Middle East studies in the News
Spengler, Spencer, Armstrong, Adonis [on Edward Said, Joseph Massad, MESA, et al.]
by Hugh Fitzgerald
"Spengler," he of the portentous pseudonym (I'm trying to choose between "Gibbon" and "Cassandra" myself) in the same article offers a silly symmetrical dismissal of the careful work of divulgation by Robert Spencer:
"The available literature on Islam consists mainly of a useless exchange of Koranic citations that show, depending on whether one is Karen Armstrong or Robert Spencer, that Islam is loving or hateful, tolerant or bigoted, peaceful or warlike, or whatever one cares to show. It is all so pointless and sophomoric; anyone can quote the Koran, or for that matter the Bible, to show whatever one wants."
These two sentences are unforgivably silly. "Spengler" purports to place on the same level the apologetic nonsense of Karen Armstrong and Robert Spencer's effort at lucid exposition of complicated texts – or texts that appear to non-Muslims to be complicated -- an effort at mass pedagogy about the doctrines of Islam that, so far, deserves only praise, and not the hideously symmetrical dismissal (along with Armstrong) that Spengler offers.
Of course Spencer is not a right-wing ogre, manufacturing or teasing-out an Islam that does not exist except in his perfervid and presumably sinister brain. Spencer himself is a perfectly sane, humorful, Western man, who happens to have studied at great length, over two decades, the texts of Islam -- Qur'an, Hadith, (those deemed authentic by the most authoritative muhaddithin, Bukhari and Muslim) and the Sira -- and to those texts has added the work of Qur'anic commentators, further supplemented by jurisconsults of the four main Sunni schools of jurisprudence, as well as the most important historians of early Islam such as Al-Tabari, later historiographers such as Ibn Khaldun, and right up to the present, the widely-disseminated handbooks of Islamic doctrine endorsed by Al-Azhar, and such popular manuals as those of Al-Qaradawi.
Muslim apologists, unable to deal with Infidels who apparently know the Islamic texts too well, offer all kinds of apologetic nonsense to distract the Infidels -- whether it be an audience of them in television-land, or an audience of hopeful innocents appearing at a mosque for one of those "Interfaith" gatherings or "dialogues" that are exercises in one-sided propaganda for Islam. There is outright lying about the faith, religiously-sanctioned Taqiyya (or its variant "Kitman"). There is the rhetorical defense of Tu Quoque (we do it, but you do it too, and even worse). There is the claim that Infidels cannot possibly have any opinion about Islam unless they know Arabic (which would imply that the 80% of the world's Muslims who are not Arabs cannot conceivably have any just opinion of Islam, though this is seldom pointed out by Infidels in reply).
And then there is another favorite: Islam is "not monolithic" and Islam "is whatever Muslims want it to be." Is Islam really just a case of this or that person showing, by Qur'anic quotation, "whatever one wants"? It is "Spengler" who apparently thinks that Armstrong relies on copious Qur'anic quotation, on those Hadith deemed "authentic," on details of the Sira that are quoted at length. In fact, Armstrong hardly quotes the Qur'an and the "authentic" Hadith (from Bukhari and Muslim), or from the Sira, at all. She refers, she summarizes. She here and there offers up the same thin gruel: Qur'an 5.32 without 5.33, the "inauthentic" Hadith, not in Bukhari or Muslim, about Muhammad returning from the "lesser Jihad" of war to the "greater Jihad" of domestic life and attempting to live the good, the Muslim, life. She has one or two other favorites – "There is no compulsion in religion" – but it's the most obvious stuff. Compare this, say, to the copious quotation, from Qur'an, Hadith, and above all Sira, supplemented by Al-Tabari and others, including those who today rely on those very same quotations to justify, perfectly appropriately, their malevolent and murderous behavior today, that is presented, laid out without very much comment of his own, by Robert Spencer. This is Spencer's main sin for Muslims, and possibly for an envious (or is it lazy, too lazy to go over the same material?) "Spengler," who apparently believes (for to be charitable one must assume he has not read) that Spencer is a mere enantiomorph of the deplorable Armstrong, or the more sinister Esposito.
For "Spengler" to dismiss all of this, and to further claim that "Islam" can be made by Armstrong and Spencer to "mean" whatever they want it to mean, is absurd. How do we know it is absurd?
We know it in two ways. We know it from the scholars of Islam, and we know it from the defectors from Islam.
From about 1870 to 1970 was the great age of Western scholarship on Islam. It had behind it many centuries of disinterested study by Western scholars, long before the age of imperialism, of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, and of Islam itself, however imperfect, given the resources and contact available. This is what Edward Said so tendentiously dismissed as a product of, and handmaid to, Western imperialism. For an unanswerable, and feline reply to Said, see Bernard Lewis's "The Question of ‘Orientalism.'" And see, as well, the article on Said by Keith Windschuttle, the recent book-length rebuttal of Said's knowledge of Western studies of Islam and the East, that is, of "Orientalism," by Robert Irwin, and the forthcoming full-scale assault, in "The Defense of the West" by Ibn Warraq, on Said for his baseless, ignorant, and semi-demented attack on the West. Said attributed to that West that need for a hostile "Other" that, in fact, is central to Islam, which divides the world uncompromisingly between Believers and Infidels. In other words, what Said accuses the West of is precisely that which the West, as Ibn Warraq so convincingly shows, has never been guilty of. Rather, it has been uniquely open, among the world's civilizations, to other peoples and beliefs and mores and customs. Said's accusations are the very things of which not the West, but Islam and its adherents are guilty.
And along with Said's baneful and inexplicable influence has come the phenomenon of his providing justification for a jobs program for Muslims and other representatives of "others." These are, presumably, immune to the putative biases of all those Western scholars, those systematically maligned "Orientalists" who need to be kept down and out, while the likes of Joseph Massad and Hamid Dabashi take over the tenured positions, and hire those just like them. The membership of the Middle Eastern Studies Association, thirty years ago 7% Muslim, is now 70% Muslim. And while the seemingly "left-wing" ideology of Said has contributed to this, so have the "contributions" – in a dollars-and-cents sense – of Saudi and other Arabs, buying up or founding whole "academic centers," and establishing chairs (the King Abdul Aziz this, the Guardians of the Two Holy Shrines that, not to mention the "Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding" and the "Center for Contemporary Arab Studies" – both Arab-funded and carefully placed right at Georgetown, the better to be near those government officials who need to be so disinterestedly influenced and instructed).
But before there was Edward Said, before there was such a disgrace as the MEALAC faculty at Columbia, before there was that output of books on everything under the sun in the MIddle East except any mention of Islam (the "Construction of Palestinian Identity" was, and remains, a favorite subject, in tutte le salse), there was a Golden Age of Orientalism. It lasted for about a century, roughly from 1860 or 1870 to 1960, or 1970. There was Ignaz Goldziher. There was Sir William Muir. There was Theodor Noldeke. There was, later on, C. Snouck Hurgronje, and Arthur Jeffery, and St. Clair Tisdall, and Henri Lammens,and Edmond Fagnan, and Samuel Zwemer. There was the incomparable Joseph Schacht. There has been Franz Rosenthal, Gustav von Grunebaum, S. D. Goitein, and even (at his best, as in "The Political Language of Islam") Bernard Lewis. For all of his failings, Lewis is much to be preferred to those who hate and fear him: the assorted hirelings, directly or indirectly, of the Arabs and Muslims, such as the smiling, jogging Esposito, and others. These consist of both Muslims (the class of Muslim apologists in academic life includes virtually every Muslim, for the mode is always defensive) and those non-Muslims who have found something that answers their emotional needs in the Belief-System of Islam. Or possibly they have convinced themselves of its wonderfulness, and are happy to present a bowdlerized version of the matter to their young and innocent charges – as with Michael Sells's comical version of the Qur'an, "The Lyrical Suras," which another professor, Carl Ernst, promoted and helped to inflict on naïve and trusting University of North Carolina students as required reading for entering freshmen, so that they could "learn about Islam."
The reason for this seeming digression into the history of Orientalism, and attacks on it, is to remind readers that all of those great scholars of Islam came to conclusions about the subject that were far closer to those of Robert Spencer, and had nothing to do with those of Karen Armstrong. Indeed, in many cases they said, in ways not aimed at a wide popular audience, as Spencer does, the very same things he says. Or rather, Spencer allows Muslims themselves to set these things out -- for whenever he can he simply lets them do the explaining. No Western writer on Islam has been more intelligently self-effacing, allowing the texts and the Muslim commentators to speak for themselves. These scholars would not have found what Spencer does, for the audience he seeks, in the dangerous time and imperiled place, in which we, Infidels all, find ourselves. Snouck Hurgronje's studies, or those of Joseph Schacht, were meant for the learned, fellow members of a small society of students of Islam. Spencer has quite a different audience in mind, and that helps to explain why he cannot permit himself curlicues of style, but favors instead a plain dunstable prose for exposition -- which, it turns out (and I have reason to know) is the most appropriate for the task of divulgation at hand. Furthermore, the amount of space that a Snouck Hurgronje could take is today, when one is trying merely to get people to read books, and in which nuances of every kind can be elaborated upon, an inconceivable luxury. Spencer is not quite Joe Friday's "Just the facts, ma'am," for he understands that the texts must be supplemented by what commentators wrote about those texts, but he aims for a certain directness and simplicity. But no one should be fooled, as "Spengler" has apparently allowed himself to be fooled, into thinking that Arthur Jeffery, or Henri Lammens, or St. Clair Tisdall, or Samuel Zwemer, would find fault in the slightest with the presentation of Islam to be found in Spencer's books.
And there is one other endorsement, a collective one, of Spencer's work of which "Spengler" is apparently unaware. That is the endorsement of all those who, having been born into Islam, and having been raised up in Islam, in families and societies and usually, countries suffused with Islam, have mentally struggled to find their way out, and have managed to do so, and are now apostates. What do you think Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan and Nonie Darwish and Azam Kamguian and Ali Sina and thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of others who have become defectors from the army of Islam, the Camp of Islam, think of Robert Spencer's work? Do you think they, any of them, would think he has presented a false view, has simply plucked from the air a quotation here, and another there, and stitched them together to make, as "Spengler" charges, merely his own contribution to some silly back-and-forth rhetorical posturing by assorted know-nothings, each engaged in the same kind of "useless exchange of Koranic citations" which, according to "Spengler," is all that the work of Spencer amounts to?
Someone here has been "sophomoric." And someone, the same someone, has been essentially "pointless" – especially in his apparent use of a few quotes from Adonis. In a March 11, 2006 interview, Adonis locates the Arab paralysis, the Arab hopelessness, the Arab lack of cultural achievement, the Arab penchant for despotism, in something to do with the fact of being an "Arab" and, vaguely, the "wrong" use of religion, but never about Islam. Yet within the year, in a different interview, on November 26, 2006, Adonis is now willing to begin to discuss Islam. And what he said in that second interview is far more telling than the earlier one that "Spengler" relies on to provide so much insight – hold the Islam – into the moribund state of Arab culture, Arab intellectual life, Arab anything at all.
Here is that interview:
Following are excerpts from an interview with Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar), which aired on ANB TV on November 26, 2006.
So Adonis apparently does not agree with "Spengler" that Islam is "whatever anyone wishes to make it." He does not agree that Spencer is playing merely some cheap game of selective quotation, and that all can play this same game with the same "sophomoric" and "meaningless" results. Adonis is saying something else: that Muslims today [and we can add: Muslims yesterday] have "an accepted interpretation [of the religious text]" and that they are the ones damaging Islam by refusing to, or perhaps -- this Adonis does not dare to concede -- being unable to consider a different interpretation of Islam from the one that is, and has always, been generally accepted. For whatever the differences between Sunni and Shi'a, and whatever the differences between the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, and whatever other minor differences there may be in outward and visible forms of worship, all Muslims share the same basic attitude toward the world.
This is one of submission to Islam and to Allah. It is one of unquestioning acceptance of the desirability, the need, to accept the expressed will of Allah. No further appeal to reason or consistency is necessary. All share the same notion that the only division that counts in the world is that between Believer and Infidel, and between the two there can only be a permanent and uncompromsing state of war, sometimes leading to open warfare, and more often – especially when Muslims sense that they are too weak – to the use of instruments of Jihad to spread Islam, such as the money weapon, campaigns of Da'wa, and demographic conquest. The latter tactics have proven in recent decades far more effective in spreading Islam than has the instrument of terrorism.
Not only does Adonis not suggest -- far from it -- that Islam is or can be "whatever anyone says it is." Rather, it is clear that, despite his fears of directly discussing Islam itself as the reason for the political, economic, social, moral, and intellectual failures of Islam, he has come as close as any well-known Muslim, not an apostate, has managed to do. And he further suggests that the only way there will be a way out will be not through Muslim apologetics and continued blindness, but through the intelligent scrutinty and discussion offered by non-Muslims unafraid to study the religion and subject it to critical scrutiny: "those who criticize the Muslims -- the non-believers, the infidels, as they call them -- are the ones who perceive in Islam the vitality that could adapt it to life. These infidels serve Islam better than the believers."
I think this is correct, though I would phrase it differently. It is not that the Infidel critics necessarily "perceive in Islam" a "vitality" that "could adapt it to life," but that they keep appealing, openly, to Muslims to take the first step by ceasing to refuse to recognize the nature of Islam, the "accepted interpretation of Islam" (as Adonis puts it), and to criticize it. And, adds Adonis, it is these keen Infidel critics who, in their attempt both to alert Infidels as to what Islam is all about, and in turn to make it harder, through their own efforts and those of other Infidels whom they help to educate about Islam, for Muslims themselves to continue to avoid locating the source of their failures in Islam itself.
Perhaps in reading this description "Spengler" would have difficulty recognizing a description of Spencer and other Infidel students who do not hesitate to lay out its doctrines -- but then, perhaps, it is only some parts of Adonis, and not others, that "Spengler" wishes to hold up for our inspection and instruction.
Let me state that one more time, more directly, so that even a "Spengler" relying on a few quotes from Adonis can understand: the political, economic, social, moral, and intellectual failures of Arab and other Muslim societies is directly related to Islam. That has to be understood by the Western world, the world of intelligent Infidels. And if the Infidels understand that, they will be in a better position to force Muslims to realize that they are no longer able to avoid or evade the matter, and to help them slowly arrive at the same conclusion themselves.
And in the campaign of mass divulgation that is being pursued by a handful of people in the West, no one has, so far, done more to make Infidels aware of what Islam teaches -- and not by selective quotation but by the presentation of passages, and commentaries, that both the great scholars of Islam of the past, and the celebrated apostates from Islam of the present, would recognize and fully agree with -- than Robert Spencer.
Someone in this whole brouhaha has indeed been "sophomoric" in his easy and ill-informed dismissal. And though his name is, orthographically, confusingly close, that someone is not Robert Spencer.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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