Recently I became a patron of the Secular Jihadists podcast. Ten years ago this wouldn’t be a big deal, but as a “grown-up” with three kids I’m much more careful to where I expend my discretionary income. So take that as a stronger endorsement than usual. I think Secular Jihadists is offering a nonsubstitutable good today. By which I mean a robust, but not cliched or hackneyed, critique of the religion of Islam. For various reasons the modern-day cultural Left has become operationally Islamophilic in public, while the political Right isn’t really too concerned with details of fact and nuance when they level critiques against Islam.
On this week’s episode, the hosts talked about the life of Muhammad, focusing some of the rather unpalatable aspects of his biographies as they’ve been passed down in tradition (in the Hadiths), or as can be found in the Koran. Armin Navabi points out that the prophet of Islam married Safiyya bint Huyeiy Ibn Akhtab on the day her father and husband were killed by his forces. Therefore Navabi’s interpretation, which is entirely in keeping with our modern values, is that Muhammad raped a woman on the day her father and husband were killed.
Of course, this behavior is not shocking in the pre-modern world. In the Illiad Hector’s widow, Andromache, eventually becomes the concubine of Neoptolemus. He is the son of Achilles, who killed Hector. And, in many traditions, Neoptolemus is the one who kills Andromache’s infant son by Hector, Astyanax. Eventually, the son of Neoptolemus by Andromache inherits his kingdom.
Obviously, the Illiad plays things up for drama, but I think it correctly reflects the values of a pre-modern tribal society. One of my favorite books is Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. Like the Illiad, the Hebrew Bible has within it stories that reflect values of pre-modern societies very different from ours. Moses, like Muhammad, was a military and political leader as well as a religious prophet, and so it is entirely unsurprising that he was a participant in and director of what we would today term war crimes.
The question from the perspective of the hosts of the Secular Jihadists podcast is how Muslims will react to the fact that in the Koran itself, which most Muslims take to be the literal recitation of the words of God through Muhammad, documents the founder of the religion engaging in sex and war crimes. I think the truth though is that most Muslims won’t be very impacted by these revelations, because for most Muslims Islam is not reducible to the revelation within the Koran.
“Higher religions” tend to have scriptures and texts which serve as the scaffold for their intellectual superstructure. But most people who believe in these religions never read these texts. That’s because most people don’t read much, period. The organized institutional and multi-ethnic religions which have emerged over the last 3,000 years have a complex division of labor among the producers of religious “goods and services”, as well as among the consumers and identifiers. A minority are highly intellectualized, and these are the types who will record the history of the religion.
Nearly 2,000 years after his death we know a great deal about the life and times, and ideas, of the great Christian theologian Origen. We know far less about the life and times of the average believer. But I believe that the structure, organization, and folkways of the Christian church in the first half of the 3rd century were arguably far more instrumental in the religion’s success in the 4th century than the particular philosophical arguments which Origen so brilliantly expounded.
Of course from the perspective of many nonbelievers, this seems perverse. Islam, for one, makes a book the very foundation of the religion. And yet ultimately religion persists not because of specific books and beliefs, but general intuitions and cultural phenomena which are evoked by those intuitions. Many people have strong intuitions about “how the world works.” The beliefs of some indigenous tribes about the role of animistic forces may seem bizarre and strange in the particularity, but in the generality, they are totally comprehensible.
Within Islam, it is commonly asserted that Muhammad was the perfect human being. Ergo, a perfect model of how to behave. Additionally, most Muslims accept that the Koran is a literal and straightforward rendering of the facts of Muhammad’s life. The logical implication of this is that the perfect human being had no compunction making use of sex slaves.
But I think a focus on logic misses the mark in understanding most human cultural phenomena, which have cognitive roots. Our reasoning faculties are slow and faulty. Other aspects of our psychology, often habitual, rule our day to day lives. Of course, this varies by person to person. Perhaps the greatest lesson we need to take from the last generation of cognitive science is that those who live by ratiocination more than reflex are a very small and peculiar minority, no matter how they unconsciously rewrite history (because they’re the ones doing the writing).