In the book of Exodus, Moses confronts Pharaoh, giving a sign of God’s power by turning his staff into a serpent. Pharaoh is nonplussed, and he gathers his magicians to prepare a counter assault. They turn their staffs into serpents as well, but the serpent that comes from the rod of Moses swallows them all (Exod. 7:8–13).
In the Qu’ran, the encounter unfolds in the same way (Sura 7:103–127, with a much shorter version in Sura 79:15–25). What is fascinating however, is the ending. In Exodus, all attention falls on Pharaoh. His heart is hardened. In the Qu’ran, the Egyptian magicians become the focus of the story. They have an epiphany of sorts. In spite of the threats of Pharaoh, who bitterly resents their turn toward the God of Moses and threatens them with punishment, the magicians recognize Moses as a true prophet. They repent of their old ways, bowing down and confessing belief in God, the source of all reality: “We believe now in the Lord of the Worlds; the Lord of Moses and Aaron” (Sura 7:121–122).
In the Spring 2008 of the Islamic journal Seasons, Ibrahim N. Abusharif offers an engaging exegisis of the Qu’ranic text that powerfully demonstrates the ability of the Islamic tradition to make vital contributions to contemporary American culture.
On Abusharif’s reading, the defeat of Pharoh’s magicians illustrates the triumphant power of truth. The magicians are in the pay of Pharaoh, and doubtless they fear his ruthless power. Nonetheless, they are won over, and they commit themselves to the truth. Indeed, the power of their conviction steels them against Pharaoh’s threats. The deeper theological message is clear. There is something in the human heart that can recognize and respond to true signs, true prophecies, true teachings. We are made for truth, so much so that the fear of death itself cannot conquer truth and its power to command our loyalty.
Abusharif’s theological explanation of the magicians’ surprising change of heart reflects a mainstream Islamic interpretation of the human condition. Drawing on various passages in the Qu’ran, Islamic theology teaches that Adam was the first prophet. God does not just create. He also reveals himself. Therefore, the truth about God is woven into the fabric of human history, always percolating under the surface, always informing our minds, even in our worst moments of delusion and unbelief. Just as Augustine marveled at the Creator’s ineffable intimacy with the creature (God is “nearer than I am to myself” Confessions 3.6.11), so the Qu’ran proclaims that God is closer to man “ than his jugular vein” (Sura 50:16).
This theological claim about an original Adamic revelation is the key to Islamic humanism. Like Christianity, Islam recognizes a preexisting aptitude for faith. Indeed, by my reading, Islam is even more optimistic than Christianity. In Adam, all human beings receive the prophecy repeated and sealed by Mohammed. Therefore, the message of Mohammed engages and fulfills a universal human memory of revelation.
The Islamic theology of primal revelation calls to mind to Karl Rahner’s controversial notion of a supernatural existential—that is, the notion that there is a universal human orientation (but not, strictly speaking, an essential or natural one, making it a work of God’s supernatural grace) toward the God of Christian revelation. Similarly, Muslim theologians teach that we are all, in Adam, infected with the divine, so to speak. The upshot is an Islamic confidence that prophecy finds a receptive heart: Like seeks like. This gives Islamic humanism, like Christian humanism, an aggressive edge and a tendency toward triumphalism. To echo Rahner, everyone who has not heard the Prophet’s message is an “anonymous Muslim.”
Our age is unsympathetic to both the Christian and Muslim views, however different they may be, and however nuanced within their own traditions. Our secular culture does not like to be told that it is part of a much larger divine story. Nor do the critical intellectuals of our day wish to hear that the inner dynamism of their work is oriented toward fulfillment in Mohammed’s prophecy (or Christ’s death and resurrection).
Enlightenment rationalism was happy to confront religious claims directly, refuting them and substituting a grand narrative of reason and progress as the true context for understanding our lives. Postmodernity takes a different approach. Abusharif turns to one of Richard John Neuhaus’ long time friends, the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, to explain the contemporary strategy. “Jenson,” Abrusharif writes, “correctly laments postmodern pressures that try to dismiss the notion of an unbroken sacred narrative that permeates the entirety of time.” There is no singular, unifying truth, we are told.
In a passage that could have come from Pascendi Dominici Gregis (the 1907 papal encyclical condemning modernism), Abusharif puts his finger on the way in which prevailing intellectual strategies of critique tend to undermine our confidence that our lives have a transcendent reference. “Postmodern insistence that truth is closely attached to historical currents and, therefore, should be deconstructed and reinvented as the ‘times’ and history change,” he writes, “seriously threatens modern man’s receptivity to divine signs and, yes, epiphanies. At best we are left with indifference or the nebulous sensations of religion or some ‘spirituality’ disconnected from the original spring.”
That sounds right to me. Countless progressive Christian thinkers have wanted to chuck dogma. Remember Rudolf Bultmann and his claims that modern man can no longer believe old-fashioned claims about the resurrection? The legacy lives on. Contemporary revisionists continue to presume to free the kernel of gospel truth from the husk of traditional dogma. The results are been pretty much as Abusharif suggests: indifference and nebulous sensations.
Abusharif’s reflections on Moses’ confrontation with Pharoah’s magicians offers no programmatic alternative to the postmodern habits of critical dissection and the presumption of historical relativism. Nonetheless, a sentiment emerges, one that affirms the integration of piety into the intellectual life. The sacred narrative calls for reverence. Faith seeks understanding; understanding cannot find its way to faith.
Once again, I find myself agreeing. We cannot hold ourselves aloof. We cannot grow to see something we refuse to search for. Even worse, the cynical soul that insists on looking for hidden motives, expressions of power, or histories of oppression cultivates a dangerous blindness. The histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam offer many episodes filled with all too human failures. There is plenty of material with which to feed our postmodern suspicions, tempting us to forego the nourishing possibilities of the transcendent and lasting truths that are woven into the fabric of the sacred past.
Undoubtedly, countless points of theological disagreement separate Muslims from Christians, just as a great deal separates Christians from Jews. The last thing I want is easy bonhomie, which is just another form of modern (and postmodern) indifference. The sharp edges and searching demands of revealed truth necessarily drive us apart. Christianity and Islam (and perhaps Judaism, but in a very different way) proclaim a universal truth that is magnetic. Each seeks to gather humanity around a single point rather than bless diversity and difference with the magic wand of postmodern rhetoric. Disagreements about this single point rightly engage our religious commitments and passions. Differences that matter invariably matter.
Yet our age presents a unique challenge that has the power to draw Jews, Christians, and Muslims together. For the first time in human history, there is a party that is not fighting over which truth to believe. Instead, Western culture now features a powerful and articulate elite that argues against something so compelling, so comprehensive, and so existentially powerful as religious truth. “Fundamentalism” is this elite’s “F” word. It is a label widely used to smear any who approach sacred history with reverence, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim.
First Things was founded to combat the elite Western presumption that religious faith is somehow a threat to intellectual sophistication, critical intelligence, and the survival of a democratic, pluralistic society. Anyone picking up Seasons will recognize that Muslims in America struggle against exactly the same anti-religious presumption. The articles follow along lines familiar to First Things readers—a vigorous affirmation of the life-giving power of divine truth in concert with a nuanced engagement with Western culture.
The familiar feel of the arguments should not be surprising. The dictatorship of relativism is no respecter of persons. It seeks to submerge faith of all sorts in a sea of indifference. When compared with Richard Rorty there can be little doubt: Jews, Christians, and Muslims are on the same side.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is an professor of theology at Creighton University.