Posts Tagged Islam

Knowledge With Understanding

Recently, I posted about author Tom Holland, and his NPR interview where he claimed that any Muslim should be able to understand how he, as a non-Muslim, could try to make historical sense of the Koran, since he wasn’t bound by Muslim doctrine.  Given the alarming level of violence directed by some Muslims (usually overseas) towards both Muslims and non-Muslims over the issue of blasphemy (for Muslims) or “slander” (for non-Muslims), I thought at the time, and still think, it represents the kind of self-delusion that one only finds with a high degree of education.

But the subject appears to be in the air, as they say, and Peter Berger at the American Interest has penned a more thoughtful andcontemplative piece about the role that historical scholarship, as applied to the Koran, might play in advancing the cause of Islamic reformers, and in undermining the more radical elements that are gaining ascendancy in the Muslim world.

The Society for Biblical Literature, “the largest professional association concerned with Biblical and related studies; it is now strongly committed to a theologically neutral methodology of modern historical scholarship,” is getting ready to add the Koran to its portfolio of religious texts that it studies.

In its self-description the SBL says that it is “devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible”. A co-director of the consultation says that it would, among other things, seek to approach the Koran in the context in which the text arose, “as an historical, literary and religious text.” “Critical”, “context”, “historical” – these are words, used in connection with the Koran, that could get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world. But let me leave aside for the moment the question of the likelihood that such an approach could get a hearing among traditional Muslims. Rather I will ask a different question:  Given the core affirmations of Islamic faith, is this approach religiously plausible for believing Muslims? It goes without saying that only Muslims can decide what they can or cannot believe; a non-Muslim can be a historian of Islam, he cannot be an Islamic theologian. However, a sympathetic outsider can ask a question that does not presuppose belief: Are there intellectual resources for such an approach within the Muslim tradition?

A short answer to this question is yes. This answer, though, needs to be explicated.

Berger then goes on to describe a Muslim school of thought that, while maintaining the divinity of the Koran, nevertheless leaves room open for its allegorical interpretation in places. Muslim reformers evidently often cite this school of thought and its methodology in support of their efforts to “reconcile Islam with pluralism, democracy and modern thought.”  It’s Berger’s contention that rationalist investigation into the Koran’s origin and development might not merely be left alone, as Holland hopes, but might actually inform such Islamic speculation.  How these discoveries would be integrated into Muslim thought would have to be left to Muslim theologians, of course.

If such ideas have a chance to work, they do here in the US, where most Muslims are far from radicalized, came here to get away from radicalization and its discontents, and where there is perhaps the most active effort to reconcile Islam with democracy and an officially secular society.  While Berger would probably deny that he’s underestimating the resistance that such ideas would meet in the Islamic world, I think he is, even here in the United States.  Both evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism are testaments (so to speak) to the ability of serious faith to simultaneously absorb and ignore historical scholarly scrutiny of their texts.

And then, there’s the outright hostility of the clergy.  Here’s Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, in a speech to a mosque in Dearborn.  Kazerooni is an odd duck, and I’ve written about him before.  An Iraqi Shia, he left Iraq as a teenager to study in an Iranian madrassah in Qom. He is totally in the tank for the Iranian mullahs, having “given over,” as they say, a speech by Ayatollah Mezbah Yazdi, Ahmedinejad’s spiritual advisor, on the 21st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, at a mosque in London.

Also, note that at the beginning of his talk, at about 9:00 of the first clip, he obliquely praises the then-recent news of Hebollah’s ascendance to the leadership of the Lebanese government.  So to go by external appearances is to deceive oneself about the nature of the man.

But here in Denver, he tries to portray himself as ecumenical, willing to work across religious lines for understanding between faiths.  He’s had some success, at one point heading St. John’s Episcopal’s Abrahamic Initiative.

Kazerooni is also a doctoral student at the University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, and quite clearly recognizes the threat that academic examination of Islamic tradition poses to orthodox Muslim belief. Beginning at around 1:50 of the clip below, he begins a long peroration, exhorting young Muslims to enter the academy, not to learn academic techniques, but to prevent and forestall their use as they relate to Islam:

So it’s not as though American Muslim clerisy is unaware of the threat to their authority and to traditional beliefs posed by academia.

Still, Berger’s is an interesting thought, and one that indicates a great deal more understanding of how Muslims view the world and their book than Holland’s naive assertions.

No Comments

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.

, , , ,

No Comments