Friday, October 31, 2008

Pax and Salaam: are they the same thing?

After Magdi Cristiano Allam's open letter, I thought it might be useful to take a piece of my own out of mothball, and present it to the readership.

The following is the first in a projected series of pieces for the Stamford Advocate newspaper, written and published in 2005.

“Peace and Islam: a Catholic Perplexity”

Does Islam promote peace? As a Catholic, I cannot claim authority to answer the question. My limited knowledge of Islam can, however, serve to set the problem posed by such a query in relief. I propose to do this.

First, it is a loaded question. When English authors employ the word, “peace” they are more or less consciously wording a concept represented by the Christian political and theological authors with the Latin, pax, around which there are extensive symbolization and clarification.

Arabic is the language of Islam. The Arabic word most often translated to English as “peace” is salaam. Now, salaam has something in common with pax, to wit: each term has a specific juridical denotation.

In the millenary Christian tradition to which pax belongs (and through it, “peace”), peace is the presence of “justice”. “Justice”, in its turn, is “the condition of concord in society” achieved through the “rule of law”. “Law” is a “dictate of reason promulgated by competent authority and ordered to the common good”. “Reason” is a peculiarly human faculty, by the proper exercise of which human nature may attain to an understanding of Divine ordinance.

Here is where things begin to get hairy for me. As far as I understand the matter (and I beg the reader to remember that my understanding is very limited), salaam refers to the state of absolute submission to the manifest will of the one God. Now, “submission” in this case renders the Arabic islam, from which the Muslim religion has its proper name; the Arabic for “one God is Allah, and the Arabic for “manifest will” is qur’an. Qur’an is also the word that, in most other contexts, can take the English, “law”. Qur’an, however, is a slightly more orthodox transliteration of the name of Muslims’ holy book, a name that is more often given in English as Koran.

Reformulating accordingly, I obtain the following diction:

Peace, according to the Muslim religion, is the absolute rule of Islam, or absolute submission to the will of Allah, as made manifest through His revelation, which is Law.

The upshot of this is that there is no salaam where there is no islam, i.e. no “peace” outside the “complete subjection of each and every living person’s will, to the will of Allah as made manifest in the Koran”. Said positively, there will be “peace” only when everyone living has submitted to the dictates of the Muslim religion. More to this, to refrain from an act of submission is, quite literally, to place oneself outside the law, i.e. to be an outlaw.

If we remember that in the Christian tradition, peace (pax) is the presence of justice, which is the condition of social concord through rule of law, and that law is the perfection of reason, by which human nature participates in the Divine order, then there will be precious little to justify translating both the Christian pax and the Islamic salaam with the English “peace”.

“Law”, after all, is for Christians the participation of human reason in the Divine order, while for Muslims, “Law” is Qur’an, or the expression of Divine will, which one cannot hope to understand and to which one must only submit.

In sum, the question is loaded because it is based on an inappropriate use of a single word in English to translate two different words from two different languages, words that function as technical terms in disparate and conflicting cultural systems.

These considerations do not foreclose the question of peace in Christianity and Islam, respectively. The reflections I have shared were inadequate, even as preliminaries, though I can do no better than I have without the assistance of a Muslim interlocutor who is learned and sincere in the practice and profession of his religion, as I hope to be in the practice and profession of my own.

Let these be, therefore, the first words of a dialogue to be conducted in these pages, for the benefit of our community.

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