the land, the roads are more dangerous than ever, and a worrying number of people remain enslaved to violent and abominable ideologies they treat as virtues of the highest order.
This is by no means a condition unique to our age. A thousand years before this day, the theologian al-Ghazali eloquently lamented the descent of ignorance over the world. He spoke with a stark courage that is unknown in many of the apologias of our day, penning his fears that any guidance religion had to offer had been extinguished and that those making claim to the "prophet's inheritance" were nothing but pretenders incapable of even distinguishing good and evil.
As we mourn for Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad (where al-Ghazali himself spent so many days), it is that same moral courage that we must summon -- not for the purposes of interring religion in its grave, but for giving life to its potential for the highest good. This must be the answer to the bestial manifestations of fanaticism plaguing us. There is a degree to which we must become discontent with defensiveness.
It does not suffice to claim that Islam is different than ISIS, or the equally ridiculous contention that it is somehow an intrinsically peaceful worldview. If there is to be a religious response to what we face, then it must be on the grounds of strongly articulated principle and ethic.
Those are the grounds across which centuries of Muslim thinkers have already traveled, and we must be careful to be aware of that genealogy. It will not do to ignore the intellectual heritage of Islam, or to replace it with external ideologies grafted from alien sources. One of my teachers instilled in me the belief that a religious worldview bereft of true philosophical inquiry is damned to become a thing of corruption and bloodshed. I echo this sentiment now.
I can do no justice to that tradition here and now, and will not try. What I can say is that outlining a framework of duties that must be performed is not enough. The Koran itself spends less time than one might think on crime and punishment in its specifics, though often enough, it addresses its readers in such a fashion. But it complements its legalism with something else -- the necessity of carefully cultivating the disposition needed to execute moral action. Actions, goes a prophetic saying, are judged only by their intentions.
There is no single set of behaviors or actions or legal codes or theological statements which define Islam. If anything can be said to do such a momentous thing, it is the moral character of the religion -- a character which has ever concerned itself with the treatment of the weak of the earth and the intolerance of oppression.
Now, as the name of Islam is dragged through the filth by criminals worshipping nothing but their own lusts, we must look back at that meeting between the nomad and the wayfarer. The wayfarer's simple words were carefully chosen, designed to speak to the most basic elements of a person, for the nomad was no theologian or master logician (neither, for that matter, was the wayfarer). The wayfarer was named the Prophet Muhammad, and if there is some character to Islam that we must begin from, perhaps it lies in his response to the nomad.