Friday, February 13, 2009

Islam reconfigured

For many of us the events of 9/11/2001 served to concentrate the mind on the problem of Islam.. As an art historian with an affinity with abstract art, I had long been attracted to Islamic art and architecture. I possess many handsome books on these subjects, which I often consult for the pleasure of their illustrations. However that may be, the Islamic question is not primarily one of aesthetics.

Prior to the last decade I had accepted the conventional view of the origins of the Islamic religion, namely that it arose in the full light of history in the seventh century CE, equipped from the start with a very clear set of doctrines. Of course I was aware of the Sunni/Shia split, but had not paused to reflect on the further ramifications (which, of course, our disastrous invasion of Iraq had brought into clearer focus). At all events, perusing some of the more probing recent studies has made me question much of this conventional wisdom.

More generally, it seems to me that there are two problems with Islam. The first has to do with the concern that growing Muslim populations in Western Europe will erode the traditions of tolerance and liberalism that have won at great cost there over the centuries. I will not seek to assess this present-minded literature here.

The second problem has to do with the nature of Islam, the character it assumed at the time of its formation and in the course of the first conquests in the Middle East.

Responses to this question belong to two factions, which I tentatively dub the Rodney King School (he of “can’t we all just get along”); and the I’m from Missouri School, which challenges the claim that Islam is fundamentally a religion of peace and tolerance. Members of the first school run the risk of being dubbed cheer-leaders and naive apologists, while those of the latter persuasion can seem grim, prosecutorial, and relentless. As we shall see, the latter group is also commonly termed “right-wing.”

By common consent, the dean of the pro-Islamic faction is John (Louis) Esposito (born 1940), who is a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, where he is also the director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Esposito also works as a Senior Scientist at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, where he co-authored “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” published in March 2008. His establishment status has been confirmed by his service as editor-in-chief of a number of Oxford University Press reference works, including "The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World," "The Oxford History of Islam,” “The Oxford Dictionary of Islam,” and the five-volume “Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.”

Critics allege that Esposito’s career tracks Edward Said’s ideas, as seen in the fashionable, but highly flawed book “Orientalism” of 1978. Disregarding recent critical scholarship, Esposito swallows whole the official account of the origins of Islam, even though many of its claims cannot possibly be true. He also tends to construe the nature of Islam as peaceful, tolerant, malleable, and accommodating, downplaying many textual and historical evidences to the contrary. He believes that Western fears of Islamic extremism and terrorism are exaggerated. For example, Esposito claimed in 2001 that "focusing on Usama bin Laden risks catapulting one of the many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources and the relevance of one man." His overall vision is one of cooperation and even fusion of Islam and the West.

Esposito’s polar opposite is Bat Ye’or (Hebrew for “daughter of the Nile”), the nom de plume of Gisèle Littman, née Orebi, a British independent scholar. Born in Cairo into a middle-class Jewish family, she and her parents were forced to leave Egypt in 1957 after the Suez Canal War, arriving in London as stateless refugees. She attended University College, London, and the University of Geneva. There is no doubt that her difficult personal narrative, and her grief at the destruction of the venerable Jewish community in Egypt, have shaped her point of view.

In 1971 she published her first historical study (writing under the Arabic pen name. "Yahudiya Masriya," meaning "Egyptian Jewish woman"), “The Jews of Egypt,” in which she chronicled the history of the Jewish community in Egypt.

Bat Ye’or is best known for two coinages: “dhimmitude” and “Eurabia.” In a series of books beginning in 1980 she provided extensive documentation of the theological and legal texts regulating the state of inferiority to which non-Muslims have been relentlessly subjected in Islamic lands. These facts incontrovertibly expose the fable of Islamic tolerance as just that.

Bat Ye'or has characterized dhimmitude as the "state of fear and insecurity" that is the lot of non-Muslims in Islamic countries, who are labeled infidels and required to "accept a condition of humiliation." She holds that "the dhimmi condition can only be understood in the context of Jihad." The jihad policy, she argues, "was fomented around the 8th century by Muslim theologians after the death of Muhammad and led to the conquest of large swathes of three continents over the course of a long history." She states: “Dhimmitude is the direct consequence of jihad. It embodie[s] all the Islamic laws and customs applied over a millennium on the vanquished population, Jews and Christians, living in the countries conquered by jihad and therefore Islamized. [We can observe a] return of the jihad ideology since the 1960s, and of some dhimmitude practices in Muslim countries applying the sharia law, or inspired by it. I stress ... the incompatibility between the concept . . . expressed by the jihad-dhimmitude ideology, and the concept of human rights based on the equality of all human beings and the inalienability of their rights.” In this way, Bat Ye’or views jihad and dhimmitude as complementary and inseparable.

While the historical record is clear, many would question her claim that there is a serious danger of Muslim clerics and their supporters imposing dhimmitude on Western Europe today. Bat Ye’or’s recent book “Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis” explored the history of the relationship from the 1970s onwards between the European Union and the Arab states, tracing what she saw as connections between radical Arabs and Muslims, on the one hand, and fascists, socialists, and neo-Nazis, on the other, in what she perceives as a growing influence of Islam over European culture and politics. While she did not invent the term “Eurabia,” she has popularized it as part of her campaign to raise the alarm about growing Islamization (as she sees it) in Europe.

Among those who have aligned themselves with Bat Ye’or are the historian Robert Spencer; the gay scholar and activist Bruce Bawer; Steven Emerson (author of “Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the US”); the late Italian journalist Orianna Fallaci; and, most imposingly, Ibn Warraq, who has written and edited a number of probing volumes on the history and nature of Islam. I strongly recommend the books of Ibn Warraq, whom it was my pleasure to hear speak recently at Columbia University

Moorish Spain is a venerable touchstone of the “romance of Islam.” This rosy view informs a new book by David Levering Lewis “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215.” Lewis has been previously known mainly as the biographer of the black leader W.E.B. Dubois and a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance. The historical background of the culture extolled by Lewis may be briefly stated. Beginning in 636 CE the Arab armies marched against the Eastern Empire of Byzantium, and shortly thereafter against the Persian Empire, which they annihilated. After other Muslim conquests had crested, Tariq ibn-Ziyad guided his small but highly disciplined force to land at Gibraltar in 711. Western Europe seemed doomed to fall under the Islamic yoke--to be reduced, in short, to dhimmitude. And indeed most of Visigothic Spain (renamed al-Andalus) fell to the invaders. Yet when they sought to extend their dominion into France, the Moorish armies were defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in 732.

Despite this repulse, Lewis insists that the Islamic culture of al-Andalus decisively shaped that of Western Europe, very much for the better. In fact, David Levering Lewis has attempted something very ambitious: an alternative history of medieval Europe. While Charles Martel and Charlemagne figure as founders of the oppressive class structure of feudalism, Abd al-Rahman emerges as the ruler of a tolerant, multiethnic realm which mentored Europe’s intellectual flowering in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

While such raptures may seem extreme, they mesh with a current trend to hail Muslim Spain as the domain of “convivencia,” a Spanish word that Lewis glosses as the “cultural and civic collaboration among Muslims, Jews and Christians in al-Andalus.” Again we hear the old refrain of “Islamic tolerance.” In reality, Christians and Jews were required to pay a special tax or jizya. Other religions, such as that of the pagans surviving in remote areas, were not allowed at all.

And of course “convivencia,” such as it was, did not last. The warlord known as al-Mansur marched against the surviving Christian enclaves, sacking the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in 997. The Christian Reconquista, which eventually ensued, was a response to the violent Islamic implementation of jihad. In the meantime, of course, al-Andalus had fallen victim to the Islamic fundamentalist regimes of the Almoravids and Almohads.

Truncating this later history, which is inconvenient to his purpose, Lewis makes bold to compare the brief Moorish “Golden Age” to Christian Europe. “The new Carolingian order,” he writes, “was religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive. Measured by these same vectors of religion, culture, class and prosperity, Abd al-Rahman’s Muslim Iberia was at least four centuries more advanced than Western Christendom in 800 CE.”

Then why did it fall behind? This problem is a subset of the larger issue of Islamic decline by comparison with a supposedly far-inferior Christian Europe. As I have noted in a previous posting, this is a pseudo-problem, induced by Wunschbilder of Islam’s splendor, combined with unwarranted disparagement of the genuine accomplishments of medieval Europe.

Still, Lewis is enthralled by his counterfactual fantasy that Europe’s fate would have been a better one had the Moors triumphed at Tours/Poitiers in 732. In his view, the actual outcome was a sad portent, whereby “the peoples of the West were obliged to accept the governance, protection, exploitation, and militant creed of a warrior class and clerical enforcers, an overlordship sustained by a powerful military machine and an omnipresent ecclesiastical apparatus. The European shape of things to come was set for dismal centuries following one upon the other until the Commercial Revolution and the Enlightenment molded new contours.”

This conclusion is wildly overstated. The concept of feudalism has been subjected to keen analysis by historians. It is not unproblematic. To the extent that the notion of feudalism is valid, the institution may be detected in many cultures, from medieval Japan to contemporary Islamic states themselves. Surely Lewis is not trying to maintain that contemporary Islamic feudalism is an import from the West.

Medieval Western Europe was much more vibrant and creative than Lewis admits. Despite the supposedly crushing hegemony of “feudalism,” it was Western Europe that created the basis for a civil society that is governed by a balance of powers and the rule of law. Where is the Islamic equivalent of the Magna Carta of 1215? Of course there is none. Arab states today are still struggling to escape the burden of tyranny. Despite a considerable program of translations from Greek, Aristotle’s “Politics” was never rendered into Arabic until modern times. This neglect is unfortunate, as that foundational text would definitely have helped.

Quite soon Western technology took the lead, entering into paths where Islam could not follow. As late at the 17th century, as Bernard Lewis (no relation to David Levering Lewis) has noted, Muslims were puzzled by Western mechanical clocks. They saw no need for such devices. In fact, as historians of technology such as Jean Gimpel and Lynn Whyte have shown, the achievements of medieval mechanics are the indispensable precursors of the Industrial Revolution.

Eyeglasses were invented in Venice about 1300 CE. This discovery created the basis for two further inventions: the telescope and the microscope. We owe them much of our knowledge about the cosmos. These creations were not bequeathed us by Islam.

The antidote to Lewis’ fantasies has now appeared. It is a brilliant French-language book by Sylvain Gouguenheim, “Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne” (Paris, Seuil, 2008). A professor at Lyon, Gouguenheim directly confronts the hoary cliché of an enlightened Islam, transmitting westward the knowledge of the ancient Greeks through Arab translators and opening the path in Europe to mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and philosophy. "This thesis has basically nothing scandalous about it, if it were true," Gouguenheim writes. "In spite of the appearances, it has more to do with taking ideological sides than scientific analysis."

His book boldly challenges the notion that we in the West owe a vast debt to the “Arabo-Muslim world” dating from the year 750. This claim ascribes to Islam an essential part of Europe’s identity. (While the view is currently fashionable, as we have seen with Lewis’ book, it has roots that go back to the 18th-century Enlightenment, when the idea was floated as a device for the disparagement of Christianity.)

Rejecting the broader claim that there is an ongoing clash of civilizations, Gouguenheim holds that Islam was impermeable to much of Greek thought, By and large Arabs never learned Greek, utilizing translations that were mostly the work of Arabic-speaking Syrian Christians. With refreshing and convincing originality, the French scholar demonstrates that a wave of translations of Aristotle began at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in France fifty years before the Latin versions of the same texts appeared in Moorish Spain. These renderings were conducted under the leadership of James of Venice, an accomplished Greek scholar.

Gouguenheim attacks the thesis of the West's indebtedness advanced by such historians as Edward Said, Alain de Libera, and Mohammed Arkoun. He says that it replaces formerly dominant notions of cultural superiority professed by Western orientalists with "a new ethnocentrism, oriental this time" that sets off an "enlightened, refined, and spiritual Islam" against a brutal West.

At the hands of our own apologists of Islam, contemporary Europe has been plunged into a sea of self-denigration. Yet as another writer (E. de Brague) notes, “curiosity about the Other is a typically European attitude, rare outside of Europe, and exceptional in Islam.”

Gouguenheim also exposes the falsity of the legend of the “great Islamic universities” of the Middle Ages. He notes that the scope of the Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, said to be created by the Abassids in the 9th century, was limited to the study of Koranic studies, excluding philosophy, physics and mathematics, as understood in the speculative context of Greek thought.

He asserts that much of Aristotle's work was disregarded or unknown to the Muslim world, being basically incompatible with the Koran. Europeans, he says, "became aware of the Greek texts because they went hunting for them, not because they were brought to them."

Gouguenheim terms the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, where the Hellenic texts were translated into Latin, "the missing link in the passage from the Greek to the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy." Apart from a few exceptional thinkers--Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Abu Ma'shar, and Averroes--Gougenheim avers that the "masters of the Middle East" retained from Greek teaching only what did not contradict Koranic doctrine.

Needless to say, Gouguenheim’s arguments do not sit well with Western enthusiasts for Islam, who accuse him of right-wing leanings. His appendix, however, preemptively blunts that accusation. He offers his book as an antidote to the approach to Islam's medieval relations to the West exemplified by the late Sigrid Hunke, a German polemicist, who has been described as a former Nazi and friend of Heinrich Himmler. Fawningly, Hunke evokes a pioneering, civilizing Islam to which "the West owes everything." In his telling analysis, Gouguenheim asserts that her slapdash work from the 1960s continues as a hidden reference point that unfortunately still "shapes the spirit of the moment."

As with Bat Ye’or’s findings, an effort is being made to reject Gouguenheim’s book because it supposedly aids the Right. Instead of hurling such ad feminam/ad hominem charges, these critics need to look more carefully at the evidence. Are these two insurgent scholars right? My considered conclusion is that in the main they are.



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