Knowledge Without Understanding


It’s safe to say that Tom Holland is one of the better popular historians going right now.  I thoroughly enjoyed his Rubicon, for instance.  And he takes on big subjects, like the origins of the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, and Christianity.  Now, he’s examining the origins of Islam using traditional scholarly techniques, in In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire.  I haven’t read it, this NPR interview shows both the promise of the book, and the utter cluelessness of the author in regards to modern Islam.

Holland is to be commended for questioning the founding myths of Islam (a myth, of course, is not necessarily untrue), and he ends up questioning Muhammed’s illiteracy, the time of the Koran’s authorship, and even Mecca as the original homeland of Mecca.

Jews and Christians are familiar with these sorts of critiques of their religious writings, but for Muslims, this is yet another encounter with a modernity in which Islam has fared poorly.  And Holland, for all his book-learning, seems to have absolutely no idea what he’s up against:

But what about those who say Holland shouldn’t question a sacred text? “I’m not a Muslim,” he says. “It seems to me that the Quran palpably is a late antique document. It recognizably comes from a certain context. And I don’t think that a Muslim would begrudge a non-Muslim an attempt to explain a text that he doesn’t believe to be of divine origin in human terms.”  (Emphasis added.)

Seriously?  In just this year, Kuwait has passed blasphemy laws, which include non-Muslims, and a Danish court acquitted a writer of violating its hate-speech laws, only because of intent to disseminate.  Last year, an Austrian court, convicted a woman of, “vilifying religious teachings.”  The countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have persistently tried to get western countries to sign on to the idea of “slander” of a religion.  Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, discussed the threat not only to European law but to US freedoms earlier this year at Hillsdale College, and the bill of particulars is worth reiterating:

Few in the West were concerned with such laws 20 years ago. Even if still on some statute books, they were only of historical interest. That began to change in 1989, when the late Ayatollah Khomeini, then Iran’s Supreme Leader, declared it the duty of every Muslim to kill British-based writer Salman Rushdie on the grounds that his novel, The Satanic Verses, was blasphemous. Rushdie has survived by living his life in hiding. Others connected with the book were not so fortunate: its Japanese translator was assassinated, its Italian translator was stabbed, its Norwegian publisher was shot, and 35 guests at a hotel hosting its Turkish publisher were burned to death in an arson attack.

More recently, we have seen eruptions of violence in reaction to Theo van Gogh’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film Submission, Danish and Swedish cartoons depicting Mohammed, the speech at Regensburg by Pope Benedict XVI on the topic of faith, reason, and religious violence, Geert Wilders’ film Fitna, and a false Newsweek report that the U.S. military had desecrated Korans at Guantanamo…

In an academic study of the famous Danish Cartoons, Yale University Press refused to print the cartoons, the very object of study.

Here in Denver, Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, a student at the University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, speaking at a mosque in Dearborn, exhorted young Muslims to enter to academy, specifically to prevent this kind of inquiry.  (Videos here, and here).

Holland apparently believes that because he’s a westerner applying academic principles to the Koran that he’ll be spared the wrath of the radicals.  He’s just spent years studying the origins and theology of Islam, an still can’t fathom that all too many of it current practitioners have a mindset that is not merely alien to his own, but utterly hostile to it.

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