Muslims are not a People of the Book


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).

8 thoughts on “Muslims are not a People of the Book

  1. The Secular Jihadists etc podcast is great. I became a patreon a while ago after you’d linked to one of their episodes. I don’t know if you come from a guilt culture but, if you do, I offer that up so you feel that they have been getting some earlier compensation as a direct result of your actions.

  2. “But most people who believe in these religions never read these texts.”

    I have one counter example. The practice of the Jewish Religion, at least by committed followers, involves expending a great deal of energy in the detailed study of sacred texts.

    Regular worship services involve public reading of the Torah (Pentateuch) in its entirety and in its original Hebrew on an annual cycle (which, BTW is being completed tomorrow) accompanied by portions of the the rest of the Hebrew Bible. E.g. yesterday, the book of Ecclesiastes was read. Most synagogues have copies of the Hebrew Bible with English translations available for all worshipers. The “sermon” is usually an explication of the texts.

    Additionally, further study of other important texts, most often the Talmud is regarded as a pious and religiously important act. Many Jews commit to studying one page of the 2600 page Talmud every day on a 7+ year cycle known as Daf Yomi. Literary critic Adam Kirsch has been studying the Daf for about 5 years and has posted weekly essays about his experience here: https://www.tabletmag.com/tag/daf-yomi The Talmud is a very difficult text because it is written in a dialect of Aramaic, not in Hebrew, and in a telegraphic, even cryptic style.

    I should also add that many Evangelical Protestants engage in regular Bible study as an important part of their faith practices.

  3. I have one counter example. The practice of the Jewish Religion, at least by committed followers,

    yeah, but jews are not a great religion 😉

    though seriously, they were demographically distinct for the last 1,000 years in europe and the near east. their urban and artisan/professional focus allowed for a different religious lifestyle, that would not have been possible if they remained near eastern farmers (there is discussion on how well jewish farmers in mesopatamia would have been able to follow laws when babylonian talmud was being put down).

    evangelical protestants are an interesting case. you are talking in particular about some types of reformed christians. again, they are a subset, but even among evangelicals they are a very small minority. biblical illiteracy is common among evangelicals, and the american tendency now is to focus on faith and devotion and not scripture study.

    basically if you subselect a religion you can find a hyperrational group. but these are always sects.

    additionally, even these groups compromise constantly with society. jews in europe took into account the laws of the land, but when some orthodox got to israel they changed very quickly. you can take it two ways: the books mattered, or, the environment determined how the books mattered.

  4. though seriously, they were demographically distinct for the last 1,000 years in europe and the near east. their urban and artisan/professional focus allowed for a different religious lifestyle, that would not have been possible if they remained near eastern farmers (there is discussion on how well jewish farmers in mesopatamia would have been able to follow laws when babylonian talmud was being put down).

    I can’t tell if this is a nod to Botticini & Eckstein. If not, you may find their argument interesting: basically, once the rabbis made literacy (of males) a religious duty, the religion became too costly for many Jewish peasants (education of sons was expensive), so over a few centuries, they drifted off to other religions in the area: mostly Christianity and later Islam.

    Slate has a TL;DR version of their argument. (The interview in the video there starts about 11:30)

  5. “environment determined how the books mattered. ”

    What, pray tell is the environment? Social? Physical? Technological? Political? Imperial? Economic? or is just a plug in for everything other than religion.

    We know that sacred texts cannot control out comes. In many ways both Christianity and Judaism are rooted in the same canon and started from the same root in Roman ruled Judea after the failed rebellions of the early imperial era. And Buddhism in China and in India had very different courses and outcomes.

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