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Franz Rosenzweig is widely regarded as one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the past century. Best known for The Star of Redemption , published eight years before his death in 1929 at the age of forty-three, he began a new kind of dialogue between Judaism and Christianity when he argued that the two faiths complement each other: Christianity to propagate revelation to the world, and Judaism to “convert the inner pagan” inside each Christian.

Less often mentioned, however, is Rosenzweig’s analysis of Islam, a religion he regarded as a throwback to paganism. Indeed, Rosenzweig predicted a prolonged conflict of civilizations between Islam and the West. “The coming millennium will go down in world history as a struggle between Orient and Occident, between the church and Islam, between the Germanic peoples and the Arabs,” he forecast in 1920”in part because Islam is “a parody of revealed religion,” while Allah is an apotheosized despot, “the colorfully contending gods of the pagan pantheon rolled up into one.”

Rather than three Abrahamic religions, Rosenzweig saw only two religions arising from the self-­revelation of divine love, with Islam as a crypto-pagan pretender. He was no Islamophobe, observing that Islam during certain eras evinced greater tolerance and humaneness than Christian Europe. But he was emphatic that truly foundational differences distinguish Judeo-Christian religion from Islam.

Contemporary academic thinkers almost universally eschew Rosenzweig’s view of Islam. But it makes no sense to affirm Rosenzweig’s depiction of the unique bond between Jews and Christians”their response to God’s self-revelation through love”while ignoring what makes this bond so different from other human responses to the transcendent. In Rosenzweig’s theology, the soul’s awareness of God begins with his love, and from this arise both faith and authentic human individuality. The existential condition of being loved is what uniquely characterizes Christian and Jew, as opposed to the pagan, for whom God must remain hidden.

At first glance, Rosenzweig’s characterization of Islam as pagan appears strange, for we habitually classify religions according to their outward forms and identify paganism with manifestations of polytheism or nature worship. Insisting on the uniqueness of Allah and suppressing outward expressions of idolatry, Islam appears the opposite of a pagan religion. Rosenzweig, however, requires us to see faith from the existential standpoint of the believer, who in revealed religion knows God through God’s love. For Rosenzweig, paganism constitutes a form of alienation from the revealed God of Love; Allah, the absolutely transcendent God who offers mercy but not unconditional love, is therefore a pagan deity.

All humankind acknowledges the divine, Rosenzweig insists in The Star of Redemption , because humans are mortal. From the fear of death arises the perception of the transcendent; and, in the pursuit of eternal life, one proceeds to life, as he avers in the book’s final words. The path to human life, however, requires a life outside time”that is, in the Kingdom of Heaven. Man cannot abide his mortal existence and the terror of death without the prospect of eternal life. Rosenzweig’s existential theology looks through the patina of received doctrine to the spiritual life of the congregation and its attempt to create for itself a life beyond the grave. How different faiths”different modes of living”address the fear of death creates a unique vantage point from which to understand how profoundly Christianity, Judaism, and Islam differ from one another.

Rosenzweig’s existential theology is embedded in what he calls a sociology of religion . He considers not only the individual’s response to the fear of death but also, and more important, the response of entire peoples to the threat of extinction. It is not only our own death that we fear”under some circumstances we may not fear it at all”but rather the death of our race, our culture, our language, and with them the death of the possibility that some trace of our presence on earth will persist through our successors.

Perhaps Rosenzweig’s most influential claim holds that the Jew “converts the inner pagan” inside the Christian, such that the living presence of the Jewish people creates a counterweight to the Gnostic impulses in Christianity. “Before God stand both of us,” he wrote, “Jew and Christians, laborers at the same task”:
It is only the Old Testament that enables Christianity to defend itself against [Gnosticism], its inherent danger. And it is the Old Testament alone, because it is more than just a book. The arts of allegorical interpretation would have made short work of a mere book. If, like Christ, the Jews had disappeared from the world, they would denote only the Idea of a People, and Zion the Idea of the midpoint of the world, just as Christ denotes only the Idea of Man. But the sturdy and undeniable vitality of the Jewish people”to which anti-Semitism itself attests”opposes itself to such “idealization.” That Christ is more than idea”no Christian can know this. But that Israel is more than an idea, the Christian knows, because he sees it . . . . Our presence stands surety for their truth. [ All translations from Rosenzweig are my own. ]
In the post-Holocaust world, after neopaganism nearly conquered Europe, Rosenzweig’s contention that Christianity requires the presence of the Jews found great resonance. Yet his formulation stems from a theological sociology with broader application. Pagans, Rosenzweig explained, have only the fragile and ultimately futile effort to preserve their physical continuity through blood and soil. Their hope for immortality takes the form of a perpetual fight for physical existence, which one day they must lose. Rosenzweig’s sociology of religion thus offers unique insights into the origin and nature of civilizational conflict when he argues that a pagan people, ever sentient of the fragility of their existence, are always prepared to fight to the death.

It is hard to dismiss Rosenzweig’s view of Islam as an expression of Jewish prejudice, for he also rejected Zionism and celebrated the virtues of a Judaism removed from the temporal constraints of nationhood. He formed his view of Islam during the First World War as a German soldier (and an ally of Muslim Turkey), long before Arab-Jewish conflict was a concern to most Jews. Indeed, Jews of Rosenzweig’s generation tended to view Islam as more hospitable to Judaism than Christianity.

Like Martin Buber, with whom he translated the Hebrew Scriptures into German, Rosenzweig remains a rallying point for non-Zionist Jewish universalism, attracting the sorts of admirers who most desire reconciliation between the State of Israel and its Muslim adversaries. By the same token, the embrace of Zionism by all mainstream Jewish currents after 1948 makes Rosenzweig something of an anomaly to Jewish thought today.

Still, it is misguided to dismiss Rosenzweig’s analysis of Islam as a matter of secondary interest, for he stated plainly that his critique of Islam was quite as important to his thought as his presentation of Judaism. In his essay “The New Thinking,” he wrote that the Star of Redemption “is not a ‘Jewish book’ at all . . . . It does deal with Judaism, but not any more exhaustively than with Christianity and barely more exhaustively than Islam.” Nonetheless, the Rosenzweig scholars who bother to address the issue tend to dismiss his discussion of Islam as “troublesome” or as “an embarrassing prejudice.”

Only one extant monograph addresses Rosenzweig’s analysis of Islam in depth”a German-­language collection of his writings with introductory essays by Gesine Palmer and Yossef Schwartz, in which Schwartz claims that Rosenzweig wasn’t really writing about Islam at all but rather about a Hegelian construct that Rosenzweig confounded with Islam. That seems an odd assertion, considering that Rosenzweig formed his view of Islam in part through direct contact with Muslims in Macedonia during the war, and he wrote about his experience in a letter reproduced in Palmer and Schwartz’s own volume.

None of these scholars address the definitive aspect of Rosenzweig’s analysis, what he called the “sociological basis” of religion. Although most of Rosenzweig’s comments about Islam are found in book two of The Star of Redemption , it is book three, his portrayal of the encounter of the peoples with mortality, that establishes the context”for it is there that he explains the “pagan world of fate and chance,” which applies to paganism’s manifestation in Islam. Although Palmer and Schwartz have collected every passage that mentions the word Islam in Rosenzweig’s work, they exclude his striking portrayal of pagan society. In short, they excise the context in which to understand his assertion that Islam is a mode of paganism.

Early in The Star of Redemption , Rosenzweig argues that pagan society cannot foster authentic human individuality but dissolves the individual into an extension of race or state. “For the isolated individual, his society is the society,” he writes.

In the thoroughly organized State, the State and the individual do not stand in the relation of a whole to a part. Instead, the state is the All, from which the power flows through the limbs of the individual. Everyone has his determined place, and, to the extent that he fulfills it, belongs to the All of the State . . . . The individual of antiquity does not lose himself in society in order to find himself, but rather in order to construct it; he himself disappears. The well-known difference between the ancient and all modern concepts of democracy rightly arise from this. It is clear from this why antiquity never developed the concept of representative democracy. Only a body can have organs; a building has only parts.

Written before the consolidation of communist power in Russia or the creation of the European fascist state, this passage was prescient, for it characterizes the modern neopagan state as well as the heathen societies of antiquity. It is also the starting point for Rosenzweig’s characterization of Islam as pagan and Allah as an apotheosized despot. He begins, in other words, with a general characterization of pagan society as a “thoroughly organized” society in the absence of God’s self-revelation through love, and then he considers Islam as a specific case of a paganism that parodies the outward form of revealed religion.

“In an authentic confession of faith,” he argues, “there always is this testimony, namely that one’s personal experience of love must be more than the experience of just one individual; that He whom the soul experiences in its love cannot be simply an illusion or a self-deception of the beloved soul, but that He actually lives.” And so God “achieves through the witness of the believing soul a tangible and visible reality beyond Hiddenness, beyond his Hiddenness, which he possessed in a different way in heathendom.”

By the same logic, Islam’s confession of faith cannot be a confession of faith at all: “Islam’s confession, ‘God is God,’ is no confession of faith, but a confession of non-faith [ ein Unglaubensbekenntnis ]. It confesses in this tautology not a revealed God, but a hidden one. Nicholas of Cusa says rightly that a heathen, indeed an atheist, could profess the same.”

Revelation, according to Rosenzweig, occurs through the soul’s awareness of God’s love, and human individuality arises from the soul’s response to being loved. In pagan society, where God remains unrevealed, the individual exists only as an organ of the collective of state or race. The pagan’s sense of immortality therefore depends solely on the perpetuation of his race, and his most sacred act is to sacrifice himself in war to postpone the inevitable day when his race will go down in defeat.

Rosenzweig’s spiritual characterization of pagan society is the starting point for his sociology of religion: an understanding of the response of whole peoples to mortality and transcendence. Uniquely among the peoples of the world, the Jews believe that a covenant with the Creator of Heaven and Earth makes them an eternal people. Not so the Gentiles, Rosenzweig writes:

Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.

He adds: “Because it trusts only in its self-created eternity and upon nothing else in the world, [the Jewish people] really believes in its eternity, while the peoples of the world in the final analysis reckon with their own death, just as does the individual, at some point, be it ever so remote.” And further: “War as it was known to the peoples of antiquity was in general only one of the natural expressions of life, and presented no fundamental complications. War meant that a people staked its life, for the sake of its life. A people that marched to war took upon itself the danger of its own death. That mattered little as long as the peoples regarded themselves as mortal.”

Islam, Rosenzweig continues, transforms the defense of the homeland into an offensive against the prospective enemies of the homeland, such that Europe had to defend itself against the “encroaching heathenism of the half-moon.” Military incursions, to be sure, are not the likeliest form of attack on traditional society in the twenty-first century; the infiltration of popular culture and the encroachment of the global marketplace pose an existential threat to some traditional societies as dire as conquering hordes. It is against such new threats to pagan culture that Islam spills the blood of its sons on the soil of their homelands today.

For Rosenzweig, holy war is the sine qua non of Islam, precisely because war is the most sacred act of pagan society in general. As he writes:

The concept of the Path of Allah is entirely different than God’s path. The paths of God are the disposition of divine decrees high above human events. But following the path of Allah means in the narrowest sense propagating Islam through holy war. In the obedient journey upon this path, taking upon one’s self the associated dangers, the observance of the laws prescribed for it, Muslim piety finds its way in the world. The path of Allah is not elevated above the path of humankind, as far as the heaven stretches above earth, but rather the path of Allah means immediately the path of his believers.

For this reason, God’s special love for the weak and defenseless that characterizes the God of Jews and Christians is inconceivable in Islam: “Unlike the God of faith, Allah cannot go before his own [people] and say to their face that he has chosen them above all others in all their sinfulness, and in order to make them accountable for their sins. That the failings of human beings arouse divine love more powerfully than their merits is an impossible, indeed an absurd thought to Islam”but it is the thought that stands at the heart of [Jewish and Christian] faith.”

Franz Rosenzweig was quite prepared to believe that Islam was more humane and tolerant than Christianity during some of its history. But that historical fact remains beside Rosenzweig’s point, for he sees Islam as the path of obedience: “The path of Allah requires the obedience of the will to a commandment that has been given once and for all time. By contrast, in [Judeo-Christian] brotherly love, the spore of human character erupts ever anew, incited by the ever-surprising outbreak of the act of love.”

Traditional peoples fight to the death, even in the knowledge that one day they must lose their existential fight for existence. The pagan’s personality is an extension of race and state, in Rosenzweig’s view; therefore, it dies with the death of his society. He risks nothing by sacrificing his life to preserve his society. Rosenzweig’s sociology helps us to make sense of contemporary conflicts. Rarely if ever in recorded history has suicide played the central role in military conflict that it does today in the Islamic world. The explanation for self-destructive behavior on a grand scale is that the spiritual death ensuing from the dissolution of traditional society bears with it greater fear than the fear of physical death.

The scholar Gil Anidjar complains that “Islam simply disappears from Rosenzweig’s argument” in book three of The Star of Redemption , the sociological section that portrays Jews and Christians in their striving for eternal life. In fact, the third book contains Rosenzweig’s definitive characterization of Islamic life. The Christian and Jewish liturgical years, he explains, recapitulate a journey to redemption. His chapter on Jewish life begins with the blessing recited multiple times during the reading of the Torah at the Sabbath service: “Blessed be He who planted eternal life among us.” That introduces Rosenzweig’s elaboration of the Jewish idea of eternity in the physical continuity of an ­eternal people. The Sabbath is the foundation of Jewish life, the day on which the Jew eschews earthly endeavor and enjoys as it were a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven: “In the circle of weekly sections, which ­annually run through the entire Torah, the spiritual year is traversed, and the steps of this course are the Sabbaths.”

Judaism for Rosenzweig is a self-sustaining eternal fire, nourished by the physical continuity of the Jewish people. Christianity is a perpetual journey toward salvation, directing these rays outward. The lives of Christian and Jewish communities, as experienced through the liturgical calendar, express the world’s own journey toward redemption. Yet Islam lives in the perpetual present of prehistory:

Islam also makes the world in its individuality into an object of redemption. The path of Allah leads his believers into the real peoples of real epochs in time. But how does it think of these peoples and epochs? In the [Judeo-Christian] Kingdom they come forward in a continuous, if incalculable, augmentation of life . . . . In Islam, by contrast, all worldly individuality stands under the sign of prehistory, that is, negation. It is always new, and never something that develops gradually. Here every epoch in time stands in immediate relation to God, and not merely every epoch, but all individuality in general . . . . Historical epochs therefore are placed in no relation whatever to each other; there is no growth from one to the other, no “Spirit” that goes through all of them and unifies them.

In the case of Islam, Rosenzweig concludes, “the concept of the future is poisoned at its root.” Only through the action of God in history, through the growth of the kingdom in contrasting epochs, he argues, is it possible to recognize the “gift of eternity” in the present moment. Sacred time, the content of the Jewish and Christian liturgical calendars, does not exist in Islam, Rosenzweig concludes in his “last comparative glance” at Islam in book three.

Rosenzweig’s treatment of the response of peoples to the prospect of national mortality constitutes one of his most original contributions, informing his understanding of paganism in general and Islam in particular. “The God of Mohammed,” he writes, “is a creator who well might not have bothered to create. He displays his power like an Oriental potentate who rules by violence, not by acting according to necessity, not by authorizing the enactment of the law, but rather in his freedom to act arbitrarily. By contrast, it is most characteristic of rabbinic theology that it formulates our concept of the divine power to create in the question as to whether God created the world out of love or out of righteousness.”

Allah’s creation is, for Rosenzweig, a mere act of “magic.” Muslim theology “presumes that Allah creates every isolated thing at every moment. Providence thus is shattered into infinitely many individual acts of creation, with no connection to each other, each of which has the importance of the entire creation. That has been the doctrine of the ruling orthodox philosophy in Islam. Every individual thing is created from scratch at every moment. Islam cannot be salvaged from this frightful providence of Allah.”

With his mention of “orthodox philosophy in Islam,” Rosenzweig is referring to the eleventh-century normative theology of al-Ghazali, still recognized as the preeminent Muslim theologian. Rosenzweig’s objections to al-Ghazali are rooted in the critiques made by Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas. In fact, there is a striking parallel between Rosenzweig’s restatement of the medieval critique and Pope Benedict XVI’s discussion of Muslim theology at Regensburg on September 12, 2006.

As all the world now knows”after riots and protests broke out across the world”Benedict quoted the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologue: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope continued:

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God,” he says, “is not pleased by blood”and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” . . .

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature . . . . The editor [of the Greek text from which Benedict is quoting], Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-­evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that ­nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice ­idolatry.

What are we to make of this? Benedict went on to insist that “God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos , has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.” And this, indeed, suggests that Rosenzweig’s existential theology, which proceeds from the soul’s experience of love in God’s self-revelation, can find its way back to agreement with the medieval Christian and Jewish refutation of al-Ghazali.

Rosenzweig’s analysis of foundational differences between Judeo-Christian religion and Islam holds more than historical interest for us today. The challenges of theological dialogue with Islam noted by Benedict XVI among others should alert us that an existential divide separates the Judeo-Christian West and Islam. Rosenzweig is provocative, perhaps even disturbing, in his treatment of Islam. But it seems unlikely that we will make sense of the civilizational debate with Islam without grappling with the issues that he raised almost a century ago.

Spengler is a pseudonymous essayist for the Asia Times Online.