Christopher Houston, head of the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney, raises some interesting questions in his contribution to Muslim Secular Democracy, “Militant Laicists, Muslim Democrats, and Liberal Secularists: Contending Visions of Secularism in Turkey”.
Do those of us who believe in a secular democratic system need to broaden our vision of what a secular democracy can look like? Is our democratic way of life potentially threatened more by new social groups (Muslims) emerging in our midst of by our unfounded fear of those new groups? Is a Muslim-led government ever compatible with a secular society?
Does Turkey (and Egypt?) have anything to teach us about the future of democratic institutions in a world (Western and beyond) that is destined to find Muslims playing an increasingly influential role?
The reason Turkey’s conservative Muslim party (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) and its supporters favour the Western democratic system is simple. They represent the majority. It is the democratic system that has brought them to power, firstly in 2002, and again in 2007 and 2011.
There are many “middle ground” Turks, too, who are apparently content enough with the current system even though they may not all vote for the AKP. These middle-of-the-roaders are not Islamists. But they seem to be content enough to accept the re-election of the AKP Muslim party. The AKP does, after all, “claim to be inspired by secularism and democracy” (Houston, p. 255).
There are other “secularists”, however, who fear the democratically elected Muslim party is attempting to “Islamize” the nation by stealth, and these people are increasingly expressing disenchantment with Western-style democracy on the one hand, and a preference for a military coup on the other. Though a minority, they do have close ties with key military figures who are sympathetic to their views.
We saw what happened in Egypt, and before that, in Algeria, when democratically elected Muslims found themselves removed by the military. Both coups appear to have had significant popular support.
I’ve posted twice before on Holland’s controversial view that Islam as we recognize it arose after the Arab conquests. Holland does not deny the historicity of Muhammad (though the evidence he cites seems flimsy to me) or that there was a form of “Islam” founded by the Prophet before the Arab conquests. It was only after the Arabs found that the empires of Rome and Persia had fallen so easily into their grasp (having been savagely ravaged by bubonic plague and war) that divine explanations were called for.
The conquered peoples, in particular the massive influx of slaves, fed their own beliefs and interpretations into the “hadiths”, sayings attributed to the Prophet, and — not without Caliphate dictates — forged what has become the Islam we recognize today. The Caliph most responsible, Islam’s equivalent of Saint Paul and Constantine combined according to Holland, was Abdul Malik (see Islam, the Untold Story).
Sam Harris in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has written a lot of uninformed nonsense about religion in general and Islam in particular. Don’t misunderstand. His logical arguments against religious belief systems are entirely valid. For a time when I was in the process of recovering from my own religious experiences I would have endorsed almost everything he wrote. Even mainstream Anglican pabulum was a threat to humanity because it lent social respectability to religious faith and the Bible, and that made it possible for extremist cults — who also claimed faith and the Bible as the foundations of their seriously harmful systems — to germinate. (I was focusing on the intellectual constructs as the easy and obvious target, failing to realize that there was something far more significant at the root of religion.)
At the same time I was going through that phase I could not help but notice a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. Yes, my argument was entirely rational, and borne of experience. But was it the whole story? If there had been no notion of faith or the Bible in any religion, would that really mean we would be living in a Utopia? Was it really only social respectability for faith and the Bible that cults fanned into something monstrous? Was there not also a shared dream of a better world? Should such idealism also be condemned? Was there not also a shared belief in the rightness of doing good? Even the dreams and the morality of the cult could be turned into destructive weapons. But they could also be used for much good, too.
Cults may sprout out from mainstream religions but it does not follow that they are the cause or to blame for them. A host to a parasite is hardly to be blamed for the parasite.
Religion is not going to disappear, or if we believe otherwise, it certainly won’t be demolished by rational answers to its teachings of faith and belief systems. I guess that thought was beginning to dawn on me when I started this blog and that’s why I’ve never been interested in any sort of “anti-Christian” or “anti-religion” crusade of any sort. People will respond to precision arguments and new questions when they are ready. Crusading against irrational beliefs — or against even rational ones based on false data — will rarely accomplish much more among the believers than to send them scrambling for better reasons for holding fast to those beliefs.
That is, polemics like those of Sam Harris are based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of religion and may in fact be backfiring and strengthening religion’s power in the world. It’s only in recent times that I’ve begun to truly grasp this.
I 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.
Shirkat Gah (SG) (“place of participation”) has a strong web presence:
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  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.”
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.
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)
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 —
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.
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.
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)
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)
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).
Ironically people who identify Islamic terrorists with the “true beliefs of Islam” are (unknowingly) serving as mouthpieces for those terrorists. The fact is Islamic terrorists believe they alone represent true Islam and that the vast majority of those who profess to be Muslims deserve to die. Those terrorists would love nothing more than to hear everyone say it is they who demonstrate what true Islam is really all about! (All other Muslims, far from being “enablers of extremism” or “potential killers themselves” are really on their way to Hell, they say.)
This post shares some of the main findings of an article published in the peer-reviewed Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 364-378, “The Alchemy of Martyrdom: Jihadi Salafism and Debates over Suicide Bombings in the Muslim World”, by Mohammed M. Hafez.
(The terms ‘radical Islamists’, ‘jihadists‘ and ‘Jihadi Salafists‘ are used interchangeably. The terms exclude other Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood movements and Islamic nationalists such as Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah.)
This post covers three ways radical Islamists justify the killing of Muslims in their attacks —
their redefinition of Islamic piety, apostasy and heresy,
how they come to define their acts as martyrdom rather than suicide,
and how they unearth various texts of medieval scholars to justify the killing of civilians.
I trust readers will acknowledge the parameters of this discussion and not impute more into it than is concluded and for which evidence is advanced. There is far too much ignorant lunacy and dangerous fear-mongering being spread across the internet — not least from public intellectuals (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and co.) who ought to know better — and this series of posts on Vridar is the first of several that will attempt to shed some light on the actual facts, that is, the findings of scholarly research as published in reputable scholarly media.
The need for justification
We all need to justify what we consciously decide to do. Many of us even know of experiments that indicate we are unaware of the real reasons we decide to do X or Y and that the reasons we express, with conviction, can be demonstrated to be after-the-fact rationalizations. So human behaviour is not always a simple matter. That’s why so many different perspectives can add to the complexity of our understanding of ourselves — sociologists, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, economists, biologists . . .
The debate among radical Muslims
M. M. Hafez begins his article by noting that jihadists have, since the 1970s, become increasingly cruel and indiscriminate towards even fell0w (radical) Muslims, and have accordingly had to defend themselves against accusations unjustifiable killing. This has produced a rather bizarre debate among the most radical Islamists themselves!
At the heart of these debates is a central paradox.
On the one hand, radical Islamists must anchor their violence in classical Islamic texts and traditions in order to uphold their image as bearers of authentic Islam and as followers of divine commandments.
On the other hand, the classical Islamic tradition imposes constraints on many aspects of their violent activism. (pp. 364-5, my formatting)
Classical Islam’s constraints
Quran 4:29-30: ‘Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: For verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful! If any do that in rancor and injustice, — soon shall We cast them out into the Fire: And easy it is for Allah.’
A Prophetic tradition cited in Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari: ‘And whoever commits suicide with a piece of iron will be punished with the same piece of iron in the Hell Fire.’
Against killing fellow Muslims
Quran 4:93: ‘If a man kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell, to abide therein (For ever). And the wrath and curse of Allah are upon him, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for him.’
Against killing non-combatants
Quran 2:190: ‘Fight in the path of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for God does not love transgressors.’
Also in a Prophetic tradition quoted in Sahih Muslim: ‘It is narrated on the authority of ‘Abdullah that a woman was found killed in one of the battles fought by the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him). He disapproved of the killing of women and children.’
The intellectual father of Jihadism and his three arguments
One of the most influential publications of the twentieth century was Orientalism [link is to the Wikipedia article on the book] by Palestinian born American scholar Edward Said. The book has been translated into 36 languages and said to have revolutionized Middle Eastern studies in the U.S. Naturally, as with any major revolutionary work that challenges conventional ways of thinking, it has had its critics. I single out here some of Said’s commentary on Western attitudes towards Islam that I believe stand as valid today as they were when first published in 1978 and expanded in 1994. My own comments are in blue italics.
The principle dogmas of Orientalism:
The absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior.
Abstractions about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a “classical” Oriental civilization, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities.
The Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself, therefore it is assumed that a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically “objective.”
The Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominion) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible).
Every one of those dogmas has come through loud and clear in the the writings of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and others, as well, of course, in many recent comments on this blog. We do not have to get to know or learn about Muslims from their own writings or history; we only need to pick up the Koran to see our suspicions and fears confirmed.
Islamic Orientalism accordingly believes there are still things such as “an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche.”
It makes no difference whether we are talking about a situation in Bangladesh or events in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan or Bedford. The world is facing a threat from a singular religious belief system that threatens Western civilization.
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.
Almost half of Muslims polled in 2006 supported Osama bin Laden (49.9%).
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. Continue reading “Damned Lies, Statistics, and Muslims”
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 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.
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 soundbites.
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.
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 . . . .
Disclaimer: this post expresses my own view entirely. Others who also have posted on this blog may or may not think quite differently.
Time to get dirty hands and write about something important. Something unhealthy has been happening in the name of criticizing “tenets of religious belief . . . bad ideas and behaviors.” Prominent public intellectuals, in the name criticizing harmful religious beliefs, have become mouthpieces for ignorance and intolerance.
Just as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview. — Murtaza Hussain
Jerry Coyne, who has written probably one of the best books for generalists arguing the case for evolution, and whose blog I check from time to time for updates in the sciences, also from time to time posts disturbingly ignorant articles about Islam or Palestinians. Richard Dawkins, whom I respect and love as much as anyone does for his publications explaining evolution, was not very long ago interviewed by a Muslim on Al Jazeera and unashamedly threw off all his scientific training by relying entirely on anecdotal and media portrayals of Muslims. I have previously criticized Sam Harris for doing worse. Chris Hitchens, as much as I admire his works on Kissinger and Mother Teresa and his all-round wit, was guilty, too.
Over the last few days Jerry Coyne has been posting his disapproval of anyone suggesting his views on Islam (shared by the other names above) are Islamophobic. See Nasty atheist-bashing in Salon, Playing the Islamophobic Card and New Attacks on New Atheists (and one defense). He accuses such critics of quoting the likes of Harris out of context, of not defining what they mean by Islamophobia, of fallaciously accusing them of guilt by association with neo-fascists, and worst of all, of failing to address any of their actual criticisms of the Muslim religion.
Why are their criticisms of the Muslim religion wrong?
I am an atheist. I have experienced some of the best and worst of religion. I wish for a world where humanity has discovered that religion is long past its “use by” date. I believe that the Abrahamic religions in particular are responsible for immeasurable sufferings and torments among societies and individuals. I have no time for their belief systems. The sooner we all outgrow our awe of our holy books the better. (None of this means I believe in attacking individuals for their beliefs. There is a difference between criticizing belief systems and targeting individuals over their personal faith.)
I have compared different varieties of Christianity today with the various drugs on the market. Vapid Anglicanism is a mild aspirin. Happy Pentecostals are the happy marijuanas. I know of a few cults that are the deadly heroins. (They really do reduce addicts to ill health, poverty, anti-social life-styles and death, literally. Suicides, untreated illness, ignorance within and without the cults.)
A 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 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.
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.
Updated 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, 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