Monday, April 30, 2007

Onward atheist soldiers?

The photographs of the last rites held for the first president of Russia are telling. The funeral was held in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a Moscow landmark Stalin tore down and Yeltsin ordered restored. Clearly, religion performs a host of functions that the world of unbelief cannot address, among them symbolism, tradition, social solidarity, solace, and collective memory.

Outsiders (and many theologians as well) hold that the core of religion lies in dogmas and belief systems. This is wrong, for the essence of religion is collective enactment. As Dean Inge once said, it is more about walking than talking.

Once the domain of state-sponsored atheism, Russia is now seeing the resurgence of its opposite. Can religion act as a brake on Putin’s growing arrogation of power? Not very much. But we know that Marxism would have offered no hindrance at all.

Yeltsin’s funeral is significant for another reason. His abolition of the Soviet Union inadvertently gave the signal for a revival of militant atheism in the West. How so? Memories are short, and sixteen years after the Russian president took his historic step, people have begun to forget about the crimes committed by the atheists Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot
All the recent authors of best-selling atheist books skirt this issue. In his The End of Faith Sam Harris treats it—very cursorily—only in an Appendix prepared for the paperback edition of his book. Here he confuses the matter by prefacing Hitler to the quartet of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-Il. The latter four are Marxists; Hitler was not. According to Harris all of them are to be tarred with the same brush as organized religion because they are "not rational." Anyone who has tried to struggle through the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital knows that the approach is a rational one. An indefatigable researcher at the British Museum, the author cites numerous facts culled from reliable sources, using them as support for his general propositions. One need not agree with Marx to find that his approach is rational and not mystical. Moreover, having been brought up a Christian, Marx arrived at his atheism by rational means. Harris is engaging in special pleading here.

Like the other writers Harris makes a consequentialist argument. Consequentialism is the view that all actions are right or wrong in virtue of the value of their consequences. We know that religion is bad because so much violence and suffering have been done in its name. It would follow, then, that abolition of religion would automatically produce a reduction of violence and suffering. Yet that conclusion has been falsified by the state-sponsored atheism of Eurasia. To suppress this damning falsification is intellectually dishonest.

Daniel C. Dennett displays at least some inkling of this problem when he notes that vigorous state promotion of atheism backfired in the Soviet Union. "The rebound of religion in post-USSR Russia suggests that religion has roles to play and resources unheard of by this simple vision." But that is that. Dennett does not deal with the consequentialist aspect of Communist atheism. If we are to dismiss religion because it has been implicated in violence and repression, why should we not dismiss atheism because it too has been so implicated? What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The Soviet model of state-sponsored atheism had at least one thing going for it. With its group indoctrination and museums of atheism, it promoted social solidarity. People could unite under this banner. Yet our new advocates of atheism stress that they are against coercion. Adopting atheism is a purely private matter. This cognitive isolationism may be fine for intellectuals, but for many people it is a recipe for anomie. This is another consequence that remains unexplored.

Harris began his book on September 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This timing must account for the special attention he reserves for Islam. Even with regard to contemporary events, his scholarship does not run very deep. He holds that suicide bombing and the ideas that sustain it are uniquely Islamic. This ignores the role of one of the principal Palestinian extremists, the Christian George Habash. He also forgets a point he had touched upon in the second footnote of his book, the activities of the Tamil Tigers (who were, though he does not say so, the inventors of the invidious technique of blowing oneself up in order to kill others).

Like the other authors, by "religion" Harris usually means the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (To be sure, he does seem to have some acquaintance with, and sympathy for Buddhism, but this feature only crops up in awkward excursion the towards the end of his book.)

All the writers suffer from the Three-Ring Syndrome. I am referring to the parable of the three rings (standing for the three Abrahamic religions) that figures in Gotthold Lessing’s 1779 play, "Nathan the Wise." The three rings are equally imbued with wisdom. But there are no others. Students of comparative religion have identified some 5000 religions in the world. Most of them are characterized by polytheism. Enlightened followers of polytheistic recognize the kinship of all such faiths. It was for this reason that the ancient Romans found that their Mercury was equivalent to the Hermes of the Greeks, their Venus to Aphrodite. Similarly, many ancient Egyptians came to recognize that Thoth and Isis were their own equivalents. Such procedures (known technically as interpretatio) tend to discourage the idea that truth is to found exclusively in one religion.

In short, monotheistic intolerance should not be projected on the rest of the world’s faiths. To be sure, many of the others have their own shortcomings. The Hindu concept of caste strikes me as deplorable. The point, though, is that these shortcomings are not the same as those of the Abrahamic triad, which Dawkins, Harris and Co. tend to regard as all that religion has to offer. Theirs is a pars-pro-toto approach. It is sad to see two-hundred years of Comparative Religion simply dumped into the trashcan.

But then none of these authors is particularly distinguished for scholarship. They do not seem to realize that many of the arguments they advance had already been forcefully put by Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899). While he was scathing about Christianity, Ingersoll admirably claimed only to be an agnostic—a far wiser self-description in my view than atheist. By the way, all of Ingersoll’s writings are easily accessible on the Internet.

Just now the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens has entered the fray with his God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. A late-comer at the party, Hitchens is nonetheless attracting favorable attention. One isn’t supposed to mention that Hitchens is a former Trotskyist. Leon Trotsky didn’t get to participate in Stalin’s crimes, but only because the ogre wouldn’t let him. While Trotsky was still in his element as a Bolshevik commissar he did his bit in persecuting priests and destroying churches. I have not read Hitchens’ latest effort, but like the others I imagine that he minimizes the noxious contributions of Soviet Atheism. If so, he is not acting in good faith.

As a rule, the new paladins of unbelief are deaf to culture, not just to Bach and Chartres, but even to secular masterpieces of music, art, and literature. To be sure, Dawkins seeks to address this in his Rainbow book, but his attempt to summon emotion before the poetry of Wordsworth and others seems rather pallid. The others don’t even try.

Here is one conclusion I find telling. Wouldn’t most of us flee before the prospect of being ruled by that bombastic alcoholic Christopher Hitchens or by the smug, humorless Sam Harris, preferring instead that gentle Christian Jimmy Carter, with all his undeniable faults? Not to worry, though. In all likelihood Hitchens and Harris will not get anywhere near the centers of power.

So the question remains. Why this old stuff now? As a society we have "been there. done that."


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Revolutions, short and long

Originally, the term "revolution" referred to the orbit of a planet. Indeed, in astronomy it still does. Old-fashioned phonograph records (and presumably CDs as well) are said to revolve at a certain number of revolutions per minute. That is a fairly direct application of the metaphor.
The political application is something else. During the early modern period, "revolution" served to describe a reassuring return of a situation to its status ex ante. After all, planets duly return to their original place. This notion gave the concept a favorable gloss. In the late eighteenth century, though, Edward Gibbon spoke of the decline of the Roman Empire as the "awful revolution." I suppose he meant "awesome" rather than awful in our sense. But the devolution of antiquity must have truly seemed awful to those who had to endure it.

Some of us remember the vogue of the term in the 1960s, when we witnessed the liberation movements in Algeria and Vietnam. And of course there was the "Cuban Revolution." America was not to be left behind, as friends of mine confidently asserted that we had entered a pre-revolutionary situation. Or as the title of one influential Italian movie had it, all advanced Western societies were in a state of "Prima della Rivoluzione." Historical inevitability endowed this scenario with absolute certainty. Except that it didn't.

Concealed within all this talk is an important antinomy. Most political revolutions have been one-off affairs, occurring within a restricted slice of time and yielding to the new post-revolutionary regime. Good examples are the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Revolution par excellence, the French one that began in 1789, and quickly morphed into the Directory. The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia is a telling example of this pinpointing.

Yet there is another usage in which revolution in fact designates not just the events, but even more the period of consolidation that follows—in short, the regime. A good example is the above-cited Cuban revolution, which has been chugging along (much to the disadvantage of the inhabitants of that unhappy island) for forty-eight years now.

What is the origin of this new concept of the revolution as not so much the event itself, but the outcome of the event? One might think of Leon Trotsky’s concept of "permanent revolution." However, that is not so much a stable tyranny (as in Cuba) but a forecast of endless turbulence. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which mercifully lasted only from 1966 to 1969, is the example that comes to mind. Any visitor to today’s hypercapitalist China can tell you that that revolution was not permanent at all.

So what is the actual origin of this idea of a revolution that goes on and on? Yesterday I caught a glimpse of the answer. A lecture on propaganda posters from Mussolini’s Italy included one little gem with the caption "LA RIVOLUZIONE FASCISTA." This poster appeared in 1937, fully fifteen years after the March on Rome. This idea of revolution that goes on and on, becoming institutionalized as it were seems to stem from Fascist Italy. This is a disquieting, not to say unsavory realization.

But wait, we may not need to go there. Didn’t Mexico accomplish this semantic shift earlier? The actual upheaval that cleared the way for modern Mexico took place over a specific decade, the teens of the previous century. For many years a single hegemonic party, the PRI, or Partido Revolucionario Institucional, ruled Mexico. The Revolution Institutionalized. Perfect!

Not so fast, though. On March 4, 1929, ex-president Plutarco Elías Calles created the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR). This was the original name. The term "institutional" appeared only in a renaming of 1946. The new name indicated that the party was no longer a coalition of leaders who had survived the upheaval, but had succeeed in transforming itself into a stable regime. The most likely explanation of the original name is that the party was dedicated to the advancement of the ideals of the revolution—not that it incarnated it in perpetuity.

So it looks as if the palm still goes to Mussolini’s Italy. Mussolini’s propagandists originated the portmanteau concept of "rivoluzione" = the original event + the ensuing regime.
By the way, as A. James Gregor recognized many years ago, many similarities link Italian Fascism with Castro’s regime in Cuba. I won’t enter into these here.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Travel options

For many years I was addicted to foreign travel. A half-century ago, Europe was the only option for culture vultures like myself. The exchange rate for most countries was so favorable that we academics could go there and just stay the entire summer. I remember one August in London (of all places!) when I said "I'm bored; I want to go home." But I couldn't leave until the date of my charter flight. By the early seventies, though, the exchange rate was becoming less favorable. The Deutschmark had originally traded at a ratio of 4.2 to the dollar, making things incredibly cheap. But then it lost more than half its value, plunging to 2 to 1.

Then I hit upon a new strategy. I would limit European visits to carefully planned "surgical strikes," no more than 21 days at a time. I would then alternate trips to Europe with visits to cheap third-world countries. I became fascinated by pre-Columbian archaeology, so that I visited all the leading countries, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. I stayed in whatever hotels I wished to and in general enjoyed gracious living.

Then in the mid-eighties the dollar soared again. It was off to France, over and over again. A decade later things changed again, so I became more choosy. Now, it looks as if Europe is pricing itself out of the market again. But never say never.

I forgot to note that beginning in the seventies I sought another type of balance, I would travel in the US. Eventually I visited every state except Alaska. These trips were very useful in combatting the onset of Gothamite chauvinism.

I suppose that there are two lessons. 1) If the opportunity beckons, take it. It may be a while, if ever, before the stars are favorable again. 2) In travel, as in all else in this capitalist world, it is essential to do an ongoing cost-benefit analysis.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Islam and the death of multiculturalism

We are currently confronted by a passel of books vigorously advocating atheism. The authors are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, and the Frenchman Michel Onfray. I confess that I am not very impressed with any of these books. Sixty years ago, as a teenage unbeliever , I ordered a packet of atheist propaganda in the mail. The arguments presented in those texts were almost identical with those found in the current Big Four.

So the question is why this stuff now? One answer comes from a quick perusal of the Sam Harris book, The End of Faith. Harris starts out by excoriating Islamic suicide bombers, and there is much further anti-Islamic material. In France Michel Onfray is said to owe much of his audience to the sense the secularism must become more militant in the face of the Islamic threat.

One of the little known effects of 9/11 is the death of multiculturalism. The rites have not been publicly celebrated, but signs of its demise are all around.

The essence of this popular multiculturalism is the following. While there is something especially meritorious about impoverished third-world societies, all cultures are more or less equal. This being so, we need to adopt the Rodney King precept: "Can’t we all just get along?"

We have tried that approach with Islam, and it is has failed. To be sure, there are still some who claim that it is only "a few Muslim extremists" who are the problem. At its heart, Islam is a religion of peace. Nonsense. Islam has never been a religion of peace. Initially the faith spread by the sword. Almost without exception, Muslims believe that theirs is the final revelation, which must eventually trounce its adversaries—by fair means or foul. There is no compromising with this triumphalism. The problem is that all Islam tends to slide into "extremist Islam."

Peace is not revealed by the "honor killings" of innocent women and the execution of homosexuals in Iran and Iraq.

There is no reason to pretend that this Islamic aggression is not the case. We need to fight back. For one thing, we should say that no more Saudi money will be accepted for building mosques in the West, until they allow the building of Christian churches and Jewish synagogues in Saudi Arabia.

Another issue is the forbidding of any genuine scholarship in Islamic countries regarding the origins of the faith. All too many Western scholars echo the fables that lie at the heart of the conventional wisdom regarding the origins of Islam. The real story is very different from the pious fraud we are offered. I venture to transcribe below the essay ("Historical Facts About the Origins of Islam") by an Islamic scholar, who prefers (for obvious reasons) to remain anonymous. This important summary comes to me by courtesy of the site, which also features the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. This kind of critique cannot be safely published in any Islamic country. The piece is long, but it contains essential information. In copying I have made some minor cuts and editorial changes.

Pious Muslims trace the origins of Islam to the beginning of the seventh
century – and place an overwhelming emphasis on the events of this century,
including the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad and the city of Mecca. In
addition to the religious value assigned to the events of the seventh century,
Muslim historians (and many complicit western scholars) consider the Islamic
rendition of the century to be undisputable historical fact. As will be
established however, there is no justification or support for this assertion as
the Islamic narrative is wholly dependent on internal, dated, and biased sources
that fail to account for contradictory (external) sources that undermine the
traditional Islamic narrative.
The traditional Muslim account of the seventh century provides us with the following "historical" accounting of the events of that century. Muhammad was born in the year 570 CE close to Mecca, a city in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, Mecca was a wealthy trading city primarily due to its strategic and pivotal location on an overland trading route – a crucial stop on the route to the Mediterranean trading centers of the world, and it would go on to play a prominent role in the rapid spread of Islam.
Tradition has it that Muhammad was orphaned at an early age, and was raised by
an uncle and other relatives. Furthermore, we are informed that a young Muhammad went to work for a wealthy widow who owned a prosperous international trading company, and that he had the good fortune of ultimately marrying this widow - an event that dramatically bettered his fiscal position and social standing.
Again following the traditional account, in the year 610 CE Muhammad began
to receive messages from God (a transmission that would continue throughout his
life) and through these messages learned that he was God’s Prophet and the
bearer of God’s final word to mankind. Never claiming divinity himself, Muhammad did assert that God was speaking through him and that he was the sole conduit for God’s final and perfect instructions to man.
These initial messages from God were subversive to the interests of Mecca’s ruling and trading elite, and they were summarily rejected. Muhammad was forced to flee from his home in Mecca, so he went to Medina, a locale that was more receptive to his messages from God. At Medina, Muhammad established the original Muslim community, and subsequently returned to Mecca and converted its inhabitants to Islam. By the time of his death in 632 CE Muhammad and his fellow Arabs had conquered the entire Arabian Peninsula which had been previously occupied by illiterate, pagan tribes. By the turn of the eighth century, Muhammad’s followers had conquered and subdued a vast territory from Spain to India, an unprecedented historical feat.
For the pious Muslim, this amazing accomplishment is easy to
understand and explain. The Prophet Muhammad had received and transmitted the final and perfect word of God. Empowered with God’s support and direction,
Muhammad established the Islamic state and spread the word of God as commanded by Him. Today, Muslims continue to assert this accounting of the origins of their religion and to rely on them as the basis of their faith.
The most amazing part of this story however, is that Islamic historians, often with the support of western scholars , contend that this story is not only the basis of
their religion, but that it is also factually supported and properly documented
history as well. Pious Muslims are quick to point out that Muhammad’s many
revelations from God were memorized, recorded, and ultimately canonized in the
body of the Koran during the first few decades following his death in 632.
According to the story, the third caliph Uthman employed the scholar Zaid ibn
Thabit to compile the "true" Koran and to destroy all remaining copies,
rendering the Uthman version the final and perfect word of God as received and
transmitted by the Prophet. According to this account, the final, codified
version of the Koran that we have today was canonized and formalized no later
than 650 CE and is an authentic source of history evidenced by the fact that is
a perfect literary creation and could only have been only produced by God.
Therefore, Muslim historians contend that the Koran itself is a viable and
dependable source of history.
In addition to relying on the Koran as an authentic source, Muslim historians also point to the extensively detailed "early" biographies of the Prophet (Sira) and the traditions known as Hadith.
While Muslim scholars point to a long list of "valid" biographies, the earliest
and most heavily utilized biographies were written by Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Ishan and
al-Tabari; the later two relying heavily on the former.
In addition to Sira, Muslim historians also rely on the Hadith, which are thousands of stories and narratives regarding the deeds and sayings of Muhammad (Sunna). Hadith often serve to clarify and explain both the Sira and the contents of the Koran, which is often difficult to understand without additional commentary provided by
Hadith. According to Muslim scholarship, the Hadith were orally transmitted for
the 150 years following Muhammad’s death, and were formally gathered and
categorized at the beginning of the ninth century, a process that ultimately
resulted in the canonization of those Hadith deemed authentic. Canonical status
of Hadith was first conferred upon the collection compiled by the ninth century
scholar al-Bukhari.
Ninth- and tenth-century Muslims scholars devised an elaborate (ostensibly scientific) system to verify the authenticity of Hadith. In essence, what they did was to follow the chain of transmitters to a particular narrative and to determine whether this chain was a valid. The chain, called Isnad, contains the name of the eyewitness of the event and the person(s) who recorded the event. Muslims agree that some early Hadith were fabricated falsely but that their system of Isnad was an effective tool in detecting and removing the forgeries thereby rendering the remaining Hadith as valid and supportable sources for the authentic words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad.
Today, there are six separate sets of Hadith that have been accepted as the
authentic, authoritative and fairly complete record of the formative events of
the seventh century. According to Muslim scholars, the triad constituted by
the Sira, the canonized Hadith, and the Koran, the "final and absolute word of
Allah," provide us with a rich and detailed "history" of the origins of Islam in
the seventh century. They tell us what Muhammad did and said, when how and why he did the things he did. And again, to the pious Muslim, these are not stories
but facts. …
Despite the confidence of the believing Muslim however, these
sources are simply not adequate to tell us what really happened during the
seventh century. The detailed historical picture put forth by the Muslim
historian is completely dependent on uncorroborated, late and biased sources. In
short, Muslim sources (alone) fail to provide an accurate and authentic picture
of the events of the seventh century, a fact that will be displayed with a
critical analysis of these "sources."
To begin, it must be recognized that the sources utilized by Muslim historians to describe the events of the seventh century are not contemporary. Indeed, the sources are extremely late and date from a minimum of 150 to as many as 300 years following the events that they attempt to describe. For example, before the year 750 CE., there is not a single verifiable document that describes the formative period of the seventh century.
The heavily relied on Sira written by Ibn Ishaq, the primary authority for the
life of Muhammad, was written at least 100 years after Muhammad’s death.
Furthermore, we do not even have an actual manuscript of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira. It
survives only in the work of a number of later scholars – primarily Ibn Hisham,
who relied almost exclusively on his predecessor, and who conceded that he
edited it so as to omit "things which are disgraceful to discuss, matters which
would distress people and such reports as al-Bakkai told me he could not accept
as trustworthy. Hisham lived even later than Ishaq and died in 823 CE. Hence,
his Sira, is even more removed from the facts it attempts to describe. Noted
Islamic scholar Patricia Crone describes this situation accordingly: The
work is late, written not by a grandchild, but a great grandchild of the
Prophet’s generation, it gives us the view for which classical Islam is settled.
And written by a number of the ulama, the scholars who had by then emerged as
the classical bearers of the Islamic tradition, the picture which it offers is
also one sided: how the Umayyad caliphs remembered their Prophet we shall never know. That it is unhistorical is only what one would expect, but it has an
extraordinary capacity to resist internal criticism … characteristic of the
entire Islamic tradition, and most pronounced in the Koran: one can take the
picture presented or one can leave, but one cannot work with it.
As noted by Patricia Crone, the early Sira were not only late, but biased. In the view of the prominent revisionist historian, John Wansbrough all of the early Islamic
documentation, including the Sira , the Hadith and the Koran itself is salvation
history which is not "an historical account of saving events open to the study
of historians, since salvation history did not happen, as it is a literary form
which has its own context." Wansbrough contends that Islam – as we know it today
– did not start to take form until the beginning of the eighth century and was
not a crystallized movement until well after that. He argues that the invading
Arabs had a need to establish a distinctly Arab religion in response to the
diversity encountered with the invasions. Following this logic, the authors who
"created" the story of Islam had an agenda – and this did not include the
recording of accurate facts. These compilers were not historians when they wrote
their works, but individuals who bore witness in that they failed to distinguish
"the duty of reporting from the legitimacy of believing. "Salvation history" a
phrase adopted by Wansbrough to describe the Islamic narrative of the seventth
century was written to point to God’s role in directing the affairs of the
world, particularly during the time of Muhammad’s life.
In addition to the apparent limitations of the Sira as authentic historical documents, the historical value of the vast majority of the Hadiths must be described as
tenuous as well. As discussed, the Islamic rendition informs us that thousands
of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad were orally transmitted from the seventh
century and authenticated by a reliable process developed and utilized in the
eighth and ninth centuries. However, there are many reasons to reject the Hadith
as reliable sources.
To start, as with Sira, the Hadith "sources" are quite late and describe events at least 150 years following their occurrence. For example, the compilation considered most authentic, that prepared by the scholar Al-Bukhari, was not organized, compiled, and ultimately ascribed with canonical status until the early ninth century. Hence, we are completely reliant on the oral tradition for the transmission of seventh century events that must also be subject to Wansbrough’s notion of salvation history.
Furthermore, the system of authentication can not be relied on either. At the turn of the ninth century it is estimated that that there were as many as 600,000 Hadith in circulation, and that many of these were blatantly false and contradictory. Indeed,
al-Bukhari ultimately rejected 98% of the original 600,000. The "chain" of
authority is entirely dependent upon corroboration and veracity – not available
with the Muslim sources. Furthermore, another problem was that the science of
Isnad only started in the tenth century, long after the Isnad had apparently
been compiled. In sum, we simply don’t and can’t know whether the names on the
Isnad list truly passed accurate information that we can use today to recreate
the events of the seventh century. Like Sira, Hadith simply can not be relied
upon as an authentic source for history. Like Sira, this exclusively Muslim
source must also be considered far too late and removed from the subject events
and most likely biased as well.
In addition to being subjected to the scrutiny of Muslim scholars, who have accepted al-Bukhari’s rendition of authenticity, Hadiths have also been increasingly challenged by western historians. At the turn of the twentieth century, a scholar by the name of Ignaz Goldziher completed a vast study of the authenticity of the Hadith and the Muslim system for determining authenticity and determined that the vast majority of them were unsubstantiated forgeries that sorely lacked corroboration.
Goldziher concluded that the Muslim compilers took a vast majority of their
Hadith material from collections compiled around 800 (or later) and not from
documents written in seventh century. Several decades later, additional Hadith
scrutiny was undertaken by Joseph Schacht who explored how early Islamic legal
tradition was transmitted via Hadith. Schacht concluded that early ninth-century
schools of law authenticated their own biased agenda by arguing that their
doctrines came initially from Muhammad and his companions. Hence, according to Schacht, the compilers satisfied their agenda of authenticating laws and
traditions by linking them to the prophet. In this way, Hadith were a valuable
source for exploring legal codes for early Islamic societies, but should not be
relied upon as authentic sources for what really happened. Crone, in later
research on the authenticity of the remaining (canonized) Hadith has similarly
rejected the "grain of truth" argument asserted by many Muslim historians due to
the age of the Muslim sources coupled with the transparent bias of the authors.
Simply put, contrary to Muslim assertions, Hadith can not be relied on as
authentic source material.
Based on this critical review of the exclusively Muslim "sources" deployed to explain the events of the seventh century it is apparent that we must look beyond them. According to Wansbrough, we must examine additional, external sources for the truth. Fortunately, in addition to the Islamic sources relied upon by the traditional Muslim arguments to account for the seventh century, we also have several non-Muslim sources that individually and collectively shed significant light on the origins of Islam in the seventh century. Muslim scholars have often deemed these sources hostile and refused to consider them, however, they have yet to be refuted and add much to the unbiased historical reconstruction of the seventh century. These sources have much to say about the authenticity of the Koran and whether we can rely on it as a source for the history of the seventh century.
To start, we have two contemporary
sources that directly undermine the Koran’s instructions regarding early
relations between Arabs and Jews. According to the Koran, the Arabs and the Jews
(living primarily in Medina) experienced a split between the years 622 and 624
soon after the Hijra to Medina. However, two non-Muslim sources illustrate a
significantly different picture regarding relations between the Jews and the
Arabs. The Doctrina Iacobi, a Greek anti -Jewish tract, was written between 634
and 640 provides the earliest external testimony regarding Muhammad and his
movement in the early 7th century. In sum, this writing warns of a group
comprised of both Jews and Sacarens (what the Arabs were called) and the perils
of falling into the hands of this ethnically mixed dangerous group.
Significantly, the writing refers to the group as containing both Jews and Arabs
– and they were considered one group.
Yet another contemporary source, the
Chronicle written by Sebeos in 660 also describes the relations between Arabs
and Jews during the early years of the seventh century. This non-Muslim source
describes how Muhammad established a community comprised of both Ishmaelites and Jews and argues that that they were united by a common lineage to Abraham
(Ishmael and Isaac), a birthright to the Holy Land and a monotheistic genealogy.
Collectively, these contemporary, unbiased sources paint a starkly different
picture than that presented in the Koran. Instead of a split between the Arabs
and the Jews, the two groups are presented as a harmonious unit working together
towards common goals demonstrating the good relations between Jews and Arabs.
The Koran, the perfect word of God, tells us otherwise.
In addition to the apparent inconsistency between the Koran and other contemporary sources, we also have reason to doubt that the original Hijra was to Mecca and suspect it may
have been towards the city of Jerusalem. Central to the Islamic story is the
event of "Hijra" where according to traditional Muslim sources Muhammad and his followers left Mecca for Medina in 622. This journey is at the heart of the
Islamic religion. However, two Nestorian ecclesiastical documents from 676 CE
and 680 CE respectively tell us that the emigration of the Arabs at the early
part of the seventh century didn’t start at Mecca and end at Medina (as the
Muslim story goes) but was headed to what was deemed the promised land –
Jerusalem! If true, the original Hijra was in fact outside of Mecca and even
Arabia and completely undermines the rendition offered by Muslim historians.
Yet another significant piece of the traditional Islamic narrative is
rendered suspect by recent archaeological research done on ancient mosques in
present day Iraq and Egypt. According to these studies, which examined the
structures and contents of six seventh century structures, the prayer rooms were
built such that the direction of prayer could not possibly have been towards
Mecca,a blatant and transparent inconsistency with Islamic doctrine. Indeed, of
the six ancient mosques examined, not one was constructed so that prayers could
be directed to Mecca as commanded by the Koran. Further corroboration of this
assertion is provided by Jacob of Edessa, a contemporary Christian writer from
705 who wrote a letter (still in existence) noting that the Arabs prayed toward
the east. This evidence completely undermines the Koranic instruction for the
direction of prayer (Qibla) to be towards Mecca that was (according to Muslim
tradition) canonized no later than 624. With this information one must ask
whether Mecca was indeed the place of significance that it has been accorded.
Furthermore, we must re think our position on the validity of the Koran as a
source of history.
Further undermining the traditional Islamic description
of the seventh century derived from the Koran and the Hadith is information
concerning Mecca, a city central to the Islamic narrative. Indeed, Mecca can be
described as the heart of early Islam, as it still is today. In the Islamic
tradition, it is described as a vibrant and wealthy trading center located at
the center of several trading routes. Furthermore, it is the place of Muhammad’s
birth and the location from which the Hijra took place. …
Despite these claims, however, there is not a single piece of (non-Muslim) evidence that points to and corroborates this claim for such prominence during the seventh
century. In fact, the earliest substantiated reference to Mecca is in the
Continuatio Byzantia Arabica. a source from early in the reign of the caliph
Hisham, who ruled between 724 and 743 - 100 years after the life of Muhammad.
When challenged with this absence of evidence, Muslim historians strenuously
point to the second-century Greco-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy and his reference
to a city called "Makoraba." The argument is that Ptolemy intended Makaroba to
be Mecca. However, Ptolemy’s mention was brief and cursory, and, according to
several scholars, may have been intended to describe any number of locations
that were not Mecca. Other than this brief (and early) description, we simply
have no mention of seventh century Mecca independent of Muslim sources.
Surrounded by complex and literate empires, such as the Byzantine Empire, it is
hard to imagine that if Mecca was as influential and significant as claimed,
that there would be such a dearth of evidence regarding its existence. The
educated seventh century Greeks had never heard of a place called Mecca. How
then could it have been so prominent?
Further diminishing the prominence of
Mecca as described by Islamic sources is evidence suggesting that the Muslim
description of Mecca as a city at the center of trading routes in the seventh
century is incorrect. One scholar has noted that seventh-century Mecca was
"tucked away at the very edge of the peninsula and that only by the most
tortured map reading can it be described as a natural crossroads between a
north-south route and an east-west one." Accordingly, a stop at Mecca would have
involved a 100-mile detour from the natural route along the western ridge.
Furthermore, Patricia Crone describes Mecca as a barren place, and argues that
such places do not make natural halts, and "least of all when they are found at
a short distance from famously green environments." Crone asks critically "Why
should caravans have made a steep descent to the barren valley of Mecca when
they could have stopped at Taíf … which had a well, a sanctuary and food
supplies as well?"
Compounding this inquiry, Crone critically asks "what
commodity was available in Arabia that could be transported such a distance,
through such an inhospitable environment, and still be sold at a profit large
enough to support the growth of a city in a peripheral site bereft of natural
resources? According to Crone, it wasn’t spices or incense as Muslim historians
have claimed. No, according to Crone, Arabs engaged in a far more humble trade
consisting of items like leather and clothing - and that such a trade couldn’t
and didn’t support a large commercial empire, such as described by the Muslim
Finally, Crone concludes that there was no international trade
in Arabia – never mind Mecca during the centuries prior to Muhammad’s’s life,
contrary to conclusions reached by both Muslim and prominent western historians.
According to Crone, reliance on later Greek historians – those that were closer
to the events in question – like Cosmas, Procopius and Theodoretus would have
made this picture clear. She notes that the seventh century Greek trade between
India and the Mediterranean was entirely maritime after the 1st century. Why
would traders go across the land when a far cheaper water route was available?
It would have been foolish for the trader’s ship from India to drop off at Aden
and caravan for the rest of the 1200-mile journey when you could complete the
journey by sea all the way up via the Red Sea. Mecca as a vibrant and wealthy
trading center simply doesn’t make sense.
Mecca is at the heart and soul of the Islamic account of the seventh-century origins of Islam. But, as this evidence shows, the Koran and the Islamic tradition did not portray the city even close to accurately. Mecca was not the great trading city as described, nor was it even known by contemporary and civilized Greek sources. This invokes challenging and difficult questions for the "historic" Muslim tradition.
One last category of external, non-Muslim evidence further undermines the
traditional Muslim account of the seventh century. Archaeologist Yehuda Nevo
completed a detailed study where he analyzed numerous rock inscriptions and
coins dated to the 7th century found on rocks that had been discovered primarily
in the Syro-Jordanian desert and the and the Nevo desert. The earliest reference
to Muhammad was found on an Arab-Sassanian coin of Xalid Abdallah dated 690 CE.
Nevo concluded that there was "religious content" on many of the earlier stone
inscriptions recovered and that several of the early 7th century inscriptions
did contain "a message of monotheism related to a body of sectarian literature
with developed Judeo-Christian conceptions." However, he also failed to find a
single inscription with a reference to Muhammad, allegedly the most prominent
religious figure of the century, concluding that "in all the Arab religious
institutions during the Sufyani period (661-684) there is not one reference to
Muhammad. It is hard to imagine that not a single stone inscription attesting to
Muhammad’s influence could be found. Unless, of course, the traditional
description of Muhammad during the seventh century was simply not accurate. How else to explain this absence of reference to one of the (if not the most)
influential and significant characters of the seventh century?
The most prominent rock inscription in the Islamic tradition is one the Dome of the Rock and it provides further (and final) evidence that undermines the Islamic
narration. The Dome was built as an "Islamic" sanctuary by Abd-al-Malik in 691.
According to Muslim tradition, it was built to commemorate the night that
Muhammad traveled to heaven to meet with Moses and Allah regarding the number of prayers required of believers (Mi’raj). Despite this assertion however, the inscriptions on the Rock say nothing of this event at all. Instead, the
inscriptions refer to the messianic status of Jesus, the acceptance of the
prophets, and Muhammad’s revelations. More telling is the fact that the
inscriptions on the Dome - built sixty years after Muhammad’s death - are the
earliest references that we have (outside of Islamic sources) that actually
include the terms "Islam" and "Muslim" If Islam had been such a prominent and
influential seventh- century religious movement that had been formally canonized
40 years before the Dome was constructed, how is it possible that the words
Islam and Muslim are not mentioned before that time? Clearly, we need to take
another, critical look at the seventh century and the origins of Islam.
What to conclude from the exposed failures of the Islamic sources coupled with the telling evidence offered by external sources that significantly undermine the
traditional Muslim narrative of the origins of Islam in the seventh century? To
start, we simply don’t know exactly what happened during the seventh century. We do know that a group of Arab invaders successfully conquered vast territories
within and well beyond the Peninsula, certainly a significant feat. However,
apart from their own sources, appropriately identified as biased "salvation
history," we don’t know how the development of Islam related to these invasions.
My estimate, supported by the conclusions of several revisionist historians,
including Wansbrough and Crone, is that Islam as we know it today did not begin
to truly "crystallize" until the beginning of the eighth century. At that time,
the conquerors realized that they needed a distinctively Arab deity and a system
of law to rule a large and diverse group of recently conquered peoples. Hence,
the literary creation of Islam. What better means for a small numerical minority
to govern a large, diverse, recently conquered territory than with the power of
divine direction? As Crone notes, "Muhammad had to conquer, his followers liked
to conquer, his deity told him to conquer – Do we need any more?" In this
regard, Muhammad was not the conduit of the final word of God but a political
and military leader who unified the Arab tribes and urged them to conquer in the
name of their deity. There is much work to be done towards figuring out the
historical events of the seventh century. The first step is to look beyond the
biased Islamic sources.

[For further reading, see Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism:
The Making of the Islamic World, Cambridge University Press, 1977; and two essay collections edited by Ibn Warraq, The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on
Islam’s Holy Book; and The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, both Prometheus
Books, 1998 and 2000.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

On off-hand comments

In a letter of 1946 the philosopher Rudolf Carnap ventured to condemn Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, while indicating that he had not read the book.
The only thing remarkable here is Carnap's candor. We are surrounded by individuals making "definitive" judgments about matters that they know hardly anything about. In this particular instance, the recipient of the letter was Karl Popper, a friend and colleague of Hayek's, so that he could simply ignore the remark.

Most of us are not in that happy position. We cannot read (or view) more than a small portion of the cultural products that we feel we should. We therefore must rely to some extent on the judgments of others. A friend of mine, a fellow art historian, has formalized this tendency so that he has a kind of kitchen cabinet. From time to time he telephones these individuals, asking them to supply their latest judgments. Unfortunately, his expert on poetry was an academic versifier with an unfortunate tendency to commend his fellow academic poetasters. So my friend spent many hours pouring over useless junk. At least he followed up. But he remained perplexed about the purported targets of his admiration.

Granted that one must rely to some extent on the judgments of others, how can one protect oneself from adopting views that are inadequate or downright wrong? The first criterion that springs to mind is parti pris. Since many of the judgments offered on Fox News, for example, stem from biased "talking points" from the RNC and other dubious sources, one has to view everything stemming from that organization with suspicion. The same caveat is equally appropriate with regard to liberal and leftist organs, such as The New Republic and the Nation. Unfortunately, those alert to the biases of Fox News are less inclined to admit the distortions of those two newsmagazines, and vice versa.

Still, this recipe does not seem adequate. We cannot rely on those afflicted with terminal blandness, or on two-handed editorialist--those who state one position ("on the one hand"), following it immediately by the other ("on the other hand").

Nor is credentialing adequate. Many of the "experts" who pushed us into the Iraq war had escellent credentials. Those who rightly opposed it tended not to.

The only remedy I can see is what I would term sampling. As Sir Francis Bacon observed a long time ago, it is a fallacy that one must read every book all the way through, carefully annotating and pondering each point. In many cases, it is sufficient simply to dip into a book. I often open books at random just to get an impression. Having done this, one can turn to the index for some topic where one feels reasonably proficient. If the author doesn't measure up, then one can safely close the book.

My libary contains at least 20,000 volumes. I have no intention of reading all, or even most of them. But I have sampled them all. This is a much more satisfactory procedure than that of sampling wines, since one doesn't have to throw out the item lest it spoil. After all, there might be some reason for sampling the book again.

Most people do not have private libraries nowadays, and they do not visit research libraries. Yet quite a lot of people do hang out at Barnes and Noble, where they are (for the most part just sampling books).

Like everyone else I turn to the Internet nowadays. Yet I almost invariably find that if I want to produce a decent piece for my blog I must go also to printed sources. The combination of printed items with others gleaned from cyberspace is a good one, because each sphere serves as a check on the other.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Two buddy flics

This posting concerns two 2003 films, “Gerry” and “Dallas 362.” Both are buddy flics released in the same year, and they offer abundant displays of male eye candy. Otherwise, the two are quite different. For a number of years, buddy relationships have been a staple of movie production. I am not normally one of their clients. But these two proved special.

The first movie is "Gerry," directed by Gus Van Sant. Two sensitive, but stolid young men (both apparently named Gerry) get lost somewhere in the Southwest while on a hike. (Ostensibly, they are in New Mexico, but in fact the film was shot in Argentina, Utah, and Death Valley.) There are virtually no other human beings, only the two stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. There is a third character, though, overwhelming the other two: the landscape. The photography is almost unbelievably gorgeous, resembling a series of Rothko paintings.

"Gerry" is scarcely realistic, as the two guys go out on a hiking trip without (as far as I could see) so much as a plastic bottle of water between them. They wander for days, but (except in one scene) fail to develop much facial hair (no razors are evident). Though somewhat battered, the faces of the dudes remain radiantly beautiful. Not realism, the film is perhaps an allegory of the course of human life, what the medieval French called a "pèlerinage de la vie humaine."

The movie "Dallas 362" is much more conventional. This 2003 film concerns two lower middle-class hunks in their mid-twenties, one a dirt bag, the other not. Their main source of income is collecting small debts for a local crime boss, Bear (played by Heavy D). The movie is about how the decent one, Rusty, escapes from the mentoring of Dallas, the bad apple. The movie is the directorial debut of Scott Caan, son of actor James Caan, who also plays the role of Dallas, one mean dude. Shawn Hatosy impersonates the more sympathetic role of Dusty. The title of the film derives from a sign shown towards the end of the movie. As Rusty is riding the bus to Texas, where he will start a new life in the rodeos, there is a shot of a mile-marker sign reading "Dallas 362."

Full of cliches, this film nonetheless moved me. I'm not sure why. Maybe it is my personal history of growing up in a small town (at least in my earliest years) where there was not enough money in the family.

Both flics offer a window to a type of male bonding I will never experience. As a gay man of course I have male friends, gay and straight. But for all I can tell, I have never experienced relationships such as the ones shown in these two films. And I never will. Setting aside the elements of conventionality and artifice, I think that they are essentially true portrayals of a major cultural phenomenon. One of the major functions of art is precisely this enlargement of horizons.

Well, one might say, you Wayne Dynes have had three stable, long-term relationships with men. What do you mean by saying that the male-bonding phenomenon is alien to you? Well, I must reply, it just is something that lies outside my experience.

For a number of years, a gay friend has been championing the idea of "male love." This concept seems to unite homosocial bonding with homoerotic love. This is an unfortunate and unrealistic conflation. To be sure, the bonding in dyads of two heterosexual men may be very intense. Once, in court, I heard two burly policemen say that they loved one another.

Of course, in human affairs there is no rule so absolute that exceptions never occur. Think of "Brokeback Mountain." However, that film is not about male bonding in the strict sense exemplified by "Gerry" and "Dallas 362." In my reading of "Brokeback" the character played by Jake Gyllenhall is gay; the other not. So we have a sexual relationship between a gay man and a straight man. That phenomenon is all too familiar to me, but it is not what is being examined here.

In relationships such as the ones shown in "Gerry" and "Dallas 362" the door is never open to physical erotic encounters. At one time there was a fashion on the Internet for fantasies in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were lovers. Right now, I suppose, some blogger is putting together a variation on "Gerry," one in which the two guys actually do get it on. That is not the story the film tells, though.

"Male love," a notion conflating male bonding with homoerotic relationships, takes us into the realm of wish-fulfilling fantasies of gay men. This fusion is not legitimate.

The mystery remains, and must be regarded as such.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I Mustn't in the Morning

Several years have gone by since I last watched/listened to the schlock jock Don Imus. What is being left out of the current discussion is the amount of homophobic comment that disfigured the show. To be sure, Imus left most of this to his appalling brother. After each fraternal outburst Don would offer a mild reproof, but the antihomosexual jibes had gone out over the air. They were part and parcel of the crude locker-room atmosphere that suffused "Imus in the Morning."

In short he has shown a long-running pattern of bigotry against several vulnerable groups. I hope that his show gets permanently canceled.

The intriguing question is this, though. Why did the Imus program receive the obeisance of so many prominent journalists and politicias over the years? Just to cite a few acolites, there have been (with some frequency) John McCain, Tim Russert, Tom Frieman, and Cokey Roberts. In a recent interview Jonathan Alter offered the explanation that Imus' combination of crude popular-culture tripe and jock obsessions with supposedly serious analysis allowed the guests to reach a broader audience. This comment only grazes the real reason. These pundits and politicians love to get on Imus because he shamelessly helps sell their books. It is a kind of collective effort at validation. But it is an unsavory one.

The collusion of journalists and politicians with the thuggish Imus is yet one more example (after Iraq, need I say more?) of their incompetence. We need new and better journalists and politicians.

Some are saying that firing Imus is "censorship." Horsefeathers. No one has a constitutional right to a radio or TV show. I have neither. And I'm not crying "censorship."

Update After some hemming and hawing, the management of both ABC and CBS have fired the disgusting Imus. It is unfortunate, I readily concede that the charge was led by the ethically challanged Al Sharpton.

It turns out that Imus's homophobic slurs are of long duration. The journalist Philip Nobile has been recording them. He made this information available to GLAAD, the gay-media watchdog group. They essentially sat on the data. Imus had many friends in the elites of New York and Washington, who formed a protective guard. One of his major acolytes was John McCain, who was not at all deterred by the locker-room atmosphere. This is one more sign (a minor one, to be sure) of McCain's growing irrelevance.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The intellectuals once more

A hundred years ago Benedetto Croce published a trenchant little book entitled “What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel.” Today most would concur with Croce that something vital--maybe not a lot--subsists in Hegelian thought.

A more important issue of the last few decades has been “What is Living and What is Dead in Marxism.” After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, some Marxists hailed this as an advance. No longer must “genuine Marxism” be hobbled by association with its Stalinist caricature. Alas, for them, “genuine Marxism” gained no traction. In fact the answer to the question is now pretty straightforward: all of Marxism is dead.

How then to account for the fact that one can still learn from scholars who profess Marxism? A case in point is Perry Anderson who spoke twice at Columbia University on March 28-29.

Born in 1938, Anderson exercised as position of influence through his editorship of the New Left Review in 1962-82 (and again in 2000-03). He is currently a professor of history at UCLA. Anderson won his spurs in a controversy with the homegrown British Marxist E. P. Thompson, whom he accused of naïve empiricism. Anderson wrote as the champion of Euro-Marxism, including its most recent incarnation in the work of Louis Althusser. In subsequent years he has shown himself capable of sharp critique of fashionable trends on the Continent. In fact, many of his assaults have been delivered against postmodern currents in continental Europe, which he regards as a form of reaction

I have read and profited from most of Anderson’s books. In Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974) and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974) he showed himself an adept commentator on some of the thorniest questions of medieval history.

His first talk at Columbia was a dazzling survey of the origins of the concept of the intellectual. He traces the idea (if not the word) to an analysis by the French utopian thinker Saint-Simon in 1819. Then the concept took root in Austria, migrating to Russia in the 1860s. There it gave rise to the expression intelligentsia, borrowed in all western languages. At the end of the century it returned to France (as intellectuel) with the conflict over the Dreyfus affair. The speaker covered various twentieth-century developments, which I will not attempt to summarize.

During the question period, I asked Anderson to comment on the changes wrought by the blogosphere. He demurred, suggesting that he is not quite up to speed on the technology of the current century. My own view is that when blogs first surfaced a decade ago, they seemed bright with the the promise of a wonderful democratization of opinion. Nowadays anyone can be a successful pundit. All it took was fifteen minutes setting up a Blogger account, and you were on your way. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Only a few blogs have attracted significant traffic, and some of these are run by individuals who have their base in the standard print media. For the rest of us, the process is akin to sending a message in a bottle. Yet some do receive and open the bottle.

There remains the important question of the gate-keeping function. How is access to the status of intellectual obtained? Determination and luck play their part, but the process still remains opaque.

To put it differently, how does one become an intellectual? It is not enough to reflect on the history of ideas and their relationship to the deeper aspects of public policy issues. No, the budding intellectual must gain access to the public prints, so that one’s meditation becomes part of a dialogue. As far as I know, there has never been a study of failed and would-be intellectuals-—those individuals who sought to intervene in the discussion, but never succeeded in getting their voices heard.

Be that as it may, I return to the question posed at the outset: How can I admire Perry Anderson, an adept of a failed ideology? Several comaparisons come to mind. A good many years ago when I was a graduate student I profited a good deal from such French Catholic writers as Henri-Irenée Marrou and Jean Daniélou. I am certainly not a Catholic or even a Christian. Another thinker who has profoundly affected me is the Hindu Nirad C. Chaudhury, author of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I have never been drawn to Hinduism, and indeed intensely dislike the institution of caste. So I suppose the lesson is this. Be adventurous in your choice of mentors. After all, you don’t have to swallow what they say whole. Indeed, I certainly do not share Perry Anderson’s professed enthusiasm for the views of Noam Chomsky.