The latest round of neo-atheist criticisms leveled at our faith that have gone viral in past weeks have come from comedian Bill Maher and neuroscientist Sam Harris while the most prominent responses have come from Reza Aslan, Ben Affleck, and Glenn Greenwald who is generally critical of a number of Harris’s positions. The discussion has hinged loosely around a number of topics, ranging from clarifying true liberal doctrine to accusations of anti-Muslim bigotry.
At the heart of the discussion are questions about the religion of Islam itself and what impact this has on how Muslims think and act around the world. How should the rest of the modern world view us, and what criticisms are (or aren’t) fair game, either for the religion or its adherents?
Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks (TYT) recently conducted a three hour interview / discussion / debate with Sam Harris, asking him to either clarify misunderstandings or justify his positions on what has been accurately represented and criticized. It’s rare to find an open, unmoderated discussion of this type where disagreement is respected and each party is happy to go back and forth on each point without the constraints of time. The discussion lasted 3 hours and the post that follows are my own thoughts after having watched it. It will not be a point-by-point discussion / response, simply my own thoughts on what I’ve seen online of this discussion and placing it context with the others.
Cenk Uygur and Sam Harris Discussion
To summarize, Harris believes at this point in our history, Islam more uniquely predisposes its adherents towards violence because there is a clear line between text to practice. He calls the Prophet a conqueror, unlike Jesus (and strangely neglects Moses in this discussion), and cites the expansion of the Muslim empire under the doctrine of jihad as his evidence. Cenk Uygur is not the counterfoil stating “Islam means peace” or some other recycled feelgood sound byte. He is himself a former Muslim, and an agnostic. He agrees with Harris that Islam, the religion and its texts, contain many problematic ideas, ideas which caused him to leave the faith. However, he disagrees with Harris that Islam and Muslims are in any way uniquely predisposed towards violence over all other faiths. He instead argues that while the faith may act as a motivator for action, it is largely geo-political and cultural concerns which drive Muslim antipathy towards the West in some Muslim nations and peoples vs others. He also argues that historically, Muslims have been more tolerant towards other faiths and have caused far less deaths than Christianity. Elsewhere, Aslan has argued Harris is not an expert on religion, his readings of religious text are excessively literalist, and that interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, that the reader determines the meaning of the text rather than the text having an unequivocal understanding, hence the overwhelmingly peaceful 1.6 billion Muslims who do not act as al-Qa’ida or ISIS does.
Thoughts on Sam Harris’s Positions
While I am a card-carrying conservative / fundamentalist Muslim myself, I find points I can agree on with Aslan and Uygur. I do believe Harris’s lack of academic credentials, either from an Islamic seminary or from an accredited secular academic institution have caused him to read the sacred texts with as much insight and depth as any novice who reads and misunderstands because they lack the tools required for proper interpretation, which is why I can agree to an extent with the charge that they share the same interpretive framework as those who join al-Qaida and ISIS when discussing our faith’s position on military action.
Having said that, I don’t agree that it is simply the reader who gives meaning to the text and not the reverse. For that matter, I don’t see that most Muslims even read the texts, perform an interpretation, and then carry on with their lives having interpreted “peace” from the verses of the Qur’an dealing with warfare. I believe it’s fair to say many who work in the field of community spiritual development lament that few Muslims read the Qur’an except in Arabic, a language most don’t understand, and fewer still read the translation. Many are happy to set the bar low and ask that they simply follow the basics such as praying 5 times daily. I don’t believe the line between mass interpretation and peaceful daily living exists.
Does that mean if everyone started reading the texts they would become violent? Harris wants to argue that were people to follow the texts, they would have no choice but to do so. In this point he is criticized for literalism, but I don’t believe literalism is the problem. Even in literalism, multiple literal meanings and conclusions can be taken from a text. What restricts us from taking any literal meaning is that the revelation of the Qur’an is inextricably tied to both the events that occurred during the life of the Prophet and his explanation of those words, as well as the explanation of those closest to him, the Companions, and scholars who dealt with them.
In my view, Harris selectively recognizes this. He points to “kill them where you find them”, but is forced to concede that these words were not followed literally, that Muslims didn’t do that, that they didn’t simply kill everyone who came in their path, be they Jew, Christian, or otherwise. Where he fails, however, is in discussing when and why those verses were revealed. He doesn’t discuss the prohibition on further aggression if hostilities cease, nor does he discuss that Makkah had attacked the nascent Madinan Muslim state on numerous occasions and broken treaties before its bloodless conquest by Prophet Muhammad’s armies. In general, he fails to properly juxtapose the Quranic text upon the backdrop of the Seerah and the Sunnah. He’s certainly not the first to commit this error, nor will he be the last.
We can even find instances of this type of mistake, of interpreting without context, among the generation directly after the passing of the Prophet . Consider the following narration from ‘Urwa, the nephew of Prophet Muhammad’s wife ‘Aisha , discussing his interpretation of a verse with her, and her correction:
I asked ‘Aisha , “How do you interpret the statement of Allah , ‘(The mountains) as-Safa and al-Marwa are among the symbols of God, and it is not harmful for the one performing Hajj or Umrah to do Tawaf between them‘. By God, (clearly), there is no harm if one doesn’t perform tawaf between Safa and Marwa.”
‘Aisha replied, “My nephew, your interpretation isn’t true. Had it been correct, Allah’s statement would have read, “It is not harmful for him if he doesn’t perform Tawaf between them.” In reality, this was revealed concerning the Ansar who used to assume Ihram to worship an idol known as “Manat” which was worshiped in a place called al-Mushallal before they embraced Islam. Whoever assumed Ihram (for the idol) would consider it incorrect to perform Tawaf between Safa and Marwa.
When they embraced Islam, they asked the Messenger about it, stating, “We used to refrain from Tawaf between Safa and Marwa.” (Because of this), Allah revealed, ‘(The mountains) as-Safa and al-Marwa are among the symbols of God.’ ”
Aisha then added, “Surely, the Messenger set the tradition of tawaf between safa and marwa, so nobody is allowed to omit the tawaf between them.”
Take a good look at where ‘Urwa is before ‘Aisha’s explanation. He reads the words as they are and comes to a conclusion regarding their meaning. The problem ‘Urwa has isn’t one of literalism, but of contextualizing what drove the revelation. The close contemporaries, of Prophet Muhammad , the Companions, are there to help clarify the meaning rather than allowing it to wander wherever our imagination takes us. If Harris et al are sincere in their thoughts about “redeeming” Islam, then they first ought to read it correctly, to try and understand why so many Muslim scholars, academics, jurists, and experts worldwide of any number of stripes have condemned ISIS and others like them so forcefully. If ISIS is so correct in their interpretation, what are the rest missing?
This is why Harris’s proposition, that one should be able to place the texts with a group of remote people who can read and interpret, makes absolutely no sense. While we believe the message is perfect and complete, we make no assumptions about the perfection of those interpreting. We expect human factors can cause mistakes, some small and some very large, and the more divorced one is from formal study, the more likely they are to hold strange views that don’t reconcile with the rest of the Muslim scholarly community. Because of such human factors, we also expect that even if a people had all the information they needed, they would still make mistakes, fall into war, possibly implement part of all of the message at their convenience, or neglect parts of it out of personal weakness.
This is a good point to mention our ideal expectation of textual interpretation – while it is very true we expect difference among qualified interpreters, starting with the Companions themselves, we also expect underlying the attempt is a best effort to provide the Creator’s intended meaning, whether or not we find it socially or politically convenient. Many of us do not view the texts and sciences of interpretation as a vehicle to subvert intended meanings and practices, but as a best effort attempt to reach the truth, bearing in mind mistakes can be made and those mistakes are forgiven provided the intention of the qualified interpreter was truth seeking and teaching. Note that I am highlighting the word “qualified” (i.e. trained) repeatedly because we have an unfortunate boom in interpretation from unqualified individuals providing fatwa, among them those in ISIS and al-Qaida, as well as the Sam Harrises of the world.
Thoughts on Missing Voices
Perhaps what is most unsettling about these discussions for many Muslims isn’t that they are occurring, but that we lack representation from standard, practicing, classically trained Muslim leaders. While I appreciate the support we get from both Cenk Uygur or Reza Aslan, the message then becomes that moderate Islam is essentially leaving it altogether and simply affiliating with the community by name, but not belief or socially frowned upon practices, that the texts are man-made, imperfect, and quite possibly irrelevant for modernity.
It’s not easy sitting through Uygur stating “Islam sucks” or its texts suck and that’s why he left the faith. Granted, he was raised in a school system that taught secularism in military fashion, but ultimately “Islam isn’t worse than all other faiths, it’s equally as bad, so don’t discriminate” should be a non-starter, yet there it is because the bar is so low. Likewise with Aslan’s thoughts on religion as simply being man-made, that it is all language or metaphors, or that it is malleable, moves the discussion in the direction many would be uncomfortable with, that being to subvert or ignore texts at one’s convenience. I am in agreement with Aslan that we should acknowledge groups like ISIS / ISIL / Da’eesh are Muslims, but we should also be able to decisively demonstrate utter misinterpretation, referencing past and present religious scholarship in the same manner ‘Abdullah ibn Abbas was able to successfully argue with and convince a large number of khawarij that their own interpretations were wrong.
I realize the problem inherent in making this request. In doing so, you’ll have to wade into a number of politically difficult discussions. You will be forced to discuss matters found in the texts that are not simply about modern interpretation, but classic interpretation as well. You will be forced to answer both correctly in terms of content as well as in a style of delivery that conveys the correctness of the point. However, if those trained keep quiet, then the questions will be raised, and while the Reza Aslans and Cenk Uygurs will be able to deflect the human element side of the argument, they like others will not be able to answer for the texts and the actions that came with those texts, and why. I realize there is fear for many conservative Muslim leaders to come out and speak for fear of government persecution, but so be it, as inheritors of the Prophets, you take not only the knowledge, but the responsibility of it and the consequences of delivery, something all Prophets did, so I suggest you make your peace with it and get out there – the community needs you.
Have you watched the debates and discussions about Islam and religious violence? What are your own thoughts about these discussions?