The Quran as a collective human enterprise


When people ask about my religion I usually just say I’m an atheist and I have no religion. If they continue, I usually give them what they want, and state my parents are Muslim, or I am from a Muslim background (most of the time the people asking for what it’s worth are themselves Muslims, or from a Muslim background, or, not American). I never say that I used to be a Muslim because that’s really not true.

This is a major way I’m very different from those who come from a similar background. Not only did I not believe in religion, unlike many people from a Muslim background, I never grew up in a Muslim milieu. Though my parents are moderately observant Muslims (e.g., though they don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, my mother does not wear a headscarf nor has my father ever grown a beard), they were never involved in the “Muslim community.” We went to the mosque on special holidays, and that was the extent of our participation in “organized religion.” Any religious instruction I had was from my father, who mostly did this when he felt guilty because a mutual acquaintance would comment on the religious ignorance of his children.

Both my parents come from rather religious families in a traditional sense. As my paternal grandfather was an ulem, all of his children, including my father, received extremely thorough religious educations. My mother has a brother who is an ulem, and her maternal grandfather was a very prominent ulem, whose lineage was involved in the Islamicization* of the peasantry in parts of Comilla and Noakhali in the 19th century.

When I say that my parents come from religious families in a “traditional sense,” I mean that neither of them come from families where people have to be “born again” to practice Islam. Rather, they were part of the tradition of middle and upper-class Sunni Muslims who adhered to and espoused a form of religious orthodoxy which was geographically broad, the Hanafi traditions which included the Turkic world and much of South Asia, and date back many centuries.

This personal history is relevant because unlike some people I have not taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Islam in the same way I have taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Christianity. How and why Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire is an interesting question for academic reasons. How and why Western Christianity fractured in the 16th century is an interesting question for reasons of understanding the geopolitics and history of modern European nation-states. I never believed in the Muslim religion, and matured into adulthood in a totally non-Muslim milieu, and my parents were outwardly nominal and complacent in their religiosity.

In contrast to Christianity, there is far less scholarship in English on the development of the Sunni-Shia schism, or conversion of Iran to Shia Islam in the 16th century. And of course, there is very little scholarship on the development of the religion which became Islam from a critical lens, aside from a small band of “revisionists.”

Some of this is due to fear. To be frank, many Muslims guard the sanctity of the orthodoxies which they promulgate with veiled and not so veiled threats of violence. Even if this is a minority of Muslims, it is sufficient to convince scholars who might take an interest in the topic that there is little personal profit in the enterprise.

This has curious knock-on consequences: many educated Muslims take certain orthodoxies of their religion for granted as unchallenged truths in a manner which is equivalent to the sort of insulation one only finds in ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. To give an explicit example, when I was younger, and knew people from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, they would patiently explain to me that in actuality science had long disproved the basic tenets of evolutionary biology. They were speaking out of a certain ignorance, because of subcultural norms.

To a great extent, Muslims are the same. But in this case about the truths of their religion which they presume to be unchallenged and unrefuted. Educated and relatively secular Western Muslims take the historicity of Muhammad and the literal truth of the Quran for granted in a way that educated and more Christians do not. That is due to the fact that Christianity has been subject to robust criticism in scholarship and in the public space since the 19th century.

Because of risk-aversion in academia, I think that the revolution and consciousness-raising in Muslim circles will happen from a more bottom-up approach. The latest Secular Jihadists podcast is titled, The Quran: Questioning Infallibility, Shattering Taboos. The discussion is wide-ranging, including Aisha’s requirement that her male allies breast-feed from her older sisters (there is a serious context to this practice).

Basically, the upshot is that the standard educated Muslim narrative about the nature of the Quran is trivially easy to knock down. It does not require deep scholarly knowledge, simply an awareness of facts that for obvious reasons Islamic scholars have not put in front of the mass of believers.

An interesting aspect of the discussion is that it is not highly revisionist. That is, it takes the historicity of the standard Muslim narrative of the rise of Islam under Muhammad, and its expansion under his successors, for granted. But even accepting the “standard model”, a set of simple critiques can refute the consensus of educated Muslims on topics such as the nature of the origin of the Quran.

What will the consequence of this be? I doubt it will be a great apostasy. Just as with Christianity a modernist critique will give rise to a sophisticated subculture that insulates and debunks the critique. But a large number of Muslims will engage in conscious and subconscious revisionism of what it means to be Muslim, and what Islam is, in a more “root & branch” manner than has currently been the case. I do think for various reasons that will happen in the West, and not the core Muslim world.

* Islamicization here is probably indicative of reform of the practices and customs of nominally Muslim peasants.

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26 thoughts on “The Quran as a collective human enterprise

  1. I read awhile back that numbers of superothodox Jewish women in New York metro were causing tumult and fleeing because they had gained access to the internet via their smartphones. If that was true, one is then lead to wonder whether the rabbinate has since clamped down on smartphone use.

    Sojourned in Utah a few years back. Personally heard about spouses, male and female, sneaking like porn addicts into the family den at midnight, starting up the computer with shaking hands, to sweatily read critiques of the Mormon worldview, eventually “coming out” as rationalist-secularists, and thus blowing up their families.

    Interesting, then, to contrast with the Rumpspringa practice of the Amish, whose willing return rate is reportedly now up to 95%, up from 80% as recently as a generation ago.

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  2. When I realized I had little knowledge of Islam, I began to read. The Koran, hadith, history of Islam and life of the prophet I digested as thoroughly as possible.
    The first impression went something like this: How can any adult believe such a hate-filled, violent, specious, misogynist, obviously primitive and nebulous creation of a sociopath? Islam is not, like Christianity, a religion which emphasizes love, forgiveness, tolerance, and equality. As infidels, we are destined to spend eternity in hell. When our skins have burned away we will be given new ones so that our suffering will continue. On the Last Day Jews will be hunted down and killed. Even the rocks will cry out “There is a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.”
    That so many can absorb and believe such hatred and violence is in itself difficult to understand.

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  3. The first impression went something like this: How can any adult believe such a hate-filled, violent, specious, misogynist, obviously primitive and nebulous creation of a sociopath? I

    ppl often say the same when they read the hebrew bible/old testament.

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  4. “ppl often say the same when they read the hebrew bible/old testament.”

    Well, a lot of the Old Testament is mostly stories and that kinda overwhelms tone. Like, Grimm Fairy tales might have all kinds of nasty violence but that’s secondary to the story and may not leave as much of an impression.

    Reading the Quran, the tone seems to take more center stage because the story is secondary and fragmentary to whatever point the sura is making. That’s just my impression of why the bad parts of the OT glide by more easily, even if objectively worse and more violent than the Quran.

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  5. I was drawn into this post because I have been arguing for some decades exactly that the Qur’an (rather, Qurân without hamza – west Arabian dialect and all) WAS a “collective human enterprise”. I don’t think Muhammad was responsible for the bulk of it. Patricia Crone and Joseph Schacht had edged up to that question as well, and John Wansbrough just assumed it was all post-Muhammadan and worked outward from there.

    I’d love to read other bloggers’ research on this. I am in IQSA but unfortunately it is run by university types whose priority is debunking Trump, over investigating Islamic-era core literature. (According to the fundraising mail they send out, anyway.)

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  6. It is nor this also the opinion of many Christian denomination (includind the Roman Catholic Church)?

    I was taught – during my Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (conversion to Catholicism) – that only God knew who shall enter Heaven and that it was blasphemous for mere mortals to condemn people to Hell, even rhetorically (though it was acceptable to confess sins for “fear of loss of Heaven and pains of Hell” otherwise known as imperfect contrition).

    This was in contrast to my Evangelical upbringing in which there were frequent sermons from pastors condemning sinners to fires of Hell.

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  7. Twinkie: I heard the same when I went through RCIA. (I had a feeling we were going to get a comment about this; I didn’t want to derail the topic of the title.) But in this spirit, allow me to nitpick YOU! :^)

    For those baptised in an apostolic confession like I was [Episcopalian here], Catholics do not view such incoming proselytes as “converts”. The baptism is recognised; just not the confirmation.

    Did they make you get baptised again? RCIA force that on Mormons and Muslims and some other postChristian denominations. Unsure about the Baptists.

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  8. Baptism is typically required when the evidence for a prior one is fuzzy or when the nature of it is ambiguous (the specific Trinitarian formula was not used, e.g. Episcopalian “gender-neutral” references to the Father and the Son as the Creator and the Redeemer, respectively).

    For those of you who are not Catholics, even Baptism performed by a non-Catholic, in extremis, is acceptable so long as the Trinitarian formula and water were used.

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  9. @High Plains Drifter

    Smartphone use (and Internet use in general) is strongly discouraged among the most conservative Orthodox Jewish circles (Haredi and Hasidic groups) but of course it still happens, especially given that there is a dispensation for Internet use for the purpose of making a living. The scene you describe among Mormons is also not unknown in the Orthodox Jewish world. Check out the memoir by Shulem Deen (“All Who Go Do Not Return”), where he too sneaks to the family computer when everyone else is alseep.

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  10. I would argue the basic fallacy of monotheism is that a spiritual absolute would necessarily be the essence of sentience from which life and consciousness rises, not an ideal of wisdom and judgement from which people fell. More the new born babe, than the wise old man. The desire, rather than the objects of desire.

    It’s just that organized religion is far more about social organization, then spiritual insight and built around rules and rule givers. So then it is filtered through social dynamics. Every society is going to have liberal and conservative impulses. The organic energy and desires pushing out, like youth itself, as well as the civil and cultural structures giving it form, focus and order, like wisdom and age.

    Judaism started as tribal in nature and remains to, so that keeps it focused, but tends to create negative responses from other tribal cultures. Germany come to mind.

    Christianity was filtered through Greek pantheism and its tradition of year gods, so there is strong tradition of rebirth. With God as father, son and holy ghost it is hard to ignore this, but the Catholic Church, as the eternal institution, has done its best to obscure it.

    Islam, as a fairly pure monotheism, does have an inbuilt tendency to extremism, as when one assumes one’s cultural ideals are absolute, it doesn’t leave much room for argument.

    The underlaying problem is that western civilization is ideals based, in a reality composed and created by polarities, contrasts and context. So when we are constantly trying to distill out some ever more pure signal from the noise, it does lead to extremes.

    Of course, Capitalism, the reduction of all value to quantified abstraction, is a far more pernicious example than Islam, which is relatively benign, in comparison.

    Eventually we will come to understand that as a voucher system grown metastatic, finance is the circulation system of society and money is the blood flowing through it. As such, it is the social contract holding mass societies together, not a commodity to be mined from society. We will eventually learn to store value in healthy societies and environments, rather than trying to siphon all value out to store as abstractions, with our bank accounts as individual umbilical cords, in atomized cultures. Then our medium of exchange will go back to being more organic and particular, not entire societies under the control of finance.

    Religion today is mostly just a fallback position and the institutions at their core, from the Catholic Church, to the House of Saud, to the state of Israel, all appear to be tearing themselves apart, on the assumption there is no alternative, so the power struggles get out of hand.

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  11. “The first impression went something like this: How can any adult believe such a hate-filled, violent, specious, misogynist, obviously primitive and nebulous creation of a sociopath?”

    Islam makes a lot more intuitive sense than Christianity. Which would an unbiased person be more inclined to believe: you are going to burn in hell because God hates you, or you are going to burn in hell because God loves you? Not much of a contest on that front.

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  12. “a certain ignorance”

    What a wonderful phrase! (I assume that “certain” is being used here in the sense of “certainty” rather than in the usual sense of “a particular type of”.)

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  13. @Twinkie
    Re: mortals claiming to know the identities of the damned. Do you consider the Divine Comedy blasphemous? I was of the impression that serious Catholics were typically rather fond of it.

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  14. Do you consider the Divine Comedy blasphemous? I was of the impression that serious Catholics were typically rather fond of it.

    You do realize that it is a work of allegory, right? And, yes, “serious” Catholics tend to favor works of Western canon.

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  15. re: mormons. a substantial proportion of my mormon friends from HS have undergone apostasy

    As I recall, the rate of apostasy/excommunication among LDS men tends to be pretty high. It’s the women who are holding firm. I think this has led to a gender gap in LDS populations… which is a shame since Mormon women tend to be moral, conservative, devoted, thrifty, and keep themselves fit. Excellent wife/mother material.

    As a Catholic, I find Mormonism to be a deceitful cult, but, golly, it does produce wonderful neighbors (provided they do not constitute a majority).

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  16. @Twinkie

    I know what kind of work the Divine Comedy is. Still, I think it’s an interesting question. The distinction between condemning sinners to hell “rhetorically” and in allegory seems awfully fine for defending against a charge of blasphemy. I also wonder how the family members of the recently deceased men Dante depicts in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth circles of Hell must have felt about it.

    My personal feelings are that the concept of blasphemy is an inherently regressive one, even when designed to discourage theocratic excesses, as in the case you described. But then my preferred solution “this is all a nonsense story we made up and any relation to the real world is purely coincidental” isn’t really available to the Catholic Church, at least on a consistent basis. Regarding the Divine Comedy itself, I have enough distance from the world it was written in, that I can appreciate it for its artistry without being terribly worried about the underlying morality. I do think it provides a window into a time when the Catholics were less shy about voicing an opinion about who went to Heaven and Hell, as did other historical practices like selling indulgences. I certainly wouldn’t want to see it banned, and it seems to me that given the right political circumstances, the modern teaching that condemning sinners to hell is blasphemous could be used to justify doing so. (I’m not terribly worried now, since the Church isn’t really powerful enough to enforce book bans, and many of their previous attempts have subsequently proved embarrassing, and of course, as I mentioned a lot of Catholics rather like Dante. But of course, things can change.)

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  17. Re: ancient DNA from Razib’s latest podcast — is there any work being done on “ancient” DNA from the early history of the Ashkenazi community in Europe?

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  18. brodix: Kudos for trenchant truth-bringing. You are correct about the usurpation of all otherwise-claimed root ‘values’. Aside from the Amish, and maybe a few hunter-gatherer tribes, (interested to discuss any other ‘succeeding’ groups) there is at this hour but one global, de facto, operative “whole-caloric-foodstuff-life” religion. Many of today’s humans on every continent are vociferously and in many cases viciously attempting to assert group identities via religious (and crypto- religious) exclusivities, but those exclusivities are just tribal-status jockeying identitarian shells, ritual masks placed over actual vying for container-boxes of ‘holy finance’ industrial-agriculture foodstuffs. Jordan Peterson role-fulfillment reactionary ‘obligationists’ take note. Observe what is at the base of current eco-caloric reality. One can have chest-beating most bang-kaboom macho weaponry but authoritarian contempt for humble peace-craving lives that quietly and industriously properly non-dogmaticallyrevere healthy topsoil gives the lie. In Western culture, ‘educated’ back-to-the-land hippiesques who have identified the problem are ineffectively trying to Amishify themselves while holding on to empirical rationalism with one hand (and often befuddled-marijuana-cult ::crypto- religion inescapably suffusing every human moment:: with the other hand), with no favorable finance available for the necessary small-scale plow-machine. (Preferably horse-team a la Amish).
    There’s no easy out. Industrio-chem GMOs are but a temporary fix absent meaningful community. Let’s not lie to ourselves about our degrading-eco-base circumstance.

    Honest fortitudinal religionists might-should take their bone-certain eschatological counter-reality and stay the flock out of modern ‘rational’ forward-seeking conversation, and instead stay faithful to humble circumscribed tenets: conversationally marginalized, but hey, ecstatically fulfilled with certitude.

    A lot going on here. No time to fully articulate. Workin’ for a livin’. Absent ritualized genuflections, it’ll be hot sauce at lunch for endorphin spike; Hatch, New Mexico = Mecca. Tankers in the fields, spraying holy nitrogenous.

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  19. I don’t live in Hatch, NM — it’s the “chile-growing capital of the world”. Will read your piece when I have a moment, it’s intriguingly titled, for sure.

    I’m thinking Jordan Peterson, Wendell Berry, Edward O. Wilson, Cornel West, and Camille Paglia would be the Council of Elders.

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  20. Given the size of the storm brewing, I wouldn’t place any bets on the particulars, so it’s mostly about studying the dynamics.

    As I’ve been telling my daughter, my generation is going to blow up the world and hers gets to put it back together. It might take a few decades for the dust to settle.

    I think it is much more about understanding what is, before proposing what ought to be. Our beliefs and assumptions are going to be shaken to their foundations and the reset will cut deep.

    We just surf the light anyway.

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  21. The distinction between condemning sinners to hell “rhetorically” and in allegory seems awfully fine for defending against a charge of blasphemy.

    If you weren’t trying to play gotcha, I think you’d see that the distinction is rather clear.

    Also, this is NOT to suggest that there is no hell or condemnation. One can make a generalized statement that people who sin and do not repent will face Divine Justice. But that’s is not the same thing as saying I know who’s going to hell and who’s going to heaven.

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  22. @Twinkie

    I’m sorry, but it is by no means obvious to me what distinction you had in mind between condemning sinners to hell in an allegorical work and “rhetorically.” Please elaborate. I am genuinely curious.

    So as to avoid the accusation that I am simply playing gotcha, I will state ahead of time which historical facts currently come to mind that might introduce difficulties in making such a distinction.

    1) The fact that Medieval allegory as described e.g. here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_in_the_Middle_Ages was often polysemous, i.e. simultaneously affirming a literal and an allegorical meaning. Dante appears prominently as an example in that article.

    2) The contrasting reaction by the Church to the depiction of e.g. Pope Boniface VIII in Dante’s Inferno and the character of Simplicio (often assumed to be based on Pope Urban VIII) in Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. I personally can think of political reasons that may have led to the differing reactions, but not moral ones.

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