Reading the Qur’an: Surah 31, Luqman

Surah 31, entitled “Luqman” after the legendary wise man who appears in it, is about wisdom. The question is whether there is any content to wisdom beyond simple adherence to Islam, and initially the answer may seem to be no. Luqman’s first line of dialogue, delivered to his son, reads, “O my son! join not in worship (others) with Allah. For false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing” (v. 13). Yet as the surah unfolds, it seems to me, we begin to discern the shape of a form of human wisdom that — while ultimately compatible with Islam — is not determined by its historical revelation, nor indeed by the historical intervention of any particular prophet into his society (interventions that as a rule occur when the society is beyond hope in any case).

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The problem of persuasion in the Qur’an

As my class slowly works its way through the Meccan revelations, we have arrived in the large group of surahs that recount the missions of the prophets. It is striking how consistent the pattern is. God judges a city or nation’s behavior to be beyond the pale and sends a prophet from among that group to warn them to change their ways. They scoff at the message, being unable to take seriously the idea that God could send a mere human messenger from their tribe. Ultimately, they are destroyed. The exact nature of the sin varies, but the outcome (with the exception of Jonah) does not.

Western ideology inclines us to see these passages as evidence of the violence of Islam, but what stands out to me is the extended meditations on the problem of persuasion. God clearly wants the people to be sincerely convinced by the sheer moral plausibility of the prophets’ message. Being persuaded by miraculous signs or converting under duress (as Pharaoh attempts to do in one passage) does not “count” — hence the claim that Muhammad’s only miracle is the message itself, the very clarity, persuasiveness, and beauty of the Qur’an.

I think that it’s in this context that we should understand the Qur’an’s approach to the infamous “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” This happens whenever God’s miraculous signs prompt Pharaoh to go along with Moses’ demands. In these cases, he is on the verge of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons — he is not intrinsically convinced of Moses’ message, but is only acting out of fear. Hence God isn’t constraining his will so much as returning it to its natural course.

To explain why people are usually not convinced, the Qur’an doesn’t need to resort to any extraordinary metaphysical explanations like the doctrine of original sin. It relies on characteristics of humanity that we are all familiar with: laziness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, pride… The role of Iblis/Satan is to prey on those weaknesses, but he is not consistently mentioned — in principle, we’re fully capable of screwing everything up all on our own. And if we weren’t, if there weren’t something in us that resists correction, then the persuasion wouldn’t be sincere when it does happen. It’s as though the only way to stack the decks in favor of sincere persuasion is to stack the decks against it.

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On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race.”

It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card: when a critic of Islam is accused of racism, they point out that “Islam is not a race.” I agree on a certain level. Islam is a faith that embraces believers on every continent, in hundreds of ethnic groups. While Arabic has a special privilege as a language, there is explicitly no racial requirement for accepting and practicing Islam.

That’s why it’s so strange that critics of Islam constantly treat Islam as though it’s a race. They claim to be nervous about the religion, but then it turns out that the largely secularized and only episodically observant “Muslim” population in France is a big problem for cultural homogeneity, for instance. And even when an intellectual from a Muslim background renounces Islam, they become famous precisely as an ex-Muslim. Within this rhetorical framework, Islam looks suspiciously like a race in the sense that it is a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.

What’s worth remembering here is that even the traditional racial categories “aren’t a race” in the sense of corresponding to an identifiable biological reality. Every race is a social construct. Even black Africans (the quintessential “race” of Western racism) were not “a race” before Westerners incorporated them into a racial hierarchy and began oppressing them on that basis. We usually think of racism as prejudice against a race that somehow preexists the prejudice, but the historical reality is the reverse. Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment.

Hence I propose that we are today witnessing the construction of Islam precisely as a race in Western discourse. Obviously the racialization of the Islamic Other has always been a part of the Western arsenal — though it’s interesting to note that the regions where Islam has been traditionally dominant (North Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent) have always fit awkwardly into the traditional scheme of races — but today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.

Hence the only response to the “Islam isn’t a race” dodge is, “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race.”

Reading the Qur’an: A follow-up

This summer, I wrote a post on my first impressions of reading the Qur’an. Many readers were disappointed by the negative tone, as the post focused mostly on what I found alienating in the text (such as its repetitive nature), even as I admitted that the Bible has many alienating features that I am simply more used to.

Nevertheless, within a couple months, I had signed myself up to spend much more time with the Qur’an, in the form of a semester-long course (PDF syllabus). I feel no trepidation at this point, and I even look forward to the opportunity to delve into the text more deeply. What was once alienating weirdness has come to seem like compelling uniqueness, and my fatigue with the text has been replaced by a genuine affection.

What changed? First, I spent a couple weeks talking through key surahs with Shimer students in my Intro to Islamic Thought course (PDF syllabus). Then I studied some other translations, including Michael Sells’ excellent Approaching the Qur’an (which seems to be the Qur’an’s answer to the Alter translations of the Hebrew Bible).

But I honestly think that the biggest factor is simply that time has passed and I’ve had more time to digest and reflect. And now I see that, as necessary as it may have been for practical purposes, my crash course through the Qur’an last summer was simply not the way you’re supposed to read the Qur’an. I was reading it like a regular Western book when it’s simply not that kind of text — indeed, when it’s fundamentally a unique, sui generis text that therefore needs to be lived with. I will never live with it in the way that Muslims do, and in fact I may never gain access to the original Arabic text. But I’m glad to have the chance to live with it in my limited way and to help my students sit with this bewildering and fascinating text for a while, too.

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Mapping European Anxiety Between Conversion and Submission

“Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace.”

An interview with Michel Houellebecq made its way into my twitter timeline. While I am tempted to read this new book I will admit at the outset that so far I’ve never finished a Houellebecq novel. I tried Atomised (or The Elementary Particles in the US translation), but it just felt a bit like sub-Vonnegut, self-indulgent gloominess. Of course there is plenty to be gloomy about, though I suspect Houellebecq is one of those contrarian types who in the drive to stake out their own purity shit on everyone else, especially those who are already not counted or are counted as less by the hegemonic forces in whatever society. So, in France that would of course include feminists (to a certain extent, for there is a form of feminism determined by the Enlightenment tradition that is rather reactionary) and immigrants (specifically postcolonial immigrants from North Africa). Reading the interview I felt more secure in my intuitions regarding Houellebecq, but in the midst of his clear trolling there was something like an insight. While there are moments of insight in Houellebecq’s own words, like the rather blunt pronouncement on the mainstream Enlightenment undergirding contemporary French identity, mostly I saw his remarks as simply manifesting a symptom that tells us something about European anxiety today. Read the rest of this entry »

Orientalism and non-translation

One thing that has stood out to me as I have undertaken my recent crash course in Islam is the sheer number of Arabic terms that are left untranslated. At times, even a dedicated student like me became bogged down in technical terminology that was left in Arabic even though it seemed as though there were suitable translations for most terms. The one that sticks out to me the most is falsafa, which is a kind of adaptation of the word “philosophy” into Arabic pronunciation. One could certainly understand the point of emphasizing that Arab philosophers kept the Greek term — but, then, you know, so did we. That insight could be conveyed in one sentence, and the term could be straightforwardly translated as “philosophy” after that point.

There are other more ambiguous cases, and I don’t want to adjudicate every one. Taken together, however, the mass of untranslated terms gives the impression that Islamic thought is somehow radically incompatible with Western languages and thought-patterns. Again, falsafa is a great example, because it makes Arabic philosophy seem like this bizarre foreign pursuit — when in fact they are quite literally drawing on the exact same sources as Western philosophy. That’s an extreme case, but in general it’s not as though Islamic thought is radically and incomprehensibly different from Western thought. In addition to its use of Western philosophy, it draws on the same monotheistic and prophetic heritage as Christianity and Judaism. I’m inclined to agree with Norman O. Brown, who claims in The Challenge of Islam that Islam is a reinterpretation and reappropriation of “our” Western traditions — and hence the “least foreign” foreign tradition out there.

Perhaps that very proximity is what creates the pressure to exoticize and obsfuscate Islamic concepts by leaving them untranslated a disproportionate amount of the time. And while some might argue that keeping the Arabic words is an attempt to maintain the differing layers of meaning, etc., in practice it most often serves to simplify the concepts. Take the concept of jihad — to a Muslim, it has many meanings that are generally in the ballpark of the English word “struggle.” If we translated it as “struggle” instead of leaving it in Arabic, we might understand how the concept could in some cases include something like violent resistence, while conceding that most of the time it would refer to the believer’s spiritual struggles. But once we’ve decided that jihad just means “holy war” — and what’s more, a particularly nefarious, specifically Islamic form of “holy war”! — then to most Western observers, it sounds like misleading apologetics when a Muslim tries to tell us what the term actually means for the average Muslim’s spiritual life.

When I pointed out the jihad example on Twitter, Adam Roberts responded that perhaps we could translate the term as Mein Kampf — and I think that’s actually a great example of the use of foreign words to exoticize, in this case defensively. It’s as though Hitler’s “struggle” in life is a specifically German phenomenon that could never be duplicated among sound-minded Anglophone people! The retention of the German title of Marx’s Das Kapital (with obligatory mispronunciation of Kapital as though it were a French word for good measure) serves much the same purpose of defensive exoticization. Never mind that Hitler had many sympathizers in the US and UK, never mind that Marx wrote Capital with England in mind and drawing primarily on English-language sources — it’s all foreign gibberish that we can never understand!

It is also possible, of course, to fetishize foreign-language terms as an attempt to appreciate or respect a foreign tradition — or earlier stages of one’s own, as when educated Christians treasure isolated New Testament Greek terms as precious talismans of the unparalleled genius of Christianity. Even if the motivation is “positive” in these cases, though, the effect is still exoticizing and obsfuscating. And just as with the “negative” deployment of the strategy, the stakes are most often political rather than scholarly or intellectual.

But enough of my blathering — what do you think, dear readers?

First Contact: What if Muslims had reached the New World first?

As I’ve been studying Islam, I have become increasingly fascinated by the question of whether the Native Americans would have been better off if Muslims had made “First Contact” rather than European Christians. Best of all, of course, would have been a few more centuries of independent development that would allow them to confront new arrivals as something closer to equals. Failing that, however, there would have been several advantages to Muslim rule:

  • Despite stereotypes, Islam did not rely heavily on mass, forced conversion. When entering a new region, they were happy to basically decapitate the current regime and rule by means of already-existing institutions, beginning a gradual process of reconciling local custom with Shari’a law, “nudging” people toward conversion to Islam via tax incentives, etc. In Indonesia, this meant that many inland indigenous cultures were able to exist more or less undisturbed for a surprisingly long time.
  • Differing views of cultural and ethnic pluralism in Islam would make the Islamic rulers much less likely to view the Native Americans as sub-human savages to be enslaved or exterminated.
  • Though Muslims would bring Old World diseases, it’s hard to imagine them “weaponizing” smallpox in the way that European settlers did (it just seems dishonorable) — and in any case, they had superior medical science well into the early modern period. On the plus side, they wouldn’t bring alcoholic beverages with them.
  • Islamic cultural ideals surrounding Bedouins would surely have worked in favor of the more nomadic North American tribes, who appeared especially foreign and incomprehensible to Europeans.

I’m already tensed and ready for someone to say in comments that everything would have played out identically no matter who got there first because humans are humans, etc., and I’m going to go ahead and warn you that any such fatalistic comments will be deleted — unless you have a concrete reason that some specific aspect of the Western conquest of the Americas would have played out similarly.

Two thoughts before I open it up for comments. First, I realize that there are good historical reasons that Muslim traders wouldn’t have bothered heading west from Africa — the whole reason the Europeans were looking for alternate routes to the Far East was that Muslims already had existing routes well in hand. Second, to briefly flesh out the obvious Star Trek analogy I’m evoking — I’d like to suggest that First Contact with the Muslims would have been like humans’ First Contact with the Vulcans, and what the Native Americans actually got was First Contact with the Borg.

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