Cancel Muhammad?


The person above is a professor at a “Research 1” university. He clearly does not know that Cato was a Plebian. That he held the position of Tribune of the Plebs, which existed to allow for Plebian political rights within the Roman system when Patricians were dominant.

As it is, decades before Cato the Younger’s career, the Plebian nobility had obtained nearly all the privileges of the Patricians. The main exceptions were particular religious priesthoods. In some ways, this left the Plebian nobility with more power than Patricians, because they also were able to become Tribunes of the Plebs, an office banned to Patricians (The Patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher had himself adopted by a Plebian so he could obtain this office).

In any case, this broadside against the Cato Institute because it is named after a “bad bad man” has prompted me to write about something that has been on my mind: two billion human beings see in Muhammad an exemplar, but the Muhammad himself is eminently cancelable.

There are two primary issues I want to bring up:

1) Muhammad owned slaves. Yes, he was kind to them, but the Prophet of God owned slaves.

2) The consummation of his marriage to Aisha when she was nine years old seems highly likely if the historical Muhammad existed.

As most of you know, I have been reading Muhammad and the Empires of Faith. The author’s analysis comes to the conclusion that the tradition that Muhammad married Aisha when she was six and consummated the marriage when she was nine is credible. Aside from the traditional textual analysis, it seems that this practice was actually known in Arabia at the time. In other words, it was socially normative in the milieu in which Muhammad existed. Jonathan Brown, a noted historian, and conservative Muslim, also accepts the validity of this tradition of Muhammad and Aisha’s relationship.

Where does that leave us? I am not a Muslim. I am an atheist. I think someone like Muhammad did exist, but my confidence is modest. Additionally, I’m still not sure that this tradition is accurate, and reflects reality. But, the joint probability is probably in the range of 50% in my estimation.

But, I was raised a Muslim, and I remember what we were taught about the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him. He was understood to be an exemplar of humanity. There are various reasons to be skeptical of this…he was, after all, a man of the sword as well as religion. But the fact that may have consummated his marriage with Aisha at the age of nine leaves me appalled in a very deep way.

At the time I was reading Muhammad and the Empires of Faith this very popular tweet about Joseph Smith was brought to my attention:

There are a few details that need to be fleshed out. Smith had sex with teens. He was technically an ephebophile. Second, Mormonism was not notably racist during the period of Smith’s life. Much of the racism came to the fore under Brigham Young and his successors. Also, Mormon racism was general but particularly notable against people of African ancestry (other nonwhite people were seen somewhat differently).

I think Joseph Smith is much more likely to be “canceled” than Muhammad. First, Smith lived in the 19th century. That’s much closer to us. Second, the Church of Latter-Day Saints is perceived to be white, even though most of the world’s LDS are now nonwhite. Finally, the LDS and affiliated movements have active memberships in the range of tens of millions. There are two billion Muslims.

The question of Muhammad is only interesting because it illustrates the calculus of cancellation. We know that it is unlikely there will be a Twitter hashtag #cancelMuhammad outlining his ownership of slaves, his genocide against defeated foes, in particular Jews, and, his pedophilia. In fact, I am very careful not to say stridently anti-Muslim things on Twitter, because past experience indicates that Twitter is very censorious of this. A #cancelMuhammad hashtag would probably get you canceled from the platform!

As Ezra Klein has said, questions of speech and freedom are about power. The Ummah has power, and it shall never err in consensus.

Always mind the power-level when you target someone.

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27 thoughts on “Cancel Muhammad?

  1. This could use clarification: “Also, Mormon racism was general but particular against people of African ancestry (other nonwhite people were seen somewhat differently).”

    Also, I don’t think the reason for inconsistencies in cancelling is power. Or rather, that’s not the strongest explanatory variable. Race, sex and then sexual orientation all matter more for who is cancel material.

  2. mormons expressed racism against nonwhites in a general sense. but only men of african ancestry were barred from priesthood due to what happened in heaven with satan vs jesus.

  3. Even if you could get past the deplatforming, a “cancel Mohammed” movement would just bring up the old excuse “but that‘s *their* culture”. In other words, no matter how harshly we judge people over two hundred years ago of *our* culture by modern standards, we dare not judge contemporary people of other cultures or people of the past of other cultures, since ”that’s their culture!”

    But, my usual response of “yes, and the past is a different culture” usually stops them in their tracts, and either ends the discussion or causes an insult of “racist” to be hurled.

    My other usual response is that Mohammed, in many ways, is part of our culture (or at least that’s what some on the left claimed after the September 11 attacks). So, why shouldn’t we judge him in the same way we judge Jefferson, or Washington, or Jesus?

    That usually shuts them down completely, since it directly implies that they are implicitly being racist in not judging the “non-white”.

  4. Great post. Excellent to see this argument fleshed out with the lucidity and attention to detail it deserves. As for Mormonism, my understanding is that the efforts for cancellation have been ongoing both inside and outside of that cultural community within the United States for quite some time – since the early-mid 2000s, at the very least. I’m basing my understanding on blogposts, reddit confessions, and other anecdotal sources of information, but very prominent figures within the LDS church have been discussing their ‘guilt’ and ‘coming to terms with’ their past for quite some time now, I think the early 1990s shortly after the very first PC wave hit universities being the starting point, and by the 2000s it had become somewhat of a topic of discussion in the community, at least so I’ve heard from a few Mormon friends and colleagues.

    No doubt they will cancel themselves before long; their practice of deliberate cultural isolation from mainstream America offers them some protection in the form of a ‘time lag’ whereby mainstream trends don’t filter through without some delay, but there is a massive difference between delaying something and preventing it, so presumably they’ll stay five years behind the rest of the country without doing anything substantively different, as they have been for decades.

  5. It’s very simple. Mohammed won’t be cancelled because he has Brown Privilege. His problematic behavior will be ignored due to his skin color.

    Have Post modernists critical theorists, examined the Koran to find the hidden oppression inside? I rest my case.

    Maybe one day they’ll go after Muslims. I can’t till that day because they will get their asses kicked.

  6. the irony is he wasn’t brown-skinned. the hadith traditions indicate medium height fair skin and black hair last i checked. (also, he had a big head)

  7. ScottM: «But, my usual response of “yes, and the past is a different culture” usually stops them in their tracts, and either ends the discussion or causes an insult of “racist” to be hurled.»

    I usually say that, but in the opposite way: when right-wingers start saying “We can’t judge Afonso de Albuquerque or the Father Antonio Vieira by the standards of our time!” I reply «This is the “politically correct relativist multiculturalism” that you are always complaining, only applied to time instead of to space»

  8. The funny thing is that the Cato Institute isn’t even directly named after Cato the Younger. It’s named after Cato’s Letters from the 1700s, which adopted the pseudonym Cato in honor of Cato opposing Caesar.

    It’s like canceling something named for MLK Jr because of what the original Martin Luther did.

  9. For that matter, Steinbaum himself was a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, named directly for a President who put Japanese Americans in internment camps. (Or “concentration camps” if we want to play the same linguistic games used with Trump.)

  10. Here’s my understanding:

    Aisha’s father was Abu Bakr, who was Muhammad’s successor. It was only her consummated marriage to Muhammad that gave Bakr a claim to the succession. No consummation means the Shia are correct, and Bakr was the wrong Caliph.

    I will, of course, defer to those who know more about Islamic theology than me.

  11. “The person above is a professor at a “Research 1” university. He clearly does not know that Cato was a Plebian.”

    Woke = AEIOU which is an initialism for “About Everything Ignorant & Obstinately Uninformed”.

  12. I muted Steinbaum ages ago because he’s more or less a full-time left-wing Twitter troll – Matt Bruenig without the excuse of some interesting writings elsewhere. I wasn’t super surprised that he ended up at the University of Utah economics department after the Roosevelt Institute finally got sick of him – due to weird McCarthy Era Red Scare politics in the 1950s, there’s an odd contingent of far-left economists at the U that has lingered on for decades.

  13. eh, he used the wrong word. I wouldn’t hold that against him. But he made a substantial error, assuming that socialism and democracy align.

    I say that he used the wrong word, but if he substituted “populares,” he might have paused and noticed the error, if he recognized that it was a party, rather than a hereditary caste.

  14. «I say that he used the wrong word, but if he substituted “populares,” he might have paused and noticed the error, if he recognized that it was a party, rather than a hereditary caste.»

    But it was not only a question of party names – the “optimates” where indeed in favor of a more oligarchic government and “populares” of a more democratic government.

    Indeed, if he had written “existed in order to reduce the influence of Plebians in Roman politics”, I think that he will be largely correct (and the fact the he was himself a Plebian does not necessarly refute that – there are many anti-feminist woman, for example).

  15. “But it was not only a question of party names – the “optimates” where indeed in favor of a more oligarchic government and “populares” of a more democratic government.”

    Hmm, as is quite relevant when talking of Cato and Caesar, the “populares,” who included Caesar, ultimately backed an empire instead of oligarchical democracy. That is one way that “populists” is possibly a better translation for the populares. The grain policies of the Gracchi might be compared to Thaksin in Thailand. The populares were ultimately for the little guy, yes, but it’s a stretch to say that they were more democratic.

    It’s perhaps unfair because it’s never quite accurate to compare political parties from even decades ago, but it’s clear that reason is what inspired Cato’s Letters and the naming of the Cato Institute.

  16. I say that he used the wrong word, but if he substituted “populares,” he might have paused and noticed the error, if he recognized that it was a party, rather than a hereditary caste.

    he’s an academic. it’s a sophomoric error from an academic perspective to map optimates and populares to modern-day concerns in such a manner. though i think ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’ is a good description

  17. I’ve seen different estimates of Aisha’s true age, suggesting it was somewhat higher, and nobody wanted to question the arithmetic. The real question is, why the three-year wait? The marriage was a political affair, as all were at the time. Does waiting for puberty, and thus fertility, the fundamental purpose of marriage, explain the gap?

    (A fun trivia question: What could Aisha do that Mohammed couldn’t? The answer is not “have children”– she couldn’t. It’s “read”.)

    As for the “misogynist” Mormons, let it be know that they were the first major church in America wholeheartedly to embrace women’s suffrage. Utah’s women actually voted before Wyoming’s; their election came first.

  18. “the irony is he wasn’t brown-skinned. the hadith traditions indicate medium height fair skin and black hair last i checked. (also, he had a big head)”

    It’s quite funny how Middle Easterners have been typed by both White racists and the Woke Left as part of the vaguely defined “brown” catchall racial category. And it gets positively hilarious when emphatically non-brown Middle Easterners are described as brown. For example, I’ve attended seminars where uber-Woke academics have referred to Bashar al-Assad and Khomeini as “brown bogeymen”….

    https://cdn01.dailycaller.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Bashar_al-Assad_Reuters.jpg

    https://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03528/Ayatollah-2_3528609b.jpg

  19. as a legit brown person it’s annoying, cuz arabs and iranians are quite racist against lejit brown-skinned ppl. (some of them are brown, but the self-image of arabs and iranians is white)

  20. “Also, I don’t think the reason for inconsistencies in cancelling is power. Race, sex and then sexual orientation all matter more for who is cancel material.”

    Race, sex and sexual orientation are sources of power. And in the exact opposite way that the narrative claims privilege exists.

  21. Didn’t Richard Dawkins get canceled more than a few years ago for more or less talking about Islam/Mohammed in the same fashion he talks about Christianity?

    That guy in the tweet looks like he’s what academia is now and is going to be like for the foreseeable future. I am glad I am not an academic.

  22. @ Razib

    I’m a big fan of Sean Anthony on Twitter, he’s one of a handful of Islamicists I make a point of keeping up with. Does his recent book talk much about the origin of the Qu’ran itself? My understanding of the conventional story of its origin is that Uthman established the canonical version around the 650s, but in the 690s Abd al-Malik and al-Hajjaj instituted a recension and the finished product is essentially the text we have at present.

  23. “even though most of the world’s LDS are now nonwhite.”

    Speaking of most of a denomination being nonwhite, the United Methodists were in an interesting situation. Unlike most Christian denominations, they structured their denomination on an equal basis worldwide instead of separate national churches that resulted from missionary work. The eventual result was a denomination with more Africans and Asians than North Americans (who were the original core), and the Africans and Asians were more socially conservative (opposing gay marriage). Once the North Americans realized that the Africans and Asians weren’t “modernizing” fast enough, they insisted on splitting the denomination this year. Pro gay, yes, but also smacks of colonialism and racism.

  24. The way this “Cancel Culture” stuff is getting pretty weird as it is seems like it kind of combines a lot of different facets that all sort of represent “left wing, generally heavily social media engaged types trying to change culture”, such as:

    – Popular online personality / movie director tweeted something someone trying hard finds offensive in the past, folk agitate for their removal (James Gunn)
    – Actual significant historical figure was a product of their time / had extreme views or a chequered history even for their time (but not unusual ones), folk agitate for their removal from education, public spaces, etc. (Rhodes Must Fall!)
    – Conservatives generally getting selected out from cultural or business hiearchy by tastemakers and authorities well *before* even reaching point of prominence (James Damore)
    – Scientist or intellectual actually speaks out against Woke or mainstream orthodoxy and gets literally “sent to Siberia” from academic society (James Watson and Larry Summers sort of thing)
    – Sexually abusive behaviour both quite likely to be entirely fictive (Woody Allen, Dungeons and Dragons designers), and quite likely to be real (Marion Zimmer Bradley, Samuel Delany).

    The problem with all this conflation of somewhat related phenomena is it seems to be allowing centre-left apologist pundits (the sort of Reassuring-the-flock-everything’s-under control-and-we’re-not-actually-crazy…-Really! part of the centre-left) to construct their own strawmen around what “cancelling” means, and then go on to claim the like that if anyone has any sort of speech rights remaining at all, and if anyone reports their thoughts at all, anywhere then they aren’t “cancelled” (literally courtesy Rep. Cortez), and to try to rig and distract the conversation to be actually against things like freedom of association and at will employment and other civic freedoms, instead.

    People who are concerned with these issues of Woke online mob behaviour and politicisation of academia are going to need a bit more message discipline and precision about how they define their terms.

  25. @Cancel Cult

    What’s the deal with Samuel Delany and sexual abuse? What are the most plausible accusations?

  26. A few years ago, the Finnish politician Jussi Halla-aho (now leader of the nationalist Finns Party) was convicted of blasphemy for arguing that Mohammed was a pedophile and that Islam thus is a religion that approves of pedophilia (upheld by the Finnish Supreme Court). Similarly, an Austrian woman was convicted for referring to Mohammed’s sexual acts with Aisha as pedophilia (upheld by the European Court of Human Rights). So – in Europe, at least – the cancellations seem to be going the other way.

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