Islam and evolution

Umar asked:

Hi there,

I am a Muslim, but I’m struggling to reconcile evolution with my religion. I completely accept the evidence for evolution, and honestly, I’m more likely to give up my religion than I am to take up creationism. Despite this though, I am a firm Muslim, and would certainly not like to leave Islam.

I find it difficult to believe in a metaphorical Adam and Eve. The Quran specifically calls them prophets, so how can prophets, whom we revere, and attach the suffix A.S to, be a metaphor?

Similarly, science tells us that Noah’s ark and the flood are not tenable. How can Noah be a metaphor when we regard him as a prophet?

Many Christians talk about how Thomas Aquinas mentioned how the Genesis story was not meant to be taken literally. Is there an Islamic precedent for regarding Adam and Noah as metaphorical?

I know you are not a scientist, but I am really hoping you can help me in this journey.

Thank you,


Hi Umar,

First, my apologies both for the delay in this reply and for the substance, which I fear will only be a very early starting point for what is a very big issue.

Also, I feel I should admit that I’m always quite nervous to respond when people ask me questions about religion that stem from their own conflicts of faith because I am, myself, an agnostic, meaning I’ve never managed to resolve any of these questions to my own satisfaction, so I feel like my response can’t be much better than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

However, your question is an important one, so I will do my best to point to some of the themes I’ve found in reading around this topic that I think might help.  To start with, you are definitely not alone in having these questions, and there seems to be a range of responses of how other Muslims have found parallels between the stories of the Qur’an and the messages of scientific research.  I’d suggest checking out Islamic Theory of Evolution by T.O. Shanavas, articles by Usaama al-Azami, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming Anila Asghar (ed.), Islam and evolution education: Historical and contemporary perspectives.  For what it’s worth, these are also questions that Muslims have always had and used to further expand their own understand of God’s message – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a contemporary of Darwin who defended that latter’s research, pointing quite rightly to many of the themes of The Origin of Species as being no different from work done by Medieval Islamic biologists and naturalists.  All of this is just to say that I don’t think these questions are either frivolous or blasphemous, but important for understanding how we as humans can understand God’s plan.

In my own reading of both Christian and Muslim responses to evolution, I think the theme that resonates the most with me is that any wisdom, including divine revelation, needs to be comprehensible to the community who receives it in order to be effective.  It’s no good sending Sagan’s Brief History of Time to Ancient Rome – even if it were translated into Latin, there are way too many concepts that just aren’t going to translate.  

I think this is particularly important in thinking about the messages of the Qur’an because if the Qur’an is the final revelation humanity will ever receive from God, then it would make sense that it carries within it many layers of wisdom, so that as we become more intelligent and understand more about the world, we can find more and more wisdom in it.

Take the story of Noah, for example.  On the one hand, that something similar could have happened on a small scale is not impossible.  That would be the first level of meaning, a rather amazing story that highlights both the impressive capacity of humans when we set ourselves to a task and the tremendous power of God to change the world through our actions.  But the story of the flood is also not a bad way to introduce the idea of mass extinction to a population who don’t yet know nearly enough about geography, geology, or biology to understand it in full.  They wouldn’t understand all of the dynamics of mass extinction if you just gave them all of the science in a giant info dump, but they’ll remember the crazy story about a man and a giant boat.  And in a few thousand years, they will know more about science, and understand that mass extinction is possible, and maybe they’ll read that story again and realize that Noah was able to save the human race because he was willing to act as steward for every other species and save them, a rather painful lesson we’re currently being taught by global climate change.

I feel like the story of Adam and Eve could be similarly multi-leveled.  We may have evolved from apes, but there was still a first human, particularly in terms of human consciousness, the sentience that allows us to love and fear and hope and doubt.  In the sense of awareness, there was some ape-person whose consciousness first emerged from the shapeless void of pure survival instinct.  If we take the ‘personhood’ of the Genesis story as consciousness, I think it actually makes a great of sense – it’s not hard to imagine that the first self-aware human would look at his ape-cousins and believe them to be more peaceful and more content.  Anyone who has experienced heartbreak or dread about the future can understand how consciousness could be considered a curse.  From this angle, the Qur’anic version of the Genesis story is particularly powerful – God recognizes that the first few humans have emerged from the peaceful garden of non-sentience to the fear and anxiety of sentience, and so sends Gabriel to them to ease their minds and explain that this is merely the next step in their existence, and that while it will bring with it pain and fear, it also carries the potential for incredible new experiences, like love, hope, and faith.

I’m not sure if any of that helps – I appreciate that I’ve much more talked around your question than actually addressed it – but hopefully the writers I’ve suggested can offer some more substantial guidance.  I think it’s also worth remembering that we still don’t know everything – I think we have a tendency to compare ourselves to communities in the past and pride ourselves on how much more clever we are than them, and forget that in a few generations, someone will do the same with us.  We may yet find new information that draws further parallels between the Qur’an and modern science, but we can only do so by continuing to ask challenging questions and to continue to revisit the text with new, more learned eyes.

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Imaginary Islamophobic strawmen: Islamic extremism

Welcome back to conversations with an imaginary Islamophobic strawman, in which I address some of the common underlying assumptions I see arising in how we as Westerns talk about Islam.  I call these strawman arguments because I am essentially claiming that these concepts are common and exist beyond the few examples I’m going to cite below, but I’m not going to pull a thousand citations to prove their widespread penetration in Western thought because, well, because I’m lazy and not getting paid to do this.

In this edition, following on from my last post responding to missionizing atheism, I want to talk about a particular form of casual Islamophobia, namely, the tendency by Western authors to reference “Islamic extremism” “jihadism” or “al-Qaeda/the Taliban/ISIS” as a shorthand for dangerous, extreme, and violent beliefs.

I’ve talked before about how we in the West have adopted “al-Qadea” or “mullahs” as a kind of metonymy for repressive or oppressive beliefs, and how problematic this tendency is given that most people in the West know little else about Islam, and so it’s easy for the metonymic reference to bleed over into the massively broad realm of ‘literally anything to do with Islam.’  At its core, I think the use of “Islamic extremism” as a shorthand is one example of this, an expression of our own internal association of “repressive thought” and “literally anything to do with Islam.”  I think it’s worth discussing on its own, however, because in how it’s used, it seems to come up most often in defense of ‘Western’ ideals, either as a justification for Islamophobia (particular in defense of pre-emptive Islamophobia, as if hating people will somehow prevent them from joining an extreme, rather than promote it), or, rather contradictory, in defense of freedom of speech as essentially a Western ideal not found elsewhere in the world.

For examples of the first trope, that Islamic extremism is such a serious problem that we as Westerns need to be pre-emptively Islamophobic, pretty much any article from Britain’s Daily Mail would suffice.  Most recently, there’s also this gem from Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, that, “’for too long, we’ve been so frightened of causing offence that we haven’t looked hard enough at what is going on in our communities.  This passive tolerance has turned us into a less integrated country; it’s put our children in danger. It is unforgiveable.”

On the one hand, the idea that we can out-prejudice someone is simply ridiculous.  There is absolutely no reason to think that extremism happens because we as society “go easy” on people.  In fact, the opposite may be true – certainly marginalization is a powerful tool for creating enemies of the state.  If people feel like they’re being expected to adhere to society’s laws while failing to be protected or being unfairly targeted by those laws, it makes sense that they might turn against that society (a fact that America’s Founding Fathers might be better able to explain).  On the other hand, that prejudice is necessary in order to resist extremism has been a trope of nearly every conservative cultural movement, from claims that counter-cultural movements ‘support’ Soviet communism during the Red Scare to the modern use of ‘political correctness’ as a shorthand for ‘excessive’ attention to diversity and multiculturalism.

As I said before, the second trope, that the continuation of Islamic extremism says something about how committed we in the West are to freedom of expression would seem, at first, contradictory with this first trope.  However, I think in reality they’re more complimentary.  The continued emphasis on Islamic extremism as why it’s okay to hate Muslims also makes it easy to use Islamic extremism as an analogy for, effectively, the worst thing anyone can believe.  This analogy, in turn, allows Westerns to frame arguments about freedom of speech around Islamic extremism, essentially using it as a shorthand for ‘the most extreme thing ever.’

As it happens, the subject of my last post offers a great example of the second trope: “Imagine, for example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law? Or—to consider a less extreme case—imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women.”

In order to understand how this metaphor works, it’s important to stress that none of these things have actually happened.  The extremism the author wants to address is being carried about by a Christian evangelical, but her actions are somehow not extreme enough to make his point, and so the author feels the need to step things up by inventing a challenge to religious freedom coming from a Muslim, instead.  In fact, his examples make very little sense from the point of view of real Islamic practice – a county clerk couldn’t claim religious exclusion to behead people because that’s not how the criminal justice system works, and the ‘less extreme cases’ are just illogical – to start with, Islam doesn’t have a tradition of issuing marriage licenses, so there’s no ‘Islamic’ principle a Muslim county clerk could violate, and also there’s no law against men and women entering public buildings together (can you imagine the constant delays if there were?!) and Muslim leaders routinely married unveiled women, both because there’s no universal agreement about wearing veils and because Muslim men can legally marry non-Muslim women.  Yet all of these claims should Islamic-ish enough for the author to make his point, that Islamic belief is the very limit of religious freedom and free speech that we would ever encounter.

The problems with this trope are two-fold.  First, by setting up the West as the defenders of freedom EVEN FOR ISLAMIC THOUGHT, we’re creating a powerful myth that actually stands exactly against the reality of the situation.  As I talked about before with the rise of ‘foreign law’ laws, Muslims are constantly being told that their beliefs have no place in the public sphere in the West.  Indeed, in one of the rare cases where Islamic extremism actually did get a considerable public voice in the West, concerns of ‘public safety’ and ‘national security’ pretty much always trump free expression – for example, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebo murders in France, when France investigated and jailed people for expressing support of the killers as “defending terrorism,” including a 16-year-old boy who posted a Charlie Hebo-style cartoon of the cartoonist full of bullet holes.  Freedom of speech should be measured by how a society balances freedom versus security, but the reality of the Western conception of ‘Islamic extremism,’ security remains almost exclusively the primary concern.

This claim to defend beliefs EVEN AS EXTREME as Islam while actually completely failing to do so also leads to the second problem with this trope, that by marking ‘Islamic extremism’ out as ‘the most extreme beliefs ever,’ we set ourselves up to both massively over-estimate the danger posed by anything vaguely Islamic and under-estimate the danger from other extremist organization.  The resistance to ‘Islamic extremism’ is particularly surprising in the American context given our genuine liberality in extending legal protection to extremist organizations like the KKK and the Arian Nation.  Investigations into the white supremacist movement have consistently demonstrated that these organizations actively recruit new members to expand their ranks, and that at least some people within these organizations defend and even encourage acts of violence against American citizens, exactly the same conditions that make us willing to limit the freedom of Muslims, and yet white supremacism has consistently received legal protection on the basis that the net benefit of preserving truly free speech in this country trumps the danger posed by their organizations and their recruitment.

Thus, by relying on the idea that ‘Islamic extremism’ is the most extreme extremism, in order to justify our own Islamophobia, we’re also setting ourselves and our community up for serious danger by essentially all extremism that is not Islamic as not that extreme.  

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Religion, science, and nonbelief

So you know that thing?  That thing when you see a link and you know reading it is going to infuriate you, but you click on it anyways and end up even more frustrated and angry than you expected?

Well, an acquaintance on facebook posted a link to a New Yorker op-ed entitled “All Scientists Should be Militant Atheists.”  (Trigger warning for casual Islamophobia.)  The author introduces his argument by saying “as a physicist, I do a lot of writing and public speaking about the remarkable nature of our cosmos, primarily because I think science is a key part of our cultural heritage and needs to be shared more broadly. Sometimes, I refer to the fact that religion and science are often in conflict; from time to time, I ridicule religious dogma.”  Really, I should have just stopped there, but sometimes you just can’t not make yourself angry by reading the internet.

I think I’m going to do a separate ‘talking to imaginary Islamophobic strawmen’ post about the casual Islamophobia and the tendency to fall back on ‘but Islamic extremism!’ as a trope.  In this post, I want to focus instead on the related assumptions that 1.) science is essentially rational/unbiased and that 2.) this essentially rational/unbiased nature means it can’t not come into conflict with religion.

But first, a short disclaimer: I don’t care if you’re an atheist.  If you consider nonbelief the best expression of your personal beliefs and experience of the day-to-day world, that’s great.  You do you.  However, it’s different to say “I’m an atheist and shouldn’t experience undue social or legal pressure because of that identity” and “everyone should be an atheist and here’s why.”  The author of this piece is clearly making the second argument, and that’s what opens his argument up to public scrutiny.  I think it’s important to state this distinction clearly because many apologetics (which is essentially what the second argument is, a claim of superiority for a specific community that invites others to join in order to be correct) get away with occupying space in public discourse without scrutiny by falling back on “these are my beliefs and I’m entitled to my beliefs” as a defense.  So again, just to be clear – you’re entitled to your beliefs about you.  You’re not entitled to make claims about what everyone else ‘should’ do without expecting a response to and/or rejection of those claims.

The author clearly identifies himself with the problematically-named ‘militant atheist’ movement, and here I actually agree with him – I don’t think the term ‘militant atheist’ is helpful because, at least as far as I’ve experienced this community, they’re not militant.  I’ve never read or heard anything from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette, or any of the other recognizable leaders of this movement calling for organized, violent intercession.  What they are, however, is missionizing, a term I suspect they might resist even more.  It is the case that the term ‘missionizing,’ and the related terms of ‘prostelytizing’ and ‘indoctrinate’ all carry Christian connotations – that’s due in large part to the English language’s historical connection to English Christianity – but these terms still come the closest to expressing what this particular community is trying to do.  Again, they’re not just asking for fair treatment and respect for their identity as atheists; they’re telling everyone else to be atheists.

I think placing this atheist movement in the broader history of missionizing movements is also helpful because many of their core arguments are not original, but rather characteristic of missionizing as a tradition, in particular the claim to be the most rational approach to the divine.  As someone who studies apologetics, I’ve read works explaining why Christianity is more rational than Greek polytheism, why Greek polytheism is more rational than Christianity, why Christianity is more rational than Judaism, why Christianity is more rational than Islam, why Islam is more rational than Christianity or Judaism, and why atheism is more rational than Christianity or Islam[1].  Reading a whole lot of these works together, it becomes much clearer how authors use and reuse the same rhetorical tricks to make their point.

I think the use of ‘rational’ as a defense for your beliefs is powerful for the same reason it’s problematic – it feels like it should be a good guideline, but trying to define it is essentially impossible.  If we take ‘rational’ to mean “based on reason or logic,” we’re immediately faced with the problem that in real logical arguments, you have to define axioms and work within them.  There is no naturally-occurring logic – it’s a set system of rules that the user then chooses to work within.  In arguments about religion, the two participants (or, more often with apologetics, the author and their made-up opponent) are often using two completely different set of assumptions, so the fact that one side can build a rational argument for their faith from those assumptions really isn’t significant – it just demonstrates that those assumptions are capable of sustaining a rational argument, not that the opposing set of assumptions are any better or worse at sustaining a rational argument.

More often, this claim of ‘rational’ is used more generally to mean something like ‘common sense,’ the idea that we, as humans, are able to sense what’s a more or less logical idea, and that this carries with it some kind of value judgment.  This is an even more problematic assumption because 1) plenty of true concepts are really difficult to comprehend (more on that below) and 2) if ‘common sense’ did exist, people would just default to agreement, which is clearly not the case.  I think point number 2 is particularly well illustrated by atheism – religions can claim divine inspiration to explain why some (seemingly intelligent) people believe in them and some (seemingly intelligent) people don’t, but for nonbelief, if your argument is that the nonexistence of God is obviously true, everyone should eventually revert to that idea, in the same way we all eventually learn ‘I shouldn’t touch hot things’ or ‘chewing on foil hurts your teeth.’  Common sense ideas are just that – common.  Either you know them from testing them yourself or from hearing about someone who did.  

This gets us back to point number 1, and the fundamental flaw with the idea that science is essentially rational/unbiased – common sense ideas are generally pretty simple because many complex but true things are really hard to comprehend, and often counterintuitive.  Common sense tells me that things fall down because of something that’s below me dragging them down.  I can also kind of see how there could be something above me pushing them down.  But the reality of general relativity is far more complicated than that, and Einstein’s Newton in an elevator thought experiment still blows my mind just a little bit.  Similarly, common sense evolves over time as our understanding evolves – that germs make you sick makes perfect sense if you grew up knowing what cells and molecules are, but without that knowledge, it’s a completely insane idea that every surface is covered with tiny, invisible, creepy crawlies.

Science is rational in that it’s based off an agreed system of rules and axioms, but that’s the exact opposite of saying that “science holds no idea as sacred.”  No scientist starts their work by retesting ever established assumption – it would be ridiculous to expect to them to, as this would take lifetimes, but this is also why untrue assumptions can survive for so long (like that ulcers are caused by stress, or that your BMI effectively correlates to your long-term health).  Scientists themselves are also not unbiased – ask any woman, person of color, queer person or person with a disability working in STEM if racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and ableism are still present in science, and they will give you a laundry list of experiences and first-hand accounts.

Religions are, similarly, systems built on agreed rules and axioms, and as such, they can sometimes bump uncomfortably into science.  But it’s important to understand that that’s not the intrusion of something artificial and manmade (religion) on something stalwart and unchanging (science).  It’s also not the interaction of two competing monoliths – there are scores of religions with hundreds of sects that all work off slightly different systems and rules, and there are dozens of kinds of science with hundreds of different theories, each giving a slightly different interpretation of how to work within their established system and rules.

When the author of the op-ed says he “from time to time, ridicules religious dogma” as part of his physics lectures, I’m guessing he’s referring to Christian beliefs about the age of the earth and age of the universe.  Firstly, those aren’t doctrines in and of themselves – they’re outcomes of the larger doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, the belief that all understanding can be derived from the Bible.  Biblical inerrancy is only found in Christianity, and then only in a small minority of evangelical and fundamentalist sects, predominantly those that originated in the US.  I’d guess that even the majority of Christians don’t hold to Biblical inerrancy, and no other religion even considers the New Testament and Christian Bible to be divinely inspired.  So most religion doesn’t have any problem with this guy’s physics lectures – he’s choosing to focus on the one group that does, and then assume that every other religious person believes the same thing.  (He is also choosing to ridicule people for not agreeing with him, instead of just ignoring them and carrying on with his life, which, I think it’s important to point out, was also always an option.)

In actuality, and apparently much to this guy’s chagrin, thousands of people identify as both scientists and believers, and I don’t see any reason to assume these people are either lying or suffering from split personalities.  More likely, these people understand both systems to occupy separate or even complementary spaces – someone who believes in Biblical inerrancy probably wouldn’t make a good astrophysicist, but someone who understands the Genesis stories as analogies, a common interpretation among many Christian and Jewish denominations, might not only see no contradiction, but might see confirmation of their faith in their science.  I’d argue that this isn’t that dissimilar from any ideology or opinions – someone who keeps vegan probably wouldn’t want to be a taxidermist, but that’s not because either veganism or taxidermy is ‘irrational,’ they’re just not complementary.  They are also both personal choices, same as religious belief (or nonbelief) and if, as a society, we’re serious about freedom of religious expression, we need to become more sensitive to the difference between “I don’t want to face undue legal or social burden due to my choices” and “I want everyone to do as I do” for religious choices, every bit as much as if someone was trying force everyone to be vegan or to become taxidermists.  Some things just don’t fit all people.

[1] See, for example, Against Celsus, Celsus’s True Word, Doctrina Jacobi, a letter from al-Kindi to his friend al-Hashimi, and the works of Abu Isa, and Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion, respectively.

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Sacred spaces: on converting churches to mosques

Okay, this story is from last month, but I’ve wanted to write about it since it first popped up and just had other things in the queue.

So apparently there’s a petition in France to stop the conversion of unused churches to mosques after the rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris said that he would support such an action.  The petition has been signed by several eminent right-wing and nationalist figures, as well as by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The issue at stake doesn’t appear to be just the repurposing of churches, as it arose out of the existence of a significant number of unused churches.  Indeed, all across Europe, churches are being repurposed as shops, cafes, restaurants – Oxford itself has a great bar called “Church,” inside a previously-abandoned Catholic church in the north of the city that features some truly gorgeous pre-Reformation frescos.  In fact, as I’ll talk more about in a second, the decline in the use of churches in Europe has been going on for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a fact that spurred, in large part, the “secularization thesis,” the idea that Europe (and North America, largely by association) were becoming less religious and more secular.

So if it’s not about repurposing churches, it seems reasonable to assume the issue at stake here is that of conversion, namely the symbolic conversion of churches into mosques and the resulting effect this might have on the surrounding communities.  

The idea of using and reusing sacred spaces is not a new one – in fact, it’s an incredibly old idea.  That certain spaces promote or accentuate holiness, and thus should be used for religious services, appears in both organized religion and folkstories – it’s the same basic concept behind laylines, shrines, and sacred landmarks.  Sometimes these sacred spots develop a narrative to explain their sacredness – Mount Olympus as the home of the Gods, the Jordan River as the place where Jesus was baptized, etc. -, whereas in other cases, it seems that the space itself just became associated with the idea of holiness.  Years ago, I actually put together a research project to study this idea, as there are a number of examples of sacred spaces in the Middle East being taken over as mosques or being used as both churches and mosques, including most importantly the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which was first a pagan temple, then a church, then a church and mosque simultaneously, and finally a mosque and Muslim shrine, but unfortunately, as with the Umayyad Mosque, most of the example sites are in Syria, so traveling to study their visual presentation is currently impossible.

Theologically, I would argue that it makes sense for newer religions to feel comfortable or even happy to take over the sacred spaces of older religions.  Since Islam understands itself as the correction of Christianity, Muslims taking over Christian sacred spaces can be understood by the Muslim community as a similar process of correction – both accepting the essentially holy nature of the space, while correcting what they understand as errors in practice and visual representation.

However, I would argue that the desire of Christians to preserve unused sacred spaces rather than allowing Muslims to use them does not make sense given most modern Christian theology, and in fact preserves two fairly outmoded theological concepts.

The first is the conversion of physical or geographical space.  In the Middle Ages, religious buildings weren’t just built as needed to accommodate the population – they were also built to serve as a physical representation of that religion’s dominance in that area.  It’s important to remember that Europe was NEVER 100% Christian – there were sizable Jewish and Muslim communities throughout Europe, and elements of paganism survived well into the late Middle Ages.  When Europeans called their kingdoms Christian, then, they weren’t referring to the entire population.  Kingdoms were Christian because their kings and ruling classes were Christian, and one way they demonstrated this ruling authority was the construction of churches.  This explains in part why so many churches are such massive edifices, even when the local population was relatively small.  They weren’t built to fit the populace, but as a physical marker for Christianity’s dominance in that territory.

In fact, the idea of conversion of geographical space isn’t unique to Christianity, but elements of it arise in the Muslim caliphate and in Asia.  Indeed, one of the most interesting variations I’ve come across is in the Buddhist conversion of Tibet – the earliest Buddhist sherpas understood the land as ruled by a giant she-demon, who had to be literally pinned down into the earth, with each new Buddhist stupas or shrine being built at one of her joints (as illustrated here).  The land was converted once the shrines were done and the demon bound to the earth.

Today, however, given our focus on individualism and individuality, even the idea of national religion strikes some people as misguided, as contradicting religion as essentially a relationship between the individual and the divine.  I wouldn’t guess many people at all would believe that the presence of a church makes the surrounding community Christian, as most of us have grown up in close proximity to churches, temples, mosques, and many other houses of worship, without ever thinking that we were part of those communities just because we walked beside their buildings on a regular basis.

This sort of leads to the second theological flaw, that seeing the conversion of churches to mosques as a threat to French Christianity is really quite putting the cart before the horse.  The churches are empty because fewer people are participating in Christian religious rituals.  There’s no reason to think that leaving them abandoned is going to spark people to start practicing Christianity. Again, I don’t think any of us has ever seen a church and suddenly thought to ourselves, “I should join that faith!”  As I mentioned earlier, this decrease in the use of Christian sacred spaces has also led scholars to speculate that France and other European nations are becoming less Christian than they had been historically, but I’d argue that even this is a more complicated theological issue.  Historically, Europeans were largely compelled to be Christian, unless they actively identified as something else, often facing serious repercussions for doing so.  In most cases, ‘being Christian’ in Medieval Europe was the path of least resistance.  It’s also unclear how many people would have know about other faiths or had the means and opportunity to learn enough to contemplate whether converting to another religion (or leaving religion for nonbelief) would better match with their own personal conception of the divine.  

This becomes a particularly important question in study the Reformation, when communities and kingdoms are understood to ‘flip’ religious affiliations quite regularly.  We’re left asking to what degree did the general populace notice these changes, or understand the theological ramifications of them?  To what degree did these changes adhere to or contradict their own religious beliefs?  The continuation of Christian sects despite political repression – the Huguenots in France, for example, as well as both the Catholics and the radical Protestant churches like the Quakers in the UK – suggest that the local communities in these areas did understand themselves as possessing an individual religious identity that might have differed from that of the king, but we’re still left uncertain if more people would have joined these or other religious movements if they had had the chance.

By comparison, we live in societies today where more and more people can actively choose their faith, and where the public expression of a variety of faiths gives people the opportunity to find one that most closely matches their own personal experience of the divine.  In the case of Europe, this means there may be fewer seats in the pews, but at least in theory, it also means that those who attend are more consciously engaged with their faith and its theology.

Again, if the secularization thesis was correct, then we should only ever see sacred spaces being repurposed as non-sacred spaces.  Society becomes more secular, the desire to separate out sacred space decreases, previously sacred spaces become bars and laundromats.  What we’re seeing instead is the transition of sacred space as a mirror of the larger transition of the population.  People aren’t becoming less religious – religious identities are expanding beyond the confines previously set, often by force, by ruling elites.  That means that religious freedom is working, that people have the opportunity to choose the expression of their religion, which in any free society should be cause for celebration, not outrage.

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You believe what you believe.

Dear [Jessica]:

Since my initial contact with you I have made a sincere effort to learn more – not become an expert – just to learn more so that I might better understand Islam, “average Muslims”, Islamists, and Islamicists. In the past eight months I have read the Qur’an in several versions, including Rodwell, Yusuf Ali, Ali with commentaries, Pickthall, Mohsin Khan, the Qur’an in Modern English, and at present trying to plow through Qutb’s 18-volumes of pure torture. My library now would surely make a casual observer believe that I’m a Muslim . . . which I decidedly am not.

All this and spare-time entangling with the various ahadith collections in our local libraries and on the internet, Reliance of the Traveller, The Life of Muhammad translated by A. Guillaume (a most difficult read), and a variety of commentaries on Islam by Muslims and non-Muslims.

Now that I’ve soaked up as much on Islam as my Christian heart and brain can stand, I’ve started going through your posts since the beginning. My first question to you is: When did you change from being an advocate to being an acolyte to being an apostle? It’s hard to find the exact time, but somewhere along the way you seem to have lost your objectivity, one of the essentials for what you claim to be – an intellectual.

The second question is: Why the stubborn insistence that there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism? Yes, many feel that that is a tautology, but many of us also recognize that the world is aflame and awash in bodyless heads, and at the center of that flame is one common factor – Islam. To say that the Old Testament catalogs such things as stonings and beheadings is a red herring, since those things have not been practiced for millennia. To condemn the Crusades is to forget that had Muslims not conquered the so-called Christian lands of the Middle East, North Africa, and much of Europe, there would have been no need for the Crusades.

The third question: Does not abrogation nullify most of the “be-good-to-non-Muslims” parts of the Qur’an (those ‘revelations’ from Mecca) so that we non-Muslims are at best dhimmis?

And, by the way, I like the way your latest post correspondent spelled ‘litterature’ since that appears to be mostly what ahadith musings are.

Finally, I have given up all hope on Islam, since to me there is no way for the world to live in peace as long as there is the fervent Muslim belief that the Qur’an is the word-for-word, unchanging and unchangeable word of Allah. As long as the Qur’an (and its author Muhammed) are standards to which Muslims aspire, there is no hope, and academics who tell us otherwise are doing us no favors.

You write well, and you have certainly caused me to do a lot of research I would else not have done, so for that I thank you. But please, don’t go much farther across that line between Islamicist and Islamist.

Lee Skinner

Hi Lee,

I admit, I’m having a hard time coming up with how to respond to your questions, but I shall do my best.  To your first question, I certainly can’t give you a date as I was unaware I had become an apostle of Islam (honestly, I’m enough of a nerd that calling me an acolyte makes me feel like a follower of Magneto).  To the best of my knowledge, I have never preached Muslim teachings, I’ve never spoken in a mosque or delivered a khutba, and I’ve never encouraged or even suggested that someone convert to Islam.  I certainly wouldn’t be angry or disappointed with someone choosing to become a Muslim, but mostly I feel that any given person’s religion really isn’t any of my business.

Which I suppose is the larger theme of my response – I’m sorry you sound frustrated with the time you’ve spent studying Islam.  Certainly I have not had the same experience; I’m in my field largely because I enjoy the subject.  As an intellectual – or, I guess, a former intellectual – I would be tempted to suggest that your experiences are the result of acquired wisdom, the human tendency to judge what we learn against what we already know.  No one can start a subject ex nihilo, and we experience what we learn through the lens of what we already know, as well as through the lens of our expectations and assumptions.  Since it sounds like you went into your studies looking for counter-evidence to the idea that Islam is essentially a violent religion, academically I would be tempted to argue that this essential bias – that Islam is a violent religion – corrupted your studies, pressuring you, either consciously or subconsciously, towards interpreting the material as the product of a violent religion.

However, none of that is really my concern.  I did not go into my work expecting that I would be able to convince everyone, or even anyone.  Teaching is not coercion.  I can give you information, suggest sources, and discuss the various established schools of interpretation, but if after all of that, you are still certain that Islam is evil, that’s on you.

Similarly, in terms of objectivity, you’re entirely right – I have none.  I don’t think I ever claimed to be objective.  I’m a bit distant from my subject because I’m not a Muslim, nor did I grow up in a Muslim country or in a Muslim community, but in a decade working in Islamic studies, I have known loads of practicing and nonpracticing Muslims, many of whom I consider friends and love and care for deeply.  My experiences with them absolutely impact my experience of Islam as a movement, a culture, and a religion, as does, incidentally, my personal experiences with Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Hellenic Polytheists, Druids, Taoists, atheists and agnostics.  You’re also correct that I was, and I’d say still am an advocate for Muslim communities living in the West – from my own experiences and from what I’ve been told by participants of various faiths – who, due to the influence they’ve had on me, I am inclined to believe at their word – I think that in the US, there is a real difference in how ‘freedom of religion’ works, depending on your religion, and that American Muslims often get the short end of the stick in that exchange.  I have no intention of hiding my beliefs or opinions on the matter – not only do I not consider them inhibitors to my research, I think they’re integral to giving my work a real-world relevance.

Again, as a former intellectual and trained historian, I could point to the links between the modern emphasis on “objectivity” as being necessary for the study of the humanities and social sciences and the history of Western Imperialism, as traced through the history of anthropology and sociology.  Or as an advocate, I could talk about how “objectivity” can be used by oppressive forces to silence victims from expressing their own experiences.  But it’s clear there’s no point. I don’t intend to justify these choices.  This is my blog.  I write it in my free time.  I write it because I think it might be useful for some people, and I continue writing it because I’ve gotten enough feedback to maintain that belief.

To your second question, I don’t believe there is no such thing as “Islamic terrorism.”  Actually, I’ve talked a couple of times recently about how there absolutely are groups that attach Islamic terminology and imagery to acts of violent abuse.  However, I maintain my belief that the term “Islamic terrorism” is unhelpful, both because it distracts from the fact that thousands of the victims of these groups are Muslims, and because it’s all too often used as if the first word explains the second, that we don’t need to understand how and why terrorist organizations have emerged and gained power in the last half century because they’re “Islamic.”

It’s unhelpful for exactly the reason you yourself have illustrated, because not every flame or headless body is the result of someone calling themselves a Muslim.  Thousands of Americans have been gunned down and beaten to death by police officers who share, at best, a civic religion.  Thousands of queer people in Uganda have lived in fear of horrific deaths due to laws that, at least on the face of them, claim to be Christian (a claim which is similarly linked to the history of Western Imperialism – check out this fantastic report by John Oliver and interview with Pepe Julian Onziema for more).  And basically everyone in North Korea lives in constant fear and suffering without a single reference to Islamic law.

However, again, these arguments are pointless because I will continue to see the term as unhelpful and you will continue to believe that violence is an essential part of Islam.

And to your third point, if you’re asking technically are they all abrogated, then the answer is no.  To the best of my knowledge, no classical Islamic scholar claimed that 5:82 or 42:13 were abrogated.

If you want to talk anecdotally, I’ve never known any Muslim to treat me like a dhimmi.  I’m not even sure what that would mean.  I’ve known some who wanted to discuss religion with me – their own, others, what I’ve been researching – and given that I write and publish on the topic, I’ve generally been happy to entertain their interest.  Even when I’ve traveled in the Middle East, no Muslim has ever demanded a poll-tax from me, required me to reveal the lineage of my father’s line, drilled me on Islamic law, or even required me to keep my head covered, except in order to visit the Umayyad mosque in Damascus (which is a major Muslim shrine).  They have asked to take a picture with me, asked me where I’m from and how my trip is going, offered me tea and chocolate, and let me play with their children while their parents pray.  Again, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that these experiences have informed my research, and I have no intention of trying to surgically remove the effects of these experiences from my intellectual life.

I’m sorry you found your studies fruitless, and that you feel you cannot live in a world where Muslims believe in the Qur’an as the Word of God.  If you genuinely feel you can’t live in this world and that there is no hope, then I implore you to speak to a therapist, or to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1 (800) 273-8255) or the Samaritans (1 (877) 870-4673).  Even if you don’t think you’re in any danger from yourself, please call one of those numbers – there will be no downside for you.  At worst, you have a pleasant chat with some truly wonderful people.  If you find you feel afraid or anxious about the state of the world, speaking to a therapist or joining a therapy group like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may help you develop ways to cope with those feelings.

I appreciate whatever concern for my emotional or spiritual well-being was intended in your warning that I might slip from being an Islamicist to an Islamist, but I as I hope I’ve demonstrated, this is really not an imminent threat.  I feel no personal investment in your becoming a Muslim, following Islamic law, or even agreeing with a single word I’ve written.  I can offer guidance for studying Islam, and answers to specific questions based on my interpretation of the available sources and secondary methodologies, but at the end of the day, you believe what you believe.  And I will remain, I expect for some time, an Islamcist.

With kind regards,


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Modern hadith studies

Nader asked:

Hi Jessica,

A very nice blog attracting sincere and relevant questions :) Congratulations for this job. I have been reading for a while papers dealing with the authenticity of the hadiths and I must admit I still didn’t find a kind of review that mentions the positions of the different researchers (from schacht to MM Al-A’zami, from Juynboll to Hallaq … ). Do you know any paper or book that could help me getting a clear understanding of the main trends in academia, regarding the hadiths literature and their corresponding arguments ? Could you tell me about the western university groups that are still working on this topic

Ultimately, I would be happy to get an exhaustive review of the different schools of thought among scholars (not only western) who study hadiths. Reading books for each of them (Schacht, MM Azami, Fazlur Rahman, Juynboll, etc) would take me years otherwise … :)

Thanks for your answer. I hope it is clearer now.

Happy “Eid al Fitr” for your Muslim readers,

Thanks again for the kind words, Nader!  Unfortunately the reason you haven’t been able to find a work giving summaries of the existing scholarly schools on the hadith and their historicity is because, as far as I’m aware, no such work exists.  I’ll do my best to give some general outlines and suggest some shorter readings for getting a better idea of the state of the field, but unfortunately a full review of the existing scholarship on the subject would easily fill a book, so well beyond the scope of the internet rules for tl;dr.

First, though, a bit of background for the uninitiated: “the hadith” is the general catch-all term for the collections of hadith (pl. ahadith), meaning literally “transmission” or “report,” which are stories of the Prophet (pbuh) and the early community, which often report on how the Prophet (pbuh) practiced his religion – what he did, what he said, how he corrected others, and what he declared permissible and impermissible.  In the Muslim tradition, the hadith are generally understood as expanding the practices laid out in the Qur’an, explaining how ritual actions should be performed and why.  As such, these stories span an incredible range of topics – everything from whether Muslims can or should use toothpicks and the correct order to clean oneself during ablution to when conversion takes place and the nature of Heaven and Hell.

According to Muslim tradition, transmission of the hadith began organically from the early years of Islam, and in particular from the first decades after the death of the Prophet (pbuh) as the community began to expand out of the Arabian peninsula.  As new converts wanted to learn more about how to practice the religion, they naturally turned to members of the community who had known the Prophet (pbuh) personally, asking for clarification on how he had performed certain rites and practices, and these conversations developed into the hadith.  After a few generations, there were thousands of individual ahadith circulating throughout the caliphate, many of which contradicted one another.  As scholarly schools developed in the Abbasid period (starting in the late 8th century), scholars began to analyze critically the various hadith traditions.  They focused particularly on the transmission history of the hadith, studying the sanad (pl. isnad) or chains of transmission (“so-and-so was told by so-and-so who was told by so-and-so who heard that the Prophet (pbuh) did x,y, and z”), essentially developing one of the earliest citation checking systems, arguing that only hadith that were transmitted through people who were actual contemporaries and could actually have spoken to one another should be considered authentic.

The hadith became an integral part of the larger study of Islamic law, as providing guidance for the acceptable forms of ritual practice.  Unsurprisingly, variant traditions emerged between the Sunni and Shi’a, with some hadith transmitters being considered reliable by only one sect or the other.  Similarly, there is evidence to suggest that both the Kharijites (a 7th century sect who rejected both caliphal and Shi’i claims of hereditary authority) and the Mutazilites (a 9th century philosophical movement who supported the use of rational analysis of the Qur’an in order to derive ritual practices) both rejected the use of hadith as authoritative as overemphasizing the Prophet’s role as Prophet (pbuh) over the role of the Qur’an as divine revelation.  However, our knowledge of both of these groups is heavily filtered through works written about them by their opponents, so it’s difficult to know what they believed with any kind of certainty.

The long gap between the initial development of individual hadith and the eventual codification of the traditions has led many modern Western scholars to question the authenticity of the hadith as anything more than an Abbasid creation to codify Islamic practice.  Again, there’s no way I’d be able to offer a full view of every scholarly position, but I’ll try to highlight some of the more influential voices.

Ignaz Goldziher: In addition to being a nominee for the coolest sounding name ever, Goldziher is one of the founders of Western Islamic studies.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he wrote on the life of Muhammad (pbuh) and the hadith, arguing that the content of the latter was better understood in the context of the Abbasid period than that of the early community.  He also tried to argue for the general principles of the hadith and early Islamic law as arising from Roman contract law, an argument largely dismantled by Patricia Crone (may she rest in peace).  Although later scholars, in particular Joseph Schacht and Norman Calder, often cited Goldziher as contradicting Islamic tradition regarding the hadith, I would argue that this is incorrect – Goldziher’s concept of the hadith as coming out of the Abbasid period doesn’t really contradict Islamic tradition because that is the period in which the traditions were codified.  The difference between Goldziher’s concept of the hadith and the Islamic tradition seem to stem, at least to me, by his disregard for the more banal and practical elements of the hadith – it’s easy to see how some of the broader philosophical themes date to the Abbasid period, but it’s a lot harder to argue that the Abbasids had a vested interest in whether Muslims used toothpicks.  The broader themes may have emerged during the process of codification, but that doesn’t mean that the contents were wholly invented in that same process.

Joseph Schacht:  Schacht is responsible, for better or for worse, for shaping much of the Western Islamicist approach to Islamic law.  I include the ‘for worse’ mostly because his writing is also very much a product of early twentieth century academia – it’s very scant on citations, and often uses single examples to make sweeping arguments about the whole of a particular school of Islamic jurisprudence or even the whole of the field (for example, as I’ve discussed before, in the case of the “closing of the doors of ijtihad”).  I would argue that Schacht had a similarly inconsistent conception of the hadith – on the one hand, as I’ve talked about before, he claims to reject entirely an internal source for Islamic law, be it the Qur’an or the hadith.  Yet at the same time, in his analysis of Islamic jurisprudence, he relies heavily on the broader narrative of the formation of the hadith, assuming that legal decisions were made both by qadi (judges) in formal courts and by alim (scholars) in non-binding, but still authoritative, day-to-day conversations.  Again, for me, I find this argument unpersuasive, as it would require the preservation of both the ‘real’ source of Islamic law (whatever that is – Schacht, for his part, echoes Goldziher in arguing for Roman common law) and the hadith traditions, despite them lacking ‘real’ legal authority.

Muhammad al-A’zami: Perhaps the first and probably still the most important criticism of Western analyses of the hadith comes from Muhammad al-A’zami.  Having trained at Darul Uloom Deoband in India and al-Azhar in Egypt before coming to Cambridge, al-A’zami was one of the few early Islamcists to be equally well-versed in traditional Islamic scholarship and Western methodology.  In his book Hadith Methodology and Literature (based on his doctoral thesis at Cambridge, the full text of which is available online), he argued that Western methodology suffered from a limited view of the history of the hadith, which had negatively impacted its interpretation of the tradition.  In particular, he highlighted that according to Islamic tradition, the hadith were not transmitted exclusively orally, but that several scholars did produce written collections before the formalization of the isnad system, but that, indeed, the circulation of these collections is one of the things that fueled the interest in monitoring the accuracy of transmission histories.  However, much of al-A’zami’s work received its own criticism from mainstream Islamic studies, with many scholars arguing that it was, in essence, an apologetic defense of the Muslim tradition.  Moreover, his association with Darul Uloom Deoband brought him further scrutiny, as the university has faced various accusations of extremism in the second half of the twentieth century.  Personally, I think al-A’zami’s work is no more polemic than Schacht’s, and I find his criticism of latter (published as On Schacht’s Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence) to be a very useful methodological analysis.  It is certainly the case that al-A’zami is not ‘unbiased,’ but I’d be hard-pressed to think of any scholar who isn’t actually personally committed to their own work and theories, so I find it a bit hypocritical to discount his work just because his personal commitment comes from a religious or cultural connection to the subject.

Unfortunately, since al-A’zami’s work in the mid-twentieth century, Islamic studies has largely moved away from hadith studies, probably due in large part to the complicated nature of both the source material and the methodologies surrounding it.  Turning to scholars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a number of people have written about the hadith in passing (Patricia Crone and John Wansborough as examples of the source skeptical perspective and Wadad al-Qadi and Gabriel Said Reynolds as examples of the more traditionally-reliant scholarship), and some scholars discuss specific hadith and hadith traditions that are relevant to a larger theme of their studies (Michael Bonner, for example, talks in his research about the hadith traditions regarding warfare and jihad, but it’s this latter topic that’s really the focus of his work), but there are fewer scholars who I would characterize as working on the hadith.

A good general primer on the state of the field, including its relative indifference to the hadith, can be found in Gabriel Said Reynolds’ introduction to The Qur’an in its Historical Context (2007) or Andrea Neuwirth’s and Nicolai Sinai’s introduction in Qur’an in Context (2011).

Fred Donner: One of the more recent attempts to find common ground between the increasingly skeptical Western approach to Islamic studies and the Muslim tradition is Fred Donner, who has published predominately on the development of historiography and identity formation in the early Islamic community (and, since we’re talking about bias, was also my mentor).  Although he still is not really a hadith scholar, his work on the early Islamic community has reasserted some of the same arguments made by al-A’zami, in particular arguing for an early date for the initial circulation of individual hadith and noting the existence of a concurrent written tradition.  His work Narratives of Islamic Origins (1998) opens with what I think is an excellent breakdown of how and why Western methodology has rejected the hadith tradition, and how and why that’s negatively impacted our research.

Wael Hallaq:  I’ve talked about Wael Hallaq before, as well – it’s hard to talk about Schacht and not discuss Hallaq, as well.  Again, he’s not really a hadith scholar, but since his research focuses on Islamic law, he definitely engages more directly with both individual hadith and the broader hadith tradition than most modern Islamicists.  Hallaq is also definitely a post-Orientalist scholar, in that he engages both with modern Islamic studies and with what he sees as the lasting effects of Orientalism on the field (a methodology which, I should say, I generally agree with, but one that has opened him up to accusations of bias not dissimilar to those against al-A’zami).  Although his most recent book (The Impossible State, 2014) is really about Islamic law in the modern context, his earlier works are more about the development of Islamic law in the Middle Ages, and here he deals more with the hadith (his Introduction to Islamic Law (2009) is particularly good for the uninitiated).  He gives less of a direct response to Western source skepticism than al-A’zami, but in his use of the hadith tradition, lays out what I think is a compelling example of how these sources could be used by modern scholars, noting individual cases of transmission errors or conflicting reports while accepting in broad strokes the traditional Muslim account of the codification of the hadith tradition and Islamic law.

Wilfred Madelung: Along with being another nominee for the most awesome sounding name award, Madelung is also one of the few well-known Islamcists from the late twentieth century I can think of who I would actually call a hadith scholar, in that analysis of the hadith makes up a sizable portion of his published work.  Even here, though, it’s a bit misleading – the word “hadith” doesn’t appear in the titles of any of his books.  His work is focused, first and foremost, on the history of Islamic sectarianism, particularly in the emergence of the Shi’a and the Isma’ili.  In following the limited source material about the sects, however, Madelung revisited much of the hadith tradition, and in doing so, argued for the rehabilitation of the tradition, particularly if it could be analyzed through the lens of sectarianism and the early conflicts over authority.  In his work The Succession of Muhammad (1998), Madelung argued that whereas Western scholars have approached individual Muslim sources with skepticism, they have accepted largely uncritically the idea that Muhammad (pbuh) always intended to be succeeded by Abu Bakr (pbuh), and that the idea of dynastic inheritance through ‘Ali (pbuh) was a later invention by Shi’i jurists.  In order to interrogate these ideas, Madelung analyzed a number of hadith, not only arguing for their essential authenticity, but further arguing that the hadith offer scholars a more complete picture of the struggle for authority after the death of the Prophet (pbuh).  As someone who works mostly on Islamic theology and the emergence of Islamic religious identity, I find Madelung’s work very convincing, as authority remains a central tenant of early Islamic theology, as well.  However, his work was met with a varied reception, in part because of its ‘optimistic’ (in the words of the Journal of the American Oriental Society) approach to Islamic sources.

So there’s a very quick overview.  As I said, in general, I feel like Islamic studies has taken a big step back from even engaging with the hadith, which I would argue does us a disservice, both because we’re intentionally cutting ourselves off from relevant sources and because we do still sometimes talk about individual hadith or hadith traditions, but do so in a way that lacks any larger critical apparatus.  However, in order for hadith studies to be integrated into Islamic studies, we would need to create that critical apparatus, both in the form of critical editions and in the form of historical commentaries, so people can trace the various versions of a tradition in order to understand how it could have changed over time.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen little interest in doing so – it seems like the availability of digital resources should make this easier, but if there’s anything similar in the works at any university, I haven’t heard about it.

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Casual Islamophobia and Dehumanization

So a couple of weeks ago, I was talking about how Americans’ (particularly white Americans’) misguided definition of ‘terrorism’ and our resistance to calling mass shooters ‘terrorists’ negatively influences our understanding of how global terrorism actually works, in particular that for groups claiming an Islamic narrative or theology for their violence, like al-Qaeda and ISIS, we don’t seem to understand that many if not the majority of their victims are Muslims, and that we need to act to protect these communities far more than we need to be concerned with our own safety.

I came across an article that I think well illustrates another aspect of this same problem, namely that our casual association of Islam with terrorism (and resulting misunderstanding that thousands of Muslims worldwide are daily the victims of terrorism) also denies the victims their own voice and narrative of events, so that we have to go to some weird sources to serve as examples of victims.  Thus – the silent monkey victims of the war on terror.

Disclaimer: let me just say at the outset that I do not intend to discuss the pros and cons of animal testing, nor do I wish to have discussions about this in the comments.  I know this is an issue about which many people feel strongly, but I want to stay focused on the larger issue that we’re devoting column inches (albeit digital ones) to discussing the effects of the war on terror on monkeys.

Privilege can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but one of the most powerful aspects of privilege is innate authority.  The more vectors of privilege you possess, the more likely other people are to just believe you automatically.  This has been well-demonstrated academically in how people perceive women’s and men’s contributions to mixed-gender discussions or by how white culture systematically disadvantages African-American Vernacular English to make black people sound unreliable and unrelatable.  It’s also easy to find anecdotal examples in nearly any news story involving women, queer people, or people of color, for example in this utterly ridiculous story where police officers refused to believe an adult black man, until his story was corroborated by a four-year-old white girl.  Although all of the news story about this event have focused on the little girl as a ‘junior sleuth’ or a ‘pint-size detective,’ really the big story should be that police officers accepted the witness statement of a four-year old girl, but not that of an adult man.  When prejudice leads us to trust people who believe in fairies and Santa Claus more than grown adults, we need to accept that we’ve taken a wrong turn.

This privilege of believability, and its opposing silencing of victims, is essentially a form of dehumanization.  It reduces those who do not possess privilege to nonhuman entities, whose experiences, perceptions, and opinions are not relatable or deserving of empathy like other humans.  It can also have tremendous impact on how we understand the world around us because we don’t experience personally 99.9% of what goes on around us – we depend on narratives provided to us by others to experience the world beyond our current point in time and space.  If we fail to consider others’ narratives fairly or privilege certain narratives above others for reasons beyond rational ones (like were you there, could you have seen anything, do you speak the same language as the people involved, etc.), we can drastically alter our perception of the world beyond our sphere of influence.

This is exactly what’s happening when we look to lab monkeys as the victims of the war of terror in order to contextualize the ‘real’ experiences of that war.  It’s not that monkeys being used to test biological or chemical weapons don’t suffer or feel pain – the issue is how discussing that suffering influences our narrative of what has happened during the war of terror.  Indeed, talking about animal testing in warfare can be a really useful perspective, if what we’re talking about is how we weigh the necessity of war versus the cost in loss of life, a calculation in which the war of terror really does not balance the scale at all.  Yet here again, this narrative is better served by talking about the tremendous loss of human life, the cost of a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians and twenty thousand Afghani civilians (to put this in better perspective, more than the entire population of Cambridge, Massachusetts or Gainsborough, Florida), and their and their families’ experiences of pain and suffering and loss.

However, these narratives of suffering are not the central focus of how we experience and discuss the war of terror, nor have they ever been.  In this way, we can see exactly how powerful silencing victims can be for altering our perception of reality, as lacking a continuous narrative about the human suffering caused by the war of terror, it becomes all too easy to believe that there is none, that the suffering of lab animals is not only a significant outcome, but the most that we can measure or illustrate the pain and suffered we’ve caused.  That is not only untrue, but dangerously untrue, as it has allowed generations of Americans to retain the belief that our actions overseas have no negative consequences or no human impact.

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