Twenty-Five (Out Of One Hundred) Things We All Should Know About Islam
by Hugh Fitzgerald (December 2009)
There is one other duty, a duty so great that it has been called the Sixth Pillar of Islam. This is the duty to participate, directly or indirectly, individually or collectively, depending on certain circumstances, in the struggle, or Jihad, to remove all obstacles, everywhere in the world, to the spread, and then the dominance, of Islam.
The main texts of Islam are the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sira. The Qur’an is the Uncreated and Literal Word of God. It cannot be changed. It contains contradictions within itself, which long ago were resolved in favor of what are thought to be the later (some call them “Medinan”) and harsher verses (“harsher” because once Muhammad had won Medina, he no longer had to curry favor with anyone, and could afford to be as harsh as he pleased). The interpretive vehicle for preferring the later, harsher verses is “abrogation” or naskh. The doctrine dates back more than a millennium, and it is too late to undo the doctrine of “abrogation” though at least one commentator suggested that as a possible “way out” (presumably, modifying some, but not much, of the harshness of the Qur’an).
The Hadith are the written records of what Muhammad said and did. In the centuries immediately following what Muslims believe was the death of Muhammad (whether he was real, or imaginary, hardly matters), many Hadith were created by imaginative Muslims. It became the job of specialists – muhaddithin – to study the existing Hadith,to subject them to examination so as to winnow down the tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of stories about Muhammad — Hadith — that existed to a manageable number. These muhaddithin in the main relied on study of the isnad-chain – that is, study of the transmission o f various Hadith (the plural in Arabic is ahadith, but convention in English allows for either ahadith or hadith as the plural) back as far as possible, ideally to the time of Muhammad and an eyewitness to what he said or did.
The muhaddithin did make the study of isnad-chains into a kind of laborious and, by our lights, sterile art, and in so doing did manage to winnow down the existing Hadith to a few thousand. There are many collections of Hadith. But six collections of them, identified by the word “Sahih,” , by six different muhaddithin, are regarded as the most reliable. And among those six, two – those compiled by Al-Bukhari and Muslim – are treated with the greatest respect. Rather than employing an Accept/Reject system, the muhaddithin established categories of likely authenticity, and proceeded to rank each Hadith according to those ranks. A Hadith that is assigned a high rank of authenticity by Al-Bukhari or Muslim will have much greater authority than one that is assigned to the lowest rank of authenticity by them, or given a middle rank by one of the muhaddithin deemed less authoritative.
The Sira is not just any biography of Muhammad, but the Biography of Muhammad, the life and times of Muhammad, as written by Muslims. Unlike the Hadith, which are stories about everything from the treatment of women to the nature of the universe to bathroom hygiene, chronological in nature, in no particular order, the Sira is chronological. It tells the story of Muhammad, and in particular, it tells of the progressive revelation, over 23 years, by the Angel Gabriel, of Allah’s Message to Muhammad, Messenger of God, Seal of the Prophets. The very first, and indispensable, contribution to “the Biography of Muhammad” is believed to be that by Ibn Ishaq, who lived some 150 years after Muhammad had died. And that biography was written down not by Ibn Ishaq himself, but by someone who lived even later than Ibn Ishaq, one Ibn Hashem. Given that chronology, little faith can be put in the Sira by those who have no faith in Islam. But Muslims do not care; they believe the Sira, as they believe in the Hadith and in the ranking systems of those they consider the most authoritative muhaddithin. And that is what matters — what Muslims believe Muhammad said and did, and what his life and times were like. Even if it turns out that some scholars of early Islam call into question the very existence of Muhammad, that still will have no effect on the minds of Muslims, however interesting a question it might be for the rest of us.
The texts – Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira – have been the subjects of generations of commentators. A commentary on the Qur’an is called a tafsir, and the commentaries are particularly important because the language, and meaning, of some Qur’anic passages require elucidation. The scholar Christoph Luxenberg, a philologist who is a native speaker of Arabic, and a great authority on Syriac (the version of Aramaic spoken in the region of Edessa) claims that 20% of the Qur’an is incomprehensible even to native speakers familiar with classical Arabic. Luxenberg believes that the Ur-text of the Qur’an is Syriac, possibly the language of a Christian lectionary; he argues that many of the knottiest philological problems in the Qur’an are susceptible of solution if one posits such an Ur-text, written not in Arabic but in Aramaic, or rather in that version of Aramaic known as Syriac. It is not possible to read the Qur’an and grasp its meaning without making use of the most authoritative Muslim commentators. For it is they who serve as the guide to the meaning of passages that cry out for exegetical glosses.
The Sunna – essentially, the manners and customs of the Arabs in the days of Muhammad – matters to Muslims, or most Muslims, as much as the Qur’an. It has even been said that the Sunna could exist without the Qur’an, but not the Qur’an without the essential gloss of the Sunna. And the Sunna is founded on, consists largely of, comes out of, the Hadith and the Sira, that is the life – words, deeds and stories about – Muhammad. He, not the figure of Allah, is the central figure in Islam. Muhammad is mentioned four times as often as Allah in the Qur’an. He is the Model of Conduct – uswa hasana – a phrase used in the Qur’an exactly three times, the other two times both in relation to Abraham. He is, furthermore, the Perfect Man, al-insan al-kamil, and everything he did, as a consequence, was Perfect. Whatever he did was right. Some of what he did is exclusive to him – he had nine wives and two concubines, but ordinary mortal Muslims are allowed four wives only. However, much of what he did is not limited to him but is worthy of emulation. Little Aisha caught his fancy when she was six, and as the daughter of his good friend, was considered betrothed at that point, but Muhammad contained himself, waiting until she reached the reasonable age of nine before consummating, with sexual intercourse, his marriage to her. That might have been thought one of the details of his life – such as nine as the number of wives – that ordinary Muslims would not have been allowed to emulate. But it turns out that the detail of the child bride, little Aisha, is not regarded by Muslims as embarrassing – though with Westerners who raise the matter of Aisha, in a manner that suggests dismay or horror, they have started to offer various strategies of pretend denial: she wasn’t really nine years old, but possibly nineteen (she was, for god’s sake, on a swing, and playing with her toys), or she had already reached puberty and that was what counted, or this, or that, and besides, that was then and this is now (but Muhammad is regarded as a Model For All Time, the Perfect Man For All Time).
If the subject of little Aisha comes up – and in any conversation or discussion of Islam between Muslims and non-Muslims the latter should be sure to raise the matter of little Aisha, non-Muslims should understand that Aisha matters because she is not merely a figure in the distant and unrepeatable past. That learned theologian of Islam, the Ayatollah Khomeini, as one of his very first acts as the ruler of the Islamic Republic of Iran, lowered the marriageable age of girls to nine years. Khomeini himself had many decades ago married a girl of ten, but that was before the secularist Shah, that terrible man (what can you expect of someone who attends boarding school in Switzerland, and forgets his roots?) , raised the marriageable age of girls in Iran to eighteen. Khomeini quickly changed that, and the dimidiated result is still on the books in the land that he, and other true-blue Muslims, created: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There are divisions within the Camp of Islam, but those divisions, while they can be exploited by non-Muslims, are not deep enough to overcome the shared hostility toward Infidels. Nonetheless, they are important to recognize, and to analyze, in the hope of exploiting the pre-existing fissures within the Camp of Islam to keep the forces of Islam preoccupied with internal divisions and permanently off-balance. The main division, according to differences in Islamic beliefs, one with which we are now familiar because of the Iraq fiasco, is that between Sunnis and Shi’a. And there are sects within sects; the Twelver-Shi’ism accepted in Iran is not the same as the Shi’ism practiced by the Zaidis in northern Yemen. The Sunnis are divided among four schools of jurisprudence, but the differences are mostly minor, and hardly affect relations with, or attitudes toward, non-Muslims.
As a matter of theologico-historical divisions, it is customary to mention the division, and long hostility, between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. There is still a third variety of Islam, Ibadi Muslims, who constitute more than half the population in Oman and also exist, in isolated areas, in North Africa. But the Sunnis, who constitute at least 85% of the world’s Muslims, and the Shi’a, who constitute less than 15% but who happen to be concentrated in Iran and Iraq, the two potentially most powerful Muslim states adjacent to the Persian Gulf, and hence to the oil of the Persian Gulf, have traditionally been at the very least hostile to one another. One hears Iraqis talk of some mythical golden age of sectarian peace, and they like, unsurprisingly, to blame sectarian strife on the American Infidels, but a moment’s thought would tell us that the “peace” of Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’athist dictatorship camouflaged a Sunni Arab despotism and depended on terrifying the Shi’a into submission. Everywhere that the Shi’a exist in numbers large enough to constitute a threat to the Sunnis, they are regarded as such a threat. In Pakistan some Sunni groups – e.g., Sipah-e-Sahaba – specialize in attacks on Shi’a professionals and mosques. In Yemen, the Shi’a who until a few decades ago ran much of the area, are now in revolt against the central government, whose head may himself be Shi’a, but whose heart is with, or is thought to be with, the Sunnis. In Saudi Arabia, the Shi’a – hundreds of thousands of them – live almost entirely in the Eastern Province, Hasa, where all the large oilfields happen to be located. They are regarded with distrust by the government and distate, or even hatred, by Sunni clerics. In Egypt there are hardly any Shi’a to worry about, but the Egyptian regime worries, and whips up worries and hysteria among the populace, about Iran and Shi’a proselytizers and agents.
In Syria, the situation is a bit different. There, the members of a sect of Alawites run things, thanks to their monopoly of the officer class in the military. Mainstream Sunni Muslims – especially the Sunni Muslims who make up 70% of the population of Syria – regard the Alawites with distrust and hatred, but ever since Hafez al-Assad put down with tanks and tens of thousands of deaths, a revolt by the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, there has been little obvious trouble. Nonetheless, the Alawites, with their obvious syncretism, their cult of Mary (Alwaite villages are full of pictures of Mary), needed to find some way of being legitimized as Muslims, and they found their legitimating authority in Iran, among Shi’a clerics who a few years ago declared that yes, the Alawites were real Muslims. This does not cut much ice with the Sunni Muslims inside Syria, but it at least offers the Alawites a fig leaf of camouflage. They know that if the Alawites ever lose control of the military, that will be end of all of the Alawites, in all of the villages, everywhere in Syria. In Lebanon, the contempt felt by the Sunni merchant class for the lower-class Shi’a has become fear, fear of the over-breeding by those same Shi’a, and their coup-through-Hezbollah that allows them to make, and break, Lebanese governments.
A second division within the Camp of Islam is that of ethnicity. Here the division is that between the Arabs, and the non-Arab Muslims. The latter constitute 80% of the world’s Muslims. Some of them have begun to notice their ill-treatment at the hands of the Arabs. This has happened to the Kurds in Iraq, who surely now realize, after more than 182,000 Kurdish people killed by Arabs under Saddam Hussein, and the total silence from the Arab “intellectuals” – a silence later noted by Kanan Makiya, the sole Arab who appears to have openly protested the mass-murdering of the Kurds by the Arabs, though Makiya did not explain that Arab indifference, as he might have. The Berbers have understood, too, that the Arabs will not allow them to preserve their Berber language and culture, and unless the Berbers mount significant protests – as riots in Tizi-Ouzou, more than a decade ago – they will win no concessions from the Arabs who conquered Berber North Africa, and proceeded to arabize what they could, making some Berbers into “Arabs” who forgot their own origins. In Iran, the national narrative leaves plenty of room for the Persian poets who, through their verbal art, were said to have helped the country resist arabization, and to preserve the Farsi language, when in so many other places conquered by the Arabs, or for Islam, local languages disappeared and the local peoples themselves began to think of themselves as “Arabs.”
Islam is a natural vehicle for Arab supremacism because those who convert are encouraged to take Arab names (which already convinces some that they are, perhaps always have been, Arabs). The funniest example of this is surely all those Sayeeds in Pakistan who claim descent from the Quraysh, the Tribe of the Prophet himself. It is as if in the middle of the Congo various Congolese took not just Belgian first names but Belgian last names and, speaking French to boot, insisted that they were descended from a long line of Belgians.
Then, there is the insistence that the Qur’an must be read by Believers, not only in Arabic, but in the classical Arabic of Muhammad’s day (or so it is claimed). It was not until Ataturk commissioned a Qur’an, and a tafsir (Qur’anic commentary) in Turkish, that the until-then immutable practice was changed. Even today, the Qur’an in any language but Arabic is regarded by Muslims as inferior. Compare this to the missionaries who cheerfully went about their task, translating the Gospel into all kinds of local tongues, from China to Peru, and in many cases – especially in Africa – managed to preserve languages that otherwise had never been written down. They were bringing what they thought was the Word of God, and were happy to do so, when necessary, in whatever local language would be best understood. In the world of Islam, Arabic has pride of place, and non-Arabs are forced to endure years of rote study, of memorization of texts in a language that is not their own.
Another aspect of the Arab supremacism fostered by Islam is that all the models of behavior, the men who were contemporaries of Muhammad as well as Muhammad himself, those whose manners and customs constitute the Sunna that helps to gloss the Qur’an and to provide a model of right living, are all Arabs of the seventh century. The spectacle of many Muslims – those most fanatical in their faith – living thousands of miles from Arabia, and nearly 1400 years later, dressing like seventh-century Arabs depresses, but should not surprise.
In addition to the primacy, and necessity, of learning enough Arabic to read, or at least recite, the Qur’an, and the desirability of assuming an Arab name and even, for some, a factitious Arab lineage, and along with the use of seventh-century Arabs as models for Muslim behavior, there is the praying, five times a day, in the direction of Mecca. This Meccatropic behavior, which can result in toilets in London being built so that the toilets do not appear to be pointing sacrilegiously in the direction of Mecca, reinforces the significance of Arabia in the minds of non-Arab Muslims.
Some of those who have grown up within Islam, and left it, have — at least if they are not Arabs themselves – begun to recognize the ways in which Islam is, to repeat the formula above, a vehicle for Arab supremacism. The late Anwar Sheikh, a well-known apostate, from his refuge in Wales, titled one of his books “Islam: The Arab National Religion.” There have been essays – by Berbers, for example, writing from the safety of French refuge – on this same theme. It is perhaps the most potent of the fissures – that both in posse and in esse – that exist within the Camp of Islam. Non-Muslims need both to recognize, and figure out ways to encourage, the widening of such fissures, so as to limit the appeal of Islam, and increase the questioning of it, by those who, at present, continue to think of themselves as Muslims but might be less inclined to do so if they came to recognize how Islam encourages indifference to their own other-than-Islamic elements in their identities – or perhaps better, the ethnic or national aspects of their “multiple identities” of which Bernard Lewis has written.
In the case of Arab Muslims, the ethnic identity of Arabness, ‘Uruba, and all that that signifies, is so tied up with Islam that it is difficult, even impossible, for all but a handful to turn their backs on Islam, much less to do so because Islam may come to be recognized as a vehicle of Arab supremacism. Many well-known apostates come from Iran (a country whose population famously resisted arabization, and where contempt for primitive desert Arabs was, as in Turkey, always a given); the only one known to me who is Arab is Wafa Sultan, the surest sign of her unwillingness to succumb to the blandishments and tugs of the very idea of “identity” that we are all forced to discuss – unwillingly and sometimes unwittingly –when we talk about Islam, and its victims.
The third great fissure in the Camp of Islam is that of economics. There is a great gulf – an Arab and a Persian Gulf, at the same time (thus solving the toponymic quarrel)—between the Muslim countries that have oil, (and gas) and those that do not. The rich, fabulously rich, Arab sheiklets of the Gulf – the U.A.E., Qatar, Kuwait – as well as larger countries dependent on oil or natural gas – Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Algeria – have not been in the habit of sharing any of their wealth with poorer Muslim states. Instead, those states have found ways to inveigle money out of the Camp of Infidels (the camp that does not yet recognize itself as a camp, for fear of what that might mean, and what offense it might give): vast sums have been and are still being transferred by the North American and European governments to Egypt, to Pakistan, to Afghanistan, to Jordan, to the “Palestinian” Authority.
In the last few decades the American government alone (leaving aside what the countries of Western Europe contribute) has given $70 billion in aid to Egypt, a world center of antisemitism with a population that is overwhelmingly hostile to the Americans, not least because it is American money that provides even more funds from which the well-placed in the Mubarak regime, with its Friends-and-Family Plan, is able to divert large sums. It has given billions to Jordan, and given Jordan Most Favored Nation status, which in turn has led to Arab owners of textile factories to employ non-Arab labor that is subject, reports from labor officials abroad indicate, to every sort of abuse, including the withholding of wages, and the most miserable of working conditions. Pakistan, a country that has always been a favorite of the American government, ever since the Dulles brothers (Allen and John Foster), along with many other dimwitted Americans in government, saw Islam only as a “bulwark against Communism,” for decades has dealt meretriciously with the Americans, leading them on, and diverting their aid for whatever purposes – in the main, to build up Pakistan’s military might for Jihad against India – the Pakistanis chose. It was American money, diverted by the Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I) of Pakistan’s military, that paid for the nuclear project of A. Q. Khan, a metallurgist who, having stolen secrets from Western labs, was given vast sums to direct a nuclear project, which resulted in what not only the Pakistanis proudly call “the Islamic bomb,” but also to sell nuclear secrets to Iran, to North Korea, and possibly to Libya.
The Americans were transferring aid to Somalia, trying to rescue its population from famine, and only the murder and mutilation of American servicemen, and the dragging of their corpses through the streets of Mogadishu, through cheering mobs, led to an end to that program of Infidel aid. The “Palestinian” Authority, first under Arafat, and now under his epigones, less obviously thuggish but as corrupt as he was, has managed to misplace, or lose, billions of dollars. At Arafat’s death up to six billion dollars simply was unaccounted for, but Mrs. Arafat, she of the marriage blanc, appears to be living quite well in Paris, and Mahmoud Abbas and his two children (who have companies reaping large sums from contracts with aid-donor countries), and many other “Palestinian” Arab warlords, are doing fine, with villas in southern France, apartments in London, and always, the children being educated and set up in the United States. As for the two trillion dollars spent, or rather squandered, in Iraq, at least sixty billion of it was direct aid to the Iraqis, much of it taken out of the country by Iraqis who are living well – living as well as the “Palestinian” warlords, as Mubarak and his courtiers, as the Pakistani generals and their families – all of them living on the Infidel aid supplied by you, and by me.
Aid from Infidels to Muslims, that is in addition to the transfer of wealth from Infidel oil-consuming nations to Muslim oil-producing nations (some twelve trillion dollars since 1973 alone), has been not merely been ineffective, a total waste, if the goal was to produce more decent societies, but has had the opposite effect. That aid has provided an easy source for corruption, since inevitably it flows to the governments, that is, to those who rule, or are well-connected to those who rule. And in Muslim societies, the road to wealth is through political power. Whoever wins or seizes control of the government, gets to distribute the wealth, and that wealth comes either from oil and gas reserves, in the rich Muslim lands, or from Infidel foreign aid. There is not much else, save in a handful of countries – Turkey, Tunisia come to mind – where Islam has been systematically tamed, and something like real economies, as a result, have managed to develop. And the more money that comes from aid, the more corruption. And the more corruption, the more resentment by those who are not among the lucky, and who observe the corrupt rulers flaunting their wealth and their power. And blame is put not only on the rulers but on the Infidels who supply the aid, as if they are responsible for the corruption. And in Muslim societies, when there is opposition to the rulers, that opposition always is stated in Islamic terms: the rulers are insufficiently Islamic, or still worse, are accused of being “collaborators with Infidels” or, worst of all, being Infidels themselves. Aid from Infidel states to Muslim states is always and everywhere an error.
The transfer of wealth – for economic or military aid (the division between the two is largely meaningless, because whatever economic aid is received from Infidels allows Muslim states to free up more money for military projects) – from Infidels to Muslims is exactly the wrong policy. Such aid is pocketed by the Muslim recipients without gratitude, and they quickly, immediately in fact, regard that aid as their due. It is theirs by right. And the donor nations, in Europe and North America, or those who run their governments, far from registering any anger at this attitude, themselves begin to exhibit fearfulness about the possible reaction of Muslim recipients of such aid should that aid be decreased, or cut altogether. What this means is that every Infidel aid program to Muslim states becomes, in the end, a kind of Jizyah, Jizyah in the sense that it is given, out of fear, by Infidels, who keep paying Muslims in order to escape their anger and their punishment. Every foreign aid program that involves Infidel donors and Muslim recipients becomes, in the end, a kind of disguised Jizyah.
Islam is based on the idea of the unity of the Umma, the Community of Believers. And Muslims are taught that their loyalty, their sole loyalty, must always be to Islam, and to the Community of Believers. But the governments and peoples of the Western world appear unable to raise the matter of why the fabulously rich members of that Umma, the Arabs of the Gulf, and the other Arabs and Muslims in OPEC, continue to sit back and watch the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid flow from Infidel countries, and never lift a finger to help those fellow Muslims of the Umma. And the reason they don’t contribute is because no one raises the matter, no Western government or collection of Western governments says it is going to cease to pay for Muslim states, cease to rescue them from the consequences of their own misrule, and economic failures that are a result of “a certain way of doing things” (that is, Islam itself), and that they should begin to ask for help from their “Muslim brothers.” This ought to have been done decades ago, and now, trillions of dollars later, it still ought to be done.
Aid, remember, is finite, and if aid goes from the Infidel nations to Muslim nations, it will not go to other, non-Muslim, worthier recipients. For the economic problems of Muslim states – problems one can see are overcome, in part, only in those Muslim countries that limit the power of Islam – can also be seen in the rich Arab and Muslim countries. Despite the twelve trillion dollars in oil and gas revenues received since 1973, which surely constitutes the largest transfer of wealth in human history, the Muslim members of OPEC have failed completely to create modern economies. In most of the Arab sheikdoms, 90% of the workforce is foreign. In Saudi Arabia, it is 2/3 foreign, and the native Arabs do almost nothing except arrive to sit in offices two, or at most three, hours a day. These are rentier states. The sums they take in do not reflect any industriousness or entrepreneurial flair. The oil itself is located, drilled for, and distributed by Western oilmen, who along with many others now form part of the wage-slave economies of the Arab side of the Gulf. The Saudis announced big plans, and invested tens of billions, in agriculture, but all those plans came to nothing, were a failure. And now the Economic Cities will be another failure, as will the university, the “richest university in the world,” which – we are asked to believe – will produce Saudi scientists and engineers. Of course it will be a failure.
But why are Muslim states economic failures, those failures disguised, temporarily, because of the oil and gas wealth which give an illusion of economic progress? The reasons are to be found in the tenets, and the attitudes, and the atmospherics, of Islam, and even of the history of the Arabs themselves. The raiding parties of seventh-century Arabs, exemplified by the attack of Muhammad and his Arab warriors on the hard-working inoffensive Jewish farmers of the Khaybar Oasis, an attack undertaken simply to steal the property of those farmers, is an example of how the Arabs lived. They lived largely by raiding. And that way of life did not end with the seventh-century. Warring tribes continued to raid, and the Arabs, or rather the Muslims who ruled over vast territories inhabited by non-Muslim peoples, exacted the tribute of the Jizyah from non-Muslims, and that Jizyah helped to support the Muslim state. Indeed, in order to ensure that there would be non-Muslims to pay the Jizyah, the Muslims who conquered Iran with its Zoroastrians began to treat them as honorary members of the Ahl al-Kitab, People of the Book, so that they would not all be converted or killed, but could be the tax base for the Muslim state. In India, after tens of millions of Hindus had been killed, it was deemed more sensible not to kill or convert them (the descendants of those Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains forcibly converted to Islam, or converting to escape from an intolerable condition, are the Pakistani and Bangladeshi and Indian Muslims of today).
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