Saturday, August 13, 2016

Origins of Islam: new scholarship

As with adherents of other religions, pious Muslims naturally experience a desire to cleave to the exemplary beliefs and practices that had characterized the faith at its very start.  In principle this adhesion should not be difficult  In a famous statement, Ernest Renan wrote in 1851 that, unlike the other major religions, the faith founded by Muhammad "was born in the full light of history" ("L'islam naît en pleine histoire.").
There is of course a standard narrative of the life of the Prophet: birth ca. 570 CE in Mecca; marriage and successful career as a merchant; first revelation in 610; flight to Medina in 622; triumphant return to Mecca in 630; death in 632. In Muslim-majority countries this narrative is taken as a matter of course: that is simply the way things were, and fidelity to this era and its precepts offers a sure guide for all significant aspects of Muslim conduct.  The account is echoed by prominent Western scholars such as John Esposito and Karen Armstrong.
Yet on closer inspection matters are not so simple. First, the seemingly copious documentation about Muhammad stems from much later Arabic texts - chiefly collections of the prophet's sayings and doings found in the Ahadith, and biographies that make up what is called the Sira - the earliest of which date from a century and a half after his death in 632. This long lapse of time left much room for embroidery, as well as omissions.  External considerations were not absent, for the Arabic texts emerged from a climate of intense partisan quarrels over the prophet's life and his succession. 
Moreover, the earlier sources on the prophet's life that do survive are not in accord with the standard narrative outlined above. Typically, these are texts in languages other than Arabic (such as Armenian, Greek, and Syriac).  There are also material remains, such as papyri, inscriptions (such as those found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem), and coins). Although the problematic status of the Arabic literary sources has been evident for at least a century, only recently have scholars begun to explore its full implications, aided by the historical critical method long in use among scholars of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  The godfather of this approach in Islamic studies is John Wansbrough (1928 –2002), an American historian who taught in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies. 
He caused a furor when his research on early Islamic manuscripts, including the analysis of the deployment of monotheistic Jude0-Christian imagery found in the Qur’an led him to conclude that the rise of Islam constituted a mutation of what was originally a Christian sect seeking to spread in Arab lands. As time evolved the Judeo-Christian scriptures were adapted to an Arab perspective and mutated into what became the Qur'an which was developed over several centuries with infusions from various Arab tribal sources. Wansbrough's research suggests that a great deal of the traditional history of Islam was little more that a fabrication of later generations seeking to forge and justify a unique religious identity. 
In the spirit of "interesting if true," the critics in Wansborough’s wake have approached the Arabic written sources with skepticism, some concluding that these are a form of "salvation history" - self-serving, unreliable accounts devised by later generations of the faithful, not companions of the Prophet.
The great mass of traditional documents, so revisionist scholars find, requires constant challenge.  Patricia Crone holds that the key features of Muhammad's career took place not in Mecca but hundreds of miles to the north. Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren hold that the classical Arabic language was developed not in the territory of today's Saudi Arabia, but in the Syriac sphere of the Levant, reaching Arabia only through the military incursions of the Arabs.
Most broadly, "there was no Islam as we know it" until two or three hundred years after the traditional version has it (more like CE 830 than 630); it developed not in the distant deserts of Arabia but through the interaction of Arab conquerors and their more civilized subject peoples. A few scholars even  doubt the very existence of Muhammad - a view that probably goes too far.
Recent scholarship, much of it German, has continued this critical endeavor.  Günter Lüling’s highly technical work of 1974 (A Challenge to Islam for Reformation, Eng. trans., 2003 ) observes the likelihood that the original text, following general Semitic practice, had no vowels. Later editors in supplying pointing often made wrong choices.  Let us suppose that in an all-consonant English text one had written btr, intending to mean better, but the editor read it as butter. This analysis, Lüling believes, affords the discovery of a pre-Islamic (Christian) substratum underlying the Qur’an as we know it.
A similar approach, detecting a Syriac lectionary as the basis of the Qur’an has been pursued by the flamboyant Christoph Luxenberg, best known for his assertion that the “virgins” offered the faithful in paradise are actually white raisins.

For his part, Luxenberg is associated with the INARAH group headed by Markus Gross and Karl-Heinz Ohlig.  This group has produced six hefty anthologies, of which two have been translated into English.  The findings of the INARAH group may be summarized as follows: 1)  Islam originated as a sect of Christianity.  2) Its central theological tenets stem from a pre-Nicene, Syrian Christianity.  3)  The lingua franca of the  Middle East at the time, Aramaic, significantly influenced the Arabic of the Qur’an with regard to vocabulary, phraseology and script.  4)  Finally, it was not until the end of the eighth and ninth century that Islam emerged as a separate religion.  For it part the Qur’an experienced a period of historical development and reshaping that lasted for some 200 years.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016


A hundred years ago a British author of East European Jewish origin, Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), coined a phrase that was long to remain resonant in this country. The expression stemmed from his play “The Melting Pot,” which enjoyed great success in the United States in 1909-10 Among others, Theodore Roosevelt was a great admirer of the play, which found a counterpart in his decrying of the concept of the “hyphenated American.”
Of course the metaphor of the melting pot captures the content of the more prosaic notion of assimilation. In nineteenth-century America immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany assimilated very easily; the Irish a little less so. Since Americans place such emphasis on an individual’s outward appearance, blacks and Asians proved problematic: they were”unmeltable.”
Nonetheless, the assimilation model remained popular. In the 1960s, however, it was challenged by increasing evidence of a countermovement - termed “deassimilation” by the sociologist Stephen Murray. In due course, Hispanics, feminist women, and LGBT people began to deassimilate.
Recently the deassimilation process, abetted by multiculturalism, has yielded a new slogan, that of “intersectionality,” which asserts that the new tribes (if I may use the expression) need not subsist in separate enclaves but can join together in a common enterprise, assured we are told by the prospect that white people will become a minority in this country by 2055.
In this process of tribalization, it should surprise no one that nonelite whites should now be coalescing into their own tribe. In this light, the denunciations of Donald Trump as an irresponsible demagogue, a sociopath, or a child who has never grown up will prove futile, for when he goes he will leave behind a large disaffected segment of the population - not unlike, to reach for a remote comparison, the Huguenot minority in France before the revocation of the edict of Nantes. In all this, there is great latitude for discord.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Islam and same-sex love

Sunday, May 22, 2016

My journey

Forty years ago, I appeared (at least in the eyes of some) to have "jumped ship," abandoning the field in which I had been trained - art history - in favor of immersion in the new, struggling field of gay studies (as it was then called). In reality I did not abandon art history but continued to teach it (with generally full classes). In addition, I am finally bringing to conclusion my experiences in my home field in my book The History of Art History (not a history of art, but of the discipline itself). It will be in two volumes, each of about 600 pages.

I am glad that I stuck with this original commitment, because my experiences in what is now sometimes termed gender studies have not always been gratifying. I began in 1973 by joining the fledging Gay Academic Union, which I believed had two tasks: removing the legal and social barriers to our equality; and through research obtaining a better understanding of the phenomenon of same-sex love.

I soon found that I was more suited for the second task than the first. Progress - and I am not sure, even now, that one can call it that - was hampered by what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called the Adventures of the Dialectic, the constantly changing definitions of the goals of the field.

The seventies was a period of considerable ebullition, with some assuming that revolution was at hand. I never thought this, but I recognized that a form of neo-Marxism was in vogue and that it was embraced, fruitfully or not, by some of my leading gay and lesbian activist/scholar colleagues. That was the first twist of the dialectic, soon followed by the Social Construction trend, which alleged, in its pure form, that there were no homosexuals before ca. 1870. Others saw our best hope in enrolling under the banner of radical feminism.

There were many other twists and turns which I won't attempt to chronicle here. Yet the story is one of extreme volatility in which a finding or position could be initially hailed as positive or innovative - and shortly thereafter dismissed as hopelessly dated and reactionary.
There were also reversions to earlier enthusiasms, as in the current demand for intersectionality, the linkage of LGBT concerns with other identitarian ones. This had been, forty years ago, the program of the Gay Liberation Front, which sought to make common cause with radical feminists, the Black Panthers, and Hispanic groups.

So I look back with some skepticism, but not entirely because all told it has been a fascinating journey.


Some gay men are known for having a multiplicity of sexual partners. Yet there is no generic term for this kind of person. Straights do much better. There are three, derived from personal names, for heterosexual womanizers: Casanova, Don Juan, and Lothario.

Casanova (1725 – 1798) was a real person, best documented via his Memoirs (Histoire de ma vie), just published in a sumptuous new edition in France.

Don Juan (Tenorio) is a legendary figure who may never have existed; he first appears in a 1630 play by Tirso de Molina, "El Burlador de Sevilla."

Lothario, originally a Florentine, figures in a story, "El Curioso Impertinente," embedded in Cervantes' Don Quixote. The character takes on fuller form in a 1703 play by the Englishman Nicholas Rowe.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Trans matters

Venturing onto any territory classifiable as a trans issue is to risk contact with the third rail of current discourse. For what it is worth, my own view is a kind of Sartrean sense that we should all be free to realize our authenticity in the way we deem best. If that quest involves body modification - or simply departure from conventional expectations - so be it.

That said. it does seem that there are two fundamental views in this realm. The first welcomes gender fluidity as a gift of reason and freedom - to us all and to society as a whole. The second view, espoused by many trans people themselves, is that early on they were subjected to a misapplication of the gender binary. Now they are seeking to affirm the gender that is properly theirs. They do not see themselves as espousing gender fluidity as such, though, if it provides an arena for their self-affirmation, that is good.

Monday, April 11, 2016

My credo

Now that I have reengaged with the Sartrean existentialism I once felt so vividly, let me try to state, in the simplest terms, its tenets.

1} We must strive with all our might to create ourselves according to our inmost necessity, never acceding to the subordinate status of being mere reflections of the thoughts, pressures, and aspirations of others; 

2) By the same token, we must acknowledge that this endeavor cannot be accomplished in a vacuum, for we constantly find ourselves in a situation, a set of external circumstances that surround and condition our valorous effort at self-fashioning; 

3) Combining these two imperatives leads to a third, the necessity for engagement, commitment to a cause or causes which we have reason to believe will make the world a better place.  Needless to  say, one must give careful consideration to the cause that one selects.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


Since I read Sarah Bakewell's brilliant book "At the Existentialist Cafe," I have made a renewed attempt - the third or fourth over the course of as many decades - to come to terms with the vast oeuvre of Jean-Paul Sartre. Despite the disdain shown by some, including Analytic philosophers unprepared to grapple with his magnum opus "Being and Nothingness," Sartre without question ranks internationally as the most influential intellectual of the 20th century.

He was massively active in a number of fields: fiction, the theater, literary and artistic criticism, political commentary, and philosophy. Nonetheless, his reputation declined after his death in 1980. This decline reflected disillusionment with his seeming dalliance with Stalinism, a fault especially glaring after 1991; his tendency to make provocative judgments which he then had to correct (or should have corrected); and the appalling style of some of his later works, so much in contrast with the careful crafting of his Nausea (a short novel), The Wall (short stories), and No Exit (one of six or seven plays).

A graphomane, he ground out the later works under the influence of opiates and alcohol. Yet now, as often happens, Sartre's reputation is reviving. Perhaps the most important aspect of this recuperation lies in his tireless defense (equalling that of Voltaire) of the downtrodden and dispossessed, especially people of color. With rising inequality both within and between societies today, these interventions seem very timely - though of course some of the details have not held up. His critique of anti-Semitism, though challenged in some respects, was courageous and innovative. Likewise the rare but generally sympathetic comments about homosexuals. Not to be forgotten is his close partnership with Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminism he encouraged.

I continue to struggle with my ambivalence, inflected by great admiration, with regard to J-P Sartre. As far as I know there is no comprehensive account of the fluctuations of his reputation since his death 35 years ago. At this distance, the dialogue is hard to trace as much of it is in periodicals.

Still, there seem to be three main areas of contention: 1) the record of Sartre and de Beauvoir in WWII, which was less sterling and more procrastinating than later accounts often have it; 2) his tendency to excuse Communist and third-world dictatorships as somehow the party of humanity (very late, he partially recanted); and 3) his tortured effort to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in the two ultraturgid volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason.