Trends and Flaws in Some Anti-Muslim Writing as Exemplified by Ibn Warraq
by Jeremiah D. McAuliffe, Jr., Ph.D.
Bism Allah, al-Rahman, al-Raheem….
The 1995 book “Why I Am Not A Muslim” by Ibn Warraq (ISBN 0-87975-984-4) seems to me to illustrate a number of important issues for today’s Muslim. These issues are related not only to how we understand and respond to those hostile to Islam. Disturbingly, Warraq’s book does validly reflect back to us the severity of the ummah’s current problems in the areas of religious education and Islamic practice.
In my general experience Muslims are often unskilled when it comes to responding to anti-Muslim polemic. In general, we only repeat back—parrot-like—what we have read in a few popular books, or what we have heard some impressive personality say. Many of us practice our religion only because “this is what our forefathers taught” and have failed to truly choose Islam in a mature and thoughtful manner. We understand and practice religion as do children and adolescents, rather than as adults. Because of this our skills and level of understanding are often inadequate to truly understand, and thus respond to, anti-Muslim propaganda. This is even more the case when we are confronted with valid criticism by anti-Muslims.
Warraq’s book is easily one of the more vicious anti-Muslim writings I’ve ever read that is of recent publication. This stems from his strange combination of valid criticism of contemporary Muslim practice and Muslim attitudes with what seems to be a real ignorance of what is actually communicated by the Qur’an and sunnah.
Warraq’s book is long, detailed, referenced and footnoted, but with extensive and glaring intellectual flaws. It would take a book twice as long as his to refute each of his errors. This paper shall first identify five general flaws that are present in Warraq’s work and are also often seen in other anti-Muslim writing. I shall then discuss some issues and problems specific to Warraq’s book. Throughout both parts I shall draw attention to areas that appear to me to be valid criticism.
PART I: FIVE GENERAL ERRORS COMMON TO WARRAQ AND OTHER ANTI-MUSLIM WRITERS
1. There is a failure to recognize that Islam emerges out of a past that is then integrated into Islam. Or rather, this is considered to be some kind of a flaw, rather than a simple fact of all human reality. Everything and everyone comes out of, is influenced by, and incorporates a cultural past. This would appear to be a simple fact of all reality, but seems to be a problem for anti-Muslims.
Islam, like anything in human experience, comes out of a very specific historical and cultural milieu. Thus, the word “Allah” was known and used before the Qur’anic revelation. Rituals and pilgrimages to the Ka’ba were practiced before the onset of the Qur’anic revelation and were then adapted for Muslim use. Muhammad (saws) knew of and interacted with the Jews and Christians and hanifs of the times—he was aware of their theologies. Arabic, like all languages, incorporated words from other languages which are then in the Qur’an. This is all accepted in Islam, and causes no problems. It seems strange to me that it would. Be that as it may, it is common in anti-Muslim writings to use the above points as some kind of a negative proof against our claim that the Qur’an is a revelation from God and Muhammad is a messenger from God. Warraq is no exception, though the logic of such a position escapes me. Indeed, it seems absurd and in denial of simple reality. He also, like others hostile to (or just grossly ignorant of) Islam portrays Muhammad as a power-hungry hedonist—perhaps not realizing that he is only repeating wartime propaganda from the Crusades?
2. There is a failure to treat the Qur’an and sunnah as a whole. Muslims themselves make this mistake, and so cannot be too upset when those hostile to Islam do it too. So, for instance, people will take ayats from the Qur’an with no reference to other qualifying ideas in the Qur’an and with no reference to the historical situation at the time of the incident of revelation. (And I didn’t even mention the centuries of commentary on the Qur’an and sunnah!) We often see this in Muslims who are possessed of an inordinate hatred for our Jewish cousins, or an inordinate hatred of non-Muslims, or who are harshly judgmental towards their Muslim brothers and sisters who may understand the Qur’an and sunnah a bit differently than they do. Such people will cite verses related to times of war, take them out of context, and disconnect them from the ethos presented by the Qur’an and sunnah as a whole. This same error is then used by those hostile to Islam in order to portray the Qur’an as advocating things such as aggressive violence and abuse of women.
This error can be a manipulative technique used by both violent and sexist Muslims, and by anti-Muslims trying to prove that Islam teaches and encourages violence and sexism.
We must always remember, and confront anti-Muslims with the idea that the Qur’an and sunnah present to us a whole, a gestalt, a total world-view, and an élan. Islam presents a unified, integrated, consonant portrait of all aspects of human reality. It denies nothing about actual human behavior and experience and so discusses all aspects of it and how the parts interrelate and, most importantly, how it can be ennobled and improved. The Qur’an acknowledges human behavior as it is, and seeks to ennoble it.
Islam presents what we might call the tawheedian world-view. Anti-Muslims do not grasp this, or realize what it means, or ignore it. Many Muslims who have been influenced by other types of world-view such as the ethnocentric, nationalist or Newtonian-Cartesian also fail to truly grasp this.
What this means in this context is that we cannot even accurately discuss Islamic views on topics such as gender relations or warfare without also, at the same time, discussing Islamic views on economics, social justice, sexuality, political relations, etc. In Islam, the whole illustrates the parts, and the parts, in turn, illustrate the whole. Any discussion of particular ayats that may appear to countenance aggressive violence or sexism must also, at the same time, refer to other seemingly unrelated topics. In Islam, many topics that may seem unrelated to some people are in fact related and shed light on each other and cannot be discussed apart from each other.
In the US we have a saying: “He misses the forest for the trees”. That is, the person is so caught up in details he misses the totality of what is in front of him or her, and so misunderstands that at which he or she is looking. A forest is a total ecosystem. Will the person who looks only at individual trees understand the dynamic system that is the whole forest? Of course not. So too, we have to “grasp the ethos” of the Qur’an and sunnah—the tawheedian world-view—attempt to communicate it to non-Muslims, and use it to rebut the misrepresentations of Islam put forth by anti-Muslims such as Ibn Warraq.
3. There is a failure to recognize Muslim self-criticism. The ummah as a whole knows this generation’s practice of our religion is, at best, poor. (Though we certainly debate the causes and cures of this test from God and pray we are the generation to establish an Islamic Renaissance.) I know of no Muslim who would argue that we today exemplify—by any stretch of the imagination—the principles and ideals of Islam. Anti-Muslims (including Warraq) ignore this. They will then hold up to us a mirror that does indeed reflect back our poor submission to the will of God, but they attempt to then portray this as normative, exemplary Islam.
When we acknowledge our own faults and defects and poor practice we are freed to respond effectively to those who would turn our faults into a weapon against the Qur’an and sunnah. Our collective and individual sins and defects do not indict the Qur’an and sunnah, they indict us.
4. There is a confusion of Arab or others’ cultural practices and customs with Islam. Again, this is something that many Muslims do themselves. Anti-Muslims such as Warraq will present unique ethnic cultural practices and beliefs that may appear negative or even repulsive to those from other cultural backgrounds. The manipulative technique is to then equate issues related that cultural practice to Islamic teaching, or to Islam’s effect upon that particular culture. Such attitudes ignore the incredible cultural and ethnic variety of the ummah and the simple demographic fact that most Muslims are not Arab, but Indonesian. This cultural and ethnic variety is rather apparent in the United States and seems difficult to ignore.
Islam presents the unique idea of a community that we might call post-ethnic and post-nationalist. Islam calls humanity to a community based upon shared belief in tawheedian monotheism—not upon blood, nor genetics, nor nationalist identity. Many people, however, express their ethnic and nationalist pride, identity or yearning in the name of Islam and use Islamic language and Islamic sounding rationalizations to cover up their true ethnocentric and nationalistic desires. We thus provide ammunition for anti-Muslim propagandists.
Muslims have failed to truly begin to disentangle Islamic ideals from socio-cultural expressions, and have not yet truly wrestled with the relation between Islamic principles—applicable to all times and people—and specific ethnic/cultural/nationalist realities that challenge today’s ummah.
5. Perhaps the greatest general error in Warraq’s writing, and in similar writings, is yet another error also practiced by many contemporary Muslims. It is a failure to recognize the importance of literary genre when approaching the Qur’an, or any text, for that matter. That is, what “type of book” is the Qur’an? The Qur’an is not a history book, nor is it a science text. At its most basic it is a book that addresses the issue of that Who (or which) transcends humanity—and it uses stories to do so. More specifically, it uses parables: stories meant not just for entertainment, but for teaching. Any specific legal injunctions in the Qur’an can only be understood with reference to the stories of the Qur’an. No anti-Muslim even attempts such a thing. Many Muslims seem to forget to do this.
Muslims set themselves up for problems when they try to convince non-Muslims of the truth of the Qur’an by resorting to the “scientific facts” approach to the Qur’an, or by portraying the Qur’an as some kind of a history book. It is not. It is a type of literature we call “scripture” and needs to be read properly as a scripture. (Indeed, does not the Qur’an itself mention something of how to read it?)
We do not read a book of poetry in the same way that we read a book on the science of botany. They are two different literary genres. Interestingly, both types can communicate truth about reality, but by using different methods of communication and styles of literature. We can read a poem about a tree and say “Yes, that is true of trees”. We can also read a scientific paper about a tree and say the exact same thing, but if we treated the poem like a scientific paper, or expect poetic beauty from a scientific paper we are going to be in big trouble rather quickly! So too, when Muslims treat the Qur’an as something it is not. We then have only ourselves to blame when anti-Muslims ridicule us by turning this against us.
When we understand the dynamics of literary genre and how that effects our understanding of any book whatsoever we are armed with a powerful weapon to refute the false statements of anti-Muslims.
The above five general points seem to be present in any type of anti-Muslim writing and Warraq’s book is no exception. And yet, at the same time, Warraq does point out problems with contemporary Muslim practice and with contemporary Muslim theology that are, in my opinion, right on target. For instance, he writes on page 149 that “Blind dogmatism has shut Muslims off from the intellectually challenging and exhilarating research, debate, and discussion of the last century and a half.” This appears to me to be true and at the heart of the issue. It is my opinion that Muslims are, in general, stuck within a Medieval theological mindset. In my opinion it is this collective failure to grow and develop theologically—represented by the phrase “closing the doors to ijtihad”—that gives birth to today’s poor practice of Islam and thus anti-Muslim books. If we were known for our piety, as we are to be known, who but the insane would be hostile towards us?
In addition, Warraq, and similar writers, will list atrocities done by Muslims, or done in the name of Islam, as if this somehow necessarily reflects upon the actual teachings of the Qur’an in light of the sunnah. The illogic of such a move is obvious to any thinking person and can be easily dismissed.
These books, though ostensibly about Islam per se, are in actuality about the poor state of contemporary Muslim practice and religious education. At the same time, this lack of theological sophistication that helps fuel anti-Muslim polemic also leaves the vast majority of Muslims without the intellectual tools needed to respond appropriately to anti-Muslim polemic such as Warraq’s.
PART II: SOME PROBLEMS SPECIFIC TO “WHY I AM NOT A MUSLIM”
In addition to the above general observations, and before we even begin to look at the actual text of Warraq’s book we can identify two major problems from simply perusing the preface and the bibliography.
1. There are a number of reasons why people may write overtly anti-Muslim books and this needs to be identified. We always need to ask: “What is the author’s agenda?” Some may write out of a genuine ignorance of Islam, others write in order to promote a theology other than Islam, such as Christianity, still others may be writing in a valid scholarly-critical manner for an academic audience. However, there are some who may write anti-Muslim polemic because they have been mistreated in the name of Islam and are, in actuality, expressing their anger and hurt over this abuse. Often, people who were abused as children in the name of religion will grow up to be rabidly anti-religious. This seems to be the case with Ibn Warraq who writes that he was born Muslim, but who now considers himself a secular humanist “who believes that all religions are sick men’s dreams, false—demonstrably false—and pernicious.” [emphasis mine] His acknowledgments extol triumph over “religious fascism”. Such a thing does exist, and does nothing but damage the souls of men and women.
His religious education as a child consisted of rote memorization of the Arabic Qur’an without comprehension and even before he could read or write his native language. He writes that religious dogma “had been foisted on me.” Clearly, none of this indicates an early religious education—or really even any experience associated with religion—that was pleasant and meaningful for him. (Though he doesn’t say so, one could reasonably suspect that this “education” might well have been accompanied by liberal doses of harsh words, yelling, or maybe even hitting.) We know this type of early negative experience can have a profound and lasting psychological and emotional effect upon the person’s adult attitudes, as it seems to have done to Ibn Warraq. The ummah as a whole may have contributed to the making of an Ibn Warraq by our own poor skills at religious education, by our own poor practice of Islam, and by our own theological backwardness and lack of sophistication.
2. There is a saying that “no one is so convinced as a convert.” As a revert to Islam from Catholic Christianity I can attest to this. I find it mind-boggling that someone who has actually read about and understood what Islam is could reject it, much less be hostile towards it. To me Islam is entrancingly beautiful, gentle, integrated, consonant and holistic. It is beautiful like a work of art. Islam is scenic, and yet dynamic. It is both like an object that can be gazed upon, and a promise of what one can become. Islam strikes me as what people want, though they may not themselves know that.
So, to me, for a person such as Warraq who was born Muslim, and who was, in spite of abuses, presumably educated in Islam, to then become hostile to Islam and even all religion puzzles me. Would not the person be able, as an adult, to distinguish between abuse done in the name of Islam with what the Qur’an truly teaches and the sunnah of Muhammad (saws) actually illustrates? But when we actually check Ibn Warraq’s references we find that he does not appear to have been educated in Islam at all. For all intents and purposes he refers only to what have been called “Orientalists”—a label made famous by Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”.
Said’s book is by now a modern classic. It details the self-centered—perhaps even racist—influence and perceptions evident in many standard Euro-American writers on Islam and Arab culture—writers who are accepted and cited uncritically by Warraq even though he is writing after publication of Said’s important work. (Said is not a Muslim.)
As Ibn Warraq goes about his rather vicious attack on Islam he does not attack actual Muslim writers, scholars or thinkers, but utilizes only a certain type of non-Muslim writing about Islam. Indeed, it appears that Ibn Warraq never did learn to truly read the Arabic Qur’an as it appears he has had to rely upon translations of the Qur’an. In addition, with all the various Qur’anic commentaries written over a millennium and a half, he relies on the only one that is generally and easily available to English speakers: Yusuf Ali’s. This is kind of strange. He does not substantively refer to one Muslim biography of Muhammad, nor to any of our literature on seerah. Names of classic Muslim writers—Ghazzali, Hanbali, Malik, Bukhari, Muslim, Rumi, Tabari, etc.—do not appear, or if they do it is without substantial analysis or a balanced presentation of the views of these prolific writers. Nor does Warraq refer to any contemporary Muslim writers such as Keller, Qaradawi, Rahman, Faruqi, Asad, Akbar, etc. Nor does he refer to balanced non-Muslim writing such as that by Karen Armstrong. How can such a work be taken seriously? It can’t. But it does look impressive.
This brings up a number of thoughts even before we have really looked at the actual body of the text: Warraq is not going to be talking about Islam as it is practiced and debated about by real Muslims, nor even as it was taught to him, but only as it appears to some non-Muslims, many of whom have been roundly criticized by Edward Said and typed into an entire style of scholarship called “Orientalism”. That is, Warraq is presenting how Islam might look to some who are outside of Islam and who, according to Said (of course, as well as many others, but Said gave it a name), appear to be bigoted, prejudiced, and perhaps even racist.
Essentially, Warraq’s book isn’t about Islam at all, nor about his experience being educated and raised as a Muslim. He states that he grew up in an Islamic country. Why then, are all of his references from the Euro-American non-Muslim traditions? I find this very odd. Presumably, he would have access to classical Muslim writing from his own (unidentified) culture. There is a surprising lack of personal anecdote in a book that at first glance seems so personal. We hear no stories about growing up Muslim. Is Ibn Warraq who he portrays himself to be? Another, similar book by an ex-Muslim also has strange peculiarities (“Answering Islam” by Abdul Saleeb and Norman Giesler) that cause me to wonder about the truthfulness of the author’s biography.
Warraq’s selective references must raise suspicions in our minds. Surely, it shows that he is not going to engage in a critical, responsible, balanced debate with Islamic teachings. And he doesn’t. Indeed, he himself implies that his work cannot be considered serious scholarship. Discussing a biography of Muhammad by Count Henre de Boulainvilliers he writes that de Boulainvilliers had “no knowledge of Arabic and had to rely on secondary sources; thus his work is by no means a work of serious scholarship.” (p. 19) By that standard, neither is Ibn Warraq’s.
He writes: “This book is first and foremost an assertion of my right to criticize everything and anything in Islam—even to blaspheme.” So, this is not a book of critical thought, it is the yelp of a hurt child, an angry adolescent, a bitter and resentful adult.
I must acknowledge, Warraq’s book is tough. Frankly, few Muslims would be able to respond to the material he presents. It is true that mainstream Muslim theology has failed to keep up with the times. The “closing the doors to ijtihad” was, in my opinion, a disastrous error and has left most of us—even our traditionally educated scholars—unprepared to respond to contemporary questions about Islam and unable to engage in effective da’wah with contemporary people. If Warraq did come from a traditional background where religious education consisted of the rote memorization of the Qur’an he indeed would be completely overwhelmed when first encountering non-Muslim methods of academic historical and textual critique and analysis. It simply isn’t a part of most Muslims’ experience or education. It is no wonder he was persuaded by the Orientalist literature.
However, what this means is that the average Muslim who reads this book may well come away from the experience shaken and unsettled. Now, to be sure, much of what Ibn Warraq says about Islam is easy to dismiss. His use of adjectives, such as “superstitious” when discussing the Hajj are rather easy-to-spot rhetorical devices. Many of his themes, too, will be familiar to any Muslim who has encountered Christian evangelicals. Some of these were discussed in Part I of this paper. For instance, in spite of the fact that the Qur’an describes itself as a confirmation and summing up of what has come before, Warraq, like evangelical Christians, will smugly write that “Muhammad brought nothing new” as if this is some kind of proof of Islam’s being inauthentic.
WARRAQ FAILS TO DEFINE SIGNIFICANT CONCEPTS AND TERMS
Warraq not only uses adjectives that are as subtle as a club, he also fails to define important terms. For instance, as said, he describes Muslim rituals such as the Hajj as “superstitious”, but he fails to enter into a discussion on the difference between a superstitious action and a ritual action. For anyone seeking to understand religious behavior and religious language such distinctions are of utmost importance and there is plenty of literature on the subject. It is especially important in light of the fact that standard Islamic teachings warn against anything that would hint of superstitious behavior. Ritual behavior is not the same as superstitious behavior though they may look the same to the outsider. Warraq doesn’t even recognize that there is an issue here. He thus displays an elementary and incomplete education in general religious studies. Obviously, he does not present traditional Muslim views on superstitious behavior.
He labels behaviors without defining what he means by the label and so displays a partial and incomplete education on the issues he is trying to discuss. By choosing adjectives with negative connotations he is thus able bash Islam, albeit in an intellectually vapid and heavy-handed manner that lacks any style or finesse.
Another example of this failure to define important terms is Warraq’s use of the word “myth” without defining or discussing the concept as it is used in general religious studies. For instance, he says that it is a myth that Muhammad was wise and tolerant, but without evidence as to why this is a myth and not history. He shows absolutely no awareness over the fact that myths are not “false”. They easily, and often do, accurately reflect and contain within their structure and content authentic history. This is a very important issue in general religious studies. Another is his failure to articulate the difference between the use of the word “philosophy” in Euro-American traditions, and as it is used in Muslim traditions. (Since my background is in philosophy this really sticks in my craw.) In classic Muslim writing “philosophers” are people engaged in inordinate speculation about things that cannot be known—the “unseen”. In the West, philosophy refers, in essence, to the skill of critical, abstract thinking.
It is obvious to me that Warraq simply hasn’t engaged in any serious religious studies or studies of religious language and behavior, much less related issues in philosophy such as ontology or epistemology. Or rather, his education has been partial and biased. This is often the case with both religious and irreligious extremists. He simply does not know what he his talking about. As the saying goes: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
WARRAQ IS NOT IMMERSED IN WESTERN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY
Warraq is not as familiar or conversant in Euro-American intellectual history as he portrays himself to be. This is devastating for him because he is relying on a subsection of that thought (i.e. the “Orientalist”) to attack Islam, and all religions in general, but has no perspective on how that subsection fits in with Western intellectual traditions as a whole. He makes numerous errors.
For instance, he writes on p. 16 “On the whole, Western society in general and the media in particular are totally uncritical of religion.” This is laughably absurd and just plain false. When one encounters such blanket statements—especially ones that are so obviously false—an alarm should sound in your head: “this guy has extremist tendencies”.
The United States was founded partly on a critique of religious power, and Euro-American history is strongly influenced by the Protestant (uh, “protest”) Reformation and religious traditions. It is Euro-American culture that gave us Marx, Freud, Neitzsche—all powerhouses of scathing religious critique.
He states that the eighteenth century “readily adopted the myth of Muhammad as a wise and tolerant ruler and lawgiver.” This would be news to anyone and Warraq doesn’t provide proof for such a blanket statement, nor is he clear on exactly who readily adopted this myth.
While there were some sympathetic Western treatments of Islam before the twentieth century there was by no means a wide-spread assumption regarding Muhammad as Warraq states. There still isn’t. Indeed, Warraq seems to contradict his own historical understanding by writing on page 22 that Carlyle’s 1841 account of Muhammad “is often considered the first truly sympathetic portrait… by a Western intellectual.” Presumably Warraq knows his centuries. How could this nineteenth century work be the first sympathetic portrait in the West when sympathetic “myths” were “readily adopted” in the eighteenth century? Warraq does not explain, but these types of sloppy errors must always cause the reader to pause and assess the author’s competence in the subject matter.
Warraq manhandles Western intellectual history by citing obscure writers and overly simplifying the complexity of Western thought on issues such as “the noble savage” and “moral relativity”. In addition, he attributes motivations to whole groups of Western intellectuals without the slightest evidence. For instance, he states that Christian writers of the last two centuries did not criticize Islam because “Christianity and Islam stood or fell together. They knew that if they started criticizing the dogmas…. of Islam, their own fantastic structure would start to crumble.” (p. 24) An astounding statement, to be sure!
Another example of this just plain sloppy thinking and writing is on p. 116. Warraq states he wants to argue that “Monotheism is not necessarily philosophically or metaphysically superior to polytheism, given that no proof for the existence of one and only one God is valid.” Now, the first part of this sentence may indeed be true, but notice his tricky use of the word “necessarily”. Of course it isn’t necessarily the case—at least not that can be proven, but that has nothing to do with the quality of any arguments on behalf of the superiority of monotheism (though Warraq attempts no substantive philosophical or metaphysical discussion of the issue). That it follows from the second statement is simply false and nicely displays Warraq’s illogic.
Though there is no scientific proof of God’s existence, neither is there proof that God does not exist, nor are their proofs that any type of deity exists or does not exist. It simply isn’t even a scientific issue subject to a laboratory type of testing. It is an issue of faith, and transcendence, and meaning in human life. Warraq shows no awareness at all of such issues, which he would need to discuss to truly undermine religion in and of itself, much less undermine Islam.
Another similar example of this sloppy illogic and partial education is when he discusses modern studies of Jesus (may our Lord’s peace and blessing be on him). This one made me chuckle it was so off-base:
Many European and American scholars of the last 150 years or so have centered their attention on the topic of the “historical Jesus”. The topic has recently been on the covers of popular US weekly news magazines. Of course, there are those who posit that Jesus never truly existed, though they may still respect the teachings of this (for them) fictional character. Serious scholars who doubt that a real person actually lived and taught are, to be sure, in a minority and to my understanding it is not actually considered a serious possibility. But Warraq, feeding his general anti-religion extremism, makes a mountain out of this molehill of speculative literature. In his zeal to grasp anything that might make all religions look bad he does nothing but clearly display his general ignorance of themes and trends in contemporary Christian theology.
Many standard Christian theologians make a distinction between “Jesus” as a regular man and “The Christ”—Jesus as an avenue of God’s revelation to humanity. Warraq gets really confused on this. He picked out the phrase “Christ-Myth” from a book thinking that the phrase questions the historicity of Jesus. It does not. He then quotes someone discussing the issue: “Scholarly opinion still holds… to the postulate of an historical figure whose life story was very soon displaced by… mythmaking activity.” Read it carefully. Warraq didn’t. (I have to laugh at this. pp. 147-148) He doesn’t grasp that the type of “mythmaking” being discussed here doesn’t imply the complete cover-up or destruction of historical reality. The “mythmaking” discussed in this type of writing refers to stories that can contain within them some true history, or even true statements about reality. This is a sure tip-off to someone who has an incomplete education in general religious studies as well as Christian theology.
On p. 119: “One of the great achievements of Muhammad, we are told, was ridding Arabia of polytheism. But this, I have tried to argue, is monotheistic arrogance. There are no compelling arguments in favor of monotheism, as opposed to polytheism.”
Read that quote carefully again. Does the last sentence connect with the first in a meaningful way? No. To rid a land of polytheism is in no way necessarily related to whether or not monotheism is indeed philosophically superior to polytheism. Indeed, from the first sentence one would expect Warraq to argue that Muhammad did not rid the land of polytheism.
Warraq is quite confused in his thinking and in his argumentation. What he has done here is something like this: “Americans, we are told, got rid of all blue automobiles. But this is automotive arrogance. There are no compelling arguments in favor of non-blue cars.”
Either they got rid of the cars or not, the arguments for that are another issue.
Warraq resorts to simplistic explanations of motivations and dynamics in order to explain extremely complex social changes. And so fails to, at times, make the slightest sense.
He attacks like this because so many Muslims will argue that monotheism is “superior” to polytheism—but this is not a philosophical argument used in the Qur’an, it is an item of revelation and so is accepted primarily on faith and only secondarily on reason. There is a big difference between the two! Our own lack of theological sophistication on such topics provides fuel for his anti-Muslim polemic.
He continues by recounting how some have noticed that when people move from polytheism to monotheism their old gods and goddesses may not actually disappear, but become a pantheon of angelic or demonic beings. (This can be clearly seen in some areas where Christianity merged with local custom, such as in parts of South America and Mexico, or in the religion of Santeria.) However, that this has happened in Islam is certainly not clear to me. Indeed, I’ve seen little if any evidence for such a thing.
For Warraq, the fact that the Qur’an declares the existence of angels and jinn does mean that Islam followed this same route. He quotes in support of his view the non-Muslim Edward Lane on the “five orders” of spiritual beings and other non-Qur’anic speculations about the jinn. In essence, what Warraq does is first cite a conclusion: pre-Islamic polytheism simply became Muslim belief in jinns and angels, and then tries to provide evidence to support his conclusion from secondary non-Muslim sources who are obviously reporting Islamic folklore, rather than the actual teachings of Islam from the Qur’an and sunnah.
(This is a good time to remind ourselves of one of Warraq’s admitted agendas: to express his right to say anything at all about Islam he so desires. The truth about Islam has little to do with his true motivations for writing this book.)
In sections like this Warraq is not arguing against the foundations of Islam: the Qur’an and sunnah, but what some Muslims have said and thought about the Qur’an and sunnah. This is a move similar to arguing against the whole of Christianity based upon what only certain Christians—such as those writing during the Inquisition—teach about Christianity. We cannot ignore the variety within a religious tradition if we want to argue against that religious tradition as a whole. But this is precisely what happens in just about any anti-Muslim writing I’ve encountered, Warraq is no exception. For him to present a list of every atrocity done in the name of Islam throughout history says nothing at all about Islam itself, only about some Muslims.
There are many more examples like those described above in Warraq’s writing. Suffice it to say that though he writes with an air of authority and uses many citations he simply doesn’t know his head from a hole in the ground when it comes to the history of Western philosophical and intellectual thought about religion. I find it highly ironic that he relies on Western writers, but then fails to truly grasp the intellectual milieu out of which they arise, and to which they are responding. In addition, he takes the folklore of some Muslims, and the speculations of some Muslims, and the poor practice of some Muslims, and seeks to present such things as the foundational teachings of Islam (which are the Qur’an and sunnah—all else is commentary) and so fashion a destructive critique of Islam. The only thing he destroys is the reader’s respect for his intellectual abilities, which appear deeply flawed.
WARRAQ FAILS TO EVEN APPEAR BALANCED OR OBJECTIVE
You will not find in Warraq one substantial word regarding the persecution of the Muslims in Mecca: the economic boycott, the assassination attempts, the physical and verbal abuse. You will not read a substantial account of how Muslims were forced to emigrate to Abyssinia, and forced to leave their homes in Mecca for Yathrib (Mecca) due to the abuse they received only because they taught and practiced tawheedian monotheism. You will not find a substantial treatment of the Muslim views regarding treaties with other tribes while in Medina, nor the accounts of how those treaties were broken. You’ll not hear about the Qur’aysh’s murderous, genocidal hatred of the Muslims, nor how the new religion of Islam threatened their privileged and moneyed status. You will however read (p. 92) “[Muhammad] was no more than the head of a robber community, unwilling to earn an honest living” because he raided Meccan caravans. There is no hint from Warraq that Muslims were in a defensive position born of weakness. They were people who had been forced from their homes, not an aggressors with superior strength and positions of power!
Warraq doesn’t even give the appearance of an objective critique of Muslim history and teachings. He doesn’t even give much indication that he is at all familiar with Muslim accounts of history. He gives no account of why they are not accurate. He only cites from the most rabid anti-Muslim “Orientialist” polemic without ever explaining why it should even be accepted in the first place (remember, he is writing after Said’s “Orientialism”). Muslim accounts are not only not accepted, they are barely mentioned.
Warraq is a historical revisionist, not unlike those who seek to revise the history of the Nazis in order to make them look less heinous. Warraq reverses this: he revises history to make Muhammad (saws) and the Muslims look like the most heinous of Nazis. He even describes Muhammad as a fascist.
WARRAQ’S PARANOIA AND SUSPICION OF SCHOLARS
To my mind, the section that really illustrates Warraq’s flaws, failures, ignorance, and frankly, paranoid suspicion, is in a discussion of a book by Ann Elizabeth Mayer entitled “Islam and Human Rights” (pp. 187-191). It is in this section that the negative effects of Warraq’s pathological hatred of Muslims on his intellectual skills and use of reason are so clearly displayed in all their tattered glory. It is actually kind of sad.
First, let’s review a bit. 1) Warraq’s purpose in writing this book is “first and foremost an assertion of my right to criticize everything and anything in Islam—even to blaspheme.” 2) In order to fulfill this agenda and express his hostility he will present only those quotes, citations and views of history that fulfill this agenda. Though the text looks like a serious work, it is not. 3) Because of this imbalance he fails to recognize the importance of certain terms and concepts in general religious studies and thus displays a level of education that is inadequate to the task he sets for himself, that is, if that task had anything to do with saying true things about Islam. 4) Also because of this lack of scholarly objectivity there are laughable errors in his understanding of Euro-American intellectual history, as well as in his understanding of Christian theology.
Mayer’s book is about abuse, injustice, and oppression in “Muslim” countries. What Warraq can’t stand is that Mayer properly makes the distinction between what Muslims may do in the name of Islam and what Islam’s foundational beliefs, principles, ideals and teachings really are. He writes:
Like practically every single book and article published since February 1989, [note: he is indeed aware of this literature, he just chose to ignore it all] especially for the nonspecialist reader, Ms. Mayer’s book is at pains to point out (1) that “Islam” is not monolithic, that there is no such thing as the Islamic tradition, or just “one correct Islam,” or one correct interpretation; (2) that, in the Islamic human rights schemes examined… it is not Islam that is at fault, it is, at most, one particular interpretation of it ... (3) that there is no such thing as the sharia, i.e., Islamic law did not freeze at some arbitrary point in the past; and (4) that, deep down, Islam may not be hostile to rights and democracy, after all. (p. 189)
Well, I say as a Muslim, as someone with at least some formal education in the areas of philosophy, psychology and religious studies, this is true. Well, except perhaps for the fact that we did “freeze” our growth and development as represented by the phrase “closing the doors to ijtihad”.
Mayer writes and studies in the field of law and human rights. Her book is for specialists, unlike Warraq’s implication.
Though he describes Mayer’s book as “excellent and very persuasive” Warraq just can’t stand the fact that Mayer recognized these obvious truths quoted above and so hurls at her what can only be construed as rank insults to any serious writer or scholar.
When an author such as Mayer qualifies her own work with statements that give the lie to Warraq’s perceptions he can only impugn the author’s intellectual honesty and academic character as follows:
However, a close reading of Ms. Mayer’s book reveals that after all she is only paying lip service, for ecumenical harmony, to the notion that there is no such thing as “Islam” about which we can make valid generalizations. [i.e. generalizations that are inimical to human rights]
Ms. Mayer is only possessed of “pious hopes” regarding the truth of her distinction between the foundational teachings of Islam and the injustice often done by people or political systems in the name of Islam. Her attempts to “exonerate” Islam (as if it is guilty of something) is “desperate” (p. 190) The evidence of her “desperation”? Her own preface wherein she writes as quoted by Warraq:
Even without studying the question of how Islam relates to human rights issues, my experience in work on behalf of the cause of human rights would have sufficed to convince me that Islam is not the cause of the human rights problems endemic to the Middle East….
Were I Ann Elizabeth Mayer I might well be outraged at such statements that impugn my own intellectual integrity in such a manner. I am also completely suspicious whether Warraq is reading her properly regarding core Islamic beliefs about which we can generalize. There are such core beliefs, obviously. They just are not as Warraq would have us believe, nor as his fevered brain has imagined them to be. Mayer knows this.
His paranoid suspicion of Mayer is quite telling, as he continues to make errors of logic and analysis when discussing her “desperate” attempts to distinguish between foundational Islamic principles and the atrocious behaviors done by many in the name of Islam.
It would be many weeks before I could obtain a copy of Mayer’s book to check the validity of my suspicions. And so, I called Dr. Ann Elizabeth Mayer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to solicit comment on this. (Obviously, and from her online vitae, she is no academic/scholarly slouch!)
We had a very interesting conversation. Though she had not read Warraq’s book others had told her of it. She had nothing kind to say about Warraq and writers like him. She considers Islam “beautiful” in its beliefs and is quite clearly distinguishing in her own work between the “political use of Islam in particular state systems that are oppressive” and the core values and principles of Islam that simply do not support the actions of those oppressive systems. People such as Warraq, she said, are completely intellectually bankrupt. They only have “an ax to grind”. She scathingly described at length her contempt and disdain for writers and anti-Muslim “hate-mongers” such as Warraq, and stated she wished such people wouldn’t even read her complex, balanced and scholarly works. She thinks that people such as Warraq eventually self-destruct, but that will not keep other hate-mongers from seizing upon his book to perpetuate anti-Muslim bigotry.
Mayer qualifies her own studies and makes disclaimers about exactly what she is studying. Any decent, honest, scholarly academician does this. Warraq clearly displays his perverse selection of facts to support his hostile agenda. He loves that Mayer documents human rights abuses in “Muslim” countries, but just cannot accept that Mayer does not blame core Islamic principles for these abuses.
It is also in this section that Warraq actually articulates, but then fails to recognize the significance of central issues pertaining to healthy or unhealthy Islamic practice. It is quoted above and, in essence, is the question: “Who’s interpretation of the Qur’an is correct?” Had Warraq stuck with this question and made it the focus of his book he could have picked and chosen among trends within Islamic practice and theology that may actually merit and call out for everyone’s hostility and disdain, not just Warraq’s.
Well, there is really not all that much I need to add. Warraq damns himself.
Muslims talk a good talk about “unity”, but the ummah is, in fact, sectarian. Who’s vision and understanding of the Qur’an and sunnah is correct? The Sufi? The Wahabi? The Taliban’s? Hamas’? The Khalifite? The Sunni? The Shia? Who is correct? Conservatives, modernists, traditionalists, etc. etc.?
Those who give witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God need to realize that unity does not mean uniformity. But we need unity in front of those who are actively hostile towards us. And that means being honest with ourselves and with others about our faults and defects. We cannot allow our own poor practice of Islam to be used in attacks against the Qur’an and Mohammad’s sunnah
It is unfortunate that in this day and age such overtly bigoted, ignorant, and intellectually dishonest books are still being written and published. However, in my opinion we need not fear them. Though such writings may anger us and hurt us, they can also challenge us to grow in our din. There is often mixed among the intellectual errors a mirror reflecting ourselves back to our view, and we may not like what we see, but we must face it with courage and honesty.
I pray that this short and by no means exhaustive paper will assist you to identify and respond to some of the errors we find in anti-Muslim writings, but I also pray that it has caused you to reflect on your own understanding of and practice of Islam.
And Allahu alim.
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