Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Articles, Comments

Debate with Prof Lammi:
Part 2: Developing the Dialogue

Dear Mr. Khan,
Thank you for printing my letter, for your response, and for the opportunity to reply. Our common purpose is open discussion of these very important matters, and to fulfill that purpose let us think of ourselves not as antagonists but as friends who are working together. Therefore I would like to register the mild complaint that your title for my letter, "Prof. Lammi: Islam-Watch is Irrelevant, Misdirected and has Misunderstood Islam" is rather more provocative than I would have wished for mutually respectful dialogue. Also, while it is true that I am a teacher in Cairo, I am by no means an expert on Islam. That is not my field at all. My experience of living here has given me a certain perspective, but that should certainly not be confused with expertise. I speak without authority. 
This means that I am not the person with whom to debate textual evidence. I do have friends with some expertise in that regard, and to the extent that our discussion requires turning with more care to the text, I will be happy to consult with them. But for this letter at any rate, I thought I should simply respond on my own as best as I can. 
You begin with quotations from the Koran and Hadith to the effect that apostasy should result in death. Or rather, that's what the cited Hadith say.
Here they are: 
"Both Koran and Sunnah are very categorical about apostasy from Islam as serious crime which bears punishments ranging from "greatest punishment" (~death?) to death. I am quoting a few relaxant sections from the Koran and Hadith that deal with apostasy.
1. They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper [Q 4:89]
2. Make ye no excuses: ye have rejected Faith after ye had accepted it. If We pardon some of you, We will punish others amongst you, for that they are in sin [Q 009.066].
"Ali burnt some people [hypocrites] and this news reached Ibn 'Abbas, who said, "Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, 'Don't punish (anybody) with Allah's Punishment.' No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, 'If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.' " [Sahih Bukhari 4.260]
Volume 9, Book 83, Number 17: Narrated 'Abdullah: Allah's Apostle said, "The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims."
Volume 9, Book 89, Number 271: Narrated Abu Musa: A man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Mu'adh bin Jabal came and saw the man with Abu Musa. Mu'adh asked, "What is wrong with this (man)?" Abu Musa replied, "He embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism." Mu'adh said, "I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle." 
We would have to examine the provenance of the Hadith in question in order to explore this further. As I understand it, none of the Hadith is considered absolutely certain but there is a range of probability. Let me note that the matter is complicated by an error on my part. My statement "context is everything" may not always be true. There may be statements that apart from context stand on their own as authoritative. Perhaps the clear statement in the Koran "no coercion in religion" is an example. Your two quotations from the Koran are much more difficult to understand, and off the top of my head, even without context, I can think of alternate interpretations for each. For example, the first could have to do with a phenomenon I've run across many times, that those who wish to do wrong always try to get others to join them. You are assuming there's nothing problematic about the meaning of "disbelieve as they have disbelieved," but there may be many ways to disbelieve. And can we be so sure what "belief" means in the first place? A Sufi of my acquaintance distinguishes between "belief" and "faith." "Faith," he says, is openness to the truth of religion "belief" is dogmatically closed. The second Koranic quotation doesn't seem on the face of it to indicate a sentence of death, but rather the judgment of God, which could go in different ways. 
I find the difference between your Koranic citations and the Hadith quite striking. It's interesting how according to your own examples the Koran is so much more difficult to take literally. After all, it's originally poetry. Indeed, one could argue that all religious speech, not just Muslim, is poetic. Maybe that's why the Koran is said to be untranslatable. It has been said of poetry in general that any good translation of a poem is a new poem.  In poetry language, sound, and meaning are inextricably linked. I doubt that we can have an informed discussion of the meaning of the Koran without taking the nature of the poetic word into account. But hey, I can't read Arabic. As I say, I'm truly ignorant of these matters. That's not false modesty, believe me. So let me, with apologies for my ignorance, move on. 
Your method of arguing by quoting paragraphs with replies is quite effective, and I will proceed in the same way with the rest of my reply to your reply. Unfortunately, however, this becomes unwieldy and I suspect that further exchanges will require more selective summarizing. But here goes for now:
Me (call me Walter):
 "However, I must question the political relevance of your work. To be anti-Muslim, especially in a secularist direction, plays well in the West, and the representatives of that decision, like Wafa Sultan, are universally acclaimed not only for their courage - which is indeed admirable - but also for their positions. However, the real problem it seems to me is not Islam and not religion in general, but religious fanaticism. This problem is simply not addressed in wholesale rejectionism, for you are, so to speak "throwing out the baby with the bathwater."
You: "In the Western secular democracies, courageous people like Wafa Sultan's are definitely valued. The reason is very simple: What Western secular societies today and it's evolution from the very turbulent and disturbing past to modern stage resulted from the courageous stands of the people like Wafa Sultan. Since the beginning of Enlightenment movement 4 centuries ago, people like her (who have always been hated by the common people) stood up and spoke of the tyranny and barbarity of religious or secular nature with uninhibited conviction. There has been sacrifice on their part, yet they helped transform the theocracy-driven barbaric Western societies of the middle ages into modern secular democracies. Muslim societies have failed to accommodate people like her. They are not safe even under the protection of the Western countries."
About throwing baby with the bathwater, this is nonsensical analogy. That is a matter between the baby and the mother. For the mother, the baby is an investment - emotional, psychological and material. But for an apostate, nurturing Islam is nurturing death, torture and punishment for himself. How do you want me to regard Islam that has no contribution to my life (other than 40 years of feeding hatred against non-Muslim community when I was a Muslim), that cripple my life in so many ways and of course, that orders it followers to kill me? Of course, the tragic barbarity of Islam on mankind since its inception and its continuance is needed to be taken into account."
The first shots of the European Enlightenment by Descartes drew so carefully from religious doctrine that scholars are still divided over the question whether or not he was a good Catholic. Later Enlightenment figures did indeed criticize the Catholic Church. That-and not Christianity in general-was the target of Voltaire's famous "crasez l'infme!" One cannot simply separate the Enlightenment from effects of the Protestant Reformation, which was not at all a matter of denying Christianity. Nor does one want to ignore the malaise of modern secularism. It may be a big relief to have liberated yourself from dogmatic religion, but I think that it would be a huge mistake to think that you are thereby liberated from the religious questions, the questions of life, death, and meaning. My more narrow point here is that neither the Reformation nor the Enlightenment can be seen as wholesale rejections of Christianity, so the parallel you are drawing, while worthy of consideration, needs to be examined more carefully. Personally I am rather cautious about historical parallels. We have been hearing a lot these days about the need of Islam for its own Reformation, but I am not comfortable with that parallel either. There is something deeply amiss all right-on that we are in accord-but I'm not sure that reformation on the European model is a meaningful or possible response. I have even heard the argument that Islamist fundamentalism represents the beginning stages of such a reformation, a view with which I have little sympathy. But "reform" in some sense does seem to be a more realistic alternative than outright rejection of the religion of, how many? A couple billion people? That's another way putting my question about the political relevance of your work.
I like your demolition of my baby and bathwater image, although it was a figure of speech rather than an analogy, as I indicated by adding "so to speak." The phrase actually comes from the 1500s, when baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. First the males of the family, then the women and children, and last of all the babies got to take baths. By then the water was so dirty that you could lose somebody in it, hence the saying. Whether one loved the baby isn't really at issue. But let me not pick any nits here. Your point is valid, that many people have suffered from contemporary forms of Islam and consequently feel not affection but anger toward the religion as a whole. I respect this anger even though I would wish to mitigate it.
On to the next exchange:
Walter: "Take for example an article from your website, Ali Sina's "From Rags to Riches." This purports to be a refutation of the Koran, accomplished by juxtaposing quotations. As a hermeneutical exercise, however, I am afraid that it is quite worthless. In reading, context is everything, and a study of the Koran no less than the study of any book that we take seriously cannot legitimately proceed by lifting individual statements for polemical purposes. This reflects exactly the same literalism as the fundamentalists!" 
You: "We agree that there are chances of errors in analysis of isolated sections of book and arriving conclusion. This chance of error is application to any books. We do not know why and how you conclude that one is more likely to commit such errors while studying the Koran (also probably Bible/Torah?). Which universally accepted thesis has established such a notion? Would you please give us the reference? 
In regard to Dr Ali Sina's article, we have agreed that there are chances of errors. But we need to point out to those errors. Such a thing has not been done. There hasn't been any alternative explanation of these verses of the Koran. All the Islamic Ulemas, legists and jurisprudence seem to agree to such analysis, as to the fundamentalists. And Prophet Muhammad himself explained those verses of the Koran in exactly the same manner as Dr Ali Sina has analyzed and so do the extremists. What we are waiting here for is that someone come and give us (misunderstanders of Islam) and the radicals a proper and convincing interpretation of those verses (of course, for the first time) - so that they (fundamentalists) can correct themselves. That will solve the terrible problem the world faces today. We should be credited for creating an opportunity and space for such a possibility. Our effort is not worthless as you suggested." 
I'm not sure I have grasped the question in your first paragraph. You ask for a "universally accepted thesis" that establishes the notion that one is more likely to commit errors when ignoring context with the Koran, Bible, and Torah than any other books. First of all, what is a "universally accepted thesis"? I don't know what that means. Secondly, I say "a study of the Koran no less than the study of any book we take seriously"! I believe you may have read my sentence too hastily. Nevertheless, it is possible that the sacred books of the Western (i.e., post-Greek, including Islamic) tradition present particular interpretive difficulties and it is also possible that those difficulties vary according to the particular sacred book. So I would respond that you are pointing to a valid question and a very interesting one too.
The second paragraph, alas, requires textual discussion beyond my competence, as I have confessed.  Tell you what, though. Depending on how our dialogue goes, maybe I can ask around for some help.  It's a good challenge. I do have some immediate reservations about your claim that Mohamed, Dr. Ali Sina, and the extremists all have the same interpretation. Mohamed as reported where, and when? Which extremists? I happen to have read Seyyed Qutb's Milestones, and find his explanation of relevant passages of the Koran quite fantastic. Are you really sure about this unanimity? In any case, I don't believe I said that your effort in the website is worthless, but rather that the interpretive method of singling out fearsome quotations regardless of context is worthless. Different kind of insult. Different object of scorn-not people, but methodology. 
Do you see my point about literalism? That one's close to my heart. I run across it all the time. It applies to poetic myth as well-among the ancient Greeks, for example, where a literalist interpretation of the myths of the gods led eventually to polytheism as we understand it today. I suspect that literalism is a particular problem in interpreting writings that are intended on multiple levels, where there are teachings for the many as well as more subtle messages for the few with "eyes to see." To stay with the Greeks for a moment, Plato's writings are famously of that sort.  Scripture may be as well.  If so, the interpretations taken as authoritative at any given time might possibly be quite wrong. I offer this not as an assertion, but a hypothesis worthy of consideration.  Another way to put it is:  What is the difference between dogmatic prescription and literature?  Is the Koran fully graspable as a list of injunctions-so that everything is either "haram" or "hilal" (as it's often understood here)-or might it possibly be what the term "text" implies, a woven fabric of meaning that constitutes a work as a whole?
Moving on:
Walter: "If we do not accord the Muslim "book of ultimate significance" the same respectful care with which we would approach any other book anointed for its greatness by more than a millennium of study by highly intelligent people, we render ourselves irrelevant to serious discussion. If we do not respect religion, we render ourselves irrelevant to serious dialogue and risk descending into mere polemics."
You: "Why religion is needed to be respected? One respects somebody or something when the latter adds value to one's life. I respect democracy; I respect secularism because it adds definite value to my life in substantial measures. Islam did not and does not add any value to my life but instead, it cripples my life in every step. Islam might add value to the life of the Muslims and let them respect their religion. I am at disadvantage in so many ways because of Islam. I am not morally and logically obligated to respect Islam and any such thing that has similar effect on my life.
You have said Islam is a "book of ultimate significance" to Muslims. Would you please enumerate as to how Islam/Koran adds significance or value to Muslims' life, in particular to those living in the West. How is it helping them, enriching them and their neighbors?"
Actually, the term "book of ultimate significance" refers not so much to those who find it significant, as to the ultimate significance of its subject matter. Thus I would apply the term equally to, say, the Vedanta or the Bhagavad-Gita. However, I do know people, decent people, who feel that the Koran does enrich their lives. I understand and respect your justified anger, but your experiences do not necessarily apply to absolutely everybody else whose life has been touched by Islam. I guess the issue between us is whether or not there is something "respectable," in the sense of "worthy of respect," in the book or the religion. I think there might be. We don't have to lock horns here; there is room for exploration. Contrary to an article on your website, I do see moderate but devout Muslims, all the time. I read them too. Here's a reference: Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, edited by Joseph Lumbard. Check it out.
Moving along:
Walter: "A more fruitful direction of inquiry, it seems to me, is: how does religion, especially a religion of law like Islam, come to conceptual language? How is the traditional dialogue within Islam changed under the globalized influence of the European Enlightenment? What is the relation of religious "belief" and "theology"?"
You: "This section of your comment is a bit fuzzy. Would you please deliberate a bit more in simpler language understandable by earthly human beings?"
Sorry about that. I'm running out of time for my day job so I have to be brief, but hopefully not so hopelessly obscure. Christianity developed in opposition to Greek philosophy, from which it nonetheless took its conceptual bearings. This means that in Christianity theological doctrine has historically been more emphasized than in Judaism or Islam, both of which are more directed toward the law. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, felt it necessary to defend Christianity before the bar of philosophy, whereas Averro-s' Decisive Treatise is a defense of philosophy before the bar of sacred law. This means that Christianity was more "philosophical," so to speak, although ecclesiastical authority bent Aristotelian philosophy for purposes of dogmatic orthodoxy, whereas Islam left free-thinkers free to think as a private matter. This had implications for the greatness of Islamic civilization in its heyday. Now, however, that the effects of the European Enlightenment have been globalized, all religions and all religious experience comes to conceptual language. Everybody does the same kind of theology, and often that just means bad philosophy in the sense of poor conceptual thinking. Take, for example, the way that Native American spirituality has been turned into insipid New Age books (no offense to my New Age contemporaries who might read this-I get to criticize my own generation). Islamist fundamentalism is an ideological theology that goes back only to the end of the 18th century. What makes modern Islamism new is the arrogant (or ignorant) rejection of the Islamic legal tradition, whose four schools have always given rise to discussion and debate and hence freedom for thought, in favor of a one-dimensional ideology that calls for an ahistorical "return" to a poorly-conceived "pure Islam" by way of repressive laws. Religious "belief" has become dogmatic "theology." Islamism represents the extreme of this tendency, but to some degree perhaps everybody is infected. That might have something to do with your negative experiences.
OK, let's finish:
Walter: "To sum up, with particular reference to Koranic interpretation: How and when did a rich civilization give way to an impoverished ideology? That is the question of Islamicist fundamentalism. Muslims used to study the universe in order to understand the Koran; now, for the most part, they ignore the universe and only read the sound of words."
You: "Who are those Muslims? Prophet Muhammad? Or his immediate associates namely Abu Bakr, Omar, Ali, Osman, ibn Walid? These are the finest heroes of Islam and we have sufficient knowledge about their activities and interests. But never such things came to our attention. Maybe we have missed it! Or there may be other great heroes of Islam, who might have done that. A bit detail would be helpful.
However, your assertion is flawed. Islam is the (only) perfect code of life and Koran is the ultimate minefield of knowledge and wisdom. Koran is complete. This is the fundamental doctrine of Islam. The saying that one needs studying the universe (gaining knowledge from other sources) to understand the Koran is contrary to the basic thesis of Islam. It amounts to insult to the Koran and Islam and should technically amount to blasphemy or heresy. Many of the 8th to the 14th century philosophers and scientists of Islam (not theologians) tried to do that and they were termed heretics and apostates and many of them had to pay the ultimate price for that. Instead, it is the Koran that contains all the knowledge and mysteries of the universe (ask Mourice Bucaille & Keith Moore et al., who recently discovered all the minefield of science in the Koran, which Muslims couldn't do in 14 centuries)."
Ah, but I'm right about this. It's not a matter of individuals, but of the atmosphere of a civilization. Islamic art, which is a style of great artistic (especially architectural) accomplishment, cannot be traced to specific individuals but it can be traced to the unity of religious experience or revelation. As far as I know, the great scientific accomplishments, notably the invention of the zero and algebra, without which European science could never have taken off, are also anonymous. The "completeness" of the Koran as a textual whole certainly did not prevent the civilization that was based upon it from exploring the world. Sure, many suffered persecution, as happened likewise throughout European history. And many suffered from the same kind of political infighting that happened throughout European history. Indeed, in both places the religious and the political have always tended to merge, when they did not collide.  Civilization is a strange and complex phenomenon. But Islam had it, its basis was religion, and its religion deserves respect. There's timeless truth hidden therein. That's my claim. OK, your turn.
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