Islamic Imperialism

Lee asked: Hi, Jessica. Was referred to your blog by a local participant in an ongoing argument about Sharia and how it fits in American jurisprudence.

I find your opinions fascinating even though a bit biased toward Islam, and in light of that would be interested in your view of Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh. His presentation seems to be somewhat at odds with your loving analysis of how Islam expanded.

As I mentioned in my email, I actually wasn’t familiar with Professor Karsh’s work before this, so thanks for the recommendation; it was a very interesting read.  For everyone else, the book is an attempt to trace a line through Islamic history, looking for internal cues for the rise of Islamism in the 20th century, using the lens of “Islamic imperialism,” by which Karsh means roughly an expansionist zeal, coupled with integration of large portions of the conquered indigenous communities into the Muslim caliphate, which he sees as similar to European imperial colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it’s an interesting idea, but I do think the thesis has weaknesses, most of which stem from it being of the ‘pop history’ genre.  Unfortunately, in order to write something that will make sense to a layman, and which has an interesting and sexy enough narrative to hook a publisher, historians often have to sand down a lot of rough edges when it comes to historical narrative, and I think in this case, some of those rough edges, if they had been left, would have unsettled the rather neat picture of the Islamic expansion which Karsh presents.

In particular, while I agree with his thesis that we need to be looking at the history of Islamic thought and political philosophy as much as contemporary history to explain Islamism, I think it’s an overstatement to say that don’t need to look at contemporary history at all, which Karsh attempts to do with Osama b. Laden, claiming that his commitment to Islamism stems from his understanding of Islamic history, and, in Karsh’s words, only “superficially… [from] the ongoing US-orchestrated ‘butchering’ of the world’s 1.2 billion-strong Muslim community – ‘in Palestine, in Iraq, in Somalia, in southern Sudan, in Kashmir, in the Philippines, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, and in Assam’” (p. 227).  While we might be able to argue this for bin Laden himself (although to do so, I think we’d need to have much more than 10 pages devoted to his writings), I think it’s arrogant to presume that the deaths of hundreds of thousands around the world did not have any impact at all on the minds of their neighbors.  Moreover, people just aren’t that tied to their own history, even when it comes to religion – to take a contemporary example, there are plenty of ways you can illustrate that being a Christian influenced the actions of George W. Bush, but it would be an overstatement to say that being a Christian was the singular drive of his life, overshadowing all others.

I would also argue there are places where Karsh’s desire for a clean narrative tends towards broad generalization.  In particular, his understanding of World War I and the end of the Ottoman empire as a watershed for the creation of the modern Middle East would seem at odds with his belief that internal belief and dispute are more important for Muslim thought than geopolitics.  Similarly, although I know what he means, I can’t accept the statement that, “unlike other parts of the world, where the demise of empire during the twentieth century has invariably led to the acceptance of the reality of the modern nation-state, the contemporary Middle Eastern state system has been under sustained assault since its formation in the wake of World War I” (p. 229).  In terms of redrawing maps, Africa, in particular Center Africa, has the Middle East beaten hands down, and if you include regime changes and factional disputes, South America has been fraught with political upheaval throughout the twentieth century.  And that’s to say nothing of the fall of the USSR, which completely altered the concept of ‘nation-state’ for peoples from Central Europe as far as Central Asia.

My other problem with Islamic Imperialism is one that I really can’t claim is a fault, at all – it’s just a matter of I would have done it differently.  As is often the case with academics, there are parts of my own research that I think would have been useful here, and so it seems only fair that I disclose that explicitly.  I am, both by training and by temperament, an intellectual and social historian, and although I would not consider myself postmodernist, I am distinctly poststructuralist, and I’m not sure I’ve ever thought it possible to write a history of “what really happened,” as that’s just too much of a moving target.  I believe that history, like most scholarship, depends on the questions asked.  For example, you’ll get a very different narrative of WWI by reading histories of the battles than by reading letters written by men in the trenches.  But neither is wrong.  They simply have different intentions.  Both are useful, depending what question you’re trying to answer.

Being me, I found myself confused as to whether it was Karsh’s intention to write a history of the Islamic expansion as it really happened and as it was experienced by the indigenous communities of the 7th and 8th centuries, in which case I think his source basis is too narrow, or whether he was writing what Osama b. Laden thought the history of the Islamic expansion was, in order to discuss his personal philosophy, in which case, I think that intention needed to be stated more explicitly.

Karsh relies almost exclusively on four works to tell the history of the Islamic expansion – the histories of al-Baladhuri, al-Tabari and al-Waqidi and the biography of the Prophet (peace be upon him) of ibn Ishaq.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with this – lots of Islamicists have done the same thing.  And if we’re writing about what bin Laden thought happened in the expansion, it makes perfect sense, as these works are relied on heavily by later Muslim historians.

But if we’re trying to write a history of how the expansion really happened and how it was experienced, then we need to talk about what these sources are.  All four were written or redacted at least a century (and in the case of al-Tabari, three centuries) after the events they describe, and of the four, at least three are fairly explicitly stated to be propaganda – al-Baladhuri for the Abbasids and al-Tabari and ibn Ishaq for the Muslim caliphate generally (and the last one, al-Waqidi, is not universally accepted as authentic).  Thus, to my mind, Karsh has set out to write a history to demonstrate how important imperialism was to Muslims, and has chosen as his sources three works written to support imperialism.  It’s certainly an important topic to those authors, but that doesn’t mean it was important to everyone.

It also overlooks a whole lot of sources written on the ground by a wide range of peoples, who would be in a position to provide different points of view on the expansion.  The Christian and Jewish communities of the Near East continued to write histories, legal texts, stories, sermons, apologetics, and letters, but the view we get from these is much fuzzier.  Sometimes the Muslims seem like tyrants and monsters.  Sometimes they seem like kind and wonderful rulers.  And sometimes they seem barely visible.  All of these viewpoints, I think, would disrupt the neat vision of expansion that Karsh has laid out.

But again, this is what I do, so I think it’s important!

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Arabia, Wonderland, and Why We’re Still Obsessed with the Haram

ETA: I wrote this about a week ago, and then cleverly never remembered to actually publish it.  I’m brilliant!  It’s obviously a bit dated now, but hopefully still interesting to some people.

I recognize that I’m the millionth person to comment on this, but for people who haven’t heard, ABC Family commissioned, and then cancelled, amidst general disgust and outrage, a pilot entitled “Alice in Arabia,” about an American Muslim teenager who gets kidnapped by her Saudi grandfather and held against her will in Saudi Arabia.  Prior to the show’s cancellation, Buzzfeed obtained an early copy of the script, which they described as “[lending] itself to particularly easy comparison with Not Without My Daughter, a 1991 film based on a nonfiction book by the same name.”  The initial announcement of the show led to #AliceinArabia trending on twitter, with the script’s author Brooke Eikmeier eventually speaking in her own defense, explaining that the show was “meant to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American TV,” albeit a voice provided by a white, non-Muslim former military employee.

Like anyone else who has been paying attention to how Muslims are portrayed on American TV, I was delighted to hear the show was cancelled (although my favorite of the #AliceinArabia tweets is still from Anna Lekas Miller ‏(@agoodcuppa) – “Not going to lie, a little bit disappointed that #AliceInArabia is cancelled. Was looking forward to Orientalism drinking games.”).  But the framing of the story itself made the history nerd in me a little amazed, as I think it demonstrates quite clearly that we, as Americans and Westerners, are still a little bit obsessed with ‘the harem.’

Haram is an Arabic term meaning ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited,’ and is one of the legal standards used in Islamic law to distinguish correct and incorrect practices.  Harim was a special designation for sacred spaces in the pre-Islamic era, in which local tribes agreed to adhere to special laws and principles, especially with regard to murder, theft, and violations of tribal autonomy.  This allowed locals to visit these holy places in peace, without needing to worry about attacks or retaliation for past events.  The Ka’aba in Mecca was one such harim.  The use of the term continued in the Islamic period, with the Qur’an expanding the rules regarding correct practices within the harim, including restricting the kinds of clothing worn, the use of perfume or wearing of jewelry, thus creating an atmosphere of equality among pilgrims.

The European concept of the harem arose out of this idea of a sacred and confined space, but focused on one specific kind of confined space, the private space within Muslim homes, specifically those areas where women did not wear veils, which generally means areas intended for family and close friends.  The concept of “women’s quarters” was common throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, but Islam’s allowance of both polygamy and divorce fueled a belief in, essentially, Muslim sex dungeons – private areas of the home full of half-naked wives and concubines leisurely awaiting their master’s return.

That’s not to say that such a thing never happened – it certainly did.  Indeed, in the 16th and 17th centuries, several Ottoman sultans prided themselves on it.  But many scholars of the Middle East, myself included, would argue that this European belief in the harem as a commonplace feature of Muslim life reveals more about European ideas of sexuality and family space than it does about anything to do with Islam.  Indeed, the harem was one of the central aspects of Edward Said’s Orientalism – he noted that, along with the suq, the public market (which, particularly in European art, was also often portrayed with a great deal of nudity), the harem is one of the few clearly recognizably Middle Eastern images in European literary and artistic traditions.

It is certainly the case that humans in general seem to assume that any time modesty and privacy meet, the result is awesome sexy times.  It’s this same assumption that fueled the European genre of nunsploitation – the literary genre of erotica about nuns (and monks and priests), which has existed for about as long as there have been nuns and monks[1].  Since monks and nuns were modest in public, it seemed obvious that they were kinky in private.  I’d argue this same assumption is behind the modern concept of the sexy librarian.

The image of the harem also parallels nunsploitation in its underlying (and very European Christian) assumption that overt sexuality is a sign of moral weakness.  Stories of nunsploitation were increasingly popular during the Protestant revolutions and among the humanists, as they were used to illustrate the essential weakness of traditional Catholicism.  The logic was pretty obviously tautological – we all know that nuns are secretly kinky because they’re so modest in public, and because they’re kinky, they must be failing in their religion.  The same goes for the European imagination of the harem – the imagination of the harem is an extreme one, fraught with ‘sexual deviance’ (a horrible term, which in this case generally meant ‘being queer’ or ‘women enjoying sex’), but also with oppression, violence, manipulation, and often substance abuse.

The idea of the harem has been used to serve a lot of purposes in European (and later, Western) works, but it’s hard to get away with the explicit sexuality of the image.  Indeed, a quick google search (definitely NSFW!) reveals that art is still being created which depicts the harem as a public bath (which is a Roman innovation made popular in the Near East by the Byzantines) full of half-naked women (many of whom, in modern works, appear to be modeled on Japanese anime).  I’m not terribly surprised by this – it hits a lot of high points in terms of sexual fantasies.  The Alice in Arabia story hints of this, as well, particularly in its apparent continued stressing of American (ie. normal) versus Arabian (ie. repressed, but possibly also hyper-sexual) lifestyle.

These stagnant ideas about the Middle East are exactly why portrayals like “Alice in Arabia” are problematic, however.  Not only do they not contribute to a broader conception of what Muslim/Arab (a distinction too many of these works blur) life is like, they also reaffirm images that are, at best, outdated and, at worst, mythological.  Muslim and Arab homes are no more filled with crazy sex dungeons than American homes are filled with McDonald’s, guns and TVs constantly blaring Fox News – I’m pretty sure that American home does exist, but that’s nowhere closer to being the only or even most common iteration.

[1] I would like to point out that Wikipedia wrongly associates the term nunsploitation to a genre of pornographic movies – the genre definitely predates film, as examples exist from the Middle Ages.  Check out the book Virgins of Venice (one of the few history of religion monographs that should probably come with a NSFW label) on the Medieval and early modern history of the genre.

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Save the humanities, win interesting prizes!

There’s an interesting article over on Vitae (which is quickly becoming my favorite site for angry blogposts from disaffected academics – hey, everyone’s gotta have a hobby!) arguing that the humanities aren’t really in danger, but that we as humanities researchers need to repackage how we talk about our studies.  The author suggests (as I’ve heard other people do) that we need to take a page from the STEM playbook, giving the particular example of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I’ve been part of similar arguments in the UK when Brian Cox was first achieving fame as a rockstar/physicist, and I’m struck with the same problem with the argument – I don’t see how we can do that.

Firstly, I think it’s worth noting for a moment that many famous scientists are either physicists (particular astrophysicists) or biologists, which I think says more about the public interest value of those subjects than anything else.  These are subjects that have had public appeal for more than a century – just look at the number of observatories, planetariums, and natural history museums in the world.  We like looking at the stars and hearing about bugs and botany.  That’s awesome, but not necessarily transferable to other subjects (for example, name your favorite TV mathematician!)

However, I think it’s actually harder for people in the humanities to talk about their work in a way that the public will embrace because honestly, a lot of our work is about how much people suck.  As a historian and theologician, I spend a lot of time at public gatherings talking about Medieval siege tactics and the history of Greek fire because it’s a way to avoid having people ask me ‘so why is Islam such a violent religion?,’ a question that I can’t answer without accusing the asker of bigotry and bias.

Questions of gender, race, sexuality identity, ableism, class privilege, and imperialism permeate almost every field of the humanities and social sciences, but these still aren’t topics that most people want to think about.  They also permeate the sciences, as proven by the still abysmal recruitment rates of non-white-male scientists and the scary accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace, but they permeate the actual experience of being a scientist, not the language with which scientists describe the universe.

Case in point: when Stephen Hawking was asked about his life and career at seventy, he said that what he thinks about most is women because “they are a complete mystery to me.”  It was obviously meant in a light-hearted way, but it’s still a rather creepy observation from a seventy-year-old man AND a slightly sad statement from a person reputed to be one of the most brilliant people in the world.

[Pro-tip to Professor Hawking (who clearly reads my blog): the mystery is that we’re people.  Like, people-people.  We’re all different.  So it’s really hard to generalize about us unless the generalization is ‘they’re people.’]

If a historian or a sociologist or a literarian wanted to put together a big, glossy TV show like Cosmos, it would be very difficult to do so in a way that is both honest to the source material and which does not touch upon uncomfortable topics like slavery, genocide, sexual violence, or poverty, because that’s a lot of what we do.  Indeed, these shows do exist, but tend to focus on Classical history (Michael Wood being one of the great kings of them, and more recently, my department’s former chair, Diarmaid MacCulloch), in part because it’s easier to wash over these uncomfortable topics as something people *used* to do (a repellant tendency of very bad scholarship that unfortunately seems to be seeping into our discussions of American Revolutionary and Civil War history, as well, events that desperately need to be discussed with an eye for the present-day consequences of their actions).

The thing is, talking about these things *IS* necessary, which is why I get anxious when funding and enrollment in the humanities starts to slip.  These problems aren’t going to go away by ignoring them, and having a community of researchers that have methodologies and language in place to study and understand them should help.  But it’s never going to be as entertaining as watching lions hunt or seeing distant stars up close (and pragmatically, it’s never going to be as good for selling commercial slots or getting promotional tie-ins).

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Academia today

So this is going to be slightly beyond the normal purview of my blog (as much as I can still claim to have a normal purview), but I think it’s a discussion worth having when talking about religion in public life.

There have been a string of articles in the last six months talking about the failings of academia as a professional institution. These things tend to crop up from time to time, but at least in my opinion, both the frequency of them and the tone should be enough to give us pause.  Last November, the New York Times featured an insider view on a Versatile PhD group meeting – a real live support group for academics surviving as adjuncts or who are considering leaving academia altogether.  The article was featured with a list of websites and communities offering support for PhDs outside of academia, dramatically entitled “rehab for Doctoral Defectors” [1].

Meanwhile, The Guardian is asking “Are adjunct professors the fast-food workers of the academic world?” and Al-Jazeera English is claiming adjuncts are “academia’s indentured servants.”  Even the Chronicle of Higher Education, an institution that you would think would be doing everything possible to talk up academia as a profession, joined in this month, featuring an op-ed explaining how the two-tier recruitment system is damaging education.  And perhaps the strangest addition to this conversation, Peter Higgs, namesake of the Higgs-Boson particle, told the Guardian that he probably couldn’t survive in today’s academic system.

One of the central themes to these discussions is the rise of adjunct teaching – for people who don’t know, in the past several decades, universities and colleges have come to rely more and more on adjuncts.  These are part-time positions that teach classes, but are not tenure-track, and are generally categorized as temporary (even if some people adjunct at the same place for decades), and so come with no benefits.  Adjunct titles started out as a way to improve collaborations – you made your collaborator an adjunct at your institution, and then she could team-teach lectures with you or work with you in the lab – but now, many PhDs are adjuncts at multiple institutions, teaching 2-3 classes at each (and often temping or working part-time in addition) in order to make ends meet.

Because these positions are non-tenure-track, they’re also a massive black holes in terms of people’s careers – although teaching is one category that needs to be filled out in your CV, you also need to publish, get funding, and develop research projects, all areas where adjuncts are unofficially (or in the case of many funding sources, officially) not allowed to participate.  

But these articles also hint at the larger problem facing academia – namely that even as institutions of higher educations are becoming more corporatized, academics are holding tight to the belief that academia remains a meritocracy, and that tenure (and the level of funding often needed to acquire it) are signs of merit.  Thus, “alt-ac,” the, in my opinion, unfortunate term for “the world of everything else you can do with a PhD besides be faculty,” remains a taboo subject, and is often entered into with a sense of failure.

Personally, I love projects like VersatilePhD, and I love alt-ac.  I’ve worked in university administration for almost as long as I’ve been a student, and it’s had nearly as much of an impact on how I view education (and admittedly, not always for the better – particularly, working in admissions did give me a bit of a ‘how the sausages are made’ view of higher education).  Also, as a religious historian, I’ve always worked alongside two of the largest areas of alt-ac – library sciences, including librarians and archivists, and pastoral work, like ministers, priests, rabbis and imams.  To me, it’s just obvious that a PhD is useful for other things – a PhD teaches you to do research and to write, and there are lots of fields that require those skills.

But I think it’s important for the wider world to get a bit of that ‘how the sausage is made’ view, too.  The reality is that most people who are being trained to do research in this country aren’t going to end up doing research in an academic setting – even the top universities probably only see about 70% of their PhDs in tenure-track positions [2].  Thus, research ends up being like anything else – there’s a lot more potential out there than there is actual material.  Unlike the arts, news outlets, and media in general, however, which have seen huge pushes into egalitarianism since the rise of the internet, academia has been generally resistant towards alternative forms of distribution (this blog notwithstanding) – even though many trained researchers don’t end up working in academia, we still tend to assume that research (or at least, good, unbiased research) comes out of academia, and not from anywhere else.

This is changing – there’s a growing online community for nearly any subject, and loads of cool specialty stuff, from media commons journals to youtube videos on advanced mathematics.  But much of how academics are trained still instills a sense of your research as an extension of you, and these kinds of non-academic outreach strike many of sullying ‘real’ research.  Again, this helps to explain the sense of failure that often accompanies any discussion of ‘alt-ac’ – there’s still that lingering sense that if you were good, you’d be tenure-track.  

It also gives some context for why bad scholarship and bad science can survive for so long – if you’ve been trained to think of your work as an extension of yourself, and your self-worth, then you’re going to approach innovation and criticism not from the point of view of expanding the field of knowledge, but as personal attacks.  For this reason, academics will often grasp frantically onto their established theories in the face of significant opposing thought or, if things are getting lean, jump onto a bandwagon of a new methodology or kind of inquiry, regardless of the stability of that innovation.  Considering that funding (another major aspect of how academics are employed) is generally controlled by private organizations, corporations, or governments, all of which have their own agendas, it becomes much easier to understand how scholarship can so often become corrupted with the same social pressures and biases as anything else.

[1] “Doctoral Defectors” is the name of my They Might Be Giants cover band.

[2] Data on this is only now being collected, but this number came out of a presentation I heard at AAR 2013 on the subject of PhD employment and alt-ac.


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Transliteration, spelling, and pronunciation

Happy New Amended Gregorian calendar!  I would say that my New Year’s resolution is to update more often, but that would be a total lie. Actually, my resolution/plan for this year is basically the PhD comic one, so updates will probably remain sporadic at best.

However, that is of the future.  The now is a really cool question from Uzza:

“moslem” as I understand it is an older spelling, contra “muslim”, which has become more popular in recent years. Without any certainty, I attribute this to the input of actual Islamic people in American discourse.  

Now some are claiming that the latter spelling is racist & etc., leaving me rather nonplussed.

Should we avoid writing “moslem”, so as not to offend? relegate it to the same wordbin as “mohammedan”?

Also, How should we pronounce it?  The first syllable  as moo or muh?  Should we say ALL-ah or al-LAH?  IS-lam, or is-LOM?

My perspective is that of a linguist, I realize these are different correct(ish) transliterations from Arabic script; I’ve not seen any accurate phonetic transcriptions, and from what I hear it’s usually pronounced like “moo- slum”, for either spelling.

Which brings up a point, one of the basic rules of English phonology is that intervocalic /z/ is voiceless. That puts the kibosh on saying moo-s-lim. Sorta. Same problem arises with the accents mentioned above, ….aaaand …we get into issues of culture, and imperialism, and holy wars,,,, and maybe I should just shut up.  But I’m curious, will people be offended. 

If you’re still reading, thanks for your persistence.  If you answer, I’ll worship you.   

–Uzza  (the Nabatean one, not that doofus from the bible)


I’m going to talk a little bit about Arabic linguistics and the history of the language’s use in the West, and then I’ll answer your question more directly.  For that bit, skip to the end!

A little bit of history

Okay, so a little background for people who haven’t studied Arabic or linguistics – Arabic is a Semitic language, like Hebrew and Aramaic, and is based on triliteral roots, meaning that most natural (non-loan) Arabic words have three root letters that are expanded and given prefixes and suffixes to be declined, conjugated and made into new words.  The standard model for this is the letters k-t-b.  “Kataba” means “to write.”  “Kitab” means “a book.”  “Katib” means “a writer.”  “Iktaba” means “to send” (as in a letter).

The Arabic alphabet has three short vowels, generally transliterated in modern Arabic transliterations (more on that below) as a, i and u.  It also has three long vowels, usually transliterated as ā, ī, and ū.  The short vowels aren’t letters, but diacritical marks that can be written in above or below the line, but aren’t required, and are generally left out, especially in handwriting.  The long vowels are letters whose pronunciation can change depending on their nearest consonant neighbor in the word or by the use of a hamza (an aspiration mark, usually transliterated with an apostrophe).

So far, so good.  But what I’ve just laid out is roughly an explanation of the modern rules of transliteration.  Transliteration of Arabic into Western languages has been around for a millenium and a half, and has rarely been systematized.   Much of the early translations and transliterations were into Latin, often by way of Greek, and were generally done phonetically.  Elements of these transliterations still exist in English today – ‘algebra’, for example, comes from the Arabic “al-jabr” meaning “the putting together of parts.”  Medieval Latin conflated the prefixed article ‘al’ as part of the word, transliterated the “j” sounds as a soft “g”, and added a vowel at the end, probably either for pronunciation or to give the word a gender.

Phonetic transliterations are very common, especially when there is only limited knowledge of the language.  Again, “algebra” is a useful example – early Latin (or possibly even Greek) translators of Arabic mathematical works didn’t consistently recognize the use of the article, and so blended it into the word itself, transliterating the word as a unique term rather than translating it.  Eventually, that transliterated term took on a unique meaning, and thus made its way into other European languages.

Phonetic transliterations remained the norm even as Semitic and Near Eastern studies developed into distinct academic fields in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and it’s in this period that the slightly more standardized forms of “Moslem,” “Mohammed,” or “Koran” start to appear.  These words were transliterated phonetically into English and German (thus the “k” in Qur’an, where English could have just as well used a ‘c’ or ‘qu’).  Phonetic transliteration into French also gave us the “dj” seen in Djibouti and djinn, as to French ears, the Arabic “j” sound was more guttural than the French “j,” so they prefixed it with a “d” to get the sound closer.


The academization of writings about the Near East and Islam lent a certain amount of consistency to these transliterations, with “Moslem” and “Koran” emerging as the most common spellings (although English and German scholars often varied in how they capitalized them in English writing).  The term “Mohammedan” was also common, but, as Uzza rightly points out, has been effectively cast aside as being pejorative, for implying that Muslims worship Muhammad (peace be upon him) as Christians worship Christ (although I’m sad to say, I have heard it used in academic settings in the 21st century…).

Interest in standardizing Arabic transliterations developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with the increase in Near Eastern and Semitic-language journals.  Printing non-Western characters was expensive, and depending on the printing style, sometimes impossible – non-Western characters had to be drawn in by hand in each copy – so printing transliterations consistently, so that the work could be disseminated more broadly and the readers could get a clear idea of the text, became a bigger priority.

It also led to a disagreement in how transliterations should work.  The other Semitic languages, especially the Aramaic dialects, which were considered dead languages, were transliterated systematically, so that each character in the Aramaic or Syriac alphabet corresponded to one (or a marked set of two, such as with ‘th’ and ‘sh’) in the English alphabet.  Although they mostly matched up in terms of sounds, the matching didn’t work 100%.  But, Syriacists argued, systematic transliteration was much more consistent, and made it easier for readers to reconstruct the text based on the transliteration.  

A similar, systematic transliteration system developed for Arabic, called the “DMG” style (for the Deutsche Morgenlaendische Gesellschaft, one of the largest Middle Eastern journals of the first half of the 20th century).  It used only three short vowels, and although largely phonetic, it had several non-phonetic matches.  For example, Arabic has three “th” sound letters.  The tha (which is pronounced like “that”) was transliterated “th,” the dhal (pronounced like “thought”) as “dh” and the dtha (that’s the old spelling, it’s pronounced like “those”) as a z with a dot under it, a special character that’s still not common in most typefaces (including google docs, where I’m typing this now!).  The z-character is not phonetically correct – at least for fusha, standard Arabic.  As it happens, some dialects do pronounce that letter as closer to a z-sound, so in that way, it was correct, but it didn’t follow ‘proper’ Arabic pronunciation.

Most modern transliteration systems are systematic, but now, due to imperial influence, many pre-systematized, phonetic transliterations are common in the Middle East and particularly in South Asia, as English in South Asia was institutionalized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

What’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s written

So how ‘should’ we say these words?  

If you want to talk like you speak fusha, then it’s “MOO-slem” (although it’s a gentle accent on the first syllable), “iss-LAM” (with a hard ‘a’, like the first ‘a’ in ‘animal’), and “ah-LAH” (with a soft ‘a’ in both syllables, a bit like a nice, relaxing ‘aaah’, and with a breathed pronunciation of the final ‘h’).  But there are hundreds of different Arabic dialects, and they all sound a little (or in some case, really, really, really) different.  Even the most hard-core Classical Arabic scholar, after spending a few months in Cairo, tends to come back dropping ‘q’s and ‘w’s all over the place (and man, those things are a pain to get out of the carpet!).

It gets even less clear when you’re talking about how we should pronounce the English word “Islam.”  Because it is an English word.  In Arabic, it’s spelled alif-sin-lam-mim.  In English, it’s spelled i-s-l-a-m, and the way it’s pronounced is going to reflect the resident language.  It’s the same reason we call Mexico “meks-i-co” and not “me-hi-co,” Hawaii “ha-wa-ii” and not “ha-va’-ii,” and Detroit “de-troit” and not “de-tway.”  And for the record, it’s also why Arabic-speakers say “am-ree-ka,” not “America,” and “bri-taw-nia” and not “Britain.”  Loanwords bend to fit the alphabet, morphology, and phonetics of their adoptive language.

Personally, I like systematic transliteration, but if we’re going to use them consistently, we would need to expand standard typesettings.  Also coming up with easier hot-keys for them would be nice.  I use full transliterations in my academic writings, but I usually drop the diacritical marks in my blogging and more ordinary writing (so I tend to write Islam and not Islām), mostly because constantly adding special characters is a pain, and I don’t use enough Arabic words in my blogging to risk a confusion over words with similar spellings but different vowels.  I also generally encourage my students to use “Muslim” and “Qur’an” over “Moslem” and “Koran” on the basis that they’re more recent and more broadly accepted in the field.

Is “Moslem” or “Koran” offensive?  That you’d have to ask a Muslim.  They’re not pejorative the way “Mohammedan” is – they’re not misrepresenting or making false claims about the culture through their use of terminology.  However, they are more Anglicized/Romanized, in particular “Koran” for “Qur’an,” as (I’ve learned in a decade of study) many Westerns seem weirded out by the use of apostrophes as diacritic marks.

In general, I support Westerns in general and Americans in particular (and white Americans in the very particular) getting more used to non-Romanized languages.  If you can pronounce John and Larry, you can pronounce Xin and Amr.  They are English words, you just need to learn how they’re pronounced, in the same way everyone has to learn that the “p” in pneumonia is silent, and that “enough” is pronounced like someone got drunk and made up a pronunciation for it.

So I guess my answer is I don’t think it’s offensive, but I also see no reason not to use the systematic spellings, since both exist.  If we’re going to champion one, I think we should champion that one.  But possibly people have strong allegiances to “Moslem.”  Anyone?  Bueller?

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Why study theology?

Following on from my last post, the Atlantic has a super-cool article explaining why people should study theology.  Hat-tip to my favorite high-heeled minister for pointing me to it (follow her on twitter here).  And unsurprisingly, the internet is now teeming with articles and blogposts about why this is the WORLD’S WORST ADVICE!  So let this be a lesson to you all – drive on the railroad tracks, give out your personal info to anyone who asks, and always accept rides from strangers.  Especially if they have candy.  Just don’t study theology.

Okay, so to be fair, the WORLD’S WORST ADVICE part is actually from one article that’s been posted over and over again, but I still find it a little bizarre that people are so horrified that people could argue in favor of studying religion.  It also makes me think no one actually read the Atlantic piece.  The whole point is that, whoever you are, wherever you’re from, however determinedly (or vitriolically) you hold to your atheism, your life is affected by religion.  Ignoring it is ignoring important data about how we ended up here.

I’m really starting to worry that wise, intelligent, sophisticated, critically-minded, well-informed scientists don’t understand how “infection” works.  Religion is not infectious.  You’re not going to catch it by exposing yourself to it.  If you’re really worried, try wearing a surgical mask whilst you read Aquinas!


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Richard Dawkins says silly things (in response to saying dumb things)

Okay, advanced warning – I’ve been in a really bad mood for the last few days, so I expect this post will be even snarkier than usual.  Consider yourself warned…


So yes, in response to his pithy observation that more Trinity Cambridge people have won Nobel prizes than Muslims, Richard Dawkins, full-time biologist and part-time old man yelling at clouds, has addressed any bad feelings he totally accidentally created by explaining that he likes “nice religious leaders.”  And the Jews.  And possibly Pope Francis?  And by explaining the Nobel Peace Prize “doesn’t count.”  I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he means “counts” toward calculating who has the most, and not just in an abstract, existentialist way.  So that clears that up.

Honestly, the whole interview is super mansplainy (and available here - trigger warnings for Islamophobia, casual racism, mansplaining and general public schoolboy douchebaggery).  Dawkins revises his comments about the Nobel Prize to note that more Jews than Muslims have won, and then absolutely denies that has anything to do with race – because apparently the fact that of the 185 Jewish-identified Nobel Prize winners (excluding the 8 Peace Prize winners), only 28 of them were born outside of Europe or North America, and even the vast majority of those did most of their research in Europe or North America has nothing to do with race.  Again, as I said in my last post, the divergence in performance in things like the Nobel are massive, institutional problems having to do with the availability of resources and the privilege to define parameters.  To put it simply, people in North America and Europe get more Nobel Prizes because we invented the Prize and set all of the parameters for its awarding, and continue to control most of the resources required for it (university positions, university rankings, grant funding, collaborations, etc).

The interview is obviously set up to present Dawkins in as positive a light as possible.  It’s in fact the interviewer who throws in a passing comment about not being able to choose your religion in “a poor, religious, Muslim country.”  Pro-tip: Always be clear in what you mean by “Muslim country.”  Are we talking about Iran?  Iraq?  Pakistan?  India?  Canada?  All of those countries have large Muslim populations.  Also lots of Americans are both poor and religious, but not Muslim, and some are Muslim, but neither poor nor terribly religious.  Also some people are just poor.  These things are not actually related.

I keep trying to convince myself that Dawkins is just an apologist, and that everything he says should just be taken as atheist polemic, but with all of his talk of education, it just makes me sad that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand the relationship between things like race, nationalism and culture and things like privilege and imperialism.  Religion is really not the only factor when it comes to the differences between Europe and the Middle East, and pretending it is is both (a) bad scholarship and (b) massively destructive for the people living in the rest of the world (oh, and while we’re at it, also (c.) the same thing Western imperialist said to try to convert everyone else to Christianity, a group I don’t think Dawkins wants to be associated with).  

And then, charmingly, at the end of the interview, he throws in that he’s a sucker for “nice” religious leaders.  Which is obviously untrue, because the man spoke out again Rowan Williams, who is, by all accounts, an incredibly nice guy (and also, according to some rumors, a hobbit).  Which is actually what bothers me the most about the atheist polemic that tries to claim education as its own unique identifier – if you honestly believe that all negative representatives of a religion demonstrate the awfulness of all religions ever, but that all positive representatives are merely outliers, then you are terribly bad scientist.  Some people are good and kind.  Some people are massive douchenozzles.  Some of each group are religious.  And some of each group are atheists.  The end.

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