Bill Warner’s Five Principles of Islam

Theoblogical (which is generally cool and worth a read) posted an article about Geert Wilders’ rally in Tennessee this week – as we’re coming up on “Draw Muhammad Day”, I’m going to talk about that and Mr Wilder separately, but one of the other panelists at this rally was Dr Bill Warner, a self-styled ‘expert’ in political Islam.  On his website, Dr Warner has come up with five principles of Islam that he argues are the crux of Islamic belief[1].  To be fair to Dr Warner, they are all vaguely accurate, but misrepresented.

I’ve said before that one of the difficulties with how Islam is presented in western public life is that we don’t always vet our sources, and Dr Warner is a perfect example.  He is a doctor and professor.  Of applied physics.  He says on his website that he “has had a lifelong interest in religion and its effect on history,” but this really isn’t the same thing as holding academic training in the field of religious history.  Most importantly, from his work, I can see no evidence to suggest that Dr Warner has any background in Arabic or philosophy of religion, and so I would argue that he lacks the methodological tools necessary for advanced study in religious history.

His five principles (which I presume are modeled on the Five Pillars, which, to be technical, are a Sunni concept, not a Muslim concept generally – a topic for another day) are as follows, with some comments from me following each:

1.) the Trilogy: the Qur’an, sira (biographies of the Prophet (peace be upon him)) and hadith are the basis of Islam.

While it’s true that these certainly make up the basis for Islamic history and legal writing, they are not the sum total of Islamic sources, even for the earliest period of Islamic history.  There is also poetry, historical writing, administrative writing, and early legal precepts, all of which make of up the core texts of Islamic sources, and all of which are integrated into Islamic thought in the centuries that followed.  In addition, the sira and the hadith are not individual books; they’re genres of writing.  Although the sira of Ibn Ishaq and the hadith of al-Bukhari are among the most widely accepted examples of each, they are not the only ones, nor the only accepted ones.  They are, however, among the only ones that have been translated into English.

2.) Political Islam: “the doctrine that relates to the nonbeliever, the kafir”

Certainly it is the case that doctrinal, believers go to Paradise and nonbelievers do not.  That’s generally true of every religion, or at least, every religion that has a concept of an afterlife (and not, for example, reincarnation after death).

Intriguingly, Islam has a concept of Hell as temporary, which is rare for the Abrahamic faiths.  According to most Muslim scholars, people in Hell suffer only for a period of time set by their sins and wrongdoing in life.  Obviously in the case of the nonbelievers, this would be a very long time as their wrongdoing is very serious, but still, it’s unusual that the division of damned in the afterlife is not understood as permanent.

I have no idea how Dr Warner got his figure that the Qur’an is 61% about kufr.  The Qur’an is certainly mostly about belief, but at least my inkling is that those discussions of belief are mostly directed internally, at the Muslims, not externally at other people. (But I’m not going to go count.  Sorry, internets, but I don’t love you that much.)

3.) Kafirs

Okay, firstly, a totally niggling point, but perhaps further evidence that Dr Warner does not know Arabic – kafir is singular, the plural is kufr.  There’s really no need to Anglicize it if you’re going to use the Arabic term.  More importantly, kafir is NOT the only term used in the Qur’an or in early Arabic literature to describe non-Muslim people.  In addition to the general terms for different religious groups (“Jew”, “Christian” (who are called “nazarites” in Arabic, due to Jesus’s epithet – “Jesus of Nazareth”), etc), one of the most common term is actually “mushrikun”.  Mushrikun has no direct English parallel, but means literally “one who attributes partners or likenesses to God” (a bit of a mouthful, which is why it’s usually not translated by Islamicists).  The Arabian polytheists were mushrikun because they prayed to idols along with Allah.  Christians are also sometimes called mushrikun because of the Trinity, which some Muslims thought meant they worshiped the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as separate entities.

Also, People of the Book is not equivalent to kufr – in fact, that’s really the most important distinction.  People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) are protected from attempts at conversion, whereas kufr are not, so People of the Book get to live in Muslim territory unmolested.  They have to pay a headtax (the jizya), but at least according to some scholars, this would have been equal or less than the zakat (the poor due paid by Muslims), so they might still have been making out on the deal.

But even kufr should not be treated as Dr Warner describes – there are rules for warfare, which are laid out in the early histories (which presumably he hasn’t read as they aren’t translated into English – if I ever get really bored, or a grant to do so, I really want to translate some of the early histories as they are incredibly important for understanding the nature of the early Islamic community).

4.) Dualism – by which he appears to mean contradictions in the Qur’an/in Islamic thought

Again, another niggling point, but that’s not what dualism means, which any expert on religious history should know – dualism is one of four options for theousia, or the formulation of God in a religion[2], where there are two equally powerful Gods, usually one good and one evil, who duel against each other for the world.  Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia at the rise of Islam, is dualist (and for anyone questioning my use of the word ‘is’ in that sentence, meet the Parsi).

The idea that complexity or even contradiction is unique to Islam is just silly – religions are massive, complicated philosophical structures and rarely adhere to direct lines of argument.  That’s exactly why theology exists – it tracks the continuing attempts of a religious community to understand it’s own basic texts.  In the same way that you can’t sit down, read the whole of Platonic philosophy, and have it all be straightforward, you can’t sit down a read religious texts and have it all be straightforward.  Personally, I consider that part of the fun, but I also like to read Plato in my free time[3].

5.) Submission – Islam means submission and Muslim means one who submitted.

Linguistically, yes, and this is one of those ‘fun’ conversations you have with yourself when translating early works, as to whether you should translate the verb ‘aslama’ as ‘to submit’ or ‘to become a Muslim’ (and by ‘fun’, I mean tedious).  But to be super-pedantic, the terms do also mean Islam and Muslim – the meaning of words evolves over time, and words, particularly words for abstract concepts, do not have singular, distinct meanings.  Although the words might have meant ‘submission’ to someone in the seventh century doesn’t mean that’s what people now mean when they call about Islam.  In the same way, when we talk about Judaism, we aren’t talking about the nation of Judea, we’re talking about a world religion.

And incidentally, the concept of submission seems to have worked to the advantage of creating a peaceful, balanced state in the first centuries of Islam.  Again, looking at the early histories, cities or large communities of people submit, and are called Muslims, but are also called Jews and Christians at the same time, suggesting that it was possible to be part of the Muslim state without conversion.  There’s very little evidence that the Muslims were interested in annihilating local cultures or societies; instead, it was a question of integration and cohabitation.

So yeah, I guess, the moral of this story is – the early Muslim histories are really cool.  They should be translated into English, but aren’t.  Unless you have access to a nineteenth century edition produced by William Nassau Lees when he was an Army Chaplain in Calcutta.  Seriously, that’s the last time this stuff was looked at.  I love my field.

[1] I honestly wish I could say thank you to Theoblogical for pointing me to his blog – I admit, it’s the sort of thing I should probably know exists – but really, after reading several entries over the last few days, my head hurts.

[2] The four options are monotheism, dualism, polytheism or pantheism.  Pretty much every religion falls into one of those categories, although some scholars include shamanic as it’s own category.  If you want a definition of any of the other three, leave a comment.

[3] Seriously.  One time I was reading Plato by a pool.  I got made fun of a lot.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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14 Responses to Bill Warner’s Five Principles of Islam

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Regarding your second footnote… is that a set of classification for religions in general, or is it limited to those that postulate a supreme being of some sort? If it’s the former, how are we defining pantheism in this context?

    I ask because I had a rather interesting conversation with my brother at lunch the other day, in which I postulated that religion teachings generally fall into three basic categories – or, more usually, some combination of these three elements:

    Worship of deity, either singular (Judaism) or plural (Hinduism).

    Veneration of the natural world, including place spirits, ancestor worship, and other local elements or phenomena (Shinto).

    Self-improvement/living well – learning how to operate in the world, teaching “right action”, removing elements of human behavior that work against you (Buddhism, Taoism).

    I have a minor in Anthropology, but no training in religious studies per se – but it seems to me that, historically speaking, monotheistic religions are actually extremely unusual (though in modern times, very successful).

    • The breakdown into monotheist, dualist, polytheist and pantheist (and shamanic) was the standard categories for modeling all religions, at least back when I was studying comparative religion, which admittedly was several years back. The categories are meant to overlap, sort of like a venn diagram, with some religions falling into several categories. The general definition is that monotheism, dualism and polytheism understand the divine as falling into distinct personas (of the appropriate number), who act in isolation from one another. Pantheism is traditionall defined as the diffusion of a single, generally infinite, divine essence – so for example, the shared ‘goodness’ of karma in Buddhism, which is essentially the same in all its manifestations. Shamanic religion has less of a set definition, and is sort of the catch-all category – although some Shamanic religions have a creator God, they are characterised by the existence of divinity in objects, places, animals, etc, so like Shinto or most Native American religions. But there tends to be a lot of overlap between pantheism and shamanic (for example, there are variations of both Buddhism and Tao that seem more like one or more like the other), and it’s rarely clear in most Shamanic traditions if the divine essence that exists in rocks, trees, etc is the same as the essence of the creator God, if there is one.

      You are absolutely correct that monothism (and dualism) are in the easy minority in history. They probably still are even today, but statistics for religion are problematic (because you have to decide whether or not to count ‘culturally’ religious as religious). Debateably, all existing monotheist and dualist religions all stem from the same traditions and the same territories, and developed in conversation with one another, so they do act as something of an enclosed set.

      Generally the elements of religion that are the focus of comparative religious studies are theousia (how they define divinity), salvation (whether they are region/community specific or universal), afterlife/resurrection, and, according to some scholars, anthropomophrization of the divine (Harold Bloom is probably the best known of this lot – his theories of religion were all about anthropomorphization). Part of why I study Christianity and Islam specifically is that they fall on the uncommon side for the first three – more religions hold a belief in resurrection than an afterlife, and universal religions, that claim salvation for the whole of humanity are incredibly uncommon (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Manicheanism being the big four). Obviously it’s difficult for universal religions to coexist, which is probably why they are so uncommon. But it happens to be that the major religious traditions in the west are all monotheist, predominately universal, with a belief in the afterlife and an anthropomorphized God, so that’s what we tend to think of as the standard model for religion.

  2. Michael Mock says:

    Okay, that makes sense… but (again, because of the Anthro background) I’d definitely split out pantheism and shamanism – what I’d call animism – simply because theologically, it makes a difference whether all those ancestors and place spirits are manifestations of a greater whole; or whether they’re just there, and no more connected than individual humans are.

  3. Michael Mock says:

    It also strikes me that the difference between pantheism/shamanism and polytheism is mainly one of scale – specifically, the scale of the spirits involved. If they’re strictly local, you have shamanism. But if they appear across larger geographical areas and/or are connected to categories of phenomena, you have polytheism.

    • I think that’s probably a fair description – I think part of the problem with trying to invent a nice, clean division for religions is that for polytheism, pantheism and shamanic, you’re working with a far larger group, so getting them to fit is more difficult. It’s also unclear if these distinctions make any real difference to the people practicing these religions, or if this is just comparative religious scholars fuffing about. (Not that academics ever just fuff about for their own entertainment. We are all deeply serious and austere people. Now, excuse me, I’m going back to playing minecraft. :))

  4. Pingback: Bill Warner on the Crusades | askanislamicist

  5. oriana says:

    Strawman technique…first distort the thesis, then knock it down. You are busted.

    Bill Warner’s writings are clear, if you want to understand them. Islam is political system given its impetus by bogus revelations, rather than the other way around, as you seem to assert.

    Mohammed’s family were spirit mediums who made a living ‘receiving messages’ from the beyond. Mohammed carried on the family trade and added his sociopathic compulsion to force others to ‘submit’ to him by plunder, enslavement, rape and assassination…all justified by his compliant deity who spoke whenever Mo needed backup. Mo always got his jollies…his alter ego never said ‘no’ like the whoories in paradise.

    Dr. Warner’s thesis is that politics is the main event of Islam: how Islam’s jihadists can take political power away from the kafirs…btw…the plural is ‘kufaar’ (‘kufr’ means ‘unbelief’ or ‘blasphemy’ or ‘wrong religious ideas’).

    You need to learn more about Islam.

    Moslems did attempt to eradicate local cultures by building on top of them and outlawing public display of their customs. There are few Christians in Turkey after the great jihad of 1915-1922 and few Zoroastrians left in Iran. There are no Buddhists left in Afghastlistan.

    Slow or fast, Islam always aims at the annihilation of non-Islamic cultures.

    Your claim that there was NO interest in eradicating host peoples is facile and unhistorical, yet typical of a self-serving, unscientific dawa-ist.

    Host, captive nations were kept alive as cattle to be milked for jizzya.

    Shame on you.

  6. Effendi says:

    I once had a rather quaint exchange with an Islamophobe who used Bill Warner claims to buttress his argument that an unbelievable 270 million were killed by “jihad.”

    • I hope that was supposed to be across the whole of time and space or something, because otherwise, my first reaction is – DUDE! Yes, if it were true, it would be tragic, but it would also just be impressive.

  7. thinkplank says:

    the term ‘strawman’, like ‘nazi’, is immediate cause for disqualification.

  8. Jay says:

    I’m being invited to a seminar by Dr. Bill Warner. I don’t know anything about Dr. Warner and I wanted to know his credentials so I Googled his name. Your site was one of the hits. I’ve read your analysis of Warner’s five-principles of islam. You don’t refute any of them; just attempt to mitigate and gloss over what he points out. Islam is thuggery and the koran is like a Mafia play-book. The only good muslim is an apostate. I am a kafir and proudly islamophobic. I want to see the mosques where hatred of America is spewed, or from where terrorists arise, have their tax-exempt status cancelled. I do not want to have any muslim children who insist on using school time for their so-called “prayers” in school; it is evil and wrong to be educating those who want to destroy America. I’ve studied the koran and Mo’s biography. I wondered why the “golden age” of islamic science stopped suddenly around the 9th century. I found out why. Islam is all about lies, deception and treachery. You are not to be trusted.

  9. greygandalf says:

    I hope you aren’t effended by this remark. 270 million, that is about the generally accepted number of deaths caused by the spread of Islam. What else do you expect when their ‘god’ has to appeased with blood, in all places, for an infinity of time? Yes, it is hard to imagine that level of brutality and savagery, over such a long period of time. Cheers Mo!

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