book reviews

Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat J. Ziadeh

Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat J. Ziadeh (published 1990) is a collection of papers written in honor of the Palestinian-American professor Farhat Jacob Ziadeh (1917-2016), founder and first chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington.

I bought this book after seeing it cited in Omar Farahat’s 2019 book The Foundation of Norms in Islamic Jurisprudence and Theology and finding it for sale for only $6 on Amazon.com, without looking into the book’s contributors. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that it had articles by some of the best scholars of Islamic studies in the late 20th century: Wael Hallaq, George Makdisi, his son John Makdisi, and Bernard Weiss.

The first article is by Wael Hallaq and studies the problem of inductive corroboration in Islamic legal reasoning. How many witnesses are required to prove a point beyond doubt? Hallaq studies the issue of the mutawātir report (a hadith report that is transmitted by so many people that a person can be completely sure of its authenticity). Some scholars fixed the number for establishing tawātur at five witnesses, while others chose 12, 20, 40, 70 or 313. But during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the dominant view emerged that only God knows how many witnesses would be required for tawātur.

The opposite of a mutawātir report is an āḥād (“singular”) report; a report that does not come from a sufficient number of transmitters to establish certainty. Hallaq argues that according to the jurists, an āḥād report had a probability of authenticity of less than 1 (i.e. less than 100%) but higher than 0.5 (50%). By the mere fact of a report having an unbroken chain of transmitters to the Prophet PBUH, it was considered more likely to be authentic than not. And when two singular reports support a particular point or issue, the probability increases.

In my essay Mathematical Hadith Verification: A Guide to the New Science of Probabilistic Hadith Transmitter Criticism I propose a way of formalizing these probabilities. But unlike the jurists, I treat the probability of the reliability of each transmitter independently. Each transmitter is given the benefit of the doubt by being considered as 60% likely to be truthful and accurate. But when more transmitters are added to a chain, their probabilities are combined, lowering the integrity of the information transmitted.

The second article is by Jeanette Wakin of Columbia University (d. 1998) and focuses on the views of the Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn Qudāma (d. 1223) regarding interpreting divine commands. When God tells us in the Quran to do something, does this imply permission, recommendation or obligation? In verse 5:2, God tells us, “when you leave the state of iḥrām, then hunt.” Interpreting this command as implying obligation means that every pilgrim is obligated to go hunting after they are done with the rituals of the pilgrimage to Mecca. But of course, it is widely known that hunting is not obligatory; so the command must only imply permission. While jurists like al-Ghazālī adopted the moderate view that divine commands cannot be interpreted as permission, recommendation or obligation unless we can find out more information about the command (for example in the Prophet’s traditions PBUH), Ibn Qudāma’s view was that all commands imply obligation unless proven otherwise, except in the case of a command that comes after a prohibition, in which case the command only implies permission (as in the hunting example above).

Bernard Weiss’s article is on the problem of objectivity in Islamic law. How can objectivity be ensured in the interpretation of the law? Do the differences among scholars on matters of law imply a lack of objectivity? Weiss argues that the jurist’s performance of ijtihād (of re-analyzing the sources of the law and reaching new decisions) is how objectivity is ensured within our human limitations. Studying revelation (the Quran and the Sunna, i.e. the Prophet’s words and actions) always has a chance of leading to new results. But in order to have practical law, we must be able to establish an end to this process, otherwise we will never reach a conclusion; we will always be suffering the uncertainty that better knowledge and understanding will lead to different results.

The process of ijtihād solves this dilemma by giving a qualified jurist the right to do his own independent research until he reaches a point when he can in all honesty say that he has done his best with what is available. At that point he can issue a ruling that will be considered objective and applicable for himself and his followers. The process of ijtihād therefore leads to a historically-limited instance of objectivity; the best objectivity that can be had within our human limitations. And when each jurist performs this through time, we get a historical series of objectivities, each presumably better than that which preceded it.

Farhat J. Ziadeh’s article is on the issue of ʿadāla (“justice” or “justness”), the quality of a witness being considered reliable and trustworthy by an Islamic court. He mentions the interesting anecdote of a man who refused to pay the voluntary separation gift that a man owes to his divorced wife. The judge who presided over the separation later refused to accept the man as a reliable witness in a different case because the man had refused to be charitable and God-fearing in the previous case. Another interesting anecdote is that al-Ḥakam I (d. 822 CE), a ruler of Umayyad Spain, was rejected as a reliable witness by a judge that he himself had appointed.

Ziadeh argues that Islam led to a transformation of the Arab ideals of virtue. In the pre-Islamic era, virtue was a warrior’s courage, a rich person’s generosity, and the dedication to keeping one’s word even at the cost of losing a loved one. But in the civilized atmosphere of the Islamic city, the virtues were those qualities that enabled the law to function properly.

The fifth article is by David F. Forte, a law professor at Cleveland State University. He tries to clarify the Islamic principles of property rights by studying how Islamic law deals with the issue of lost property. He concludes that Islamic law is more concerned with the rights of a property owner than the English common law.

George Makdisi’s article is going to be of the most interest to Western readers. He defends his thesis, that he has defended in many other places, that Islam created the concepts of professor, doctoral dissertation and academic freedom.

Since Islam lacks an ecclesiastical hierarchy that can decide issues of orthodoxy, the only way to ensure arrival at consensus in a legitimate way was to adopt academic freedom. A legitimate fatwā in Islam is one that is given by a professor who enjoys perfect academic freedom to agree or disagree with anyone else. The West had no need for academic freedom because the true authorities on matters of religious doctrine were the bishops in unity with the pope. Islam, lacking such authorities, was forced to adopt a rational way of arriving at authoritative religious rulings in their absence. And the solution was the academic freedom of the professor or muftī. When all the professors, in perfect freedom and autonomy, agreed on a particular ruling, that meant that the ruling was authoritative.

Orthodoxy in Christianity was determined by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Orthodoxy in Islam was determined by the autonomous consensus of the professors, just as in modern science. In science a particular theory can only become “orthodox” when all eligible scientists study it and arrive at a consensus about its reasonableness and likelihood of correctness. Islam was forced to create this “scientific method” of arriving at consensus due to suffering the same situation that science suffers: there is no higher authority than the scholars, researchers and professors themselves to help them come to legitimate conclusions on the issues under question.

The West took many centuries to digest the imported Islamic concepts of professor and academic freedom. Western professors in the 13th century still lacked the academic freedom that Islamic professors had enjoyed since at least the 8th century. In Christianity, dissent among the professors was considered an evil that led to heresy. In Islam, dissent was the most important way of ensuring orthodoxy, which is why it developed a vast literature of dissent where the disagreements of the professors were recorded.

The idea of a professor freely expressing dissenting opinions had no place in Western civilization until the power of the Church weakened and the professors were able to acquire some autonomy from it.

John Makdisi’s article focuses on the possible Islamic influences on the English common law. His article is an earlier version of his famous 1999 article “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law” (which can be downloaded here). He argues that the assize of novel disseisin, a crucial aspect of the development of the common law established by Henry II in the wake of the Assize of Clarendon of 1166, may have had an Islamic origin, and studies the historical context in which this Islamic influence may have been acquired.

The last four articles by William Ballantyne, Ian Edge, Ann Mayer and David Pearl respectively deal with the issue of the application and integration of the Sharia in modern Islamic states. I discuss the contents of some of these articles in my essay Solving the Problem of the Codification of the Sharia.

The Atonement by William Lane Craig

I became interested in the Christian theologian William Lane Craig after reading Jacobus Erasmus’s The Kalām Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment, a 2018 book that reconsiders Craig’s views on this argument for God’s existence and tries to strengthen it. I was surprised by just how strong this argument is, although it does not reach the level of “proof”. A true proof is one that all rational people can accept. But no argument for God’s existence reaches this level–there is always room for some doubt, there is always a “leap of faith” necessary in order to accept the argument. As the Christian theologian recently stated on Twitter:

Alister McGrath’s statement applies very well to the The Kalām Cosmological Argument. As a faithful person who has already made the leap of faith, it further convinces me just how incredibly unwise it is to doubt God’s existence. But I admit that a dedicated atheist can question it.

I decided to embark on a journey to read most of Craig’s books starting with his newest, which was The Atonement. This is as part of my efforts to familiarize myself with Christian theology. The studying of Christianity by Muslims is sometimes framed under the unfortunate rhetoric of “knowing the enemy”. That attitude will hopefully go away as Muslims interact more with Christians and recognize the need to see Christians as fellow humans and persons doing their best to serve God as they understand Him. Of course many Christians also have a similarly unfortunate attitude toward the study of Islam. But when interacting with a non-Muslim group, the proper way is to focus on the best and most humane among them and treat them as they like to be treated, rather than focusing on the worst and using this to justify bad treatment.

The Atonement is a short defense of the Christian Doctrine of the Atonement on both theological and legal grounds. An interesting aspect of the book is the author’s use of modern legal theory. The book is a good representative of what we might call the cutting-edge of Western theological and legal thought. The Christian doctrine of the Atonement attempts to justify how the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ [as] (something Islam denies but Christianity considers foundational to its theology) leads to the salvation of Christians. How does the torture and death of an innocent person lead to forgiveness and salvation for others?

Some Christian theologians, similar to the Muslim Muʿtazilites, had the “cosmic justice machine” view of God. According to them God is forced to be just in all things, which means that He is prevented from forgiving sins unless there is a good and just reason for this forgiveness.

William Lane Craig

As a non-Muʿtazilite, I naturally find that view of God highly unsatisfactory. God has many attributes and He is not forced to act by any one of them. He is forgiving, He is just, and He is avenging. And He is free according to which attribute He should treat a particular person or group of persons. He can forgive someone even if our idea of justice requires the person to be punished, because this is the essence of forgiveness: to choose not to do some injury to someone despite the fact that they justly deserve it. My view of God as freely choosing to act according to whichever attribute He prefers is also why I reject the Sufi view that loving God is better than fearing Him (as discussed here). Loving God pleases God’s attribute of the Loving, while fearing Him pleases His attribute of the Mighty (among others). Who are we to choose whether pleasing one of His attributes is better than pleasing another? The proper, God-fearing view in my opinion is to respect all of God’s attributes equally. This means that serving God out of fear and desire is just as good as serving God out of love. Ideally, of course, we should serve God out of fear, love and desire, and out of the intellectual recognition of the fact that God is One who deserves to be worshiped, not out of fear, love or desire, but because that is something He simply deserves. The love and appreciation of all of His attributes should be the foundation of our worship of God.

According to the cosmic justice machine theory (to which Craig subscribes to some degree), therefore, the Atonement was necessary because God could not justly forgive humanity without first demanding that a sacrifice or offering should be made to Him, or demanding that a particular person be punished as a substitute and representative of humanity.

An alternative theory to that is the moral influence theory, according to which the Atonement was meant as an example to humanity rather than as an offering for sin. Other arguments are also mentioned but I will not go into the details here.

An important problem with all doctrines of Atonement is the issue of imputation. How is it rational that a particular person be held responsible for the sins of all others? Various responses to this problem are mentioned in the book. For example it is mentioned that God, as Supreme Ruler, has the right to punish a person for the sins of another. Just because we cannot easily envision how this can be just or rational does not mean that it is not.

A strong argument in favor of the imputation of humanity’s sins to Christ is the concept of vicarious liability. This legal concept refers to the fact that, for example, an employer can be punished for crimes committed by his employees. Even though he himself has committed no fault, the employee’s fault can legally fall upon the employer. Similarly, Christ can be considered the master of mankind and therefore any sins committed by his underlings can be in some way imputed to him. The fact that he accepts this responsibility and imputation willingly makes its justice even stronger.

Another defense is that God’s punishment of Christ, even though on the face of it unjust, helped prevent a greater harm, which was the destruction of all of humanity for their sins.

Defining guilt and pardon

Craig analyses the concept of guilt and rejects the definition that guilt is simply the fact of having committed a crime or sin. Guilt, instead, is a person’s liability for punishment.

According to this view, pardon is the act of taking away a person’s liability for punishment without implying that the person did not commit the crime. The commitment of the crime is acknowledged, but the act of pardon takes away all guilt. Craig says:

A person who has served his sentence has paid his debt to society, and so is now no longer guilty; that is to say, no longer liable to punishment. Similarly, a person who has been pardoned is by all accounts no longer liable to punishment for the crime he committed.

Since Craig to some degree believes in the cosmic justice machine theory, he concludes that God’s pardon of our sins could only be justly accomplished if someone was punished for them. There is a contradiction between pardon and justice that can only be resolved if the pardon only takes place when some punishment has taken place (in this case the punishment that Christ bore willingly for the sake of humanity). Thus God is powerless to pardon without punishment since that would be unjust.

As should be clear from what I said earlier, I find Craig’s final solution to the contradiction between justice and pardon unsatisfactory. My solution would be that God is free when it comes to which one of His attributes He acts according to. He can act according to His attribute of Mercy regardless of what His attribute of Justice demands. There is no contradiction here because there is no higher power forcing God to act according to one attribute and not another.

He will not be questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned.

The Quran, verse 21:23.

One argument against my view would be that it suggests that God could just as easily be cruel as He can be kind. But that argument is preempted by the following Quranic verse:

Say, “To whom belongs what is in the heavens and the earth?” Say, “To God.” He has prescribed for Himself mercy. He will gather you to the Day of Resurrection, in which there is no doubt. Those who lost their souls do not believe.

The Quran, verse 6:12.

God has freely chosen His attribute of Mercy as an overruling attribute, which is likely why in Islam His two major names by which we call Him are al-raḥmān al-rahīm (“The Most Mercifully Gracious”, “The Most Mercifully Compassionate”). Both names come from the RḤM root (“mercy”, “kindness”, “womb”).

Of course my solution would likely not work for a Christian since it would invalidate the commonly accepted versions of the Doctrine of the Atonement. If God could have forgiven us anyway, there would not have been a need for Christs’ suffering, or his suffering would have only served the purpose of a reminder and example to humanity.

In the last paragraph of the book, Craig states:

As mentioned earlier, it is not at all implausible that only in a world that includes such an atoning death would the optimal number of people come freely to love and know God and so to find eternal life. God’s wisdom, not only His love and holiness, is thus manifest in the atoning death of Christ.

In conclusion, The Atonement is a good defense of Christian doctrine and contains some ideas that Muslim thinkers can benefit from. The analyses of the concepts of guilt and pardon are especially worthy.

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology by Sabine Schmidtke

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This impressive volume brings together essays by many highly respected Western-educated scholars of Islam. Comparing it to The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (which I shortly reviewed here), this book is far more in-depth and analytical. In fact the Cambridge Companion feels like a preface to this more sophisticated (and much longer) book. This book will likely be a classic of Islamic studies, an achievement that helps take the entire field of Islamic theology forward.

One issue I have with the book is that many of the articles focus far more on history and social backgrounds than on the actual theological ideas. The two most important Islamic theological doctrines, Ashʿarism and Māturīdism, never receive a completely satisfactory exposition.

A number of the articles mislabel Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) as Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148), which could confuse readers. Below I will mention a few highlights from the book.

I was interested to learn about Ḍirār b. ʿAmr (d. 815 CE), an early Muslim theologian who developed the anti-Aristotelian idea that the universe is entirely made up of “accidents” (attributes or properties), rejecting Aristotle’s theory of the existence of “matter” or substance as a separate thing from its properties. Rejecting the concept of matter helps detach Islamic theology from the nature-supremacism of Aristotle (and later Ibn Rushd), who envisioned nature as something of an eternal entity that chained God’s freedom of action.

The Aristotelian theory creates great difficulty for explaining miracles because miracles seem to override nature, which breaks the primacy of matter. Nidhal Guessoum, who subscribes to that worldview, is forced to explain away miracles by reference to ideas like quantum uncertainty and the placebo effect in his book Islam’s Quantum Question (as I discuss in my review of it here). But if the entire universe is made up of attributes so that matter is nothing but a collection of attributes (as Ḍirār b. ʿAmr asserts), then this turns the universe into something of a simulation where everything has no basic reality of its own. Its realness always comes from God who upholds this “simulation”.

That is the key idea in my Ghazali-inspired computational theory of the universe. According to Ḍirār b. ʿAmr, if we translate his ideas into the computational language, everything in this universe is merely information held inside the Divine Register (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūḍ), similar to the way a video game’s universe is entirely information held inside a piece of hardware inside a computer known as RAM.

There is complete equality between one bit of information and another bit. The bits that define matter and the bits that define its attributes are equal so that everything can be considered an attribute. The matter-ness of matter is just another attribute. This means that for God to perform a miracle, all that He has to do is flip bits of information inside the Register. The stick of Moses [as] can turn into a snake because God, who is in charge of the simulation, can easily change the bits of information in the Register that define the stick-ness of the stick so that for a time it becomes a snake. Aristotelians like Ibn Rushd and Guessoum cannot envision this because to them matter is not information in a simulation, it is something that has its own “reality” that is almost separate from God’s control.

In their view, God is unable to perform miracles or is severely limited in His capacity to perform them the way we understand them because the laws of matter do not permit miracles.

But Ḍirār b. ʿAmr’s theology (and orthodox, Ashʿarite Islamic theology) has no such problem with miracles because nature is entirely made up of information controlled by God. This orthodox theology that so many ill-educated science-minded people consider to be irrational and backward is in fact highly futuristic in its outlook if we interpret it in modern terms. It makes solving problems like reconciling Islam and evolutionary theory a rather easy exercise, as I discuss in my essay Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template.

Regarding the issue of free will, the Iranian Imam Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 772 CE, after whom the Ḥanafī school is named), came up with a moderate solution. God creates all things, including everything that takes place in the world. But humans intend, and God either carries out the intention or not. It is for this intention that they are responsible. This fits with the computational theory; the universe is like a simulation that is under God’s absolute control. Nothing happens inside it except when God makes it happen. But humans have been given the power to intend things. They are given a “remote control” to their bodies, they issue commands (intentions) and God either carries it out (by moving their bodies for them and allowing the intention to be carried out) or He does not (by refusing to move their bodies, or by causing the simulation to get in their way). For example a good person who intends to sin may be hindered by God. God can either cause a weakness and fatigue in them that takes away their ability to carry out the sin, or He may bring about causes that prevent the sin from being possible to carry out.

His views were the basis of the development of the Ḥanafī theological tradition that found its full development with the Arab Iranian scholar Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 945 CE).

Abū Ḥanīfa and Māturīdī shared the conviction that humans can tell good from evil based on reason alone (without the guidance of revelation). Ashʿarite scholars like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) developed a highly “Darwinian” view of human ethical reasoning; humans know good from evil due to their empathy for fellow humans and their knowledge of consequences, rather than due to the existence of some absolute ideal of good and evil that humans can appreciate (as the Muʿtazilites claimed). While Muʿtazilites have often been celebrated in Western thoughts as Islam’s arch-rationalists, in this case as in many others, the orthodox Islamic view is actually more “scientific”. It rejects the Muʿtazilite trust in human reason’s philosophical ability to know good and evil with a more naturalistic, Darwinian explanation. According to Rāzī humans develop ethical ideas based on experience, not based on philosophical axioms that exist independently of the world and God.

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology is a great resource for everyone interested in Islamic theology, the history of Islamic thought and some the key issues relating to the interpretation of the Quran.

Believing Women in Islam (2019) by Asma Barlas and David Raeburn Finn

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Believing Women in Islam: A Brief Introduction by Asma Barlas and David Raeburn Finn is a short book that attempts to present the main ideas of Barlas’s longer work “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran.

First, I should mention that I believe that any self-respecting and civilized man should demand that his female mate be his equal–he cannot enter into a relationship with an inferior being because that is damaging to his own self-respect. If I love a woman, I should love her as an infinitely respected person, not as a “woman” who is somehow categorically inferior to men.

I dislike the label “feminist” because I believe focusing exclusively on the rights and issues of any particular group of humans (women, children, men, Sunni Muslims, Jews) always invariably leads to injustice because it promotes a lack of empathy toward those who are excluded. It is far more civilized, humane and constructive to focus on the rights and issues of infinitely respected, dignified and inviolable persons regardless of what grouping they belong to. Just because a boy or man happens to have male sex organs is in no way, shape or form a good reason to consider his emotions and sufferings of any less importance than a woman’s.

In fact, I believe there is something deeply misogynistic about the feminist worldview (not necessarily shared by all feminists) that women are somehow the perpetual victims of history who were little more than animals controlled by men, lacking any sort of courage, agency or self-assertion. I rather subscribe to the worldview that women were full partakers in history–they chose, they self-asserted, they contributed, they were as much full-human members of their societies as the men were. The theory of the patriarchy is the misogynistic theory that men are somehow, miraculously, capable of keeping women at an inferior position compared to themselves, in something of a master-slave relation, perpetually. Are women so mentally and spiritually inferior to men that they should have put up with such a dynamic for all of history until a few feminists came along to enlighten them? I believe this is incredibly demeaning toward women’s courage and capabilities. Yes, throughout history there were various restrictions on women–but the crucial factor is that the women themselves helped maintain these restrictions. They were not like herd animals controlled by men as patriarchy theory claims–they were full partakers in their civilizations who accepted and supported the particular treatment of women in their societies.

Men and women are both equally responsible for the treatment of women in their societies. It is an insult to women and a figment of the imagination to think that the treatment of women in society is entirely or even largely men’s business. I am not saying that things were great for women, but that women themselves, as free human agents, fully contributed to the way women were treated in their societies. Women were not helpless witnesses to the abuse of women as is often portrayed by feminist ideologues. They took part in it, for example by inciting male relatives to keep their wives “in check”, by enjoying the knowledge that a woman they disliked was being abused, and mothers-in-law were throughout the world often quite happy to be utterly abusive toward their female brides. Any theory of women’s status and abuse that ignores women’s support for the abuse of women is ignoring reality for ideological motives.

If the treatment of women was unjust in a society, then a brief survey of the same society would show us that the men too suffered various forms of mistreatment despite their greater freedom of movement. The problem of their societies was not some anti-female conspiracy, it was a lack of appreciation for the rights and dignity of persons. And if the rights and dignity of persons is appreciated and promoted throughout society, women naturally become men’s equals without any need for feminism promoting women’s rights in particular. If you see the infinitely respected person inside a woman, then her woman-ness becomes completely irrelevant to  how you love her and treat her. Her personhood is so incredibly important that her sex organs have no way to overshadow it.

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Why can’t we have a larger movement inclusive of both men and women that promotes the rights and equality of all persons regardless of their gender or race? This is in fact what classical humanism promotes. Not the arrogant secular humanism that considers humans somehow perfect and needless of guidance, but the humble, self-aware humanism of philosophers like Tzvetan Todorov inspired by the great French humanists. If we take to heart humanist teachings about the dignity and inviolability of persons, this automatically embraces all that moderate feminism truly stands for while avoiding the harms that come from focusing exclusively on the interests of a particular group of humans.

The founding myth of today’s feminism can thus be summarized as “Women were always subhuman until we feminists came to correct matters.” Believing Women in Islam fully assumes the truth of this myth and relies on it for its analysis, and for this reason it has little to offer beyond rehashing already-existing feminist views.

Barlas and Finn write, regarding the apparent lack of sufficient emphasis on women’s rights in the Quran and Sunnah:

God either (1) could not locate or (2) did not care about misogynistic practices in jahili societies. And don't think these stark alternatives are the end of the problem for patriarchal apologists. If God is all-knowing, God either knew and cared or failed to note or care about future generations.

There is a third possibility that they disregard due to the limits of their feminist framework. The third possibility is that women, as full partakers in human civilization, are able to fend for themselves. They support the treatment of women in their own societies even if it has unjust elements the way men support the treatment of men in their societies even if there are unjust elements to this treatment. Their worldview envisions half of society as somehow asleep, or as inferior humans, animals, who were somehow totally incapable of controlling and directing the course of their civilizations. This is utter nonsense–a figment of the feminist imagination. Women are full humans and they are as much responsible for the nature and elements of their civilization as the men are. The Quran and Sunnah lack feminist verses because they consider men and women already equal before God, already equal partakers in civilization, and therefore in no need of classifying one gender against the other and constantly telling one gender to be nice to the other because in this there would be an inherent misogyny. Telling men to be feminist toward women tells them that women are inferior creatures, children, who must be treated not as equals, but as inferiors deserving favors. It is much better and more intelligent for the Quran to simply treat all Muslims as persons, knowing that the men and women are together full partakers in civilization and require no special motivation for one side to avoid mistreating the other–because they are already equal, already they have equal power to shape, form and control their civilization and fend for themselves. The “patriarchy” is the myth that men are clever enough, powerful enough, and women inferior enough, stupid enough, for men to have a position of privilege over women that women are totally incapable of doing anything about. This is a rather low opinion to have of any human, male or female.

Regarding the hijab-related verses of the Quran, they write:

But the so-called modesty verses are specifically addressed to the Prophet and are advisory, not compelling. They are counsel, not commands. Cloaks and shawls in that era covered bosoms and necks, not heads, faces, hands, or feet. Moreover, the counsel was designed specifically to differentiate believing women in Mecca from slaves and prostitutes at a time when jahili men commonly abused both. The jilbab marked believing women as off-limits.

What they recommend is what I call “historical localization” of the Quran. The Quranic verses on the hijab were meant for a specific time and place and not for another. I refute this view of the hijab verses in this article.

So here is the question: Are Barlas and Finn willing to give women the right to interpret these verses for themselves? And if 99% of devout women interpret these verses as requiring the hijab in the modern world, are Barlas and Finn willing to admit that as full humans, these women have the right to interpret these verses in this way even if it goes against the interpretation of the two of them?

I believe in a pluralistic Islam (see my essay) and in autonomous consensus (see my essay). This means that while I respect Barlas and Finn’s particular interpretation of the hijab verses for themselves, I reject any suggestion that this interpretation is any more valid or authoritative than the common interpretation of believing women themselves of these verses–who believe that the verses require the hijab even in the modern world. True feminism requires that you respect the personhood of each woman, and that means respecting them even when they partake in their civilization in a way that you do not like. She is as much a human as you are and you have no right to force your views on her. Barlas and Finn do say that some women wear the hijab as a personal choice for modesty. But it seems that they only consider this a valid choice if it comes out of a person’s personal desire rather than out of their adherence to the classical interpretation of the hijab verses.

In other words, the two of them are not pluralists. They believe ignoring the hijab verses is the only correct interpretation and, if I am not mistaken, they deny the majority of  Muslim women the right to interpret the verses in the classical way.

Regarding the famous “wife-beating” verse of 4:34 which establishes the concept of qiwāma (men being in charge of their households), they write:

Many Arabic-English versions mistranslate the key word, qawwamun, then use that to explicitly claim that the verse asserts male privilege: "Men are in charge of women," "Men are protectors," "Men are the managers of the affairs of women," "Men are superior to [women]." Both "maintainers" and "breadwinners" are by all accounts warranted by the Arabic meaning of the word qawwamun. Male privilege, however, is neither suggested nor implied. So how was that conclusion reached?

This is a rather weak line of argumentation. As I discuss in my detailed analysis of verse 4:34 and the issue of wife-beating, the word qawwāmūn is inescapably related to command and being in charge, as one of the earliest exegetes of the Quran, the Prophet’s Companion Ibn ʿAbbās, says. What makes it inescapable is that the verse clearly states that God has given men a “superiority in rank” to women and goes from mentioning qawwāmūn to mentioning the issue of discipline. If this word was merely about men being bread-winners, then it is rather silly to mention (1) a superiority in rank and (2) suddenly switch mid-verse to the issue of discipline. But if the word has to do with authority in the household as all classical exegetes agree, then it makes perfect sense that the issue of discipline would immediately come up.

Their denial of the classical interpretation of this verse therefore requires breathtaking leaps of logic–it is almost as incredible as arguing that the color black is actually white and that it has been only considered black due to a patriarchal conspiracy. The feminist author Amina Wadud recognized the weakness of this line of argumentation and abandoned her efforts to reinterpret them.

Barlas and Finn are unable to come up with any interpretation of verse 4:34 that preserves the ordinary meaning of wa-ḍribūhunna (“and strike them”) that does not encourage violence against women, and for this reason they are forced to use the unconvincing argument that this word is not being used to mean striking. Again, in the free market of ideas that Islam should be, people should be free to understand the Quran on their own terms. And it would be no surprise if history continues to support the classical reading, since it is so obvious and convincing. As for how wife-beating could ever be a thing in a civilized and self-respecting society, I discuss it in detail in my essay on the verse. The short of it is that after establishing men’s authority in the household, the Quran needs to give men the power to enforce this authority (authority without enforcement power is largely useless), and very similar to the way the police is given the right to use violence in extreme circumstances, men too are given this “policing right”. Please read the full essay where I discuss how this does not lead to a reign of terror of the husbands, just as in a well-functioning society the police never have to use violence. If a man’s violence against his wife is unjust, unjustified and abusive, then that is punishable by the Islamic law of scholars like Ibn Ḥazm.

I agree with Amina Wadud that wife-beating has no place among self-respecting and mature adults. This is beyond doubt. Wife-beating should be considered absurd and taboo by the average Muslim. But as I discuss in the essay, the verse has nothing to do with well-functioning, middle class marriages. Verse 4:34 continued to give me trouble until recently when I realized it was about law-enforcement and social order. Please read the essay for the details.

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It may be asked how could a man respect his wife as an equal if he is given “authority” in his household? It is similar to the way a project manager respects his colleagues who work under him as equals. He does not treat them as inferior humans, he knows that he has been given authority by the higher ups in order for the enterprise to function properly. In the same way, a man is entrusted with authority by God in order for the household to function properly. Why is it given to men and not women? The answer is that because men and women are different.

See the recent book Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women which was published by Oxford University Press. The book covers the theories of the great feminist anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in detail. There are important differences between males and females in all primates, including humans, both in physical and psychological traits. God’s justification for giving men authority over women must have something to do with these traits.

I am aware that pseudoscientific arguments have often been abused by some of the religious to justify low opinions about women (they are emotional, etc.). I do not in anyway suggest that science conclusively shows that patriarchal family organization is the best. What I argue is that science shows that there are clear differences between men and women, therefore it is not entirely implausible that such differences can be the basis for different roles in the family. Much further scientific research will be needed to show the correctness or falsity of this assertion. Is I have stated, from God’s perspective, men and women are already equal partakers in civilization. By giving men authority over women, God’s purpose is for families to function better. So the scientific question is this: do devout Muslim families that respect this authority function better than other families or not? Is there more happiness or less? Is there more dysfunction, drug abuse and depression in such families or in others? Detailed and unbiased scientific studies would be required to test the full effects of this patriarchal social organization. My contention is that giving men authority in the household leads to objectively better results for everyone involved, including women. It is the final results, the objective effects, that matter here, rather than theoretical discussions about whether this is fair or unfair.

If a woman is made happier by her husband being in charge of the household, what right do you have to take this away from her? Should you not respect her as a person to choose for herself what she is most happy with? If 99% or 90% of devout Muslim women are perfectly happy with men being authorities in the household, what right do you have to attack them for this? It is highly misogynistic to think that all of these women are somehow brainwashed or like herd animals incapable of thinking for themselves–unfortunately a very common, elitist feminist worldview.

The book deals with the issue of two women witnesses’ testimonies being equal to one man’s. This is not a matter I have studied deeply so I do not have much to say about it. I believe that the only thing that would settle the debate in this case is unbiased and detailed scientific studies that show how men and women differ in their accuracy as witnesses. If they are shown to be equal, then this can help us interpret the verse’s meaning better. And if it shown that women and men differ, then those differences should be taken into account.

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The writers attack the Islamic toleration for polygyny (having multiple wives), apparently believing that this is inherently unjust to women. But as A.S. Amin shows in his book Conflicts of Fitness: Islam, America, and Evolutionary Psychology, there are strong arguments for polygyny actually improving women’s status and well-being. Again, if two consenting female adults agree to be wives to the same man, and if we respect each female as an infinitely respected person, then we should leave it to themselves to make the choice. Polygyny is somewhat taboo in perhaps all middle class, cosmopolitan Muslim societies, and I consider that a good thing since I do not like men making their wives unhappy by finding new (often younger) wives to be their competitors. But there are cases where it is beneficial, so if a society is properly well-educated and cosmopolitan, we can trust the men and women to make the appropriate choices in most cases.

Believing Women in Islam ends with a discussion of the issues inherent in interpreting the Quran. The book is a good summary of the latest feminist arguments against various unjust practices against women, although it offers nothing new as far as I could find compared to other feminist works like the 2015 book Men in Charge?. Its attacks on concepts like the hijab and qiwāma are likely to prove futile since it is unlikely that most devout Muslim women would find their arguments convincing. It will likely give hope to women already avoiding the hijab and living somewhat feminist lifestyles that their way of life is not entirely invalid in Islamic terms (whether such hope is justified or not is another issue). But when it comes to the Muslim community as a whole, we can expect it to continue just as before–slowly improving its treatment of women as its appreciation for humanist ideals like personhood improves, while continuing to hold onto the plain meaning of the Quranic directives.

The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology by Tim Winter

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The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology is a good introduction to the topic of Islamic theology and its relationship with Sufism. It was edited by Timothy Winter, known to Muslims as Shaykh Abd al-Hakim Murad. The essays are by many well-known and highly respected scholars, such as Shaykh Umar Faruq Abd-Allah and Yahya Michot.

The essays are mostly introductions to their topics and do not delve too deeply into the details. In fact many of them end right when things seemed to start to get interesting to me, for example Steffen A. J. Stelzer’s highly interesting chapter on ethics.

The book could have as well been titled An Introduction to Islamic Theology. This makes it different from other Cambridge Companions I have read where scholars delve deeply and present new interpretations and theories of their own. Here the scholars almost entirely limit themselves to presenting overviews of the topics they discuss, which is beneficial for beginners to the topic, but not so beneficial for those wishing for detailed discussions.

The two exceptions are Steffen A. J. Stelzer’s essay on ethics and Toby Mayer’s essay on theology and Sufism, which present new and interesting analysis.

The History of Salafism: The Making of Salafism by Henri Lauzière

Henri Lauzière’s 2016 book The Making of Salafism is about how Salafism as we know it today was invented in the 20th century. I discovered Lauzière’s work through reading his 2010 article “The Construction of Salafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism from the Perspective of Conceptual History,” in the International Journal of Middle East Studies. That article overturned many of my assumptions about Salafism that are commonly repeated today by Muslim intellectuals: that it somehow started with Muhammad Abduh (1849 – 1905) and that later on it was “stolen” by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis.

Henri Lauzière, Northwestern University Associate Professor

Lauzière 2010 article presents convincing evidence that Muhammad Abduh never considered himself a “Salafi”, and that the people who originally used the “Salafi” epithet did not usually have today’s Salafism in mind. On the one hand there were scholars like the Syrian Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī (1866 – 1914) and the Iraqi Maḥmūd Shukrī al-Ālūsī (d. 1924) who stood for modernism, criticized the Wahhabis, and considered themselves a followers of theological Salafism, which Western scholars today call Traditionalism.

Maḥmūd Shukrī al-Ālūsī

This school of thought took its inspiration from Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (known reverentially as Imam Aḥmad) and among its followers are the imams al-Bukhārī and Muslim and many of the best known members of the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools: Abū Ḥāmid al-Isfarāʾīnī (Shāfiʿī), Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn al-Jawzī (Ḥanbalī), Ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Shāhrazūrī (Shāfiʿī), Imam al-Nawawī (Shāfiʿī), Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn Taymīya (Ḥanbalī) and Ibn al-Qayyim (Ḥanbalī).

This theological Salafism is nothing new within Islam, it is in fact one of the oldest intellectual strains within it and, unlike today’s Salafism, was never a challenger to the madhhabs (schools of thought).

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī

In parallel to such theological Salafis, a Salafiyya Bookstore was established in Cairo by Muḥib al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb (d. 1969) and Abd al-Fattāḥ Qatlān (d. 1939). It is clear from the activity of this bookstore that they did not have today’s Salafism in mind either when they used the “Salafi” title, whether in naming their bookstore or their magazine. They published books by philosophers like al-Farabi and were highly modernist in their thinking. “Salafism” to them was the use of Islam’s ancient heritage (including philosophy and kalām, disliked Islamic fields of study according to today’s Salafis) in order to promote a sense of hope and pride among the colonized Muslims of the time.

Muhammad Abduh

At this point Rashid Rida (1865 – 1935), a disciple of Muhammad Abduh, comes on the scene to promote his vision of Islamic reform. While at first he continued to promote Muhammad Abduh’s teachings, in the 1920’s he started to increasingly describe himself and his movement as “Salafi”. For him, claiming to be “Salafi” was a way of breaking away from the traditional schools of thought without being called a deviant or liberal. By claiming to follow a version of Islam even more authentic and original than the version followed by the scholars of his day, he could break away while maintaining his credentials as a respectable Muslim thinker.

Muḥib al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb

Things changed with the establishment of the Saudi state and their conquest of Mecca and Medina in 1924. Rashid Rida considered the Saudi state the only viable successor state to the Ottomans and apparently put all of his hopes in them. He started to defend the Wahhabis and their actions, apparently thinking that their ways of thought could eventually be softened and modernized (he was quite wrong). 

Rashid Rida

With the establishment of the Saudi state, the Salafiyya Bookstore largely abandoned its modernist tendencies. With the involvement of Rida, a Salafiyya Press and Bookstore was established in Mecca in 1927 that was little more than a Wahhabi propaganda press, printing works like Ibn Bishr’s pro-Wahhabi History of Najd, in which the slaughter of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians is proclaimed as a great victory (the 1801 Wahhabi sack of Karbala). I recently saw a quotation from Saudi Arabia’s founder Ibn Saud (1871 – 1953) saying that not only was he not sorry that the Wahhabis had engaged in that massacre, but that he would happily do it all over again if he had the chance. This explains Winston Churchill’s opinion of him:

The British recognised Ibn Saud's control of Arabia, and by 1922 his subsidy was raised to 100,000 a year by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill. At the same time, Churchill described Ibn Saud's Wahhabis as akin to the present-day Taliban, telling the House of Commons in July 1921 that they were 'austere, intolerant, well-armed and bloodthirsty' and that 'they hold it as an article of duty, as well as faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette.'

However, Churchill also later wrote that 'my admiration for him [Ibn Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us', and the British government set about consolidating its grip on this loyalty. In 1917 London had dispatched Harry St John Philby--father of Kim, the later Soviet spy--to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until Ibn Saudi's death in 1953. Philby's role was 'to consult with the Foreign Office over ways to consolidate the rule and extend the influence' of Ibn Said. A 1927 treaty ceded control of the country's foreign affairs to Britain.

Professor Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam

Throughout this time, there was no such thing as “Salafism” the way we understand it today. Salafism was a fluid and largely undefined concept that started as a movement to promote the greatness of the ancients of the Islamic world as a way of fighting off the cultural influence of the West.

Rashid Rida became increasingly pro-Wahhabi and did everything in his power to support the Saudi state, most importantly sending his own disciples to work in the Saudi educational establishment in the Hijaz. The people of Mecca and Medina had no love for the Wahhabis and considered them backward and ill-educated, while they respected Egyptian scholars and intellectuals.

Rashid Rida never became a Wahhabi himself. He continued to maintain his reformist views that the Wahhabis had no interest in while also continuing to write apologetics in support of the Wahhabis.

The Making of Salafism

That brings us to Lauzière’s 2016 book The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century. This monograph expands on the 2010 article but adds a major new element with its focus on the career of Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali, the Western-educated Moroccon Sufi who became a modernist reformist and disciple of Rashid Rida only to become increasingly Wahhabized over the decades until he became one of the best known figures of the international Wahhabi mission.

Lauzière starts with a discussion of the fact that “Salafism” as we understand it today was completely non-existent before the 20th century. Salafi claims about the existence of a “Salafi” doctrine in the works of great scholars like Ibn Taymiyya are misplaced (although I believe seeds for today’s Salafism do exist in his writings–for example in his refusal to be called a Ḥanbalī, wherein he refused to be defined by madhhab boundaries similar to today’s Salafis). Salafism to them was the well-known Traditionalism I mentioned earlier; it simply meant to refuse to engage in philosophical speculation about the nature of God. It was in no shape or form a worldview that defined everything, nor was it a competitor to the traditional madhhabs. As late as the first two decades of the 20th century, we have textual evidence from Nuʿmān al-Ālūsī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī and Muhammad Abduh using “Salafism” to refer only to theological Salafism. Later Rida tried to claim that Abduh was a Salafi in the modern sense, but the complete lack of evidence to that, and evidence to its contrary, show that this was just an effort to revise history.

A comical misunderstanding

Louis Massignon

The great French Orientalist Louis Massignon (1883 – 1962) was in contact with Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī and other scholars and was receiving a magazine published by the Salafiyya Bookstore. In a 1925 paper, Massignon tried to make sense of this new “Salafi” movement and attributed it to Muhammad Abduh and his mentor Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838 – 1897). He considered it a reformist and modernist movement founded by these two scholars. This myth of a “reformist Salafism” that continues to be repeated today appears to have originated here with Massignon.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

ʿAllāl al-Fāsī (1910 – 1974), a Moroccan political activist and religious intellectual, appears to have been inspired by Massignon’s writings on Salafism so that he took it up, later becoming one of the main representatives of “modernist Salafism”, which he believed had started with al-Afghani and Abduh.

ʿAllāl al-Fāsī

This reformist Salafism was everything Massignon thought it was: a movement of religious intellectuals who admired the West, desired reform and wished to restore the glory days of Islamic civilization. Later Westerners who tried to study Salafism really believed that Salafism had started as a reformist movement because they knew of prominent people like al-Fāsī who called themselves Salafis.

The reality, of course, was that al-Fāsī had been misled by Massignon’s erroneous writings about the existence of a modernist movement named Salafism into adopting that form of Islam.

Therefore the idea that Salafism was “hijacked” by the Wahhabis, as Khaled Abou El-Fadl states in a 2001 article, is incorrect because there was no Salafism at the time to be hijacked. There was one group that called itself Salafi but used it only in the theological sense, as al-Qāsimī did. There was also a modernist group, the Moroccan Salafis, who had taken up the “Salafi” epithet based on Massignon’s writings. There was also Rida, who started to take up the “Salafi” label in the 1920’s despite having no clear idea what exactly it had to mean. He considered the Wahhabis the Islamic world’s best hope for fighting colonialism and therefore defended them despite his misgivings about their beliefs and actions and sometimes wrote absurd articles in which he portrayed the Wahhabis as not so different from the modernist readers of his journal al-Manar.

Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali

Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali

Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali (1893 – 1987) is best known in the West for the Saudi-sponsored translation of the Quran known as The Noble Quran, which was written by Muhammad Muhsin Khan and al-Hilali, sometimes referred to as the Hilali-Khan translation. Al-Hilali’s career is a good representation of how Salafism became the Salafism we know today. Al-Hilali’s career is one of the central themes of Lauzière’s book.

Al-Hilali was originally a Sufi of the Tijaniyya order. In explaining his abandonment of Sufism, al-Hilali claimed that at one point (in the late 1910’s perhaps or early 1920’s), while praying on a cold night in the desert, he had a vision of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH in which the Prophet instructed him to study religious science. When al-Hilali asked him whether to study bātin science (mysticism) or ẓāhir (non-mysticism-related Islamic studies), the Prophet says to study the ẓāhir.

Al-Hilali arrived in Egypt in 1922 and soon became a student of Rashid Rida. Later he traveled to India and Iraq. As part of the support of Rida and his disciples for the Saudi state, al-Hilali was invited to work as a teacher in the Saudi educational establishment in 1927. He became faculty supervisor at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

At this time al-Hilali was extremely anti-Sufi and considered Sufism an evil and corrupt doctrine. When he discovered that one of the professors at the Prophet’s Mosque was a Sufi (Alfa Hashim), he wrote an anti-Sufi polemic and gave it to a Wahhabi judge, requesting that Hashim be fired. Hashim, in order to absolve himself from al-Hilali’s accusations, was made to write an anti-Sufi tract in which he condemned various doctrines of the Tijaniyya order.

When a Wahhabi scholar Ibn Bulayhid (d. 1940) discovered that al-Hilali was teaching that the earth is round, he made a big fuss and called it a bidʿa (heretical innovation), saying that the proper Islamic doctrine is that the earth is flat. He ordered al-Hilali and Hamza (another Egyptian and Rida disciple) to repent. The rest of the Wahhabi faculty started to treat the two of them as deviants and heretics. Al-Hilali managed to find supporting evidence from Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim’s writings on the earth being round, which made Ibn Bulayhid calm down, although he never admitted to having erred. Rida had to assure his readers in al-Manar that not all Wahhabis believe that the earth is flat.

Decades later, al-Hilali voiced support for Ibn Baz’s fatwa in which Ibn Baz declared that (a) the earth is flat and (b) anyone who disagrees with that can be put to death. Al-Hilali spoke French, had spent years in Europe and was very familiar was Western science (and early in his career worked to promote it). It seems unlikely that he would have really accepted the earth’s flatness, therefore his support for Ibn Baz’s fatwa appears to have been nothing but an effort to ingratiate himself with this all-important Saudi religious authority. It is, however, not impossible that later in his life he became so Wahhabized that he could convince himself to prefer Wahhabi “truths” to mere scientific truths.

In 1927 Rida had changed his moderate reformist tone so that he start to publish anti-Shia articles by al-Hilali. Rida had hoped that his disciples could spread his ideals of balanced reform among the Wahhabis. But quite the opposite happened. In their eagerness to fit in within the Saudi establishment, nearly all his disciples became increasingly Wahhabized.

Between 1930 and 1950 al-Hilali lead a double public life. On the one hand, he supported anti-colonial efforts among all Muslims without caring too much about how deviant their religious doctrines were according to Wahhabi standards. On the other hand, he continued to publish polemics in Wahhabi journals against various Muslim groups he accused of deviance and unbelief. Thus while he was increasingly becoming a Wahhabi purist, he continued to hold onto his ideals for reform and adopted tolerant attitudes toward certain “deviant” Muslim groups when he considered it beneficial to do so, something authentic (Najdi) Wahhabis would have never done.

Al-Hilali returned to Morocco at the end of his life, being paid by the Saudi state to continue spreading Wahhabism. From the 1970’s onwards Salafism slowly crystallized into what we know today, largely due to Wahhabi influence. Many individuals came on the scene to define a “Salafi method” for judging legal and theological issues outside the madhhabs. In his conclusion, Lauzière states:

The idea of a distinctive Sunni methodology applicable to Islamic theology, law, and virtually all other aspects of the religious and human experience was itself untraditional. Therefore, the purist version of Salafism should not be understood as a medieval or early modern concept or movement. To say that it dates from the time of Ibn Taymiyya or Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab not only is anachronistic but also obfuscates the development of modern Islamic thought. Although many of the ingredients of purist Salafism are old, the recipe and the final product (including the term Salafism) are not.

The Making of Salafism is an admirable work of scholarship–thorough and balanced. I looked forward to reading Henri Lauzière’s future works.

The Crucible of Islam by G. W. Bowersock

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G. W. Bowersock’s 2017 book The Crucible of Islam is a very brief survey of the religious and political situation of Arabia in the centuries leading up to the coming of Islam. There is mention of the relationship of the Byzantines, Persians and Ethiopians with the Jews and Christians of Yemen and Arabia.

The purpose of the book is to shed light on the “crucible” in which Islam was made. Due to the extreme lack of documentary evidence on the situation in Mecca and its surroundings, the book is restricted to retelling the stories of a few major events in the surroundings that may (or may) not have had an important influence in the way Islam came about. The Ethiopians conquered Yemen and Christianized it. The Persians and Byzantines competed for influence over the region through their relationships with allied Arab tribes. I cannot really say that much light has been shed on the crucible of Islam; due to its briefness and the lack of documentary evidence, the book serves mostly to show how little we know about the reality of the facts on the ground.

The most interesting thing I learned from this book is Michael Lecker’s theory that the Ghassanids in Medina may have had a role in encouraging the Jews and pagans to unite under the rule the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius may have encouraged his clients the Ghassanids to do this in order to ensure that the Persians did not regain influence over the Medina region.

Below are some notes on (mostly minor) issues and errors that I encountered in my reading.

On page 39 he says there are no daughters of Allah mentioned in the Quran. While it is true that no daughters of Allah are mentioned by name, the Quran does contain mention of the pagans attributing daughters to Allah:

Glen Bowersock, Professor of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

And they attribute to God daughters—exalted is He—and for themselves what they desire. (The Quran, verse 16:57)

Ask them, “Are the daughters for your Lord, while for them the sons?” (The Quran, verse 37:149)

Or for Him the daughters, and for you the sons? (The Quran, verse 52:39)

He considers the Wars of Apostasy an inappropriate label because he assumes they were majorly aimed at false prophets like Musaylama. But according to Muslim sources these wars were aimed first at tribes that refused to pay the zakat which they had paid during the time of the Prophet PBUH. The war on Musaylama was a sequel to these, and rather than being directed at extinguishing a rival religion specifically, the war was an act of statecraft; Musaylama had established a state that was at war with the Muslim state, and the Muslim state responded.

He mentions the word ukhdūd as referring to the Trenches in the Battle of the Trench, even though the name universally used is khandaq. He mentions that chapter 85 of the Quran al-Burūj commemorates this battle when there is no relationship between the chapter and the battle whatsoever. This chapter in fact commemorates that killing of Christians by Yemeni Jews, a chapter of pre-Islamic history that Bowersock himself mentions often. The chapter of Quran the actually commemorates the Battle of the Trench is chapter 33, al-Aḥzāb (“The Confederates”).

He mentions that the relics of the True Cross had been moved to Baghdad in 614, possibly meaning al-Madāʾin because Baghdad did not exist at the time.

He says that the Prophet’s cousin ʿAlī b. Abū Ṭalib did not belong to the Quraysh tribe but to the Banū Hāshim, confusing clan differences with tribal differences. Banū Hāshim were actually a clan within Quraysh.

He mentions that the Prophet PBUH “reconstructed” the Kaʿba. The phrasing implies that he did this as part of his mission. There is no evidence as far as I know that the Prophet PBUH made any changes to the Kaʿba. He had taken part in repairs to the Kaʿba before he became a prophet.

His treatment of the Dome of the Rock seems to suggest that he is unaware that the mosque (al-Masjid al-Aqṣā) is actually the original mosque that was established on the Mount. He expects the traveler Arculf to have seen the rock in the mosque, but since the mosque does not actually include the rock and is hundreds of meters away from it, it is quite natural that Arculf does not mention the rock. The Dome of the Rock itself is not a mosque but merely a shrine.

The Closing of the Muslim Mind and the Decline of Islamic Civilization

A response to Robert R. Reilly’s book The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Last I year I published then took down an early version of this essay. This is the updated version (also published as chapter 3 of my book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims).

In his essay “The Problem of Islamic Decadence”, the British historian J. J. Saunders (1910 – 1972) mentions the many theories that Westerners have proposed to explain why Muslims went from being the all-powerful rulers of the world to being backward and politically weak.

Considering Islamic civilization a weak and backward one is a relatively new thing. Saunders writes:

Not until the Age of Enlightenment did the West awake to the fact that its enemy and former mentor had slipped so far behind: only then were attempts made to account for this decline. Up to the end of the seventeenth century Islam presented the appearance of great strength and viguor, at least politically: the three leading Muslim States, the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia and Mogul India, ranked among the world’s great powers, and even the Sharifian kingdom of Morocco was treated with respect by Christian nations as late as the age of Louis XIV. Around 1700 there was a noticeable change. The final repulse of the Turks from Vienna (1683), the Christian reconquest of Hungary, and the Peace of Carlowitz (1699), registered the unmistakable decay of Ottoman might. The death of Awrangzib (1707) was followed by the rapid disintegration of the Mogul Empire. The fall of the Safavid dynasty (1722) ended the political greatness of Persia.[1]

Among undeniable signs of the decline of Islamic civilization were the fact that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb needed a Dutch passport to perform the Hajj in 1706,[2] and the fact that the Ottomans were so geographically ignorant that they were taken aback by the appearance of a Russian fleet in the Mediterranean in 1770, not knowing that the Baltic Sea was connected to the Atlantic Ocean according to Saunders.[3] As early as 1670, a European traveler through Persia and India noticed the lack of intellectual curiosity and the low technological sophistication of these lands.[4]

The French intellectuals Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Voltaire (1694-1778) and the English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) blamed government tyranny and mismanagement for the state of Muslim societies.[5] Ernest Renan, one of the most prominent intellectuals of the 19th century, blamed Islamic theology. According to Renan:

Only by freeing themselves from the paralysing grip of the Koran and the Law could the Muslim people hope to contribute again to the general advance of civilisation.[6]

Since Renan, the idea that Islam causes backwardness has been thoroughly taken up by the West’s intelligentsia so that it is taken for a fact these days—despite its banality and its sociologically amateur understanding of the functioning human societies. The works of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis are a more sophisticated restatement of Renan’s ideas. One of the latest contributions to this field of Islam-blaming is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis by Robert R. Reilly.[7] This essay focuses on a critique of Reilly’s writing while introducing an alternative, and far more plausible, explanation.

Reilly argues that the Islamic theological doctrine of predestination and other Ash’arite—the dominant theological framework within Sunni Islam—teachings have driven Muslims to a fatalistic, anti-intellectual dead-end, a “suicide” as Reilly describes it, quoting Fazlur Rahman (1919 – 1988), the famous Pakistani Islamic intellectual.

Reilly’s thesis is that scholarly theological positions hamper Muslim curiosity and intellectual achievement. He asserts that religious scholars and their doctrines have the power to put a damper on the freedom of thought among Muslims. In his rather depressing vision, intelligent Muslims are almost mind-controlled by a fatalistic Islam, and if only they would abandon this version of Islam, they would, as if by magic, acquire the ability to stop being narrow-minded and develop into full human beings. As is sadly typical of Western discourses about Islam, Reilly compares the very worst examples of the people of the Middle East with the best of the West, and from this highly skewed comparison he concludes that Islam must be the reason why the Middle East is not doing as well as the West.

If Reilly is right that the presently dominant version of Islam causes narrow-mindedness and is tantamount to “intellectual suicide”, then we would expect the intellectual elite of the Muslim world to be severely affected by this suicidal doctrine. Men and women who would have been scientists and inventors in a different reality would instead be narrow-minded and anti-intellectual worshipers at the feet of the religious scholars. It sounds like the set-up for a good story, but is there any reality to this scenario? The question to ask is: are city-dwelling, cosmopolitan Muslims hampered in their intellectual curiosity by theological doctrines?

Reilly’s answer should be yes. These people would be responsible for intellectual progress; but there is supposedly little intellectual progress, therefore these people are instead narrow-minded anti-intellectuals who need to be freed from harmful Islamic doctrines.

In the Reilly’s imagination, Muslim hordes listen to their religious scholars then zealously go on to implement whatever backward thing said scholars recommend.

But in the world of reality, like George Eliot’s Christians and George Orwell’s proletarian Catholics, Muslims politely listen to the preachers at the Friday sermons, then go out to think whatever they themselves choose to think. If the sermon makes sense within their personal, familial and cultural conceptual frameworks, they may be motivated to slightly change their behavior in response to it. And if it did not survive this critique, the content will simply be ignored. And if a preacher insults their intelligence or conscience one too many times, they will simply stop attending their sermons and find another mosque to go to (if one is available). If not, they may go to the sermon as late as possible to catch the obligatory performance of the communal prayer after sermon ends, as I have seen some Muslims do.

Reilly writes:

There are people in Saudi Arabia today who still do not believe man has been on the moon. This is not because they are ignorant; it is because accepting the fact that man was on the moon would mean also accepting the chain of causal relationships that put him there, which is simply theologically unacceptable to them.

Reilly quotes things like the above, thinking that they are somehow representative of all Muslims, when:

  1. Saudi’s cosmopolitan Muslims would find that just as laughable as any Westerner.
  2. There are perhaps tens of thousands of Americans who do not believe the moon landings ever happened. A quick search on Amazon.com for “moon landing hoax” brings up dozens of books.
  3. Saudi Arabia, this supposed capital of Islamic backwardness, now produces more scientific research[8] than Hungary, Thailand, New Zealand, Israel or Romania.[9]

Whether Saudi’s Wahhabi preachers dislike the country’s research institutions or not, the Muslim population not only tolerates them, but is proud of them and their achievements. In 2010, the Saudi website al-Weeam reported that a female Saudi student had come first in her class at Southampton University in England. The article led to 88 comments, most of which praised her achievement. A few of the usual suspects were present to mention how she was suffering moral decay by being in England, but these were the exception “that proves the rule”; most readers found positive value in her achievement and expressed pride in it.[10]

An illustration of the independence of the Muslim mind from religious scholars is the way Iran’s middle class rejects the Shia practice of temporary marriage, rightly recognizing it as legalized prostitution[11]despite scholarly approval for it.

Egypt is a very conservative country, yet its scientific output has increased from 4,515 scientific research papers published in 2005 to 17,300 in 2016. It is common to brush such data aside by saying this progress is happening despite Islam. Even if the research institutions that are producing these papers are staffed by devout Muslims, this is brushed aside by saying that they are not really Muslim in their hearts, that they have abandoned parts of Islam and this enables them to be rational and human. In this way, all actual cases of Muslims acting rationally, acting as intelligent and modern creatures, are dismissed in order to maintain the narrative that Islam promotes irrationality.

Western pundits preemptively close all doors to data that would prove their theses wrong; any data about real Muslims behaving intelligently, rationally and humanistically is inadmissible to them (they are not real Muslims, or they are doing what they do despite Islam), while all data showing otherwise is admissible.

Reilly, as many other pundits, considers Wahhabism somehow a natural form of Islam that has the danger of spreading to all Muslim minds. This is despite the fact it is likely only practiced by less than 1% of the world’s Muslims, largely sponsored by Saudi Arabia, and despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims strongly dislike it. When the Wahhabi Ibn Saud conquered Mecca and Medina with the help of British funding[12] in the 1920’s, the people of these two cities so strongly disliked Wahhabi preachers that he had to import clerics from Egypt.[13]

Reilly has to focus on Wahhabism because he is trying to explain why Islam is causing so much terrorism.[14] Like almost all of those who try to answer this question, he tries to find the reasons for Islamic terrorism within Islamic cultures and societies, ignorant of the fact Islamic terrorism is very much a 20th century phenomenon triggered by colonial rule in Egypt, the Jewish ethnic cleansing of Palestine[15], and the US arming, training and funding of the Wahhabi Taliban and al-Qaeda organizations in the 1980’s in order to weaken the Soviet Union.[16]

Instead of trying to look blindly grope inside Muslim minds for the causes of Islamic terrorism, Reilly would probably do much better to call up a few of his friends at the Pentagon.[17]

The decline of Islamic science

The rise of the rationalist Mu’tazilites coincided with the rise of Islamic science in the 9th century, and the fall of the Mu’tazilites and the rise of Ash’arites in the 11th century coincided with the fall of Islamic science. Reilly considers it his most important contribution to the discussion of the decline of Islam to suggest that the abandonment of Mu’tazilite doctrine and the adoption of the less intellectual Ash’arite doctrine was a cause for the decline and fall of Islamic civilization. For him this correlation equals causation.

During the period of decline that started from 900 CE onward, the Abbasid empire suffered repeated Turkic invasions. The same process that caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (centuries of barbarian invasions causing a breakdown in urban networks of professionalism and trade) happened to Islam from the 10th century to the 15th century. The West was spared this process during the same period so that it enjoyed a Renaissance in peace just as the Turkic Mahmud of Ghazni was carrying on his slaughter of cosmopolitan and productive Iranian cities.

Baghdad was the center of Abbasid science and philosophy, which was largely conducted by Iranians coming from the great Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia. These cities were one by one decimated by the Turkic and Mongol invasions, and Baghadad itself never recovered from the destruction of its irrigation system by the Mongols.[18] Two centuries after the Mongols, the Turkic warlord Tamerlane re-destroyed Baghdad even more thoroughly than the Mongols had managed.[19]

Russia and Poland, the only significant areas of the West that suffered Mongol and Turkic invasions during the same period, were until recently just as famous for being backward and undeveloped as the Muslim lands, despite being Christian lands. John Saunders writes:

Since the conversion of Northmen and the Magyars around 1000, Western Europe had been completely free from this scourge. The Mongols, who devastated Russia as thoroughly as they did Western Asia, got as far as Silesia in 1241 before their leaders were obliged to return home in order to elect a new Great Khan. Had they pressed westwards to the Rhine and the Atlantic and overrun Germany, Italy and France, which they could probably have done with ease, there would have been no Renaissance, and the West, like Russia, would have taken centuries to reconstruct the shattered fabric of its civilisation. Western Europe has perhaps never properly appreciated its good fortune in escaping conquest by the last and most dreadful of the invaders from the steppes of Asia. It emerged from the Dark Ages in the eleventh century, at the very time when the first barbarian blows were being struck at the world of Islam, and it was able from then onwards to build up a new civilisation on the Atlantic fringe of the Eurasian continent uninterrupted by the raids and devastations of Turks or Mongols or Bedouins.

Now that the destruction brought by the barbarian invasions has been repaired and trade has resumed, we should take another look at Muslim societies and see whether things are changing or not. Islam has not changed greatly in the past 200 years. Muslims continue to consider the Quran the literal Word of God and the hadith collections of al-Bukhārī and Muslim as canons of the faith. If Renan, Lewis and Reilly are right that Islamic theology is causing a closing of the Muslim mind (John Saunders, too, considers Islam a potential negative influence), we would expect little change to have taken place after the restoration of peace, because they tell us that it is the Muslims’ Islamic beliefs that is making them backward and decadent, not something outside of Islam, such as historical circumstances.

Today, throughout the Muslim world there is great interest in philosophy, in science, in literature. The top 6 Muslim-majority countries in terms of population (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran and Turkey) have increased their scientific output by three to ten times in the past ten years alone.  Iran now publishes more scientific research papers in peer-reviewed journals than Sweden, Poland or Belgium. Muslims are sending their children to Western-inspired universities by the millions. In Iran and Egypt, most Western bestsellers are translated and published a year or two after their publication in the West. It is breathtakingly ignorant to color one’s understanding of the Muslim societies of today by prejudices inspired by the decaying societies of 1000-1900. Islamic theology has remained the same, yet everything else is changing.

The Scientific Revolution was the edge of edges that enabled Europe to rule the world until the year 2000. It has only been in the past 20 years (since the 1990’s) that the nations outside of Europe, Muslim and non-Muslim, discovered the importance of formal scientific research. Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India and China realized they would forever be second-class citizens on the world stage, clients of Europe, as long as they did not have a system for churning out discoveries as Europe did.

All of the 20th century was a difficult lesson for the third world in learning that, to keep up with Europe, it is not sufficient to copy its technologies; one needs to recreate its scientific research culture. Only this enables one to have the well-educated and well-equipped men and women needed to develop the blades of aircraft engines and the connectors used in supercomputers.

At the moment that I am writing this, we stand at the moment in history when the non-European world has finally realized the essential necessity for scientists. China went from publishing 28,000 scientific papers in 1996 to over 400,000 in 2016. Recently it was announced that China had surpassed the United States in its output to become the world’s number one publisher of scientific research.[20] Iran has seen even more dramatic growth, going from less than 1000 papers in 1996 to over 47,000 in 2016. Similar growth can be seen in all major Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.

We are now in a major turning point in history, perhaps as important as that in 1600 when Western Europe became the world’s supreme civilization. The thing that gave Europe its permanent edge over the past centuries no longer solely belongs to it. The culture of scientific inquiry is being recreated throughout the world, so that today any of Egypt, Iran, India or Malaysia is likely perfectly capable of carrying science forward even if Europe and the United States were to vanish from the world.

A theory that blames Islam for the Islamic world’s status today will have to tell us that this recent realization of the crucial importance of science to national prowess and prosperity is going to make little difference as long as Muslims remain devout. We are supposedly backward because of Islam, not because of historical circumstances. But a quick comparison between Muslim countries and their non-Muslim equivalents in the next section shows that this is just a figment of the imagination; these nations are remaining devout Muslims while embracing science.

We Muslims are often given the nonsensical choice of either choosing to be human or choosing to be Muslim, and in Western works like S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment and Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment, the writers make it amply clear that they could never see eye-to-eye with a faithful and devout Muslim (who is invariably an enemy of rationality and intellectual progress). They cannot conceive of someone as intelligent as themselves (or God forbid, more intelligent) being a faithful Muslim.

Caught between Western discussions of often imaginary Muslims are actual, living and breathing Muslims who are experiencing no crisis, who are happy to engage in intellectual pursuits, and who while respecting the religious scholars, do not take them seriously when what they say goes against reason and conscience. Are Muslim doctors systematically avoiding intellectual inquiry because of Ash’arite indoctrination? This is such an incredibly outlandish thought that it would make most Muslims laugh. Are Muslim parents systematically forbidding their children from reading Western classics and studying the humanities at Western universities? No. They see no conflict between intellectual inquiry and Islam because to them there is no conflict, and it is their opinion that matters; it is they who make Islam’s history.

Imaginary Muslims live in Muslim “no-go zones”, do not read except strict religious literature, do everything the scholars tell them, and keep their women in cages. Real Muslims live wherever they want, read whatever they like, are respectful but inwardly skeptical toward the religious scholars and treat their women according to whatever their human instincts and cultures demand. It is time that we started considering real Muslims in our discussions of Islam. Imaginary Muslims need to be taught reason, rationality and humanism. Actual Muslims do not—they have already embraced these ideas and integrated them into their own lives. In just a single century the Islamic world’s scientific output has increased by orders of magnitude, nearly all Muslim families have started to send their children to secular universities that have popped up all over the Muslim lands, and almost all Muslim countries have adopted some form of constitutional democracy. This, I believe, is sufficient progress for just one century.

Harmful theology?

The Ash’arites (represented by al-Ghazālī and others) said that God is capable of willing anything. Reilly thinks this shows a dangerous moral relativism within Islam, since it tells us that God’s nature is totally arbitrary.

But this is fantastical nonsense; a Muslim cannot perform the obligatory prayer without referring to God as the Gracious, the Merciful, multiple times, amounting to a minimum of 36 times a day. Can a theological idea that the majority of Muslims have never even heard of[21] somehow override this consistent emphasis on God’s attributes of grace and mercy?

Reilly writes that the elimination of cause and effect “makes prediction impossible”. He refers to the case of certain Islamic scholars getting weather forecasts banned between 1983-1984 as evidence.  But his evidence actually takes away from his thesis; even in a traditional and supposedly backward country like Pakistan, the ulema could not get weather forecasts banned for more than a year. The scholars won for one year and consistently lost every single year before and after that—despite Pakistan remaining very much a conservative Muslim country. The sensible conclusion is not that Muslims believe in irrationalist nonsense, but that they reject nonsense even if it comes from their religious scholars.

The Safavids and Qajars were not Ash’arites, they were in fact Shia who maintained respect for the opposing rationalist Mu’tazilite tradition, yet they were no more open to intellectual inquiry than the Ash’arite Ottomans. Additionally, today Ash’arite Sunni countries like Egypt, Turkey and Malaysia are not behind non-Ash’arite Iran and Azerbaijan in science and intellectual inquiry. Both the past and the present show that Ash’arite theology is useless as a predictor of the openness or closedness of the Muslim mind.

If religious scholars abuse Islamic theology to attack common sense, Muslims will feel embarrassed that their religion has to be represented by such people. Reilly continually uses the excesses of certain minor sects and political groups in their support for unreasonable policies as proof for Ash’arite theology’s extreme influence, despite the fact that the majority of Muslims consider these groups unrespectable and unworthy of attention. George Makdisi mentions an interesting case of theological abuse by a scholar:

The Spanish grammarian Ibn Mada’ (d. 592/1196) wrote a refutation of the concept of the regent (‘āmil: regens) in grammar, on the basis that government belongs to God alone. The author, applying the Ash’ari theological view to grammar, denies the power of the regent on the basis that desinential inflections are really the result of God’s acts; they are merely attributed (kasb) to man. Needless to say that this view had no success in the field of grammar.[22]

A person who views Islam as an anti-intellectual force will consider the above “typical” of Islam. But Makdisi, who understands the functioning of real-world Islamic societies, considers it “needless to say” that this absurd abuse of theology was not taken seriously by Muslims. The quoted anecdote does not show that Ash’arism had a negative influence on Muslim minds, it in fact shows the opposite; Muslims by and large do not accept nonsense even when dressed in the language of religion.

It is tempting for an intellectual, especially a Westerner, to think of himself or herself as a knight in shining armor chosen to rid the Muslim world of its backwardness, chosen to bring the Muslims out of the darkness of faith into the light of reason. But such a person, if they were to go to cosmopolitan places like Cairo or Tehran, and if they were to have dinner at a devout cosmopolitan Muslim’s home, will find that there is no need for the battering ram of reason and rationality they brought with themselves. The closed gates of the Muslim mind are an illusion; there are no gates. Look at the books sold on the streets of Cairo, Tehran or Baghdad. The openness of the Islamic world of today to ideas from around the world would shock medieval Islamic theologians (and medieval Christian theologians). Even in the Islamic theocracy of Iran the books of freethinkers like Avicenna and the latest Western bestsellers are not merely tolerated but celebrated. This alone should be sufficient to show that the idea of “closed” Muslim societies and minds is uninformed fantasizing.

[1] J. J. Saunders, Muslims & Mongols: Essays on Medieval Asia, ed. G.W. Rice, Christchurch: University of Canterbury and Whitcoulli Limited, 1977, 27.

[2] Eric Tagliacozzo, The Longest Journey, 26.

[3] Saunders, Muslims & Mongols, 106.

[4] Ibid., 102.

[5] Ibid., 103.

[6] Ibid., 104.

[7] Robert R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, Wilmington: ISI Books, 2010.

[8] 18,953 research papers in 2016 according to Scimago Journal and Country Rank.

[9] Perhaps the larger part of Saudi’s scientific growth is due to the importation of foreign scientists. But the fact that the Saudis are willing to spend billions of dollars on research, and the fact that the Saudi population is not up in arms against this scientific growth but actually supports it should give us pause.

[10] Sālim al-Shaybānī, “Mutaba`ithah saudiyyah tuhaqiq injaz ilmi wa tatafawwaq al-talabah al-baritaniyyin fi jami`atihim”, Alweeam, December 1, 2010, weam.co/4351 (retrieved January 27, 2018).

[11] One can marry someone for a day as long as a cleric is present to officiate the wedding.

[12] See Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, London: Profile Books Ltd, 2018.

[13] See Henri Lauzière, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

[14] Almost all cases of Islamic terrorism are carried out by Wahhabis and sects following similar doctrines.

[15] For the Palestinian issue, see Ila Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007.

[16] See Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s Wars for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2016.

[17] The Pentagon was providing regular flights to al-Qaeda members right before 9/11, as FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds has publicized. See Edmonds’ interview with Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine: “Who’s Afraid of Sibel Edmonds?”, November 1, 2009, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/whos-afraid-of-sibel-edmonds/ (retrieved December 24, 2018).

[18] Saunders, Muslims & Mongols,  114.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Dockrilll, Peter. “China Just Overtook The US in Scientific Output For The First Time.” ScienceAlert, January 23, 2018,  https://www.sciencealert.com/china-just-overtook-us-in-scientific-output-first-time-published-research (retrieved March 5, 2018).

[21] In my discussions of Ash’arite theology with Muslims, I have found that they find it very unsettling and outlandish, since it goes against the normative Islam they have learned throughout their lives; that God is just and kind.

[22] George Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West: With Special Reference to Scholasticism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990, 124.

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times is a collection of high-quality scholarly essays on Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE) edited by Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed. It is highly worth reading for anyone interested in this important and controversial character of Islamic history. Maybe I should mention that I do not consider myself a follower of Ibn Taymiyya. I do like some aspects of his thinking as do many important mainstream Islamic thinkers, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Yasir Qadhi.

The book is an important contribution to our understanding of Ibn Taymiyya, refuting the views of both his extremist supporters and his critics. The essay show that Ibn Taymiyya is a far more sophisticated and multi-dimensional thinker than is commonly imagined. This book will hopefully serve as a landmark in ending the simplistic, biased and prejudiced treatments that Ibn Taymiyya has so far received in both Muslim and Western sources.

The first essay by Caterina Bori shows that Ibn Taymiyya was not a representative of the Ḥanbalī school, quite the opposite. He was something of an outsider to the school and was surrounded by a very small group of highly dedicated followers.

Jon Hoover’s essay focuses on Ibn Taymiyya’s theology. Ibn Taymiyya has unique theological views that differ greatly from Ḥanbalī orthodoxy and that do not follow directly from the views of the Salaf (“Pious Predecessors”, the earliest few generations of Muslims). He argues that God’s relationship with humans is personal and dynamic. He acts directly in time and interacts with humans. This is a far more satisfying view of God to the modern mind compared to the impersonal God of more popular versions of Islamic theology.

M. Sait Özervarli’s essay continues the discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s theology. Ibn Taymiyya, like Ibn Rushd, argues that there can never contradiction between rationality and scripture. When there is a contradiction, either scripture has been misunderstood, or the rational evidence has been misconstrued. According to Özervarli, Ibn Taymiyya argues for a Quran-centered empirical rationalism that shuns the complicated arguments of the kalam-theologians and takes its inspiration from the basic facts of life that we observe around us. According to Ibn Taymiyya there is no need for philosophical proofs of God’s existence since the Quran is full of signs that point to God. These signs are a sufficiency to those who understand them properly.

Racha el Omari’s essay focuses on Ibn Taymiyya’s polemics against Ashʿarite theology (the “orthodox” theology of scholars like al-Ghazālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī). Ibn Taymiyya argues for a “theology of the Salaf” that goes beyond Ḥanbalī theology and tries to always re-derive its theological views from the views of the earliest Muslims, although just how much Ibn Taymiyya’s theology agrees with that of the Salaf has to be studied further. It is seems more historically accurate to me to say that the Salaf did not really have much of a theology beyond their faith in the Quran’s literal meaning. This means that any effort to develop an intellectually satisfying theological framework will always need to go far beyond what the Salaf ever said or imagined, and Ibn Taymiyya’s theology seems to fit this description: whenever he tries to build a sophisticated argument in support of some view, he has to venture out on his own onto territory that the Salaf never explored. For this reason he was criticized by other Ḥanbalīs for engaging in too much philosophical thinking.

The essay by Walid A. Saleh examines Ibn Taymiyya’s approach to interpreting the Quran as it is laid out in his short treatise Muqaddima fī uṣūl al-tafsīr (An Introduction on the Foundations of Quranic Exgesis). Saleh calls Ibn Taymiyya’s approach “radical hermeneutics” since it attempts to throw away the existing exegetical tradition in order to take the field back to its origins among the Salaf. It tries to force the authority of the hadith tradition and the opinions of the Salaf on the field so that no one would be allowed to interpret the Quran in any way save the way of hadith and the Salaf. Anyone who tries to put forth an interpretation of a Quranic verse will have to find a basis for it in hadith or the opinions of the Salaf. This intellectual caging of interpretive freedom is meant to ensure the “purity” of Quranic interpretations so that heretical and misguided interpretations do not enter into it. Among scholars who followed his methodology are his student Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373 CE), who continued to respect the existing exegetical tradition, and Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505 CE), who according to Saleh produced the classic work of the genre of exegesis that Ibn Taymiyya called for. Modern Muslims who are not entirely happy with this restricted methodology can still benefit from sources that try to follow it, considering them one legitimate voice among others (even if such sources consider themselves the only legitimate voices).

Livnat Holtzman discusses Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim’s theological views on human freedom and choice. Ibn Taymiyya breaks with existing views on God’s guidance to say that while all humans are born in a state of purity and guidance, a person can go on to choose what is good or evil, and according to this choice, God goes on to guide them further or misguide them. This is a refreshingly rational treatment of the question compared to the views of other scholars. There is still an important question that his theology does not answer; how can free-willed decisions be really free if they can be predicted with 100% accuracy by God beforehand? I have never read an intellectually satisfying answer from any Muslim scholar on this.

Yossef Rapoport discusses Ibn Taymiyya’s unique legal methodology, such as his rejection of accepted legal tricks that used lawful means for unlawful ends, and his breaking away with Ḥanbalī tradition in order to call for persistent ijtihād (striving to solve issues of law and theology using one’s efforts rather than merely relying on the opinions of past scholars). Intention is of primary importance to Ibn Taymiyya; even if all the proper legal forms are obeyed, if the aim is evil, he wholeheartedly rejects it. As is usual with Ibn Taymiyya, his views are in general refreshingly modern and rational.

Tariq al-Jamil’s essay is a short discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Shia polemical views. The essay by David Thomas is on Ibn Taymiyya’s polemical response to a Christian piece of writing that attempted to insinuate that all Muslims would embrace Christianity if they understood the Quran and the Bible better. Rather than responding to the Christian piece directly, Ibn Taymiyya uses it as an occasion to discuss why Islam is superior to Christianity.

The essay by Khaled el-Rouayheb argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s popularity in the post-classical era has been greatly exaggerated. He was a marginal figure who was rarely mentioned or taken seriously by the scholars that came after him. This state of affairs continued for five centuries after Ibn Taymiyya’s death. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a movement started to rehabilitate his image and popularize his works. The most important figures in this movement were Nuʿmān Khayr al-Dīn al-Ālūsī (d. 1899 CE) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935 CE).

Raquel M. Ukeles’ essay argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s rejection of such things as the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH was more sophisticated than is realized or acknowledged by his modern admirers. While he considered such things false innovations (bidaʿ, plural of bidʿa), he recommended tolerance toward its practitioners, saying that they could even get a great reward from God for their good intentions. He therefore takes a highly intelligent stance on the issue:

  • Those who follow the way of the earliest Muslims and believe in rejecting innovations must shun such things. If they engage in them, they would be committing a sin.
  • Those among qualified scholars whose own personal opinion (ijtihād) has convinced them that such celebrations are religiously acceptable should be respected. They have the right to their own opinions.
  • Those among the Muslim masses who celebrate such things should be judged by their intentions. If they do it out of good intentions, their deed is accepted. If they do it for other intentions, their deed is rejected.

That is an amazingly tolerant view compared to that of some of those who today think they are representative of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings.

The last essay is by Mona Hassan. She argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s views regarding the caliphate have been misconstrued by much of Western scholarship. Western scholars like Henri Laoust wrongly believed that Ibn Taymiyya had done away with classical scholarly view of the necessity of the existence of a ruler that followed the ideals of the Rashidun caliphs. She also discusses his fatwas regarding the permissibility of fighting the Mongols. The group that assassinated the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 claimed that their actions were legitimate according to Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas. Hassan says that this group completely misread Ibn Taymiyya, whose framework is actually concerned with fighting outlaws and rebels. Ironically, that extremist group itself falls within the definition of those groups that Ibn Taymiyya believes can be legitimately fought by the Muslims. She discusses Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s statements in support of peaceful political participation. Al-Qaradawi uses two of Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas to show that Ibn Taymiyya’s was not an isolationist as some of his admirers believe but rather believed in participating in politics where this could serve a constructive purpose.

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times should interest anyone interested in a sophisticated understanding of Ibn Taymīya, Islamic intellectual history and the origins of Salafism.

Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science

Nidhal Guessoum’s Islam’s Quantum Question (originally published in French in 2009, published in English in 2011) is well worth reading, mainly for its detailed refutation of various pseudo-scientific defenses of Islam and the Quran that have been offered by others. His detailed critique of Iʿjāz literature and its supporters (such as Zaghloul El-Naggar), who purport to show scientific “miracles” found in the Quran and hadith using the flimsiest of evidence, will hopefully help bring the discussion on Islam and science to a higher and less embarrassing plane in the Muslim world.

Guessoum’s refutation of misguided Muslim arguments against the theory of evolution (such as those of Harun Yahya and Seyyed Hussein Nasr) and his overview of the scientific support for evolution are also highly valuable.

The book is marred by Guessoum’s attempts at coming up with “scientific” explanations for miracles. He suggests that Jesus’s healing of the blind may have actually been the placebo effect, seemingly finding it the most scientifically satisfactory explanation. This rather naive reasoning is symptomatic of the fact that Guessoum offers very little in the way of synthesis, despite the subtitle’s promised “reconciliation”. The book is largely overview and refutation, with little in the way of creative theological problem-solving.

Guessoum follows Aristotle and Ibn Rushd in conceiving of nature as a principle that stands above God–what I will call the nature supremacist view. When Mother Nature says something (miracles do not happen), and God says something else (miracles happen), the plain meaning of God’s words is to be ignored to please Nature. Thus Guessoum finds it more satisfactory to believe that the stick of Moses turning into a snake was actually an illusion rather than a fact of reality. Guessoum’s theology is therefore secularized and defensive; he has to find flimsy scientific-sounding excuses (the placebo effect, quantum mechanical indeterminacy) to explain away Quranic statements about divine action in order to be more scientifically “authentic”.

A respect for Islam’s traditional theology and an effort to reconcile it with modern science is largely absent from the book. Guessoum seems to think it beneath him to take the plain sense of the Quran literally. Like Ziauddin Sardar (whom he admires and whose thought he covers in some detail), he thinks that a person as intelligent and well-educated as himself could never be a traditionalist. Guessoum writes:

I commented that the reconciliation between the two depends strongly on the reading (literal vs. interpretative) that one adopts for the religious texts. The more literal the person is, the more problems she/he will find in harmonising science with Islam.1

That is only the case for Guessoum himself–and only because he has accepted to be driven into the nature supremacist corner. There is an alternative that he is wholly unaware of: the Ghazalian worldview. Guessoum is dismissive toward al-Ghazali (who is “orthodox” and therefore automatically persona non grata to Guessoum), unaware that al-Ghazali’s universe-as-simulation metaphor (which Guessoum cites and summarily discards) provides for a better reconciliation of Islam and science than his Aristotle-and-Ibn Rushd-inspired nature-supremacist worldview.

The Ghazalian worldview accepts the plain sense of the Quran while remaining utterly rationalist and empiricist toward the natural world. It is more faithful to the Quran because it does not try to explain anything in it away in the service of Mother Nature, and it is more faithful to science because it does not abuse concepts borrowed from fields like quantum mechanics to support mystical explanations. It is both as God-centered as any mystical view of the universe and as scientific as any atheist scientist may desire.

In the Ghazalian worldview, since we free our conception of God from the chains of nature supremacism, the literal meaning of the Quran stops giving us trouble. God caused the Red Sea to part? That is problematic to Guessoum and Guessoum’s imaginary literalist since he must come up with an explanation that pleases Mother Nature almost as a deity alongside God. But in the Ghazalian view explaining it is the simplest thing in the world: the person in charge of a simulation can make any change to it he wants. He can cause it to run according to natural laws that he can suspend whenever he wishes. There is no need for quantum mechanical or psychological explanations of this miracle because nature is not a god alongside God, nature is merely a projection, a mirage, upheld by God. Trying to find scientific explanations for miracles is as silly as a video game character trying to find explanations for miraculous events inside the video game using the game’s logic that they see around them, wholly unaware that the video game is actually hosted on a computer and that the miraculous event was just a number that switched inside the computer’s RAM. By being unaware that there is one logic to the inside of the game and another, far more sophisticated, logic to the outside of it, all explanations our character comes up with will be hopelessly inadequate. Only once the creator of the game sends a revelation into the game telling the character that there is an outside infrastructure to the game will the character be able to finally understand the miracle. The miracle had no basis within the game’s logic because it followed a different logic, a foreign, outer logic.

The parting of the Red Sea had no need for scientific intermediaries because scientific factors are how God normally does things; when He abnormally does things as in the case of miracles, He is acting unscientifically. Science merely describes God’s normal ways of operating this simulation. So trying to come up with scientific explanations for miracles is to think that God has to bow down to Mother Nature and do things her way rather than His way.

According to Guessoum, and I hope I am not being too harsh here, a self-respecting and scientifically-minded Muslim must believe that God has no choice but to act according to the laws of nature. Why? What is so special about nature that God must bow down to it? What a low opinion to have about God! Guessoum could argue that God acts according to nature by choice, but there is no suggestion in the book that he has such a conception. He appears to think of God and nature as two equally powerful deities, apparently thinking this is the only way we can “reconcile” the two and remain scientifically respectable.

I respect Guessoum’s right to have his own theology. But I do not respect his apparent thinking that his secularized and defensive theology is the only intelligent and rationalist one. This could of course simply be due to his lack of knowledge of the details and sophistication of Islamic theology. See my essay on reconciling Islam and Darwinian evolution for more on the Ghazalian worldview and how it fits perfectly within a rationalist worldview.

Selection bias and cultural intertia

He discusses a 2007 conference on “Quranic Healing” organized in Abu Dhabi and attended by many university professors and professionals. The keynote speaker called for integrating “Quranic healing” into medicine in university curricula. Topics discussed included the effect of Quran recitation on water and the scientific basis for the evil eye.

Reading such reports, I had difficulty reminding myself that all this was being presented in the twenty-first-century conferences and not in dark medieval gatherings.2

There is a selection bias here: only the minority of Muslim professors and professionals who find “Quranic healing” interesting would have been interested in attending such a conference. This tells us nothing about the potential majority of elite Muslims who would have found such a conference absurd. That conference could either be (1) a sign that Muslims are still medieval in their thinking on some matters or (2) one of the last gasps of the dying breed of Muslim professors and professionals who engage in such silly abuses of religion and science.

Guessoum expresses many aspects of what I call “Muslim middle class horror syndrome”; the horror of middle class Muslims at what we might call ordinary Muslims. He decries the fact that a Quran memorization competition at his son’s school (in the UAE) attracted the interest of all the parents while a science fair barely attracted a few of them. The Quran competition only focused on memorization, not understanding, and the parents apparently could not care less about comprehension as long as memorization took place.

“Islam” might be a completely irrelevant variable here from a social science perspective. Children of doctors and other highly educated professionals, regardless of their parents’ religiosity, are going to enjoy having parents that are going to be as open-minded and interested in science education as Guessoum. And children of uneducated parents are going to not have parents that are interested in science education. It just so happens that in the UAE, most children are the children of uneducated parents.

To put it another way, Islamic beliefs never prevented children born to highly-educated parents from reading and taking in dozens of modern scientific books. Guessoum, who had such an upbringing, somehow thinks he is unique. I doubt he is. With or without Islam, children who come from families predisposed to love knowledge and learning will get a wide, modern education. The idea that there are highly intelligent Muslims who refuse to read scientific books (as Guessoum’s theory of the ailment of Islamic cultures would predict) is completely a figment of the imagination; there are no such Muslims.

Now, I do not deny that the Arab/Islamic world suffers from far more superstition and anti-scientific attitudes than, say, Sweden. But this may simply represent cultural inertia. The number of people getting a university degree in the Middle East has increased by orders of magnitude in the past 50 years, and this cannot help but slowly change their cultures. It is just that change takes time.

We should therefore look at the attitudes of devout Muslim children versus their parents to find out whether Islam is preventing progress as their culture changes or not. I am very much of the opinion that Islam is quite irrelevant here.

To put it another way: Islam never prevented someone from being a rationalist. It did not do that in 850 CE, and it does not do that today. Islam can be used as an excuse for irrationalism, but it can also be used as an excuse for rationalism. It is quite amazing that, seeing the extremely diverse worldviews of Islam’s different scholars, one can hold onto the view that Islam somehow hampers rationalism. The existence and celebrity status of rationalists like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī should be sufficient evidence to show that a person predisposed to rationalism will find rationalism through Islam. It is humans themselves who make Islam rationalist or irrationalist as their own personal and cultural tendencies make them. Islam may not be a causal factor here–it may simply be a victim.

Another support for my argument is this: In the Middle East, secularists who reject Islam and proudly embrace theories like evolution as alternatives to the Islamic worldview are going to be just as ignorant about real science as Muslims of equal education / socio-economic status. They will follow a narrow-minded, make-believe science that is almost half made up of a secularist metaphysics. This means that it is the culture that is the problem, not the religion. Even if religion is abandoned, ignorance and narrow-mindedness remains because of cultural inertia. I do not have data to back this up, but my experience of the Middle East strongly supports this view.

The solution is going to be slow and will take much time. If each generation is slightly more rationalist than the one before it, then we can consider that progress. Egypt’s scientific output has increased from about 2800 research papers in 1996 to 17,000 in 2017. That is a tremendous increase in scientific output that at least partly reflects increased funding and engagement, and will likely have important ramifications for Egyptian culture. We see the same pattern almost everywhere else in Muslim majority countries: Pakistan went from 890 papers in 1996 to 15800 in 2017, Iran publishes more science than Belgium, Sweden or Poland (data from Scimago Journal & Country Rank).

The anti-Ghazali prejudice

While his treatment of al-Ghazali is friendlier than many others, he too submits to the Orientalist myth that al-Ghazali had a harmful effect on philosophy. He writes:

He remains an icon of Islamic classical scholarship, although for philosophy and science his legacy and influence were minimal, if not negative.3

Recent Western scholarship has shown that al-Ghazali wasn’t just a non-enemy of philosophy; he actually tried to integrate philosophy with spirituality and Islamic law. See Frank Griffel’s Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology and Kenneth Garden’s The First Islamic Reviver. Guessoum’s understanding of al-Ghazali is therefore outdated and unaware of recent scholarship.

Wahhabism, Ibn Taymiyya and Salafism

I am neither a Salafi nor follower of Ibn Taymiyya but I am forced here to defend them against Guessoum’s treatment. He conflates Wahhabism with Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings. Unfortunately it looks like it will take decades before we can rescue Ibn Taymiyya’s image from these caricatures. Guessoum really likes Ibn Rushd’s assertion that there can never be conflict between rational knowledge and scripture–a concept that was in fact very strongly defended by Ibn Taymiyya as well. As a modern Muslim, I find Ibn Taymiyya’s version of the argument superior to Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd continues to hold onto philosophical arrogance–the belief that when scripture and philosophy conflict, philosophy should be used to explain away scripture.

Ibn Taymiyya has the opposite, and wiser and more modern (some would say postmodern) view. Rather than arrogantly thinking that we are always superior to scripture, we should acknowledge that scripture is superior to us. When there is a seeming conflict between scripture and philosophy (I include science in this), rather than naively explaining away the conflict, we should look deeper and consider the possibility that it is our seemingly rational arguments that are at fault. A good example is the question of Darwinian evolution. Past reformers tried to reconcile Islam and Darwinian evolution by explaining away Islam’s views on creation. As I show in my essay on Islam and evolution, now that we have progressed further in our knowledge, we can actually fully support scripture’s views while maintaining rationality. It was rationality that was at fault in the past, not scripture. As our rationality improved, we realized that scripture had it right all along.

A wise person takes a lesson from this: we should strongly resist the desire to explain away scripture when there is a seeming conflict between it and rationality. We should always keep in mind that future generations may solve the conflict without being forced to throw away the plain meaning of scripture.

Ibn Taymiyya, despite his faults, was a wonderfully intelligent, open-minded and rationalistic scholar. To those of us wishing for a more intelligent and empirical Islamic law, Ibn Taymiyya is a much-needed breath of fresh air compared to the scholars who came before him (for example in his rejection of the triple divorce, in his consideration of the common good as a positive thing in its own right). Those interested in a sophisticated view of Ibn Taymiyya should check out Ibn Taymiyya and his Times (edited by Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed, see my review of it here).

Guessoum writes the following gross mischaracterization of Salafis (who, according to him, are the same as Wahhabis, but perhaps he was simplifying for the sake of his readers):

And Salafis often nonchalantly dismiss scientific and other truths whenever they appear to conflict with their literal understanding of Islamic texts or with injunctions found in the Qur’an and in the Hadith. No effort at interpretation is ever made to reconcile such truths; the Texts come first – complete with the readings and understandings of the Salaf.4

In reality Salafism is a diverse doctrine with an important non-Wahhabi element. Some of the most ardent Salafi followers of Ibn Taymiyya are in fact far more rationalistic in their understanding of Islam than many other Muslims (due to their critical approach to the opinions of previous scholars and toward hadith). As for Salafis rejecting science, if we ignore Wahhabi propagandists then I doubt there is any such pattern.

Did Muslims invent science?

Guessoum mentions Ziauddin Sardar’s defense of Muslims as originators of science and rightly does not agree with it. Despite his high respect for Sardar, he feels free to criticize his often politically motivated statements about Islam and the supposed intrinsic racism of the West, something I was pleased to see. Sardar unfortunately often acts as a propagandist capitalizing on fashionable Western trends, the current fashion being the doctrine that while all cultures and civilizations are somehow equally worthy, Western culture and civilization is inherently evil. For my previous criticism of Sardar see my essay An Islamic defense of free speech (a critique of Ziauddin Sardar’s views on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses).

Guessoum says that modern science is a recent phenomenon. He gives a number of the attributes of science, such as objectivity and a focus on experimentation. I believe the relationship of medieval Muslims with science deserved further discussion. First, let me propose a simple definition of science that captures its modern spirit and shows why medieval Muslims did not really have science as we understand it:

Science is autonomous consensus-seeking about explanations of the natural world.

An explanation is only scientific if it there is autonomous consensus about it among humans. Autonomous consensus means for many people to reach the same conclusion despite the almost-complete lack of pressure on them to reach that conclusion. If you have people in the United States, China and Egypt study the same phenomenon and reach the same conclusion about its explanation even though no one is forcing them to agree, then we call that conclusion scientific. Of course, this process can lead to false results, but the point is that as the process is carried out, it uncovers its own falsehoods and corrects them.

Guessoum says that an essential aspect of science is methodological naturalism (the insistence on natural, rather than supernatural, explanations). I believe this may not be necessary because autonomous consensus-seeking automatically, over the centuries, leads to methodological naturalism. Humans necessarily do not all share the same faith or the same liking for supernatural explanations. Therefore when humans seek consensus, they necessarily must discard supernatural explanations one by one until only the natural remains. In other words, discarding supernatural explanations is a side-effect of autonomous consensus-seeking, it is not an essential part of it. You simply cannot have humans from different cities and countries all come to the same autonomous consensus on some supernatural explanation because that requires equality of faith and theology, something that never exists. But they can come to autonomous consensus about natural explanations, since no faith or theology is needed for this. Therefore the seeking of consensus about the natural world automatically causes the supernatural to fade away over time until only the natural remains.

Now, medieval Muslims did not really have science because, while many brilliant minds sought explanations of the natural world (thus possessing one aspect of science), they did not have any concept of the importance of autonomous consensus-seeking, which is the essential element of modern science. They worked independently to understand the natural world, but they did not have sufficient self-awareness to generalize their methods into an agreed-upon process for uncovering the workings of the natural world. Al-Biruni defended science’s inductive method, but his method was never generally accepted or practiced. It took centuries of development before humans had sufficient self-awareness to think of science as a thing in itself. This self-awareness only started in the late 16th century with people like Francis Bacon.

Saying medieval Muslims had science therefore discards an essential aspect of its development. We should instead say that medieval Muslims had elements of modern science while lacking its essential quality: that of being able to see science as a thing in itself, a process of consensus-seeking for uncovering facts about the natural world. Muslim “science” was un-self-aware science. Self-awareness is essential to modern science. Therefore trying to drag the concept of modern science into the medieval era, as people like Ziauddin Sardar try to do, only muddies the waters. It is also an insult to the ingenuity and hard work of Europeans who were able to see science as a thing in itself.

It is true that Muslims contributed two essential things to science: the concepts of academic freedom and the doctoral dissertation that comes with it (see George Makdisi’s books). Christianity is a hierarchical religion that had little respect for independent initiative among scholars. Europe literally imported academic freedom from Islamic civilization where it was considered essential to the validity of the rulings of legal scholars (muftis). This was a foreign element in European universities that caused great conflict at first. Originally European universities were little more than servants of the Church and subservient to its authority. But Islamic academic freedom continually weakened the Church’s authority over the universities. Eventually, modern science was born out of this atmosphere.

Islam may have been essential to the development of modern science, but Islam did not have modern science. It only provided some of its building blocks. It took Europe centuries to sufficiently develop these building blocks into what became modern science. While ignoring Islam’s contribution to the development of science is an injustice, ignoring Europe’s contribution to its development is also an injustice.

The “Islamization of knowledge”

One of the best contributions of the book is Guessoum’s critical appraisal of the “Islamization of knowledge” fad of the 1980’s. This ill-defined program for reviving the Islamic world was based on the assumption that the modern sciences need to be re-built with Islamic concepts at their heart. This program was opposed by Ziauddin Sardar, who still subscribes to the equally silly post-modern idea that there is something inherently dangerous, un-objective and un-Islamic about modern science. Sardar’s modest proposal for solving Islam’s supposed science problem is the somewhat insane suggestion that we should throw out all of modern science’s axioms about the universe, nature, time and humanity to replace them with Islamic ones.

Both the Islamization of knowledge program and Sardar’s are little more than hasty reactions to the West’s dominance. Both subscribe to the utopian idea that there is some magical fairy land of knowledge that can be attained once we somehow (nobody knows exactly how) combine Islam and science.

The main underpinning of these two sides of the same coin is elitism: they come from a minority of intellectuals who think their services are needed to give the rest of the unwashed Muslim masses the keys to some utopia of knowledge. They are unable to realize, or refuse to admit, that every single Muslim intellectual and scientist will already be viewing the world just as they themselves do. Every Muslim intellectual and scientist will be forced to integrate Islamic ethics within their scientific and philosophical worldviews merely by existing and doing their jobs.

Sardar also thinks that the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim scientists out there are ignorant of ethical concerns. Science is inherently supposed to be “violent”, somehow these scientists are blind to the fact while he is not. Isn’t being so special wonderful?

Theistic science and metaphysical pluralism

Guessoum gives an overview of the concept of theistic science, the idea that science should be or can be practiced in a non-secularized way. The problem it responds to is the metaphysical intolerance of some atheists who falsely believe that science leaves no room for religion. But in our answer to this mindset we should not hold onto yet another form of metaphysical intolerance. We should first point out that all science has some metaphysical underpinnings (even if it is atheist metaphysics). Next, we should call for metaphysical pluralism: we do not dehumanize others regardless of their metaphysics, and we respect them as our cooperators in our seeking of autonomous consensus regarding natural phenomena, even if our metaphysics differ.

Consensus-seeking can be carried out regarding both natural phenomena and metaphysics. When it comes to natural phenomena, it is clear that all humanity is capable of hoping to reach consensus. But when it comes to metaphysics, we know that it is impossible for consensus to exist. There will always be Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists.

What does that entail? For those of sufficient humanism and insight, it entails metaphysical pluralism. All humans enjoy a divine spirit, an inviolable dignity, that gives them the right to be partakers in consensus-seeking: both physical and metaphysical. That means we should not attack individuals who propose godless metaphysics (even if we criticize their theories). We must not attack the persons, but we can critique their thinking. We must not try to use force, arguing that theism must be accepted by all. We must instead call for pluralism: all humans have the right to seek the truth on their own terms.

The only thing that we fight against is metaphysical intolerance: when militant atheists deny us the right to have our own metaphysics. Through metaphysical pluralism we can have intelligent discussions with those who disagree with us without dehumanizing them and refusing them the right to their independence of conscience.

It is true that atheist metaphysics can have very dangerous consequences (think the metaphysics of the Bolsheviks that gave them the right to summarily execute suspected dissidents). But the same applies to religious metaphysics; the religious too can use their metaphysics to support dangerous and inhuman doctrines. Therefore it is rather lacking in self-awareness to argue that theistic metaphysics is always more constructive and life-affirming than non-theistic ones. Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists can all reach a humanist metaphysics that transcends religious differences. We can, for example, all agree on the rule “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”

Non-theists, atheist or agnostic, remain human and continue to enjoy their God-given inviolability and dignity. We must leave it to them to accept their own metaphysics: there is no compulsion in faith/creed/religion, as the Quran tells us. If there is no metaphysical compulsion, then this means there is metaphysical freedom. People should be free to come up with their own metaphysics, and we should be free to come up with our own, and both sides should be free to critique the other’s metaphysics. Problems only arise in cases of metaphysical imperialism and intolerance.

Of course, disagreements on metaphysics can lead to severe practical differences, as in the argument over very-late-term abortions. In such cases, as the spirit of Islamic law teaches us, the lesser evil should be chosen. And the lesser evil is tolerance, even if it leads to what some consider horrible deaths. In a Western society where the law permits such abortions, the lesser evil is to tolerate the law while working peacefully to persuade others to change it, as most people seem to recognize. The alternative would be a civil war between supporters of the law and its critics, leading to far greater evils.

Conclusion

Nidhal Guessoum’s Islam’s Quantum Question is a good contribution to the discussion on Islam and science. While there is much in it that can be criticized, it can still perform the function the writer hand in mind for it; helping expose the weaknesses in the way the relationship between science and religion is envisioned in the Middle East.

The Moral World of the Qur’an by M. A. Draz

Dastūr al-Akhlāq fī l-Qurʾān might one of the most important works of Islamic philosophy in the 20th century. It is a work on Quranic moral philosophy by Muhammad Abdullah Draz (1894-1958), a highly intelligent Egyptian Islamic scholar who had thoroughly studied the Western philosophical tradition. The work was originally written in French as a PhD dissertation titled La morale du Coran presented to Sorbonne University. It was translated into Arabic by Abd al-Sabur Shahin and published in 1973. The English version, titled The Moral World of the Qur’an, was published in 2008 by I. B. Tauris (Amazon link, it is absurdly expensive at the moment unfortunately).

When picking up a book by a non-Western Islamic scholar, one fears to see modes of reasoning that are centuries behind the times (as commonly seen in polemical and partisan works). Draz is an early example, perhaps one of the earliest, of an Islamic scholar who is willing to engage with the West with a thoroughly open mind, willing to take Western thinkers seriously and willing to view Islam from a Western framework. He does his best to predict attacks on his lines of reasoning and answers many possible criticism. I did not expect to learn too much from this work, being so familiar with the Quran. But I am pleased to say that some parts of it were highly enlightening.

Unfortunately both the Arabic and the English translation leave much to be desired. The Arabic translation appears to be a somewhat word-for-word translation of the French, extremely difficult to follow due to the near-complete absence of Arabic modes of expression. The English is not much better; its language feels almost as outdated as a book from 1850.

Shorter (and cheaper) version on Amazon. Also available as Kindle ebook.

Maybe the reason is Draz’s own French writing still (his Arabic writings in his other books and articles are extremely easy to follow). What the book needs is a thorough modernization effort that does not merely translate the paragraphs but translates his thoughts into modern English.

I found the following version (published 2018) by Basma Abdelgafar titled Morality in the Qur’an: The Greater Good of Humanity and bought it from the Kindle store. It shortens the work in order to make it more accessible. While this is a very welcome effort, unfortunately it is more on the order of study notes due to its highly abridged nature, and it uses many technical words that even college graduates will likely struggle. Still, it might be the best introduction to Draz’s thought that there is.

An Islamic defense of free speech (a critique of Ziauddin Sardar’s views on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses)

I have had Ziauddin Sardar’s Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim since 2010, but I only got around to reading it recently. This is one of the funniest books written by a Muslim, rivaling the books of Turkey’s Aziz Nesin. In what is perhaps my favorite scene of the book, Sardar camps out in the office of a Saudi official who is refusing to let him leave the country. In order to make a point, he reads the classic Book of the Superiority of Dogs Over Many of Those Who Wear Clothes in front of him.

A cover of Ibn Marzuban’s The Book of the Superiority of Dogs

Soon after getting into the book, it becomes clear that Sardar is not engaging in a rigorous retelling of past events. The book appears to be a fictionalized memoir. The characters he disapproves of appear comical and cartoonish, while the characters he approves of jump out of the page to lecture the reader.

Many famous characters of the Islamic history of the second part of the twentieth century show up: the Pakistani Islamist Mawdudi, Said Ramadan (father of the intellectual Tariq Ramadan), Sheikh Nazim, Ian Dallas (Abdul Qadir al-Murabit), Ibn Baz (the Saudi scholar), the Palestinian-American philosopher Ismail al-Faruqi, the Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq, Usama bin Laden (seen by Sardar from afar according to him) and the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim (famous for being put on trial for sodomy by Mahathir Mohamad’s government, according to Sardar a false accusation designed to destroy his career).

We see Sardar jump from one Islamic thinker or leader to another, first worshipfully following them, then discovering that their thinking has fatal flaws that makes it impossible for Sardar to continue alongside them. Maududi seems to have great ideas about freeing the Islamic world from foreign interference, but he has a medieval attitude toward women. Speaking of Said Ramadan and other Muslim Brotherhood members:

And that was my problem with the members of the Brotherhood. They see themselves as perfect; they were certain of everything. In short, they were ideologues: Islam, for them, was an ideology that allowed for no imperfections, no deviation, and, in the final analysis, no humanity. This is why I found so many of them repugnant.

Sardar looks into Sufism and finds that organized Sufism often leads to authoritarianism, made up of Sufi masters surrounded by a zealous and intolerant inner circle of worshipful followers who demand absolute and unquestioning obedience from initiates. Sardar says that he traveled to Morocco to find out if Ian Dallas’s version of Sufism really had its origins in the authentic Sufism of that country, but he fails to make any investigations, suggesting that that may not have been the (main) reason for his trip.

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and censorship

In one of the worst parts of the book, Sardar spends many pages trying (and failing) to convince readers that what Rushdie wrote about the Prophet Muhammad PBUH in his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses is somehow simply unacceptable. He does not bother to present a framework within which a pluralist society may decide what is and what is not acceptable to say. To a skeptical reader, it almost appears as if Sardar is saying:

We Muslims are simply too immature and uncivilized to deal with criticism and mockery, so please do not criticize or mock what is dear and holy to us or else we will flip out!

He compares the Satanic Verses to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, saying that books and ideas can be dangerous—the usual patter that today America’s democrats use to tell us why it is such a great idea to put them in charge of censoring the nation’s media.

Sardar also makes the pitiful argument that similar attacks on Jews would have never been accepted in the West. True, we all know the double standards. We have songs by a Jewish singer on YouTube calling Mary mother of Jesus a whore. We have the Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman saying she would happily crucify Jesus again without anyone batting an eye. But just because Jews enjoy an unfair advantage does not mean we should ask for the same. We should join the Christians in insisting on the rule of law and equal standards rather than clamoring for special treatment like little children.

According to Sardar, Muslims should get special protection for what they hold holy and dear because…because… they can’t handle things otherwise. This is especially bad because Sardar presents himself as a futuristic liberal Muslim who has risen above the pack. If this enlightened Muslim is so narrow-minded to be incapable of seeing the dangerous implications of his support for censorship what hope is there for the rest of us?

Sardar is unable to appreciate the fact that placing limitations on free speech will mean that politicians, with their all too obvious short-sightedness and hunger for power, will end up deciding who can say what. Whatever the harms of free speech, allowing politicians to limit it is breathtakingly naive. It is amazing that Sardar can spend a lifetime in the West and fail to get the memo on this. In Islam, when faced with two evils, we are required to choose the lesser one. It shouldn’t take a genius to recognize that free speech is the lesser evil compared to censorship. I do not want anyone, no matter how pious or wise, to decide for me what books I can and cannot read. There is no way to make censorship better than free speech. The censorship department, even if full of democratically elected people, will inevitably make decisions based on political considerations and personal alliances. You cannot neglect the human element when designing any political institution, something too many Muslim political thinkers of the past kept failing to learn.

I am sure Sardar, in his private life, would not want anyone telling him what he can and cannot read. As is typical of many 20th century thinkers and leaders, he probably thinks he personally should be free to read what he wants while also thinking he has the right to limit other people’s reading rights. Regardless of how vile Rushdie’s book was, if his work is truly worthless then he should be given no power to ruin freedom of speech for us by prompting us to create an authority that can censor books.

What exactly is the harm of Rushdie’s book?

Sardar, other thinkers, and Islamic preachers who inflame people’s feelings about anti-Islam books and cartoons promote hysteria to satisfy their own desire for revenge. Ask them why the Satanic Verses should be banned and you will hear vague phrases like the “protection of the honor and dignity of Islam”. So Rushdie wrote a book that disgusts Muslims; what exactly is its harm beyond making you feel upset if you try to read it? If you are afraid it will give people negative impressions of Islam, the reality is that people’s impressions of Islam are already as negative as they can get. If you are afraid it will cause people to leave Islam, it is actually far more likely to inflame feelings of allegiance to the ummah by making Muslims feel that their identity is unfairly under attack.

At the end of the day, what Rushdie’s book achieves is close to nothing. It will not cause people to leave Islam. It will affirm the negative views of those who already had negative views about Islam. And as for those who have no firm beliefs about Islam, it will merely be one influence among countless others on their thinking and they will soon forget most of it. And among the non-Muslims who have a positive view of Islam, they will either see it as an unfair attack or as something strange and difficult to understand. Rushdie’s book will soon be nothing more than a footnote in history, and the only reason it will keep being remembered is that too many Muslims were immature enough to make such a big deal of it as to make it a worldwide bestseller.

Metaphorical interpretation

Sardar firmly plants himself within the liberal, non-mainstream camp within Islam by supporting a metaphorical interpretation of the Quran. He seems to think, along with many Westerners, that taking the Quran too literally is bound to lead to narrow-mindedness and extremism. I understand where they are coming from. If the Quran was a man-made book like the works of Plato and Marx, then it would have been true that taking it literally would lead to serious problems, since it would mean that one man’s limited and potentially misguided thinking would control the fates of millions of people. Isn’t it so much more sensible to open the door for updating the book so that Muslims can move with the times?

Sardar thinks the Quran should be read historically, as if God was not intelligent enough to foresee that humanity could very well continue for the next 100,000 years. According to Sardar God gave humanity a book that is stuck in the mindset of 7th century Arabia. That is a rather low opinion to have of the God who invented this universe. Shouldn’t a real God be capable of giving us a book that can stand the tests of time?

The reality, as I will explain, is that the Quran is just such a book. The more literally you take it, and the more firmly you try to follow it, the more moderate you become. You don’t have to take my word for it, just look at the historical evidence. The most kind, peaceful and moderate Islamic leaders in modern history have all been ardent lovers of the Quran who treated it not as a historical artifact but as if it was sent down the very day they were reading it: the Pakistani poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, the Turkish revivalist Said Nursi, the greatly loved Egyptian scholar Mohammed al-Ghazali (not to be confused with the more famous medieval al-Ghazali), the Kurdish leader Ahmad Moftizadeh. These were not extremists. In fact many of them have been subject to constant attacks by extremists for being too liberal and open-minded. A US government officer recently published a book on how Moftizadeh’s Quran-centered version of Islam can be used a role model for fighting extremism (see The Last Mufti of Iranian Kurdistan).

The Quran has a special status which Sardar has apparently failed to grasp. He thinks that admitting that the Paradise described in the Quran is really a physical Paradise is something that can only be done by an ignorant literalist. This is a rather insulting view to have of the majority of the world’s Muslims who do believe in a physical Paradise. Unfortunately, the path he recommends, of giving Paradise-related verses a metaphorical interpretation (they are apparently really about a mystical reality that cannot be described in words) leads to turning Quran-interpretation into a free-for-all. He offers no convincing explanation for why he thinks this is a valid way of interpreting the book apart from the fact that he really wishes things to be that way. He is doing the same thing that extremists do; reading his own prejudices into the Quran rather than letting the book speak for itself.

God’s speech plainly tells me about a physical Paradise. Sardar and some others say that these are actually references to a non-physical reality. I will take God’s words about Paradise any day over any human’s.

Conclusion

Sardar is a good intellectual and his skepticism toward the Islamic thought of the second half of the 20th century was justified and necessary. He, however, is stuck in the mindset of the Muslims he despises; he believes in hurling insults and making caricatures of his intellectual opposition, rather than rising above the argument and treating those who disagree with him as full humans, to be respected and treated with an open heart. If you close your heart to those who disagree with you, you are no better than them no matter how enlightened you think you are (see my essay Consensual Communities). Sardar is a liberal who attacks the (supposedly) narrow-minded conservatives/literalists. As I explain in the linked essay, one can rise above this argument to find a third path that can actually lead to positive outcomes.

The Muslim World on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion by John J. Saunders

The Muslim World on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion (published in 1966), at only 136 pages, is a short and enjoyable history of the Muslim world in the early modern period, with interesting articles on the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires, the Mamlukes, the Uzbeks, Islam in Southeast Asia and Africa, the remnants of the Mongols in Russia, the Indian Ocean trade and the naval struggle between the Ottomans and the Christian powers.

Many interesting scenes from history are presented in the book; the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans; celebrations in Rome on the fall of Granada, the last Muslim principality in Spain; an Italian traveler who performs the Hajj in 1503 disguised as a Muslim.

The book is a collection of excerpts from other works. Each section is introduced by the fair-minded and able British historian John J. Saunders. The book is recommended to anyone who wants to enjoy a lighthearted and non-politicized introduction to the state of the Islamic world during the rise of European power.

Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy [Short Book Review]

Professor Jonathan Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy is one of the best English-language books about Islam written by a Muslim (he converted to Islam in 1997). While the book’s focus is on the issues surrounding the authenticity and interpretation of hadith, it provides a good general history of the development of Islam’s intellectual tradition.

The book will contain many eye-openers for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While rising many questions, the book does not generally provide conclusive answers.

The issue of violence against women (as in verse 4:34) is covered in great detail, although no solution is reached (see my essay A New Interpretation of Wife-Beating in Verse 4:34 of the Quran for a potential solution). On the issue of the stoning of adulterers:

...and so strong was the sense of duty to avoid carrying them out that Cairo’s senior judge chose exile over agreeing to execute two adulterers.

While the Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abu Zahra is mentioned in the book, his important opposition to the punishment of stoning is not (perhaps Dr. Brown was not aware of it).

This book’s most important contribution, I hope, will be to encourage other Muslims to write works of similar quality; fairly balanced and supported by a great deal of evidence.

[Book Review] Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr

Lost Enlightenment is a highly readable overview of the history of the Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia, an area that gave Islamic civilization the majority of its great philosophers and thinkers (Jabir ibn Hayyan, al-Khwarizmi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Biruni, al-Ghazali)  and many of its great scholars (such as the creators of five of the six “canonical” hadith collections: al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Nasa’i, al-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawood, the exception being Ibn Majah who, a Persian like the rest, came from Qazvin in Western Iran).

While the book is a good source of information on Islamic civilization’s most advanced and intellectually productive area, it is marred by the writer’s secularist bias. It is often implicit in his writing that he believes the more religiously faithful a Muslim is, the less capable of rational and logical thought they are. He often spends many pages arguing that a particular thinker was actually secular and only paid lip service to Islam (Ibn Sina, Khayyam). As for the devout Muslim thinkers he covers, he often cannot hide his contempt and his belief in the person’s narrow-mindedness and falseness of conscience (as in the case of al-Ghazali).

Errors

Lost Enlightenment is also marred by various errors. The writer’s grasp of the workings of the Islamic religion and its intellectual tradition is amateurish at best (despite his merits as a historian). Starr is guilty of incredible statements like the following:

Going still further, a new governor named Nasr, ignoring the Quran’s demand that apostasy be punished by death, in 741 struck a deal with the Sogdians that abolished all punishments for those who had reverted to their former religions.

He also writes in another place:

But Ghazali branded both thinkers posthumously as heretics and therefore, according to the Quran, punishable by death.

And yet in another place:

Those who follow the philosophers were not merely heretics but, he averred apostates. The Quran quite clear states that apostates must be punished with death.

The Quran does not prescribe a punishment for apostasy anywhere in it! This is an elementary error that even an undergraduate student of Islamic studies should not make.

Starr attributes to the scientist Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi a “weighty commentary” on the Quran, confusing him with Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who was born two centuries later.

Starr writes:

Quranic prohibitions against depicting the human form were frequently ignored...

The Quran has nothing to say on the depiction of the human form. These elementary errors about Islam’s chief scripture betray a serious ignorance of Islam as a religion, in contradistinction to the author’s wide knowledge of Central Asian history.

Starr mentions al-Hakim al-Nisaburi as a critic and challenger of al-Bukhari who caused him to be expelled from Naishapur. This means that al-Naisburi was able to go back to the time 60 years before his birth to harass al-Bukhari. It seems that Starr confused al-Naisaburi with al-Dhuhali, who fits Starr’s descriptions. Al-Hakim al-Naisaburi was actually a champion of al-Bukhari, critical to the canonization process of al-Bukhari’s hadith collection, as is covered in detail in Jonathan Brown’s The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim. This is all the more strange since Starr quotes Brown’s book multiple times in the pages dealing with al-Naisaburi.

Finally, some nitpicks: He says that Tus is 15 miles northeast of Nishapur. It is actually 43 miles away. He also writes:

Insurgents seized Basra on the Red Sea...

Basra is 700 miles away from the Red Sea.

In summary, Starr’s Lost Enlightenment is a good historical overview of the period it covers. Readers should be aware of its biases and should read books by other scholars to get a more accurate understanding of the topics covered.

Intelligence: All That Matters by Stuart Ritchie

IQ and intelligence, as a topic of study in themselves, no longer interest me very much because they are largely a foregone conclusion for me. Long ago I was convinced of the very realness and importance of IQ and of the fact that it is largely a genetically-mediated trait. What interests me these days is applying the knowledge gleaned from this field to other areas of inquiry that interest me.

I made an exception for the very short book Intelligence: All That Matters by the young researcher Stuart Ritchie, hoping that it would b an authoritative summary of the field that I can refer other people to in my work. And the book serves this function reasonably well.

A Biography of Ahmad Moftizadeh

Kak Ahmadi Muftizada: Darwazayak bo Xabateki Nanasraw (کاک ئەحمەدی موفتیزادە: دەروازەیەک بۆ خەباتێکی نەناسراو, Ahmad Moftizadeh: A Gateway to an Unknown Struggle) is a 394-page Kurdish biography of the great Iranian Kurdish leader Ahmad Moftizadeh written by Sarwat Abdullah, apparently published in 2010.

I have been reading all available materials on Ahmad Moftizadeh, since he is one of the few modern leaders who have truly embodied the type of activist, Quran-centered and heart-centered Islam I believe in, and it would be a shame to not learn everything significant that his life can teach. In my view studying the lives (and mistakes) of the previous few generations coming right before us is crucial to making progress.

Origin

It is mentioned that his grandfather, Abdullah Dishi, “came from” the village of Disha (a Hawrami village), which would suggest that Moftizadeh’s family are Hawrami. According to The Last Mufti, Abdullah Dishi’s family were originally from the Kurdish areas and had settled in Disha, meaning that they weren’t originally from this village, and meaning that Moftizadeh’s family are not necessarily Hawrami.

Ahmad Moftizadeh came from Iranian Kurdistan’s religious elite. His grandfather had been given the status of mufti (chief religious law-maker) of all of Iranian Kurdistan, and this title had been passed down to his son (Moftizadeh’s father), and Ahmad Moftizadeh was in line to receive the title himself. Moftizadeh’s father lectured at Tehran University on Shafii jurisprudence, and Ahmad Moftizadeh would go on to lecture there himself later on.

Dreams and childhood

It is mentioned that multiple people around him had dreams about him in his childhood in which they saw him as having a high status. This includes a very old and pious aunt of his when he was 4-5 years old. When he is 8 or 9 a friend of his mother has a dream in which she sees a great army in the city of Sanandaj and she is told that that is Ahmad’s army. She asks if they mean the little boy Aha Rash (a nickname for Ahmad Moftizadeh), and she is answered yes.

Moftizadeh had many dreams of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, in which the Prophet taught him things. Seeing the Prophet ﷺ in dreams is something highly prized by Sufis, whose influence on the area made the population look out for such dreams as well.

At the age of 13 a great officer in the army is invited to his home, so that his family cooks five types of rise and five types of meat. He is disgusted by this, considering it wasteful and thinking of all the poor people who have little to eat, and he decides not to eat anything of it. The aristocratic atmosphere of his home apparently makes him eager to leave it, so that he goes to Iraq to study.

Prison and repentance

After coming back from his studies, he goes to Tehran and is involved in some Kurdish nationalist activity, attracting the attention of the Shah’s secret police (SAVAK).

When Moftizadeh is imprisoned by the SAVAK 1964 for his Kurdish political activism, it is mentioned that he is taken to Evin prison, when in reality he was taken to Qezelqaleh prison as mentioned The Last Mufti. Evin prison comes at a later stage in his life, after the revolution. Later on, on page 53, the book contradicts itself, correctly saying that Moftizadeh was actually at Qezelqaleh.

In prison, in solitary confinement, with death feeling close at hand, he starts to feel guilty about his government job. He worked at a government office where part of his job was to assess and receive taxes from people. While he did his job with conscientiousness, not taking bribes and not cheating people (like other government employees would do), he has the realization that his salary from that job was partially impure, since it was from a government’s unjust taxes on the people.

At first he is too shy to seek repentance from God, feeling that with death so close at hand, the time of repentance is past. He eventually repents, and says to himself, “Even if my (infant) son Jiyan is about to starve to death, I will not use impure money to buy him powdered milk.”

Later in his life, one night his son Jiyan is extremely sick and the only open pharmacy in town is one that is Jewish-owned. He refuses to buy from them, thinking that his money would be used to “buy bullets” for Israel’s terror against Palestinians.

While somewhat extremist (Islam allows one to make exceptions in times of need), his method of thinking of ordinary daily decisions in activist terms is very important and relevant, and quite similar to Sayyid Qutb’s thinking. The spiritual world takes precedence over the material world. He refuses a material good (the feeding of his son, or his son’s health) to maintain a spiritual good (remaining true to God, refusing to be party to any form of injustice, even if it is merely by buying a drug from an entity that might possibly support injustice).

In mainstream Islamic practice, the culture and the clerics come in between the Quran and population. The job of making moral choices was outsourced to the religious establishment, so that morality was not something on the minds of ordinary people. If the mullahs allowed something, it was OK. If they didn’t, it wasn’t. Moftizadeh and Sayyid Qutb’s approach was to take the religious establishment out of the equation; one reads the Quran, understands its moral philosophy to the best of his or her ability, then follows it to the best of his or her ability in everything in their lives.

This is far more difficult, since there are many difficult moral choices the responsibility for which must be carried by each individual, instead of throwing the responsibility on the shoulders of the establishment without giving it a thought.

More dreams

In prison, he has a dream in which he is about 13 years of age and the Prophet ﷺ is teaching him from the Quran. His elbows are resting on the Prophet’s left shoulder, with him looking on as the Prophet passes his right index finger over a book of Quran that he is reciting from. He mentions that this dream put him in a state of joy and ecstasy that lasted for many days, considering it such a great honor from God.

The start of his Quran-focused Islam

So far in his life, Ahmad Moftizadeh had been a classical Shafii jurist, having had a classical education under his father and other scholars in Iran and Iraq.

He has a dream in which he is standing on the rooftop of his childhood home in Sanandaj, when he sees two persons coming toward him from a distance. The persons do not take steps but appear to glide. They stand about a meter and a half from him and ask him to interpret Sura ad-Duha and Sura ash-Sharh (chapters 93 and 94 of the Quran). Instead of trying to interpret these chapters as an intellectual exercise, he starts speaking effortlessly, saying things he had never even thought of before.

He says that as he spoke, he saw the Prophet ﷺ and his followers during what is known as the Meccan Boycott of the Hashemites, in which the he and his followers suffered extreme difficulty. He saw the relevance of the verses he was interpreting to these conditions, as if they were all part of the same story that he himself had lived. He also sees the Prophet ﷺ praying ardently for Umar ibn al-Khattab to be guided to Islam. He says the things he said in his interpretation of these chapters were as obvious and clear to him as 2+2 = 4. When he wakes up, he is completely thunderstruck by the dream, since none of the things he had said had ever before seemed obvious to him.

This dream causes him to completely change his approach to the Quran. Before this, he had the classical approach, what I call considering the Quran a “historical artifact” or a “dead book”. He says:

Before that, when I would look at the Quran, I would look at its meaning as mere Arabic words and sentences. After that, when I looked at the Quran I saw it as a living thing. The way I looked at life, that way I also looked at the Quran.

Strangely, this appears to also have been the approach of Said Nursi and Sayyid Qutb, both of whom also suffered through prison, and both of whom went on to be great revivalists.

Moftizadeh considers this discovery his re-birth, and afterwards would go on to speak of “the old Ahmad’ and “the new Ahmad”, similar to Said Nursi’s “old Said” and “new Said”.

He says that without his discovery of the Quran’s nature, his life would have been empty, and that a hundred thousand lifetimes were nothing compared to that single moment where he discovered the Quran.

Training the vanguard

After being released from prison, SAVAK offers him a professorship at Tehran University in return for softening his rhetoric against the Shah’s regime, which he refuses. He goes back to Sanandaj with his wife and child. He appears to conclude that the best way to spread Islam’s message is to train activists, a vanguard who embody the Quran’s teachings and go on to create change within their own social circles. This was also Sayyid Qutb’s idea.

His non-classical (Quran-focused) approach quickly garners him fame and people start to flock to his house to learn his reformist-activist approach on various issues, such as women’s rights.

He invites a number of faqih‘s (mullahs-in-training) to come to Sanandaj to learn and work on his project, and works hard to buy them a house. He has a highly valuable rug in his own house that he gives away and places in the new house. When asked why, he says, “This was the last artifact I had of my jahili (pre-enlightenment) life, and you are the cause of freeing me from it.”

He starts giving lectures at Sanandaj’s mosques, until he attracts a fellowship of 60-70 people. SAVAK issues a threat against his followers, so that most of the followers leave and only 15-20 people remain. SAVAK approaches him and offers him wealth and protection, and not just for himself but for his followers too, in return for a. not working with political parties and b. softening his stance against the Shah. His extreme poverty and the pressure his extended family puts on him to make him accept this offer slowly makes him start considering it. He wasn’t going to be involved with political parties, so this wasn’t an issue. And what harm did it do to accept not to speak against the Shah?

He says this was the most difficult moral dilemma of his life, since the things offered him were so attractive, and the things required of him so seemingly unimportant. During this, he has a dream that involves the Prophet ﷺ and Umar ibn al-Khattab. The Prophet is about to tell Umar something, starting by “O Umar…”, but Moftizadeh wakes up before hearing it. This greatly upsets him and he starts to look in the books of hadith to find narrations in which the Prophet speaks to Umar in such a manner. Despairing of his search, he goes to the Quran and tries to find guidance in it for his situation, and he finds that in verse 13:17:

He sends down water from the sky, and riverbeds flow according to their capacity. The current carries swelling froth. And from what they heat in fire of ornaments or utensils comes a similar froth. Thus God exemplifies truth and falsehood. As for the froth, it is swept away, but what benefits the people remains in the ground. Thus God presents the analogies.

He sees the Shah and his apparatus as the ephemeral “froth” that is covering truth and justice for a time, but that will surely be swept away by the forces of time. This makes him decide that truth and justice are timeless principles that deserve his full and never-ceasing allegiance, while any request from the Shah and SAVAK for his allegiance should be automatically rejected, since they are the froth who want to cover up what benefits the people. They are nobodies who will be swept away by history, while truth and justice will remain supreme. He goes on to live by this learning for the rest of his life, even after the Shah falls and the “Islamic” Republic is established.

Maktab Quran

Moftizadeh garnered fame in Iranian Kurdistan by his famous speeches, such as the one he gave at the funeral of the poet Suwaray Ilkhanizada. His fearless criticism of the Shah (sometimes comparing him to the Pharaoh of the time of Moses) gave people hope, since the rest of the Islamic establishment was thoroughly hand-in-hand with the Shah’s regime. A Muslim scholar speaking against the Shah was something unknown and highly attractive.

Maktab Quran (“school of Quran”) is the name of the movement/organization he and his friends created, first in the city of Mariwan and later in Sanandaj. The word maktab refers more to a “school of thought” than a physical entity (as pointed out by Ali Ezzatyar in The Last Mufti), a reference to his use of the Quran as a source for a reformist-activist Islam. He did, however, create schools in multiple cities where the Quran and related topics were taught, so Maktab Quran was a physical entity as well.

Revolution (1978)

Moftizadeh’s fame and opposition to the Shah made him a natural leader of Iranian Sunnis at the time of the Iranian revolution. The revolution worried him because he considered it untimely, and was aware of the great possibility for the rise of a new anti-Kurdish tyranny in Tehran (which is what happened).

He believes that if his movement had been given 10-15 years without the Iran Revolution happening, the movement would have been able to bring Kurds to a state where they were ready to be the leaders of revolutionary change, since his goal was to teach people to insist on truth and justice and refuse to (intellectually) submit to tyrants.

SHAMS

After the Iranian revolution, Moftizadeh worked with other Sunni leaders (such as the scholar Abdulaziz Malazadeh from Sistan-Balochistan) to create a unified front for interacting with the Shia-majority revolutionary government, accepting Khomeini’s promises of respecting democracy and pluralism. This unified front was called SHAMS (which means “sun” in Arabic, and was an acronym for shurayeh markaziyeh sunnat, meaning “central council of the Sunnis”). A meeting was held in Tehran in public in which the creation of SHAMS was announced and its details agreed upon by Sunni religious leaders from various areas of Iran.

Naturally, Khoemini and his friends considered this union of the Sunnis a dangerous attack on their establishment, and the Iranian propaganda press went into overdrive over the few days following the meeting, associating the meeting with foreign influence, treason and all the other buzzwords that governments use to describe those who make them feel uncomfortable. Khomeini even gave a speech denouncing SHAMS.

Prison again

Khomeini’s extremist grip on power continued to increase as a number of convenient assassinations removed his more balanced Shia friends from Earth (such as Ayatollah Beheshti). This purging of the moderate Shias cleared the field for him to let his totalitarian tendencies run wild.

A year after SHAMS, the Iranian government cracked down on those associated with Moftizadeh’s Maktab Quran movement throughout Iranian Kurdistan and imprisoned many of them, including Moftizadeh himself.

They held him for ten years in solitary confinement, never allowing a single visitation by his family and friends.

Keeping Kurdistan together

During the revolution (between 1978 and 1981), Moftizadeh worked constantly to bring the Kurds together and have them reach a peaceable agreement with the new government to ensure the rights of the Kurds. The people he was interacting with, the leftist Kurdish parties on the one hand, and the Shia government on the other, were both equally power-hungry, duplicitous and unreliable, so that his efforts were seemingly entirely futile.

Moftizadeh continued to try to work with everyone else in good faith, expecting the best of them, signing agreements with Kurdish party leaders who would go on to change the agreement the next day, adding their own clauses to it that had not actually been agreed upon, or agreeing on one thing then acting another way.

Moftizadeh tried his best fulfill his role as “the leader of Iran’s Kurds” as he was widely considered, but to no good. Would it have been better if he had refused, seeing as the Kurds and the Shias were both totally and utterly incapable of working in good faith together? What is the point of trying to make things work when everyone you are dealing with is corrupt and selfish?

While his political work has generally been considered a failure, his appeals for peace and avoidance of blood-shed may have saved Iranian Kurdistan from having the same fate as Iraqi Kurdistan, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost in a war with the government. It is quite possible that hundreds of thousands of Kurds living in Iran today owe their lives to some degree to his political work.

His fight with the sheikhs and mullahs

I wonder at the people of this town. They have so many mullahs, yet they have managed to remain religious and pious and they have not lost the way of Islam. —Ahmad Moftizadeh

Ahmad Moftizadeh, despite being a classically trained religious scholar and being the son of the chief religious authority of Iranian Kurdistan (and being offered this position himself later on), was a strong critic of the Islamic establishment of his time. The Sufi sheikhs and mullahs had created a comfortable religious aristocracy where the population was made to serve their interests, finding clever ways of extracting money from the poor, such as making farmers take large portions of their harvests to the nearest Sufi establishment where a fat and corrupt Sufi sheikh usually presided.

The mullahs (clerics and preachers who worked at the mosques) weren’t much better, fleecing the population through things like “repairing” divorces, without actually working to solve the roots of society’s issues.

Islam had become a ceremonial religion devoid of its activist message. Moftizadeh considered the religious establishment cowardly and complicit with the Shah’s regime. Not a single leader could be found who dared to speak a word of truth against the Shah’s injustice. Moftizadeh made many enemies by opposing this system, so that some mullahs and sheikhs labelled him a “hypocrite” and scared people away from his circles. Eventually, with his radical honesty and fearless criticism of the Shah despite the dangers to his own life, he became the unchallenged leader of Iran’s Kurdish Sunni Muslims (and perhaps forever broke the hold of the religious establishment on Islam).

In Shia Islam, the clerical establishment claims to have secret powers to interpret Islam properly, powers granted to them as descendants of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This is highly convenient, since it gives the Shia clerical establishment monopoly power over the way Islam is interpreted and practiced.

Sunni Islam rejects this, saying there is nothing too special about being descended from the Prophet ﷺ. In practice, however, the Sunni establishment acts somewhat similar to the Shia establishment, requiring someone to be part of the establishment before considering their opinions valid. For many Sunni clerics, ordinary Muslims do not have the right to refute a ruling from an establishment scholar. The content of the refutation does not matter; if you haven’t gone through the establishment and do not have their stamp of approval, you do not have the right to speak your mind.

Ahmad Moftizadeh’s teachings took Islam away from the establishment and gave it to each Muslim capable of reading and understanding the Quran.

Moftizadeh’s Kurdish identity

Moftizadeh in Kurdish pants.

Moftizadeh insisted on wearing Kurdish pants, as a way of encouraging other Kurds to not be ashamed of their cultural practices. This was considered unfashionable in his time by other Kurds. They would tell him “You are not a lower-class laborer, so why do you wear that?” He says he replied to such a statement once by saying, “I am a human, and laborers are humans.”

In Sanandaj, the nicknames of kaka (“big brother”), khalo (“uncle”) and mamo (also meaning “uncle”) were used as a way of addressing lower-class people. Moftizadeh came to be called kaka, and he asked his followers to continue calling him this, rejecting honorific titles.

He strongly opposed titles like “sayyid”, “sheikh”, “mala”, “haji”, all of which were used as honorifics for people supposedly religiously or socially superior to others, and all o which could be used to describe himself if I remember correctly. He says these are used to separate one section of society from another, the holier from the less holy, and this makes them un-Islamic and sinful.

Ahmad Moftizadeh considers the Medes the ancestors of Kurds, and the Persians their usurpers. He considers the Persian Empire a permanent force of oppression against Kurds since its inception. He considers Nawroz (the Iranian new year celebration) an imperial and anti-Kurd invention that celebrates the Persian usurpation of Kurdish power.

I have my doubts about this theory, and believe that considering all the Iranian races (Kurds, Lurs, Persians, Pashtos) one race that slowly branched out a far better foundation for building a constructive identity. Kurdish victimhood identity is extremely dangerous, as like all victimhood identities (Zionism, communism, feminism, Shiism) it reduces empathy and the sense of moral responsibility. A victim has the right to more privileges and is held to lower moral standards, and acts as such.

In Moftizadeh’s view, Kurds have been oppressed for 2500 years. In my view, the oppression of the Kurds might very well be a 20th century invention, as Turkish, Arab and Persian nationalism grew as responses to colonialism. Before that, the Kurds were just another subject nation of the Ottomans and the Safavids, and often enjoyed great autonomy, and their noblemen were accepted in the courts of these empires as men of power and status.

Having a single, global humanist identity is so much more beautiful and productive (I should note that I am strongly opposed to globalism, but that is another matter). Western Muslim intellectuals are ahead in this regard, in shunning racial and nationalist identities. But Moftizadeh was a product of his time, and at that time, the issue of Kurdish identity was a matter of top priority, since Persians by and large considered Kurds a backwater nation that should be Persianized for their own good. Moftizadeh’s response was to fight for Kurdish identity, saying that Kurds had as much right to exist and exercise their language and culture as Persians.

The Umayyads

Moftizadeh considers the Umayyads the root cause for the loss of the original “true” Islamic caliphate, and says things mirroring the Shia view on them; that Abu Sufyan’s conversion to Islam was not true and that Muawiyah was on the whole an evil ruler. Since he brought back the old aristocratic system, threw out the shura system of democratic rule, established a dynastic monarchy, and built a palace in which he lived in luxury, for Moftizadeh this is sufficient evidence to consider him evil and corrupt.

Personally, I doubt there is sufficient evidence to conclusively rule that Abu Sufyan or Muawiyah weren’t truly good people. They may have liked wealth and power and worked for it, but so do many other Muslims. They weren’t perfect, but this does not mean that they weren’t on the whole reasonably good people.

Moftizadeh’s anti-Umayyad stance comes from his extreme anti-aristocratic views and his dislike for the Sunni-Shia divide for which he holds the Umayyads responsible.

I believe a more balanced and sophisticated approach is needed when it comes to the historical facts of the matter. As for the religious division issue, focusing on history is not going help matters. The Shia establishment will continue promoting the Shia vicitmhood narrative, since this is important for maintaining power and relevance.

Equality and Marxism

Moftizadeh says “An Islamic society is one in which there are no (social) strata,” advocating for a radical equality among the population, from the ruler to the lowliest laborer (using the example of the Rashidun caliphs to explain what he meant). Some mullahs said that he was becoming a communist with his calls for equality. In response, he instead make a powerful critique of communism, recognizing its feudal nature. He says that communism is actually aristocracy taken to its most obscene extreme, where the central government becomes the unquestioned lord and the entirety of the population its lowly servants.

He strongly disliked the undue respect that government officials received. In one Islamic gathering he sees that a section of the best seats have been reserved for officials. He goes and sits there, to set the example that officials should not be treated specially. When officials visit his home, he is harsh and unfriendly with them. On the other hand, he treats the lower classes with the utmost love and respect.

Regarding the problem of nepotism, ever-present in the Middle East, he says:

Anyone who in his or her dealing with a government official gets preferential treatment because of family ties or other things, and he or she accepts this treatment, they have done injustice.

And on respecting the lower classes:

How miserable is the person who works in the name of leading a religious movement and dislikes meeting the poor, while exulting at meeting the rich and powerful.

His manners

Some of his followers suggested that he should get bodyguards, since they feared for his safety with his great fame and high status. He rejected this, saying that he is no better than the Rashidun caliphs Ali and Umar, who never had bodyguards. He says that one must go among the people, like the prophets used to, that separating himself from the people would automatically make him a failure.

When out, his friends suggest using a taxi to go somewhere (considered a luxury form of transport at the time), he refuses, saying “Why can’t we go like the rest of the people?”

After his release from prison (and close to his death), he was extremely sick from cancer and his body broken by the torture he had received under the Iranians. At one point he was receiving visitors, with everyone sitting on the floor as it is customary in Iran, and as he himself tried to sit, he suffered extreme pain since he couldn’t sit comfortably on the floor. Some offered to bring him a soft cushion to sit on, but he refused, saying, “A sick person can relax as needed when resting, but when among the people, he must behave like the people.” His meaning was that his sickness did not give him the privilege of acting differently and being catered to. This was part of his extreme insistence on equality and “not separating from the people”.

At one point, one of his followers opens a car door for him as a show of respect. He tells them to close it, to go sit themselves, and says, “Do you think I don’t know how to open car doors?”

He sees that someone refers to him as “dear kak Ahmad” in writing, and tells the person not to attach any title to him, even if it is merely “dear”.

One of his followers, who goes on to be killed by the Iranian government, explains that the reason why Moftizadeh attracted such a devoted following was that he truly embodied the three points mentioned in this verse of the Quran:

And who is better in speech than someone who calls to God, and carries out wholesome deeds, and says, “I am of the Muslims”? (The Quran, verse 41:33)

  • Moftizadeh called toward God, toward submission to Him and freedom from submission to all other authorities and powers. He never worked for political power or for recognition, he never called for some group of his own.
  • Moftizadeh worked to do good deeds day and night. He was a leader in applying the Quran in his own life, and this could be seen everywhere in his manners and actions.
  • His stance always was “I am of the Muslims”, which this student of Moftizadeh interprets as meaning that the person does not separate himself from the Muslims using titles and status symbols. While the typical religious leader was happy to use his status as a bargaining tool for dealing with others in power, and while such a leader usually had a highly stratified organization around him, Mofizadeh not only rejected all of this, but turned the tables; he would treat the supposedly lowliest Muslims with the utmost respect and honor, while dealing harshly with the figures of authority in his town (knowing they were corrupt and hand-in-hand with the regime).

Relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood

Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood have mistakenly claimed that Moftizadeh was a member of their organization. While he had very close relationships with some Brothers, he did not do this out of allegiance to the Brotherhood, but out of his heart-centered approach; he would collaborate and help anyone who appeared like a good person.

He was, near the end of his life, against political work, and he is quoted in The Last Mufti as saying that one who engages in political work is very likely to lose the way of guidance.

Comparison with The Last Mufti

The last 100 pages or so of the book is dedicated to translations of articles and interviews with him published in various Iranian publications in the early years of the Iranian Revolution.

The Last Mufti does a far better job of describing the cultural context of Moftizadeh’s time and the origins of his family, likely due to the fact that The Last Mufti relied on far more many sources than this book does. However, it does contain many interesting details and anecdotes not mentioned in The Last Mufti, so both are well worth reading.

Heroes

Moftizadeh’s (and Sayyid Qutb’s) life shows that people need heroes. Moftizadeh was not the founder of a new school of fiqh and one cannot point to any major work of his. A scholarly skeptic, proud of his own works and education, may look at Moftizadeh’s followers and think “What is wrong with all of these people who glorify this nobody?”

Yet the service that Moftizadeh did Islam has been immense and worthier than the works of perhaps a hundred scholars. By embodying his radical message, he became the message. It is sufficient to mention “Moftizadeh” to any of thousands of Iranian Sunnis to renew their motivation, their hope, their trust in God, their insistence on truth and justice, their bravery.

So while many people belonging to the Islamic establishment will be able to call Qutb and Moftizadeh “nobodies”, it is sufficient to see the effects of these men on their respective audiences to realize that these men did tremendously important things, that they were greater than the thousands of religious clerics who failed to do the same, who preferred silence and comfort to telling the truth and putting their lives at risk.

This is an important realization for me; that Islam cannot revive hearts and cannot cause social change unless it is embodied in certain people, no matter how few. For true, dynamic, activist Islam to exist in a community, that community needs to have its own Qutbs and Moftizadehs who are ready to be crucified for its sake, who tell the truth and stand for justice despite the danger to their own careers and lives.

Without such people, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized will look at the religious establishment and think, “Look at those pompous idiots who think they are here to bring us salvation while they do nothing to protect our lives and dignity.” This was the attitude of people in Iran, Iraq and Egypt toward the religious establishment until people like Moftizadeh and Qutb appeared, and this is probably the attitude of many Saudi people toward their cowardly and well-fed Salafi scholars who turn a blind eye to the abuses of the Saudi family.

This is also the attitude of many Westerners toward the churches. Churchgoers who are not eager to give up large portions of their wealth to feed the poor and the oppressed in their communities have little right to pretend to be followers of Christ, and fully deserve to be considered out-of-touch and pompous hypocrites who do not really believe in their message.

If you do not embody Islam or Christianity’s radically activist message, don’t be surprised if no one takes you seriously.

Conclusion

Moftizadeh’s manners and story is similar to that of Jesus in the New Testament. He fearlessly embodied his message of radical honesty, of respecting all humans, of working against injustice and tyranny, acting like a wrench thrown into the comfortable decay of the Shah’s Kurdistan.

Moftizadeh was the worst nightmare of every corrupt politician, cleric and faux revolutionary, never accepting to limit his speech against them, never seeking material gain (thus he was unbribable), and treating his followers with far more respect and honor than the figures of authority of his society, whether secular or religious, in this way creating a new power structure that discredited the existing ones and empowered ordinary people to feel as if they had the freedom to question things.

Just like it happened with Jesus, many people started calling for his blood, including the religious establishment he was a part of. His criticism of the Shah’s regime helped topple it, but instead of acting the expected way toward his new Shia masters, silently acceding to them, he continued just like before, speaking his mind, discrediting them, not taking them seriously and focusing on truth and justice above all else.

Moftizadeh represents the ideal Muslim citizen; a good and kind friend of every good and kind person, a peaceful activist who did his utmost to prevent violence, a nightmare to every greedy and power-hungry politician, cleric and aristocrat.

Moftizadeh is a very difficult ideal to emulate. People either choose to be power-seeking revolutionaries who risk some but get a lot in return, or quietist mystics who risk nothing and enjoy a comfortable living. Moftizadeh brings together the difficult parts of both lifestyles and throws away the parts palatable to the human ego; you must be a revolutionary who does not seek power, and a mystic who risks everything. Most humans can either live up to the revolutionary ideal or the mystic ideal, very few can unite the two, because not only is there no personal gain in doing this, there is much chance of personal loss. Moftizadeh did that and suffered horribly for it, but renewed the world with his suffering.

In the Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan

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In the Footsteps of the Prophet is a long-needed biography of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ that focuses on his character, manners and experience, rather than merely narrating dates and facts.

Many classical Islamic books are somewhat out-of-touch for modern readers, so that while they may have been satisfactory to their original (often Middle Eastern) readers, when translated into English they end up being unapproachable and highly inadequate, often leading to more questions than answers. In the Footsteps of the Prophet, having been written by someone who lives and breathes the Western worldview, lacks these shortcomings, so that I can refer Europeans to it without having to make apologies for it.

On embracing faith

Ramadan writes:

From the outset, the Quran presents itself as the mirror of the universe. The term that the first Western translators rendered as “verse”-referring to biblical vocabulary-literally means, in Arabic, “sign” (ayah). Thus, the revealed Book, the written text, is made up of signs (ayat) just as the uni­verse, like a text spread out before our eyes, is teeming with signs. When the heart’s intelligence, and not only analytical intelligence, reads the Quran and the world, then the two texts address and echo each other, and each of them speaks of the other and of the One. The signs remind us of what it means to be born, to live, to think, to feel, and to die.

His writing style creates vague clouds of meanings and feelings, and it is often left as an exercise to the reader to make out anything concrete from what he says. This is very much unlike my own style, but perhaps there is a demographic that finds better meaning in his. What he is saying above is that the Quran provides various pointers (rather than conclusive proofs) of the Creator’s existence and presence, and the universe around us also provides its own pointers (rather than conclusive proofs). When you bring together the total of the Quran’s pointers and the universe’s pointers, your conscience (what he refers to as your heart’s intelligence) is offered the very difficult choice of accepting faith or rejecting it.

When you run into sufficient ayat in yourself, in the world around you, and in the Quran, you reach a point where non-submission to the Creator becomes a sin against your conscience. This is the sin of kufr (disbelief), of denying God’s signs and/or favors.

Throughout your life, your conscience is like a jury watching a trial that tries to decide whether God exists or not. Sign after sign is presented to your conscience, never sufficient to conclusively prove to your rational brain that God exists, but never so little that you can deny those signs in good conscience. Once you have seen sufficient signs, you will feel guilty to deny God, because you have done something that goes against your conscience. Even if you can rationally justify your rejection of God, the guilt may never leave.

As for someone who has never seen sufficient signs, that is a different matter.

The super-humanity or not of the Prophet ﷺ

Ramadan embraces the idea that there was something special (super-human) about the Prophet ﷺ, narrating a few stories like the angels visiting him when he was a child and performing surgery on him to remove a black piece of flesh from his heart, in this way purifying him from something bad that other human hearts supposedly contain. The Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali in his Fiqh al-Sīra rejects this story, saying that good and evil are a matter of the spirit, not the flesh.

The story is problematic because it suggests there is some inherently evil within humans, embedded right in their flesh, reminiscent of the Christian concept of original sin. This story is just one example of the myriad stories in books of sīra (biographies of the Prophet ﷺ) suggesting that the Prophet ﷺ was special, something more than human. The Christians turned Jesus into God, and Muslims would probably have done the same, out of love and a desire for a human divinity that wasn’t so terrifying as God, if the Quran wasn’t so insistent that God has no associates and wasn’t so critical of the idea of Jesus as a Son of God.

While we may not be able to conclusively say that there is was nothing specially super-human about the Prophet ﷺ, a truly human Prophet is far more admirable than a super-human Prophet in reality. What’s so special about bearing a burden if you are given super-powers by God to bear it? And resisting evil while desiring it is a greater accomplishment, as in the case of Prophet Yusuf (biblical Joseph), than resisting it after God sends angels to perform surgery on you to make you a better person.

The beautiful story the Quran tells us is that the Prophet was a human just like any of us, and that he was given a terribly difficult mission that terrified him. He had to bear this burden with all of his fears and weaknesses, he had to face humiliation after humiliation among his relatives and tribe, and he had to face death on numerous occasions, not as a super-man who couldn’t be harmed, but as a fragile human who could suffer, who could fear, who could desire, who could be impatient, who could make terrible mistakes.

Say, “I am nothing more than a human being like you, being inspired that your god is One God. Whoever hopes to meet his Lord, let him work righteousness, and never associate anyone with the service of his Lord.” (The Quran 18:110)

God did not tell the Prophet to say, “All humans are equal, but I am more equal than you.” He is told to say “I am nothing more than a human being”. That is it. There is no need to turn him into a super-man and in this way take away his achievements as a human.

In the Footsteps of the Prophet contains only a few such stories, which makes it superior to other books of sīra.

Aisha

Sufficient evidence is not presented to show why the relationship between Aisha and the Prophet was special and exemplary, a claim that the book makes in multiple places. The issue of Aisha’s age is not addressed, and for someone who has this in mind while reading the relevant passages, nothing presented sufficiently justifies things (see my article here for the views of the latest scholars who say that there is good evidence that Aisha was close to 18 at the time of her marriage). He mentions that the Prophet ﷺ “stayed away” from Aisha for a month after she was accused of adultery, then mentions that this event “reinforced their love and trust”. But this claim is not convincing when no evidence is presented for it, and in fact evidence is provided that it harmed their relationship.

The very important spiritual side of this matter is not mentioned. This was an intensely difficult lesson for the Prophet ﷺ, for he had not received guidance on what to do in the case of someone being accused without evidence being presented. Since the person accused was his own wife, and since he had no specific guidance on the matter, he could do nothing but suffer. He did not dare interact with his wife, not knowing whether her status as his wife was valid anymore.

Mentioning these facts would have shown that his abandoning her for a month was not an him throwing away his wife until she was proven innocent, as it would appear to a critical reader. Both in this book and Karen Armstrong’s  Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, the focus on the Prophet’s persona and his sociopolitical status sometimes causes the fact of his servitude toward God to be neglected. In the issue of Aisha’s accusation, he was a helpless servant of God, not knowing what to do to please Him.

Later it is mentioned that Aisha remained upset with the fact that the Prophet had doubted her chastity. Her mother asks her to thank the Prophet ﷺ for forgiving her and taking her back, but she says she will only thank God, since the Prophet ﷺ had doubted her. This, while seemingly a negative fact, is a good illustration of the fact that she maintained her independence of mind and did not act as an intellectual slave to her husband, but considered him a human that could be challenged.

Sufficient justification for the war on Khaybar is not mentioned: the fact that it continuously sought to pay Arab tribes to go to war with the Muslims, hoping to remain the supreme Jewish power over the gentiles of Arabia, the way Israel today hopes to remain the supreme Jewish power over the gentiles of the Middle East, and using one group of gentiles to do their dirty work for them against another group while they themselves remained safe in their fortresses, the way today they get Christians to fund and fight Israel’s wars for them.

The Prophet’s manners

As mentioned, the book approaches the Prophet ﷺ as a human to be understood and emulated, and many examples are shown of his immense kindness, tolerance and civility toward both his followers and his sworn enemies. While on the whole the image of the Prophet ﷺ presented by the book is believable, there are also passages like the following which appear to insert too much of the author’s own reading into the character of Prophet ﷺ:

The Messenger, moreover, drew from children his sense of play and innocence; from them he learned to look at people and the world around him with wonder. From watching children experience beauty he also more fully developed his sense of aesthetics: in front of beauty, he wept, he was moved, he sometimes sobbed, and he was often filled with well-being by the poetic musicality of a phrase or by the spiritual call of a verse offered by the Most Generous, the Infinitely Beautiful.

It would have helped if these characteristics were backed by concrete examples. We have no evidence that this is not merely how Ramadan wishes the Prophet ﷺ to have been.

Conclusion

In the Footsteps of the Prophet is a book I would recommend to anyone wanting to get something of an accurate view of Islam’s founder, a view that is neither harshly critical or fawningly uncritical piece of marketing. It shows the Prophet ﷺ as those who know the most about him see him, and I cannot give it a higher praise than this.

A non-Muslim may naturally be skeptical of a book, written by a Muslim, that offers such a seemingly charitable glimpse of the Prophet. Muslims have everything to gain if non-Muslims see the founder of their religion in a more friendly light. To that I will say that this is the Prophet ﷺ as Muslims see him. There are no dark secrets. If someone says that the Prophet said or did something horrible, we reject it. The Prophet’s character, as his wife Aisha said, “was the Quran”. We think of the Prophet as a follower of the Quran, someone who did his utmost to embody its teachings, and if someone makes a claim about the Prophet that is highly out of character for him as a person who lived and breathed the Quran, then we reject that claim regardless of where it comes from.

This is a simple matter of giving weight to more reliable evidence (the Quran) over less reliable evidence (hadith). If the more reliable evidence gives you one view of the Prophet, and the less reliable evidence gives you another one, if you are a rational human, you will prefer the view arrived at through the more reliable evidence, and this is what we Muslims do, and this is what In the Footsteps of the Prophet does. Those who have an ax to grind against Islam ignore the reliable evidence and waste their time building an alternate-reality version of the Prophet ﷺ based on less reliable evidence, a version of the Prophet that goes entirely against the Quranic view. What they say about the Prophet, therefore, is automatically rejected, since they intentionally ignore the most important evidence (the Quran) and instead focus on secondary evidence that confirm their preconceived biases.

A fair-minded person should therefore see that what In the Footsteps of the Prophet does is exactly what we Muslims do in trying to arrive at an accurate understanding of the Prophet ﷺ; we use the canonical, Quranic view to make sense of a world of secondary evidence of varying authenticity to reach a good enough understanding of the Prophet’s mind and character.

How and From Where Do We Begin? By Ahmad Moftizadeh

Chon u La Kwewa Dast Pe Bkain (“How and From Where Do We Begin?”) is a 170-page Kurdish book based on interviews with Ahmad Moftizadeh done after he was released from prison (and soon before his death) and perhaps some of his writings.

It provides an overview of his thinking processes regarding various matters, especially the proper form of conduct for those who want to emulate his way. The information is often scattered and no formal approach program or vision is presented. Moftizadeh’s approach has generally been like the Prophet’s ﷺ, offering guidance as situations presented themselves, rather than sitting down to build systems for people to follow.

On the question of political work, he offers some guidance on the issues that his own movement had, without doing a formal analysis, and saying that different people at different times and places can reach their own conclusions regarding the best modes of action when doing Islamic political work. He strongly criticizes the political partisanship practiced by so many Islamist groups. In his view (and mine, too) matters of the heart take precedence, so that a Muslim who uses partisan thinking to attack another Muslim has automatically lost the way of wisdom. He also mentions that a key source of corruption within Islamic movements is when individuals seek power within the movement.

My key discovery regarding political Islam has been that Islamic movements must never seek power. His ideas are close to this, and his movement (Maktab Quran) does not seek power, but he does not clearly state it. In his thinking, it is apparent that he hasn’t arrived at this conclusion, thinking that at certain times and places, once a certain stage of growth has been reached, groups of Muslim can engage in political partying and do more good than harm.

He mentions that one of the biggest proofs the truth of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood ﷺ is that his wife believed in him immediately. A wife knows her husband of many years better than most people. She knows his weaknesses and flaws. If she had known him to be untrustworthy, or known him to have significant flaws, she wouldn’t have supported him in bringing about a new ideology that totally opposed her culture.

And after her, his closest friends also believed in him quickly, even though he didn’t have any proof to offer them except a few verses of the Quran. Again, this shows the immense amount of trust these people had in him.

Sayyid Qutb

He is asked about his opinion on certain luminaries of the 20th century Islamic revival, such as Maududi and Qutb, and is asked why he does not refer to them often, and is asked whether he somehow disapproves of them or dislikes them like some people have suggested.

He says that loves Qutb’s message and considers him far greater than himself, and mentions a few lines of poetry he had written in which the word “Qutb” is used both metaphorically and as a reference to Sayyid Qutb.

He says that he does not have a very good memory for crediting ideas and sayings to their authors, so that he uses what he has learned from these men without saying it is from them. He also says that due to his business with social and political work throughout his active (pre-prison) life, that he did not have time to read too much, often taking ideas from other people.

Tazkiyah

A large part of the book is dedicated to clarifying the concept of tazkiyah (which could be translated as “spiritual cultivation”), which in Moftizadeh’s view takes precedence over instruction. Instruction is merely the the transfer of information from a person to another, while in Moftizadeh’s view, Islamic education should focus on tazkiyah, imparting on people a subconscious appreciation for Islamic manners and ways of thinking. Instruction is the transfer of information, tazkiyah is the transfer of character, and far more important.

He does his best to clarify what he has in mind regarding the difference between tazkiyah and mere instruction, using the example of Prophet Muhammad. To perform tazkiyah is to provide for people the subtle guidance and encouragement for them to become spiritually uplifted. To merely instruct people, the way it is done in various Islamic education systems, without focusing on imparting character, is going to do little good and has little affinity to the Prophet’s method of instruction.

Discrediting the madrasa

A large part of Moftizadeh’s thinking regarding Islamic education is to discredit the classical system that taught various technical topics without giving a thought to the cultivation of character, creating insincere clerics who did their Islamic work as a job without their hearts and souls being in it, and causing people to consider Islam something irrelevant to their daily lives, similar to government.

He is also equally critical of Sufis who cut themselves off from society and allowed Islam’s highly dynamic, highly activist message to be lost.

Moftizadeh and I agree on considering Islam an activist movement rather than just a religion, and I think he would agree with this principle of mine:

No Muslim's faith is complete if he or she is not an anti-poverty activist.

To me any Muslim leader who is not seriously worrying about and planning against poverty is either a hypocrite or a highly ignorant person, and in both cases is not worth following (he may, of course, have useful technical knowledge.)

Love and dawa

One of Moftizadeh’s key teachings is that a crucial part of spiritually uplifting others (whether those others are religious or not) is to treat everyone with kindness (mehrabani) and love, and to joke with people and talk to them in a way that reaches them (one would call it “building rapport” today).

Talking about “reaching people” is quickly misinterpreted by many (Muslims and non-Muslims) as a way for advocating for clever manipulation tactics for converting people to Islam.

There are two types of dawa (“inviting people to Islam”). One of them spends time and money on increasing the number of Muslims, and creates semi-missionaries who encourage people to embrace Islam using various tactics. The other type of dawa is to embody Islam, to live the Quran.

To me religion is a very personal thing, and any effort to connect with the hearts of other people with an aim in mind (to make them Muslim) is automatically dishonest.

To me, and more or less to Sayyid Qutb, Moftizadeh, and Tariq Ramadan , our mission is to love and to be kind, to do good in this world, to help people find a better way when they are stuck one way or another, without ever having the goal of turning them into one thing or another, treating their dignity and privacy with the utmost respect.

Religion and spirituality is a very personal matter, and it is highly disrespectful (not to mention awkward, and futile) to barge into people’s lives and try to convert them.

Proper dawa is goal-less. You do not make someone your “project” and try to finish this project by converting them. You, instead, treat everyone with love, kindness and empathy, while also embodying the rest of Islam in your daily life. Our interactions with non-Muslims must never be on the basis of hopefully one day converting them to Islam, this always leads to short-term minded, power-seeking behavior. Any kindness and empathy we show them must be given freely, selflessly, without expecting anything in return, and this means without expecting any return of the favor, or any added friendliness from them toward us and our religion.

We practice Islam and in this way show people what it is. They can take it or leave it.

I also feel that any money spent on converting non-Muslims to Islam is far better spent on eliminating poverty and educating those who are already Muslim, and especially new converts. In my view anyone who converts to Islam should automatically be given a monthly zakat stipend by their local mosque (if they are not wealthy), to make them feel like they belong to a community that cares about their well-being.

 

Conflicts of Fitness: Islam, America, and Evolutionary Psychology

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Conflicts of Fitness: Islam, America, and Evolutionary Psychology by A.S. Amin is a highly original examination of the dynamics of gender and sexuality within Western societies on the one hand, and within Islamic societies on the other.

As someone who has been working on reconciling Islam and evolutionary theory and on developing a post-feminist theory of human sexual dynamics, I hardly expect most books to tell me anything I haven’t already heard or thought about, but this book manages it. It is a short and enjoyable read that sticks to the facts and does not often try to force an interpretation on them, which will make it agreeable to people coming from differing backgrounds and ideological currents.

The author’s main thesis is that different societies have different reproductive climates designed to maximize reproductive success. In a short-term climate, like that of most of the United States, human evolutionary instincts drive men to do their best to have sex with as many women as possible while not caring very much about a woman’s virginity and past sexual experiences. As for women, the climate drives them to display sexual receptivity through makeup, dress and manners designed to encourage men to think of them in sexual terms.

On the other hand, in a very-long-term climate like Saudi Arabia, men maximize reproductive success not by trying to have as many short-term relationships as possible, but by maximizing paternity confidence. Saudi Arabian seek virginal women so that they can be assured their children are theirs, and they go to extremes to ensure this; marrying very young women and preventing women from leaving the house, getting an education or a career.

This way of looking at the problem of women’s status in extremely conservative Muslim societies is a breath of fresh air from all of the moralistic or emotional treatments the subject has so far received on the hands of ideologically-driven intellectuals and commentators. It is also good to find another Muslim who can think of these matters in scientific and largely apolitical terms.

A reader of Conflicts of Fitness may wonder how a Muslim can write from an evolutionary perspective when Muslims do not generally accept the theory of evolution. Amin does not offer an explanation for this, focusing on his research topic without delving into this issue, leaving it to the readers to work it out. In my essay God, Evolution and Abiogenesis I explain how the Quran is compatible not only with evolution, but with abiogenesis as well.

Explaining Islam’s policy toward polygamy

Before reading this book, I had often thought of polygyny as a privilege granted men in order to deal with certain exceptional circumstances (such as having an infertile wife). Conflicts of Fitness explains that there is more to it than this, and that women, rather than men, are potentially the primary beneficiaries of polygyny:

  • If you have ten men and ten women, by allowing the most successful man to marry the two women, nine men are left to compete for the remaining eight women. These men will be forced to offer stronger commitment to these women in order to secure their hands in marriage, in this way creating a society where most relationships are highly committed.
  • Successful middle-aged men often strongly desire to use their wealth and success to build new families and have more children. In a monogamous society, such men are forced to divorce their current wives, or worse, cheat on them. In an Islamic society, a safe outlet is provided for these men, enabling them to keep their current wives (who, if divorced, would most likely be unable to marry again due to their old age), while also enabling them to create new families. While this is not ideal for the current wives, most would prefer it over being divorced. This also increases the options of younger women, since married men would compete for their hands in marriage. Polygyny is not a zero-sum game for women, and the overall benefits to women is almost certainly greater than the harm it does.

Most Western women and men empathize with the underdog when thinking of hypothetical situations, therefore they are unlikely to accept the above explanation, since they empathize with the poor woman who will suffer having to share her husband with another woman. The fact that she chooses this over divorce is not given attention since it goes against the “Islam is misogynistic” narrative.

For a Muslim who already believes in the Quran, the explanation is a good vindication of the policy, and it should help restrain scholars overeager to place strict restrictions on polygyny. In a society where marriage is by consent and where people are free to divorce whenever they want, polygyny will be self-balancing. Men will have to balance the fear of losing their present wife with their desire for a second one, meaning that the majority of men will be unlikely to abuse this right. My experience of Kurdish and Persian society proves this correct.

Explaining makeup

In a short-term reproductive climate, women signal their receptivity to short-term-style sexual relationships in various ways, one of which is makeup. One thing that makeup does is simulate the effects of sexual arousal:

It turns out that when a woman becomes sexually aroused, certain physiologic changes take place. Among these changes are dilation of the pupils and the blood vessels in the cheeks and lips.

The author refers to this facet of makeup-as-a-signal-of-sexual-receptivity in many places in the book. However, while this is highly informative, it is not the complete picture. Makeup also serves as an important axis for enabling women to get ahead of themselves and other women. Makeup enables a woman to enhance her apparent quality as a worthy mate by making herself look younger and healthier. In a long-term or somewhat-long-term climate, makeup helps a woman appear as a better substance compared to her competitors. This, however, runs the danger of sending the wrong signal, of appearing to be receptive to sexual advances, for this reason in a long-term climate, a woman has to walk a fine line between enhancing her looks (which helps her get the interest of more suitors wanting to marry her) and signalling sexual receptivity (which garners the attention of the wrong audience).

The generational gap in reproductive strategies

The author mentions that an important reason for the strife that so often exists between teenage girls and their parents regarding dress and makeup is a generational gap in reproductive strategies. The parents grew up in a climate that was more long-term-oriented than the present climate, and they want to enforce the mores of their outdated climate on their children, not realizing that the climate has changed, and that by preventing their daughter from dressing more skimpily or wearing more makeup or dating more freely, they are causing her to fall behind her peers. Immigrants, especially Muslims, bringing up children in the West suffer a similar conflict. What should be done to handle this problem? The author does not say.

Should Muslims submit to the new climate, admitting that laxer standards are needed for their children, or should they fight off the West and try to keep isolated?

The Muslim Westerner’s mindset toward the West’s short-term reproductive climate should not reactionary, it should instead be constructive. Muslim men and women, following the Quranic program, should live and marry and construct their own Western society that proudly rejects everything it considers inferior and harmful and happily embraces everything it considers beneficial. Instead of trying to live in an “intellectual ghetto”, as Tariq Ramadan calls it, they live in the center of the Western intellectual tradition, reforming it, critiquing its weaknesses, calling for betterment, and freely defining new ways of life, exactly the way the intellectual elite throughout the ages have always done, defining new ways of life for themselves often at odds with the wider society.

Approaching Muslim women

I have seen some Western non-Muslim men wonder how you go about approaching a Muslim woman (to see if she is interested in a relationship), since the way they dress often signals unapprochability. The answer is that you don’t approach Muslim women (at least not the vast majority). The author gives an evolutionary explanation for this. Muslim women seek long-term partners, which requires deep knowledge of the man before any contact is made. It is for this reason that parents, relatives and friends are often heavily involved in planning and executing marriages. Approaching a Muslim woman, telling her she is beautiful and that you find her really interesting will most likely upset and offend her, since you are offering her exactly what she does not want; a relationship based on a short-term sexual attraction, and because being seen talking to a random man can harm her reputation.

Westerners, and some liberal Muslims, think these facts show that Muslims are out of touch or backward, and that they must be “better-educated”, “liberated”, “integrated”, “assimilated” and a whole lot of other euphemisms referring to the belief that Muslims should stop being Muslims and act more like non-Muslims for their own good.

The Quran requires that Muslims implement long-term reproductive strategies in their lives, meaning that for Muslims to remain Muslims, short-term reproductive behaviors can never be normalized. A Muslim woman who has a PhD and is attending a conference is not going to respond positively to some non-Muslim man’s pick-up line no matter how well-educated and liberated she is, if she is a devout Muslim. This is because in effect the man is calling her to abandon her chosen way of life. For her, sexual relationships are long-term matters that require the critique and approval of her family, relatives and friends, since Islam teaches her to think of herself as a member of a community, and to respect the opinions of her relatives and the authority of her parents. If a man is interested in her, instead of approaching her directly, he does it in a manner that shows his respect for the Muslim community and her family, and that shows his long-term interest in her, by having a friend or relative approach a friend or relative of hers.

Of course, this is not always an option, sometimes a direct approach is the only one possible, for example for a Muslim man and woman studying at the same college but knowing nothing else about one another, and having no one to mediate for them.

Islam, women, careers and divorce

The book analyzes the significant relationship between reproductive climates and attitudes toward women having careers. In a short-term climate, men cannot be relied on as providers, since they are interested in independence and short-term sexual relationships. In a long-term climate, men can be relied on, since men have no option but to be providers, in order to be able to attract the love interest of women.

This means that in a short-term climate, a career can be essential to a woman’s survival, while in a long-term climate, it can be largely irrelevant.

Men who like to follow a short-term sexual strategy (having sexual access to many females without having to commit themselves) will have an incentive to promote women’s “liberation”. For such men, it can be frustrating to live in a society that limits the availability of women, and they may do what they can to bring about change, to discredit the “backward” patriarchs, to get women out of society’s protection and into their own hands.

In his analysis of Islamic thought as it applies to the topic, the author’s methods and ways of thought are close to mine, which was a pleasant surprise. He refers to some of my favorite scholars while also maintaining a critical eye toward their opinions. He makes many references to the UCLA professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, someone largely unknown to me until reading this book:

Reviewing many of the Qur’ānic verses used to justify women’s restricted access to divorce, he concludes that the full implications of these verses have not been fully considered and intimates his opinion that Islam gives women the same access to divorce as it does to men. However, Abou El Fadl seems somewhat troubled that his opinion is in disagreement with the majority of Muslim jurists throughout Islamic history. The question becomes, is the majority opinion the result of the unequivocal evidence found in the sources of Islamic law, or a manifestation of the reproductive climates in which those opinions were formulated?

A woman should have full rights to divorce, because ethically, this is almost certainly crucial for ensuring the fairness of the marriage system. A man is given a degree of authority over his wife in his household. To ensure that this authority does not lead to abuse and tyranny, a woman must always retain the right to leave. Preventing her from leaving is going to greatly reduce her bargaining power in the relationship. I also support the opinions of the Salafi scholars al-Albani and Ibn Baaz in requiring a formal procedure for a man to divorce his wife, requiring him to stay with her for one menstrual cycle without having sex before the divorce is considered official. I believe that allowing a man to perform a permanent triple divorce by uttering a sentence is a highly damaging and defeats many of the purposes of Islamic law.

Reproductive climates and the practice of fiqh

Fiqh refers to Islamic jurisprudence, the field of discovering the best possible practical applications for the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah (the Prophet’s traditions ﷺ). One of the main theses of the book is that the reproductive climate affects the way men interpret Islamic principles.

According to Amin, in very-long-term climates like Saudi Arabia, paternity confidence is one of the prime directives in the minds of the jurists, so that they support nearly everything that can in some way restrict a woman’s freedom and make her a better reproductive object. Egyptians have a less long-term climate, so that their scholars are willing to make concessions to women’s freedom even if they acknowledge that in certain circumstances these granted privileges may lead to less paternity confidence.

Amin’s thesis is that reproductive climates affect the derivation of fiqh, leading to differing rulings (fatwas). This is one of the main conclusions of the book, that Muslim men prefer different interpretations of Islam based on their reproductive climates. To Saudi Muslim men, it is “obvious” that women should be restricted for everyone’s good, while to (cosmopolitan) Egyptian Muslim men, it is “obvious” that women should have more freedoms. A man’s reproductive strategy affects his values and makes him prioritize certain things over others, leading to a type of Islam that fits his own reproductive goals.

This scientific analysis of the derivation of fiqh is important and very much needed in order to separate what is truly Islamic from what is merely cultural within the rulings of the scholars. A new field can be launched, the (evolutionary) sociology of fiqh, that studies these matters.

The limitation of his evolutionary psychology approach is that it treats humans as genetic creatures, so that he studies how manifestations of genetically-driven instincts affect psychological behavior. To me this is only half of evolutionary psychology, although I know that many evolutionary psychologists limit themselves to this.

Humans are not genetic creatures, but genetic-cultural creatures, genes affect culture and culture affects genes. This adds a layer of complexity to human psychology that, if ignored, leads to incomplete theories. Thus the Egyptian toleration for less paternity confidence is not necessarily a consequence of the reproductive climate, it might be a cause of it. Perhaps the cultural appreciation of Egyptians for human rights led to a toleration for a shorter-term reproductive climate, so that this ideal was given priority over the concern for paternity confidence.

IQ is largely genetic (i.e. not cultural), but its consequence is a culture that appreciates various intangible ideals, whose consequence, in turn, is a re-interpretation of religion that tolerates a laxer reproductive climate, since this is more likely to achieve those ideals.

Having a high IQ does not mean that a person will be a nice, idealistic person. Rather, a high IQ population, after accepting certain teachings (Western/Christian philosophy, the Quran, Sufism), ends up becoming something of a humanist. A low IQ population, given the same teachings, will mostly focus on its form and ignore its content (ideals). Thus low IQ Muslims and Christians are often obsessed with appearances, socialization and ritual, while it is the high IQ Muslims and Christians who bother to read deeply into the texts.

It is, therefore, my hypothesis that when Islam is given to a high IQ population, the result is a humanist Islam, as is so well seen in cosmopolitan sections of Egypt. While when Islam is given to a low IQ population (Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan), the result is a focus on texts (naql, its extreme example being Wahhabism) and negligence toward the Quran’s principles.

While the author’s focus on reproductive concerns within the practice of fiqh is useful and enlightening, it is an incomplete view of the system. Genetics can lead to certain cultural (by “cultural”, I mean everything that’s not genetic) behaviors, which can then come back and influence reproductive behaviors, leading to highly complex feedback loops.

Dress codes for slave women

Amin mentions the fact that jurists have tolerated laxer dress codes for slave women compared to free women. According to his theory, this is a sign of the fact that since a slave woman is a short-term mate (more of an object of desire than reproduction), a short-term mindset toward her was tolerated, some jurists going as far as allowing her to show her breasts in public. Since paternity confidence was not a concern, the amount of skin a slave woman showed was not of much concern.

This behavior is also seen in Arab and Indo-Pakistani men living in the West who have short-term sexual relationships with Western women, but once they go on to seek a wife, they look for women from conservative families whose chastity and virginity can be relied on.

In both of the above situations, a double standard is maintained depending on the purpose of the woman in question. While the dress codes of slave women have no practical relevance to the modern practice of Islam, from a sociology of fiqh perspective, the matter might provide a useful insight into the thinking processes of jurists, showing how personal biases and reproductive goals affect the way Islamic sexual morality is interpreted.

It should, however, be noted that part of the justification for this double standard for the dress codes of free vs. slave women is verse 33:59 of the Quran:

O Prophet! Tell your wives, and your daughters, and the women of the believers, to lengthen their garments. That is more proper, so they will be recognized and not harassed. God is Forgiving and Merciful.

A common interpretation of “so they will be recognized” is that so that it will be known that they are free women and not slaves (as mentioned in al-Tabari’s tafseer). This clearly provides justification for tolerating different dress codes for different classes of women.

Another Persian scholar, al-Razi, interprets this verse as saying that virtuous women should dress more conservatively if there is a chance they will run into uncouth strangers, so that those strangers may recognize them as virtuous women and not women open to flirtation. This interpretation is more satisfactory in my opinion and prevents the use of the verse as justification for having double standards regarding different classes of women.

What does Islam select for?

All societies select for something. —Greg Cochran
All policy is eugenics.1 —Ikram Hawramani

Another relevant and highly interesting topic that is not covered by the book is the effects of reproductive climates on genes. For example, in a society that practices polygyny for long enough, the sex ratio will likely correct itself so that slightly more women than men will be born.

As I explain in my essay The Gene-Culture, any study of humans that entirely focuses on genes, or entirely focuses on culture, is going to be incomplete, because it focuses on one force while ignoring its equally important companion force.

A study of religious policies toward gender as entirely reproductive strategies, while highly informative, is incomplete. Thinking in terms of centuries and millennia, rather than in terms of individual generations and societies, will bring into focus the importance of religion as a gene-modifying force; Islamic culture will rewrite genes by selecting for certain characteristics and against others, the same way that genes (and reproductive strategies) affect our practice and interpretation of Islam, causing us to focus on certain aspects of Islam (and ignore others at times).

Islam rewards and promotes self-restraint, which is strongly associated with IQ, therefore high IQ people will get a more favorable treatment under Islam compared to lower IQ people who have difficulty with self-restraint. A woman who has a reputation for being “wild” is going to be passed up by men in favor of women who have a reputation for restraint. A man who does not have the long-term planning capacity to get a degree and a good career is going to be passed up by women in favor of men who have such capabilities.

Short-term climates create winner-take-all realities where a few attractive men get to have sex with a great number of women, as Conflicts of Fitness studies in detail, while the less sexually attractive and shy “nerdy” men are going to find it very difficult to find mates.

The Islamic system prevents this reality from existing. It punishes the womanizing “alpha males” by forcing them into long-term relationships where they have to make do with one, two or at most four women. And since many of these “alpha males” will not have the money to take care of too many women at the same time, they will often be forced to make do with just one or two women. This means that the rest of the women will not have access to these men, so that they are made to settle for less attractive men.

In an Islamic society, similar to Japanese society 100 years ago, the majority of men will be able to marry, including shy and nerdy ones who are totally incapable of using charisma to attract women. This fact of Islamic societies may be a significant contributor to the high fertility rates that devout Muslim societies enjoy.

Conclusion

Conflicts of Fitness is a worthy contribution in the best tradition of Western civilization, an effort to arrive at the truth without concern for political considerations.

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