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The Dogmatic Islamophilia of Western Islamologists

by Ibn Warraq (April 2010)


Consider the following remarks, and try to guess in what sort of publication they might have first appeared:

              "Archaeologists increasingly have questioned accepted assumptions about biblical history and the biblical narrative...."

              "Archaeological finds, however, at times call into question the historicity of the biblical narrative. For instance, some archaeological sites seem to deny Joshua's alleged conquest of Canaan by showing neither a destruction layer nor traces of walls nor even settlement from that era (e.g., Jericho, Ai). Realizing the highly theological and literary character of the Book of Joshua, some scholars have concluded that its accounts are selective and biased, having minimal historical value in reconstructing the events of the past."

                "There is no reference in Egyptian sources to Israel's sojourn in that country, and the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect."

                "Archaeological material has raised questions regarding certain assumptions and claims based on biblical literature. At times this evidence clearly contradicts biblical narrative; on other occasions, data that might have corroborated the literary account are conspicuously lacking."
         
No, these observations of a gently skeptical nature do not come from the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer but from a chapter by Lee I. Levine entitled "Biblical Archaeology" in Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, published by The Jewish Publication Society for The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in New York, 2001. Thus in a book that contains the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch along with an English translation and English commentary, we find a thoroughly objective, rational account of the implications of archaeology - science, in other words - for the historicity of the Torah. Even the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has absorbed the historical methodological insights of the Enlightenment and the Higher German Biblical Criticism, and has noted the perturbing consequences for the believer.
               
One cannot imagine a similar introduction to a translation of the Koran, which, in fact, has not been submitted to a skeptical scrutiny.The reasons for the reticence of many Western scholars of Islam to submit it to rigrous analysis are many and various, including:

  • Political correctness leading to Islamic correctness;
  • The fear of playing into the hands of racists or reactionaries to the detriment of the West's Muslim minorities;
  • Commercial or economic motives;
  • Feelings of post-colonial guilt (where the entire planet's problems are attributed to the West's wicked ways and intentions);
  • Plain physical fear;
  • Intellectual terrorism of writers such as Edward Said.
Said not only taught an entire generation of Arabs the wonderful art of self-pity, but also intimidated feeble western academics, and even weaker, invariably leftish, intellectuals into accepting that any criticism of Islam was to be dismissed as orientalism, and hence invalid.
                
But the first duty of the intellectual is to tell the truth. Truth is not much in fashion in this postmodern age when continental charlatans have infected Anglo-American intellectuals with the thought that objective knowledge is not only undesirable but unobtainable. I believe that to abandon the idea of truth not only leads to political fascism, but stops dead all intellectual inquiry. To give up the notion of truth means forsaking the goal of acquiring knowledge. But man, as Aristotle put it, by nature strives to know. Truth, science, intellectual inquiry and rationality are inextricably bound together. Relativism, and its illegitimate offspring, multiculturalism, are not conducive to the critical examination of Islam.
               
Said wrote a polemical book, Orientalism, in 1978. Its pernicious influence is still felt in all departments of Islamic studies, where any critical discussion of Islam is ruled out a priori. For Said, orientalists are involved in an evil conspiracy to denigrate Islam, to maintain its people in a state of permanent subjugation and are a threat to Islam's future. These orientalists are seeking knowledge of oriental peoples only in order to dominate them; most are in the service of imperialism.                
             
Three further factors need to be taken into account to explain the otherwise puzzling spectacle of Western scholars swallowing whole the entire Islamic narrative as to its own rise and formation.
             
First, the first modern apologists of Islam - even in its fundamentalist mode - were Christian scholars who perceived a common danger in certain economic, philosophical, and social developments in the West: the rise of rationalism, scepticism, atheism, secularism; the Industrial Revolution; the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism and materialism. Sir Hamilton Gibb writes of Islam as a Christian "engaged in a common spiritual enterprise."
[1] But let us beware of skepticism: "Both Christianity and Islam suffer under the weight of worldly pressure, and the attack of scientific atheists and their like," laments Norman Daniel.[2]
             
Hence the tendency amongst Christian scholars to be rather uncritical; a tendency to wish not to offend Muslim friends and Muslim colleagues. Either there were explicit apologies, if the writer felt there was something offensive to Muslim eyes, or to use various devices to avoid seeming to take sides, or to avoid judging whatever issue was under discussion.
        
Christian scholars such as Watt, who was curate of St. Mary Boltons, London, and Old St Paul's, Edinburgh, an ordained Episcopalian minister, and who was one of the most influential Islamic scholars in Britain of the last fifty years, and Sir Hamilton Gibb saw skepticism, atheism and communism as the common enemy of all true religion. They followed Carlyle in hoping for spiritual inspiration from the East. Here is Watt: "Islam- or perhaps one should rather say, the East - has tended to overemphasize Divine sovereignty, whereas in the West too much influence has been attributed to man's will, especially in recent times. Both have strayed from the true path, though in different directions. The West has probably something to learn of that aspect of truth which has been so clearly apprehended in the East."
         
Throughout his article Religion and Anti-Religion, Professor Watt can barely disguise his contempt for secularism. "The wave of secularism and materialism is
receding," notes Watt with approval, "most serious minded men in the Middle East realize the gravity of the problems of the present time, and are therefore aware of the
need for a religion that will enable them to cope with the situations that arise from the impingement of these problems on their personal lives." Watt then goes on to discuss the work of Manfred Halpern, who "speaks of the Muslim Brethren in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, together with movements like Fida'iyan - i Islam in Persia and Khaksars
and Jama'at-i Islam in Pakistan, as neo-Islamic totalitarianism, and points out their resemblances to fascism, including the National Socialism of Germany under
Adolf Hitler. From a purely political point of view this may be justified, and the resemblances certainly exist. Yet in a wider perspective this characterisation is misleading. It is true that these movements sometimes 'concentrate on mobilizing passion and violence to enlarge the power of their charismatic leader and the solidarity of the movement ... ' , and that 'they champion the values and emotions of a heroic
past, but repress all critical analysis of either past roots or present problems'. Yet political ineptitude and even failure do not outweigh their positive significance as marking a resurgence of religion ... The neo-Islamic mass movements, far from being tantamount to national socialism or fascism are likely to be an important barrier against such a development." [3]
         
Watt's wonderful euphemism for fascism is "political ineptitude" and we are asked to overlook this fascism, and instead asked to admire it for its "positive significance as marking a resurgence of religion." Watt's support for, what Amir Taheri calls, Holy Terrorists is worth pondering. It must not be forgotten that the Muslim Brethren was a terrorist organisation whose founder made no secret of his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. After the end of the Second World War, Hassan's Muslim Brethren launched a series of attacks at civilian targets; cinemas, hotels and restaurants were bombed or set on fire, women incorrectly dressed were attacked with knifes. There were also a series of assassinations. Yes; we are asked to overlook this in the name of religious resurgence.
      
Watt reveals even more disturbing qualities - a mistrust of the intellect and a rejection of the importance of historical objectivity and truth: "This emphasis on historicity, however, has as its complement a neglect of symbols; and it may be that ultimately
'symbolic truth ' is more important than 'historical truth'."[4]
        
In "Introduction to the Quran," Watt seems to have a very tenuous grasp on the notion of truth - indeed objective truth is abandoned altogether in favour of total subjectivism "... the systems of of ideas followed by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others are all true in so far as they enable human beings to have a more or less satisfactory 'experience of life as a whole'. So far as observation can tell, none of the great systems is markedly inferior or superior to the others. Each is therefore true. In
particular the Quran is in this sense true. The fact that the Quranic conception of the unity of God appears to contradict the Christian conception of God does not imply that either system is false, nor even that either conception is false. Each conception is true in that it is part of a system which is true. In so far as some conception in a system seems to contradict the accepted teaching of science - or, that of history in so far as it is objective - that contradiction raises problems for the adherents of the system, but does not prove that the system as a whole is inferior to others. That is to say, the Quranic assertion that the Jews did not kill Jesus does not prove that the Quranic system as a whole is inferior to the Christian, even on the assumption that the crucifixion is an objective fact." [5]
                 
In this astonishing passage of intellectual dishonesty, Watt performs all sorts of mental gymnastics in an effort to please everyone, not to offend anyone. Leaving aside the problem of the vagueness of Watt's terminology - terms like "experience of life as a whole," "conception," "Quranic system" - we can now understand what we set out to
understand at the beginning of this enquiry, namely, why British Islamicists have been so uncritical of Islam.
                  
"The non-Muslim scholar, continues Watt, "is not concerned with any question of ultimate truth, since that, it has been suggested, cannot be attained by man. He assumes the truth [my emphasis, I.W.], in the relative sense just explained, of the Quranic ststem of ideas." Under such conditions, the scholar is not likely to be critical of anyone's "belief system" as long as it meets his or her "spiritual needs."
                
The above attitude exeplified by Watt was brilliantly exposed and attacked by Julien Benda in his classic "Betrayal of the Intellectuals." He wrote, "But the modern 'clerks' [intellectuals] have held up universal truth to the scorn of mankind, as well as universal morality. Here the 'clerks' have positively shown genius in their effort to serve the passions of the laymen. It is obvious that truth is a great impediment to those who wish to set themselves up as distinct; from the very moment when they accept truth, it condemns them to be conscious of themselves in a universal. What a joy for them to learn that this universal is a mere phantom, that there exist only particular truths, 'Lorrain truths, Provencal truths, Britanny truths, the harmony of which in the course of centuries constitutes what is beneficial, respectable, true in France".
[6] Watt would add "a Muslim truth, a Christian truth, and so on; or as he put in Islamic Revelation, "Each [great religion] is valid in a particular cultural region, but not beyond that."[7]
              
The sentimental ecumenical tradition established by scholars such as Watt and Gibb continues to this day. We can follow the gradual introduction of this tradition in the pages of the journal The Muslim World, which was founded in 1911 [originally titled The Moslem World] to promote the work of Christian Missionaries in the Middle East. Since 1938 it has been edited by the Hartford Seminary. The first issues of the journal were highly critical of various aspects of Islam- I have already cited Charles Watson's description of Islam as totalitarian which appeared in its pages in 1937. Its first editor was a committed Christian and a considerable scholar, Samuel Zwemer [1867-1952]
. In
1929 he was appointed Professor of Missions and Professor of the History of Religion at the Princeton Theological Seminary where he taught until 1951. He had an almost perfect command of Arabic and a thorough knowledge of the Koran, often referred to as "the lion-hearted missionary who tried to confound the Muslims out of their own scriptures using the Christian Bible."[8]
           
By the late 1940s, however, the journal began publishing articles very favorable to Islam, and by 1950s its pages were dominated by scholars such as Watt. It is now co-edited by a Muslim and a Christian - converting Muslims to Christianity is no longer considered respectable by Liberal Christians who instead bend over backwards to accommodate Muslims - as for example calling on all Christians to use the term "Allah" instead of God:
[9] generous gestures not reciprocated by the Muslims.
            
To bring the story to the present, one cannot leave out the case of John Esposito, a Catholic, and P
rofessor of International Affairs and
Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is also the director of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the same university. While studying for his doctorate at Temple University, Esposito came under the influence of the Islamist, Ismail R. Faruqi, "Palestinian pan-Islamist and theorist of the 'Islamization of knowledge', around whom had developed a personality cult."[10] Esposito tried to present Islam and Islamism in western categories thereby hoping to create a more favorable attitude to them in the West.

"Why not place Islamist movements in the political category of participation, or even democratization?"
[11] Esposito then went on claim that Islamist movements were nothing other than movements of democratic reform! It was sheer "Orientalist" prejudice that prevented Westerners from seeing this. Esposito wrote that Americans would "have to transcend their narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy" to understand Islamic democracy that might create effective systems of popular participation, though unlike the Westminster model or the American system."[12]
           
Esposito, and his close collaborator, John Voll asserted with great confidence that every Islamist state or movement was either democratic or potentially democratic. John Voll appeared before a congressional committee in 1992 pleading on behalf of Sudan, which Kramer describes aptly as "a place without political parties, ruled by a military junta in league with an Islamist ideologue." For Voll the Sudanese regime was "an effort to create consensual rather than a conflict format for popular political particpation," and in his opinion, "It is not possible, even using exclusively Western political experience as basis for defintion, to state that if a system does not have two parties, it is not democratic."
[13]
              
Martin Kramer sums up Voll's grotesque apology for Islamism thus: "And so American congressman were instructed by the president-elect of MESA [Middle East Studies Association] that a country with no political parties, presided over by a coup-plotting general, ridden by civil war, with a per capita gross domestic product of $200, still might qualify somehow as democracy. This was not deliberate self-parody; it was merely Esposito's logic advanced ad absurdum."
[14]
               
Just months before 9/11, Esposito wrote, "focusing on Usama bin Laden risks catapulting one of the many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources and the relevance of one man." Still earlier he had predicted that the 1990s would "be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West." In 1994, he claimed that Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, was only a community-focused group that engages in "honey, cheese-making, and home-based clothing manufacture." While he saw nothing sinister in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat's call for Jihad, it was in reality comparable to a "literacy campaign."
            
After 9/11, Esposito blamed America first. "September 11," he said, "has made everyone aware of the fact that not addressing the kinds of issues involved here, of tolerance and pluralism, have catastrophic repercussions."
              
Even more disgracefully, Esposito refuses to acknowledge that the application of the Shari'a, or Islamic law, inevitably leads to a totalitarian society as in former Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, present-day Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. Freedom House ranks these countries as the worst offenders of human rights in the world. Furthermore, each one of these countries has been linked to the export of international terrorism. And yet, Esposito writes that "contrary to what some have advised, the United States should not in principle object to implementation of Islamic law or involvement of Islamic activists in government."
[15]
            
Second factor leading to the apologetic nature of Islamologists is Saudi money being poured into Western universities. In December, 2005, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the grandson of Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the founding king of Saudi Arabia, gave Georgetown and Harvard University $20 million each. Anthony Glees
[16] has demonstrated that eight British universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have accepted �233.5 million from Saudi Arabia. Prof Glees claimed that the propagation of one-sided views of Islam and the Middle East at universities amounted to anti-Western propaganda. Glees said, "Britain's universities will have to generate two national cultures: one non-Muslim and largely secular, the other Muslim. We will have two identities, two sets of allegiance and two legal and political systems. This must, by the Government's own logic, hugely increase the risk of terrorism."
             
A report in the Guardian [U.K.] quoted Dr Denis MacEoin, Islam expert at Newcastle University, as saying that academics were nervous about handling topics that might upset their sponsors: " 'It's part of an overall belief that only Muslims can teach Islam, which in an academic context is entirely wrong. It would soon remove the possibility for genuine academic debate.' He said increasing numbers of students with Salafist - a more traditional form of Islam - backgrounds were taking Islamic studies and could be upset by 'proper academic critical debate'. 'It does threaten academic freedom and critical thinking,' he warned."
[17] Dr. MacEoin was dismissed many years ago from his university post because his ideas were not acceptable to the Saudis funding the Islamic department.[18]
         
The third factor which inhibits the critical scrutiny of the Koran and the whole Islamic Tradition is the presence of Islamic colleagues on campuses throughout the Western world. Starting probably in the 1960s, Western universities in their search for diversity began appointing Muslims to teach about Islam - as though only Muslims were qualified enough to teach it. Some of them were competent and rigorous but many Muslim scholars, unfortunately, were also incompetent, and were tenured early on despite the poverty of their scholarship. They now wield enormous power on these campuses, and faculty heads are terrified of rocking the boat, and offending their Muslim colleagues who can shamelessly mobilize local imams to create bad publicity if, for example, the Islamic Department tries to invite a scholar such as Christoph Luxenberg. Professor Joseph Hoffmann had originally planned to hold a conference that looked skeptically at the sources and scriptures of the three Abrahamic religions at a well-known divinity school in Eastern United States, but had to abandon the idea because of the hostility of
one Muslim faculty member. (The conference eventually did take place on the West coast in 2007.)            
            
The unfortunate result is that academics can no longer do their work honestly. A scholar working on recently discovered Koranic manuscripts showed some of his startling conclusions to a distinguished colleague, a world expert on the Koran. The latter did not ask, "What is the evidence, what are your arguments, is it true?" The colleague simply warned him that his thesis was unacceptable because it would upset Muslims.

Western scholars need to defend unflinchingly our right to examine Islam, to explain its rise and fall by the normal mechanisms of human history, according to the objective standards of historical methodology.
           
Democracy depends on freedom of thought and free discussion. The notion of infallibility is profoundly undemocratic and unscientific. It is perverse for the western media to lament the lack of an Islamic reformation and wilfully ignore books such as Anwar Shaikh's Islam - The Arab Imperialism, or my Why I am Not a Muslim. How do they think reformation will come about if not with criticism?
 


[1] H.A.R.Gibb. Modern Trends in Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947.
[2] Norman Daniel. Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1960, p.307.
[3] William Montgomery Watt, Religion and Anti-Religion, in Religion in the Middle East:Three Religions in Conflict and Concord, ed. A.J.Arberry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp.625-627
[4] William Montogomery Watt, Islamic Revelation in the Modern World, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1969, p.116
[5] William Montogomery Watt, Introduction to the Quran, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,1977 p.183.
[6] Julien Benda The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, pp.76-77.
[7] William Montogomery Watt, Islam and the Integration of Society, London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1961, p.278
[8] Samuel Zwemer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Marinus_Zwemer : accessed 15 November, 2007.
[9] In August, 2007,Bishop of Breda, Tiny Muskens: http://www.worldnetdaily.com/staticarticles/article57178.html, accessed 15 November, 2007.
[10] Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.49.
[11] Ibid.,p.50
[12]    John Voll and John L. Esposito, "Islam's Democratic Essence", Middle East Quarterly 1, no.3 (September 1994) p.11, quoted in Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.50
[13] Quoted in Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.50
[14] Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, pp.50-51
[15] All the quotes in the last three paragraphs are from Campus Watch, Esposito: Apologist for Militant Islam, published by FrontPage Magazine, September 3 2002, accessed Nov.30, 2007
[16] Ben Leach, " 'Extremism' Fear in Islam Studies Donations" in Telegraph On-line, 13 April, 2008, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1584954/Extremism-fear-over-Islam-studies-donations.html. Accessed, 29 March, 2010.
[17] Anthea Lipsett, Concerns over Funding of Islamic Studies, 17 April, 2008.Guardian, available at
[18] Daniel Easterman. New Jerusalems, London, 1992, pp.92-93.


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