This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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7.1. Introductory Remarks

Cartoon theology and Western prejudice

The situation of Islam, with respect to Western civilization, is an unfortunate one. It is close enough that Western people are unavoidably aware of it and have formed ideas about it; and yet it is alien enough in spiritual style and cultural expression to remain virtually impenetrable to them. In other words, Islam is less alien than Hinduism or Taoism, yet by the very fact of being more familiar, it is more misunderstood, almost as if the closer a thing is to us, the more likely we are to develop false impressions about it.

Again, the Hindus are generally misunderstood in the West, but they are far enough out of our range that they benefit from a lack of imaginative attention, which is to say that Western people do not spend much time inventing ideas about Hinduism. The result is that the Western mind produces only a few shallow misconceptions, and these errors are less likely to be held very passionately, since there are somewhat tentative, as they should be. Americans, for their part, may have ridiculous notions of what they imagine a Hindu to be, and even more ridiculous ideas about what they imagine Hindus believe, but these ideas are rarely developed into decisive, confident prejudices. As an example, Western ‘yoga’ has nothing to do with Hindu yoga, but the nature of the difference does not create much antagonism, much less does it result in violence, as can be seen by the proliferation of yoga studios everywhere in the United States.

With Islam, it is very different. Closer proximity and a rocky historical relationship give the impression of a false familiarity, and this leads to the development of very passionate, rigorously held bigotries that not only drive public opinion but even public policy.

This is not necessarily the result of some special ill-will on the part of the West toward Islam, or at least not primarily a result of ill-will. Americans commit similar crimes against themselves. Consider the American view of their own history. We have remarked elsewhere that most Americans think they know everything they need to know about their history, so that each can say with a remarkably degree of certainty ‘what this country was founded on’, despite never having read a single page of what the founders wrote.

What Americans do have, at least with respect to their collective awareness of their own past, is a kind of ‘cartoon history’, a product of self-inflicted propaganda, ‘good marketing’ in the service of patriotism, which presents a child’s schoolbook version of history tailor-made to suit an ideological framework, and the result is of course very flattering and very simplistic.

We mention cartoon histories here in order to say that when it comes to Islam, what most Western people have is not only a cartoon history but also a cartoon theology: Muslims are by and large the brown-skinned, sword-wielding, hand-chopping, tongue-wagging, villains of Crusader-lore; they are the fanatical proponents of the terrible ‘jihad’, a concept envisioned here as some kind of God-sanctioned quest to make the world Muslim or else murder everyone in the process. The perpetrators of the jihad, for their part, are motivated primarily by the promise of a personal collection of virgins in paradise, should they die in combat, as if the dozens of wives they presumably had in their worldly lives were not enough. Lustful, barbaric, misogynistic, fanatically violent: that is Islam, to the West.

Disingenuous approaches to Islamic doctrine

From what has already been said about the difficulties a student of Islam faces, we can also mention the Christian-apologetic approach which only has interest is Muslims insofar as they present potential targets for conversion. Thus, the Christian apologist only has interest in learning what Muslims believe so that he can refute these beliefs with some sort of convincing argument or historical comparison.

Insincerity is a guaranteed barrier to the Truth: you cannot patronize God and get away with it. And the ‘apologetic’ approach to religious dialogue is insincere from the start. It can only lead to the exacerbation of ignorance in the individual and an increase in tensions between that individuals and those he is seeking to convert, or put more bluntly, manipulate.

If you wish to know about Islam, you must seek answers in humility, as if you actually wanted to know about Islam for its own sake. This does not imply that you must intend to become a Muslim before you can learn about Islam: but it does mean that if you cannot imagine Islam teaching you anything good about God that you did not already know, then you had better just keep away from it. Moreover, if you walk into the Islamic world as a bank robber walks into a bank that he wishes to rob, and if you ask for a tour only so you can ‘case the joint’ in hope of winning converts, then you will never get very far with the tour guide, since this kind of attitude is easy to perceive.

Learn Islam from Islam

Here as everywhere we will follow the principle that, if you wish to learn about a religion, you must become a student of one who is not only a master of the subject who actually believes that the religion is true—the latter is in fact the primary criterion. This is because any ‘outsider’ will of necessity be removed from the true ‘self-understanding’ of the religion and will not be able to convey it authentically. This holds true whether the outsider has never been a believer or was at one time but has since apostatized.  Both situations are problematic but for different reasons. To use a specific example, we have encountered Protestants who read books on Catholicism, but these books are either written by Protestant apologists or else by ex-Catholics who have fallen away. Rare is the non-Catholic who reads reputable Catholic books by reputable Catholic authors. The problem here is twofold. First, the people who apostatize are rarely the most knowledgeable people about the religion from which they departed, but, in addition, by the very fact of their apostasy, they are incapable of representing orthodoxy accurately, not due to deviousness or dishonesty, but just as a matter of sincerity pure and simple. In summary: only a knowledgeable, reputable, practicing, orthodox representative of a religion can present it authentically.

We have therefore tried to make use of orthodox, reputable Muslim teachers whenever possible. Namely, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and other scholars, but also Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon. At other times we have used American writers such as the late Victor Danner, but we feel that this is acceptable as a supplement because Danner’s work has generally proven to be acceptable to Muslims. We avoid the use of Christian apologetic literature entirely, and have also left the vast body of political and historical literature written by anti-Islamic moderns untouched.

Of course, we must admit that even though we’ve chosen carefully, the sources we have chosen might not be acceptable to all Muslims everywhere, just as St. Thomas Aquinas is not acceptable to all Christians, but this is the best we can do. We must learn from someone, and this someone cannot be everyone, and so we have tried to choose our authorities with reasonable care and respect for the self-understanding of the greater part of the Islamic world.

What we have just said is, generally speaking, true of our approach to any religious tradition as examined in this manual, but we thought it especially relevant the subject of Islam due to its controversial nature for Western readers.

We have just elaborated on possible obstacles to understanding Islam. We do acknowledge that the reader of this manual will be free of most of these prejudices, otherwise you would not have gotten this far and would have already set this book aside, but perhaps you are not as free as you realize, and so it was worth mentioning these things just as an opportunity for reflection and as a warning should you wish to go out and share what you learn with friends and family who may not be predisposed to listen. At any rate, it is good to acknowledge these common barriers to the understanding of Islam, so that we can start, as is necessary, from a point of sincerity.