Tag Archives: Islam

De-Radicalising Muhammad

holland

Tom Holland

What do the Charlie Hebdo murders and the rise of the Islamic State owe to Islam? It would be comforting to insist, as many have done, that they owe nothing at all; but Holland, in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture, argues that the truth is more complex. The best way to combat jihadism, he proposes, is to recognise the centrality of Muhammad to Islam – and that he comes in many forms. There is the moral leader who swallowed abuse peaceably; and there is the war leader who ordered people who insulted him put to death. How best, then, to de-radicalise the Prophet? Tom Holland is author of In The Shadow of the Sword, Rubicon, Persian Fire, Millenniumand the new translation of The Histories by Herodotus. Chaired by Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times.” — from the Hay Festival program.

Denouncing Islamic State as not representing “true Islam” is a well-intentioned declaration but counterproductive and seriously problematic, according to historian Tom Holland in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture at the May 2015 Hay Festival. The title of his talk is De-Radicalising Muhummad (available online).

What is wrong with these well-meaning efforts to defuse anti-Islamic tensions?

What it does is imply that there is a normative, authentic Islam, one that embodies ideals that are perfectly compatible with liberal, secular Britain, and then there are misinterpretations of it, distortions of it, that are not really Islam at all. . . . .

Playing the same lethal game as Islamic State

By denying the title of Muslims to Islamic State Western governments are actually playing the same lethal game as the Islamic State themselves. Because what the Islamic State do is to condemn other Muslims as either apostates or heretics — the better then to justify their elimination.

I really don’t think it is for Prime Ministers or Home Secretaries to play that game. Because once you take it on yourself to define what is or isn’t authentic Islam then you are buying into the notion that such a thing as authentic Islam actually exists. 

Now if you’re a believer of course that’s fine. You will accept that indeed Islam was given to you by God and therefore it does have some absolute Platonic essence.

But if you’re not a believer then a religion is just like any other manifestation of human culture. It’s something that is porous, variable, forever mutating, and evolving. It’s a dialogue between people in the present and an inheritance of texts and traditions and people can choose what of those texts and traditions they wish to emphasise. 

So it’s not like religion is the equivalent of a radio station set with a dial and you can definitely find it. It’s a whole series of points on a bandwidth. 

That understanding ought to give us hope, however long-term it may have to be. It certainly ought to contribute to a lessening of social prejudice and a promotion of constructive ways of addressing the problem of violent Islamic groups and individuals.

And obviously what a definition of an extremist is, what a radical is, will depend where you stand on that bandwidth. Because it cannot be emphasised enough that jihadists do not think of themselves as extremists. To them, it’s us, the comfortably secular and liberal kind of people . . . who are the extremists. Jihadists see themselves as models of righteous behaviour. They see themselves as doing God’s will as expressed in the pages of his holy book the Koran and the sayings of his prophet Muhammad. And they also see themselves as obedient to something else — to the example of Muhammad. The Koran is absolutely explicit about this. In the Messenger of God it says you have a beautiful example, an example to follow. 

And so it does matter then, to jihadis no less than to the vast majority of Muslims who would never in a million years set about destroying the antiquities of the Near East, or taking sex slaves, or murdering those who mock the Prophet. But sanction for what they do is indeed to be found within the various biographies and traditions that are associated with the Prophet. 

So what does Tom Holland see as the appropriate response? read more »

De-Radicalising Muhammad

holland

Tom Holland

What do the Charlie Hebdo murders and the rise of the Islamic State owe to Islam? It would be comforting to insist, as many have done, that they owe nothing at all; but Holland, in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture, argues that the truth is more complex. The best way to combat jihadism, he proposes, is to recognise the centrality of Muhammad to Islam – and that he comes in many forms. There is the moral leader who swallowed abuse peaceably; and there is the war leader who ordered people who insulted him put to death. How best, then, to de-radicalise the Prophet? Tom Holland is author of In The Shadow of the Sword, Rubicon, Persian Fire, Millenniumand the new translation of The Histories by Herodotus. Chaired by Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times.” — from the Hay Festival program.

Denouncing Islamic State as not representing “true Islam” is a well-intentioned declaration but counterproductive and seriously problematic, according to historian Tom Holland in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture at the May 2015 Hay Festival. The title of his talk is De-Radicalising Muhummad (available online).

What is wrong with these well-meaning efforts to defuse anti-Islamic tensions?

What it does is imply that there is a normative, authentic Islam, one that embodies ideals that are perfectly compatible with liberal, secular Britain, and then there are misinterpretations of it, distortions of it, that are not really Islam at all. . . . .

Playing the same lethal game as Islamic State

By denying the title of Muslims to Islamic State Western governments are actually playing the same lethal game as the Islamic State themselves. Because what the Islamic State do is to condemn other Muslims as either apostates or heretics — the better then to justify their elimination.

I really don’t think it is for Prime Ministers or Home Secretaries to play that game. Because once you take it on yourself to define what is or isn’t authentic Islam then you are buying into the notion that such a thing as authentic Islam actually exists. 

Now if you’re a believer of course that’s fine. You will accept that indeed Islam was given to you by God and therefore it does have some absolute Platonic essence.

But if you’re not a believer then a religion is just like any other manifestation of human culture. It’s something that is porous, variable, forever mutating, and evolving. It’s a dialogue between people in the present and an inheritance of texts and traditions and people can choose what of those texts and traditions they wish to emphasise. 

So it’s not like religion is the equivalent of a radio station set with a dial and you can definitely find it. It’s a whole series of points on a bandwidth. 

That understanding ought to give us hope, however long-term it may have to be. It certainly ought to contribute to a lessening of social prejudice and a promotion of constructive ways of addressing the problem of violent Islamic groups and individuals.

And obviously what a definition of an extremist is, what a radical is, will depend where you stand on that bandwidth. Because it cannot be emphasised enough that jihadists do not think of themselves as extremists. To them, it’s us, the comfortably secular and liberal kind of people . . . who are the extremists. Jihadists see themselves as models of righteous behaviour. They see themselves as doing God’s will as expressed in the pages of his holy book the Koran and the sayings of his prophet Muhammad. And they also see themselves as obedient to something else — to the example of Muhammad. The Koran is absolutely explicit about this. In the Messenger of God it says you have a beautiful example, an example to follow. 

And so it does matter then, to jihadis no less than to the vast majority of Muslims who would never in a million years set about destroying the antiquities of the Near East, or taking sex slaves, or murdering those who mock the Prophet. But sanction for what they do is indeed to be found within the various biographies and traditions that are associated with the Prophet. 

So what does Tom Holland see as the appropriate response? read more »

The Politics of the Muslim Controversy

Salman Rushdie condemns ‘hate-filled rhetoric’ of Islamic fanaticism, The Telegraph:

It’s hard not to conclude that this hate-filled religious rhetoric, pouring from the mouths of ruthless fanatics into the ears of angry young men, has become the most dangerous new weapon in the world today.

If the rhetoric is the weapon then let’s find out why are we seeing so many taking it up today? Recent generations have seen several enemies — the rhetoric of nationalism, the rhetoric of corporate capitalism, the rhetoric of state socialism — and this is a new one. What has led to its emergence?

A word I dislike greatly, ‘Islamophobia’, has been coined to discredit those who point at these excesses, by labelling them as bigots. . . . 

It is right to feel phobia towards such matters. . . . To feel aversion towards such a force is not bigotry. It is the only possible response to the horror of events.

I can’t, as a citizen, avoid speaking of the horror of the world in this new age of religious mayhem, and of the language that conjures it up and justifies it, so that young men, including young Britons, led towards acts of extreme bestiality, believe themselves to be fighting a just war.

Salman Rushdie does not like the word Islamophobia but at the same time he self-servingly (probably without realizing it) distorts its meaning and the way it is used. I return to this word below where I address a Sam Harris quote.

Salman Rushdie is telling us that it is “language that conjures it up”. The image is one of Islamic violence that has been smouldering for centuries like a vulcanic demon impatiently waiting beneath the surface of a bubbling geothermal mud pool for someone to chant the terrible magic words to unleash it.

Rushdie’s failure to reference any historical thinking, or any political-social understanding, is distressing and a little frightening. read more »

Honour Killing (from Inside Muslim Minds)

insidemuslimmindsI was recently challenged over what some see as my defence of Islam and failure to condemn the many evils is apparently spawns — terrorism, honour killing, sexism, Sharia law, persecution of apostates, denial of free speech — and told I could easily do so without any fear of over-generalizing. I was surprised to find my recent posts being portrayed as a “defence of Islam”, as an apparent attempt to whitewash the religion and to overlook its monstrosities.

What I have been seeking to do in most posts is to provide factual information from reliable sources in order to do my little bit to try to correct what I see as general public misconceptions about Muslims. Of course there is much that is reprehensible in the Muslim religion (as I have said) but my intent is to try to point out that the present wave of Islamophobia (see The Word’s Origin and Meaning) is grounded in misinformed views about Islam, Muslims and Sharia law, as well as about terrorism and cultural heritage.

As an atheist I have no time, personally for any religious belief. Yet not too many years ago I found myself with the State leader of an Australian Muslim community inviting him to participate in a public information session so that anyone willing could hear and question first hand what Muslims believe about themselves and the world. My interest was then, as it is now, in public education and community harmony. (Around the same time I also found myself planning civil rights activism with leaders of the local Roman Catholic Church.)

The reference to honour killings in the challenge pulled me up with a start. I have always understood honour killings to be a horrific practice found among certain cultures (not religions) around the world: northern India (Hindu and Sikh), southern Europe and Latin America (Christian), Australian aboriginal desert tribes and probably a few other similar tribes around the world, and a cluster of Islamic countries (Pakistan in particular). So when I have from time to time heard of critics of Islam citing honour killings as one of the many sins of that religion per se I dismissed the criticism as ignorant or at best only partially informed. No-one that I know criticizes Christianity or Hinduism as being religions that inculcate the practice of honour killings because of the crimes found among their cultural subsets.

The following is based on what Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor Riaz Hassan has to say about honour killings and Muslims in his book Inside Muslim Minds (pp. 200-208).

Honour killing is another ugly label that has come to be associated with Muslim countries. In Pakistan and other Muslim countries, prominent feminist organizations have taken up the cause to stop its occurrence.

Here Hassan singles out Shirkat Gah and Women Living Under Muslim Laws as the most vocal campaigners against the practice and responsible for well researched publications.

shirkatgah-preview_0

Shirkat Gah (SG) (“place of participation”) has a strong web presence:

logo
Women Living Under Muslim Laws similarly:

Hassan refers to UNICEF statements and the following are from my own search across UN publications: read more »

Is Sympathy for Terrorist Acts a Muslim Monopoly?

Reality check here

Question: If Muslim sympathy for terrorism is not driven by religious fanaticism, then why does support for terror seemingly exist more among Muslims?

Answer: Muslims hold no monopoly on extremist views and are, in fact, on average more likely than the American public to unequivocally condemn attacks on civilians.

A [2007] study shows that only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 6.41.59 PMContrast those figures with data taken from the same year from some of the largest Muslim countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran.

Agree that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified“: read more »

Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?

Untitled 2

Associate Professor Rahim

This morning there was a radio interview with Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim of the University of Sydney about her new book, Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from within. You can listen to the interview or download it (it’s only a few minutes) from this RN page here. Where I depart from the interview itself I use grey font.

In sum, Lily Rahim argues the significance of the five most populous Muslim nations — India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh — thriving in either full or hybrid democratic state.

Most Muslim majority states today were originally conceived as secular or quasi secular democracies. But since the mid twentieth century many of these states have moved closer to the Islamic state paradigm — that is, with the onset of Islamization and political Islam that swept through the Muslim world in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

A return to the Caliphate?

The interviewer asks if it is not a fact that the Caliphate, the union of religion and the state, that is at the heart of Islam.

Rahim argues (along with other scholars, including Muslim scholars) that the “Islamic State” is really a modern-day twentieth century construct and that the seventh century Caliphate was a phenomenon unique to that period. The Caliphate thus cannot be repeated. The Islamic states that have arisen in more recent times are not replications of the Caliphate. Rather, they are modern attempts to legitimize ruling elites.

Failure of theocratic and secular autocracies read more »

Why Haven’t Muslims Condemned Terrorism?

And it’s not just a handful of extremists, either: it’s the legions of “moderate” enablers who, through either intimidation or cowardice, refuse to decry their co-religionists. No surprise given that the penalty for apostasy is death . . . . (Jerry Coyne accusing Muslims of not speaking out against acts of terrorism)

esposito

John Esposito

Coyne is advertizing his ignorance and fanning the same among his readers. The following comes from The Future of Islam by John Esposito, an authority on Islam. Pages 29-33 —

Muslim Denial

The level of disbelief [that Muslims were responsible for 9/11] among Muslims was and is astonishing — families of the hijackers in Saudi Arabia reportedly stating that their children were in fact still alive and Arabs insisting that no Arab could learn how to fly planes into the Twin Towers.

Many Muslims and Arabs have remained in a state of denial over this: the U.S. government failed to provide hard evidence that Muslims were involved; Israeli intelligence were behind the attacks; there was a cover-up of some sort.

Media Distortions

What sells are stories of confrontation and conflict, crises and tragedy.

A small but vocal minority that celebrated the attacks [of 9/11] as “payback time” for failed American foreign policies in the Middle East enjoyed widespread media coverage. Some Palestinians celebrating in the streets were featured over and over again on major stations.

Overshadowed were the shock and concern of many mainstream Muslims.

book_argue_200-300

Deborah Tannen demonstrates that the principle followed by news media is “no fight, no story”. The media’s goal is not balanced coverage but to focus on conflict and tragedy. (Image links to Tannen’s site)

In fact the Gallup Poll found that 91% of Muslims interviewed believed the attacks were morally unjustified.

Few media outlets, then as now, covered the statements of Muslim leaders and organizations that did speak out, quickly issuing public statements, denouncing the terrorist attacks and expressing their condolences. Why were these voices not heard?

Muslims condemning violence and Islamic extremists simply don’t make it into the news headlines. This is why much of the public simply assumes that Muslims have not condemned terrorism.

Thus the actions of a dangerous minority of Muslim extremists and terrorists become the distorting prism through which all Muslims and their religion are seen and understood. . . The media’s failure to provide balanced coverage, thus compounding the problem . . . .

Even New York Times current affairs columnist Thomas Friedman declared the day after the London bombings that “no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.” Yet in fact, the New York Times itself on October 17, 2001, published a full-page ad from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty proclaiming:

Osama bin Laden hijacked four airplanes and a religion

along with published statements from some of the world’s most prominent Muslim leaders condemning the attacks, including:

  • The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and chairman of the Senior Ulama (Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Shaik
  • Principal of the Muslim College in London (Zaki Badawi)
  • Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai of Pakistan
  • King Abdulla II of Jordan
  • The Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Earlier, September 14, 2001, the BBC reported condemnations of the 9/11 attacks as acts of terrorism by a significant, influential and diverse group of religious leaders ranging from

  • Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar University and Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque (viewed by many as one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam)

to

  • Ayatollah Kashani in Iran.

Others also strident in their condemnations:

  • Mustafa Mashhur (General Guide, Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt)
  • Qazi Hussain Ahmed (Ameer, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, Pakistan)
  • Muti Rahman Nizami (Ameer, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Bangladesh)
  • Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (founder, Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas], Palestine)
  • Rashid Ghannoushi (president, Nahda Renaissance Movement, Tunisia)
  • Fazil Nour (president, PAS — Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Malaysia)
  • forty other Muslim scholars and politicians

All the above signed their names to the following:

The undersigned, leaders of Islamic movements, are horrified by the events of Tuesday 11 September 2001 in the United States which resulted in massive killing, destruction and attack on innocent lives. We express our deepest sympathies and sorrow. We condemn, in the strongest terms, the incidents, which are against all human and Islamic norms. This is grounded in the Noble Laws of Islam which forbid all forms of attacks on innocents. God Almighty says in the Holy Qur’an: “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (Surah al-Isra 17:15).

Fatwa against Osama bin Laden read more »

Damned Lies, Statistics, and Muslims

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Recently a commenter posted a raft of figures supposedly establishing as fact that large segments of followers of the Muslim faith are supporters of terrorist violence. The commenter took the figures from an anti-Islamic hate website. The figures themselves are compiled on Muslim Opinion Polls: A Tiny Minority of Extremists?

muslimOpinPolls

I quote here the figures used to support some dire claims about Muslims along with the results of my own cross-checking of the sources for these figures.

Claim

Almost half of Muslims polled in 2006 supported Osama bin Laden (49.9%).

Fact

This claim is a loaded one. We will see that polling indicates that most Muslims in the Middle East refused to believe that bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. That surely is a significant factor that is important for Westerners to understand. More on this later. Meanwhile . . . .

The poll is no longer available online so we cannot check the source and evaluate the figure against the questions asked and how they were framed and what audiences were targeted. But it does appear that the poll was an online one. That is, people check a tick box online. We don’t know if internet users were able to click multiple times from the one computer. Online polls are inevitably problematic in that we have little way to knowing how representative of wider society the respondents are. read more »

Jerry Coyne’s reply, Bangladeshi Muslim Demonstrators, and Atheist Bloggers

I was disappointed, and for some reason even a little surprised, to read Jerry Coyne’s response, Islamophobia again, to my recent post and see that he chose not to deal with the key points I raised. In fact, he merely repeated his own arguments as if my own rebuttal of them was nowhere on record. What was most disappointing was his upfront declaration that he had no interest in engaging with contrary views, even referring readers to a Christopher Hitchens quotation expressing a disdain for any opinions but his own and inviting anyone who wishes to challenge those opinions to kiss his arse.

So there is clearly no interest on Jerry’s side to seriously debate the issue. His mind is made up and has no room for anything new when it comes to the question of Islam.

Much of his post is elaborating on the recent events in Bangladesh. At least a hundred thousand demonstrators (estimates vary between 100,000 and 500,000 in the news sources) have come out into the streets calling for the deaths of atheist bloggers. That is how the news has been filtered into the Western media and that’s all there is to the story as far as Jerry and others are concerned. Presumably anyone who has any further information that might change that view of theirs will be invited to kiss Jerry’s arse.

This blog is all about sharing information and inviting readers to look deeper behind what is most commonly presented to the public. Concerning what is going on in Bangladesh, I really did expect intelligent and thoughtful sceptics to be a little more astute and diligent with checking sources before swallowing what they see on mainstream TV news.

So at the end of this post I will present a few facts — facts easily obtainable by anyone with unfettered access to the internet — that Jerry and others presumably do not think are relevant.

Jerry writes:

Can you imagine Catholics, for example, rallying by the hundreds of thousands to call for the death of anti-Catholic bloggers? Or murdering them?

Not in this day and age, no. But I do know of some ugly moments in history . . . And that’s Jerry’s problem here. He has assumed a situation in Bangladesh needs absolutely no reference to history there, or to the different religious groups and political roles they have played in recent decades and months, is validly comparable to a Catholic area in the United States. This is the danger of people not knowing or understanding, or not even being interested in understanding, another people on their own terms. Now Jerry has quickly added that what is happening in Bangladesh has nothing to do with colonialism or politics because the demonstrators are clearly saying “Death to the atheist bloggers” in the name of Islam.

That’s it. End of story. Kiss his arse if you want to actually understand some context and background to what has brought those demonstrators out to the streets with those cries, or suggest that this is worth a serious comparison with how Catholics in twenty-first century America behave.

Jerry completely avoids my argument when he repeats this nonsense:

I still can’t quite understand why it’s sort of okay for atheists to level strong criticisms at other religions (Sam, after all, wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, and I spent an entire week on this site documenting the immorality of the Catholic Church [e.g., here and here]), so long as that religion is not Islam. We’re not accused of Catholicphobia or Baptistphobia, but only Islamophobia. I think this reflects a double standard, for such accusations hold Muslims to lower standards

Rubbish. I have criticized Islam. (Not often, I admit, because my experience is mostly with Christianity.) I have no problems with anyone, not even Muslims, criticizing Islam. There is a lot to criticize, especially given that they have not had the history of Reformations (plural) and Enlightenment challenges that Christianity has experienced. They have a lot of catching up to do.

From time to time since starting this blog I have had a few Muslims (not all!) take great offence at some of my comments or posts. Jerry did not notice or understand my explicit comparison of the sorts of criticisms that are leveled against other religions and those that are lately leveled against Muslims by our leading lights of new Atheism.

He then reprises the accusations he says he regularly hears against new Atheism and its association with Islamophobia. I don’t know if he really hears all of these arguments, because his first point, “it’s racism”, fails to grasp what is actually being said about Islamophobia. Islamophobia is not racism in the normal sense of the word, but it does take negative racist stereotypes and imputes them into a whole religion, and inevitably that implies all adherents of that religion. That’s a neat way of enabling one to claim the odd Muslim (or Jew or black man) that one knows really is a nice person without detracting from the general collective demonization or dehumanization.

Is this dehumanization?

When anyone imputes to other groups the potential to act in a way that is not normally ‘human’ — e.g. on the mere say-so of an authority, and for no other reason or unusual conditioning, go out and kill others; or believe that parents en masse threatened to kill their children in order to gain entrance into a first world country (we once had a Prime Minister here who had much/most of the nation believing just this about some Muslim refugees!) — then one is dehumanizing them.

Jerry also says his critics argue that Islam is no worse than any other religion. I don’t know what others say, but there is no doubt Islam has some major problems that are not faced by Christianity today, and that has to do with history as mentioned above. But let’s stop using abstractions for people. Let’s talk about adherents of religions. That’s where the conflict and any future solution lies. It’s the adherents who define the religion in real terms. And critics of Islam need to know a lot more about Islamic populations than they glean from mainstream media soundbytes.

And Jerry misses the point completely about the question of “not all Muslims being violent”. Jerry is not listening — he tells people to take a ticket and go and . . . . — so he keeps repeating the same old the same old the same old. I don’t know how I could have made the point any clearer in my previous post but (or therefore?) he ignores the real argument completely.

POWER_OF_LIGHT

2013 Shahbag protesters opposing Jamaat-e-Islami — Wikipedia photo

Bangladeshi Demonstrators Calling for the Deaths of Atheist Bloggers

No doubt anyone with his or her mind made up will only find in what follows validation for their Islamophobia. But for others . . . .

An Agence France Presse release:

There has been vociferous debate between staunch atheists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh’s social media for years, but it took a deadly turn in February when an anti-Islam blogger was murdered. read more »

Islam’s Origins, the Historical Problem — notes on the reading Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

shadowA few weeks ago I posted Islam – the Untold Story as a response to my introduction (through a radio program and an online video) to narrative historian Tom Holland’s controversial book on the rise of the Arab empire and the origins of Islam. I was interested in some of the comments expressing Muslim viewpoints but not having read the book, and not having studied Islamic history in any depth, there was not much I could say in response.

Now I can at least make a few comments on Tom Holland’s approach to the question after having read his 58 page introduction.

(Coincidentally today I heard another radio interview with Tom Holland, one in which he discusses the way he writes history, the modern relevance of his other historical works, Millennium and Rubicon, as well as further comments on In the Shadow of the Sword.)

.

But first, let me confess my bias: I believe the most reliable way for any historian to work is to begin with data that can be tested for its genre (hence likely authorial intent), its provenance, and the independent verification of its content. As a result I have come to lean towards the views of those scholars who are derisively labelled “minimalists” and who question the authenticity of the Bible’s account of Israel’s origins and the course of its kingdoms of Israel and Judah. I have also been persuaded by the view of at least one of those “minimalists” who — again via the same touchstone questions concerning sources — has come to think the Gospel narratives of Jesus are as fictitious as the the Old Testament’s narrative of Israel.

I approach the origins of Islam with the same set of questions about sources.

.

Tom Holland knows how to surprise a western reader who has been fed a diet of Islamophobia. In the front pages we read words attributed to Mohammad from which the title is drawn:

Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance, and remember that the gates of Paradise lie in the shadow of the sword.

Another quotation, this one at the beginning of the Introduction, is by Salman Rushdie. It will strike a chord with anyone interested in what we know of Christian origins, but it serves the cause of irony — and a warning that the nature of historical evidence is not always what it seems — since we know that the wealth of detail taken for granted about the life of Muhammad will soon be shown to be nothing more than a facade.

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.

Two Voices

Tom Holland writes with two voices, as he explains in his latest Radio National interview, and together they make for gripping reading. He writes as the historical researcher of cause and effect, commenting on the degree of certainty or less so of our knowledge, guiding readers to the raw materials and current scholarship upon which his narrative is built. At the same time he writes as a novelist, entering into the experiences of the actants, named and anonymous alike, drawing the reader into their world as inevitably as a Spielberg movie.

He knows how to write history for both popular and informed audiences.

Two Worlds

Historians don’t write history the way they used to. read more »

Islam, the Untold Story

In_The_Shadow_Of_The_Sword,_The_Battle_for_Global_Empire_and_the_End_of_the_Ancient_World.jpegUpdated about 4 hours after first posting — especially in the opening paragraphs of “The Arab conquests are FOLLOWED by the rise of Islam“.

Historian and novelist Tom Holland raises some fascinating questions about the evidence pertaining to the origins of the Muslim religion. Is it possible that all three “religions of the book” will go down in history as having their foundations exposed as mythic in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries?

I have not yet read Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword [link is to Wikipedia article] but yesterday I listened to an extended radio interview with him (see/hear Tom Holland At Adelaide Writer’s Week) and watched UK’s Channel 4 documentary about Holland’s thesis, Islam, the Untold Story, on vimeo. (The audio interview is by far superior to the video documentary: the interview covers more detail and explanation of the thesis in its first 30 minutes than is broached in the entire doco.)

The traditional account

Muhammad is an illiterate merchant in the city of Mecca.

Mecca is a great pagan cult centre — no Jews or Christians there.

When 40 years old Muhammad hears voice of an angel giving directions from God.

Muhammad is last of the prophets. His teaching of monotheism offends the pagans who exile him to Medina.

Muhammad wins over the Arabs and regains Mecca. All Arabia becomes Muslim.

The teachings are all oral. Nothing written at this stage, but the Arabs converted to the Muslim religion as it is known today.

Arabs are inspired by his teaching to spread the word. That God is with them is evident from the miracle that they are able to overthrow both the Roman and then the Persian empires.

Their empire is proof that the Muhammad was the prophet of God.

Holland’s challenge

Holland, however, says that the evidence informs us of Arab conquests, not Muslim conquests, in the seventh century.

The earliest sources for Muhammad’s life are from around 800 CE. — almost 200 years after he existed. There are no lives of the prophet, no histories, no accounts of the conquests written by the Arabs, no commentaries on the Qur’an — then suddenly around 800 there is a great explosion of all of these.

Another “conspiracy of silence” and other problems

How to explain this silence? read more »

All this Muslim business

Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and no doubt many other atheists have landed especially hard blows against the Muslim religion recently, prompted specifically by the recent wave of deadly protests over the trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims. So here are my two bits.

Sam Harris dismisses the idea that murderous violence of Muslim rioters should be ultimately blamed upon Western foreign policies (a euphemism for invasion, occupation, exploitation, support for violent overthrow of some dictators and democratically elected governments alike, and support for the violent entrenchment of other dictators among the Muslim states of the Middle East).

Sam Harris has countered that if it were not for the particular religious teachings of the Muslim religion then Muslims would not react with blood-lust against makers and facilitators of a satirical movie mocking their religion. Christians don’t react the same way when someone insults their faith. So it is clear that there is something more rotten in the state of Islam than in other religious faiths.

One of the problems (there are several) I have with this argument is that the Muslim violence we have been experiencing has not been with us until quite recent times. Violence and terrorism used to come from anarchists and secular political movements in Europe and the Middle East. The pioneer suicide bombers (in Lebanon in the 1980s) included Christians and Socialists (See Dying to Win by Richard Pape). The current wave of Muslim violence is not one of history’s constants but is a new thing.

Presumably Sam Harris’s complaint is that a more civilized religion would not see its adherents so seethe in response to whatever geopolitical shifts or Western policy intrusions into the Middle East have occurred in recent times, so that when an insulting work raises its head, devotees of more benign faiths would still manage to behave themselves.

But that just leads to the next question: Why do the majority of Muslims not react so violently but have instead been embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule? And another question: How do we explain the quiet of the Muslims for so long until quite recent times? Did no one ever publish a blasphemous or satirical cartoon or work until recent times? Or did Muslim communities generally ignore anything like that however offended they may have personally been? read more »

Religions Dreaming and Demonizing

IslamDreamingI was lucky enough to catch the last ten minutes of Aborigines Choosing Islam, the latest program on Rachel Kohn’s The Spirit of Things. Like Malcolm X some aborigines are joining Islam initially in frustration and anger, but then finding a new identity and peace, lost their anger and dedicated themselves to a more spiritual life, becoming positive role models. Aborigines who convert to Islam bring facets of their own cultural heritage to it, hence the “Dreaming” in the title of the book by Dr Peta Stephenson, Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia.

But what’s a religion that does not also have its dark side? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all that. If one believes in a good man in the sky then why not a bad devil trying to rob him of his devotees? So the last couple of days bishops in the US have been following the Pope’s call for a return to traditional rituals and practices by holding a conference aimed at helping bishops become more exorcism savvy.

“What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism.

 

Painting of Father General Saint Francis Borgi...

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Of course it’s all very scientific nowadays. The bishops learn to diagnose who need a psychiatrist and who needs the crucifix. Also from The New York Times:

Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.

Looks like Jesus made a mistake in exorcising the epileptic that regularly tossed the boy into life-endangering fits.


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The right side of politics Down Under: Muslims good; atheists bad

Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany BayNo sooner do we read of one Liberal Party’s candidate being dumped by his party leader for suggesting that there is no place for Muslims in the Australian parliament, than we read of another Liberal Party candidate attacking the “ungodly” Labor leader and PM for being an atheist — and getting away with it! (The Liberal Party in Australia, to oversimplify somewhat, correlates with the Conservatives in the UK and the Republicans in the US.)

So what’s the lesson here? It’s politically correct at election time to be seen as tolerant towards Muslims; but as for being an atheist. . . ? Who cares?

Actually I don’t mind this approach to criticism of atheists. Let it all hang out. Let everyone see where everyone stands. It’s no big deal. It’s kind of funny to have politicians get up and rave about Australia being built on Christian values and how they always expect a “godly” leader. Australia? Founded on convicts, lashings, prostitution, petty tyrants among the good ‘uns, rum rebellion, — oh, and an Anglican pastor to keep it all in check? What’s the ratio of church goers to non-practicing Christians and “others” in Australia?

I suspect the Liberal Party leader’s decision to ignore the atheist jibe was quite healthy and a “true blue” Aussie response. I’d hate to see political correctness go mad and send to the guillotine anyone who raves about not believing in god and decrying how a godless prime minister simply cannot be a “godly ruler” etc. All a bit of a laugh for most in the audience.

It is the season, however, to be prudent with respect to Muslims. Hate crimes and bigotry and all that are all too real — it goes without saying. (Whoever planted a bomb outside an atheist’s convention in Australia?)

It is still real enough for a Liberal candidate to be quoted as saying that just one Muslim in Parliament must be seen as a march towards the day when Parliament will be all-Muslim! But of course, the mere fact that the sight of one of them in the “wrong place” leaves him down the slippery slope into nightmares of a taliban takeover of Australia, does not mean he has anything against Muslims personally.

Which leaves me in a delicate position at times. When I was once arranging for a leading State Muslim to conduct a public presentation to a general audience, I found myself being offered a copy of the Koran. As a gesture of good-will I accepted it, but later I had the misfortune to read it. It left the taste in my mouth of being just as mind-controlling and fear and authority obsessed as the Jewish and Christian books, only more blunt and obvious about it. So there I was, finding myself in a situation where I was seeking to foster community tolerance among two religious groups, Christians and Muslims, yet ironically having no personal sympathy or time for either of them!

As far as their beliefs were concerned, I saw (still do see) both as potentially harmful psychologically to individuals who took them too seriously. When I see some humanist scholars advocate a humanism that embraces the religiously minded as well, I do feel some revulsion. What has the anti-intellectualism at the heart of Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) to do with humanistic values? Why on earth does “spirituality” or the sense of the poetic and mystery and awe of life have to be tied exclusively to religion of any kind? But I also find myself recoiling from a few of the anti-Muslim statements of some such as Harris and Hitchens. Sure I have no time for the Muslim religion either, but these authors do seem to be unable to tease out the geo-political issues from the more universal religious concepts.

So I decided to focus entirely on the project I had got myself mixed up with as an entirely “social enterprise”. Strictly a civil service.

We’ll probably be stuck with religion as long as we will be stuck with astrology, witchcraft and the occult. If one can’t beat them, the least one can do, I guess, is to support any endeavour that promotes mutual understanding and respect.

Australia Day - Muslim Style

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